Alignment Diagrams

Written by: Jim Kalbach

Alignment diagramsDid you ever get bounced around between departments when interacting with a company or service? This happened to me recently with my credit card: the card issuer and the bank backing it seemed to disagree who was responsible for my problem. Each blamed the other. I got caught in the middle.

My communication with them also crossed multiple channels. For some things I used their website, for others I had to call. There were emails, regular mail and even a fax involved as well. None of it seemed coordinated. Apparently it was my job to piece it together. Bad experience.

Why does this happen? All too often companies are focused on their own processes, wrapped up in a type of organizational navel gazing. They simply don’t know what customers actually go through.

What’s more, logical solutions can cross departmental lines. Ideal solutions may require crossing those boundaries. An organization’s rigid decision making makes that difficult.

Here’s where I believe IAs and UX designers can use our skills to make a difference. We have the ability to understand and to map out both business processes and the user experience. Visual representations can provide new insight into solutions that appeal to a range of stakeholders. Alignment diagrams are a key tool to do this.

Mapping The Experience

Alignment diagrams reveal the touchpoints between a customer and a business. Illustrating these helps a company shift its inward-focusing perspectives outward. Alignment diagrams make the value creation chain visible.

The phrase “alignment diagrams” describes a class of documents that reveal the touchpoints between a customer and a business. These touchpoints are organized and visually aligned in a single graphical overview. Illustrating these touchpoints helps a company shift its inherently inward-focusing perspectives outward. Alignment diagrams make the value creation chain visible from both sides of the fence.

Alignment diagrams are not new. In fact, you’ve already used them. Thus my definition of alignment diagrams does not introduce a new technique but rather recognizes how existing techniques can be seen in a new, constructive way.

Alignment diagrams have two major parts. On the one side, they illustrate various aspects of user behavior—actions, thoughts, and feelings, among other aspects of their experience. On the other side, alignment diagrams reflect a company’s offerings and business process in some way. The areas where the two halves meet gives rise to touchpoints, or the interactions between customers and an organization.

Below are examples of two diagrams that illustrate the alignment principle.

Example 1: Service Blueprint

The first example is a service blueprint created by Brandon Schauer of Adaptive Path (Figure 1.). This shows the chronological flow of steps for attending a live event, in this case a panel on service design. (See the original details of the event from 2009 [1]).

The top two rows show the phases and physical devices a participant might use. We can call this the “front stage.” The bottom three rows show the activities of the organizer. These are “backstage” activities. These two parts are separated by the “line of interaction,” or touchpoints between participants and organizer of the event.
Service map

Figure 1: An example of a simple service blueprint by Brand Schauer, Adaptive Path


Example 2: Mental Model Diagram

The next example of an alignment diagram is a mental model. Indi Young developed this technique and detailed it in her book Mental Models (Rosenfeld Media, 2008) [2].

Figure 2 is a slightly simplified version of a mental model diagram, but it shows the alignment principle well. This example shows a mental model for activities related to “getting up in the morning.” The top half hierarchically arranges user actions, thoughts and feelings gleaned from primary research. These are clustered together into broader “goal spaces” (e.g., “Get Dressed”).

Below the center horizontal line are products and services that support people in these activities. With this alignment, providers of goods and services can see where they address user needs and where there are gaps.
Mental model

Figure 2: An example of a mental model diagram by Indi Young, reflecting the alignment principle.


There are other visual styles and approaches to alignment diagrams beyond the above figures. (See the list of Alignment Diagram resources at the end of this article.) Customer journey maps and workflow diagrams are also examples. So there is no single approach to the alignment technique. Instead, you choose the form, the information included, and the way you present them to shape your overall message. It depends on your situation. The important thing to remember is that an alignment diagram shows user behavior aligned to business activity to reveal touchpoints.

Locating Value

An analysis of the touchpoints between users and the business lets us see value creation from both sides of the equation at the same time. This is at the core of the alignment technique.

Businesses ultimately need to earn money. But to do so they also have to provide some value to customers. An analysis of the touchpoints between users and the business lets us see value creation from both sides of the equation at the same time. This is at the core of the alignment technique.

In a previous Boxes and Arrows article entitled “Searching for the Center of Design,” Jess McMullin proposes what he calls “value-centered design.” [3] Instead of focusing solely on the business or solely on users, Jess advocates focusing on how value is created for both. “Value-centered design” is the approach he prefers. He writes:

The basic premise of value-centered design is that shared value is the center of design. This value comes from the intersection of: business goals and context, individual goals and context, and the offering…and delivery.

Value-centered design starts a story about an ideal interaction between an individual and an organization and the benefits each realizes from that interaction.

Jess McMullin, “Searching for the center of design”, Boxes and Arrows, 2003.

Alignment diagrams let us tell the story of value creation.

Once completed, alignment diagrams serve as diagnostic tools. With them we can spot and prioritize areas for improvement. They also point to opportunities for innovation and growth. Ultimately, alignment diagrams let designers capture and reflect how value is created in a holistic way. When communicated to decision makers, this can have real business impact by changing the focus from how products are made to the experience customers have.

Who Creates Alignment Diagrams?

Modern business challenges are wicked problems. Organizations unknowingly pass this complexity on to customers, resulting in negative user experiences. Alignment diagrams can reduce complexity for both customers and for organizations. They are an antidote to the challenges our business partners face.

The good news is you probably already have the skills needed to create alignment diagrams. These include:

1. Conducting Research

Alignment diagrams are not made up. They are based on real data. Face-to-face interviews and observation work best. This includes contacting people on the business side: stakeholder research is part of the alignment technique.

2. Synthesizing Findings

Designers are good at describing abstract concepts, such as an intended experience. We’re able to empathize with users and summarize their perspective well. And we can communicate this back to our business partners in a way they can understand.

3. Visualizing Information

Alignment diagrams are visual stories. Designers are good at representing ideas in graphic form. The visual nature of alignment diagrams makes them compact and immediately understandable.

4. Brainstorming

Alignment diagrams serve as an excellent stimulus for a workshop or brainstorming session. Designers have the skills to creatively brainstorm and lead such sessions.

5. Prototyping Solutions

Exploring different directions is a key aspect of “design thinking.” Designers are well-versed in trying out different options—from sketching to wireframing to prototyping.

Keep in mind that the lines between design-related disciplines are blurring. Service designers increasingly use online services and digital kiosks in their concepts. UX designers must be able to integrate offline support and services into their solutions. IAs need to be able to structure information across channels, including physical spaces. Interaction designers must conceive of workflows and actions across media types and devices.

In the end, alignment diagrams aren’t the domain of one field or the other: they can inform any field. The skills needed to create them, listed above, cross these lines as well.

Getting Started

Alignment diagrams start a conversation towards coherence, bringing actions, thoughts, and people together to foster consensus. More importantly, they focus on creating value—for both the customer and the business.

Understanding the mechanics of alignment diagrams is fairly straight forward. The hard part is getting your foot in the door. Often designers aren’t called in until after a project is already set up. Alignment diagrams, however, really need to impact decisions much earlier in the process—before a project even starts. This means you need to “swim upstream” and reach out to a potentially new set of stakeholders.

For designers in internal teams, you may have access to managers, product owners and other executives who could benefit from alignment diagrams at a strategic level. For external consultants, pitching a case for an alignment diagram effort may be harder: reaching high-level decision makers is difficult. Either way, you’ll need to effectively evangelize alignment diagrams in order to get the time and money to complete one.

Here are some things you can do to get started:

1. Learn about alignment diagrams.

Start by reading books like Indi Young’s Mental Models. Or, check out things like my resources on customer journey mapping on the web [4]. I also have a presentation [5] and an article [6] coauthored with Paul Kahn specifically on alignment diagrams.

2. Sketch draft diagrams for your current project.

What story could you tell on your current project to show where customer value and business value is located? How would best visualize that story in a diagram? Even without any official project scope or user research, you can sketch out a rough map showing the facets of information you’d include, where alignment occurs, and how you would visually convey your message. This is practice in understanding the alignment technique.

3. Complete an alignment diagram “under the wire.”

A formal alignment diagram must be based on real evidence. But this evidence could come from a variety of sources. A high-level customer journey map, for instance, could be created with data from existing research. Or, try adding a few simple questions your next usability test to understand users’ interaction with a service. Create a draft diagram from this data as you do other types of analysis. Present this to stakeholders. It’s likely they’ll find it interesting and ask for more.

4. Find a champion in management.

Seek out business partners who might “get” alignment diagrams. Discuss the possibility of a pilot project with them. For the cost of a normal usability test, for instance, you could create a simple alignment diagram. Unlike outcomes from other types of research, such as marketing studies or usability tests, alignment diagrams do not change very quickly. Be sure to highlight the longevity of an alignment diagram effort to sponsors, and remind them they’ll be able to refer to the information years later.


If you’re interested in learning more about alignment diagrams, James Kalbach has scheduled workshops in Prague and London:

Keep an eye on the Boxes and Arrows Events Calendar for more.


Truth is, the business world is becoming increasingly complex. Studies in business complexity show that leaders are unable to cope: they are pulled in different directions and unable to focus [7, 8]. Modern business challenges are wicked problems. All too often, organizations unknowingly pass this complexity on to customers, resulting in negative user experiences.

While they do not guarantee success, alignment diagrams can reduce complexity for both customers and for organizations. They are an antidote to the challenges our business partners face. At a minimum, alignment diagrams start a conversation towards coherence, bringing actions, thoughts, and people together to foster consensus. More importantly, they focus on creating value—for both the customer and the business.

Designers can use their skills to map out value creation and help solve business problems. Empathizing with users and illustrating out their experiences plays a big role. Visualizing touchpoints provides an immediate “big picture” often lacking in many organizations. This can provide a much-needed shift of attention from inside-out to outside-in. Alignment diagrams are a class of documents that seek to address the causes of poor experiences at their roots and ultimately help designers have a real business impact.


[1] Brandon Schauer, Service Blueprint,

[2] Indi Young, Mental Models (Rosenfeld Media, 2008).

[3] Jess McMullin, “Searching for the Center of Design,” Boxes and Arrows (Sept 2003).

[4] James Kalbach, “Customer Journey Mapping Resources on the Web.”

[5] James Kalbach, “Alignment Diagrams: Strategic UX Deliverables,” Euro IA Conference (Paris, 2010).

[6] James Kalbach and Paul Kahn, “Locating Value with Alignment Diagrams,” Parsons Journal of Information Mapping (April 2010).

[7] IBM, “Capitalizing on Complexity,” (2010).

[8] Booz & Co, “Executives Say They’re Pulled in Too Many Directions and That Their Company’s Capabilities Don’t Support Their Strategy,” (Feb 2011).

Emotional Design with A.C.T. – Part 1

Written by: Trevor van Gorp

As UX professionals, we strive to design engaging experiences. These experiences help to forge relationships between the products we create and the people who use them. Whether you’re designing a website or a physical product, the formation of a relationship depends on how useful, usable and pleasurable the experience is. Ultimately, we form relationships with products and services for the same reasons we form relationships with people:

  • Pleasurable products are attractive and make us feel good. Attractive people can have the same effect.
  • Usable products are easy to interact with and easy to understand. Good conversationalists are the same.
  • Useful products fulfill our needs in a way that leaves us emotionally satisfied in the long term. Long-term relationships can fulfill our physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual needs.

In a previous article on Boxes and Arrows (Design for Emotion and Flow), I talked about the importance of balancing users’ emotional states to command attention and create flow: the mental/emotional experience where all the user’s attention is totally focused on an activity. The total engagement of the flow experience is highly immersive and encourages user loyalty. The experience of flow during interaction can be seen as one of the foundations for the formation of an ongoing relationship.

In Part 1 of this two-part article, I’ll be discussing how emotions command attention. Then, we’ll dive deeper to explore how design elicits and communicates emotion and personality to users. Emotions result in the experience of pleasure or pain that commands attention. The different dimensions of emotion affect different aspects of behavior as well as communicating personality over time. In Part 2, I’ll introduce a framework for describing the formation of relationships between people and the products they use.


Defining “Affective Design”

Some time ago, a friend offered me a ride home after work. I got into her SUV and sat down, ready for the short ride. After a few minutes, an annoying beeping sound started. “Oh,” she said, “You’ll need to fasten your seatbelt to make that irritating noise stop.” Grudgingly, I did up my seatbelt and the noise ceased, but the beeping had accomplished its purpose; I fastened my seatbelt.

This is an example of affective design: design that’s intentionally created to capture the user’s attention, triggering an emotional response that will increase the likelihood of performing a certain behavior. The emotional response can be conscious or unconscious. For example, a brightly colored button will attract users’ attention unconsciously by affecting the degree of arousal (i.e. physical stimulation). And the behavior could be any action, from clicking a button or signing up for a newsletter, to making a purchase online.

To make the unpleasant sound in my friend’s SUV stop, I had to perform a particular behavior. In this case, the stimulus was the unpleasant beeping sound, which triggered my annoyance and led me to fasten my seatbelt. With your latest web app, the stimulus is likely visual, rather than auditory, but the energy that it commands is the same. One thing these stimuli have in common is that they demand and command your attention.



Attention has been described as psychic energy.1 Like energy in the traditional sense, no work can be done without it, and through work that energy is consumed. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) named the mental/emotional state where all our attention is totally focused on an activity “Flow”. Flow is a highly engaging experience, and strong emotional engagement demands and narrows the user’s attention. In order for users to accomplish their tasks and attain Flow, we need to capture and hold their attention by managing the design of their emotional experiences.

The products we design need to attract users based on how they look and sound, persuading them (via their feelings) to approach or avoid. They also need to converse with the people using them. The way these products interact should persuade users to take particular actions in predetermined sequences, while also affording users a feeling of control. If we’ve done our jobs correctly, the result is that users will commit and transact with our system; they click the button, subscribe to the newsletter, make the purchase or book the flight.

These events mark the formation of a relationship between the user and the product or application. Each experience with a company’s products or services shapes the user’s relationship with the company’s brand. In order to build positive brand relationships, companies need to effectively manage the user’s emotional experiences during every encounter with their products or service channels. As we’ll see, the consistent expression of a particular emotion is perceived as a personality trait, and our personality traits determine the relationships we form.


Dimensions of Emotion

To understand how emotional expression becomes personality, we first need to understand emotion itself. All emotional or affective states can be described in terms of two underlying dimensions: value and arousal. “Value” judgments are judgments of good vs. bad. We tend to base these conscious judgments on whether something is pleasant or unpleasant.

“Arousal” has been used to refer to the unconscious activation of the body, the brain or a particular behavior.2 It has been defined by levels of anxiety vs. boredom,3 and we can measure it by monitoring heart rate, respiration, blood pressure and skin conductance. To simplify it, you can think of arousal as the level of stimulation or activation. When we combine these two dimensions of emotion (i.e. the conscious & cognitive, and the unconscious & physical) we get a circular model of emotion.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Affect Circumplex (Van Gorp, 2006 adapted from Russell, 1980)3

Because arousal is largely unconscious, it provides an especially powerful channel for designers to command attention and influence behavior. For example, large images, bright saturated colors and high contrast all increase arousal levels. Increasing the size of an image and moving anyone in it closer within the frame will increase arousal levels.4 When the level of arousal increases, the focus of attention narrows and goes to whatever is causing the stimulation. A good example of this is a stop sign, which uses a bright red to command attention within the busy visual environment of the street.

During the product development process, there is often a disconnect between design, marketing and usability for this very reason. Visual designers and marketers are often focused on increasing arousal through the attention grabbing emotional-impact of bright colors and large images, while usability analysts are focused on controlling arousal and reducing negative emotions by ensuring task completion.


Dimensions of Behavior

Each dimension of emotion affects a different aspect of behavior. Value affects whether we approach (i.e. pleasure) or avoid (i.e. pain), while arousal levels influence how motivated we are to do either. Both pleasant and unpleasant objects and experiences can increase arousal levels. For example, fear and excitement are both high arousal emotions. The level of arousal also affects how intensely we experience a given emotion, and the more intense the emotion, the more attention is demanded. Arousal also affects our level of motivation. Low anxiety or boredom results in low motivation, while higher anxiety results in higher motivation. This continues to an optimum level (i.e. the balance of Flow), after which motivation and performance decrease, while anxiety increases.

Figure 2: Behavior & Motivation Circumplex (adapted from Russell, 19803 ; van Gorp, 20064)

In the case of the annoying sound in my friend’s SUV, the value of the noise was negative (i.e. unpleasant). This unpleasant feeling creates the urge to avoid. If the volume of the noise had increased, or the rate of the beeping had sped up, this would have unconsciously increased arousal levels, further increasing my motivation to avoid the noise or make it stop.

This is a very simple example within the relatively controlled context of a vehicle, but what happens when the context becomes more layered or complex? What happens when the design is visual and interactive? As we’ll see later, that’s when simple emotional expressions are perceived as personalities.


Emotion and Personality

Humans are such social beings that we perceive the expression of emotion in everything, including products, objects and websites. Because products usually remain the same, any perceived emotional expression becomes a perceived personality trait over time. The person who appears down or sullen the first time you meet is expressing an emotion — sadness. When that same person appears sad the next 20 times you meet, he or she is likely to be seen as “depressed”. When it comes to products and websites, we can think of a personality trait as the long-term expression of a particular emotion. Take a look at the video below to get a better idea.

Figure 3: American Express Video

As human beings, we assign personalities to objects, interfaces and websites based on the way they behave and appeal to our senses. Even though we consciously know that computers and media are not animate and do not have feelings, we still respond socially and automatically when viewing, interacting and evaluating them.5 It has been suggested that products should be viewed as “living objects with which people have relationships.”6 Through the relationships that are formed by using products, people can be made to feel happy or sad, angry or passive, relaxed or anxious, proud or ashamed, and motivated or demotivated.


