Category Archives: networks

Social networks and the virtual world

Hitchcock There were virtual worlds in the West before the advent on the internet.  In the 18th century, it was a Jane Austin novel.  In the mid-20th century, it was the films of, say, Hitchcock.  These virtual worlds were more or less fully formed, teaming with people and events we could relate to and identify with.  Fully formed, they were, but extremely well sealed.

These virtual worlds were closed worlds.  No one ever from stepped from an Austin novel or a Hitchcock film into our lives.  Yes, we might  say someone in our actual world was a lot like Darcy or Roger O. Thornhill.  But this was the work of imputation, with meanings transported across state lines, as it were. 

The virtual worlds of the late 20th and 21st world are something else again.  It is now routine to have someone we know from the blogging world or a role-playing game appear before us as flesh and blood.  And when this happens it always seems to me like a scene from the movies in which a character moves from one dimension to the next, materializing as he goes.  (What is that SciFi TV shows where they are always passing through that time portal?  That’s it, thank you, Stargate SG-1.  I believe they use even use that Star Trek "materializing" sound, now, I guess, the signature of cross dimensional transportation.  If and when his machine is real, it will come with this sound installed.)

So today, I am going to meet a couple of people for lunch in Manhattan who are friends of a virtual friend, so the remove is even more pronounced.  We do have a lot in common, our European friend.  Will this be enough to sustain a conversation?  Or will we all wish we were back on line in a more accommodating virtual world, where conversation and contact is too brief to awkward or onerous?

Eventually, we’ll learn to live in a new kind of social universe that consists of virtual and actual worlds living side by side.  We’ll learn to negotiate sudden transitions back and forth.  I guess eventually, we will have a protocol for negotiating these very odd social situations, but for the moment it’s all improv.

Social networking and the dead

Frost_from_tim_manners Every so often, someone comes to my blog because they used "Geoffrey Frost" as their search term. 

I didn’t ever meet Geoffrey Frost.  But when he died in 2005 I began to read about the innovations he created at Motorola, and I came to think of him as an exemplar.  He seemed to me the kind of person that marketers, designers, anthropologists, and innovators want to be now.  He could summon big ideas out of the heavens and then shepherd them through the corporation until, viola!, they issued from the factory door and ended up blooming with value in the life of the consumer.  Frost was in short exactly the person the corporation now cares about, that b-schools want to graduate, that all of us want to be. 

I didn’t know Geoffrey Frost but I am now to be proud to be a small flicker in the flame that keeps his memory alive.  Motorola has been surprisingly unforthcoming.  Not worse than any other corporations, but just little…I don’t know… uncomprehending.  I’m not saying that they should have started a cult of personality, but surely their corporate culture wanted to remember an innovator of this order a little more vividly…especially now that the innovation well at Motorola appears to have run dry. 

The great thing about serving a memorial function in a new internet era is how easy and effective it can be.  You know the old drill.  Someone is sitting on her balcony drinking a beer, and combing the heavens, and she thinks, "Hey, I wonder what ever happened to that Geoffrey Frost guy, the one at [Connecticut, Choate, Yale, J. Walter Thompson, Grey Worldwide, Scale, McCabe, and Sloves, Foote, Cone & Belding, Nike, or Motorola].  In the old days, this idea would prompt the question: "who would know?" and the ponderer would make a mental note: "ask Jimmy whatever happened to Frost."

These days we go to Google and I am proud to say, my post "Remembering Geoffrey Frost" is top of the return. Proud and a little anxious.  The story I banged together in 90 minutes is now going to tell the story?  Did I check my facts?  Could I have been clearer?  Did I honor the guy sufficiently?  The good thing about an electronic memorial is that gathers comments, clarifications, amendations, and there are now about 12 of these in place, complete with a dissenting opinion that says he was not an exemplar of any kind.  The dissent represented an interesting problem.  As a keeper of the flame, should I let it stand?  Should I delete it?  I left it in the interests of full disclosure, but also to show what Frost was up against at Motorola. 

In the old days, I could have written an obituary for an quarterly industry newsletter.  It would have disappeared from the shelf in 90 days, and from memory in 180 days.  I could have told the Frost story at the bar when creatives gathered, an oral tradition that would died with me.  I could have written an article or a book that would have achieved greater permanence, and outside the academic community, total obscurity. 

