|17315 - Danah Boyd on Glocalization||14/03/2006 - 01:49:15|
| danah boyd|
O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference
March 6, 2006
"G/localization: When Global Information and Local Interaction Collide"
[This is a rough crib of the actual talk.]
Good afternoon. My name is danah boyd and i'm a PhD student at UC-Berkeley and a researcher at Yahoo! Research Berkeley.
My talk today is about "glocalization," one of the most grotesque words that academics have managed to coin. The term itself has many interesting roots in economics, social networks and performance studies. What the term means in each is actually quite different. For those of you familiar with one or multiple of the disciplinary definitions, i want to ask you to put aside your knowledge. For the purpose of this talk, i am going to work from the visceral linguistic and cognitive impression that this term conveys rather than any disciplinary definition.
Glocalization is the ugliness that ensues when the global and local are shoved uncomfortably into the same concept. It doesn't sit well on your palette, it doesn't have a nice euphoric ring. It implies all sorts of linguistic and cognitive discomfort. This is the state of the global and local in digital communities. We have all sorts of local cultures connected through a global network, resulting in all sorts of ugly tensions. Designers who work with networks must face these tensions and design to take advantage of the global while not destroying the local. This is a hefty challenge and one that i want us to dive into.
I want to talk about what it means to connect the global and local together in technology and how this affects the design process. I want to talk about why social software must address glocalization in order to succeed. This means thinking about all sorts of squishy stuff like language, economics, policy, culture, social relations, and values. These are not just issues for marketing or business; they directly affect how people use your technologies and, thus, how you must design them.
The digital era has allowed us to cross space and time, engage with people in a far-off time zone as though they were just next door, do business with people around the world, and develop information systems that potentially network us all closer and closer every day. Yet, people don't live in a global world - they are more concerned with the cultures in which they participate.
To get at this issue, i am going to begin by discussing the significance of culture. I will move from there to talking about how culture emerges in online communities and the various challenges that exist. I will offer a framework for designing with culture in mind - embedded observation. I will then back and and discuss some of the issues that are currently at play in glocalized communities and why technology solutions fail to solve the problems. Finally, i will conclude with some broader design considerations.
WHAT IS CULTURE?
Let's begin with culture. Culture is the set of values, norms and artifacts that influence people's lives and worldview. Culture is embedded in material objects and in conceptual frameworks about how the world works.
In everyday speech, we often speak of "different cultures" to imply people from different nation-states or who speak different languages. What is important in thinking about cultures is not the location or tongue of the population, but what shared cultural frameworks people have. For example, there is a Jewish culture that crosses nationalities and languages, but shares many of the same values and cultural framings.
People are a part of multiple cultures - the most obvious of which are constructed by religion and nationality, but there are all sorts of cultures that form from identities and communities of practice. For example, many of you in the room come from a geek culture. Identification and participation in that culture means sharing a certain set of cultural values and ideas about how the world should work. There are common aesthetics and terminology, making it easier to identify each other. Just look for geeky t-shirts or people talking about AJAX.
Cultural norms evolve over time, influenced by people, their practices, and their environment. Culture is written into law and laws influence the evolution of culture. Cultures develop their own symbols as a way of conveying information. Often, these symbols make sense to those within a culture but are not parsable to those outside. Part of becoming indoctrinated into a culture is learning the symbols of that culture. I'm sure that those of you who have worked in large corporations have had your fair share of TLAs and org charts to figure out. There are stages to this process - curiosity and a deep desire to know, irritation at the inaneness of the organization, and then embodiment of the cultural symbols. In the second stage, many people vow to make the process easier for the next person. Lists of TLAs are created and org charts are written down. And yet, even with these maps in hand, newcomers go through the same steps because becoming part of a culture is not just having information, but turning it into normative understanding of how the world works. It means making the TLAs so natural that it's part of your everyday vocabulary.
You all have cultural frames that affect how you see the world, but most of the time, you probably don't spend that much time thinking about the norms that you've embodied. One exception for most people is traveling. Going to a foreign culture where everyone else views the world differently often makes people think about their own assumptions because they are faced with vastly different ones. At the same time, when foreigners appear in your culture, they just seem weird because most of the people around you share your views.
