The Theory of Notification

As you might know, I’m on sabbatical this year working on a book on the sociology of notification (alas, along with two other projects and a few projectlets). It’s time to move on to the first-drafting (the second version since I start with a “zeroth” draft) of my “theory” chapters. Chapter four examines how notification varies as a behavior — who we tell, how we tell, when we tell — and how these are dependent on the information content and our understanding of the relational ecology in which we find ourselves. As a first approximation who, how, and when can be seen as dependent variables while content and relationships are independent variables. Notification norms link these together: when we acquire a particular bit of information they tell us whom to tell and how and when to do it given the relationships we think we are in (or, see next paragraph, want to be in).

That’s the hyper-simplified version. The first complication is that, in fact, the process goes both ways: we can manipulate relationships and the meaning of the content based on our notification choices. We share inside information with close friends, but we also draw others close by sharing inside information.

I still haven’t quite settled on what the “punch” of chapter 4 will be. In its current form, I think that what it does is demonstrate the many dimensions along which notification behavior can vary (and which matter in practice — it’s key that senders and receivers are not indifferent about them), thereby making the argument that the norms that direct the system are really accomplishing something pretty amazing. That’s not as gripping as I’d like. I think what I want to do here is get the reader pretty jazzed up about how much relational work she is doing all the time.

The following chapter, working title “The Micro-sociology of Notification,” is where I get all phenomenological and social psychological. Will it be of any interest at all to the general reader? Hard to say. The main framework here is the self-world axis; to have a self is to have a world and vice versa (I’m primarily channeling Alfred Schutz here). The challenge of being in the world with others is to keep our worlds aligned (I coin the not-as-mellifluous-as-I’d-like term syncosmize for this). We do this, in part, by selectively disseminating what we know (take) to be the case. The last chapter described how we do that. This one pushes a bit more and asks how the competent node accomplishes the task. In addition to relatively passive knowledge of the rules/norms of notification, she needs to keep track of who would want to know what, who already knows what, etc. Ultimately, this means maintaining a model of the other’s world and of the local epistemological ecology. This chapter describes how we do this.

Author: Dan Ryan

I've been an Academic Program Director at, a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. My current mission is to figure out how to reorganize higher education and exploit technology so that we can teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

2 thoughts on “The Theory of Notification”

  1. Dan, I’m really looking forward to this book. I’ve enjoyed (and profited from) your shorter work on notification norms. It’s fascinating and illuminating for its own sake, of course, but as a technical writer I’ve also found it useful for helping me think about the deeper background to what I do all day.Are you pitching the book at the level of your blog posts — accessible to the reasonably informed amateur?

  2. Thanks for the feedback. The goal is very much to pitch the book to, as you describe it, “the reasonably informed amateur.” I am a really big believer in the idea that if the elusive “ordinary” reader doesn’t/can’t have at least a little “aha” experience from reading what you have written then you should probably re-write or not write it. That said, we’ll have to see how well I succeed — it’s so easy, sometimes, to yabber on and on in discipline-specific jargon unconstrained by the need to actually make sense.Perhaps you can offer some guidance : any posts in particular more enjoyable or useful from your perspective?Thanks again for the comment.

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