But no.  These days, it’s possible not just to create a memorial.  I can now network for the dead.  My post sits there bobbing, a message in a bottle, in the great green sea called the internet, waiting for a passing stranger to fish it out and have a look.  The memory is a little brighter.  It is more active in the world, more likely to recruit others.  In fact, this memorial is less memorial in the usual sense, less passive, that is to say, and little more like a meme poised to find its way into the world.  This memory is less a memory and more an idea waiting to happen again, to make the difference Geoffrey Frost would have made if he were still alive.  I hope.   


Manners, Tim.  2005.  Motorola’s Edge: an interview with Geoffrey Frost.  The Hub: Thinking Marketing for Business Visionaires. September/October 2005.  here

McCracken, Grant.  2005.  Remembering Geoffrey Frost.  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  December 19, 2005. here

McCracken, Grant. 2007.  Feoffrey Frost and the perils of the fast lane.  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  May 16, 2007.  here

How we say hello in New England

Bush_moue I just passed my neighbor in the street and he gave me the New England salute: a "moue."

He might have waved his hand, nodded, smiled, flashed his eyebrows, or even stopped to chat.  But, no, what he had for me was a moue. 

This is a small gesture of the mouth.  Lips are pulled back and compressed, as if someone were about to play the trumpet.  it happens very quickly.  If you are not watching very closely, you’ll miss it.  (In the image to the right, President Bush is making what might be a moue.)

It’s the French who call it a "moue."  And in France the moue is defined as an "expression of discontent, disdain, disgust."  But in America, it means something else, I think.  Actually, I don’t know what it means. 

I see New Englanders doing it all the time.  On the train from New York City, I watched a man walking up the isle.  People were spilling out of their seats and talking across the isle.  This obliged him to invade the personal space of these people.  He made a moue. 

So is that it?  An apology?  Well, it might be.  But I’ve also seen it used as an acknowledgment.  Another neighbor of mine passed me in her car.  She made a moue too.  This one can’t have been an apology.  I think it was her idea of hello. 

To someone who grew up in Western Canada, and lived, most recently, in Quebec, the moue feels stingy.  It feels like a withholding.  If I were Hispanic or African American, I would assume my neighbor disliked me for my difference.  But in fact, he and I are white, male, middle aged and middle class.  Two peas in a sociological pod.  God knows how he treats people who don’t share the pod.  (Maybe he’s friendlier!  That would be interesting.)

So, the moue is not (or not only) an expression of disgust, apology or acknowledgment.  I spend the rest of my walk thinking about it and decided finally that it is the smallest negotiable social gesture.  It doesn’t really signify anything except a disinclination to give nothing.

You can’t help feeling that the perpetrator would like to offer nothing.  But that would expose him to censure and the charge of "social noncompliance."  In this little world, you can’t do nothing, however much you might like to.  So you offer the tiniest bit more than nothing.  And that’s the moue.  In this New England economy of gestures, anything more than a moue is too much, and any thing less than a moue is too much, too.  If you withhold the moue, they can get you for non compliance.

Ok, sure, it’s a matter of temperament for some people.  It is also good policy in some cases. Sometimes you just want to keep your distance.  Especially when you find yourself around anyone my father would have called a "rum customer."  And there might be something in me that provokes this fear in my neighbor…despite the fact that I do not wear odd hats, sing to myself, or gesticulate.  (This could change.) 

No, I think there is a deeper motive, a systematic sociological one.  I can’t say what it is but some of my neighbors are so stingy with their hellos that I believe that they believe that if they are more generous I will ask them for a loan.  This might be an enactment of policy created by the founding poet.  It might merely be a performance of Frost’s "good fences make good neighbors." 

Is the moue a good fence?  No, it’s a terrible fence.  It looks like a begrudging gift, like you would rather offer nothing.  Failed reciprocity is worse than no gesture at all and a very bad fence indeed.  But that’s me, the reluctant New Englander, talking.  Chances are  I’ll get over it.  Or there’s therapy and some kind of cultural counseling.  It’s not to late to send me to summer camp. 