Personality Traits and Relationships

Like perceptions of emotion, our first impressions of personality are based on the information received by our senses (i.e. sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch). These impressions are formed quickly and unconsciously. With websites and applications, personality is inferred from the use of language, user prompts, sounds, navigation, proportions, layout, contrast, color, images and fonts that comprise the formal properties of the design. In fact, these perceptions of personality are so automatic and unconscious, they occur regardless of whether the people experiencing them believe they are appropriate. Other, more conscious decisions about personality are based on how the object we interact with behaves over time.

In human relationships, personality traits are an important part of attraction and conversation. They shape our relationships by determining who we like and what we expect from those we encounter. They also influence how well we get along with others. In this respect, perceived personalities in products and websites are no different. Unlike us, however, product personalities can exist in fictional worlds and be controlled by designers so that they appear at particular times and places. They can often be simpler, more consistent and more easily identifiable than real personalities, reducing uncertainty and promoting trust.5


Dimensions of Personality

Although human personality traits are complex, psychologists have grouped product personalities into a small number of categories that have a similar character. They’ve identified two major dimensions of personality that are readily assigned to products, computers and interfaces by users: dominant vs. submissive5 and friendly vs. unfriendly.7

Figure 4

Figure 4: Personality Circumplex (adapted from Reeves & Nass, 19985; van Gorp, 20064)

Take a look at the simple objects below. Are they expressing emotion? As static objects, any emotions they’re expressing will remain consistent over time. If the major dimensions of personality are friendliness and dominance, which object do you perceive to be friendlier? Which do you perceive is more dominant? Check the comments people left below the photos. Happiness is associated with a friendly demeanor, pleasure and approach behaviors, while sadness is associated with unfriendliness, pain and avoidance.

Figure 5: Objects Displaying Personality – (photos courtesy of Jim Leftwich)


Designing Personality: Dominant or Submissive?

Dominant visual features could be described as angular, straight, cold/cool, dark, silver, black…with a heavy base. Submissive visual features could be described as round, warm, light/lucid, soft/delicate, golden.8 When a personality is not represented with overt dominant visual or interactive characteristics, the tendency is to describe it as more submissive. Of the two sites in Figure 6, which site is more dominant and which is more submissive? Which site is friendly and which is unfriendly?

Figure 6: Martha Steward and WWE – Submissive and Dominant Designs

Notice which one of the sites above you’re more naturally attracted to. Which one do you feel more compelled to approach or avoid? Which one naturally grabs more of your attention? How well do these sites match the likely personalities of their target audiences? Generally speaking, you can attract the user by presenting a visual personality that is similar to his or her own. When it comes to attraction, we’re attracted to things that look similar to the way we are, or the way we’d like to see ourselves.


Friendly or Unfriendly?

Friendly visual features could be described as positive, while unfriendly visual features could be described as negative. Friendliness is not only determined by what is said, but also by how it is said (i.e. the tone of the conversation). Our tendency to assign and characterize personality based on conversation is easily recognizable in the example below. This example uses contrast, visual weight, , color value, size and typography to alter the meaning that is conveyed by the words. The content conveys the message, but the look and feel change how that message is interpreted, altering the meaning.

Which of the statements below would you rather hold a conversation with? Which one do you feel more compelled to approach or avoid? Which one naturally grabs more of your attention? When it comes to conversation, someone has to lead, and opposites attract.

Figure 7: Personality and Meaning4

Similar or Complementary?

Similarity is the theory that people are more attracted to those with personalities similar to their own, over those who display different personalities.5 Complementarity is the theory that people are attracted to people with personalities that complement their own level of dominance or submissiveness (Markey 20079; Personality Research10). It comes down to the old question of whether relationships work better when people are the same or opposite? And the answer is yes.

When it comes to personalities, different things stir our emotions at different stages of a relationship. Researchers found that Similarity takes precedence early in relationships, playing a vital role in initial attraction. Complementarity becomes more important as relationships develop over time.11 People in long-term relationships are more satisfied when their partners are either more or less dominant than they are. Two dominant persons may experience conflicts as both attempt to lead, while two submissive individuals may lack initiative, as neither is willing to lead. (Markey 20079; Wikipedia 200912)

Generally speaking, interaction between the system and the user should be complementary, where the user takes up the dominant role, while the product, interface or service takes on the submissive role. These roles might flip in the case of a guided tour, or an application where the system is guiding the process or has an air of authority.



In Part 1, we learned that emotion commands attention. We also learned that affective design is a term used to describe design created to intentionally capture the user’s attention and trigger an emotional response that will increase the likelihood of the user performing a desired behavior.

The value dimension of emotion influences our behavior (i.e. whether we approach or avoid), while the arousal dimension influences how motivated we are to do either. Emotions influence different aspects of behavior, and their expressions are perceived as different aspects of personality over time. Value influences the perception of friendliness, while arousal influences the perception of dominance.

Emotions, Behavior & Motivation and Personality
Figure 8: Emotions, Behavior & Motivation and Personality4

And finally, we learned that customers are attracted to things that they perceive have a personality similar to their own. Over time however, they prefer to interact with things that take up a role which is complementary to their own.

Useful, usable and pleasurable experiences help facilitate the formation of relationships. In Part 2, we’ll look at the different ways people experience love to get an even better understanding of how relationships form. Then, I’ll introduce a new framework that describes how to systematically provide experiences in the different ways that are necessary to form relationships.


1Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial.

2Cacioppo, J. T., and Petty, R. E. (1989). The Elaboration Likelihood Model: The Role of Affect and Affect-laden Information Processing in Persuasion. In A. Tybout and P. Cafferata (Eds.), Cognitive and Affective Responses to Advertising (69-89). Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

3Russell, J. A. (1980). A Circumplex Model of Affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 1161-1178.

4Van Gorp, Trevor, J. (2006). Emotion, Arousal, Attention and Flow: Chaining Emotional States to Improve Human-Computer Interaction. University of Calgary, Faculty of Environmental Design, Master’s Degree Project.

5Reeves, Byron and C. Nass. (1998). The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television and New Media Like Real People and Places. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

6Jordan, Patrick, W. (2000). Designing Pleasurable Products. London: Taylor & Francis.

7Desmet, Pieter, R. (2002). Designing Emotions. Pieter Desmet. Delft.

8Wellman, Katrin and Ralph Bruder, Karen Oltersdorf. (2004). Gender Designs: Aspects of Gender Found in the Design of Perfume Bottles. In D. McDonagh and P. Hekkert, (Eds.), Design and Emotion: The Experience of Everyday Things. New York: Taylor & Francis.

9Markey, P.M.& Markey, C. N. (2007). Romantic Ideals, Romantic Obtainment, and Relationship Experiences: The Complementarity of Interpersonal Traits among Romantic Partners. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 24(4), 517-533.

10Personality Research. (August 1999). Interpersonal Complemetarity. Retrieved December 19, 2009, from Personality Research.

11Vinacke, W. E., Shannon, K., Palazzo,V, Balsavage,L., et-al. (1988). Similarity and Complementarity in Intimate Couples. Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs, 114, 51-76.

12Wikipedia (2010, January 2). Interpersonal Attraction. Retrieved March 18, 2009, from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

IA Summit 10 – Richard Saul Wurman Keynote

Written by: Jeff Parks

IA Summit 2010

This year marks the 11th annual Information Architecture Summit. Our theme is meant to inspire everyone in the community—even those who aren’t presenting or volunteering—to bring their best ideas to the table.

As busy practitioners, we rarely have the chance to step back and think about the future of our field—we’re too busy resolving day-to-day issues. By gathering and sharing practical solutions for everyday challenges, we can create more breathing room to plan for what’s to come.

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iTunes     2010 IA Summit theme music generously provided by Bumper Tunes


| “Day 1 Keynote – Dan Roam”: | Day 2 Keynote – Richard Saul Wurman | “Day 3 – Whitney Hess”: |

Full Program

| “Day 1“: | “Day 2“: | “Day 3“: |

Day Two Keynote – Richard Saul Wurman

Richard Saul Wurman encourages the design community to take initiative and solve big problems rather than make small changes incrementally.

With the majority of the earth’s population now living in cities, Richard Saul Wurman realized there was a yawning information gap about the urban super centers that are increasingly driving modern culture.

In this keynote presentation from the 2010 IA Summit, Mr. Wurman discusses his 19.20.21 initiative: an attempt to standardize a methodology to understand comparative data on 19 cities that will have 20 million or more inhabitants in the 21st century. He encourages the design community to take initiative and solve big problems rather than make small changes incrementally.

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Transcript of Richard Saul Wurman Keynote from Day 2 of the 2010 IA Summit in Phoenix, Arizona.

Announcer: In this keynote presentation from the 2010 IA summit Mr. Wurman discusses his 19.20.21 initiative an attempt to standardize a methodology to understand comparative data on 19 cities that have 20,000,000 or more inhabitants in the 21st century. I hope everyone enjoys the podcast. Cheers. Richard.
Richard Saul Wurman: May I introduce the person who’s going to introduce me?

Dan Klyn: Thank you.
Richard Saul Wurman: Go, Dan.
Dan Klyn: Thanks. In a book he published 14 years ago Richard Saul Wurman described information architects as the people who understand and organize the patterns inherent in data. Information architects, he wrote, are the people who create systematic, structural, and orderly principles to make something work. Making the complex clear. His life and work provide a blueprint for how to do this work. It’s not the only way to do this work, but it’s a really good way. Ladies and gentleman, please join me in welcoming Richard Saul Wurman.
Richard Saul Wurman: Not a standing ovation, but genuine.
Richard Saul Wurman: I’m going to start with one quite brief story and then a slightly longer story. Then, I’m going to do something that I am not comfortable doing. I am actually going to be caring and a little pedagogical about what I felt in the last day. I normally really don’t give a shit about transferring the information I have or giving advice, but I think some of you need it. Because, it’s a little confusion, here. And then, I will tell my little stories and at a certain point the time will be over. A designated hitter, Dan, will put up his hand I will stop mid-sentence even though you’re going to want more. And, that’s the end and it’s very nice meeting all of you, even in this sort of distant way. So, that said, for most of my life that I can remember, I’ve loved the banana. There’s nothing phallic about that love for the banana, I just love the banana. As I grew older, I found that the banana was the perfect fruit, wherever I went. India or anyplace. I could eat a banana, it was always clean, I didn’t have to wash, in fact, it would be rather strange to wash. And slimy, to wash a banana. So, we have the banana as the perfect fruit.
I lived in the jungle for six months and we had banana trees. I pulled the little finger bananas off the tree and ate them fresh. Of course, we get them green shipped and then they turn yellow in the stores. And, they’re slightly sweeter, slightly better. But, bananas. You get good bananas and bad bananas. I have about 10 miniature banana trees in my green house, over the winter, and I put them outside in the summer. Because, I live in a northern climate and I actually grow some little finger bananas in Newport, Rhode Island, every once in a while. They don’t flower that often, but the banana’s been part of all our lives for a long time, including the fact that the banana, we think, is so good for us. Because, we are told it has potassium in it. We wouldn’t know what to do with potassium if we found it on the street. But, it’s told it has potassium, and somehow, that’s good for you.
For my whole life I’ve been opening a banana, they way you take it off of a tree. And, I’ve sometimes bruised the top in getting it open. I sometimes go like that to do it. Have we all done that? Well, the theme of this talk is opening the banana from the other end. And, if you open the banana from the other end. It just opens right up.

Do you see how fucked up we are?


This is new; I’ve never had a prop before. I disdain props and slides. But, isn’t that interesting? I couldn’t resist it. I could have done it by just talking about bananas and say, “Turn it over.” But, I though that was rather dramatic.

Well, this is really metaphor for the opposite paradigm. For creativity and innovation. By the way, the opposite paradigm spells TOP and that should be your top priority. To do the opposite pattern. Look at everything you’re doing and do the opposite pattern. Many of the conversations I’ve had with people as they were trying to do a better version of what already didn’t work. As a resultant, they get a better version of something that doesn’t work and it still doesn’t work. They are polishing the lily. They are just making something a little better. They are afraid of beginning again. Several conversations were about minutia change in their life so they could make things just better.
You don’t want to make things better. You want to start again. Is that terrifying? Yes. What is more interesting than terror? What is the feeling, the sweat on your brow, but terror? Are you going to fail sometimes. You bet. The two precepts that I have here, standing here this morning, is I am terrified and I am confident. They don’t cancel each other out. They help each other.
Because I’m terrified, I’m really thinking about what I’m doing. I’m not just phoning it in. Because, I’m confident I can get up here and talk to you. Obviously, I’m a little more relaxed than some of you might be up here on the stage, but that comes from being an old fart.
That’s the first story, the banana’s for sale, because I had to pay for it, at breakfast.
The second story is about innovation, too. And, that is, in 1398, two brothers. Well, one was born. I don’t know whether it was his older brother, so he might have been born earlier or later. But, Gutenberg was born in Mainz, Germany. Gutenberg Museum is still in Mainz, Germany. There’s a nice copy of the 42 line bible, there.

And, that’s worth a visit, the Gutenberg Museum. And, about 40 years later, he and his brother adapted a wine press into a printing press. And, then the Gutenberg we know, not the brother, started carving type and he carved an alphabet of 126 letters. 126 letters were so that every letter was perfectly space with other letters. So, the letters, as you know, is the spacing between letters. It’s not just like this. They have to hug each other in the right way so it looks even. And, the lines work out even.
Well, they had vellum. But, he had to invent a paper that would work on that. And then, he had to figure out that you had to dampen the paper. And, he had to invent the ink because, the “Book of Hours,” all the “Books of Hours” that you know, I assume many of you take courses in illuminated manuscripts. That you know about the “Book of Hours” and how they’re done. They use a water-based ink and he had to have an oil based ink to work and to tamp down this dampened paper on the press.
And, he did a 42 line bible. Some of them, he did on the press twice, with red and black. He printed about, they don’t know exactly, between 180 and 200 of them. They were extremely expensive. Very valuable books. It was not mass communication. Still only very wealthy people bought these books. And, in the western world, this was the first incident that we can point to as far as a multiple pressing.
It’s not really reasonable to come in late, because you don’t even know what I’m going to be talking about know.

So, we really can close the doors.


I mean, I’ve set up the whole psychology of this talk already.

I mean, being late, is really being stupid.
But that is not really the story. The story is that the church saw this and they said, “Holy shit! We can print little pieces of paper, and sell them for a lot.” They were called “Indulgences.” So, all of the brothers died penniless, never made a penny on their amazing work, and I will tell you how amazing it is in a minute. The church sold indulgences, which were confessionals to rich people, and got wealthy off of the printing press, but that is still not really the story.
It took 99 years for somebody to invent pagination. There was no page numbers. There is no page numbers on the early books, because after all it was the Bible. You knew the Bible. You knew where you were. You didn’t have to find something. You weren’t looking up anything. You weren’t doing any of the things to find it, to find something, the way of finding through a book, Google. You weren’t doing any of the things that we have a passion about in this room. So, in 99 years, somebody invented pagination.

Pagination led to finding things, and to find it in the world we are in now. There’s White Pages, and Yellow Pages, and Google, and Yahoo, and Bing. There’s dictionaries, and thesauruses, and encyclopedias. If I took 140,000 words, the average number of words in an collegiate dictionary, and threw them on the floor, it wouldn’t be a dictionary. If I organize them alphabetically, so I can find stuff… Although, there is that idiot conversation we all have in school, “How can I look up how to spell a word, if I can’t spell a word?” I mean, have we all been told that’s insanity?
I am a terrible speller, and when I go to “Spell check” on my thing, I still have difficulty, because I don’t even know how to start the fucking word, but we have a dictionary.
Richard Saul Wurman: If you group those things at all the words in a particular subject, all of the biological words are together, you have the beginning of an encyclopedia. If you group all of the words that have the same meaning together, you have a thesaurus. It is the same words. The organization of information actually creates new information, new access to information, the same information. So, organization of information is not trivial, it is really a fundamental part of how we think.
Some of you have read “Information Anxiety” and “Information Anxiety 2,” where I talk about “LATCH.” I have talked about LATCH for quite a number of years. LATCH; Location, Alphabet, Time, Category, and Hierarchy, as the five ways of organizing information.
I’ve always said to every audience who has bought the book or where I have spoken, I said, “I thought there was a huge number of ways of organizing things.” I was surprised that I could only come up with five. Let’s say there is no more than 10. I don’t care if there’s 5, or 6, or 7, but if after 20 some years nobody has come up with a sixth, I feel safe to say there is no more than 10, and there’s probably not more than 5, and it works, because you can decide when you start a project of how you get into it.
But that is not only a project on paper or on a computer, it is also a conversation. How do you have a conversation? Does the conversation start as it did with this gentleman here this morning at breakfast? We started talking, and I asked him where he was from, and he said, “Lancaster.” I said, “Oh, my father used to have a cigar factory in Lancaster and in Newark, Pennsylvania, and Newark, Pennsylvania was the capital of the United States for about 10 minutes. My father every other week went to Lancaster, and he used to bring back celery.”
He said, “Yes! They have the best celery in Lancaster.” I said, “Yes. It’s fantastic celery, and then everybody now cuts off the heart. It is the best part of the celery. Why do they do that?” And he said, “Yes. That is quite true.” I said, “He used to also occasionally in the summer bring home peaches.” He said, “Well, Cumberland or North Cumberland, or something Cumberland, is where they have incredible peaches.” I said, “They’re probably from there. I didn’t know where they were from. I didn’t know they weren’t from Lancaster.” Obviously, some farmer brought them in, and he brought them home. I had a very conversation about celery and peaches, and I have never had peaches better than that.
In almost anything there’s just amazing things you can learn, and that started with location, and then we did categories, categories of peaches and celery, and then we went from that to the quality of them, that they were the best, so that is hierarchy… and that was that.
He told me yesterday when we were sitting upstairs that he had moved from anthropology to something else, and then I quizzed him on what kind of anthropology, and he didn’t have a kind of anthropology. So, then I thought less of him.

