Ordinary India [en]

Last week’s Reply All was riveting. The second part was this week. You should listen. This post will spoil things if you haven’t. Trust me, you won’t regret the ride you’ll be taken on.

So, this story has something to do with India. My readers and friends know that I am quite familiar with the country. (A degree in Indian culture, rusty Hindi which was once functional, two years in the country end-to-end, one of which was in one stretch.)

While I was listening, something was niggling at me. And I finally managed to put my finger on it. See, one part of the story is Alex’s magnificent sleuthing, and diving into the underworld of scammers. But another part is… India.

I kept having the feeling that (no fault of Alex or the rest of the crew) bits and pieces of what was going on were getting lost in cultural translation. I got to see behaviours that I know to be usual or at least unsurprising through the eyes of somebody who is not familiar with Indian culture or India – and at times made to appear more significant than they seemed to me.

For example: guy from far out in another state goes to Delhi to try and make it in the city – perfectly plausible. Ends up doing some shady job: also not surprising. Not that many moral qualms? I’ve remarked previously (long looong ago on this blog) that Judeo-Christian culture has strongly embedded values of righteousness, fairness, and stuff we consider basic like “not lying” that is not necessarily present in a majorly Hindu-influenced culture. So, lying to somebody’s face? BSing like there is no tomorrow? Being completely impervious to confrontation, even when the facts are in front of your face? Not at all surprising. This is where our Western understanding of how relationships and individual psychology break down.

Inviting somebody you’ve never met (or barely know) to your house? Quite normal too, and, I’d like to add, particularly if they are foreign (mix of curiosity, sense of opportunity, and also simply duty to be a good host). Similarly, asking somebody “what’s your plan?” is a rather banal question (I always find the American “what’s up?” weird, in the same kind of way). Being stand-offish, not showing up, last-minute stuff, cancellations: just normal.

A few years ago, I noticed that the way I deal with this is I really slip into “Indian mode” when I’m in India. In “Indian mode”, I do not function the same way as in “Swiss mode” – at all. Things that annoy me in Switzerland do not annoy me in India. I do not want to do the same things. The way I approach planning (or lack of) my time is completely different. There is Swiss-Stephanie and there is India-Stephanie, and I have learned that one should not try and make plans for the other. Weird, huh?

Before I wrap up, I just want to make two things clear (because I can feel the comments coming):

  • I’m not criticising Reply All’s stellar job on this story. Just pointing out some minor points of frustration for me, which are only impacting me because I am way more familiar with India than most Westerners. And seizing the occasion to show how easy it is (and I’m sure I do it too!) to ascribe intentions or meaning of our own to words or actions that we don’t have the cultural framework to interpret more precisely.
  • I am not dissing India or Indian culture. I am describing some behaviours as they come across seen from here, and the cultural gap may mean they are seen negatively – just as some Western behaviours are perceived negatively when seen from India.

Read this article about the sleuthing on Ars Technica.
Read the AMA on Reddit.

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I Am the Bridge, the Tourist Guide, the Ferryman, the Hostess [en]

[fr] Réflexion sur mon véritable domaine d'expertise. Depuis des années, je me débats avec cette casquette "médias sociaux". Je fais à la fois plus et moins que ça. Et j'ai compris, je crois -- quatre semaines de vraies vacances ça prépare bien le terrain aux prises de conscience. Ces idées doivent encore mûrir, mais j'ai une piste: ce que je fais, c'est aider les gens à accéder aux cultures avec lesquelles ils ne sont pas familiers -- y compris la culture numérique, celle du monde en ligne. Si "médiation interculturelle" n'était pas déjà utilisé pour faire référence à autre chose, c'est ce terme que je choisirais. "Médiation technologique", pour la partie "technologique". Mais ça ne s'arrête pas là. A suivre...

Next summer I will have been fully self-employed (in a one-breadwinner-home) for ten years. I feel quite impressed saying it. I remember when I hit the 3- and 5-year milestones: most businesses don’t last that long.

In ten years, the industry my work falls in (social media) has evolved tremendously. I started out as a “blogging consultant” in a world which had no Twitter, no Facebook, no “social media”. We had blogs, forums, wikis, and “social software”. I was a pioneer, I found what we then called “the living web” fascinating, and was lucky to be at the right place and the right time in my little corner of the world to make a living introducing others to this incredible digital world I knew.

Vallée du Rhône

I helped people build websites, gave talks in schools and businesses about blogs, MySpace (yes!) and later Facebook and Twitter. I helped organisations make sense of these new tools and figure out what they could do with them. During the past five years, I have mainly facilitated relationships between bloggers and organisations, founded and directed French-speaking Switzerland’s first comprehensive course on social media and online communities, and been blog editor-in-chief more than once.

Quite a ride.

For a few years now, I’ve been feeling more and more estranged from the business of “social media”. I definitely still fit in there somewhere, but a lot of it is not really of much interest to me. It feels like it’s been eaten up by marketing: most of the time, trying to do the same old stuff in some new channel.

And in parallel, I’ve felt a growing frustration about the fact that my marketable skills are certainly wider than what I’ve been openly advertising, and that I’m staying stuck in this social media consultant career track because I haven’t managed to identify them clearly enough and figure out (even less communicate) a business proposition around them.