When mass media began, people assumed that we would all converge upon one global culture. While the media has had an effect, complete homogenization has not occurred. And it will not. While some values spread and are adopted en-masse, cultures form within the mass culture to differentiate smaller groups of people. Style-driven subcultures are the most visible form of this, but it occurs in companies and in other social gatherings.
There's a lot more that i could say about culture but time is short. What i want you to hold onto is the understanding that there are numerous cultural forces affecting your life at all times. How you see the world and how you design or build technology is greatly influenced by the various cultural concepts you hold onto.
Culture manifests itself in any and all social technologies and online communities. Back in the day, rec.motorcycles had a vastly different culture than rec.golf. Needless to say, the cultures of these online communities were highly affected by the offline cultures of the participants. People gathered in Usenet because of shared interest but also because of shared cultural norms. Cultural differences amongst people with similar interests often resulted in flame wars, and eventually, the creation of separate online communities to handle the distinct cultures. Nowhere was this more noticeable than in the newsgroups about the Middle East - people with different cultural understandings had a hard time communicating to each other because they did not understand the foundational values that their arguments rested on.
Two types of social software were built in the early rounds of the Internet. There was generic software so that any online community could make their own space. Think: Usenet, mailing lists, IRC. There was also very specific software built for specific communities of interest. Think: the Well, Palace, Barbelith. Sure, the software behind these communities could've been used for other communities, but the initial instantiation was developed alongside the community that it was focused on.
Today, we are trying to build a whole new level of social communities. Some folks are building more open social platforms so that participants can modify the structures to meet their own needs. One of the problems with Usenet is that it was one size fits all paradigm; there was no way to really personalize the architecture to meet a particular community's needs. At the same time, we are seeing some of the largest exercises in specialized community software. Just like the earlier specialized sites, the new designers are evolving the systems with the users. The big difference is that there are a LOT more users and the goal is to grow a LOT bigger.
I want to ask you to think about the dynamics behind three of them: Craigslist, Flickr and MySpace.
CRAIGSLIST, FLICKR and MYSPACE
When Craigslist began, it was originally Craig's List. It was his friends and their friends. As it grew, people still knew that there was this person Craig somewhere who was a friend of a friend and that he cared about the system. Craig does exist. His title is "Customer Service Rep." Although he founded this site and has hired many employees, he's still deeply invested in understanding what his users are doing. He reads email all day, responds directly to concerns. He watches what people do with the site and develops to make their lives easier. The site is infused with Craig's personality, passion and quirks.
When Flickr first started, Stewart and Caterina welcomed you personally. They introduced you to other users on the system and asked for your feedback. While this practice has stopped, they are still very present on the system. When there are problems, Stewart writes a message on the Flickr blog using a very personal apologetic tone. It sounds like he means it. Because he _does_. The content on Flickr has a goofy flair to it - it is not glossy and formulaic. Users love the tenor of this material, but it's not some marketing ploy. The folks at Flickr really love their users and want them to feel like they are part of a broad community. There are numerous employees dedicated to this.
MySpace users are initially given one friend - a guy named Tom. Tom isn't a bot or a helper avatar - he's one of MySpace's founders. Every day, Tom posts messages to the site, announcing cool new features and apologizing for technical hiccups. Like Craig, Tom is a glorified customer service person - he reads messages from users all day long, relying on users to inform him of problems on the system, features that they want, concerns that they have. The folks at MySpace design based on this ongoing flow of user feedback.
THINGS IN COMMON
These three sites have many attributes in common. They all grew organically. They each have public personalities that early adopters feel connected to. The early adopters really felt as though they were participating in and creating an intimate community, even as the community grew to millions. Users are passionate. Designers are passionate. They feel a responsibility to it and are deeply invested in making users happy. Character was not boiled out of the site; the text on the system is natural and goofy, reflecting the personality quirks of the developers rather than the formal speech of a corporation. Each site has a unique culture that was born early on and evolved through years of use and growth. The culture evolves with the designers and users working in tandem.
Customer service is not a segregated group who simply answers questions of a finalized product. They are completely integrated into the design system and the senior people are the most deeply embedded in user culture. There is a strong commitment to the needs and desires of the users.
While the creators have visions of what they think would be cool, they do not construct unmovable roadmaps well into the future. They are constantly reacting to what's going on, adding new features as needed. The code on these sites changes constantly, not just once a quarter. The designers try out features and watch how they get used. If no one is interested, that's fine - they'll just make something new. They are all deeply in touch with what people are actually doing, why and how it manifests itself on the site.