Richard Saul Wurman: As my mother used to tell me as I grew up, “Well, you lose some, and you lose some.” She was very supportive of my career.
Richard Saul Wurman: Yesterday, I was in a lecture that this gentleman on the left was, and I was inappropriate. I got up and ranted at one point, but I just couldn’t help myself, because there were people in this little lecture, It wasn’t him that I was ranting at by the way, although his grammar was not well. You say “Like” something, and somebody “Goes” this way. It is somebody “Says” something. You don’t “Go” this. You “Say” something. You don’t say, “You know.” You can’t be sloppy, and be on the stage. The grammar should be at least at a certain level in pubic, in any case.
So, what I was ranting about is somebody was talking about “Wireframes,” and I didn’t know what they were talking about. I know what a “Wireframe” is. I mean a “Wireframe” to me is something you do, it is what Jeffrey Katzenberg showed me of “Shrek” before he filled in the colors. It’s something in animated films, and I didn’t know what a wireframe is. I even talked to other people, and they are so interested in certain technologies, and certain modalities, and certain…
What my rant was about is what information architecture, not to me, this is a generalized statement. It is about understanding. It starts with understanding, and ends with understanding. What are we doing this for? It is for understanding. We want to make something understandable to another human being, to ourselves. That is my ploy. I don’t care about you. I want to make it understandable to myself. I want to have an interest. Something I don’t understand, I want to make it understandable.
I had a company called the “Understanding Business.” I have three books called: “Understanding USA,” “Understanding Children,” “Understanding Healthcare.” I am doing a book on “Understanding Dogs,” and “Understanding Cats,” only because they’re interesting to me, and I don’t understand them. So, one starts from this park place of zero, the land called “Zero,” and you really try to describe the journey from not knowing to knowing.
I had a conversation with somebody the other day, who surprisingly used that phrase of “Not knowing,” going from “Not knowing” to “Knowing.” That is the magic of our business; how do you go from not knowing to knowing, and how do you systemically do that? The modality is just an add-on, and it’s going to change in 10 minutes.
Anybody, who thinks what they are doing and have expertise in it, is going to lose that expertise in 10 minutes, because everything is changing, and will continue to change at a more rapid rate. Having expertise is the least interesting thing. It’s just so boring for somebody to have expertise, but somebody that has passion, somebody that has desire, somebody that wants to make something understandable, that’s interesting. That you could sit and have a cup of coffee with them. That is reasonable. That is exciting.
I had flew out to Charlotte, and then I flew from Charlotte, here, and on the way to Charlotte from PVD, Providence, I sat next to somebody who makes valves and tubes, and things, for the transmission of blood through hospitals. It was fascinating! We got into a long discussion about cow’s blood, and the antigens that cows’ blood have. He felt within three years they are going to work it out, and the cows blood is going to be used for transfusions, human transfusions, and they are going to be very healthy, and they are going to be able to adapt them.
Well, that was really an interesting plane ride. Really fascinating. I always ask somebody the next question, and then the next question, and the next question of what they do. I am fascinated with all of it, and I remember all of it, and I connect all of it. I’m going to look at the cow’s blood, and see if I can have something about cows blood in my next TED MED Conference.
The next person I talked to on the way here was a Brit and a young man, and apparently he’s one of the top three or four golf instructors. Alex Rose, who was number six in golf, he’s his instructor.
And we started talking about golf. I’ve never held a golf club in my life. I’ve never belonged to a country club. I have no skill sets, and no interest in that.
I don’t like the people who play golf. I love George Carlin’s idea that we should turn all the golf courses into places for the homeless.
Richard Saul Wurman: However, it was fascinating. He told me that the three top balls are all made by the same manufacturer and are exactly the same with a different emblem on it. I didn’t know that. He told me there’s only 10 ways you can hit a golf ball, and you can train for which way you want. 10 different angles and ways of holding your hands.
He has apparently the best selling book on golf swings, and of just the way you hold the hand there. In some of the illustrations, very nice illustrations, by the way, in one of them, to show the line up of things, he had a nail going through the hand through this. A major book distributor wouldn’t handle it because of the religious implications.
I mean, can you believe that? But that was what he told me.
I’m sending him some books, he’s sending me some books. He’ll probably come to my TED MED conference, and I think it’s fascinating.
I learned something, and I really got to think about how would you teach golf in China? They’re building 400 golf courses in China right now. Because they want it to become a major international sport, because business is done on the golf course, and they’re so business minded. So they’re building 400 golf courses at once and in November there’s going to be one of the five majors outside of Shanghai.
Nobody understands the game of golf there, and I was trying to think, “How could I make golf understandable?” Because I don’t understand a damn thing about golf, and wouldn’t it be a fun little project to make golf understandable?
I started thinking about how I would do that, and I was working on it last night, and thinking of what would be the fun of… because I did a book on baseball, football, and the Olympics, so I’ve done three sports.
So I thought, is it the same, or would I do them really completely different now. Because I don’t want to do it the same way I did it before. And it makes me think about that.
There’s no conversation you can have that doesn’t really test your mind of thinking about how, what is the journey from not knowing to knowing?
It has nothing to do with wire frames, or little pads where you peel off things and write notes or all the stuff that I see around here. It’s just the trivia. It’s the ephemera of this business. The only part of business that makes sense is our head. I’ve told this joke before. I told it at dinner last night, so only three, four people have heard it.
I had a very good dinner, by the way. Shockingly… the only thing shocking about this rather seedy hotel is that they have this thing that turns on the top as a restaurant, where I’ve never been to a turning restaurant, because why would you go to a turning restaurant? Seems…I mean, I would not be here…sure, you wouldn’t say, “Oh, I’m going to a turning restaurant tonight.”
But I went to a turning restaurant, and everything I asked for… I always try to order off the menu a bit. My father taught me you should never really order on a menu, you should order off the menu.
You know the kind of restaurant it is. You know there’s a chef in the kitchen with food. You tell him how you want it, what you want. Assume that any dish comes with anything they say it comes with, or well, anything. You should never assume that.
You should order off… there is always a table in a restaurant, a seat on a plane, and a room in a hotel, and it should be mine. I think you have to go into life thinking that, that you deserve this. If you don’t get it, well, some things don’t work. But if you don’t ask, you don’t get. It’s that simple. If you realize that some things don’t work, you go back to asking. It’s an empowering thing.
So, please get off of this path of expertise and jargon and…
In 1976 I did a conference called the “Architecture of Information,” and then I started calling myself an information architect. I was national chairman of the AIA Conference then. I’m an architect, I’m not trained in anything.
But in 1962, that’s long before ’76. Not long, 14 years, some of you might be a long time. If you’re 20, 14 years ago is a long time ago.
I did a book which had the plans of 50 cities in the world all to the same scale. Wasn’t that information architecture? I think so. It was a systemic way of understanding information.
There were no computers then, by the way. There was no wire frames. There was no web pages. There was none of those things. That doesn’t make information architecture.
What makes an information architect is an attitude. A desire, a passion to communicate systemically with rules and systems, and transfer information to another human being.
It’s not all this other stuff. Those are… all the stuff is. It’ll be here today, gone tomorrow. Somebody else will give a speech and sell a book about how they do that.
But that’s not the principles. It’s not where your heart is. It’s not what we do. It is not that desire.
Web pages. We’re all involved in web pages. I have web pages. They’re all awful. We are primitive.
There’s some pretty web pages. I think my web page for TED MED is pretty, it’s nice, but it’s not a good web page.
When movies first came out, they were photographing stage shows. What we have is lousy books on the web. We have pages. We’re still talking about pages.
I’ll tell you a little story about the Macintosh and what it allowed us to do.
Macintosh came out, and the first Macintosh was shown at my TED conference, have to get a little plug in for my past, in 1984. And very easily on a Macintosh you could do a pie diagram. So you could take some numbers, make a pie diagram, and construct it really quickly.
Then color came in. So you could first do it in 16 colors, 32 colors, 64 colors, and then, they actually had this expression, “Millions of colors.” You could do it in “Millions of colors.” I mean, you can’t discern “Millions of colors.” Just like, you don’t know the difference between the top six violinists.
Do you really think you could pick which is the best of the top six? Nobody’s ears in this room are good enough to do that. Maybe the ears in another room are, but not this room. I couldn’t probably tell you the top 18, 20, 50. Maybe I would know.
So, we put colors on these pie charts. And then we found easily we could make them in three dimensions. We could make them look like a coin or something. And they had sides. And then we could put shadows. Round-sided, soft shadows. At first they were sort of like that, but then they got smooth.
And then we could have a light source throw a shadow from this three dimensional thing on whatever surface wasn’t there on our screen.
And then we really learned how to make this pie chart good. We could explode it and pull out some of the wedges. And put it up in the air and cast shadows down on the ground from that.
People did this. And why did they do this? Why is this so attractive?
It’s because you can. Just because you can do it, you do this. My question to you, and my statement to you is, that a pie chart is a really stupid way to show comparative numerical information.

Making something that doesn’t work better, prettier…is dumb! It’s just simply dumb.
Little teeny numbers in a thin little pie give you no comparative information, and you really can’t compare those strange areas of almost triangles with slightly curved ends to one another.
Bars are easy. Wedges aren’t. It’s very dumb. I tell you that because it’s fundamentally dumb. It comes from not asking the question of “What works? What’s the way in? How do you communicate to another human being?”
You just don’t do things because you can do them. Because you can push a button and flip something or show a little movie, you don’t just do it. Because you can put 1200 things on one page, you don’t just do it.
Look at WebMD’s page. I mean, you’d be dead before you found your way through the first page.

They jam as much of it because it is the same mentality that they teach in a school of photography. The more on a map is a better map. It isn’t. I don’t want to be wearing a belt, suspenders, and then glue your pants on to your stomach. It just isn’t better.
It’s scary. A lot of people have conversations with me about their fears. Fears about changing jobs. Fears about being an information architect, for being transferred into the strategic planning department or something. Or doing something… I don’t know what any of the words mean. I don’t know any department or anything… I had been very fortunate in my life to be so abrasive that nobody would hire me.
Richard Saul Wurman: That certainly has helped me a great deal. It’s also filtered out the fact that I have quite a number of acquaintships, but no friendships. There’s a lot to be said for being abrasive. There’s a lot to be said for saying really what’s on your mind. Like, “Oh, there is a booger in your nose.”

There really isn’t.
Richard Saul Wurman: But would you want to walk around with a booger in your nose and not have somebody tell you? And then if somebody tells you, [sarcastically]
“Oh, that guy told me I had a booger in my nose.”
That means, just see, you can’t win in a conversation.
Richard Saul Wurman: I was lying. He didn’t have a booger in his nose. He rubbed his nose. And then he is embarrassed and doesn’t like me for doing that whole thing to him. I’m just making a point. I’m fortunate that these series of things, personality flaws, have been really helpful to me. Some of you know I started a conference called the “TED conference.” The “TED conference,” which is out of control in it’s “TED-ing” of the world at the moment.
I sold in 2002, the same way I’ll sell this banana later on.
But not for eight figures.
Well, if we use a decimal point, I can sell it for eight figures.
See, that wasn’t even the truth, “eight figures.” Which gets me to numbers for a while. We had a nice conversation about numbers last night at dinner, we were talking about… Recently I got some passion about the year and numbers and…
[audience member sneezing]
Bless you! Welcome-we keep on going. That was David Gray sneezing there.
If you would like something for the camera, and when you’ll have little, if you translate it into Japanese at the bottom when you think, “David Gray sneezing.”
Well, we are information architects, we should explain what we’re doing and what’s happening. I mean it’s an odd sound from the back or the front of the room. We should understand what that is. And it gives him some fame that will last for a short period of time. So the laughing will make him sneeze again.
I’ve gotten interested in the “year.” Stephen Jay Gould was an acquaintance of mine. I hope some of you know who he is. If not, Google him. One of, may be the 10 best, most remarkable, [inaudible 33:11] speakers that I have ever heard in my life. Stephen Jay Gould, he’s dead. Well, it’s an interesting thing about his death. He had cancer at a very young age. A cancer, which had only one percent chance of surviving. It was one of those aggressive, aggressive cancers. They told him that he was going to die. What he did was sort out the one percent of the people who didn’t die from that cancer. He lived another 30 years and died from a different cancer.
In the meanwhile did amazing work. He was an amazing Darwinian biologist. Wrote the front pages of “Natural History” magazine month after month after month. He came to my house in Newport. I live rather pretentiously. So the front whole is marble. He walked down and he looked at the marble and he was identifying all the little animals that were embedded in the marble. Just by looking down, he knew all those little things which was rather astonishing. To tell you something else about Newport, then we walked out in the backyard, I had just moved in, and he walked out the backyard like this, and he said, “Jew stepped, Jew stepped. First time a Jew has ever stepped here.”
Richard Saul Wurman: I’ve never told that story ever before, but it’s funny.
I have eight acres in Newport. There’s a big fence all around the property, high fence around the property. The urban legend in this town is that I didn’t build this fence, the town built it to keep me in.
Richard Saul Wurman: It’s not true. It’s not true. [laughs] I was talking about Stephen Jay Gould for a while. Over here, thank you. I’m old. He wrote a little book in 1997 about the bicentennial, it was going to happen, and we all went crazy, -for the turning of the century from 1999 to the year 2000. Now many of you know now, particularly the Europeans in the room, because they were the ones who brought it up. Not brought it up, but understood at the dinner table well. The other people were masticating their food. It’s that the new century began in 2001 not in 2000.
Well, we just like the little zeros. We like little zeros, it’s easier to celebrate.
However, if you go back to 1899, the front page on the newspaper on December 31st was saying, “The next year,” front page story in 1899, “That the next day would be the beginning of the last year of the 19th century.” Then in 100 years, the year time switched by a year,how they described the centennial, the 1000… Isn’t that odd? Because it’s marketing. It’s easier to market all those zeros. The 2000, it’s a logo that looks better.
The lack of fact bothered nobody and they shot off fire works quite beautifully at the Tour Eiffel in Paris. On the year 2000 even that was the last… And maybe they were celebrating the last year of the 29th century. But I don’t think so. Nothing is very accurate about numbers, not very sensible about numbers. We have an arrogance about human beings and numbers and birth dates, birth dates of Christ, the death of Herod, and starting centuries, our calendar that we use generally today was started in the sixth century.
It wasn’t a calendar before the sixth century that had anything to do with anything. So it was 400, 500 years when it wasn’t really a calendar. So we made up a calendar. The Pope asked a little guy by the name of “Dennis The Little.” He was a monk. Actually it’s his name and I mentioned that to you this morning, Dennis. I told you about Dennis the little. He came up eventually with Christ’s birthday being on the 25th of December. Then as all of Jewish holidays are eight days, he counted forward eight days to January first and that’s the celebration of the festival of circumcision. And that’s when January first was first born.
But he started with the year one. Because there was not year zero, because there wasn’t the concept in Europe of zero. There was a little bit of zero in the Mayan world. Of course, there is the Baptoon and Cartoon and stuff like that. I love, if anybody is really interested in Mayan things, I can go on for quite a while. I’ve lived, as I told you, in the jungle of Guatemala and mapped one third of Tikal and I go frequently back to the Yucatan.
While we’re talking about the Yucatan, that bump that you see in Mexico is not the Yucatan. That’s made up of three states. It’s our neighboring country. It’s the state of the Yucatan, which has Merida as its capital, the state of Campeche, with Campeche as its capital, and the long skinny one with that funny town called Cancun, the invented town called Cancun, with Chetumal as its capital is Quintana Roo.
So when you go to what you call the Yucatan, you’re going to Quintana Roo, if you’re going to Cancun.
And Quintana Roo was lawless, brought into the Mexican state system in 1915, but until 1931 you couldn’t enter there, it was so much of a Wild West show.
That’s our bordering country. We know nothing about it.
Do you see where any word can take you any place? Any place? You just have to remember this shit.
I have a nice story about, however, the Yucatan, and Sisal, and why it was developed the way it is. And if somebody’s really interested, I’ll tell you later about this strange story of change. Change is somewhat what this whole talk is about. The acceptance of change.
I’ll do a real rapid run of it. There was an industrial revolution in the 1800’s. So they started sending stuff places.
Things were manufactured and goods, and food and cloth and silk and bananas, and everything was sent everywhere in the world on big ships with big sails called clipper ships, or something like that. Then they came up with these steam engines. And they had hybrid ships. The hybrid was invented with those ships.
No, maybe it was invented with Romans with oars and sails. That’s a hybrid too. Hybrids are not something new, is what I’m saying.
And then they dropped the sails and bigger engines, and the engines were run first by coal, and then I guess by oil and then eventually aircraft carriers have atomic energy on them.
About four years ago… no, what year was 9/11?
Huh? 2001? So it was nine years ago, right immediately a week before 9/11, I flew out to the Teddy Roosevelt aircraft carrier. It was in war games in the Atlantic. Landed on it. It was scary.
You land on it, you’re sitting backwards in a plane that has no windows and you’re trying to catch these rubber bands. And I spent a couple of days in war games on that boat. It was incredibly uncomfortable. I can’t imagine being on one of those boats for any length of time.
And then you take off, and the Admiral said, “I’ve done this a lot of times, and this is still the scariest eight seconds of my life.” And it is, it’s really scary. You take off and you go down.
And then came home and just a few days later was 9/11 and they brought the ship back and then they sent it over there. And they have atomic energy. It was the only part of the ship I was not allowed to see, I don’t know why.
But everybody who showed me around the ship who was attached to me to show me around the ship got lost.
Richard Saul Wurman: 5,000 people live on this fucking boat. And the people that were assigned to me don’t know their way around. And there are no maps and there are no diagrams, and you have no idea where you are. There’s no windows.
The only time you have any sense where your absolute complete anxiety and terror leaves you is in a place where you can’t hear yourself think, and that’s because of the noise on the deck with these exploding planes every two minutes.
But down there, there’s no two stairways that line up that you can go to. There’s no diagram. You don’t know what deck you’re on. And every stairway, the riser tread is slightly different. If there was no light… and some are metal, some are wood, some have chain handles… there’s nothing common. It’s like 1,200 chimpanzees built the boat.
Richard Saul Wurman: And they glued together the parts with super glue. Well, that’s something else. I wouldn’t do it again, but I did that then. In 1962 I did a book with plans of 50 cities of the world. In 1967 I did a massive book to which I’m absolutely and utterly convinced no one has seen called “Urban Atlas: 20 American Cities.”
It was a major huge book with every page that would fold out that big, and it had 14 colors, and it was the first time there was ever a comparative statistical comparison of 20 cities in America, the 20 largest cities in America.
It was a Herculean project I did for MIT. I had 55 people working on it. It took quite a while, and it is still an amazing book, and it was all done by hand, and it was because in 1967 it was before computers.
Both of those books I have brought back to show to two new partners. They had never seen them. And they’re just astonished that it was done in ’62, and then ’67… for a project that I’m doing called 19.20.21, which is trying to set up a methodology for understanding cities.
Now, this is a project that is so big that there’s something there for everybody. And this is a fact. It’s absolutely a fact. I wouldn’t say it here on this stage unless I’ve said it before, and there’s no two cities in the world that do their maps the same scale, ask the same questions, have the same legends, and there’s no methodology whatsoever how you do the border around the city, and if you don’t know how to put a border around a city, you have no area within it which to collect information, and therefore get comparative densities.
By general opinion, the largest city in the world is Tokyo, and the variations in population of Tokyo is from 25 million to 65 million, because they draw different borders.
I’m not talking about the city border as the incorporated city, but actually how a city is. Encompassing other cities, of going out with transportation lines, of the urban fabric going out. How do you draw the edge? There is no accepted methodology for drawing the edge.
It’s not a trivial thing. It’s a fundamental thing, because 51% going to 70% of the world’s population live in urban areas.
This is not trying to make cities better. That is not what I’m trying to do. This is not a value statement of whether people should live in cities or shouldn’t live cities. Whether there should be slums or there shouldn’t be slums. This is not what I’m talking about.
I’m talking about just understanding what is, so that other people can make value judgments of making use of success and failure from one city to another.
It’s an interesting project. It’s vast. It’s a five year project. I have two partners. One is the biggest map maker in the world who is way below the radar.
ESRI has 4,000 employees and they are owned by one person in Redlands. In fact, if you go to the website, they have this website and in the website it says, “This company is not for sale.”
The other company is Radical Media, and you can go to their website. So I have two partners, and I’m going to be meeting with them all day Monday and Tuesday in Redlands.
Well, that’s a fascinating project. It’s huge. It’ll be probably, I hope, we hope, it’s all dreams, most things don’t work, a TV series, and of course websites or iPad sites, and I’ll talk about iPad in a minute.
And urban observatories around the world simultaneously, live museums where the information constantly changes and you can talk from one city to another and see your city relative to other cities in the world.
IBM has helped us with the first presentation of proof of concept, where we looked at Tokyo a little bit and New York in a deep dive to show that what we’re really talking about starts to make some sense.
In fact, I had a brief conversation-I don’t know if he’s in this room, is Mr. IBM in this room? Yeah, there he is.
I’ve had a brief conversation with him. He’s seen the presentation. He thought, maybe because he was sucking up to me, that it was pretty good. But there’s a real business there, it’s an interesting thing and we’re talking to other people about that.
That’s one project. Another project I’m doing for my TED…when I talk about TED MED, that is absolutely transparently avarice and greed on my part. I’m running the conference. If it does well, I make money, so I know I’m hawking something, and I apologize in advance, but it’s an interesting exercise, and I’m telling you that in advance.
One of the things I want to do with the conference this year is proactively in a conference explain something to the group rather than just have a speaker come up. To begin a conference and make them have some epiphany, some understanding of something that comes from the person running the conference.
Not in a speech, but through an exercise I bother going through, much as if you saw a book I did called, “Understanding USA,” which is only a mediocre book. Some parts are very good. Some parts aren’t so good. The parts that are good are good. The parts that are bad are bad. I can’t rip out the bad parts, so I don’t sell it at all.
But that was a proactive way in the year 2000, I bought into the thing, of doing an annual report of the United States of America. It’s called “Understanding USA” And it has three different color covers because I could. It’s all the same book, but for a while I liked the white one. I never liked the red one. The blue one’s OK. The white one’s nice because it shows fingerprints.
Anyway, the project I want to do for this conference is called “Five By Five By Five By Five.” Don’t take it down. If you can’t remember “Five By Five By Five By Five,” you shouldn’t be in this room at all.
Richard Saul Wurman: What I want to look at, because I don’t understand the health care system anywhere, and I want to understand what the health care system is sort of like here relative to someplace else. I might know a little bit more of what happens here than someplace else. I want to look at five countries: Japan, United States, Great Britain, Norway, and India. I want to look at five things that can happen. You’re born, what birth is like. What the last five months of your life is like. Really, you usually do six months, but the thing is called, “Five By Five By Five By Five,” so I’ll say the last five months of life.
Richard Saul Wurman: Basically death, a chronic disease, diabetes II; a trauma, breaking her hip; and a heart attack. And what happens at five different percentiles based on the percentiles within that country, not percentiles across all the countries. Five different percentiles within those countries, reasonable percentiles, of income or net worth, whatever we can get. What would be a little story of what would happen getting born someplace or having diabetes someplace. Not encyclopedic, just a beginning way of knowing enough to see some patterns in it. It’s not meant to be an encyclopedia. It’s a simple little study. It’s not so easy to do, but it’s not a doctoral dissertation. And just set up probably in a film and in an exhibit and posters and some other things like that.
I think Nigel Holmes is going to help me, and Paul Suel’s going to help me and an amazing person who you should look up who came into my office. Kind of nice-looking, handsome guy who I guess made a little bit of money. I think he’s in his very early 40s or late 30s and has this passion to make some complex governmental information clear and wanted my help.
He did a poster on everything, beyond anything, you wanted to know about the Supreme Court and all its justices and its history. It’s worthwhile getting and looking at it. His name is Nathaniel Pearlman, and it’s worthwhile getting this. It’s a big poster. It’s extraordinary.
He just sent me the preliminary of all the Presidents of the United States, which I had some real criticisms of it he’s getting from other people, and I hope he makes a few changes. But it will be an amazing single poster on all the presidency, better than anything I’ve ever seen.
I want him to do “Five By Five By Five By Five” along with other stuff I pump in there, too, and he’s been doing some of the research for me. You can all help. Anybody can help me. I mean, for nothing. I don’t pay anything.
Richard Saul Wurman: Just if you want to help me, you can help me. I love help. That’s my scam. I get people to help me do things, and your name will be someplace.
Richard Saul Wurman: Well.


