Phil Agre: Designing Genres for New Media [evolution of

Rohit Khare (
Mon, 21 Sep 1998 19:00:59 -0700

[Phil moved to UCLA. Some comments on one of the newest articles on his page

Designing genres for new media:
Social, economic, and political contexts

My analysis will be divided into four parts. I will begin by sketching some
of the processes by which communities conduct their cognitive lives
together. In the second part I will present a framework for media design
based on inquiry into the role of genres in people's activities, followed by
some examples. Putting these concepts to work will result in a vast space of
potential genres and uses of media. The third part, therefore, will describe
some of the economic forces that tend to select among these various
potentialities, and the fourth part will sketch some of the democratic
values that might guide concerned citizens and professionals in shaping the
media infrastructures and policies of the future.

[the general aim of his analysis is contextualizing media-in-community, the
implicit dialogue of readers and writers (as opposed to say, analysis of the
medium itself, or market structure of the medium). Two of his vivid examples
are the communities of "campus parking lot managers" and "firefighters who
drive Mack engines". Each community cuts across several media it might use.]

The thought leader's role is to get on top of an issue: see it coming,
gather positions and arguments about it, network with people who are
relevant to it in various ways, and articulate it in terms that supply
useful raw materials for individual community members' own thinking in their
own situations. This, of course, is not an easy task, and the social capital
that these people accumulate is usually well earned.

[the discussion of social capital is what commends this piece to
FoRK-archive. It's not a new idea, but in Agre's hands, it's eloquently

It is rare for anybody to be taught the "moves" through which one
accumulates capital in these worlds, or the "moves" through which various
kinds of capital are converted into one another in the course of a career.
People go through whole careers without quite understanding the process,
while other people have a highly cultivated instinct for it. Why is this?
Part of the reason pertains to social class: if you watched your parents
live their lives through the associational forms of distributed cognition
through which thought leaders acquire capital, then you will probably grow
up with a tacit awareness of the phenomena and a powerful head start in
learning the skills.

But it is not all a matter of social class. Some people who did not grow up
around successful professionals have good professional-skills mentors in
college -- this is one purpose of public higher education. Others succeed in
apprenticing themselves to masters of the craft in their jobs (Lave and
Wenger 1991). Others get the idea in one world by working through rough
analogies to processes of distributed cognition and capital accumulation
through thought leadership in worlds with different class structures --
local politics, labor unions, social competition through parties and the
like, street gangs and organized crime, civic associations, churches,
support groups, lodges, social movement organizing, and so on. My point,
though, is that not enough people ever get these things explained to them,
and that this is a powerful and remediable force for social inequality.

[His own efforts include the redoutable "Networking on the Network"]

In sketching the physiology of communities' collective cognition, I have
tacitly opposed two extreme models: one in which all community members play
the same role, communicating amongst themselves equally and symmetrically,
and one in which a thought leader is the sole go-between among all the
community members.

[Care to guess what kind of visionaries Steve and Bill are? What kind I want
to be? :-]

The reality includes the vast range of associational forms through which
community members circulate bits and pieces of thinking among themselves. In
Orr's (1996) celebrated studies of photocopier repair technicians, these
associational forms involved "war stories" about ugly copier repair

[Here are two definitions, one a subtle reinterpretation, and the other an
Agreism worth reflecting upon:]

(A "public", in the language of public relations, is precisely another
community that stands in a specific structural relation to one's own: for
example, a company's publics might include customers, regulators, neighbors,
activists, journalists, and union officials.) I have referred to this
circulation of structured interactional "stuff" as an "institutional
circuitry" (Agre 1995). This circuitry is often partly professionalized, for
example when an industry association sends its members a "manual" of facts
and stories and quotes that they can use when articulating an industry
perspective in one site of public debate or another. An institution's
circuitry is defined by the genres that circulate within it; stories that
photocopier repair people tell among themselves sound different from stories
that managers tell among themselves because they serve different purposes --
that is, they are located differently in the larger system of institutional

[here's something to think about as FoRK melts down around us:]

The associational forms, after all, probably serve other purposes as well,
including plain old relaxation, the chance to "talk through" the feelings
brought on by troublesome events, the exchange of mutually interesting facts
(for example through "gossip"), and so forth. The fact is, though, that we
are all members of communities that possess complex mechanisms for the
collective construction of a voice. Our voices are not simply our own.