The designers of these systems are engaged in embedded observation. They are living in the culture that they are helping to frame. They are aware of the others living in that culture and constantly engaging with them to really understand the emergent behaviors. They recognize their power as designers and try to use it to benefit the collective rather than their own personal goals. Their design process is stemming from this embedded observation, producing a state of "flow" to use Cziksentmihalyi's term. The designers love what they are doing and infuse their passion into the systems. This is a very powerful way of doing design.
What they're doing methodologically is very unique in software development and is not yet part of the standard practices for developing social software, although it should be. Embedded observation allows developers to understand culture. They are doing a form of ethnography, the method used by those seeking to understand culture. They understand culture by living amidst the cultural natives, trying to understand practices from the perspective of the people engaged in them. They are trying to make sense of how the symbols came to be and how the culture is maintained. They are doing so in order to understand culture and to help shape the architecture to support the culture.
Embedded observation takes into account the cultural forces that can not be systematically tested or modeled. As a result, the designers are aware of social problems when they materialize and can work immediately to try to influence change. Their efforts at understanding culture and evolving the design alongside it create a meaningful bond between the users and the designers.
There are other social science methods used to know about users. Human-computer interaction introduced psychology-minded folks. User studies emerged out of this and companies use user studies to understand whether or not people will be able to make sense of the interaction paradigm. There are also often people who provide interview and survey data about a particular population and their practices. Too often, these folks are focused on helping the marketing division rather than the designers, but when they support the designers, their responsibility is typically to boil down culture into personas which may not convey the depth of culture. There are also customer support people who are basically therapists whose role is to help users stay sane as they battle their frustrations and confusion. All three groups know an immense amount about what is happening as the system gets interpreted and used. Yet, they often can't help designers really get the culture if they aren't participating in it.
If the goal is to ship a static product that is about people connecting to a machine, the current paradigm works. But if the goal is to build community social software, this is a dreadful approach. You cannot segment the people who engage with the users from those who build for them. You cannot test for community practices by running user studies on individuals. You cannot populate a community by marketing to people who have used similar software before. You cannot boil down culture into static representation of people. You must live the culture that you are creating.
Of course, embedded observation has huge problems and limitations.
Passionate designers are hard to come by. The people in charge of Craigslist, Flickr and MySpace breathe their sites. They don't go home at night and forget about the site. They are online at 4AM because something went wrong. They are talking to users at midnight just because. You cannot force this kind of passion - it's not just a job, it's a belief system.
Unfortunately, it is not clear that even the most passionate people can keep doing it forever. This type of true embeddedness is utterly exhausting. It plays a heavy toll on the lives of the designers. Even in smaller communities, creators grow tired.
Maintaining cultural embeddedness over time is challenging, particularly if the initial designers leave. It is difficult for new designers to build trust and understand the cultural dynamics. I've never met a designer who is good about writing down the cultural evolution which also means that institutional memory disappears when the creators do.
The biggest challenges, though, have to do with scale.
Even with the organic growth that made all three sites popular, there are now millions of users who are not invested in the culture that the creators nurtured. Site-wide cultural cohesion starts to disintegrate. Sub-cultures with conflicting values form within the site. Managing this is hard for both the users and the creators. Design decisions are made to stop certain behaviors, but they simultaneously limit the good things that others can do.
There is no way that the creators of these site can pay attention to everything that is going on. Even with huge support staff dedicated to eliminating the most destructive of behaviors, all sites suffer from porn, hate speech, and abusive users. This is particularly disheartening for the sites' creators because they are really invested in their communities and it pains them to see people do harm within the cultures they've helped evolve. They are often frustrated with themselves, trying to understand what they can do to make things better.
As these sites grow and their audience diversifies, it also becomes more difficult for the initial embedded observers to understand what is happening. Most of these people do not necessarily have the ability to make sense of cultures that are quite different than their own. Language is another barrier. Orkut is probably the best example of a piece of social software that ran into difficulties because of language. When Brazilians colonized the site, the creators were ill-equipped to watch the cultural evolve because of their inability to speak Portuguese. With online communities, language is not just a barrier for customer support - it is a barrier for the types of embedded observation that will allow designers to improve the system.