I mean everybody helps me. If you look at any of my books, everybody helps me. Their name is there. Everybody helps me, and everything is there. More so than anybody I tell the name of the paper I use always. I do everything like that, but it’s an interesting project. And it’s called “Five By Five By Five By Five.” And then I got this idea, and this idea’s about four days old. As I told you before, I follow tornadoes. This is another one you could help on. I don’t know how to begin this one at all. I have some ideas how to begin “Five By Five By Five By Five.” But what I’m doing is I’m giving you examples that a single human being without a client can do things. Are you seeing a pattern here?
I don’t understand something. I want to make it understandable. I’m a single human being. I don’t even self fund them. They just get done because people want to do it and learn from it. And it often leads to other things that they get to do. And they learn in the process. So is it a scam? Yeah! Is it helpful? Yeah! I don’t get complaints after these are over.
And I’m upfront about what I do. Right? Over the years I have about 18 people who are far better educated than myself changing slightly over the years as they get too old. But usually from their mid 20s to their late 30s who, wherever I do a conference, they get a hold of me or I get a hold of them.
And they, of their own expense, fly to my conference. I put them up there and pay for all their food and everything, and they do sometimes grunt work. They register people. They do that. They attend as much of it as they can, and they’re my volunteers. They keep on coming back, and I’ve done 30 conferences!
And they enjoy it. It’s like a family wherever I am. Whether it’s a medical conference or a technology conference or an entertainment conference, they’re all interesting. One isn’t more interesting than another. It’s just what one does.
Well, so this new idea as I told you I follow hurricanes and tornadoes. My son is the hurricane chaser and tornado chaser on “Storm Chasers.” You know that. You know the guy with the blue truck with the big Doppler radar in the back who follows and tells Sean where he should take his tank. He’s tried to go to the eye of 11 hurricanes, and he’s made it to the eye of 11 hurricanes.
That’s fairly boring because you have to go pretty early, and then the moment you’re in the eye it’s pretty dangerous. Then he also chases tornadoes obviously. They’re hard to find, and you don’t find them all the time. There’s a lot of misses on that. And he’d get too close. They’re a little dangerous, but they’re interesting and they don’t last very long. The hail can screw you up a bit because it hails often before, and that’s what he does.
But in being around him and finding out a little bit about meteorology, I see there’s some patterns here. There’s patterns that occur with hurricanes that are geographic patterns and patterns that have to do with health care. Patterns to do with natural disasters and people dying.
We saw that probably about 220,000 people died in Haiti from an earthquake, which was a pattern of an earthquake of how far it was below the kind of earthquake it was. But also, it was directly related to the building codes. We saw that many less people died in Chile with a slightly bigger earthquake. The aftershocks were actually bigger in the Chilean one, better building codes, and it was slightly different level below the ground.
Most scientists along with the public had a big epiphany about tsunamis during the Day After Christmas Tsunami a number of years ago that killed 250,000 people in Ateh or Aceh or wherever it was in Indonesia. When they saw it came in it was only about six feet high, [laughs] and we were thinking of a wall of water. Well, there are tsunamis that are a wall of water, but they come from landslide tsunamis.
All tsunamis are not the same. All volcanoes are not the same. Volcanoes sometimes are liquid molten stuff, and sometimes they send a plume up. Depending on where they happen in the earth, it depends on the ongoing wind patterns of whether they go across the United States or Europe or go south. Things are different, and we’re not going to stop these things right away.
We’re not going to stop hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis. We can have a little bit more warning with tsunamis. We can maybe increase the tornado warning to five minutes, six minutes. We can increase the warning thing a little bit. We’ll be wrong a lot of the times.
There’ll be a lot of crying wolf because all they can do is warn when they see a weather pattern that is likely to have tornadoes.
By the time they see the tornado, forget about warning anybody about it. So that means it’s a whole psychological reaction of people of how many times can somebody cry wolf. As you know, when hurricanes approach a lot of people won’t leave their homes anyway even though they know they’re going to be flooded out.
Anyway, there’s an interesting series of cross patterns between the types of these natural disasters, the geographic patterns they have, the local code. I was in a 7.1 earthquake on the 17th floor of a building in San Francisco.
Although the news agency showed you fire in one part of town and quoted the deaths in the one part of the entranceway to the Bay Bridge falling down, basically it was amazingly no damage. I mean it just wasn’t much damage. A big crack in the street, and I was on the 17th… I was in a fancy hotel room. I had a wonderful bathroom with beautiful marble tile, close, nicely. There was no cracks anywhere.

I was thrown off the chair, but the building code was pretty good.
The modern buildings that adhere to the code did pretty well in a 7.1 earthquake. It wouldn’t do so well in an 8.1. On a Richter Scale one point is 32 times. I assume everybody knows that. Does anybody here not know that? Oh, a few people didn’t know that, and the others are just lying.
But it’s 32 times. See, they don’t tell you that, either. They just give you a number. What does that mean, they give you a number? The Fujita scale, which was the scale for tornados, was only based on whether a cow gets thrown up in the air or an automobile. It’s based on damage, not on wind speed. Well, now they have the revised Fujita scale. Fujita luckily died, but he was the king in the thing. They have a revised Fujita scale. It’s still only marginally better. It’s not really a way of measurement. How we measure things is also how we understand things.
So we measure. Well, you look at an ad. You want to buy a car, so you look and it tells you miles per gallon. Well, that doesn’t mean very much if you have an electric car. Maybe it doesn’t mean so much anymore with a hybrid car. Maybe you just want to know how far you can go in a car, not miles per gallon.
Going 0 to 60 in three point some seconds in the new $1.7 million Bugatti to a top speed of 250 miles an hour is a meaningless statistic that they use in their ads because you can’t go 250 miles an hour anyway. Nobody in this room probably is able to control a car at 250 miles an hour.
I’ve gone on racetracks because they use to close down to Laguna Seca before my TED conference. I was driven at about 170 or 80. I was scared by a [laughs] driver. I mean I was just terrified. I did one spin around in the car, and I tried to drive about 120 around a track. I just couldn’t do it.
It’s not so easy to do! 250 miles an hour? I mean what highway are you going to go? Well, I think I’ll go down to CVS and get some toothpaste.
Richard Saul Wurman: Ha! I’m there before I left!
Richard Saul Wurman: So how we measure things, how we advertise things, how we describe things are pretty good. You know that dollar bill I gave you is almost exactly six inches. But it’s not six inches. [laughs] It’s 6.14 inches. Isn’t that stupid? Why not make it six inches? Nothing has a measurement that makes any sense. How we measure things and describe things tells us how we can receive them and put them in our head and compare them to something else we know because you only understand something relative to something you understand. Wurman’s first law. You only understand something relative to something you understand.
So you have to begin someplace. You have to get in. You have to open the door to some kind of understanding in people to go the very next step.
Now, the second thing I talked to you about about understanding, I think you should really huddle together. Huddle together and reform yourself into a kind of understanding business. An understanding business with you is accepting of any modality, any means, any ideas as temporal as they all are, and accept the fact they’re all temporal.
Accept the fact that the best idea of anybody in this room has a 10 minute shelf life. Just accept it, and that’s the same in every business. It just has a 10 minute shelf life. There are no eternal ideas in this room except understanding. That’s an eternal idea.
We want ourselves personally and another human being to understand us, understand something, and we want to do what we can to be able to translate our methodology to somebody else. Well, you do. I don’t. But it’s a nice goal for people to have because then you can form in a group and dance around the Maypole and have a conference because you have some commonality.
Talking about commonality, I said I was going to do this. And I’m sorry to do this, but I have to do this. This is a story about, she doesn’t know yet what I’m going to say, a story about conferences. I’ve run good conferences. I know how to run a good conference. It is my only area of semi-expertise. I have no other skill sets, but I seem to know how to do that and you can’t be taught to do that. You somehow have to feel how to do that. How do you feel how to do that? I try to design conferences so I would like to be there. Of course, I hate being at anybody else’s conference because I can’t bear how they run them. But, that’s sort of my fiction in my head is, it’s a meeting I would like to be at.
We talked several times, yesterday, about how I want this room set up. I said, “I want the first row real close to the stage, I want a chair in the middle of the room, I want just a little table, no podium.” You stand behind a podium, your groin is protected, you’re less vulnerable.

No, you are. And, you have something to put something down on in front of you, you tend to read it. And, I can’t stand right here. Even though your neck might hurt at the end of this session, from looking up, I am making eye contact with a lot of people in the front row. And, it makes me feel better and it’s intimate. There a certain intimacy.
So, I came here. The first row was back where the guy is falling asleep with the orange shirt. And, all this was empty space. I mean, what were we going to do there? The orchestra was going to come in?

Dan Klyn: That was a surprise.

Richard Saul Wurman: Yes.


That was Dan Klyn saying, “That was a surprise.”

Then they had an aisle, one aisle, in the middle. So that if I was sitting here, I would be looking at a long, empty alley. That’s often what they do in conferences. They have an aisle in the middle. Then, when I asked for it to be changed, the woman said, “Well, it’s fire regulations.” I said, “I’m a fellow of the American Institute of Architects, I have a Master’s degree in architecture. I’m not going to put you in danger about fire here. I’m just not going to do that. You can have an aisle on either side and still not have too many seats.”

And, then I said, “Would you take the panel table off the front.”
Because, I hate panels and I don’t even like the idea that other people do them. So, they had to take that away. And then, “Would you fill in these seats?”
And, they filled in the seats because there’s a pocket door that’s going to close here. Because, they have to do a quick change on the room. They took four rows from the middle, so that there was a gap in the middle of the room, of four rows. So, the people in the back were like, in a different planet.

I said, “Why don’t you take the chairs from the back of the room? Fill them in here.” So, they did that. And then, they brought probably the world’s ugliest three legged table.




You can say, “Wurman is now looking at the chair.”


You also have, in this democratization of your wanting to have everybody have their 31 seconds of fame, you have all these separate lectures that people go to. You have to make a choice. It’s like going to a supermarket and seeing 81 kinds of water. It’s fucking water. It’s water. It’s water. If you want lemon water, buy a lemon.


And then, you get together and you say, “Which room were you in?”

“Oh, mine was much better.”
“Oh, I should have been at that one.”
I have nothing to talk to you about because we don’t have common experience. What do you want? If your goal is to have commonality and have a group and a sort of camaraderie here, everybody should hear everything.

Well, I know there’s some people, there’s somebody shaking their head but, that’s OK. I’ve run conferences for 30 years. I tell people that everybody attends everything and it’s worked. And, it works because then, every break, people can reflect on the same things they heard.
I have three minute talks, though. And, I have some five minute talks. And, I certainly would never have a talk this long.