[FoRK is a community of people who respect each other and want to talk
through lots of latent conflicts, technical and otherwise. Sounds like an
empty hope, though, in the face of recent traffic. I haven't read the last
four hundred posts real thoroughly, but I'm getting a lot of negative mail
and unsub requests. I'm *this* close to slamming a moderation lid on, folks!
But more later, as I dig out from underneath my life enough to install
mailing listware... just remember, "what is my voice adding to the whole",
amidst all this tired clinton commentary. (that's not venturing an opinion
on the matter -- just an opinion that it's all being hashed out everywhere
else. Stick to FoRK's core competencies!)]

Let us begin with the concept of a genre -- that is, an expectable form that
materials in a given medium might take. Here are some examples of genres:

romance novels
op-ed articles
IRS tax forms
scientific research papers
statistical tables
Romantic poems
"tagging" graffiti
classified advertisements
the blues
business memoranda
street maps
page of results from a Web search engine
conference announcements
corporate financial reports
boxing posters
railway timetables
sales pitches
action-adventure movies
shoot-'em-up video games

Notice several things about this list:

1. Genres can be defined more or less broadly...

2. Each genre implies a particular sort of audience and a particular sort of
activity (Bazerman 1988)...

3. Each genre also implies a relationship between the producer(s) and
consumer(s) of the materials in question. The relationship may be a
one-to-one personal or professional acquaintanceship, or it might be a
one-to-many performer-to-audience interaction, or it might be mediated by
institutionalized distribution channels.

4. A genre implies not a single document (or other communicative event) but
a stream of them.

5. The genre does not, however, fully constrain the ways that instances of
it might be used. Financial reports might be read as if they were literary
texts, IRS forms might be mined for poetic phrases, blues songs might be
sampled to make hip-hop songs, video games might be played as if the goal
were to avoid killing anyone, sales pitches might be solicited for use as
sociolinguistic data, research papers might be interpreted as business
plans, and romance novels might be read by those who hope that the heroine
is going to blow off the guy and get a life.

6. Any given way of life will involve the routine use of several genres...

7. Genres change historically... The changes might be decided consciously,
evolve incrementally, or arise through the "natural selection" of markets
and other mechanisms.

[here's the kicker: media, genre, and community are independently variable.
Mix and match any combination you'd like and see if it takes off...]

Media are the specific means of communication: telephone, television,
CD-ROM's, video tapes, magazines, books, face-to-face conversation, drums,
chalkboards, billboards, radio, clothing, and so on. People use media in
activities, and the technical affordances of each medium conditions how it
can be used. For example, it is difficult to carry a VHS playback system, it
is painful to read a long text on a computer screen, radio is much for
drivers than television, overhead transparencies can be projected better
onto whiteboards than chalkboards, e-mail requires net access, face-to-face
conversation requires travel, and so on. **But media should not be confused
with genres:*** radio supports both Top 40 programs and call-in talk shows,
a magazine usually contains a stable mix of several genres among its
contents, and the genres of face-to-face conversation include performance
evaluations, party smalltalk, paranoid harangues, and accounts of one's
research interests at a conference.

[Leading to a great checklist of question for Web deployers. I wish W3C's
early debates had been this structured. Or perhaps nothing would have
prevented the scrapbook mentality from reigning until Sally came around...]

As another example, let us consider the design process involved getting a
particular organization "on the Web" by creating some prototype Web pages.
In my experience, most organizations try to jump directly to layout and
graphics and bullets and hyperlinks, steering by an unarticulated sense of
what they "like" without thinking through the issues in a strategic way. The
relevant questions include:

* Who are these pages for? What defines their relationship to us? What goes
on in the life of each community? How is each community changing?

* What purpose are these pages supposed to serve in the context of our
relationship with these people? What are the stages in the life cycle of our
relationship with each individual in a given community, and what role (if
any) is each medium and genre supposed to play in each stage of the cycle?

