Ritual and the Productive Community

by Ryan Tanaka on April 3, 2014

Ryan Tanaka is a musician, writer, programmer and product manager living in the Los Angeles area. For every article that he writes, Ryan also improvises a musical piece as means of organizing his ideas. (Below, or here.)

Excerpt from my 9th “Angry Birds” String Quartet, based on the Yellow “Accelerating” Bird (Click to hear a sample recording)

In a previous article on my blog, I wrote about the possibility of creating “Sacred Spaces”, highlighting the ingredients necessary for the creation of communities within technological contexts.  Some of the ingredients include: rituals, symbolic gestures, leadership roles, group identities and group histories.  Without these basic elements to help sustain community identities, the prospects of organizations surviving for the long-term can be said to be very bleak, even with economic and/or political support.

Out of all of these ingredients, the idea of ritual can be said to be the most important, since it exists at the heart of all community-based infrastructures.

A ritual, in a nutshell, can be said to be an formalized action that’s repeated regularly enough to create it’s own symbolic meaning and significance over time. With enough repetition, actions become signals, signals become gestures, gestures become events, events become ceremonies, gaining more meaning and significance as time goes on. An example here, pulled from my previous article:

A ritual can be something as simple as agreeing to meet every week with your friends and having dinner. Maybe on the first day you’ll bring an apple to the party with you to have for dessert. Your friends end up enjoying the apple, so you decide to bring it again the following week. After a few months of doing the same, the apple becomes an “inside joke” within the group, spurring conversations and discussions about various subjects related to fruit. After a few years, the apple comes to symbolize the friendship that exists among you and your friends, coming to represent the beliefs and values of the group as a whole. Given enough time and iterations, eating the apple suddenly becomes an activity much more than the act of eating in itself.

Culture is, in a nutshell, a more elaborate and sophisticated version of the apple example above — the process of turning arbitrary gestures into symbolic ones through the power of narrative storytelling.

Although I do most of my work in technology now, my background and (semi-)formal education has been in music and music composition, where most of my ideas and attitudes about technology and culture were formed. After having participated in a myriad of bands and ensembles over the years, I’ve come to realize that there is much more to music than just the act of music-making.

Music isn’t about good production values, coming up with clever marketing schemes, endless practicing, having an amazing website, finding the right album cover, landing record deals, or the achievement of technical mastery.  It isn’t about finding the right manager/producer to propel you into stardom, “selling out” to the right bidder, or playing at the “right” venues in hopes of getting noticed. Those are things that many convince themselves that they need to be successful, but as it turns out, that’s not what “it” is all about.

What is “it”? At its core, “it” is about building a ritual: establishing connections between the performers and audience that are genuine and authentic, creating gestures and signals that are loaded with meaning and direction, founding an environment in which people can identify and relate to one another on levels deeper than ordinary life. All of these things, done regularly and over time, is what allows for communities to create meaningful, long lasting connections that stays with participants for the rest of their lives.

Ventures in the music technology tend to struggle greatly because they focus too strongly on the products that come out of the music-making process, rather than the underlying rituals that allow for the musical experience to occur.  Artistic success cannot be measured purely in terms of distribution, exposure and merchandising — those are largely afterthoughts for established musicians — but by the musician’s ability to get the same people coming back for a second, third, fourth, fifteenth hearing and more. If artists are to really thrive in the digital age, the focus of technology would necessarily have to be on cultivating “it.”

As technology has become more pervasive in our day-to-day lives, I’ve noticed that many fields besides music are facing the same kinds of problems that I was in my own projects. “It” isn’t just what is missing in music, but in social media and the technology space as whole. My work has since then focused on bringing “it” into tech — the establishment of ritual within the world of technology.

Some might label Tangerine Music Lab’s music as being techno-bohemian in some sense, since our music attempts to combine the sleek modern style of contemporary techniques with bohemian narratives that help to shape the music’s identity and direction.  Everything we do is improvised, most of which is undocumented and can only be heard live and in person. Our music tells a story of how we, as human beings, relate to one another during times of great change and uncertainty. It reflects what I’m currently doing in both my work and life: the search for meaning, community, and spirituality amidst the forces of modernism now seeking to paint the world flat.

