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Jazz as an Extended Metaphor for Social Computing

Research Report by Aaron McLeran
(created 5/17/09; version 1.0)

Related Categories: Social Networking Systems | Online Social Networking (Tools for Analyzing)

The Ontological Problem of Social Computing

At the UCSB’s Bluesky Social Computing Group, part of the University of California’s Transliteracies Project, we are tasked with the problem of researching the impact of social computing as a tool for collaborative research and to explore new ways in which social computing might be used in the future. We have been confronted with the problem of how to conceptualize what social computing means and what we mean when we talk about collaborative research. This issue is further exacerbated by the variety of social computing experiences; broadly considered, anything related to the internet, by definition, is a form of social computing. Recent efforts have focused on developing and applying a deeper understanding of ontological meaningfulness of concepts like a “person” and “relationships”. Most realizations of digital social networks have trivial and naive answers to these questions, a situation which fundamentally limits their usefulness. To this end, it has been suggested by Bluesky project leader and English department chair, Dr. Alan Liu, that new metaphors for social computing are needed.

The Need for a Good Metaphor

Metaphors economically map the cognitive associations and common experiences of one domain directly onto another, thereby possibly providing new and important insights. Just from reading the title of this paper, or just by saying, “social computing is jazz”, one immediately begins to make all kinds of associations and comparisons between jazz and social computing. Everyone already has some idea of what jazz is, so it is easy to come up with a list of attributes (e.g., improvised, self expressive, informal, collaborative) that might be associated, or mapped, to both jazz and social computing.

Metaphors also have the power to potentially unify disparate views and create common contexts for conversation. To clarify this idea, and demonstrate it at the same time, I’ll use a metaphor: they are a springboard with which to jump off. Metaphors have an added benefit as they seem to easily trigger further metaphorical connections, which in turn trigger other new ideas and raise more interesting questions previously not considered. There are many domains which can be metaphorically connected to jazz. This kind of association creates syllogistic metaphors: if A is a metaphor for B and B is a metaphor for C, is not A a metaphor for C? For example, language itself can be reasonably compared to jazz. In many ways, jazz is a kind of abstract musical language. Then, by syllogistic metaphorical comparison, perhaps social computing is a kind of abstract language.

However, if not careful, metaphors introduce distortion and confusion. Since no two domains are ever exactly the same, there are always implied associations where none exist. Indeed, there is a kind of metaphorical energy conservation in effect: the more clarity gained in some aspect of a domain is almost always at the expense of more confusion in another aspect of the same domain. Therefore, they should only be used as an intellectual tool, a catalyst for ideas, questions and conversation.

This essay will now explore a couple of interesting metaphorical mappings between social computing and jazz. They are not intended to be definitive explanations, nor are they necessarily exhaustive. The goal is to point out there are some fertile questions and ideas which arise when making the metaphorical comparison.

Works are Created Through Collaborations of Individual, Improvised Expressions

Traditionally, music is written as a static expression of a sole composer. The performers of such compositions have some license of expression but it is the composer who is in control of the musical content and, therefore, controls the expression. Analogously, books (or plays, essays, poems, etc.) are written by a single author (or group of authors) and exist as a singular static entities. An individual reading or speaking the words of the written work has some space for artistic license (ask any actor) but the words are essentially static and written by a sole entity.

Jazz, on other hand, focuses on dynamic and improvised musical collaboration between individuals of a group within a musical context and tradition. A context might be, for example, the melody and chord progression of a given song within a given stylistic idiom. Collectively, the performers create a piece which no individual performer or composer could have created alone.

In the context of social computing, the contributions of individuals (via comments, postings, links, etc.) within a given context (or site) create a collective work which none of the individual contributors could have created or imagined on their own. For example, on an amazon.com product page, there is a well-defined context (i.e., a product review) where individuals share their opinions in the comment section and give a product a rating. Comments, in this case, are the analog of improvisational expression.

Tradition and Etiquette Evolve Spontaneously

Jazz has a long history of evolving traditions. What defines a particular jazz idiom is its associated and usually unspecified stylistic norms. It is important that a jazz musician understands these norms and traditions (consciously or otherwise) in order to effectively contribute to a performance. For example, a musician must never interrupt and cut off another soloing musician in the middle of his or her solo. To do so is an insult and a clear sign of an amateur. As another simple example, consider “swing”. “Swing” is difficult to formally define and never actually notated in musical charts. It is a feel that is roughly characterized by a kind of long-short rhythmic pattern. The amount of swing (or the ratio of long to short) depends upon the musical context. It would complicate the notation and render it unreadable if a composer tried to exactly define the swinging rhythmic pattern. Thus, it is vital for a jazz musician to learn when and when not to “swing” a given figure in a composition and by how much.