Recognizing limitations is important because there are ways to support embedded observation as your system grows larger.
1) On Tuesday, Tim spoke about how passion is critical. That's an understatement. If you are building a community, if you are trying to support the evolution of culture, passion is everything.
2) Protect burn-out by having a collection of passionate people who engage with different parts of the culture because as the site grows, no one person can really be fully present. The key here is to diversify the folks behind the scenes to reflect the diversity of your community. If your community starts to take off in Sweden, you better have folks who understand Swedish language and culture. If your site becomes the home to elderly citizens, you better have folks who understand them. This may mean hiring design ethnographers who can make sense of different cultural practices or hiring people who are from the relevant culture. Make sure that the people who understand the cultures are engaged in the design process.
3) Community designers are game masters or masters of ceremony. You don't own the show - you simply shape it through your presence and actions. Figure out what is healthy for your community and investors and design to nudge people into a viable direction while still meeting their needs and goal. Design in reaction to what people are doing rather than in an idealistic fashion of what should be. Don't expect users to have the same goals that you have; they won't. You have to design with that in mind.
4) Don't design for perfection - design for reinterpretation. No matter how perfect you see your design, it will be modified, altered or manipulated in use. If you design for perfection, you will be disappointed in what people do. Design conscientiously but plan to react immediately after something goes out. Make sure you're able to make changes on the live server quickly and in response to what people are doing. You may have thought something that you threw out there was culturally sound, but it might not be - be prepared to change it.
5) Make sure designers and customer support are engaged with one another. Customer support should help designers know what is going on with users; designers should work to understand what customer support is seeing. This probably means they need to be seated near each other, have an opportunity to socialize together, etc. Oh, and for good measure, have your designers drop into the support queues every once in a while.
6) Even as your community grows large, the high level product people should still be really engaged with the community. If those in control of the direction of the system lose track of what's going on and make decisions without having a sense of the culture or that completely contradict the culture, you will destroy your community. Think: Friendster.
7) Finally, document the cultural evolution alongside the technology decisions you made. You'll appreciate having this down the road and it will help you know where you made mistakes. It will also be useful for folks who are coming in.
Let me now turn to different issues that have emerged as people think about dealing with global and local cultural processes in digital communities.
As digital communities grow, they do not get homogeneous. In fact, quite the opposite. They get unwieldy as different communities within the system compete for resources where that resource is features that move the system in the direction they would like to see it go. Everyone is connected, meaning that all sorts of conflicts come crashing together. Language barriers make it hard for people to communicate. Cultural barriers make it hard for them to understand each other. Social barriers make them not care.
Just because people _can_ connect globally does not mean they want to. People are more drawn to those who are like them, who share their same values and cultural norms. In this way, people don't have to explain the foundations of their thoughts. They feel more closely aligned and more willing to share with people who are more like them. Similarities breed less conflict. Furthermore, most people don't use digital communities to make new friends - most use it to connect to offline friends through technology.
Of course, there are important exceptions to this. Ostracized individuals frequently use social software to connect with strangers like them. Single (and for the matter married) people use dating sites to meet strangers, although they are mostly looking for strangers in geographic proximity. Strangers connect around topical interests. These are some of the reasons that we build global networks.
Yet, there's an even better reason to build global networks. Digital community participants sometimes find that they "accidentally" meet someone. People collide on Flickr because they took similar photos; the find wonderful blogs through search. These ad-hoc interactions typically occur because people are producing material that can be stumbled across, either through search or browsing. They may not intend for the material to be consumed beyond the intended audience, but they also don't see a reason to prevent it. In essence, they are inviting moments of synchronicity. And synchronicity is energizing.
Of course, inviting random collisions is not the same as inviting the entire world to be present in your digital life. Spontaneous connections happen organically when two people are in the right place at the right time thinking the same thing. They do not occur when people have ulterior motives and there's nothing like feeling invaded to make people recoil. Such situations occur when people seek to exert some sort of power or control over others - spammers looking for victims, bosses looking for information, principals looking for students, stalkers looking for prey... One challenge in designing sociable systems is to provide enough opportunity for strangers to collide without providing the structures for people to exercise power.
It is also important to recognize that connections are not made randomly. Try walking down the street and introducing yourself to every 10th person you pass. You will most likely be glared at. People engage each other online because they have _something_ in common - a mutual friend, a shared interest, *something*.