Transitions are great opportunities to stop and think. As my engagement as editor-in-chief for Open Ears ended, I decided to take a real holiday, a good long break to clear my head so I could look at my business with fresh eyes. Taking time away is vital for creativity, and I really hadn’t had much of that these last few years.

It seems to have worked, because it really feels like the pieces have been falling into place this last week, since my return. I’d like to share this thinking in progress with you.

Family in Sonarpur

From the beginning, what I’ve found interesting with the internet is people and relationships. The human side of technology. I have a background in humanities, in addition to being a bit of a geek, so the whole “psychology + sociology” side of social media is really what makes me tick. Not so much the “selling” or “branding” part.

A couple of months ago, I was describing my work as blog editor to a potential client. He pointed out that what I was doing was quite a balancing act, and seemed quite admirative. I had never looked at it like that, or thought much of it, but it’s quite true: whether managing a blog or a blogger relations programme, one important thing I do is balance sometimes conflicting interests from the different parties in play.

For example, the brand behind a blog might want more positive content about their products, or more promotional content, and on the other hand the blog’s editorial independence must be preserved or it will lose credibility as a space for authentic expression and relationships. The same goes for blogger relations: if an event invites bloggers, it hopes for positive coverage, but on the other hand the very reason bloggers are courted is because of their independence. So, how do we run a blog without it becoming a corporate mouthpiece, and how do we associate with bloggers without making them sell out?

This is actually a crucial part of my work, but that I hadn’t properly put my finger on until that conversation. More importantly, this means that it is value that I’ve been implicitly providing my clients, without ever selling it explicitly. (Is there a market for this? That indeed remains to be examined.)

I had previously identified this “talent” somewhat in my personal life. I would often find myself mediating between people who have trouble communicating. (Pro tip: don’t do this, it’s not good for your friendships.) I’ve done it too (with more success) in professional situations, by helping maintain communication between parties involved in a project. At one point I wondered if I should consider becoming a professional mediator, but that seemed to be taking things too far: I’m not interested in spending the whole of my professional life helping people resolve disputes.

That’s where things were when I left for India, and a discussion with a close friend and fellow freelancer upon my return revealed to me the common thread in my various professional interests — including some wild dreams and crazy brainstorms alongside stuff I have actually been doing and some I want to do more of. My unifier.

I introduce people to unfamiliar cultures. I am the bridge, the translator, the ferryman. I’m still looking for the best way to say this.

I’ve always said I considered the digital world as a culture, and that my work with social media made perfect sense with my background as a historian of religions, specialised in Indian culture.

This explains why I like working with clients who are “starting out” so much. I introduce them to the digital world. Help them understand how it works. How they can be present in it. What it can bring them.

When I was giving talks in schools, I would tell parents and teachers that I was their “tourist guide to the internet”.

During my last year with Phonak, I gave a series of digital literacy workshops — something I’ve been wanting to provide for years.

When I dream about different lives for myself, I see myself organising guided tours to “my India”, helping expats settle down in Switzerland. Outside of work, playing Ingress, I naturally settled down in the role of welcoming new players. I am the hostess.

Kolkata Streets 2015 26

In Kolkata, Aleika and I brainstormed business ideas to run in India, and all of them have to do with this same “bridging cultures” theme.

I take people by the hand and show them the way, or sit in the middle so that different worlds can collaborate.

Clearly, these skills go beyond social media, and also do not encompass all of social media. I’m understanding better why I’ve struggled so much with my “social media consultant” label these last years.

There could very well be areas in the business world where such skills are useful, but that I do not know of — or am not thinking of. The doors are open, but I’m not sure what room I’m in yet.

Does this make sense?


You can also find this post on LinkedIn, Medium, and Facebook.

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Lift11: Ben Hammersley, Post-digital geopolitics [en]

[fr] Notes de la conférence Lift11 à Genève.

Live and India-lagged notes from the Lift11 Conference in Geneva. Might contain errors and personal opinions. Use the comments if you spot nasty errors. Note: no kilt today.

Twenty-first year of the WWW. Bizarre situation we have now: splitting of generations. *steph-note: speaker tip, do what Ben does — pause in between your sentences :-)*

Mubarak had the same look on his face than Swiss industrials who’ve just discovered the Internet, or a newspaper which has just gone bankrupt. Interesting: psychological effects, particularly amongst the group of people who are running the world, people around the age of 50 or 60, who are supposed to be creating the future, but who are already so confused by the present.

What defines a country is distance (“in the beginning was distance”). We’re “us” because we’re here, and they are “them” because they’re over here. All the rest (language, religion, culture) develops purely because of distance. Distance defined us.

Society is structured through vertical distance. He’s up there, I’m down here. Hierarchical society. We know where we are, who is above, who is below. Freud gave us an explanation and a toolkit *(steph-note: worth what it’s worth)*. Dominant intellectual framework for the industrial age.

We judge ourselves by numbers which represent fictions (ie, popularity on Twitter). We have the wrong cognitive toolkits, in the 21st century. We used to know who the ennemies were, where we stood in society and business. Networks mess that up — initially just for nerds and geeks, but after that for more and more people.

Death of distance *(steph-note: what I’ve been preaching for years regarding multilingualism online — e.g. the boundaries today are linguistic, and not country/geographic)*

=> Diaspora. Many new forms of countries — culture, interests, principles… they all collate online. Stronger interests and links with people who are geographically distance than with our neighbours. => interesting situations! Mailing-lists with guns, for example. *steph-note: literally?* Very difficult to shoot a hashtag.

