Archive for July, 2009

The commonly accepted rules of english, for better or worse

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

There is a certain breed of person, virulent online, that feels an uncontrollable urge to correct the grammar, pronunciation, mechanics, spelling, and general use of their language. They must think everyone should adhere to one set of rules for communicating. Usage of ‘whom’ is tantamount and all that.

However, rules of language change all the time. It’s not that they’re meant to be broken* but that subtle changes to how words are pronounced, spelled, even located in a sentence slowly move through a group of speakers. Sometimes it’s limited to a small subset, like a region or a subculture (like the Favrd Crowd). This is where I think a cognitive dissonance emerges within some people that compel them to get irate over perceived improper language usage. On the one hand, we need a set of rules to govern our methods of communication to decrease statement ambiguity and improve understanding; and yet sometimes the rules are accidentally broken, improperly learned, or otherwise distorted and somehow spread like a meme** so that to the users of the new rules they sound correct. I suspect that I regularly misuse ‘am’ and ‘are’ but I stick with whatever sounds best to me (so far no one’s called me on it).

I’m not suggesting there is a relativism to language. Language needs a commonly accepted set of guidelines for written and spoken communication lest society and even thoughts become meaningless. But the guidelines can’t possibly be set by any authoritative source; rather they are set by a specific group of speakers and accepted as soon as a new rule is understood. Most people understand ‘lol’ when spoken out loud – but that took years of communicating online with an ever-widening group of users.

Look at it this way: 200 years ago, no single person or organization decided that english speakers living in North America should have a unique pronunciation and subtly different set of rules for spelling and grammar than english speakers living in the British Isles. The natural change of guidelines that I described in the previous paragraph moved along separate paths. Granted, the rules for American english were standardized for many speakers with the arrival of Webster’s Dictionary – but the change had already happened***.

So, here’s what I’m trying to say: the next time you feel the need to correct someone’s use of language, consider your audience. They may be using a different dialect; those aren’t limited by geography anymore. If you can understand what they’re saying and they understand you, than you’re still using the same language. That’s the beauty of humanity’s greatest invention.

*I hope that sometime soon people will stop thinking that every rule in life is ‘meant to be broken.’ That kind of thinking is causing a breakdown of society in ways that remind me more of the period after the fall of Rome rather than the Free Love era of the sixties (and that didn’t turn out well either). I suspect that this is one of those situations where the language is affecting how we think.

**Maybe the spread of language rules are memes. The definition of a meme is still quite broad.

***How verbal American english diverged from standard english is still quite unknown. We’re not even sure how Americans sounded when Noah Webster published the first edition of his dictionary. Perhaps changes in speech will happen more slowly now that we have methods of recording how we sound? It’s certainly not slowing the change in written english.

Culture engines

Monday, July 27th, 2009


Culture engines are measurable groups of people who share a common set of values, tastes, and slang that become nebulous in creation of art, entertainment, and other culture artifacts. There is no way to predict when a culture engine will pop up, but their biggest cause is a period of ‘cultural drought’ where little to no lasting creative artifacts are made. For example, the stifling conformity of 1950s America not only caused the creation of the Beat Poets and their followers, but paved the way for the inevitable outpouring of originality of the 1960s.

The myth that geniuses are made in a vacuum, that their talents and abilities formed on their own is quickly going out of fashion (See Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers article and book). The truth is that many, many people are needed to create a genius – the most important is the late-stage group of competitive peers who encourage and foster even greater skill. This often happens in college, but can come from any group. Most of the members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus met at Cambridge or Oxford (though not all at the same college or the same time) and their collective growth in those schools created a common sense of humor and style; whereas the Beatles formed by the stunning chance of growing up in the same city (Liverpool) and with the same music scene (Mersey Beat).

The internet takes away a culture engine’s necessity of geographical proximity and increases the chances of bright people finding each other to such a degree that our collective creative output is exploding so there is no way for one person to survey the entire cultural landscape of Western Civilization. Sites like YouTube, Flickr, 4chan, DeviantArt, and Tumblr make it easy for people to share their creations with other like-minded people no matter where they live, and spread other ideas as well. But these sites are limited by the type of creative media, whether it’s photography, video, or memes make it easy to spread and share, but a culture engine needs something more to facilitate a cohesive group.

One major component is community. Websites can only go so far in bringing people together. Nothing has yet fully replaced the usefulness of face-to-face meetings, and conversations need space to grow in private, with sub-groups, factions, and distinct cooperative groups to help develop more complex creations.

I believe I’m witnessing the formation of a very powerful and potentially influential culture engine that combines Twitter and Tumblr with good old fashioned face-to-face community.

