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Tagging as Social Expression June 29, 2007

Posted by matthewweber in appropriation, co-opt, language.
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When the Internet first exploded into households and office, bookmarks provided a convenient way to save favorite Web pages without memorizing URLs. No more than a decade later, the combined evolution of Web 2.0 and the growth of online tagging systems brings us a new concept: tagging as social expression. As UCLA researcher Alla Zoellers writes in a paper she presented at the WWW07 workshop in Banff, Canada, users have appropriated tagging as a forum for social conversations, political debates and collective action. Amazon.com’s new tagging system provides a good illustration; Barack Obama’s Audacity of Hope listing on Amazon is tagged with both “hope and redemption” and “check his voting record,” among other less-flattering comments. Of the 138 tags, most represent two sides of the polarized debate surrounding the 2008 elections.

While an interesting forum for debate, this also represents what I consider to be a “viral” course of appropriation. Bookmarks were first used as an organizational tool, but as more and more consumers have come online it became a venue for passing references back and forth. Bookmarks evolved to include tagging capabilities, allowing individuals to categorized and comment on saved items. But tagging was rapidly appropriated by the blog community as a term for social commentary. Hence today we have tagging as social expression. Sites such as del.icio.us provide forums for sharing your online “identity” through the digital trace of sites you’ve visited and the associated tags.

Looking forward, online and mobile social networks offer an interesting forum for trading ideas, evolving concepts and collectively discovering new uses for existing technology, much like an everyman’s USENET group.

Baroquize this! June 25, 2007

Posted by François in baroque, cultural references, language, re-make, writing process.

Suppliers yearn for user appropriation, but not just any kind of appropriation. Designers lay out careful scripts for users to re-make the products they adopt into something that is uniquely theirs. Phone makers want customers not simply to adopt a handset, but to personalize it with distinctive covers and straps, to program its short-cut keys, to inscribe its memory with their own address-book or calendar. Take Boost mobile, abaporu’s favorite MVNO: once you have bought their phone, the Boost brochure invites you to “make it your own” with call-tones, ring-tones, and wallpapers (yet omits to mention that you can personalize it further by installing mologogo, a free alternative to Boost’s own fee-based location service.) Suppliers thus intentionally carve out blank spaces within their designs, then invite users to infiltrate these spaces with their own data and decorations.

This particular appropriation mode, in which users follow the script laid out for them by suppliers, echoes a well-trodden cultural appropriation practice: baroque infiltration. During the colonization of Latin America, the Roman Catholic church was eager for local people to make the Catholic religion their own. To nurture the process, repeating a strategy used in Europe during the counter-reformation, Rome left spaces open on its monuments and in its ceremonies. Thus, the invaders set forth opportunities for the invaded to state their presence, infiltrate their messages, suggest their cosmovisions. Such “baroque infiltration”, Rome reasoned, would allow indigenous people to appropriate European culture and religion, but to do so safely, according to Rome’s own blueprint. In The Buried Mirror, Carlos Fuentes describes the results of this appropriation practice in the creations of José Kondori, the Quechua architect who built “the magnificent churches of Potosí, undoubtedly the most brilliant illustration of the meaning of the baroque in Latin America”.

“Among the angels and the vines of the façade of San Lorenzo, an Indian princess appears, and all the symbols of the defeated Incan culture are given a new lease on life. The Indian half-moon disturbs the traditional serenity of the Corinthian vine. American jungle leaves and Mediterranean clover intertwine. The sirens of Ulysses play the Peruvian guitar. And the flora, the fauna, the music, and even the sun of the ancient Indian world are forcefully asserted. There shall be no European culture in the New World unless all of these, our native symbols, are admitted on an equal footing.”
Carlos Fuentes (1999) The Buried Mirror – Reflections on Spain and the New World, Houghton Mifflin. p.196 (*)

Of course, Rome was perhaps naïve to think the locals would remain docile and stop there. Fuentes, along with others such as José Lezama Lima, go on to describe how baroque practices can overtake the very objects they infiltrate. Natives, Africans and criollos in Latin America learned to create a baroque within the baroque, appropriating the process itself into an art of contraconquista. This is a story for another day…

For the moment, we simply want to point out the striking parallel between “baroque infiltration” and the business strategies through which technology suppliers lay out a script for users to re-make their products. There is no good verb in English to describe the resulting user practice – personalize, fill-in, infiltrate, decorate, layer… each captures a dimension of the process but not its essence. So, we need to coin a new verb:

to baroquize (v.t.) = to re-make into one’s own, following an appropriation script proposed by the provider.

While “baroquize” doesn’t yet exist in English, we feel encouraged to proceed by our readers’ comments, who point out that barroquisar, barroquizar, and baroquiser do exist in Portuguese, Spanish and French. It must have been an oversight.

(*) “Pues entre los ángeles y las viñas de la fachada de San Lorenzo, aparece una princesa incásica, con todos los símbolos de su cultura derrotada animados por una nueva promesa de vida. La media luna indígena agota la tradicional serenidad de la viña corintia, el follaje de la selva americana y el trébol mediterráneo se entrelazan. Las sirenas de Ulises tocan la guitarra peruana. Y la flora, la fauna, la música e incluso el sol del antiguo mundo indígena, se reafirman con fuerza. No habría cultura europea en el Nuevo Mundo a menos que éstos, nuestros símbolos nativos, sean admitidos en pie de igualdad.” (Carlos Fuentes, El Espejo Enterrado p. 282)

“je l’ai bipé, il m’a raplé”: appropriation by naming June 9, 2007

Posted by François in appropriation, creolization, language.

An important way in which people appropriate technology is by naming what they do with it. Take for example the well-established practice of communicating through “missed calls” –dialing and hanging-up right away before the correspondent picks up. This is free, since there is no actual call, and it leaves a trace in the form of a ‘missed call message’. Depending on the context, it can mean anything from “call me back” to “I’m thinking of you” or “pick me up at the train station.” In Africa’s English-speaking countries, this is usually called “beeping” or “flashing”, a practical verb: “I’ll beep you when I get there”, or “he keeps flashing me.”

In French, my nephews tell me that their friends use “biper” in the same way: “je l’ai bipé, il m’a raplé.” They also use “faire sonner” (“make ring”) as in “il m’a fait sonner une fois dans la galerie marchande“, or simply “sonner”: ” Il m’a sonné today pour le revoir, ça me fait ultra plaisir“. Others use the much more cumbersome “appel en absence” (that’s the way the phone company names these missed calls, litterally “call while absent”), as in “tu l’as relancé avec un appel en absence et il a pas répondu” or “je sentais bien à ses 7 appels en absence qu’elle commençait à s’impatienter!”

Spanish has a varied and creative vocabulary: people have contracted the “llamadas perdidas” (“lost calls”) into the noun “llamper” as in “hazme una llamper y hablamos un ratillo“, also sometimes spelled “jumper”; Pixel y Dixel collected the following: “la del gitano”, “la cobra”, “toque”, “una perdida”, “llamacuelga”, “manco” as in “hacerse el manco”, “la del manco” o “llamada manca”, “mansajitos misios.” In Chile, it is “pinchar” as in “No….no hay forma que este personaje me esté pinchando…no way” (“pinchar” means “to poke” or “to prick”, as well as “to click with a mouse”, as in “pinchar sobre File” – Wikipedia notes that in Chilean slang, “pinchar” also means “to make-out or hook-up sexually” I wonder if there is a connection…)

What do you call this in your neighborhood?