Older generation brought up in a world of hierarchy (pyramids), and the younger generation a world of networks (sheets), and us in the middle. And the young ones don’t understand hierarchy, and the older ones don’t understand how a network works. “Shoot the leader and everything else will go away!”

Don’t understand that they don’t understand how to understand this stuff. They lack the intellectual framework on which to base this new form of thinking. *steph-note: did anybody say “culture shock”? Another of my incessant choruses… 😉 — exactly what many people from the West are faced with when trying to “get” India.*

Explain, don’t complain. The reason communication breaks down over these matters is people lack the cognitive toolkit for the discussion. Our primary problem is not to encourage innovation, it’s to translate *steph-note: amen — and exactly how I view my work*.

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A Quick Survival Guide to India [en]

A friend of mine mentioned she might be going to India for business next year, which prompted me to dish out a few “Indian culture survival tips” to her — how about a quick blog post about that? Also, being here with my dad (who is in India for the first time) has made me notice things I’ve grown used to but which aren’t “obvious” for the first-time-visiting foreigner. So, in no particular order, while I sort through the 500 somewhat blurry photos I took from the train to Bangalore…

Pune 268 Street Paparazzi.jpg

Warning to my Indian friends: this is full of stereotypes and clichés. I know not all of India and not all Indians are like this. This is just to prepare people to things that do function very differently from in the West.

  • expect everything to take longer than you expect
  • in general, expect things to go slowly
  • expect plans to be derailed and changed and modified and cancelled
  • be patient
  • we’re in a part of the world where saying “no” amounts to some degree of loss of face — so expect people to say yes or give you an answer when in fact they mean “no” or “I don’t know” (classic: ask for directions, people will point you in some random direction rather than saying they don’t know)
  • don’t plan on accomplishing more than one thing a day (you’ll exhaust yourself and make yourself sick)
  • people don’t generally make eye contact unless they want something — so don’t look people in the eye when saying “no, I don’t need your prepaid taxi” or “no, I don’t want to give you money” (just shake your head, say no, ignore them — and try and pick up the “negative” hand wobble if you can)
  • people don’t usually shake hands or hug or kiss or anything like that, so take the cue from the person you’re meeting rather than sticking your hand out
  • expensive services or goods does not necessarily mean they will be quality (ripping people off is generally not viewed as “immoral” as it is in our Judeo-Christian culture)
  • eat when you have a chance, pee when you have a chance — you don’t know for sure when the next occasion will be
  • the weird head-wobble means anything from “of course, you moron” to “yeah… may-be” — context will help you (or not)
  • direct confrontation does not work very well
  • expect people to make plans for you without asking you if it’s OK for you
  • expect people to assume you can’t eat “normal-spicy” food (but if you can’t take hot food at all, it will still be way too hot for you)
  • bottled water is called “bisleri” (whether it’s proper Bislery, Kinley, AquaFina or anything else — down to the shadier brands)
  • don’t expect western-style toilets or toilet paper (carry some around with you if you can’t do things “Indian-style”)
  • people will be wanting you to “sit”, have a cup of water (politely decline if it’s tap water, but say yes to chai)
  • the horrible loud midi tunes you hear outside are cars reversing
  • it’s noisy
  • beds aren’t really private places
  • wash your hands, don’t drink unbottled/unfiltered water, don’t eat uncooked stuff (the general rules — bend at your convenience and at your own risk)
  • expect to freeze in A/C places (trains, busses, hotel rooms, offices)
  • verbal communication is often kept to a minimum — lots of hand gestures (people will gesture you to follow them instead of saying “would you please follow me”)
  • most Indian food is eaten with your fingers (rip a piece of chapati/naan, pick up food with it, put in mouth) or a spoon — your fingers are more sensitive to heat than your mouth, so if you can pick it up without dropping it, you won’t burn your tongue
  • men: jeans/trousers and shirt are fine — t-shirt is trendy for Indians, but makes you look touristy if you’re white; women: jeans are starting to be OK with long-covering kurta, but I recommend going a little more classy and getting a salwaar kameez in the fashion on the day stitched — it’s pretty and it makes you stand out a bit from the 100% touristy crowd (leggings and kurta are in fashion now too, but I feel I get treated differently when wearing a pretty flowing salwaar kameez — maybe it’s just me)
  • expect things to not go as expected (did I already say this?)
  • life is complicated enough without making it more complicated: if you’re trying to buy something and have a chance to buy it, don’t think “let me first shop around” or “I’ll come back later” — just get it then and there (if you really need it, that is)
  • expect commuting to be not as simple as you imagine: rickshaw drivers might refuse to take you where you want, specially in the evening (we had three local guys flag down about 20 of them the first evening my dad was here before we found one who would take us home by the meter)
  • you’re not supposed to tip left, right and centre — ask a trusted local or a well-adjusted foreigner when to give extra (again: not often)
  • at stations and airports, take prepaid taxis or rickshaws if your transport has not been arranged (you’ll find the prepaid stand by yourself, don’t follow the guys who ask you if you want one)
  • in general, don’t go with people who come up to you offering services (e.g. flagging down a rickshaw on the road is much better than taking the one who just drove 100m to come to you; and no, you don’t want to go to the shop this guy who just walked up to you is suggesting you buy from; etc.)
  • the country in general is not designed to help people figure out “how it works” — you just have to know (hence how precious local help is; don’t expect instructions to be written down anywhere to tell you how to take the bus)
  • expect to be stared at, by children and grown-ups alike
  • be ready for paperwork; tedious and seemingly useless paperwork
  • the person you interact with and the person doing things is not usually the same person — big division of labour: you talk to a guy in the store and ask to see something, he tells somebody else to take the thing out, and that person might in turn tell somebody else (perfectly normal, just feels weird at first); also, in a restaurant, not the same person who serves meals, seats you, picks up the dishes, cashes in the bill, etc.
  • expect many occurrences of “not my job” brokenness
  • what locals expect you to want and like is probably not what you will want and like…

Did I leave anything important out?

