tools: November 2004 Archives

Mecology revisited

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I've been thinking lately about the week-by-week for my spring course, and have been figuring out what the course requirements are going to be. First week, we'll spend the time with some of the applications (MT, Bloglines, Furl,, et al.) that I'll be asking them to use during the semester. At the same time, I'm mindful of the question that many of us academic bloggers are asked (and which Madeline and I talked about on Wednesday): where do you find the time to do all of it?

The obvious answer to this kind of question is that it's not really an addition on top of everything else, but a reordering of priorities, a revision of what, this summer, I called "mecology," or "the various ways that I manage and organize my space, time, resources, memory, information, etc." We're more familiar with the idea of a media ecology, a macroscopic network of various media that are both complementary and competitive, amidst which we locate ourselves. But lately, I've been thinking about mecology as the personal version of that--it's affected by the dynamics of the larger media and information ecologies, but there is a degree of agency involved as well.

I started thinking of this again while reading Ton Zijlstra's account of a workshop/discussion with Howard Rheingold:

One of the more interesting things to me was when Howard Rheingold showed us the tools he uses in his personal information strategy. For the bloggers in the room there really were not many surprises. RSS, BlogLines,, all with actual screenshots, came up. He stresses weblogs as his community filters for information. Most people I talk to blogs about seem to think they're publications, sources next to other sources like papers, where I see them as conversations. Howard spends some 4 hours in the morning engaging with his on-line community and sources of information, after which he spends the afernoon writing. He does keep an eye on IM and e-mail in the afternoon though.

Ton also observes "how little we actually talk about our info-strategies, and info-diet, and the tools we use for it," and part of this, I think, comes from the attitudes that danah boyd is critiquing over at Operating Manual for Social Tools:

The ways in which tools for mediated sociability are conceptualized and analyzed must shift. No longer can we simply study how the user interacts with the tool, but instead we must consider how people interact with each other and how the tool plays a part in that interaction. Note: people, not users. The tool is not a primary actor in sociability, but a tool that mediates. People should not be framed in terms of the tool, but the tool framed in terms of their use.

I tend to shy away from speaking in terms of tools, but that may just be my fondness for abstractions speaking. I'd say that the difference danah is writing about here is the difference between taking a pretty narrow, positivist vision of individual "tools" and adopting instead a vision that understands people at the center of individual mecologies, that include not only tools and texts, but other people as well, all densely interconnected. There are undoubtedly huge fields of overlap in use patterns, but I expect that there are also some significant differences in the ways that some of us take up certain media, applications, tools. I take danah to be claiming, in part, that it's a mistake to try and erase those differences in the name of usability or HCI.

Of course, there's a lot of inertia against this shift, and the question about "how we find the time" is symptomatic of it. And if there's a place where that inertia is drummed into us on a daily basis, it's academia, where we tend to think first in terms of "areas" to be "covered," as though blogging were something like 19th century poetry, an entirely separate area of inquiry, rather than something that cuts across the very activity of academic inquiry (or at least has the potential to do so). One advantage I'll have, though, is that at least some of the students will already have been blogging (testimonials!), so I won't have as tough a case to make. And to a degree, I'll be able to build this into course requirements, with the hopes that eventually, blogging and the like will become more than simply homework. And I think that one of the ways that'll happen will be for me to be more explicit about the ways that my own mecology has changed over the past year...



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This page is a archive of entries in the tools category from November 2004.

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