Similarly, there is a set of unstated traditions and etiquette in social computing. These traditions can take the form of specific language and symbols, standard interfaces and layouts, or behavioral expectations. These traditions and norms are taken for granted and can be a source of frustration for people learning how to get involved in social computing for the first time. A “newbie”, for example, might think that writing in all caps socially acceptable. They are unaware that to do so is to indicate they are using a shouting or rude tone in their writing. Or, they might be totally perplexed at the extensive lexicon of acronyms and/or “emoticons” that are often used. They might not even be aware of the fact that at the bottom of the article they are reading that they are given the option to “comment” and share their opinion. The concept of tagging content for social bookmarking or photo-sharing might be as alien to them as micro-blogging via Twitter.

Though being ignorant of these socially evolved traditions does not directly harm individuals in either the case of jazz or in social computing contexts, they limit an individuals ability to progress in the social network: they make few friends, are invited to fewer social events (or in the case of jazz, gigs) and will therefore likely be frustrated.

Also, in both the case of jazz and in the case of online social networks, there are ways to learn about the traditions. An aspiring jazz musician learns from elder jazz musicians. They might attend jazz concerts or jam sessions or take private lessons. There are also many books they might read and learn from. In the case of social networking, there are websites which describe social networking etiquette.

Ability is Rewarded Based on Merit and Indicated by a Direct Feedback

During a live performance of jazz, it is a tradition that if an audience appreciates a particular soloist’s performance, they cheer and clap when the soloist finishes, even if the song is not over. The louder and more enthusiastic the clapping and cheering, the more the audience appreciates the solo. A poor performance might garner no claps or even boos. A performer who consistently garners a lot of cheers (or album sales) inevitably rises in social stature.

For most social computing contexts, this feedback between a social computing contributor (i.e., a blogger, commenter, etc) and the audience (or reader) exists in some form. For some social bookmarking or link-sharing sites (digg.com, reddit.com, etc), the audience shows their appreciation (or lack of appreciation) by using a voting system where you can give a thumbs up or a thumbs down to content. On amazon.com, the audience is asked how much a given user-submitted review was helpful. On other social computing sites, like delicious.com, appreciation is indicated by the number of people who tagged or bookmarked a particular piece of content. In all of these cases, the contributed content can be sorted according to its quality as indicated by audience approval. Though these mechanisms were invented as a means to easily find quality content, contributors who consistently provide quality content are given increasingly higher social status and rank.

Expression is Inherently informal

Though composed of numerous strong and well-established traditions, jazz is essentially informal. Unlike classical music, it developed in places such as dance clubs, speakeasies, and bars. Before the 1970s, there existed no formal institution to learn how to play jazz, nor were there any formalized statement of the “rules” or theory of jazz. In many cases, jazz broke rules of music theory and developed many practices which continue to defy musicological explanation. In the past, musicians learned jazz by being a part of the culture. The evaluation of quality was dependent solely on the assessment of audiences and other musicians – there was no authority establishment.

Social computing traditions are also informal and have developed independent of established authority. The practices of social computing have spontaneously evolved, adapting to the needs of individual communities, and are learned by practice and personal experience.

It is important to note that jazz, being an older tradition than social computing, has evolved to a state where there is indeed codified rules, theory, and established authority defining what is quality jazz. There are also countless books with theoretical explanations of how and why jazz works. For social computing, this process of theoretical deconstruction and imposed formalism is in its beginning stages.

Some Questions Which Arise From the Metaphor

Hopefully, the case has been made sufficiently to convince the reader that jazz can be a useful metaphor for social computing. As with all metaphors, it is imperfect. However, there are number of interesting questions which can be asked about social computing through considering the implications. As a demonstration of the branching inquiries that metaphors naturally and inevitably create, I’ll finish the article with a series of questions, some of which originate from my previous points while others are new. Though I could discuss these questions in much more depth in this article, I will leave them for future conversation and debate. Hopefully they will spark additional questions within the reader.

Jazz is composed of many individual genres and styles, all unified by the action of improvised personal expression. Are there similar genres in social computing? If so, what are they? And could they be unified in an analogous way?

In a jazz performance, there are specific rules and traditional roles for each member and instrument in a band. In a social computing context, are there clearly defined separate roles? What are they? What are the rules of behavior for these roles?

As previously mentioned, there has arisen in recent decades a set of codified formalism about jazz. There are now many universities with “jazz studies” degrees and there exist numerous books on jazz theory and methodology. This has resulted in widespread accessibility to learning how to play jazz. However, not all practicing jazz musicians consider this to be a favorable environment for the music. Many argue that it has contributed to the gentrification of jazz, forcing it to a less dynamic state. With clearly defined “right” and “wrong” ways of doing things, there is little room for further evolutionary development. Will there be a similar situation in the future with social computing? Will there be similar resistance to institutionalization and accessibility? What do we, as social computing researchers, want to see in the future? Is there some way to codify and formalize without causing stagnation or preventing innovation?

Jazz music is always expressed in the form of a band of musicians playing together to create a dynamic and spontaneous, collective artistic work. If the group plays together often, each musician learns each others style and, as a result develops a more cohesive musical unit, thereby creating more effective music. Can this also be true in social computing? Are there social computing “bands”? Can a social computing “band” improve the quality of the collective output? What would be the metaphorical equivalent in social computing for the jazz soloist?

  Kimberly Knight, 05.17.09

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