India is a lovely place once you’ve understood how it rolls. Main piece of advice? Be patient, and if you can hang around with local friends or well-adjusted foreigners, observe them, and try to learn by example.

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Where Are the International Bloggers and Podcasters? [en]

[fr] Nous cherchons encore des recommandations de blogueurs non-anglophones et non-francophones (sorry!) pour notre sélection "internationale" de blogueurs officiels pour LeWeb à Paris. Demandez à vos amis d'autres langues ou cultures d'envoyer leurs suggestions via ce formulaire, d'en parler sur leur blog ou Twitter -- et faites de même. Merci de votre aide!

OK, I’ll admit the question is stupid. “International” means “not from my country” and is very ethnocentric. Here’s the context: we’re building up a list of influential bloggers from different countries/cultures so that we can invite them to LeWeb in Paris as official bloggers this December.

So far, we’ve had quite a few suggestions for French bloggers (obviously), Portuguese, some Swedish, German and “international English” (Vietnam, Singapore). What about the others? The Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Belgian, Serbian, Austrian, Greek, Swiss (!), Finnish, Norwegian, Russian, Bulgarian, Polish, Chinese, American, Canadian, Japanese, Australian bloggers? To say nothing of the various African nations and all the others I’m forgetting?

I need your help for this. We’re looking for bloggers who understand English but who blog mainly in other languages (except if they’re from an English-speaking country). Maybe you know them? Ask them to fill out this form with a recommendation or three and send out a call for suggestions in non-English languages, on their blogs or through Twitter. And do it on yours, too!

Thanks a lot to everybody who takes the time to spread the word and send in suggestions.

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Chroniques du monde connecté pour Les Quotidiennes [fr]

[en] I'm now writing a column for Les Quotidiennes, a local online publication. The first one is up: E-mail, quand tu nous tiens.

Ça y est! Ma première chronique pour Les Quotidiennes, intitulée “E-mail, quand tu nous tiens“, est en ligne. J’y écrirai désormais chaque semaine les “Chroniques du monde connecté“, un coup d’œil humaniste dans l’univers technophile des gens ultra-connectés (nous!!)

E-mail, quand tu nous tiens | Les Quotidiennes C’est un peu plus “grand public” que ce blog — et j’avoue que j’ai quand même pas mal réfléchi au sens que ça pouvait avoir d’écrire ailleurs qu’ici: eh bien, simplement, toucher un autre public, dans un autre contexte. On verra ce que ça va donner, en tous cas j’ai plein d’idées pour les semaines à venir et je me réjouis beaucoup!

Et une fois que vous avez fini de lire mon article, filez vous délecter de ceux de mes co-chroniqueurs!

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Lift09: Turning Lake Leman into Silicon Valley? [en]

I participated in a Birds of a Feather session earlier, titled How can we make Lac Léman into an entrepreneurial hub? — I found it a little frustrating to start with, but it ended up really lively and interesting.

One issue that I’d like to insist upon is the cultural component of the problem. It’s easy to dismiss it as irrelevant, but I think it’s a mistake, because culture is the constraint within which we work. I’d like to share a few thoughts on the cultural differences between the US and Switzerland. I’m not a sociologist, so maybe they’re a bit naive, but I think they make sense and we should pay attention to them.

Not to say that all is impossible “because of culture”, but I do believe that there are cultural reasons this area is not “another Silicon Valley”. I don’t mean that it cannot become a good place for entrepreneurs. I hope it can, but if it can, it will be in a rather different way than the US, and taking into account the cultural differences between the two areas.

Let’s look at the heritage of Switzerland and the US.

Switzerland is over 900 years old as a nation, and the people living in these areas have been occupying them for a looong time. (There’s immigration, of course, proof typing these letters, but our culture has not been shaped by it in the distant past.) We are stable here. We don’t move. We are the decendants of farmers and mercenaries, and people who decided to “go alone” (Schwytz, Uri, Unterwald in 1291) besides the big political powers of the time. Face it, we’re a bit better than our neighbours and we don’t really need anybody.

The USA, on the other hand, is a young nation, founded by adventurers or pilgrims who set off to cross the bloody Atlantic to settle on a new continent peopled by savages (that’s how they must have seen things at the time). Many would die. It was risky. It was the land for innovators, for those who were not afraid of new things, who would try to do things differently. Dream a dream and make it come true.

These are (part of) our cultural backgrounds. Now, you can go against the grain, there are exceptions, but to some extent, we are prisoners of our culture, or at least, we must work within it.

