Friday, April 15, 2005

Information 4 Pleasure

Information plays a central role in people’s life. Few other commodities are as potent and versatile as information and even fewer that are as all encompassing as information, which includes information for pleasure (Information Communities Model). Information is a substance for thinking, an ingredient of creativity and a source of pleasure. Understanding this is critical to the ability of Information Professional (IP) to exploit information effectively. Information for pleasure is one, which provides not only enjoyment but also a source of knowledge & learning. And vise versa, information for accountability, awareness, knowledge and sharing should incorporate elements of pleasure if it is to capture consumers’ attention. No other component of information model makes the information experience as sticky as the pleasure component. “But information is an experience good every time it is consumed” (Shapiro,Varian: Information Rules) This experience is even more amplified in the context of experiencing pleasure. Sports and pornographers in particular have long exploited the pleasure side of information and have developed some of the most sophisticated web sites and employed some of the most innovative online techniques and technologies to entice consumers to visit and re-visit their sites.
Pleasure is something that everybody is looking for and is prepared to pay a premium for it. IPs who understand this and skilled to incorporate pleasure element in their information design/proposition will always thrive. As the lecture notes confirm the top sites have always been those with strong entertainment or pleasure (sensual) content. The competition for attention is fierce. People will spend more time on web sites that incorporate information which gives pleasure. Producers of goods and services – including information goods - understand that in the “most valuable item in the information age: human attention” yet “attention is scarce in the information economy” (Shapiro,Varian: Information Rules)
Linda Cornwell in an online article “Kids Who Read Succeed investigates what does it take to increase kids reading achievements? Among other things she states that “Only if kids find pleasure in reading will they spend lots of time reading.”Marketers and producers of goods will pay high premium for consumers’ attention. Thus the value of pleasure component of information is very high. Other “techniques” to win attention is providing content for free. Many independent artists & authors willingly provide the fruit of their labor in hope to attract attention. As Tim O’reilley puts it: Lesson 1: Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.” Webcasting Live Events in Australia: The Kick-Art Experience by Tom Denison is a fascinating and insightful article. To produce information for pleasure is not an easy task. It requires thorough planning, hard work and at times little or no pleasure during the production phase. Nonetheless, making information pleasurable – whether for entertainment, education (edutainment’s the buzz word) or business transactions – will get people’s attention, thus increase their information consumption, which in turn increases the revenue.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Virtual Communities Attraction

Apparently “information exchange' is the No. 1 reason people join virtual communities” Initially this simple statement seems to be inadequate. However, if you consider what is information, than the above statement seems quite reasonable. For example, Monash School of Information and Management subscribes to the definition of information as being: "The content and context of communication", thus information exchange is essentially communication. Moreover, Shapiro/Varian in their brilliant book “Information Rules” defined the term information as: “Essentially, anything that can be digitized … is information”. This leads to understanding that anything which is digitized can be exchanged online or at least electronically and therefore one of the best places to acquire and experience digitized (information) goods. In the same book Shapiro/Varians suggest that ‘Information is an “Experience Good”’ An experience good is something consumers must experience it to value it. Unlike in the non-virtual world the cost of experiencing digitized things is very low. An experience is always something which is new. In non-virtual world newness of a product is what provides experience. “But information is an experience good every time it’s consumed” (Shapiro/Varian, Information Rules, Harvard Business School) “Knowledge and information are, in general, a valuable currency or social resource in virtual communities" (Binik, Cantor, Ochs, & Meana, 1997; Hiltz & Wellman, 1997; Rheingold, 1993a; Sproull & Faraj, 1997). In the context of the above, Ridings/Gefen suggestion that the no.1 reason people join VCs is information exchange seems to be well founded. Furthermore, since information is valuable – because of its experiential attribute – as well as “affordable” people will congregate / form VCs since that’s where they get their “shot” for satisfying their experiential needs especially since VCs provide experiences, which are most closely matched to the conscious or unconscious desires of the members. “Virtual communities, providing a subset of the information available on the Internet, are unique in that most of their content is member-generated” (Filipczak, 1998). Naturally, information exchange isn’t the only reason, however, it is the predominant reason.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Communities of Play

"Communities are networks of interpersonal ties that provide sociability, support, information, a sense of belonging, and social identity" (Barry Wellman). Castells in his briliant book The Internet Galaxy makes the point in quoting Barry Wellman’s definition of community that there has been a profound shift in paradigm from the traditional concept of communities, which are based on the sharing of values and social organization and spatialy bounded to “network as the central form of organizing interaction….Networks are built by the choices and strategies of social actors, be it individuals, families, or social groups.”