And, I have full one hour breaks where everybody gets to talk to everybody, including the speaker. But, I don’t have questions. If I asked this room, as I’ve asked many rooms, “How many people would like to have questions and how many people would not like to have questions?” Everybody, “Oh, we would like to be able to ask questions of the speaker.” And, the questions come in two varieties. Bad questions and speeches.
Every once in a while, there is a good question, but why should your time be wasted for waiting for somebody to ask a good question, so I stood up and I broke up his session yesterday by ranting and I sent my apologies, but the point I have made I think, is a valid point because this is the main point of this talk and that is the point of understanding.
Understanding is so fundamentally basic, that you’re not competing with any other group if you talk about understanding. You’re not going to be bumped off the ledge. You might become the experts in understanding. It is the all encompassing word to things.
You want to call yourself information architect. I do not call myself anything. I just started calling myself an information architect because I do not want to be an, just call it, what do you do if I say, “I’m an architect,” then somebody says “Oh, you do remodeling?” and I wanted to do something that least provoke them to ask me what does that mean and then I had a chance of a conversation, and a chance of opening a conversation is not a bad thing and everything can’t be legislated.
If in the back page of my… I just did this new book, I am not trying to sell from the stage, I am trying to sell from a stage, it wasn’t ordered but it came this morning. I hope nobody told me it came, did it come? Maybe it came, if it came, and you see something that looks like that, I did the cover that way so you could see the title from the back row, the real book just as little thing to it. That’s a lie. That’s the real book. The 33 stands for the fact that it is a sequel to a book I wrote 33 years ago, I could not think of another title.
It’s a case in point of trying to give everybody here permission that they can do things. A number of people ask me to revise the book I did 33 years ago that I had some people knew about, but I never sold, did not print many copies of, but it got out there. It was called “What If Could Be, an Historical Fable of Future,” when I was national chairman of the AIA convention in Philadelphia 1976 and I don’t ever reprint things and I do not revise things, I just, when they’re done they’re done, but I thought, “Maybe I will do a sequel.”
“How can I do a sequel that is real easy because I can’t type and I am not a very good writer.” So I did a sequel by talking into a tape recorder for a two very long sessions having it transcribed, editing it a bit, sending that to somebody who I expect to type and they setup and type then I looked, read it through again and then I got some blank pieces of paper that big and he sent me the sheets of this set type and I just had a pair of kindergarten scissors and I cut apart the things and I rearranged the things and used Scotch tape, pasted them down on that, then and I sent the Scotch taped things to this guy and he had arranged them better again, I mean just squared it up again.
Made a sketch for the cover he did that, I xeroxed this off of “The Wall Street Journal,” I like their ampersand. I don’t know what typeface it is. And then I sent it to a printer, I called Sappi Paper up and I said I would like a lot of paper free and they send me about $15,000 worth the paper free, better sheets than I ever would have bought.
I went to a printer that Michael Bierut the top guy at Pentagram said he has never been to the printer, but he uses them a lot for his year work, and they are pretty good, so it was pretty close, I want to go to some place I could go. So I went to the printer, I spec-ed the color on the press, was at the press run and that’s the story of the book. I don’t have a publicist an editor, so there is probably lousy editing. I don’t have a publicist. I don’t have an editor. I don’t have a publisher. I don’t have a distributor. It’s on Amazon, and somebody stores them in Atlanta for me, the same place where the guy works where he cleaned up the thing. He’s a friend of mine who suggested I do this again, and he takes any money that comes in. And that’s the story of my second book.
Now if I can do that, everybody can do that. It’s just not, “The books are here! The man is holding it. He has one with the big 33 on it, too.” OK. So I sent some here, and it is a very odd book. I mean it’s odder than anything. It’s not information architecture. It’s not anything you do. You will not learn from this book what to do next.
This has no hints about your field. It is merely a collection of 33 episodes of a TV series by the commissioner of curiosity and imagination, who is me. It’s a thinly veiled autobiography. Everything in the book is true except the story.
Uh-huh. It’s filled with factoids, and it is just me talking and babbling about the facts I know and the things I know and connecting them together. I really like this book. I’ve done 82, and there’s only three others I’ve done that I like. So that’s not bad. I’ve done 30 some conferences. There’s only four conferences I like.
I sound like Jung. You know, Jung did things. He had four. Most things we like, male/female, two. Catholic Church likes three. Jung was four. Things five are because of our hands. 10 is because of our hands. Two hands, 20, which is the Mayan’s number system.
Nine is three times three. Nine times nine is 81, and the pegs on the doors in China. So numbers can be anything. And 33, if you look at this part of the book, which we often call the spine, you have 33 bones in your spine.
So you can take any number and make it work for anything you want. There’s nothing magic about 33. Two nice numbers. That’s all. Maybe it gives me a reason to do the next book. If I don’t do “Understanding Dogs,” it will be called “34.” It won’t.
Richard Saul Wurman: How we doing on time? And should I start another…
Dan Klyn: You have 16 minutes.
Richard Saul Wurman: Oh! I will do something else. Was the woman who was walking out, would you like to ask me a question?
Audience Member 1: [inaudible 75:31]
Richard Saul Wurman: Well, that was the only person I wanted a question from.
Richard Saul Wurman: Do you have a question? Yeah!
Audience Member 2: No, I don’t have a question for you.
Richard Saul Wurman: In the first four rows is there…Yes, ma’am! Do you have a question?
Audience Member 3: You were going to talk about the iPad?
Richard Saul Wurman: Oh, good! That’ll take 16 minutes.
Dan Klyn: You only have 15 now.
Richard Saul Wurman: That’ll take 15 minutes. Well, it really fits into the other part of the conversation I was talking about, about the web page. Please have this epiphany with me. Please! Please understand that everything that everybody has done in this room, including myself especially, is primitive. We are in the first moments of doing something, the first moments of looking at computers and doing these websites and connecting things, and we have this arrogance that we’re really doing something. No. We’re looking at numbers, and people are Twittering and Facebooking and we think, “Social networking!” and how wonderful that is.
And then the next year it will be something else and then something else. We’re in this rapid changing things, and we can’t invest in the excellence and the finality of anything we’re doing. Look at the sites you’re looking at. Look at any travel site. Dan tried to print out my boarding pass yesterday in the lobby, and I thought he was going to drool because it was so complicated.
It just was not a sensible way to do things. It was not a helpful program. Everybody is printing out their boarding pass. I don’t do it. I give it to somebody else to do. I wouldn’t do anything like that. And he’s supposed to, “I can do it.” And he went up to it.
Dan Klyn: It took two tries.
Richard Saul Wurman: Well, that’s two and a half tries too many. I mean it was not, the two tries weren’t… And why they want to know when I was born. Nobody ever asks me when I was born. I’ve given it to concierges. Do they know when I’m born without asking me? And they give me a boarding pass back. Nothing is very clear. It’s really bad.
Rent a car at an airport that you’ve never driven before at night. And try to figure out, in a car you don’t own, you’ve never owned one. And try to figure out how to turn on the windshield wipers. Try any simple thing. Anything.
Adriana: How about the shower?…
Richard Saul Wurman: I don’t like interruptions like that. What is your name?
Adriana: Adriana.
Richard Saul Wurman: Adriana asked, how about the shower? Now, are you suggesting something between you and I?
Richard Saul Wurman: She laughed at that, which was rather insulting.
Adriana: I’m married.
Richard Saul Wurman: It was an interesting extension of the conversation. The shower. I don’t know how to use light switches in showers, and many of the hotels I go to. I go to upscale hotels, so they make it more difficult, because they think you’re more intelligent, or maybe you will call someone and they have to come upstairs and show you and you have to give them a tip.
Nothing is very easy. And things are confusing, and there’s too many things happening. And that very soon is going to change.
There is going to be a game changer where, probably through the iPad and others, because everybody’s going to be onto it, or already onto it. But they’ll understand that it isn’t a book, it’s not a collection of pages, it’s not selling real estate on 20 pages.
I have about 150,000 or so or less, something like that, of Google citations. And they have some ads on some of the pages. Could they possibly have an ad that makes any sense on page 1,000 of my citations?
Who would ever go there? I’ve never gone past the first page. I just look at the number to see if it goes up or down.
And if I spell it RS Wurman, as opposed to Richard Saul Wurman or Richard Wurman, whether it changes the number.
It’s going to be a movie. It’s going to be an infinite flight through information, and a personal flight.
It’s not going to be a static page where you organize it, and are able to show it to a client as a page. We’re going to put this here and you can push this button and it goes to this page. You can push this button and it goes to that page, and you diagram the 20 or 50 or 100 or 1,000 pages and go to it. It’s going to go to millions of pages.
You’re going to be able to have a journey. You’re going to have experiences of going to the thing. You’re going to be able to fly through information of your choosing.
How many people have ridden a Segway?
You know you direct it to where it wants to go. That feeling of freedom, of making it move, go fast, go slow, do that. That feeling, that empowering feeling you’re going to have when it comes to understandable information. And that’s going to affect how you do it.
And you’re not going to talk in terms of wireframes and design of a page, or have the metaphor of a book in your head. It’s going to be different. Very soon!
I’m not talking about “Looney Tunes” in 20 years. I’m talking about a couple of years, a year. Somebody will do it. We’re already trying to do it for some projects that I’m working on.
I am not an early adopter, because I don’t know how to do anything.
By the way, why did people buy iPads when it’s not 3G? Why didn’t they wait? Why didn’t the early adopters have enough…and you’d think that they’re the ones with the bigger cranial capacity… Why would they not wait a few weeks and get a better machine? Or as some of us wait a year and get a camera on it?
Well, there’s some logic to that.
So what we’re doing is going to be a different way of finding out things, and a more magical way. It is going to be an incredible flying carpet of going and picking out things and putting them together. Twisting them around, and being able to go backwards and forwards to find where you started and go places.
You’re going to have an incredible journey of traveling through understanding. And that’s what you can do if that is the collective passion of this group, not of an ending, but of a beginning.
Of a beginning that starts with understanding, and with personal bodying yourself, empowering yourself to be personally satiated with understanding. Not what the client wants, not what the great washed wants…
HL Mencken called the Great Unwashed, and in America he called them the Great Washed, which I always thought was funny. I always thought for when he talked it was about Ivory soap.
That was a big thing when I was young, and I really objected when Dove soap came out, or Swan. Swan came out. Ivory soap was what you had, and Heinz Ketchup. And when some other ketchup, Del Monte ketchup came out, I thought that was terrible. And “Newsweek” was awful, because I liked “Time.” When I grew up, there was real great loyalties to things. There’s no loyalties in that way. That’s old-fashioned, loyalty.
But just think about where you begin, and how much personal power you have to do what you want to do. Sometimes people say, “Well, how do you get all this done? How do you do 82 books? How do you do 30 conferences?”
Nobody’s ever asked me to do a book, ever. Nobody’s ever asked me to do a conference. Nobody’s ever asked me to do a project. And I take it personally.
I told you in the beginning, that’s probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I just didn’t understand it, when I felt so rejected by the world.
I still feel rejected by the world, because nobody still asks me to do anything. I’m not on one board, one committee, or one organization. I’m not an advisor to a board or any committee or any organization. And I don’t have any of the people helping me, and that lack of help, the lack of running things past people, or thinking I have to, or thinking I have to get permission allows me to fail and succeed. And I would rather fail and succeed than be told what to do.
I took off, and Chad knows, Chad saw me, what, a year and a half ago?
And he said, “Jesus! You’re a new person.”
“Yeah, I took off 80 pounds.”
So there’s another whole person out there. Looks somewhat like me. Wears a scarf. And I took it off because I had a good physical.
That sounds counterintuitive. No, I had a good physical, so I knew the doctor wasn’t going to tell me to do it, because if he had told me to do it, I wouldn’t have done it.
I don’t want to be told to do anything. I really don’t. I don’t want to take directions from somebody. I want to take directions from me, from what’s in here.
Twice already to different groups here…not groups, a couple of people, I’ve told the same joke, but it’s such a wonderful place to end, and that is the Emo Phillips’ joke.
I know, you probably don’t know who Emo is… how many people do know who Emo is?
OK. Then I’ll tell it in his dialect, sort of. Short joke.
“For years and years and years, I thought my brain was the most important organ of my body, until one day I thought, hmm. Look who’s telling me that!”
Richard Saul Wurman: I leave you with that pleasant thought. Have a good morning.

UX Book Clubs

Written by: Steve Baty

In early Nov 2008, I started to talk to a few people about the idea of a book club in Sydney to discuss User Experience (UX) books. Russ Unger and Donna Spencer encouraged me to let other people hear about it, and when I did – through the Information Architecture Institute (IAI) Members discussion list, and then through the Interaciton Design Associaton (IxDA) – many people thought it was a good idea.

And then something surprising happened, people liked the idea so much that they started doing things to make it happen. Andrew Boyd registered the “”: domain, set up the wiki, and starting the content rolling. Will Evans designed a logo, wrote a whole bunch of content, set up a decent structure, and let everyone use either, or both, if they wanted. Andrew’s been in on the wiki each day tidying and gardening, making sure it doesn’t get out of control.

First one volunteer, then another, and another put their hand up and offered to organize a UX Book Club in their local area. New York City joined Sydney, Canberra, and Washington D.C. By the end of that first week over 28 cities had a local UX Book Club under way, and nearly 400 people had signed up to take part.

The first meeting was held in Silicon Valley in mid-December, followed by meetings in New York and Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, Canberra, Sydney & Austin. Through the second half of February meetings were held in Atlanta, Minnesota, Melbourne, Tel Aviv, Brisbane, Toronto, London and Chicago.

The What and the Why

UX Book Club is a fairly simple idea: get a group of people together, choose a book, and agree on meeting details. Go away and read the book. On the date set, come together and discuss the book. Talk about how you might use what you’ve read in your work; how your experiences run counter to the book; an example of how the book is spot on. Have a bloody good argument about it, then go have a drink and talk about it some more.

At a UX Book Club you have an incentive to read some of those user experience books you’ve heard about but still lays on your bookshelf. You discuss the book with other UX practitioners, which will help you get more out of the book. And you meet fellow UXers working in the same town as you.

You also hear about a lot of books that other people have read, found interesting, but aren’t suitable for discussion by the group. That may be because they’re too long, or highly specialized, or too expensive for a large group of people. Hopefully, though, you’ll be exposed to a much broader range of books than you do on mailing lists or blog posts currently.

How It Works

The Sydney meeting – held on February 3rd – seems to have been fairly typical of the experiences across the board – with local variations in terms of weather, location, and numbers. But the stories seem to have a consistent theme: great discussion, lots of energy, and a good time had by all.

“It was fairly incredible how natural — how routine — it felt. I mean, here was a group of people, many of whom had never participated in any community event, and none of whom (to my knowledge) had ever engaged in an extrinsically focused book club. The book became the medium for discussion, though the topic remained entrenched in UX and design.” 
- Jonathan S Knoll, UX Book Club NYC

UX Book Club Sydney held the February meeting at the offices of the “News Digital Media”: team in their “New York Lounge”. Their hospitality was greatly appreciated, and the space was perfect for the event.

The event was structured along the same lines as those used by New York City (thanks to Cindy Chastain) and applied successfully in Los Angeles. The meeting opened with a brief welcome and introduction, then a volunteer from the group gave a 5-minute overview of the book (in our case Bill Buxton’s Sketching User Experiences). We broke into two groups (10 and 13 people, respectively) and headed to opposite ends of the Lounge to discuss the book in detail. Cindy’s rationale for the smaller groups was that they give everyone a much better opportunity to contribute to the discussion – and this was borne out by the comments I received afterward.

After a good solid hour or so of group discussion we came back together, had a bit of a recap, thanked everyone for attending, and relocated to a nearby pub to carry on. The ‘official’ proceedings kicked off at 6pm and ended just after 8pm. The ‘after-hours’ discussions wound up around 10pm. Not bad for the first event.

The entire event was terribly uncomplicated, and I highly recommend the format. Better yet, the discussion highlighted areas of the book I hadn’t really considered important on first reading. This new information encourages me to go back and re-read those parts, armed with some real-world anecdotes to help make it more concrete.

“UX Book Club got me to finally pick up a book I had been meaning to read, and to have the chance to exercise my brain a bit. I found myself waxing philosophical with my fellow book clubbers about education and urban planning, as well as positive (and negative) user experiences we’ve had.”
– “Roz Duffy”:, UX Book Club Philadelphia

The events serve as both means and end. Reading the books being discussed is a good thing, in and of itself. You will get more out of the event having read the book, and the overall level discussion and engagement will be higher for everyone.

But reading the book isn’t required. The book acts as a starting point for a wider-ranging discussion around the topic. Each person brings not only their understanding of the book, but alsp the full breadth of their professional and educational experience to the discussion. So whilst reading the book provides everyone with a common frame of reference, the really interesting discussion arises from our differences.

“Most UX people I know are web interaction designers like me, but the book club drew developers, software UI designers, business strategists, visual designers, and various flavors of agency and in-house IAs and IxDs.”
– Sarah Mitchell, UX Book Club Los Angeles

In saying all that it’s also important to recognise that no two UX Book Clubs will be the same. The books will be different. Some groups will meet monthly; others every alternate month. Some will be small affairs with half a dozen folks and others will be big (30+); and some will be more book reviews than book discussion. And that’s OK. What’s important is that we learn something, meet some people, and enjoy ourselves in the process.

“…And that sort of set the tone for the rest of the event: high-energy, engaged conversation, a fertile middle ground between events where there is a single speaker with everyone else semi-passively engaged, and free-for-all cocktail hours, which are fun and great for networking, but lighter on substance.”
– “Anders Ramsay”:, UX Book Club NYC

Getting Involved In UX Book Club

There are two ways to get involved in UX Book Club. The first is to sign up to the group in your local area. A list of existing UX Book Clubs is available on the wiki at “”: There are around 50 groups already listed – including some groups that are just forming. If you’re working in UX or would like to learn more about the field to help with whatever work you are doing, add your name so that you can be kept informed.

The second way to get involved is to start your own UX Book Club in your area. We’ve found that the best thing to do add your city or town to the wiki list, then post a message to the or IAI mailing lists (or both) letting other people know. We’ll send an announcement out via “@uxbookclub”: on Twitter to help spread the word. If you have a local IAI, UPA, or IxDA chapter, tell them about it at your next meeting.

I’ll leave with you a quote from Whitney Hess (UX Book Club, NYC) that echoes the sentiments of so many UX Book Club attendees:

“These books really aren’t meant to be read alone — they’re references as well as jumping off points for exploration of the practice. It was great to hear what others thought of both the content and its context in the greater body of work, book-form and otherwise, that our community has produced.

I’m really looking forward to the next event.”