I made a note of every hello I got on the walk, and many of them were superb.  The happiest came when I passed a blond woman and her bull dog.  We said "hello" in almost the same way, in almost the same tone, at almost the same time.  Perfect reciprocity.  We had dispatched our responsibility.  And it was kind of fun.  (Simultaneity when accomplished accidentally is always fun.)  More to the point, it made a lovely fence.  We have acknowledged one another and that was that.  This fence made good neighbors of us both. 

It soon became clear to me that the best hello is a "cheery" hello.   A cheery hello is generous, uncomplicated, and closed.  It’s a gift that doesn’t ask for any kind of return.  It’s a kind of enameled bonhomie.  It says, "take this or leave this.  It’s my gift to you.  See you later." 

Or, you can offer "how you doing?" as a passing jogger did.  Visiting the US in the 1970s, I used to find this confusing.  It’s not as bad as the greeting "what’s happening" which once elicited from me the information that I had slept rather late, enjoyed an indifferent breakfast, and was off to the laundromat.  Something in the astonished response of my interlocutor told me this was not what he was looking for, and eventually I learned that it’s ok to answer a question with a question.  I said, "how you doing" back to the jogger.

There is the question of who goes first.  The first hello risks more and is therefore more generous.  You can be refused and in this case you feel like an idiot.  A moue is precisely this refusal plus 1 increment of sociality.  You still feel like an idiot, but you can’t call them on it.  But it’s also true that there is something gallant about the second hello.  The first speaker has exposed themselves to risk and when someone replied they are coming to their aid. 

Then there was the guy in the parking lot.  He was in his middle 20s and dressed like that loser-loner that everyone knows from high-school gym class: white socks, ill fitting shorts, give-away t-shirt, an expression somehow both defeated and truculent.  All in all, a pretty convincing confession of athletic incompetence that seemed also, very quietly, to give off an air of menace.  We know what this adds up to: "loner" plus "menace" = someone who someday may go postal or at least Paula.  I kept my distance.  Even a moue was too good for him!

As if to compensate for this, I came across an elderly man with sports cap.  He smiled beatifically at me and nodding his head at the tennis ball in my hand, said, "man on a mission!"  This was wonderful and charming, but I couldn’t think of anything to say in reply, and just grinned idiotically.  I personally love these little phrases said in passing, and, with more time, I would see if I couldn’t work out the  grammar.  We can say they are brief, self-evident, cheery, and if possible witty.  On another walk, I encountered a woman on a bike pulling a tiny caravan filled with children squealing with a delight so audible that you could hear them coming 100 yards away.  This gave me time to think up a little phrase to give her as she passed.  With pretend gruffness, I said, "joy rider!"  She smiled. 

So only some of my neighbors insist on the moue.  And I can only guess on their motives.  The effects of this behavior are a little less mysterious.  When people insist on this stinginess, they damage the social capital in which community consists.  Cheery hellos, and well exchanged greetings, have the effect of increasing the sense of fellowship.  I bet we could establish empirically that communities that exchange greetings are richer in every other respect, in the amount of time, money and interest they are prepared to give one another.  (Whether the greetings are cause or consequence (or both) another, interesting question.)

But again that’s the Canadian in me talking.  New England was an experiment for which we should all be grateful.  The little culture created a stubborn, sometimes aggressive individualism that helped to enable revolutions, military, social, religious, and economic.  So it’s probably wrong for a newcomer to complain.  Especially when he comes from a country that is famous for its politeness, and, increasingly, not much else.  If you have to choose…


McCracken, Grant. 2004.  Economics of the gaze.  The blog sits at the intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  August 23, 2004.  here.

How social networks work: the puzzle of exhaust data

Network Jerry Michalski and Pip Coburn were recently talking about the puzzle of "exhaust data."   These are data that pass between friends on Facebook and Twitter…as when someone tells me they’re doing their nails, or I tell them I’m entertaining my cat. 

Who on earth cares?  What kind of communication is this?  Can it be that we are using the internet to issue trivial facts about ourselves?   Facts? The "fact" that I am entertaining the cat is so staggeringly unimportant it fails to interest even the cat. 

But there is another, anthropological, point of view.  Exhaust data is, I think, a clear case of "phatic communication."  This is communication with little hard, informational content, but lots of emotional and social content.  Phatic communications doesn’t get much said, but it has social effects so powerful, it gets lots done. 