I submit that since not every group can be defined as community, the context is of paramount importance when we look at any group. Whilst a community is also an affinity group, an affinity group is not necessarily a community. Understanding the context behind any group is crucial especially in this post-modern world where everything is fluid, without definable boundaries and nothing is fixed (although post-modernism has been under the deconstructionists’ scalper for some time). The most obvious although not the only determinants of virtual community are:

  • Boundless spatiality.
  • Time: real-time, near real-time, synchronous, assynchronous.
  • Flexible structures and processes.
  • Perpetual ephemerality & emphemerality, which I believe is particularly virtualization play specific trait. I can't think of any non VC exhibiting such traits. This virtualization phenomena was evident even on micro level whilst studying the communities of play.

Social Communities

This subject – Virtual Communities (VC) is a fascinating one. I can’t stop thinking about it. In the process of studying the subject of VCs, I came to the view that the main expositors and thinkers of communities and VCs in particular were almost exclusively philosophers, social scientists, psychologist, psychoanalysts and communitarian activists. This situation has persisted in my view for far too long. The later group in particular propagated some Utopian; almost worship-like embrace of the Internet as the panacea from many if not all social ills. For example, the often quoted Dr. Scott Peck a psychotherapist wrote: "After many years of vague identification with Buddhist and Islamic mysticism, I ultimately made a firm Christian commitment - signified by my non-denominational baptism on the ninth of March 1980..." (People of the Lie, 1983) later elevated the notion of community to the level of a messiah in his book The Different Drum (1987) “In and through community lies the salvation of the world." The information professionals in the meantime were left behind to deal with the consequences of such myopic views, often embraced by many Internet enthusiasts and business leaders who bought into the obscure often ecliptical promises of a grand symbiosis between the business aims and the social “good” but with no or little regard for the pragmatic realities of the real world. Once I'm through with this course I will be more qualified as Information Professional (IP) rather than even a quasi sociologist. Thus I came to the realization that without an active engagement of IPs in the process of studying traditional and virtual communities the void between the network technocrats and the communities could not be bridged effectively. Until recently that interface bridge was predominantly the community of social scientists and online activists. However, IPs are gaining greater prominence in shaping the social interface of online communities.

The significance of the Information Professionals’ role in the formation and exposition of VCs was not articulated clearly until relatively recently. One of the reasons perhaps was the lack of “critical mass of participation”. The VIC Government’s Global Victoria paper suggests regarding the critical mass “participation goes beyond simply creating awareness. It involves giving people and business compelling reasons to participate”. The critical mass participation I believe has been achieved and is largely attributable to 3 reasons:
  1. Technological advancement: (affordable hardware, ease of use of web browsers, rich and easily accessible WWW content).
  2. Commercialization of the Internet, albeit many die hard cyber activists and punks keep decrying that the commercialization which is destroying communities.
  3. Engagement of IPs in the process of building Information Enterprises and Information Communities

Many still lament about the loss of community “spirit” or disintegration of communities (Robert Putman, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community). I beg to differ. If anything, communities have expanded both in numbers, sizes and variety. The dominance of VCs, however, had not spelt out the end of traditional communities. The slight dents on the traditional communities made by VCs are far outweighed by the benefits VCs brought to the traditional communities. VCs brought to communities aspects, which in the past would either shackle the community or would spell the end of them; such as distance, no space to “hide” unless one leaves the community, no possibility of living out multiple personalities & role plays, ephemeral relationships without uprooting the long established relationships and very importantly both polemics as well as apologetics can coexist concurrently without undermining community structures. Communities in this wired (actually wireless is gaining ground as well) online milieu are created, thrive, evolve, mutate, transform, die and re-born constantly and fast and the best thing about all this is that VCs add value to the traditional communities. Castless points out that even Sherry Turkle, one of the pioneers of the social technology in her classic study on identity-building declared that: “the notion of the real fights back. People who live parallel lives on the screen are nevertheless bound by the desires, pain, and mortality of their physical selves. Virtual communities offer a dramatic new context in which to think about human identity in the age of the Internet” (Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, 1995). I believe that by now the fight is over. Today I believe there’s a natural balance between online communities and “real” communities. VCs provide what non-VCs can't provide and vice versa. So people join or form communities according to their likings, circumstances and context. It is interesting to observe that another early pioneer of the online communities Barlow still lives in the past.