IA Summit 09 – Keynote

Written by: Jeff Parks

iTunes     Download     IA Summit theme music created and provided by BumperTunes™

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IA Summit 2009 Podcasts

The IA Summit was held in Memphis, TN from March 20-22. Boxes and Arrows captured many of the main conference sessions (“see schedule”:

| “Preview”: | Keynote | “Day 1”: | “Day 2”: | “Day 3”: | “Closing Plenary”: |

The IA Summit Opening Keynote

Michael Wesch opened the IA Summit this year with an inspired keynote that provides a fresh and ambitious direction for all designers.

He points out that our “audiences” aren’t audiences at all, but rather creators, and our job is not to lecture but to enable. With this new approach comes not only design challenges but the joy of reconnecting people to each other, which he illustrated with a series of extraordinary video clips.

The following is an outline of some of his key points; please download the audio for the complete experience.

Contrast Reveals Mediation

Wesch tells several stories about his study of cultural anthropology and how those illustrate how Western culture, and in particular US culture, has become completely mediated.

Inspiration Trumps

He then illustrates the process of how his video “The Machine Is Us/ing Us”: becomes an internet phenomenon and how its rise represents an alternative to the mass media machine that has developed in the US over the last several decades.

Varieties of Media Bias

Content bias (e.g. liberal or conservative bent) is only one of many types of media bias, and that all of them add up to “metaphysical bias.” The effects of this have not changed much over time, that comments made about the printing press can help us reflect on what is happening in the current environment. Wesch wants us, as the creators of the tools, to think about what environment we want to create and work towards it.

Checking Out

Using his classroom as a crucible, Wesch delves into how US culture arrived in its current state, using the assembly line as the starting place, moving through MTV, and onto American Idol. As a part of this journey, he traces the history of “whatever” and comments on the current cultural impotence.

Burgeoning Transformation

Wesch then assembles a multi-faceted picture that there is hope for our culture through the interaction of digital artifacts. He spends a significant portion of the talk showing various example of these conversations. YouTube acts as a meme-spreader and remix environment, and Twitter allows you to see yourself clearly.

4chan, the disputably infamous “imageboard,” morphs into Anonymous and plays tricks on over 9000 celebrities and groups that take themselves too seriously. Wesch makes the point that we’re in the midst of a “context collapse,” examines what that means, and shows what people are trying to do with the tools that are currently available.

Architectures of Participation

In the end, “Architectures of Participation are becoming the architecture of our daily life.” Designers will be shaping the tools that shape the culture and hopes that our community of practice can help humanity “do whatever it takes by whatever means necessary.”

These podcasts are sponsored by:

ASIS&T logo
The “American Society of Information Science & Technology”: Since 1937, ASIS&T has been THE society for information professionals leading the search for new and better theories, techniques, and technologies to improve access to information.

IA Summit 2009 logo
The “IA Summit”: the premier gathering place for information architects and other user experience professionals.

The theme of the event this year, Expanding Our Horizons, inspired peers and industry experts to come together to speak about a wide range of topics. This included information as wide ranging as practical techniques & tools to evolving practices to create better user experiences.

The design behind the design
“Boxes & Arrows”: Since 2001, Boxes & Arrows has been a peer-written journal promoting contributors who want to provoke thinking, push limits, and teach a few things along the way.

Contribute as an editor or author, and get your ideas out there. “”:

Transcript of the opening keynote address delivered March 20, 2009 at ASIS&T IA Summit 2009 in Memphis, TN.

Announcer: This podcast brought to you by ASIST, the American Society for Information Science & Technology, the society for information professionals; by the IA Summit, the premier gathering place for information architects and other user experience professionals; by Boxes and Arrows, visit to be a part of your peer‑written journal. And special thanks to Axure and Morae for sponsoring Boxes and Arrows as well as the many other sponsors of the IA Summit.
Announcer: Michael Wesch delivered a powerful keynote presentation at the 10th annual Information Architecture Summit in Memphis, Tennessee. Michael has been dubbed “the explainer” by “Wired Magazine, ” a cultural anthropologist exploring the impact of new media on society and culture.
After two years studying the impact of writing on a remote, indigenous culture in the rain forest of Papua New Guinea, he has turned his attention to the effects of social media and digital technology on global society.
His videos on technology, education and information have been viewed by millions, translated in over 10 languages and are frequently featured at international film festivals and major academic conferences worldwide.
I hope everyone enjoys the podcast. Cheers.
Michael Wesch: I actually got my start looking at mediated culture in the most bizarre places in Papua New Guinea. So I’m going to tell you a quick little story about Papua New Guinea and how I got started there in order to frame everything I’m going to talk about. I’m going to end up talking about YouTube, 4chan, and Twitter and things like that, but we have to start in New Guinea in order to give us some context for that.
So I first went to New Guinea, this is 1999. I’ve went there off and on for the past 10 years, and ultimately have spent about two full years there in the past 10 years. And so to get to the villages where I work you have to fly into a little airstrip, like this little grass airstrip, and it takes you about two weeks to get that far because you’re usually waiting on little Cessnas and things like that. And ultimately you get here and then you walk a couple days and you end up in villages like this.
So you’re talking about places that have really nothing that we would call media in our terms. There’s no electricity, there’s no Internet and so on. Usually there’s not even working radios. Very isolated. And there’s not even money to speak of so these people are mostly subsistence horticulturists. And here you can see a garden. They grow lots of sweet potatoes and taro, they raise pigs. So this is a major feast that they would have.
They also eat anything that the forest provides them such as spiders. So after a big storm the rainwater will just wash these spiders down to the canopy and then they’ll harvest these and they’ll eat these spiders. They’ll also eat snakes whenever they get a chance. They’ll even eat what’s inside the snake. So here you can see they’ve taken out an animal that was recently eaten by the snake, and they then eat that.
And I show you this because this is where my journey really begins. This photo was taken about a week after I arrived, and it’s about 100 feet from where I was staying, which is right here. And I barely speak the language at this time. And I’ll just take you inside the hut here just to show you what it looks like.
This is what it looks like. These are actually my legs up here and this is my little sleeping bag. This little sleeping bag, I used to call it my little America because at night I would just try to wrap myself up in this thing and hide myself from the world because there were bugs everywhere and rats and all kinds of stuff.
Michael Wesch: But of course this is the tropics, it’s the equator, so in the middle of the night I’d get really hot and the sleeping bag would be off of me and there I would be exposed.
And that night after we ate the snake, I was looking around and I noticed that there’s all these little holes in the floor, holes in the walls, holes everywhere. And I thought, gosh, a snake could just crawl right in here at any time.
And sure enough that night I’m wrapped up in my little America, it gets too hot, the sleeping bag is off of me. And I wake up in the middle of the night with this thing, I can feel this thing across me. It’s this big around and it’s right across my chest here.
So I freak out, and I manage to get it with my left hand and I throw it off of me. But as I throw it, I roll with it. So now I manage to get it pinned down with my left hand. I have it pinned down on the ground like this and I try to get my right arm free so I can pin it down with my right arm, but I can’t move my right arm. And this is when I realize I’ve actually pinned down my own right arm.
Michael Wesch: What had happened was my arm had fallen asleep and it was across me like this.
Michael Wesch: So there actually was no snake. And at this time ‑ speaking of media ‑ the only thing that I could understand from anybody, I could barely understand the language, the only word I understood was the word they used for me. And the word they used for me was an English word that they had borrowed, which was “white man.” And so they would just say, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, white man,” and then I would hear just laughter roaring.
Michael Wesch: And this was my primary encouragement to learn the language very quickly and so on.
What I realized was that they had no idea who I was. I was just the white man that they could laugh at and so on. But then I started to realize that that was basically true for everybody in these villages. This is a situation in which your entire identity is made in your face‑to‑face relationships with other people. And we have become such a mediated society that we’ve completely lost sight of what that even means.
So you come to a conference like this and you are instantly displaying to people in numerous ways who you are by the nametag you’re wearing, the institution you’re associated with, all of that based on a print technology that wouldn’t be possible without those little symbols on your nametag.
Not to mention your identity cards and all that type of stuff that declare you a US citizen or whatever it might be. Even your clothes are sending a certain message. So even when you walk through the airport people will be able to identify certain things about you just by the clothes you’re wearing.
You go to a village like this and you lose all of that. And locally, the people themselves also are primarily negotiating their own identities in these face‑to‑face relationships. I’ll give you a few examples of this, which has really brought home to me in the following 10 years since after that first event, in a sequence of events that the locals now refer to as “number talk.”
What happened about 10 years ago was, just after I arrived, the government got serious about running this very remote series of villages, using bureaucratic paper‑based government. And so they went in and they actually charted every single village in the area with GPS. They actually carried around a GPS unit, marked down each of the villages.
And then they began taking a census in which every house was numbered, every person in the house got their own number as well, and they were able to count the units. And this allowed them to determine how much funding the village would get. So there was a whole formula for how much funding each village gets.
The impact of this was really tremendous in the next 10 years. The first thing that happened was they actually started eliminating their old villages, which looked like this, and are actually based on relationships. If you were really close to somebody you would face your door towards them, and if not, you would face it away from them. And instead you can see they arranged their houses almost by the book, in a linear format. And each of these houses is actually numbered just like the census book.
And if you go there today and you ask them, “Why did you build your village like this?” they’ll give you a one word answer: “Census.” And then you can see how it maps onto the census here.
And then during the census exercise itself a really interesting thing happened. They were having a really hard time getting people to say their names. They would go around and they would say, “What’s your name?” And people would be all confused. They didn’t know what their name was.
Now that sounds crazy. How could that be? But if you think about all the names that you have, you probably are referred to by at least 10 names, if not more. Imagine if somebody then came to you, and you had no idea which one was your real name, and said, “What’s your real name?”
They actually would go to some of the people there and they’d say, “What’s your name?” and they would say the word for mother, or father, or brother, because that’s what people called them in the village. And then suddenly they were like, “No, no, what’s your name?” And they’d just get totally confused by that whole idea.
So they ended up adopting another English phrase called “census name.” And now if you go there and you ask people what your name is, they’ll say, “You mean my census name?” So that’s where that comes from.
Meanwhile, people refer to this as “number talk” because their idea is that it’s numbers that talk to the state. And this becomes a certain kind of mediated reality, and they try to cook the numbers in a way. But this goes on to even more levels in terms of how print and the book were actually mediating their society.
This is what a dispute looked like prior to the incoming of this government bureaucracy. You can see what happens is when there is a dispute, everybody meets in an open area, everybody talks about it, everybody has a chance to talk and so on. But in the new era of print, they have an actual law book in which there’s a series of laws. And when people have a conflict, they’re taken into the courthouse and they’re measured against this static group of laws.
And this turns everything quite dramatically. Suddenly the focus is on the individual and the relation to a piece of paper. And their relation to the letter of the law, as opposed to their relationship with the people that are actually in conflict with.
The whole point of this is to say that media are not just tools. They are just means of communication but in fact they mediate relationships. When media changed, relationships changed. That makes today an especially interesting time. So Marshall McLuhan might say we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.
So today you look around and you see a Flickr here and a Twitter there and you have to recognize that this is a new way of relating emerging. So I’ll just give you a quick little tail from the new mediascape and then I’ll go into some more stuff about YouTube in particular and then 4chan.
So here’s a little story from the new mediascape. This is like the million‑dollar story. OK, so the reason why it’s a million dollar story is a million dollars is what it costs to make a 30 second commercial spot for the Super Bowl, which is a big event obviously. And so Doritos had an idea of how they could leverage the new mediascape to make it a lot cheaper.
So they just created a contest they allowed people to upload videos of their own little 30‑second spot and this ended up being the winning commercial. When they interviewed these guys about how they made it and what was involved, they found out that it cost them $12.79 to create their commercial, which is roughly the cost of three bags of Doritos that they had to break during the filming of it.
It was very successful. It was rated fourth by USA Today on their ad meter. So in terms of affecting the audience it was fourth. It did very well, despite it’s low price. But it turns out it’s $2.7 million to air the commercial, which brings the total cost to…
Michael Wesch: So the interesting thing about this though is that they asked these advertisers why do you spend so much money on this 30‑second spot and they say basically it’s water cooler talk. We want to be the thing that people are talking about the next day after Super Bowl. Well, the next day after the Super Bowl, if you check the blogosphere, the number one video in blogosphere actually costs zero dollars to produce.
I know that because that was the video that I made that was mentioned here in the interim. Those of you who haven’t seen it, this is just… I’ll just show you a quick 30‑seconds of it here. It’s this one where it’s sort of a history… Thanks. It’s like a history of digital text. Starting with written texts and what it look like in terms of written text. And then the changes that are brought about as digital text comes onto the scene.
I’m just speeding up here. You don’t have to watch the film but the basic idea here is that there’s some things I’ll cover a little bit later in this talk. We’re talking about blogs, YouTube, tagging, Wikipedia, and so on. All changing things in such a way that the Web is no longer linking information but it’s about linking people.
Michael Wesch: That means that we’re going to have to rethink a whole lot of things in our culture. This is all actually inspired by my work in New Guinea, which I think surprises people but that’s what this is really all about. That’s why I thought that you’d have to re‑think things, no just like governance and privacy and commerce, I think everybody thinks of, but also love, family and ourselves.
[Indistinct voice]
Michael Wesch: We’ll get to that later.
Michael Wesch: So the interesting story behind this so is not just this sort of move the video itself but what happens afterwards. So the interesting thing about this is it was made in the basement of this house in the middle of Kansas. So here you have a video that competed with $2.6 million massive productions and it was created in the basement of this house in Kansas.
It was done in collaboration with a guy in Cote d’Ivore ‑‑ in the Ivory Coast ‑‑ because he had uploaded the music that you heard there with creative commons license. We’re collaborating across time and space. And this was then taken on Friday. I uploaded it on a Wednesday and you see by Friday I had 253 views and the reason why there’s a screen shot of this is because I was just blown away that more than 200 people had seen this.
Michael Wesch: And in anthropology that’s a really big deal when more than 200 read your work.
Michael Wesch: So, I sent this to my department head and she was thrilled. We had a party that night and she was telling everybody. She was like you won’t believe…
Michael Wesch: Then this is by the next day. This is Saturday and you can see we had over a 1,000 views. We normally think about user‑generated content and that’s what this is. But what’s really interesting is what happened next. This showed me that there was a lot more going on here.
And that was, the reason why it was growing exponentially was that it had been “dugg” ‑ you know, Digg is a site where people can give it a thumbs up or thumbs down ‑ the good stuff kind of rises to the top. It literally gets dugg up to the top. And here you can see it was rising right to the front page of Digg. Digg is just one example of what you might call user‑generated filtering.
So there you can see it on the front page. The list is of course… It was also floating around Del.ici.ous and you can see the top two links there for the most popular Web 2.0 links that day were from Del.ici.ous. So this is a situation where people are just going to the video, tagging it with Web 2.0, anthropology, whatever it might be and organizing the Web as they do it.
So this is what you might call user‑generated organization for what’s great about this. I mean, that’s nifty in itself but what’s interesting about that is that Tazz is being tagged, a lot of you in this room are probably following tags yourself on the Del.ici.ous. You might be following the tag Web 2.0, like a lot of people are and then that will instantly come to your home page the instant that somebody tags it.
So this then you might call user‑generated distribution. So what we see emerging here is basically an alternative to the massive, mass media machine that we have existed with for decades here in the US. It now has like a valid competitor, valid alternative in the user‑generated landscape here.
So then it goes through out the blogosphere and this is where humans and machines are interacting without knowing it because every time somebody links it in the blogosphere it’s getting counted by Technorati.
That’s what creates the top 20 lists that you see on as well as on Technorati. Here you can see it was, this was number four and this is Super Bowl Sunday morning. I woke up and it was number four and I was just blown away by that.
My wife and I just sat down and we started hitting refresh, refresh, refresh.
Michael Wesch: We were really worried about the viral videos from the Super Bowl coming in that night. So we thought, if we can only get the number one before the Super Bowl and here you can see this is about noon that day it was number one.
This is then the next day after the Super Bowl and you can see not only was it number one, but it was well about the others. In fact, two through 20 almost entirely are Super Bowl commercials. So this is what you might call user‑generated ratings and this also works with Google, of course. Because every time you make a link on Google, it’s just sort of accidental collaboration with machines that’s going on all around us right now.
And this is what’s driving something that can be made in a basement in Kansas to have millions of views because commented on thousands of times and creating then this alternative mediascape.
So the question then is: do you look at this interconnected mediascape that creates all this collaboration in multiple ways. So this is just like a month after it was created. You can see it was translated into 12 languages. That spread it worldwide.
The interesting thing about this is that at the center of this user‑generated landscape is us, which means that this is not just a technological revolution. This is a cultural revolution. So that’s why I say that we had to rethink all the things.
Now, there’s a certain thought bias to media. People talk about media bias in terms of Fox News and that kind of stuff, but I’m not talking about content, I’m talking about the medium itself. There’s a long history of studies of this now going back four and five decades of very serious study. But even going back much further than that we’ve come to realize that the biases are things like this.
So there’s an intellectual bias to different media. So for example just for a real basic example take the example of like communicating with smoke signals versus communicating with a book. Obviously, there’s going to be an intellectual bias. You can’t recount Plato using smoke signals. Right?
So that’s a very basic bias of media. There’s emotional biases. You can’t convey the same emotions in different media. That’s why when you have something really important to tell somebody you’ll often think very carefully about what medium you’re going to use. There’s special and temporal biases.
We saw that in New Guinea, just in a sense of face to face communication is spatially biased towards how far your voice can reach, and temporally biased towards the now, because it doesn’t last, other than how people remember it and carry it on. Whereas print has a long temporal bias, because it stays static over a long time, and spatially, it can travel over long distances.
These create certain biases of the media. Then, there’s sensory biases. Some media are visual. Others are auditory, and so on. There’s political biases, in the sense that some media are accessible to some, and not accessible to others. There’s social biases, in that every medium creates a social scene around it, in terms of how you engage it, how you receive it, how you create it.
Ultimately, this is where it gets interesting. When you add all that up, there’s actually metaphysical biases to media. They actually make you think about space, and time, and the world differently, especially as they start to seep into our institutions. That then leads to different understandings of what information is, what knowledge is, and so on. These are epistemological biases.
Here’s a nice summary of this: Lee Rainie was talking about the effects of new media, and this is the basic summary of what he had to say. He said, just for example, you have the role of experts challenged by new voices, enabled by more open platforms for the dissemination of ideas. You have new institutions emerge to deal with the social, cultural, and political changes. There’s a struggle to revise social and legal norms, especially around the changing environment of intellectual property.
We all have seen this happening. It’s happening all around us. Concepts of identity and community multiply and transform. New forms of language arise. We’ve seen all of this recently, but, of course, he was actually talking about the printing press. This is just one example, going back 500 years, and here we are in this situation.
The question is, what are the biases of this media environment? How is it changing us? And the great question for you guys, because you guys right on the front lines of actually creating this environment is how can we create an environment that creates the types of community that we want to create, and the types of people we want to create, and so on.
And so, I started studying this new media environment here, by just watching my own students. I had this great sort of research lab, and it’s just in my classroom. You sort of get off this sideways. You can’t just come directly at them and start asking them questions about how they use media and all that stuff. That’s interesting stuff, but it doesn’t get at the real changes that are happening, and the bigger picture stuff. If any of you do ethnography, you know how you have to go at it sideways.
Here’s a series of questions that was very revealing to me, that aren’t going at it directly, but are still very interesting. Here’s question one: How many of you do not actually like school? Over half of them raised their hands to that question.
Then I say, how many do not like learning, and of course you get no hands. So then, we have this problem, because we’ve created this institution that’s actually designed for learning, and yet the people who like learning don’t like the institution. It’s actually true with professors, as well.
Michael Wesch: Then there’s other problems, right? The students are Facebooking through their classes. They bring their laptop to class. They’re not working on class stuff. This is actually a spur of the moment thing. Just as we were taking this picture, her IM popped up, so obviously this is a common practice for her. They buy $100 textbooks they never open. They pay for class, but often don’t show up.
We did a survey, and found that they complete about 49% of the readings assigned to them, and they find that only 26% are relevant to their lives. So, there’s this huge disconnect in our schools, and the question is, what is this all about?
Here’s the interesting thing: You look at this room here, everybody’s tuned out, and dazed, and so on. The same group of people that we might say are having this problem of significance show up in this context like this.
Michael Wesch: We have a camera on them, and there’s the contrast.
I was looking for an answer as to why this would be, and I found a perfect quote for this, and here it is: “What we are encountering is a panicky, and almost hysterical attempt to escape from the deadly anonymity of modern life. The prime cause is not vanity, but the craving of people that feel their personality sinking lower and lower into the world, indistinguishable atoms to be lost in the mass of civilization.”
I don’t know if anybody recognizes that. That’s actually from 1926. There’s a long history of this sort of disconnect, this feeling of insignificance in the world. He was actually talking about city life. Adding to that, you might say that there’s sort of… We can do a history of insignificance here. It’s not just about city life, but the assembly line, in which people started to feel like automatons, sort of anonymous functionaries in this big machine.
This allowed us to expand and build these massive suburbia areas here, and we’re so disconnected, we’re only connected by roads, and of course TVs and radios. And then, the TV actually becomes the home of our culture. All significant conversations about our culture occur right here, on the TV. And so, therefore, it’s not just the conversations of the culture, but conversations of significance that happen here, and it’s a one‑way conversation.
You have to be on TV to have a voice. You have to be on TV to be significant. And so, obviously, you’re ready. You’re like, “Just let me on TV. Remind me that I’m real.”