Though programmers seldom make these connections explicit, “good code” often has stark resemblances to a well-written musical piece. As reading material, its variables (instructions) are clearly defined, outlines easily readable, with indentations and sectionalizations that make sense from a formal standpoint. Good coding/musical practices also tend to be efficient in their use of ideas, carrying the ability to generate more and more results line per line. This leads to a kind of aesthetic simplicity that practitioners often describe as “elegance” — the power to do a lot with very little.

It’s no wonder then that musical training can aid in the understanding of programming concepts, and visa versa. But the connections don’t stop there: the correlations between the two fields may contain the secret for unlocking the untapped potential of social media.

User Experience as Ritual

{

// There once was a man named Dave

int Result = 0;

// Whose code just wouldn't behave

MyObject *Ptr = new MyObject();

// He left to go to a meetin'

Result = Ptr->DoSomething();

// And left his memory a leakin'

return Result;

}

Since both the curation of rituals and programming rely on circular, repeated iterations of actions and events, the two practices should have many commonalities, at least in theory. Programming, being a medium of language and instructional organization, is closer to being an art form than a science: its results are subjective expressions of intent (art), rather than objective descriptions of the natural world (science). While software contains many powerful methods for organizing data and information, code in itself is not intended to reveal or discover secrets about how the physical world works.

It may seem counter-intuitive to separate code — something so logical, mechanical, practical and rigid — from the objectivity of the scientific method, but software systems are simply methods of organization that aid in the administration of certain tasks. They never interact with the real world directly, only through instructions and commands that are applied other media, where their effects can be “felt” (whether it be a computer screen, a factory robot’s arm or a drone). Software derives its power from changing, rather than explaining, how the world works.

This means, then, that the worlds of technology and culture may have more in common with each other than previously thought. Social media is, in effect, the administration and organization of people, similar to what businesses, governments, institutions, and religious organizations do in worlds offline. The software industry has, however, been generally skeptical of comparing its work with anything that might resemble a political, cultural, or spiritual process, due to its self-image as a secular and “scientific” enterprise.

But now that software culture has made its way into the public sphere, the connections and correlations with other areas of society can no longer be ignored. In order for the medium to progress, software must abandon the pretense that its applications are derived from the scientific method, and are “objective” in some sense of the word. Code has the ability to aid in scientific enterprises, but in and of itself, cannot be said to be scientific.

In practice, websites designs and infrastructures naturally gravitate towards a “regularized” aesthetic that is very similar to the aesthetics informing ritual practices. It is generally considered desirable, for example, that the background color of webpages stay consistent throughout a site, even though it would be easy to change it on every page, or even within a single page.

Why not have the colors change all the time? Why not give the user more information, more variety, more things to “experience” within the constructs of its design? While there are a few sites that do exactly that, they’re generally considered abhorrent by the public at large. A kaleidoscope of colors might be fun to look at for a few seconds, but isn’t conducive to retaining people’s interest in the long-term. As with music and art, the mind naturally gravitates towards a user experience that is consistent in form, with differences accentuating clear distinctions in role and function. If the background color were to change for a reason — say, an alert message that’s generated when your login times out — then people would be more likely to accept the change as being part of the show. Change without reason, on the other hand, only adds to people’s sense of fear and anxiety, making it more likely that they’ll tune out, or log out.

Choosing a different text color and size for a headline title can also be thought of as an important “event” that happens in a website’s design, similar to the act of introducing a new motif into the space of a symphonic piece. Well-written code will reuse the same ideas over and over (using ‹tags› or function/variable declarations), not for its own sake, but in ways that make its reappearance intelligible and with meaning. When done well, variations that spring from a single germ of an idea can be spectacular and awe-inspiring, as the theme builds on top of itself in a way that contributes to both the work’s unity and diversity.

Another example can be seen in the way users interact with various features and facets in more complex frameworks. In an ideal world, the design and layout where users change their profile settings should be nearly identical to the pages where they add/find contacts, check their messages, purchase their goods, post messages, read/view content, so on and so forth. This is a modular approach towards UI/UX design, similar to the idea of changing key in the middle of a musical work. The advantage of this method is that it allows institutions to add more features to their site without burdening the user with the necessity of learning new skill sets. The user may not necessarily know what they’ll get when they happen to click on something, but they’ll at least have the comfort of knowing what to do once there.