Today, reading Dino’s Chroma blog, I was surprised to see that the phatic idea has already been taken up by our community and even more surprised to see that it is changing shape. 

In a lovely post, Ian Curry suggested that Twitter is compelling because it has a phatic function, specifically because it is communication "simply to indicate that communication can occur."

The notion was picked up by Leisa Reichelt who used the idea to develop her influential notion of "ambient intimacy," which she defines as the ability,

to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible.

May I weight in?  I’m feeding my cat. Sorry, you wanted something more substantial.  Fine.  I believe that the phatic notion originated with Malinowski, moved to Jakobson and then to Bakhtin.  (Now that’s a double-play dream team: Malinowski to Jakobson to Bakhtin.)  It comes, that is to say, from some of the great pioneers of anthropology, linguistics and post-structuralism. 

Flying without instruments (aka access to my library), I believe that phatic communications sends a series of messages.  What follows is not from the double play dream team, it is my fanciful elaboration on their thinking.  (It’s not in Malinowski, but it’s not not in Malinowski, if you see what I mean.  I do wish I did.) 

The phatic messages "stack" nicely, each message presupposing and building on its predecessor.  These messages are:

1. I exist.
2. I’m ok.
3. You exist.
4. You’re ok.
5. The channel is open. 
6. The network exists.
7. The network is active.
8. The network is flowing.

When I use Twitter or Facebook to say that I am entertaining my cat, no one, I’m pretty, sure gives a good God damn that I am entertaining my cat. But they are reminded that they have someone called Grant McCracken exists in their network. 

This is not nothing.  Facebook sustains social knowledge and networks that begin in conferences and then fade almost immediately until a couple of months later we have a hard time attaching a face to that business card still banging around in our briefcase.  A "newsflash" about my cat helps keep the network node called Grant McCracken from blinking out.

But this is not just news that I am extant, but that I am, as much as this is ever true, emotionally and intellectually active.  You don’t just want the datum: "GM exists."  You want the film makers call "room tone," some sense of my general emotional well being. (Well, of course, I am just hoping this is of interest, and as a Canadian, I understand and accept that you might not have the slightest interest.  And that’s fair.  I mean, really.  We Canadians struggle to be as interesting as possible under the circumstances.) 

I have a friend on Facebook who recently posted in the "Florence is" field: "SUPER, thanks for asking!"  Which I liked because it brings the oldest formula to the newest venue and infuses new networks with the peppiest self presentation possible. 

Naturally, networks, especially really distributed, anti-hierarchical ones of the kind we like, are profoundly reciprocal enterprises.  So it is especially true here that, as George Herbert Mead observed, our knowledge of ourselves depends upon what (and that) others know about us.  Or, to put this another way, we we find ourselves when others find us.  This is messages 3 and 4, above.

So I’m ok and you’re ok.  This means the channel must be ok, and this means that the network must exist, and this means that the network is ok, and this means that the network is active, and this means the network is flowing.  There is a "superorganic" concept of the network at work here, according to which every small moment of phatic communications so reverberates that we are briefly and tinyily reminded of our larger network and social connections. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go play with my cat. 


Curry, Ian.  2007.  Twitter: the Missing Messenger.  Frogblog.  February 26, 2007. here.

Demopoulos, Dino.  2007.  The Presents of Presence.  Chroma.  July 18, 2007. here.

Earls, Mark.  2007.  Phatic is phat.  Herd, the hidden truth of who we are.  March 8, 2007. here.

Michalski, Jerry and Pip Corburn.  2007.  Exhaust Data.  Yi-Tan Weekly Tech Call #143
Monday, July 16, 2007. here

Reichelt, Leisa.  2007.  Ambient Intimacy.  Disambiguity.  March 1, 2007.  here.


Thanks to Charles Frith for letting me know about Mark Earls’ "phatic/phat" observation.

What’s the new Dunbar number?

Network Robin Dunbar is a British anthropologist and evolutionary biologist. In the early 1990s, he proposed that 150 was the maximum number of individuals with whom any of us can maintain a social relationship.

Personally, I think this number is high.  Only the most gregarious of my friends seem to have anything like this number.  For me, the number is closer to, say, 50. 