A little over a year ago a website launched that kept track of users’ starred or favorited tweets on Twitter. The site, Favrd, ranked tweets by how many stars they received and introduced competition to Twitter, when most people only used the site for boring updates on what they were doing. It wasn’t the first, and because it was limited only to users who registered on the site, it was far from the biggest. But a funny thing happened: users of Favrd, created a community of funny, smart people who used the site’s competition to foster even more creativity.

In late December and early January of this year, large numbers of Favrd users started using Tumblr, which created interconnected blogs geared towards short updates and sharing of found images, audio, video, etc. Usage within this group picked up even more when a ranking system was added, thus adding a similar competitiveness to Twitter. Tumblr also made it easier to share the non-tweet creativity within the group and there are a few people more popular on Tumblr as a result.

This perfect storm of technology only needed people motivated enough to exploit the idea fermentation that’s possible with this set up. Turns out, the smarts needed to get noticed on Favrd accurately picked out people who aren’t afraid of ‘wasting’ time making funny or entertaining things for their friends*. What’s making this group succeed as a culture engine is the numerous ways people are finding to meet and create projects together. There are teams making things like podcasts and comics. Many have taken their public conversations on Twitter and Tumblr private, through Twitter’s direct messages, instant messages, and even phone calls. More importantly, those that can are meeting other people from the Favrd site in person, at what are called ‘tweetups’ but are really just friendly get togethers, as most of these people share a great deal of their life online (I know more about some of my Twitter friends than some of my real-life friends…which means they’re no different from friends normally met). These in-person meetings help  forge deeper friendships which only help in allowing a faster spread of ideas and greater cooperation.

This group, which I’ll call the Favrd Crowd, at its current state is an example of a developing culture engine. It’s sucking in talent and spewing out art and entertainment, but its impact on the outside culture is minimal. What I predict will happen is that a few people within the group, blessed with extraordinary talents, will break out and become popular to the outside world. Their style will be clearly imprinted with influence from the Favrd Crowd and will in turn influence the  larger society.

Predicting who in the Favrd Crowd will be the breakout talent is tough. It will very likely begin in two waves: the first, where someone already highly popular within the group will get the attention of outsiders and launch their career, with moderate success; a little later, one or more people in the group who are more on the fringes and not highly known will break out on their own and prove to have much greater talent and originality and bring more attention to the group, which will launch careers of others. This has happened many times before* in other culture engines, so it’s only likely that the Favrd Crowd will grow in the same way. I have a few theories on who will break out, but I have a personal policy of not publicly announcing my predictions**.

There is a chance that the Favrd Crowd won’t have the influence of other culture engines. There have been many groups of talented people in history who have failed to make an impression on the greater population. But I’ve seen what some of these people are capable of accomplishing, and in a few years I expect alumni of the Favrd Crowd  to become visible and influential members of the cultural elite. And they will take the poop jokes, nonsense phrases, mild offensiveness, and a certain practical philosophy to the larger population and make a lasting cultural impression.

A guide to the Favrd Crowd

The first place to start is Favrd. The main page shows the latest tweets with three or more stars from other Twitter users. The Leaderboard shows the most starred tweets of the day. Those who consistently rank at the top of the leaderboard can be considered the epicenter of the Favrd Crowd, and if you want to join in on the fun, I suggest starting by following those people, then look for friends of theirs or others on Favrd with similar tastes in humor or tweets as yours.

Tumblr‘s directory and ranking of their blogs includes far more people than are actually in the Favrd Crowd, so here are what I consider a few of the most important Tumblr blogs of the Favrd Crowd:

Some of these sites also show what Tumblr blogs they are following, so I suggest you explore those to find more people in the group that may be to your liking.

Keep in mind that the group is larger than the number of relationships a normal person can conceivably keep track of***, so don’t feel obligated to follow everyone in the Favrd Crowd.

A special note to Favrd Crowd members:

I love all of you! If I didn’t mention your Tumblr, don’t take it personally: the right people will find your site regardless of who links to it.

*An often-heard comment about Twitter and Tumblr use by people who don’t spend much time with either tools is that those who are active on these sites are wasting their time making frivolous things. That’s unfortunate, because nearly all forms of entertainment and art are ‘frivolous’ and done in place of spending time on other ‘more important’ tasks.

**Contact me privately if you want to know my predictions.

***The number of relationships that a single person can keep track of is around 150. This is called Dunbar’s Number. You can keep track of more people – and technology can help extend that even further, but most people will be able to have meaningful relationships with about 150 people at a time.

(Edited to add to list of Tumblr blogs because it’s an excellent example of someone in the Favrd Crowd making great things and I wanted to include it in the original. Also removed second instance of