In practice, most websites (particularly in larger institutions) tend to suffer from a lack of consistency in design, usually as a result of task-delegation among multiple teams and departments. Users often finds themselves amidst a turf war between competing methods and styles, hastily glued together by a few nodes of its API infrastructure. If enough features are thrown in, a site may evolve into a Frankenstein-like monstrosity that is perceived as being fragile and unstable so long as its UX is in a perpetual state of war.

For transactional sites (such as Amazon or eBay), these problems may not be as urgent, since people go on these sites with an idea already in mind about what they’re looking for. They will weave through the labyrinth of madness, find what they need, and get out swiftly and quickly. For sites that rely on immersion, however, the experience of the user is the product in and of itself.

We have yet to see a social media network that truly focuses on cultivating the interactions and experiences of users. With social networks such as Facebook, Google+ and Twitter, the users are the product, treated as data sources to be mined for third-parties. They may occasionally throw a bone to the idea of UX, but being that these concerns tend to be secondary rather than primary, most “improvements” have been marginal, at best. And when users begin to understand the mechanics of such a product for what it really is, the desire to leave or find something else gradually becomes stronger. Time won’t ever be on the  product’s side, in other words.

The primary problems that social media will face in the near future will be administrative problems, i.e. the management of people, rather than of technology. In this new world, algorithms and keyword matching systems by themselves won’t be enough to retain the long-term interest of the user, because people will come to expect deeper, more meaningful connections from their online networks as the medium begins to evolve towards greater sophistication. Social media technologies will eventually have to be modeled on the ways in which people naturally interact with one another in the physical world, rather than thrusting themselves into people’s lives as psychological experiments or behavior-modification programs.

Group identity/history networks, identity systems that converge rather than diverge, the development and curation of symbolic gestures, ritual-building systems, labor-based identities, and the emergence and support of leadership roles within localized groups are but a few ingredients that make these developments a real possibility. Such developments would be an admission of the truth that we, as human beings, are essentially creatures of collectives and cliques, drawn toward one another because of our similarities in values and outlooks. And much of what happens there is irrational, emotional, and unscientific — human, in other words. Once social media drops its pretense of objectivity, its power will become much greater.

fred wilson April 3, 2014 at 8:17 am

as someone who uses ritual as a way to engage in communities and operate a community at AVC (by blogging every day first thing in the morning), i could not agree more

i think tumblr comes closest to “cultivating the interactions and experiences of users”

i post a song every day to tumblr. over time, about a dozen other tumblr users joined me in this ritual. i never asked anyone to join me. it just happened. and the design of the tumblr service encouraged and enhanced the experience of doing it.

Ryan Tanaka April 3, 2014 at 10:01 am

I’ve been following the AVC blog for a while now and have been impressed with the community that you’ve built there. I’ve been trying to figure out what makes online communities work and doesn’t work. It turns out that success stories are the exception rather than the norm, when I think it should be the other way around.

I think that there’s a need for social media companies to make these kinds of connections explicit, at least when they’re making choices about design/infrastructure.

Visakan V April 3, 2014 at 8:51 am

This was a wonderful read.

Just throwing this out there- the main thing I wish social media would/could do for me is to make sense of the signals my friends and peers put out. I want to know who’s upset, who’s tired, who needs help, who needs someone to talk to. At present, I can go through my feeds to try and suss this out, but I always worry that I’m missing out. I’d like to be reminded who I haven’t had a good conversation with in a long time, for instance. I’m hopeful this will materialize somehow.

Ryan Tanaka April 3, 2014 at 10:14 am

I think a lot of those problems can be fixed with a greater focus on group identity systems. Current “signals” tend to lack meaning because there’s often no context in which to reference what’s happening. No matter how sophisticated algorithms become, there’s just no way that a computer can tell the difference between an earnest and sarcastic post, for example.

Group interactions (i.e. communities) help to build meaning and context that give these gestures more significance. Then you’re “in on the joke” and have a better understanding of what people are thinking/feeling.

Venkat April 3, 2014 at 7:09 pm

Very timely for me, since I’ve lately been thinking a lot about a very related idea: packaging… I have a post idea evolving around that. The packaging of objects and experiences is largely driven by the expectation of ritual behaviors in use or enactment. Simple and obvious examples are things like gift wrapping and a prescribed culture of manners in dining (for example a formal 7-course soup-to-nuts meal).

I think you missed a key angle though: the distinction between natural ritual and constructed ones. The consciously designed rituals you’re talking about are “ironic rituals” in a sense. The design (or curation of emergence) is informed by an explicit awareness of the the distinction between symbolism and utility.

