Comparative article on Burning Man and open source projects now available

The folks at Emerald gave me permission to post a PDF of my 2009 Research in the Sociology of Organizations article “Differentiating Organizational Boundaries” on my personal website here. Click the name of the article to download the PDF, or click the name of the journal to learn more about the other articles. For those of you who are not familiar with RSO, it’s a specialty journal that features cutting edge research on organizations. This paper, which I co-authored with Siobhan O’Mahony, was chosen as Outstanding Author Contribution Award Winner at the Literati Network Awards for Excellence 2010.

Betting – just another form of public performance?

Yesterday’s WSJ featured an Onion-esque article and video about college students placing bets, via a newly formed company, about whether they will earn a high or low grade or GPA:
“Two New York entrepreneurs are offering college students the chance to put their money where their grades are.

Stephanie Banchero has details about a new web site that’s trying to build a business by laying out the odds of student performance, allowing students to bet on (or against) their future grades.

Their website lets college students place wagers on their own academic performance, betting they will earn, say, an A in biology or a B in calculus. Students with low grade point averages are considered long shots, so they have the opportunity to win more money for high grades than classmates with a better GPA.

The pair of recent college graduates who founded say they hope to turn a profit and inspire students to work harder. “It would be great if everyone was intrinsically motivated to get good grades, but that’s, like, not reality,” said Jeremy Gelbart, a 23-year-old co-founder of the site.”

Like some of the quoted horrified education officials, my reaction bordered on queasiness about the unintended consequences of students wanting to bet on their grades. For those who bet on poor outcomes, this could inadvertently foster a self-fulfilling prophecy or promote point shaving (or alternatively for those who bet on high grades, grade grubbing for higher, undeserved grades – the bane of many a professor). The financial payoffs noted in the article are relatively small; $156 from two wagers might buy one round of drinks for buddies in an expensive city.

Although the article notes that the company may soon run afoul of state laws, the phenomena of wagering on seemingly sacred matters is not limited to undergraduate majors in business. The world of finance thrives on constant betting, from friendly bets among co-workers about consuming large amounts of junk food in a specified time period* to larger ones involving your retirement portfolio.

On a more important note, wagering is a way of making a commitment “public,” something that privately-shared grades don’t do. However, we do have other ways of making our commitments and performance public and, even better, inviting constructive feedback and affirmation. In architecture and design, the end of semester culminates with projects presented before other exhausted students and guest critics. In research, people give oral presentations or disseminate their findings in peer-reviewed papers and books. At Burning Man, contributors witness firsthand how much fellow participants enjoy sharing their art, theme camps, and interactions.

*See anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s seminal “Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight” as a comparison.

Academic meet and greet Fri., Sept. 3, 2010 at Burning Man

The latest Jack Rabbit Speaks, the official email newsletter for Burning Man, has the following announcement:


Have you published an article about Burning Man? Written a book on BRC? Do you teach at a university or are you enrolled in an advanced degree/phD program? Do you have a subscription to academic libraries?

In short…are you a Burning Nerd? We want to meet you! Join us for a small cocktail meet and greet in BRC. Friday, 2:30-5 PM (location TBA). Meet members of the Burning Man organizing staff and mingle with other academics studying Burning Man from intellectual angles!

Please RSVP to academics [at] burningman [dot] com for your official invitation with location details and other info as it develops.

Can’t make it, but want to make sure you and your work are on our radar? We’d love to hear from you: academics [at] burningman [dot] com.”

I will be there, and I look forward to catching up with old colleagues and meeting new ones!

The Great Metropolis Face-off, Burning Man vs. the Big Apple (and others), round 9: waiting in line

As a recent NYTimes article describes how norms about public space and waiting in line can change:
“There is a feline quality to standing in Indian lines. Certain parts of the man behind you — you don’t know which — brush against you in a kind of public square spooning, the better to repel cutters. (Women do less touching.) Still, this is no deterrent to cutters. They hover near the line’s middle, holding papers, looking lost in a practiced way, then slip in somewhere close to the front. When confronted, their refrain is predictable: “Oh, I didn’t see the line.”

But in a churning India, the line has new resilience. Businesses are becoming vigilant about enforcing queues, and a growing middle class, more well-off and less survivalist, is often less eager to cut.”

A recent trip abroad reminded me that, relatively speaking, waiting in lines in the U.S. tend to unfold as relatively civil affairs. Most people maintain a respectful distance from others and line up in order. (This is, of course, excluding the occasional tragic shopping stampede or bad subway car manners in the Big Apple.) At Burning Man, waiting in line offers social or artistic opportunities, with the inspired endeavoring to make otherwise humdrum waits memorable. What if your local airport applied such concepts? How might your experiences with going through security be different?