* What activities are the people going to be engaged in when they call up
our Web pages? What are they trying to accomplish? What specific questions
do they have in mind? Do they have that kind of question often? What other
questions do they have at other times? What other media and genres do they
employ in the course of these activities? Are these activities aimed
principally at producing materials in other particular genres? Which ones?
What is the connection between our materials and theirs?

* Are they going to use our pages just once, or whenever a particular
problem arises, or on a regular basis? What existing genres, whether on the
Web or in other media, are going to shape their expectations when they
encounter the new genre of Web pages we are designing?

* What are Web pages going to do for these people that cannot be done better
on paper memos or brochures, over the telephone, by electronic mail, in
meetings, through posters or newspaper advertisements, and so on? What role
do these other media already play in our relationship with these people? Do
they already use the Web for other things? Do they tend to have a Web client
running on their computer at all times? Or do we hope that they will get up
to speed on the Web just to use our pages?

* How much will our pages change? Will they contain a steady stream of new
content? A steady evolution of the existing content? What expectations will
the user communities have about these changes, and what expectations would
we like to encourage them to have through the design of our genre of Web
pages? Through what division of labor will the pages be maintained?

* How will the people hear about your Web page and learn your URL? Through a
print advertisement? Business card? Electronic mail? News article? Scrap of
paper scribbled at a conference? Do your plans effectively require the
people to put your URL in their hotlist?

* How do the practical properties of the Web medium fit with the activities
that these people are going to be engaged in? Do the activities take place
at a desk with a computer on it? On the move with a Web-connected portable
computer? What else can they be doing during the several seconds it takes to
boot their computer or launch their Web client or download our page? What
else can they be doing during the several moments it takes to follow each
link within our pages? How powerful are their computers? Do they share their
computers with others? What kind of bandwidth do they have to the net? Will
they be using our pages at high-load times of day?

* Is absorbing the futuristic cachet of the Internet going to be a
significant part of the activity of using our Web pages? Will this be the
case next year as well?

* If we want several different communities to use our pages, are the answers
to these questions similar or different for each? Should we design separate
pages for each group? A separate starting-point ("home page") for each
group, perhaps with links to overlapping sets of materials? Do we want to
exclude certain communities from access to particular materials (home phone
numbers are a common example) that we wish to make available to other

[He proceeds to introduce a series of economic considerations. Interested
readers are directed to the source]

some economic concepts that can influence the design of genres in new media
-- or of genres that address new situations using old media.

* Fixed costs of distribution. One force for concentration in industry is

* Marginal cost of distribution. ...tends to be low for copiable

* Fixed costs of consumption... hardware, skills (training), content
(whether you read a book once or a hundred times...)

* Marginal costs of consumption... both licensing and wear-and-tear and
opportunity cost

* Specialization. [degree of market segmentation, partially implied by cost

* Practicalities of duplication. [material as well as social costs (shame or

* Time-critical nature of use. [decaying value increases sharing (delayed

* Third-party costs and benefits of consumption. [this one's vague. It's not
just externalities; he focuses on how advertisers and PR and lots of forces
converge on a single TV show -- perhaps this bullet is better labeled

* Brand identity of the content stream. [Same as above, but in time]

* Transaction costs. These are the costs of selling something to someone

* Compatibility and standards... media industries are path-dependent because
of effects deriving from the compatibility of different commodities

[Just to prove how hip he is :-) Of course, sed/s/Hole/NeXT/g and it works,

But fanzines did not operate in isolation from other genres; to the
contrary, they coevolved with the genres of popular music upon which they
were explicitly predicated. A fan who found something of value in a
particular band, whether on the radio or through clubs and cassette
circulation, could employ the fanzine network to join a community with a
common language and common concerns. Mainstream elite discourse may reduce
bands like Metallica or Hole to stereotypes, not least because the arbiters
of this discourse do not participate in the relevant communities' activities
and thus cannot comprehend the genres that are adapted to them. But such
bands do sometimes provide occasions for serious social discourse among
their adherents, largely through fan publications and the other spaces where
fans find one another.

[Now, if only I could harness my summarization skills to Software
Enggineering 221...]