Something like that.
By the 1990s, we were just bombarded with imagery like this. 1980s, actually. This is the MTV world, right? Every one of these images is posted from MTV, the barrage of logos. This is actually my journal from when I was 17, in 1992. You can see, I was very much part of the MTV generation.
If you guys remember, everybody was talking about the MTV generation back then. It was things like, they have short attention spans, because they can’t last through a four‑minute video. They’re very materialistic, and we were. We spent so much money as an age group. We’re narcissistic, and one of the theories about why we’re narcissistic is because all that stuff that was being thrown at us from the TV was designed for us. That’s a very flattering thing. When you’re bombarded with million dollar images.
It costs $3.6 million to produce 30 seconds of TV, and it’s all for me? It’s very flattering, and so this kind of narcissism emerges.
But on the other hand, we’re also not easily impressed, because we’re just bombarded with all of this stuff all of the time. There’s this great line about this. “In the midst of a fabulous array of historically unprecedented and utterly mind‑boggling stimuli, whatever.”
Michael Wesch: That’s from Thomas de Zengotita. That’s a really great book called “Mediated.” I highly recommend it to anybody.
In the midst of trying to figure out where we’re going, I decided to do a brief history of “Whatever.” So I started mining the literature, doing Google searches to find out when the word whatever was used, and how it’s changed over time, and things like that. Basically what I found is that pre‑1960, whatever is generally ‑‑ it just generally means, “That’s what I meant.”
It’s sort of like you say something, and then somebody repeats it back to you, but in different words, and you just say, “Whatever. That’s what I meant.” That’s all it meant.
By the late ’60s, though, it started to become the “Whatever, man,” sequence. It’s like, “I don’t care. Whatever,” and an indifference started to emerge. Of course, this is at the beginning of TV, and especially the beginnings of color TV.
By the 1990s, though, this total bombardment of imagery, and you end up with this MTV generation, and you have not only whatever, but also the indifferent “meh” emerges. This is where The “Simpsons” clips come in. This is 1992. Some people claim this is the first use of the word “meh.”
[clips begins]
Bart Simpson: Nothing you say can upset us. We’re the MTV generation!
Lisa Simpson: We feel neither highs nor lows.
Homer Simpson: Really? What’s it like?
Lisa Simpson: Eh.
[clip ends]
Michael Wesch: You can tell it wasn’t quite a meh, right? It was more like, “Eh.”
This is 2001. They really spell it out.
[clip plays]
Homer Simpson: [excited] Would you like to go to Block‑o‑land?!! Bart and…
Lisa Simpson: Meh.
Homer Simpson: You leave me the impression that…
Bart Simpson: We said meh.
Lisa Simpson: M‑E‑H. Meh.
[clip ends]
Michael Wesch: It’s after that that on forums all over the Internet meh starts to appear. It started to appear in 1992, 1993, but it really started going in 2001. In fact, Harper Collins, just last year, admitted meh into their dictionary, so it’s now official.
1992, back to the MTV generation, this was the real anthem of the day. Kurt Cobain, “And I find it hard, it’s hard to find, oh well, whatever, nevermind.” It’s the perfect anthem of our generation.
Neil Postman in ’84 said something really appropriate here. He said, “The public has adjusted to incoherence and been amused into indifference.”
And, again, from Kurt Cobain: “I feel stupid and contagious. Here we are now, entertain us.” And, a lot of faculty actually repeat this line when they see this. They get a sense like ‑‑ they think what the students are waiting for.
So I mentioned earlier that this barrage of imagery is actually very flattering, right, and it creates a sense of narcissism. And so even as we’re sort of bombarded into passivity ‑ there’s no way to act on the images that are being thrown at us ‑ we’re definitely ready to get out there.
So in 1992, the real world starts to emerge and reality TV starts to take off, and that’s the ground for what you see in the “American Idol” frenzy today: People just desperate and ready to get on screen, to have some sort of significance.
And they really think that they deserve to be there. And so, by the late ’90s to the present, there’s a new transition in “whatever,” and it’s become much more sort of self focused and, “I am the most important person on the planet. Whatever! You don’t matter, I matter,” kind of thing. And you see that, not in the “Simpsons,” but on “South Park.” So here’s like a famous one.
[clip plays]
Michael Wesch: So you might have missed it. He said, “Whatever, I will be what I want.” And then this was, I think, a song that’s really gotten popular on YouTube lately, but actually started on MTV.
[song plays]
Michael Wesch: You see the self‑righteousness, right? There’s a new self‑righteousness there. All right. So you get the added narcissism to it all.
And then, Jean Twenge recently published a book called, “Generation Me,” which sort of tried to capture all of this. You can see the title up there: “Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled, and More Miserable Than Ever Before.” Because as they have rushed on the stage, they think that they deserve to be there, and then when there are not, they’re all like shocked ‑ you know, like, “Are you serious?”
Do you guys watch “American Idol?” It’s crazy. Like just all these people who think they totally deserve to be in a spotlight, and then they’re shocked when they’re not, and they’re in tears, and so on.
Now, this is actually very serious, though. Here’s a whole series of questions that will really bring it home. It’s not just about sort of the play on “American Idol” and so on ‑ but ask yourself these questions. Imagine asking yourself these questions now versus in the mid‑’80s. What steps do you plan to take to reduce the conflict in the Middle East, or the rate of inflation, crime or unemployment? What do you plan to do about NATO, OPEC, the CIA, etcetera?
And, this is from Neil Postman. He says, “I shall take the liberty of answering for you. You plan to do nothing.” And so we live in a world in which we’re sort of impotent. We want to be engaged and we’re sort of following the news with all this rigor, and yet, ultimately, we’re impotent in our actions. We have nothing to do.
Meanwhile, there’s something in the air that maybe is transforming what you’re seeing. And that something in the air is actually the digital artifacts of roughly of 1.4 billion people communicating. It’s literally in the air. It’s floating in the air all around you, for instance. At least you can sort of grab it with your cell phone or your laptop or whatever.
And when you add it all up, there are big numbers I can throw at you: 70 exabytes will be produced this year. That’s 70 billion gigabytes. It’s more than the entire collection of Library of Congress. A lot more. In fact, it’s 518,000 libraries worth.
Meanwhile, we’re testing our students like this when there’s all this information floating around. It’s the equivalent of 12,000 gigabytes per person. It’s equivalent to a stack of books 350 feet total. And, yet, less than 0.01% of it will be on paper.
So that was just all a metaphor, when I’m talking about how many books it would be. And it’s important to recognize it as a metaphor, because digital information is different. You guys are all trying to come to terms with that, and what it means, and what you can create out of these differences.
So, Marshall McLuhan once said: “We look at the present through a rear‑view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” There’s lots of great examples we can bring up with this, and one of them is just this idea that here we are in the information superhighway. We have to use metaphor constantly to understand what’s going on, because it’s a new thing.
So here we are in the information superhighway, looking into the rear‑view mirror, and we translate all the data that’s coming in through our screens into something we call a desktop, which is a metaphor. We put folders on that desktop ‑ again, a metaphor. We put documents inside the folders and so on.
And it’s only recently that we’ve realized that folder even was a metaphor. I think most people didn’t really get it, but it was a metaphor until they saw tagging. And then, they thought, “Oh, you can do this differently.”
And it’s not that we are going give up folders, because folders are actually a great technology. They’re actually an invention, too. They are not that old themselves, even in the physical space. But, when we get sorted of blinded by the rear‑view mirror, we don’t see the new possibilities.
In terms of the Web, of course, there was the Web pages era. So, in the early days of the Web ‑‑I think probably most of the people in this room remember a certain frustration with the creation of Web pages, or even like working for somebody who wanted you to create a web page and like really had the image of a page, a paper, and you were to create something like that.
The response to this was to create more things that were more dynamic. Does anybody remember the DHTML days? Yeah, when it was like really big deal. I will just zoom in a little bit here. Now, look at the new metaphor that was being brought in. It was said with the advent of DHTML, Web pages are one step closer to its cousin, TV, in terms of special effects.
So the new metaphor was like “let’s copy TV.” First, it was, “Let’s copy print, now let’s copy TV.” And you can see down here at the bottom. These things would make your images fly, light up, turn static, slow down loading time.
So this is what people were after. But the problem with this code, it was really complex and it often went into one document. It wasn’t like separate into multiple documents. And so form and content became inseparable, and it was basically almost impossible to upload content without knowing a whole lot. And, just even updating the content was really difficult, because you have to go into the code to actually update anything.
So Tim Berners Lee was really upset by this. And, by the late ’90s, he had a series of talks, not just one. The first one was December ’97. He said, “Look, it’s not supposed to be a glorified television channel,” because he had actually set it up so that people could share information and this kind of thing. He thought that people had really missed it.
If you click on one of these, you could really get a sense of the problems, because here ‑ I’ll just go into special document effects. And you can see it has like “IE” on the sides. What that means is that it only works with IE. And then you had to put this other script in there that would actually tell it, like, “If it’s not IE, then do this.” You’re basically building like two and something even three different websites all in one document ‑ really complex.
So these browser wars ultimately led to a new dedication in standards. And the reason I use the Firefox emblem is because towards the end of the nineties, Netscape and IE were like in this race basically to adapt themselves to DHTML, to have more effects and all this type of stuff, at the expense of all standards. So CSS wasn’t even really adopted. Even though it was created many years earlier, it wasn’t truly adopted, because there were racing to accept more and more DHTML.
So Netscape actually scrapped everything, rebuilt from scratch, and that become the base of what is now Firefox. And what happened then is that with form separated from content, you no longer needed to know complicated code to create content for the Web.
In that, once the standards were in place, CSS was alive; XML was able to grow at that point, and suddenly you had this very simple form. And this from Blogger, of course. Anybody can fill out this form and hit the publish button.
And, I’ve timed this before, it takes like 19 seconds to set up a blog these days. It’s just that easy to create your own website now. So, of course, it’s no surprise that there’s 184 million blogs today, and that’s almost 184 million more than there were in 2003 ‑ we are keeping track. And, I suppose it’s because we’re ready. We are just like desperate to come on and participate in the culture that we are a part of.
So, here we are in this new mediascape. I want to make a big point here. And that is that the medium shapes the message. So as we look back at this, each one of these is a different type of community with different ways of relating to each other and so on.
The reason why I’ve put this in the blogger format, is because blogger itself, was a big aha moment on the Web. It had just a signal box. The early blogs… first off you had to know HTML, if you were doing really early blogging.
And then there was a few platforms that emerged. Those early platforms, usually had a title space and then a link space, and then a comment space. The early blogs, were actually commenting on material that was already out on the Web. Because you’re sort of required to put this little link in the link space.
But Blogger did something different, they just said, “We’re just going to give you an empty box.” So you can do whatever you want with it. That led to the proliferation of all these different types of communications on blogs.
So the medium shapes the message, it shapes the conversation, it shapes the possibilities then, for community, for identity construction, and ultimately for self‑awareness, so that the medium, the media that you guys create, those sort of platforms, that you guys create for people to connect on, are actually shaping really profound things in people’s lives.
So this is where things will get interesting. We’re going to jump in here, and just look around in this new mediascape to see how different media shape the way we connect with each other today.
So first we’ll jump in to YouTube. Some of you may have seen some of these clips before. First off, we’ll start off…
[YouTube clip plays]
Michael Wesch: This is just a quick tour of what’s on YouTube. So first off, it’s not just young people right? Here’s 92‑year‑old, Erving Fields, signing about YouTube.
[YouTube clip plays]
Michael Wesch: But the most common videos on YouTube, are actually home videos. About 33% of video’s are just people uploading stuff from their family and just sharing these videos.
[YouTube clip plays]
Michael Wesch: So this is where it gets fun right? People start remixing this stuff.
[YouTube clip plays]
Michael Wesch: What’s really interesting, sounds sophisticated. It’s actually a bit more sophisticated, so this is obviously like a hip‑hop remix of the thing. These are done by amateurs because it’s that easy to do.
Even a better example, this is a free demo version of this Fuity Loop loop software that you can get online. And this is De Andre Cortez Way, April 2007, creates this little riff along with this dance stand. You guys may have heard this before. Post this to YouTube under MySpace, and within months, everybody around the country is doing this dance same.
Michael Wesch: These are prisoners in the Philippines. This is an MIT Professor and some graduate students, who studied for his historical theory. These are high school teachers, and then there’s all these remixes too. This is the “Harry Potter” version. This is the “Lion King” version. Vincent, Winnie the Pooh, Spongebob, and this goes on and on.
So obviously, the major sort of record labels are on to this, and they decide to buy “Soldier Boy” and make this video.
In the video, you sort of mocks their own kind of cluelessness, in the new mediascape right? You’ll see the imagery here, showing how the video spreads, and ultimately, finally found its way to these record executives.
You’ll see the use of cell phones and so on. But what really gets me excited about YouTube, is another aspect of it, and that’s that about 10,000 video’s a day are actually addressed to the YouTube community.
These are people that are getting on the webcam and talking to each other. It’s a unique form of community. Me and about 15 students have been getting involved in the YouTube community. There’s Rebecca Roth, from 2007. She immediately started coming up with insights into the YouTube community. Here’s what Rebecca was displaying and this is really cool.
[YouTube clip plays]
Michael Wesch: We started really thinking carefully about what it means to create a community through a webcam, and then through a screen. Everything is literally screened in this community, right? We started thinking about what that means and came up with a series of insights about what it means for identity and self‑awareness, and so on.
Here’s one.
[YouTube clip plays]
Michael Wesch: This is Marshal McLuhan, talking about recognition, and it applies well to YouTube, even though he’s not talking about YouTube.
[YouTube clip plays]
Michael Wesch: So you can see new types of self‑awareness emerging. I’ll talk a little more about that in a second. There’s also, not just while you’re creating the videos, then there’s this other side where you’re watching the videos, and there’s a certain anonymity in watching because the people you’re watching can’t see you, and this leads to some interesting effects.
First off, Lev Grossman once said that, “Some of the comments on YouTube make you weep for the future of humanity, just for the spelling alone. Never mind the obscenity and the naked hatred.”
I’ll show you an example of this. It’s just a random example here. The comment comes like: “Douchebags, you suck.” This is responded by Wingman8788, “You guys are so gay, it sucks.” Qwertyu121 says: “What the fuck are you talking about?”
Frickyougirl114 says, “YouTube comments make me angry. Grr.” Then Qwertyu121 responds: “Then don’t comment on YouTube.” It’s interesting.
Michael Wesch: So there’s this anonymity and physical distance, and the rare and ephemeral femoral dialogue. It creates hatred as a public performance, but it also creates a space, where people have the freedom to experience humanity, their co‑humanity without fear, or anxiety, as you’ll see here.
[YouTube clip plays]
Michael Wesch: So it’s almost like this state of aesthetic arrest where you really connect with people and you know in our society we kind of have this cultural inversion or cultural tension, you might say.
On the one hand, we really have a lot of individualism, independence and commercialization all around us, and yet we seek then the opposites, right, so we’re just saturated with individualism and independence and commercialization.
Therefore we want community, relationships and authenticity. And this becomes a certain tension and in reality it turns out we want sort of both of these or some balance of these. And these are constantly in tension.
Now, what you see in new media a lot is that people want to find connections, bridging their isolated lives, but they also see these connections as constraints on their individualism, on their independence. So, ultimately, they want connection without constraint. That’s like the ultimate. YouTube actually offers this possibility, as you’ll see here.
[YouTube clip plays]
Michael Wesch: All right, so that’s like a little brief version of how the medium of YouTube effects our self‑awareness, our ways that we negotiate identity and community and so on. And then you think about something like Twitter, just as a counter‑example, and think about what you’re doing in those 140 characters.
So one version of what you’re doing is life casting, and the nice thing about Twitter is it’s always with you. You can text to it from your cell phone, and that means it’s very different than what we see in YouTube. It’s very different than a lot of other media that we are familiar with throughout our lives. So you can actually sort of lifecast your life out there.
Jay Rosen likes to think of it instead as mindcasting. Actually, he hates lifecasting in which you tell people about brushing your teeth. Instead, suggests that we actually sort of have quality content out there. That’s what he calls mindcasting.
Lisa Reichelt has this great idea that in fact what we’re doing is creating ambient intimacy, that these little details of our lives are sort of connecting us. So even while you’re sitting here, you might get buzzed with a little Twitter update and you can check it and it’ll say, “Just woke the kids up,” or something like that. You’re kind of ambiently connected with your family, even while you’re sitting here in this room.