I think that this historical and cultural heritage can help explain why the US is often branded as “entrepreneur-friendly” (what is new is better, and innovators and risk-takers are the kings) whereas in Switzerland, we are seen as more risk-averse. As we say in French, we tend to want to chop off the heads that stand out from the crowd. Don’t draw attention to yourself. I think the Swiss are less naturally inclined towards self-promotion, for example.

Now, these are cultural trends. An atmosphere. It doesn’t mean you won’t find risk-averse Americans, or extraordinary Swiss entrepreneurs. But I think these cultural traits end up being reflected in our institutions.

For example, during the session, Lucie mentioned how many administrative hurdles an entrepreneur needed to go through here to even get *close* to receiving money.

Another thing that came up which rings very true to me is that in Switzerland, we are really very comfortable. And as employees, particularly. Things like a mere two-week notice (what seems current in the US) would be unthinkable here (you get a month when you start, and it goes up to two and even three months after a few years of employment for the same company). We have incredibly good unemployment benefits (over a year at 80% of your last salary).

Now, I would not dare suggest we give up the security we have here in Switzerland. No way! But we have to take this into account when analysing the situation. If we want to improve things for entrepreneurs here, we need to identify the problem and offer solutions to it. And those solutions need to take into account things that we cannot change, like cultural settings.

So, what can we do?

It was pointed out during the session that there are lots of local initiatives to encourage entrepreneurs, but they tend to be stuck in silos. An index of all the “happenings” here would be a good start. It was also suggested to bring Venture to Suisse Romande on the years it’s not happening in Suisse Allemande.

Discussion participants wrote ideas down on a big sheet of paper at the end of the session, and Vittorio said he’s make something available from the discussion page on the Lift conference website. Keep an eye on there. Things are going to happen.

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LeWeb'08: The Revenge of E-mail (Panel) [en]

[fr] Quelques notes et réflexions autour de l'e-mail.

I arrived partway through this panel, and thought it was interesting. Here are a few notes followed my some of my rambling thoughts on the topic. (I’ll jump on the occasion to point you out to my friend Suw Charman’s work on “the e-mail problem“.)

The challenge for e-mail marketing is not getting through spam, but getting into the inbox (Nick Heys, Emailvision). I (Steph) had an interesting conversation a few months ago with Hervé Bloch, country manager Switzerland for Emailvision. I’m convinced there is a space for commercial e-mail communication which is respectful, not spammy, and actually adds value. My conversation with Hervé clearly contributed to me thinking that.

Nick Heys says the bottom line is trust: don’t send irrelevant stuff, respect the person’s decision, make sure it’s opt-in&

Olivier Mathiot says the opening rate has plummeted (15% opened today). People open e-mails when they know the sender and trust the content.

Catherine Barba notes that e-mail subjects are often very bad — Robert Scoble adds that there is the same problem with post titles: few bloggers know to write good titles (for viewing in FriendFeed or Technorati).

Strategy from the public: separate accounts (I do that — one for signing up, one for human beings. I have to admit that over the last year I’ve been using my “good” address more and more to sign up for stuff& need to think about that).

Robert mentions that he gets more and more “business” stuff through DMs, which is disastrous because he can’t sort them, forward them, copy other people on the response.

Somebody in the audience mentioning that teenagers have on average 7 e-mail addresses (I find that surprising, to be honest). He says that e-mail is being used to define personas, and separate things out, and that’s where we’re going. I think he misses the point that teenagers do not behave like adults (you can’t draw conclusions about adult behavior by studying teenagers), that putting up barriers between different parts of your life is characteristic to that phase in life, and that ultimately, it is not necessarily a healthy thing when done in an extreme way.

My experience is that we are caught in between two movements: one that tends to separate out parts of our lives, and one that tends to bring our whole life together (integration). We are somewhere in the middle of that tension between two extremes, and neither of those extremes are viable: complete openness and transparency doesn’t work (we do need some privacy) and complete separation between aspects of our lives, taken to the extreme, is split personality disorder.

I do use two (or more) e-mail addresses, but it’s quite clear that over time, their usage tends to seep one into the other. I know from people who use separate addresses for work and personal exchanges that it breaks down for them too.

One completely underused “tool” (or rather, feature) of e-mail is filters. Particularly amongst non-techy people (and possibly techies too), I find that those who are most overwhelmed with their e-mail also do not use filters at all. Filters help you prioritise, keep “for possible future reference but not that interesting now” e-mails out of your inbox, and are pretty easy to set up.

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Thoughts on Conference Endings [en]

[fr] Quelques réflexions sur les fins de conférence (Web 2.0 Expo s'est vraiment fini en queue de poisson, avec démontage avant même la fin des présentations!)

Je pense qu'il a un cercle vicieux en jeu qui fait partir les gens avant la fin car il n'y a plus rien d'intéressant, et puisque les gens partents, les organisateurs ne se "donnent" pas sur la fin.

Je proposerais une dernière session sous forme de keynote "à ne pas rater", suivie d'un apéro qui permettra de finir en douceur.

As I stepped out in the hallway at the end the session discussion on Gender Issues in Web 2.0 Careers that Suw had invited me to participate in, I was quite surprised to find myself amongst booth parts, piles of branding material, and the general noise of things being taken apart.

Gosh, I thought, I hadn’t realised we were the last session!

The thing is& we weren’t.

I tried to get a cup of tea, but that was not possible anymore. Everything was closing down, the sponsors had left, the attendees were scuttling out of the venue like rats off a sinking ship.