In the early 1970s, Stanley Milgram was intrigued by what he called "familiar strangers" - people who recognized each other in public life but never interacted. Through experiments, he found that people are most likely to interact with people when removed from the situation in which they are familiarly strangers. In other words, two people who take the same bus every day for years may never interact, but if they were to run into each other in a different environment across town, they would say hello and talk about the bus. If they run into each other in a foreign country, they will immediately be close friends.
We all recognize this in our own personal experiences traversing the world. While you run into Americans all the time here in San Diego, if you were to cross the paths with one in a rural village in Bhutan, you would immediately stop and converse. Rareness matters.
The same is true online. Interests groups are particularly meaningful to people who don't have access to people who share that interest in their everyday lives. If you run across a blogger from the same rural town as you, you are far more likely to drop them a note on that basis alone than if you both grew up in Chicago. People feel as though something is an act of fate when it seems probabilistically so unlikely to occur.
People from different cultures pass through public spaces all the time and enjoy the adhoc interactions - why create separate publics online? The reason why people do is because it is much easier to manage, even if it doesn't really make sense for many participants. How can people learn to respect others' boundaries while managing their own desires? You need to design the reasons for broad socialization into the system and synchronicity helps.
If you do go global, how do you help convey information about language and culture so that groups with different cultural attitudes can respect each other? How can people understand the context of others' behaviors?
Let's talk about language for a moment. Culture is embedded in language and language expresses culture. At the same time, language barriers block different groups from communicating. For this reason, some technologists think that machine translation will solve cultural barriers.
The first assumption in this approach is that if the words made sense, people could understand each other. The second assumption is that if people could understand each other, they would have a reason to communicate. The problem with both comes down to culture. If people don't share cultural norms, they won't have a reason to communicate. Furthermore, if they don't share cultural values, the words are often not enough to help people make sense of each others' expressions.
Another big assumption with machine translation is that people write using proper speech. Imagine how machine translation would work on the following sentences that i pulled from MySpace. Yes, they're all English.
- "PatTy D aka tHe ScO CitY 415 LiKe wHa!!!"
It's easy to express horror and indignation at this writing style if you're not a part of the relevant social group, but that is a condescending position. What these teens are doing with language is fascinating and important. They are repurposing written words to express culture in the same way that people have always repurposed spoken words for slang. Because teens spend more time online, they are morphing written words for expressive communication. They are personalizing words.
People who share the same linguistic patterns have no difficulty parsing these expressions, but people who are outside of that linguistic community must make effort to interpret what is being said. Computational interpretation is a whole new level of disaster. Not only does this not look like the English that computers are trained on, it's not even consistent across users.
Of course, machine translation may be able to get at what information these words are conveying but it is most likely going to wipe out the cultural meaning in the process. The context of the speaker and the intended audience is important in interpreting language. To highlight this, let's look at a word that many of us reasonably see as offensive: "nigger." We've been told this word is racist for good reasons - the history of race in this country is very fraught. Yet, this word is present on numerous online communities. Why? Consider these three expressions:
- "Little negro" ("Nigrinho")
If you know to look for it, there's a lot of contextual information here that signals how to interpret these expressions. The first phrase is a translation from Portuguese where "negrinho" is a term of endearment that is used between friends; it is also the name of a popular chocolate adored by children. The second expression comes from black urban culture, where nigga has been reclaimed and is used mostly by black men to recognize other black men in a friendly fashion. The third represents a racist expression even though the language pattern looks like black urban speech. The contextual clue is in the second half - this is Asian gang language. Three different uses of the term with three totally different connotations. How many of you could interpret all three uses?
Yet, even if we can understand what these expressions mean, it doesn't mean that we feel comfortable using them. Or that we feel as though our use of them would signal the same thing as these other groups. This is a huge challenge for culturally diverse communities - people do not always mean the same thing with the same words and, taken out of context, things could get very hairy.
Culture provides context for people - it is why people think in terms of local cultures. In this way, people can use a word that might offend some people in a way that is understood as not offensive by others.
Without context, we interpret linguistic expressions using our own culture as the framework. Machine translation does the same thing - it assumes the language norms of the developers who architect the system. Imagine how you would feel if everything was translated into the language patterns that you see here. It would feel so... wrong. Because i've purposely used examples that are probably very foreign to you.