But what’s really interesting is when all of these updates start to line up. Laura Fitten has this great quote about this. She says, “In an age of awareness, perhaps the person you see most clearly is yourself,” because you end up having this record.
If you just go to your own Twitter page, you have your own little record, all written in little 140 character little blips, about your life and you see yourself back to yourself, as you present yourself to other people because this is a very public space.
So it’s a very interesting mode of self‑awareness. And there’s one other idea floating around out there from Theresa Sindt that you’re actually becoming a microcelebrity. You’re managing your microcelebrity‑ness, whatever you might want to say.
And this is actually true for everybody. This isn’t just people who have thousands of followers and follow very few people. This is really true for everybody in that most people who are on Twitter end up having several people following them. Maybe it’s only five, maybe it’s 10, whatever.
But you’ll have people following you who you don’t know, or you just barely know. And in a sense then, when you use Twitter, you’re sort of releasing press releases of yourself out to these people. Everybody in a sense is famous, has that weird relationship with others where they know you and you don’t know them. So that’s kind of what Twitter can do.
Now here’s where things get really interesting is in this world called 4chan. How many people go to 4chan? Ok, there’s a couple. So this is a really great, interesting place. We’re actually going to zoom here on a random board.
What 4chan is is just an image‑based bulletin board, or image board. And the field where you upload your image looks like this. And you can see there’s name, email, subject, comment and then you upload a file. And it ends up looking like this. Now, one interesting thing about this is on the “/b/” Forum, this is where the medium becomes interesting.
They actually have basically no rules for posting, including you don’t have to use a name at all. You don’t have to use your name. You can change your name each time you post. You don’t stay signed in and registered. So this is a very different type of thing than on Twitter, where you have a fixed identity. It’s also very different than on YouTube where your identity is basically designated by your face and so on.
So here you have the basic comment field. You end up with a little dancer like this. So the forum is called “/b/.” So here somebody has shown up and they say “Is this /b/?” and then somebody responds, “No, this is Patrick.” “Wait, is this /b/?” It says, “No, this is Patrick.” And it keeps going and going. This is actually from Spongebob. And it keeps going. It just keeps going and going and going.
Michael Wesch: This is the type of banter you get. And so /b/ and 4chan itself sort of becomes this interesting world where everybody is anonymous. And so they actually become sort of a collective known as Anonymous. And also, each individual is also known as Anonymous. And this becomes like the primordial ooze from which so much of Internet culture is born, because it’s this very creative space.
Think about when you’re at your most creative is usually when you sort of let go of your identity, right? Usually you’re drunk. And you sort of like forget it. You know to forget who you are and then this enormous creativity comes out, great jokes, funny stuff. 4chan is almost always like that.
And so they started posting pictures of cats with funny sayings on them. And this would tend to happen on Saturdays, so they started calling this Caturday, and Caturdays were born. And a lot of you have probably heard of this because they’re the LOLcats that you see all over the place . There’s now a whole website dedicated to them at
But here, it’s Caturday. They have a whole series. I tried to select ones that kind of represent the type of humor that you would see on this site. Now think about this, this is really interesting. I’m glad you guys all know what that is. I didn’t want to show it. But if you don’t know what it is, just look it up. Or not. Or not.
What’s interesting is this is totally anonymous. When people post, you don’t even know who they are. And so they have this whole language that’s emerged to determine in‑group and out‑group. And it looks a little bit like this. And when it gets really deep, it looks like this. And it’s the same thing that I just put up.
So there’s all these new languages emerging. I think this would d be a good time to show this. They have all these shared memes and things that go around. So one of them is they have this great book from Dragonball Z, which you guys may have heard before. You get a sense of who’s visiting the forum by the memes that they write.
[clip plays]
Michael Wesch: Ok. Now, what’s interesting about that then is whenever people ask them like who are you and how many people are in anonymous, they always say “over 9,000.” Again whenever anybody asks for a quantity of anything they say over 9,000.
Michael Wesch: And then they go out to another people’s forums and other people’s blogs and they troll there, right, so they call it trolling. Where they go out and they basically say these obscure little things, or really outrageous things, to basically get a rise out of people. So in one of the most famous examples recently, they went to a forum on child predators on Oprah and they left a comment there and Oprah responded here.
[clip plays]
Oprah: Let me read you something, which was posted on our message boards from someone who claims to be a member of a known pedophile network. It said this, “It doesn’t forgive, it does not forget. His group has over 9000 penises and they are all raping children.”
[clip ends]
Michael Wesch: She is like very serious about this. Right?
Michael Wesch: And of course, the people at 4chan, they call themselves /b/tards because the place is called /b/. They call themselves /b/tards. They just go crazy.
[clip plays]
Michael Wesch: And this goes on and on. There’s hundreds of those online if you want to look at those. So they come up with these great lines. You know they are actually in that sort of primordial ooze. There’s all sorts of insights there about the nature of Internet culture itself.
So here they say, “We are anonymous, we cook your meals, we haul your trash, we connect your calls, we drive your ambulances, we deliver your mail, we are everyone, we are no one.” And then they go on, “United as one, divided by zero, we are legion. We do not forgive, we do not forget.”
But there is a certain sort of insight there about, in a way we are all anonymous online. It’s a really weird experience in the sense that these digital artifacts from 1.4 billion people are sort of floating in through our screens and stuff.
We connect with them generally not knowing where they came from. So we are all connecting anonymously in many ways, and not always, but often. So it’s an interesting insight there and you know leads to that.
Now, maybe they might be most famous for the past year for their protest of Scientology and there’s this great, great image that you see floating around about this. “Oh! Fuck, the Internet is here.”
And you can see there actually all their sort of playfulness comes out in real life as well when we have these real life meetings. So here is actually a LOLcat spelled out on a banner. And Fox News picked up on this recently and just to the great amusement of 4chan‑ers said that they were hackers on steroids. But they are not really, I mean they are great hackers and in fact if you are thinking about visiting 4chan, do it on somebody else’s computer.
Michael Wesch: The first time I went there, I just went onto 4chan and within two seconds all of my windows just collapsed, my computer turned off and then restarted and informed me that I had a virus and that I should download Microsoft Antivirus 2009, which actually doesn’t exist. That was the virus itself. So it basically shut down my computer and then scared me into thinking I have a virus, so I would download it. So they do all sort of interesting things like that.
But, what’s really interesting is they clearly like this really interesting culture but ultimately they are not a they because everybody is anonymous. So you can’t really identify who is part of it and who is not.
Chris Landers did a story on them. He found out they are only a group in the sense that a flock of birds is a group, that are traveling in the same direction. At any given moment more birds can join, leave, peel off in another direction entirely. Again think of the way that sort of reveals so much about the Internet everywhere, right?
I mean most internet groups are actually like this in the sense that they are very rare that there are like these fixed groups that you really belong to and in the sense of that sort of tight community and instead we are almost like flocking to different things throughout the web.
What’s really interesting is where they’re going with this. They say, “We will stop at nothing until we have achieved our goal: permanent destruction of the identification role.” Meaning that they’ve actually grabbed on to this idea of anonymity as a virtue.
It goes all the way back to the 1920s poets like T.S. Eliot, who were also into anonymity as an aesthetic ideal. They felt like we were becoming too much of a cult of celebrity, and even T.S. Eliot felt like too much of a celebrity. People would flock to him and read his work only because it’s T.S. Eliot, not to actually see the work. T.S. Eliot hated this, and actually wanted to be more anonymous.
Here we see, 80 years later, the same thing. People battling against this cult of celebrity. They do this in a number of ways. One of the most famous, or visually interesting ones is what they do on Second Life. They have a whole group of people that attack Second Life at various times.
For example, this is an event for Anshe Chung, who was the millionaire Second Lifer. She’s sort of a real estate mogul inside Second Life. CNET set up this very official looking press conference to talk to her about this, and some people on 4chan got together and decided to attack with flying penises. This totally disrupted the whole thing, of course.
[“Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” plays]
Michael Wesch: Now, there’s also a famous attack on John Edwards. I don’t know if you guys remember this. John Edwards had a Second Life presence, and they attacked that. You can see, down at the bottom, they have a little conversation going on. They said, “Vegeta, what does the scouter say about his power level?” and he says, “It’s over 9000!” They just keep doing this kind of thing.
Now, here’s the interesting thing. You don’t have to read this whole thing, but just note the impetus behind this. The reason why they’re doing it. This was posted to the John Edwards blog after they had blogged about this.
It says, “As the Internet has grown in popularity, a disturbing phenomena has occurred. Everyone thinks they are special. We have news for you: You aren’t special. You aren’t unique. You are a mindless horde, traversing the universe on a small ball of dirt.”
It goes on to say, “We are here to remind you of this.” Down here at the bottom, it says, “Wherever someone takes themselves too seriously, we will be there. Wherever someone has an inflated ego, we will be there. We will do it through madness. We will remove you from the high place you have built for yourself.” So again, this sort of attacking, the Internet sort of celebrity narcissism that appears there.
One of the most famous examples here is Tay Zonday. I don’t know if you guys have seen this. I’ll just play a brief thing to remind you guys.
[“Chocolate Rain” plays]
Michael Wesch: I don’t know if you guys would think that this could be a video that could get 33 million views, and up, and make him a millionaire, but in fact, it’s happened. The reason why is because 4chan, the people on /b/, sort of make a mockery of our cult of celebrity. They will sometimes actually pick somebody out and launch them to stardom. This is one of those examples.
Here you can see, it got so popular that YouTube had Tay Zonday Day, in which the whole front page was nothing but Tay Zonday, and if you look it up now… I forget what it is. I think it’s in the thousands of remixes of this, the Tay Zonday thing.
I think what 4chan is most famous for in the last year, though, is this thing here. Wherever someone takes themselves too seriously, they will place a link, and this has become a very common thing to do. You click on that link thinking that it’s going to be part of this serious discussion, and you get what is called “Duck Rolled.” This has transitioned into the “Rick Roll.” You guys might remember this.
[“Never Gonna Give You Up” plays]
Michael Wesch: You can imagine why they would choose this, based on their sense of humor, but here’s where it gets interesting. There’s all these remixes of it, right? This is Hugh Atkins.
[clip plays]
Michael Wesch: This points to something even bigger and more important, in the way that this was created. He was actually using a search system on Google that actually indexes every word in every video ever stated by any politician, which allowed him to put this thing together.
This means that the capacity for making videos has now gone up tremendously. He’s John McCain with a blue screen behind him, and of course, this is just too good to pass up.
[clip plays]
Michael Wesch: All right. I like to think of this as a seriously playful participatory media culture. It’s not just like that people are playing around. It’s not just like what you see on 4chan, where it looks like it’s just all a bunch of play. There’s also a serious element to this. There’s a constant commentary on our culture appearing there. It’s like finally people have a way to talk back, and they’re using it.
It’s not just in terms of how easy it is to make video, and create these things that they’re doing, but also in the ubiquity of video, so for example, here’s John McCain not knowing that he’s on camera.
[clip plays]
John McCain: …an old Beach Boys song, Bomb Iran? Bomb, bomb, bomb… Anyway…
Michael Wesch: This is then three days later on YouTube. This gets picked up and made into several remixes.
[clip plays]
Newscaster: No apologies, though, for a musical parody that many around the world took as a true sign of his thinking.
John McCain: When veterans get together, veterans joke. I was with veterans, and we were joking.
[clip ends]
Michael Wesch: This is what you might call a context collapse, which is happening all over in our environment, now, in a sense that you never know where you are, who you’re talking to, and where you really are, because it can be picked up at any time.
Here’s another example from the advertising world. This is from GM. You’ll see here, in a second. GM thought they could leverage this participatory media environment by allowing people to make their own commercials for the GM Tahoe. It’s real easy. Steps one, two, three, four, and then there you are. This is what was made. Stuff like this.
[clip plays]
Michael Wesch: Just to show you how sophisticated this can get, this is a remix, obviously using a lot of Hollywood films and repurposing them. It’s set to Regina Spektor music. You listen to the lyrics, it’s a very powerful message. Talking about slightly used parts.
There she says, “We’re living in a den of thieves, rummaging for answers.” The reason why she’s discussing this is because, in fact, the things that she has done should not be illegal, but they are, in the sense that if she ripped the DVD, it’s illegal. There are these sort of constraints on our participation, even today.
Here’s Lawrence Lessig talking about this.
[clip plays]
Lawrence Lessig: We need to recognize you can’t kill the instinct that technology produces. We can only criminalize it. We can’t stop our kids from using it, we can only drive it underground. We can’t make our kids passive again, we can only make them quote “pirates.” And, is that good?
We live in this weird time, and age of prohibitions, when many areas of our life, we live life constantly against the law. Ordinary people live life against the law. That’s what they are doing to our kids. They live life knowing they live it against the law. That realization is extraordinary to us, extraordinarily corruptive, and in a democracy, we ought to be able to do better.
[clip ends]
Michael Wesch: One of my favorite things about this is actually not the video itself, which is amazing, and very artistic, and a beautiful work, but at the end, you’ll see that there’s some people’s comments. There’s all these comments on YouTube. If you read the comments under there, it says, “My God, are you doing that for a living? I’ve never seen anything like this. You’re an artist.”
To which she responds, “No, I’m a housewife.”
That’s the beauty of YouTube today, sort of the environment we have today, is that so many people are able to create for a broader public, create these beautiful things.
There’s also the possibility of creating together. We see it on Wikipedia, but we also see it, even in the video space. Here you see somebody donning the anonymous mask, Matt V. here. He actually invites people to collaborate with him.
I think by being anonymous, he actually becomes sort of a platform for this collaboration. All he asks is that people put a message on their hand, and then upload the video. Well over 2, 000 people did this, and then he was able to take all of these videos and create this final little bit.
This is kind of an interesting moment here, to think about what people will reach out to their webcams with, right? You have one message to put on your hand, and you reach up to the webcam.
[clip plays]
Michael Wesch: You’ll see, generally in this age, people are thrilled that they can finally connect with each other across these great distances, right? At some level, that’s just amazing in itself. And then, of course, there’s the self‑reflection that you saw earlier. Sort of love yourself, and that kind of thing.
Also, I think whenever you see messages like this, people deliver messages like this because they don’t feel like they have truly come to fruition. These aren’t just saying, “This is the way things are.” They’re saying, “This is the way things should be. This is what we should strive for, and so on.” We’re not there yet. These are not messages of celebration, as much as, “Let’s do this.”
[clip plays]
Michael Wesch: So in that context then, look at where you guys come in. So, here we are in this landscape. We have this possibility for a seriously playful participatory culture, but it’s enabled by very specific architectures of participation. Every single architecture actually elicits a different type of participation, and you guys are the ones who are creating these things.
I only want to spend two minutes on the future. Make it 20 seconds. I’ll do this really fast. Instead of telling you details, where things are going, I’ll just point out the futurists all agree on one trend, toward ubiquitous networks, ubiquitous computing, ubiquitous information, and unlimited speed. Everything, everywhere, from anywhere, on all kinds of devices.
Nobody disagrees with that. I think everybody in here would agree that that’s the general trend that we’re headed for. That means that these architectures of participation are increasingly becoming the architectures of our everyday life. It’s like information architecture is blending with the architecture of the real world, and in fact blending with the architecture of society itself.
And so, when you think about information architect, it’s not just an architect of information, but an architect of human relations. That means that you then have this capacity to build architectures for a new future of whatever.
If we go back to where we started here, in the ’60s, it was, “I don’t care, whatever you think.” In the ’90s, it became, “Whatever. I don’t care what you think.” In the future, we can hope that we can create architectures of participation that will allow people to feel a sense caring, and they’ll be able to say, “I care. Let’s do whatever it takes, by whatever means necessary.”
Announcer: To hear even more presentations from the 2009 IA Summit, point your browser to, and click on the podcast link. There you’ll find access to the iTunes feed, and more information about each presentation.
Our heartfelt thanks to the organizers and sponsors of the 10th annual IA Summit, the presenters, and of course to the global community. We look forward to feedback about future episodes that will be of greatest value to you, our listeners.