When people use the word “ritual” in an everyday sense, however, they generally mean in the unironic sense of “tradition” which may be accompanied by a deep sense that the way things are done are the only “right” way. This makes the tradition oppressive and resistant to innovation, by sacralizing the arbitrary into the necessary. Often, when this happens, the tradition persists even when the core utilitarian logic underneath the ritual vanishes. Then you get ossification.

Even when ritual is consciously designed by a self-aware designer, if the original designer goes away, s/he can leave behind a cargo cult of unironic tradition that resists innovation. You could say that Apple’s “Jobs” aesthetic has now been transformed into a cargo cult tradition to some extent.

I think you might also want to incorporate the thinking around social objects (Jyri Engestrom, Hugh MacLeod) in your thinking, especially the subset of social objects that get elevated to ritual objects (every YouTube video that gets shared is a social object, but only some get elevated to ritual objects: memes. So iconic images like the original icanhazcheezburger cat are ritual social objects). Social objects (ritual or not) belong more on the content side than the UX side, but since there is always a strong coupling between medium and message, you could say successful communities and products are most likely designed around a few “original” ritual social objects. With later community myth-making, fairly ordinary original ritual objects may get elevated to magical status.

Chris McCoy April 5, 2014 at 4:39 am

Content in itself is complex social network.

It’s identified not just by the atomic unit of content and its reactions and replies but also by who published it (often a media brand), who created it (writer, producer, photographer, etc.), the people + places + things its about (singular media properties/networks), and the date it was created.

Each one of these identifiers are nodes in the network and once unbundled form the atomic unit itself, complex payments + payouts schemes can exist to finance the content. All nodes that make up the content can potentially get paid for it–just as artists do for the music they produce and sports teams do for televised games they play in.

The atomic content unit be also be shared, endorsed, and embedded. Payouts can then be exchanged for additional distribution and transactions.

Content can be a photo, an e-commerce object, paid communication, etc.

Key is unbundling all atoms in the content as singular networks and then layering payments in throughout the network.

Then rebundling.

Ryan Tanaka April 5, 2014 at 3:13 pm

Good points, Venkatesh — it’s gonna take me a while to digest all the stuff you just mentioned.

Memes are an interesting phenomenon because it’s contains a lot of the ritualistic materials I’ve been writing about lately, except that it exists in a purely online form that’s devoid of geographical or historical affinity. Traditional rituals are very strongly connected to the latter two things, for better or worse. Worse being, it has a tendency to ossify and become uninnovative (like you mentioned), but better because it’s connections are much deeper because of its stability and recognizability.

It might be tempting to draw a dichotomy around depth and freedom, but I think there are ways where the two things can be balanced in a way where both needs could be met somewhere in the middle. The projects I’m working on right now involves seeing what happens when you reintroduce history/geography back into the building of social narratives because it seems like it’s been tipped very far in the other direction at this point in time.

Kristoffer April 6, 2014 at 1:59 pm

I enjoyed your post Mr. Tanaka. The concepts of tradition and ritual are important to tribal/cultural identification. For example; I am an American from Northern New England, but I’m also a fan of the Liverpool Football Club. When I’m at a Liverpool match with 40 thousand fellow tribal members-fans-I do not have to check with the other members to know our tradition, our ritual as members of the global Liverpool tribe. We all already know full well we’re going to sing in unison a tribute to our fallen comrades: “You’ll Never Walk Alone” before every soccer match. If you are unfamiliar with this Liverpool ritual, I advise you to Google it to better understand why we do this. Our custom of singing this inspirational song together, full-throated with our compatriots, is very moving and unifying, indeed. This custom/tradition/ritual/meme has already been passed from me to my son, and will doubtless be passed onto any grandchildren and so on and so on.

Ryan Tanaka April 6, 2014 at 11:31 pm

Funny you should mention sports, because I’m working for a sports-based startup now (YourSports, with Chris who replied above), even though I don’t really follow sports much in my own life.

I see the connections between sports, art, and tech — the commonality between them is the idea of the ritual. If you can keep an open mind, you tend to find out that we’re really not so different after all. This idea can be applied into pretty much anything, from politics, military, family history, etc. It’s very powerful stuff, because it’s what makes these experiences meaningful for the people involved.

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