After a bit of wandering around, I headed upstairs to the main conference room. A courageous speaker was presenting to a thin crowd amidst the clanging of the workers downstairs.

What a sad ending to what had otherwise been a rather nice conference experience.

I bumped into Jen in a corridor somewhere, and we exchanged a few same-wavelength thoughts on what was going on.

I remember being advised to keep a really good speaker for the last sessions of Going Solo, to discourage attendees from leaving early. It seems to be kind of understood that specially in the case of a multi-day conference, most attendees are going to leave before the end to catch planes and trains to go back to their loved ones (or their pile of work). So speakers don’t want end slots, and conference organisers don’t want to risk putting an important session in the last slot because “everyone” will miss it.

I say it’s a vicious circle, and conference organisers need to have the balls to make things change. Plan drinks after the last session. Make the last session a really good keynote. Announce it in advance. Sell it clearly to attendees when they register to the conference: make it something they will not want to miss. Plan for the keynote to end reasonably early, allow an hour for drinks, networking and saying good-bye, and ensure people can still get an evening flight back to where they came from.

I bet you people will start staying. If you don’t believe in your ending, they certainly won’t.

I think it is important to change this for two main reasons:

  • First, the peak-end phenomenon. We judge an experience by how it was at its best/worst, and how it ended. That’s why firework shows end with a big bang (“bouquet final” in French), speeches end with a smart closing point that sums things up, and the last 5 minutes of a movie can kill it. As conference organisers, we want everybody to go home with the most positive feeling possible about the event. Let’s not act like high-school students who do not know how to end an essay.
  • Second, saying good-bye. I find it incredibly frustrating not to be able to say good-bye to the people I’ve met or connected with during the conference. The absence of real ending makes it near to impossible to do so. Drinks at the conference venue, on the other hand, make it possible: “everyone” will be there, and people will leave little by little, so you actually get a chance to say bye.

Now, I’ve been wondering if there is a cultural streak to the importance of saying good-bye. I know that for me personally, it’s very important. (Maybe a bit too much so, though I’ve loosened up quite a bit over the years.) Are cultures which are a little less formal (I’m thinking of the US in particular) less concerned about saying good-bye?

For fun (mainly), I’ve designed a little poll to try and figure this out. Please take a minute to fill in the form below. Yes, it’s quite binary, isn’t it? If anything interesting comes out of it, I’ll let you know.

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Reading the Ofcon Report on Social Networking: Stats, Stranger Danger, Perceived Risk [en]

[fr] Le Daily Mail remet ça aujourd'hui, abasourdi de découvrir que les adolescents rencontrent "offline" des étrangers d'internet. Il va donc falloir que j'écrive le fameux billet auquel j'ai fait allusion dernièrement, mais avant cela, je suis en train de lire le rapport sur lequel se basent ces articles alarmés et bien-pensants.

Ce billet contient quelques commentaires sur la situation en général, ainsi que mes notes de lecture -- citations et commentaires -- du début de ce rapport de l'Ofcon.

I don’t know if I’ll get around to writing about the [teen cleavage scare](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2008/04/02/daily-mail-shocked-by-teen-cleavage/) before the story goes completely cold, but in my endeavour to offer a balanced criticism of what’s going on here, I’m currently reading the [Ofcon Social Networking Report which was released on April 2](http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/02_04_08_ofcom.pdf) and prompted this new wave of [“think of the children” media coverage](http://strange.corante.com/archives/2007/07/26/think_of_the_children_yes_but_also_think_about_the_journalism.php). The Daily Mail is at it today again, with the stunning and alarming news that [teenagers are meeting “strangers” from the internet offline](http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/news.html?in_article_id=557349&in_page_id=1770) (big surprise). I find it heartening, though, that the five reader comments to this article as of writing are completely sensible in playing down the “dangers” regularly touted by the press and the authorities.

Here are the running notes of my reading of this report. I might as well publish them as I’m reading. Clearly, the report seems way more balanced than the Daily Mail coverage (are we surprised?) which contains lots of figures taken out of context. However, there is still stuff that bothers me — less the actual results of the research (which are facts, so they’re good) than the way some of them are presented and the interpretations a superficial look at them might lead one to make (like, sorry to say, much of the mainstream press).

Here we go.

> Social networking sites also have
some potential pitfalls to negotiate, such as the unintended consequences of publicly posting
sensitive personal information, confusion over privacy settings, and contact with people one
doesn’t know.

Ofcon SN Report, page 1

Good start, I think that the issues raise here make sense. However, I would put “contact with people one doesn’t know” in “potential pitfalls”. (More about this lower down.)

> Ofcom research shows that just over one fifth (22%) of adult internet users aged 16+ and
almost half (49%) of children aged 8-17 who use the internet have set up their own profile on
a social networking site. For adults, the likelihood of setting up a profile is highest among
16-24 year olds (54%) and decreases with age.

Ofcon SN Report, page 5

This is to show that SNs are more popular amongst younger age groups. It makes sense to say that half of 8-17 year olds have a profile on SN site to compare it with the 22% of 16+ internet users or the 54% of 16-24 year olds. Bear in mind that these are *percentages of internet users* — they do not include those who do not go online.