But I can’t help noticing that I now have many more than on Facebook. Well, it would be wrong to call all these people "friends," but some of them will I think become friends, and some friends with whom I have lost touch will reappear here.  One of them just signed on as a friend today.  (Thank you, John.)

Gregarious people, well, God knows how many people they can keep track of with the new media.  I mean, with cell phones, email, text message, networks on the internet, even a cave dweller with an attitude problem should be good for several hundred.   

Your thoughts and ethnographic notes please.  I figure LinkedIn and Facebook by themselves should expand my personal Dunbar number well past 150.  How about you?

How networks work: FaceBook vs. LinkedIn

Facebook_ii I’ve been trying out Facebook.  (Some of you have yet to accept my invitation…or make one of your own.  This is so hurtful.  Never mind.  Let’s just move on.  You will or you won’t.  I can’t force you.)

Facework works well.  Better, I think, than LinkedIn.

Take the case of Kevin Slavin.  I heard Kevin speak in New York City in early March this year at PFSK.  I was wowed by his presentation.  I thought to myself this is one way to glimpse the future, listen to a real smart guy who has found a way to turn Manhattan into a large-scale, real-world game. 

But it doesn’t really matter how I impressed I was.  Four months later, Kevin was becoming an ever fainter memory.  I’ve been pinballing around Europe and North America.  And with a memory like mine, unless there is some kind of reinforcement, the node in memory slowly begins to…go…out.  (I was in fact beginning to forget about Kevin altogether when the idea for this blog occurred to me. )

Now, take the case of Ed Tam.  I meant Ed at Interesting2007, Russell Davies’ event in London last week.  Smart guy, really impressive.  I remember thinking, as we stood drinking at the bar, "geez, if ever there’s another Sir Martin Sorel, this could be the guy."  As it turns out, Ed is in transition and will be relocating to Hong Kong.  There’s a good chance I won’t ever see him again.  (Unless again he turns out to be the next Sir Martin Sorel.)  In fact, by October (4 months, from now)  there’s a good chance that Ed will be a diminished and diminishing memory, too. 

And this is where Facebook comes in.  Ed is now one of my friends on Facebook, so I keep seeing his name there.  And this is enough to persuade me (ok, I’m an idiot), that we are still in touch.  Now, if Ed had a real picture of himself (he uses a Wii image), I would have a still more vivid sense of him.  And if he posted his daily activities, as other friends do, I would have a really vivid sense.  I would now his life as well as I do that of Charles Frith. 

So, Facebook supplies the repetition and the additional details to allow the network and memory node to form.  And it turns out that this works not only for new acquaintances, but also for quite good friends.  Debbie Millman and I know one another quite well, but we travel in different orbits.  Having her on my Facebook list makes her more vivid too.

Facebook is better than LinkedIn in another way.  I’m persuaded that all this networking is going to pay off soon.  We will see it help to sort the world, so that we end up knowing more people who share our interests, and more people who have the interests we need to make our own.  As it stands, LinkedIn does not capture enough information to make this sorting possible.  Facebook, plainly, does.  See my StuffCloud for instance.  This is a list of the things that interest me.  One of these days it will be used to discover contacts in a way that LinkedIn, as it is now constituted, never can. 

As it stands, the difference between LinkedIn and Facebook is a little like the difference between Microsoft and Apple.  The first term in both cases is business like, narrow, not very imaginative, and it reduces our complexity so dramatically that it may record our social connections, but it is not likely to help us create them.  The second term is, well, a little more lifelike.   Like the networks we’re going to care about. 

Your invitation to happy hour

Smart_mobs This is an invitation to a "Happy Hour" being held today (Friday, June 22nd) from 6:00 onwards in New York City at Sweet & Vicious, 5 Spring Street, between Elizabeth and Bowery.  (See the map here.) 

The event is the brain child of Noah Brier, who suggested I might want to invite friends of my own.   I thought of you.   

I am not sure how Noah sees the event but I think of it as "smart mob" sociality, friends brought together without much notice at a public place to mingle with perfect strangers in a "buy your own drinks," "make your own fun," "bring your own friends" event. 

The only guarantee is the presence of lots of interesting, talkative people.  It would be great to see you there. 

No need to RSVP.  Just come it you feel like it!