Another issue of language in digital communities is that people are often using words to do things other than share information or engage in action. Because people have to write themselves into being online, they use words to express identity and culture even more explicitly than offline. Sometimes, the words themselves don't matter - it is just the act of expressing utterances in a mutually understood culture. This type of communication through cultural understanding rather than parsable words was really visible in the 90s when people spoke of "speaking dude" and the word dude could stand-in for almost anything if the listeners understood each other. Of course, this assumed cultural context.
SYMBOLS AND NORMS
Language is a type of symbol, but it is not the only symbol that varies by culture. Images, icons, sounds, fashion, ... these are all symbols of culture.
To highlight this, i turn to a common problem that community designers face. What is obscenity?
In a 1960s obscenity case, Justice Potter Stewart acknowledged that it is impossible to define hard-core porn and obscenity, but "i know it when i see it." Of course, this rests on the assumption that we all have a similar conception of what constitutes obscenity. But do we?
In the United States, genitalia and girl nipples are deemed totally unacceptable and pornographic. Yet, in Brazil, the idea that just the mere presence of girl nipples would be obscene is ridiculous. Contrast that with the United Arab Emirates where images of belly buttons are deemed problematic. There are places in this world where images of feet, ankles and necks are all considered pornographic. From an American perspective, we see these cultures as oppressive, yet there was a brilliant conversation on Flickr where a group of women from the UAE were discussing a picture of a woman wearing hot pants and a bikini top - they felt sorry for her for feeling the need to buy into a culture of objectification in order to have confidence. Their arguments were a shockingly brilliant application of feminism. By taking issue with the exposure of bellies, they were fighting for women's rights not to have to be sex objects to be a part of mainstream culture.
How people react to obscene material also varies. Some people just ignore it and move on while others are patently offended and object loudly. Managing what content people can display and how people will react is a tough problem for community designers. While some believe that "the Internet is for porn," there are legal, economic and cultural reasons why many community organizers do not want porn to proliferate on their site. Some users might not participate. Some advertisers will not buy ads. And there are huge legal regulations to follow when minors are present. Community organizers who want to see their sites to fit into a variety of cultures often don't want to let porn put their growth in jeopardy.
What are the standards for for obscenity that designers should follow? Is it a matter of law? Which laws? Is it a matter of norms? Which norms? If it's about keeping advertisers happy, which advertisers?
Technologists often speak about using computer vision to track down pornography, as if the systems would lack bias. Unfortunately, as with machine translation, algorithms are simply the computer manifestation of a coder's cultural norms.
How you handle these issues has huge economic implications. There are nation-states that do not permit things that they find culturally offensive and i'm sure you're aware that some of these nation-states can block your websites. Unfortunately, this often puts designers in a moral conundrum. What if you think that the limitations of a particular nation-state are problematic or immoral? Whose definition of morality do you use? What if your users or advertisers feel as though your decision to abide by a nation-state's restrictions is immoral? How do you balance these issues? I don't have time to dive into this issue, but i want to flag it as important for discussion in your companies.
DESIGNING FOR GLOCALIZATION
To close, i want to offer some suggestions that will help you address issues that emerge when dealing with glocalized communities.
1) Empower users. Give them the ability to personalize and culturalize their spaces online. Let people create the contexts in which their expressions can occur so that they can help set and regulate the norms. This means everything from hackable HTML to open APIs to open source code that can spiral everywhere.
2) Provide the cultural environment where people can accidentally connect with strangers over meaningful things without being forced to face everyone on the system. Let users privatize or wall off access to only certain people for their own needs. Let users see the valuees of being public. Of course, balancing privacy needs with public possibilities with the lack of interest in dealing with the *whole* public is quite tricky. Anyone who can solve this design challenge with a robust system will win the hearts of users and investors.
3) Empower individual users to be cultural spokespeople. Give them the ability to modify the system for their communities and cultural needs. Again, this means openness of software or providing richer platforms to develop on top of.
Organic community growth, embedded design, and the ability to connect culturally local communities through global network are the way to form large sustainable communities. My hope is that there are new fascinating communities emerging as we speak!
Thank you for your attention!
Original Location: http://www.danah.org/papers/Etech2006.html
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