However, saying “OMG one out of two 8-17 year olds has a profile on a SN site” in the context of “being at risk from paedophiles” is really not very interesting. Behaviour of 8 year olds and 17 year olds online cannot be compared at all in that respect. You can imagine a 16 year old voluntarily meeting up to have sex with an older love interest met on the internet. Not an 8 year old. In most statistics, however, both fall into the category of “paedophilia” when the law gets involved.

> 27% of 8-11 year olds who are aware of social networking sites say that they have a profile on a site

Ofcon SN Report, page 5

I’d like to draw you attention on the fact that this is 27% of 8-11 year olds **who are aware of social networking sites**.

> Unless otherwise stated, this report uses the term ‘children’ to include all young people aged 8-17.

Ofcon SN Report, page 5

I don’t like this at all, because as stated above, particularly when it comes to concerns about safety one *cannot* simply lump that agegroup into a practical “children”, which plays well with “child abuse”. In the US, cases of “statutory rape” which might very well have been consensual end up inflating the statistics on “children falling victim to sexual predators online”.

> Although contact lists on sites talk about ’friends’, social networking sites stretch the
traditional meaning of ‘friends’ to mean anyone with whom a user has an online connection.
Therefore the term can include people who the user has never actually met or spoken to.
Unlike offline (or ‘real world’) friendship, online friendships and connections are also
displayed in a public and visible way via friend lists.
> The public display of friend lists means that users often share their personal details online
with people they may not know at all well. These details include religion, political views,
sexuality and date of birth that in the offline world a person might only share only with close
> While communication with known contacts was the most popular social
networking activity, 17 % of adults used their profile to communicate with
people they do not know. This increases among younger adults.

Ofcon SN Report, page 7

Right. This is problematic too. And it’s not just the report’s fault. The use of “friend” to signify contact contributes to making the whole issue of “online friendship” totally inpenetrable to those who are not immersed in online culture. The use of “know” is also very problematic, as it tends to be understood that you can only “know” somebody offline. Let’s try to clarify.

First, it’s possible to build relationships and friendships (even loves!) online. Just like in pre-internet days you could develop a friendship with a pen-pal, or kindle a nascent romance through letters, you can get to know somebody through text messages, IM, blog postings, presence streams, Skype chats and calls, or even mailing-list and newsgroup postings. I hope that it will soon be obvious to everybody that it is possible to “know” somebody without actually having met them offline.

So, there is a difference between “friends” that “you know” and “SN friends aka contacts” which you might in truth not really know. But you can see how the vocabulary can be misleading here.

I’d like to take the occasion to point out one other thing that bothers me here: the idea that contact with “strangers” or “people one does not know” is a thing worth pointing out. So, OK, 17% of adults in the survey, communicated with people they “didn’t know”. I imagine that this is “didn’t know” in the “offline person”‘s worldview, meaning somebody that had never been met physically (maybe the study gives more details about that). But even if it is “didn’t know” as in “complete stranger” — still, why does it have to be pointed out? Do we have statistics on how many “strangers” we communicate with offline each week?

It seems to me that *because this is on the internet*, strangers are perceived as a potential threat, in comparison to people we already know. As far as abuse goes, in the huge, overwhelming, undisputed majority of cases, the abuser was known (and even well known) to the victim. Most child sexual abuse is commited by people in the family or very close social circle.

I had hoped that in support of what I’m writing just now, I would be able to state that “stranger danger” was behind us. Sadly, a quick [search on Google](http://www.google.com/search?q=%22stranger+danger%22) shows that I’m wrong — it’s still very much present. I did, however, find [this column which offers a very critical view of how much danger strangers actually do represent for kids](http://www.parentkidsright.com/pt-strangerdanger2.html) and the harmful effects of “stranger danger”. Another nice find was this [Families for Freedom Child Safety Bulletin](http://www.ipce.info/ipceweb/Library/families_for_freedom.htm), by a group who seems to share the same concerns I do over the general scaremongering around children.

> Among those who reported talking to people they didn’t know, there were significant
variations in age, but those who talked to people they didn’t know were significantly more
likely to be aged 16-24 (22% of those with a social networking page or profile) than 25-34
(7% of those with a profile). In our qualitative sample, several people reported using sites in
this way to look for romantic interests.

Ofcon SN Report, page 7

Meeting “online people” offline is more common amongst the younger age group, which is honestly not a surprise. At 34, I sometimes feel kind of like a dinosaur when it comes to internet use, in the sense that many of my offline friends (younger than me) would never dream of meeting somebody from “The Internets”. 16-24s are clearly digital natives, and as such, I would expect them to be living in a world where “online” and “offline” are distinctions which do not mean much anymore (as they do not mean much to me and many of the other “online people” of my generation or older).

> The majority of comments in our qualitative sample were positive about social networking. A
few users did mention negative aspects to social networking, and these included annoyance
at others using sites for self-promotion, parties organised online getting out of hand, and
online bullying.

Ofcon SN Report, page 7

This is interesting! Real life experience from real people with social networks. Spam, party-crashing and bullying (I’ll have much more to say about this last point later on, but in summary, address the bullying problem at the source and offline, and don’t blame the tool) are mentioned as problems. Unwanted sexual sollicitations or roaming sexual predators do not seem to be part of the online experience of the people interviewed in this study. Strangely, this fits with my experience of the internet, and that of almost everybody I know. (Just like major annoyances in life for most people, thankfully, are not sexual harrassment — though it might be for some, and that really sucks.)

