Monday, November 14, 2005

"Grass roots campaigning as Elective Sociality (or Maffesoli meets 'social software'): Lessons from the BBC iCan project," by Stokes Jones (posted by Brian Canny)

So what does it mean when "the numbers" say that political apathy is low? The project Jones' cites had its start in a quantitative study - which could have never revealed those "unsung moments" (being those emergent moments that often are the flashpoint of grassroots campaigns) Stokes highlighted in his discussion - which in itself is a prime endorsement for ethnography. Yet even on the qualitative side, the data forcedreexaminationion of the biases of the project - and ultimately a redefinition of the notion of grassroots campaigns not as something political but an extension of sociality, one that has meaning in its social connections. This timeline and analysis of this study showed to me not just what numbers often fail to reveal (people are not exactly "apathetic") but also the biases often built into the work that can misdirect any project.

In the iCan example, as present by Stokes Jones, these biases conspired to alienate its intended users. The biases were toward action, as well as a teleological bias and a bias toward innovation (which I will mention later). With these biases at the foundation, the project initially failed to capture the emergent behavior that is grassroots campaigning - that it is non-functional, often without an ideological basis but linked to community, to "encounters, situations, and experiences." This example I think really brought us a great case study of going back to theory and reexamining that which operates at the foundation of our work. Here, the concept of grassroots campaigning itself was recast, built upon theory (in this case, Michel Maffesoli) which posits a relationism - "the linked series of attractions and repulsions" in group dynamics - which in effect captured what the data were showing. Bringing Robinson back into the discussion, we see theory engaged in the space "where we are already" - the "here" that is the work we do - and grounded in our findings.

And, as promised - I found it quite useful to note the bias toward innovation - the tendency to put all the bells and whistles into a product plan. It harkens me to the early days of wireless home networking, when there were still debates, and often quite harsh exchanges, about what was to be the standard (mainly Wi-Fi vs. HomeRF) for the home. Well, in the end, the simplest solution won (I am oversimplifying, of course, which itself has its own Ouroboros-like implications for my discussion) - and in the iCan example, especially in juxtaposing the first iteration of the iCan site (with the onerous Start Campaigning! button) with the final shot of more information-based site highlights the value of simplicity and how that very often can best capture a user's needs and imagination. Of course the term "complex product" carries some baggage as well. A mouse is not a complex device to me, but my first-time users class would strongly disagree. In fact, in my classes, they build community around their general displeasure with the mouse.

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