> The people who use social networking sites see them as a fun and easy leisure activity.
Although the subject of much discussion in the media, in Ofcom’s qualitative research
privacy and safety issues on social networking sites did not emerge as ‘top of mind’ for most
users. In discussion, and after prompting, some users in the qualitative study did think of
some privacy and safety issues, although on the whole they were unconcerned about them.
> In addition, our qualitative study found that all users, even those who were confident with
ICT found the settings on most of the major social networking sites difficult to understand
and manipulate.

Ofcon SN Report, page 7-8

This is really interesting too. But how do you understand it? I read: “It’s not that dangerous, actually, if those people use SN sites regularly without being too concerned, and the media are making a lot of fuss for nothing.” (Ask people about what comes to mind about driving a car — one of our regular dangerous activities — and I bet you more people than in that study will come up with safety issues; chances are we’ve all been involved in a car crash at some point, or know somebody who has.) Another way of reading it could be “OMG, even with all the effort the media are putting into raising awareness about these problems, people are still as naive and ignorant! They are in danger!”. What will the media choose to understand?

The study points out the fact that privacy settings are hard to understand and manipulate, and I find this very true. In doubt or ignorance, most people will “not touch” the defaults, which are generally too open. I say “too open” with respect to privacy in the wide sense, not in the “keep us safe from creeps” sense.

This brings me to a comment I left earlier on [an article on ComMetrics about what makes campaigns against online pedophiles fail](http://commetrics.com/?p=29). It’s an interesting article, but as I explain in the comment, I think it misses an important point:

>There is a bigger issue here — which I try to explain each time I get a chance, to the point I’m starting to feel hoarse.

>Maybe the message is not the right one? The campaign, as well as your article, takes as a starting point that “adults posing as kids” are the threat that chatrooms pose to our children.

>Research shows that this is not a widespread risk. It also shows that there is no correlation between handing out personal information online and the risk of falling victim to a sexual predator. Yet our campaigns continue to be built on the false assumptions that not handing out personal information will keep a kid “safe”, and that there is danger in the shape of people lying about their identity, in the first place.

>There is a disconnect between the language the campaigns speak and what they advocate (you point that out well in your article, I think), and the experience kids and teenagers have of life online (“they talk to strangers all the time, and nothing bad happens; they meet people from online, and they are exactly who they said they were; hence, all this “safety” information is BS”). But there is also a larger disconnect, which is that the danger these campaigns claim to address is not well understood. Check out the 5th quote in the long article I wrote on the subject at the time of the MySpace PR stunt about deleting “sex offenders'” profiles.

>I will blog more about this, but wanted to point this out here first.

Yes, I will blog more about this. I think this post of notes and thoughts is long enough, and it’s time for me to think about sleeping or putting a new bandage on my scraped knee. Before I see you in a few days for the next bout of Ofcon Report reading and commentating, however, I’ll leave you with the quote I reference in the comment above (it can’t hurt to publish it again):

Now, on the case of internet sex crimes against kids, I’m concerned
that we’re already off to a bad start here. The public and the
professional impression about what’s going on in these kinds of
crimes is not in sync with the reality, at least so far as we can
ascertain it on the basis of research that we’ve done. And this
research has really been based on some large national studies of
cases coming to the attention of law enforcement as well as to large
national surveys of youth.

If you think about what the public impression is about this crime,
it’s really that we have these internet pedophiles who’ve moved
from the playground into your living room through the internet
connection, who are targeting young children by pretending to be
other children who are lying about their ages and their identities and
their motives, who are tricking kids into disclosing personal
information about themselves or harvesting that information from
blogs or websites or social networking sites. Then armed with this
information, these criminals stalk children. They abduct them.
They rape them, or even worse.

But actually, the research in the cases that we’ve gleaned from
actual law enforcement files, for example, suggests a different
reality for these crimes. So first fact is that the predominant online
sex crime victims are not young children. They are teenagers.
There’s almost no victims in the sample that we collected from – a
representative sample of law enforcement cases that involved the
child under the age of 13.

In the predominant sex crime scenario, doesn’t involve violence,
stranger molesters posing online as other children in order to set up
an abduction or assault. Only five percent of these cases actually
involved violence. Only three percent involved an abduction. It’s
also interesting that deception does not seem to be a major factor.
Only five percent of the offenders concealed the fact that they were
adults from their victims. Eighty percent were quite explicit about
their sexual intentions with the youth that they were communicating

So these are not mostly violence sex crimes, but they are criminal
seductions that take advantage of teenage, common teenage
vulnerabilities. The offenders lure teens after weeks of
conversations with them, they play on teens’ desires for romance,
adventure, sexual information, understanding, and they lure them to
encounters that the teams know are sexual in nature with people who
are considerably older than themselves.

So for example, Jenna – this is a pretty typical case – 13-year-old
girl from a divorced family, frequented sex-oriented chat rooms, had
the screen name “Evil Girl.” There she met a guy who, after a
number of conversations, admitted he was 45. He flattered her, gave
– sent her gifts, jewelry. They talked about intimate things. And
eventually, he drove across several states to meet her for sex on
several occasions in motel rooms. When he was arrested in her
company, she was reluctant to cooperate with the law enforcement

David Finkelhor, in panel Just The Facts About Online Youth Victimization: Researchers Present the Facts and Debunk Myths, May 2007

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