Whatever Next? It’s Like Social Media Is Having Sex!

Let us take a moment to step back and examine why social media works, why it is going to stay and why it is going to improve the lives of everyone everywhere.

Now is a good time to do so as we are clearly on the verge of another huge leap forward in handling information online. Linked Data technologies are now becoming rapidly more widespread, and over the next few years, databases around the world will become more and more connected allowing more and more information to become available. This will allow people all over the world to do more things more quickly and more easily than ever before. It means more sharing than ever before and if social media is about anything at all then it is about sharing.

Social media works because it is not just one service but an entire set of technologies that are under constant development and subject to constant innovation. Collectively, they enable humans to communicate with other humans in the most human way we know how without having to be physically present. We can text, tweet, update statuses, Skype, send videos from the desktop and cameraphone, podcast, blog and so on. It is not just the elimination of time and the contraction of space rendered by the electronic connections and storage, but it is the flexibility of the medium as a whole that makes it so valuable. For every way we wish to communicate with someone we have a niche-like technical method to do it.

This ease of outreach increases the likelihood of easier, cleaner communication resulting in greater mutual understanding. Ideas become easier to share and are assimilated quickly and widely. Correspondingly, ideas that are no longer valid or fruitful fall by the wayside.

The tools that bring us these ideas are themselves in a constantly evolving ecosystem. Some social media tools like Facebook and Twitter are presently the kings of the jungle while others have faded away like Friendster and Bebo. Who knows what, in turn, will replace them? What we do know is that they will be replaced by something much better and more useful to us.

This Darwinian description makes the social media world sound like a group of living organisms rather than a bunch of servers in a warehouse somewhere running specific programs. The desire and need to communicate is the primeval force driving this group of technologies. It is an organic process where each iteration, while perhaps hailing the end of the life of one service provider, is in turn birthing a new, better focussed service provider.

One necessity will be for our services to connect with each other seamlessly: allowing us to take our conversations from format to format as we see fit. This increasing universality is taking leaps and bounds to the ultimate destination of the system as a whole – to produce a single mind for the world. A mind with no barrier to communication found in separate entities. A mind that in one sense sounds Borg-like. But I would say that we will have the opportunity to access the combined sum total of human ingenuity. All our good ideas shared and available for everyone. Think about how much could be possible.

In a WSJ article Matt Ridley, the author of The Rational Optimist, outlines the idea of the collective mind. He suggests that with the trading of goods, our ancestors quickly, if not simultaneously, started trading ideas. Once enough people were engaged in enough of these exchanges a collective mind takes form where “ideas are having sex with each other as never before”. And these ideas are not only having sex, but breeding faster than bunny rabbits.

This is what we have now with social media: no, not lots of bunny rabbits having sex, but lots of ideas being shared as they have never been shared before on an even grander and but yet more immediate scale. One metric I would love to see analyzed would be derived from the question “How much more, through using social media on a given day, would you know at the end of the day then at the beginning of it?” All sorts of weighted numerics could be applied to measure the responses but I am sure for most people the simple answer and direct answer would be “a lot”.

The potential for social media as a tool for learning is as significant a step forward in human development as the formation of the great universities in medieval Europe and even the printing press itself. So many different and diverse ideas can come together, rub up together, feed off each other and as a result, create brand new ideas so easily and so quickly that there is no question that we are in the middle of a mighty change. A change in the amount of what we know and how we come to know it. A change in how the world can come to know itself.

Social media is here to stay because it can adapt to fulfill the needs of its users. This won’t be down to one company. We know that once companies become corporatised they become slow, even reluctant to adapt. They become more interested in perpetuating themselves then serving their customers, little realising that the only way to survive is to find ways of serving one’s customers better. New companies with new ideas to fill the communication gaps and niches of opportunity which will come into existence while others will fade into irrelevance. Social media is not about an individual company, it is a self-perpetuating ecosystem or as Ridley puts it, a collective mind, that can – through the participation of the many – change shape as needs be to provide better substance, nominally the ability to facilitate communication.

Because we are now enabled to communicate more naturally with each other across time and space we can see that naturalness taking on an organic nature. Social media is more than a collection of technologies, it is a living thing. Like all successful living things it has built into its function the ability to adapt. It is this adaptive and flexible approach that will not only ensure its survival but ensure its growth.

Nicole Ellison Describes Offline Vs. Online Communications: Strong, Weak, Latent Ties Translating To Facebook

Nicole Ellison works at Michigan State University, and primarily looks at the links between online and offline communication processes, building on her background in communications. Much of her data collection is performed through surveys and interviews, but she uses both qualitative and quantitative methods having also done work on server-level data. When she began researching interaction in social media, she thought it might be more useful to highlight the things she brings as an outsider and provide insights from a communications perspective, looking at how processes change over time. For this, its critical to really understand the online context in which online data is produced. She says that its an extremely exciting time for examining social media, but interpretation is critical.

To say that interactions in the online/Internet space are fundamentally the same as those offline does a disservice to all the ways people are connecting and interacting on these sites. One needs to think about user perceptions, either in surveys or reviews, as this is very important for interpreting social data. Offline activity is not evident in much online data, so we’re missing a piece of the story. We need to look at how offline and online communciations strategies are impacting each other, e.g. for biases, where we can measure the differences between offline characteristics and online self representation. As an example, on MySpace, people are encouraged to lie about their location or age to protect themselves.

An overarching question focusses on communications technologies and how they shape and support our online activities. One of her main thrusts has been looking at Facebook use and social capital. Does Facebook use play a role in allowing people to maintain and use their social capital? Yes. In follow-up work, they unpacked Facebook use, thought about the specific practices that people are involved in, and examined what were their social capital implications. This is moving away from measures like Facebook intensity to look at the ways in which people are using the site, e.g. looking at tie strength in friends and whether the quantity/quality of friends makes a difference.

In “Bowling Alone”, Robert Putnam talks about two kinds of social capital. Bonding social capital is associated with strong ties, where individuals will provide emotional support, scarce resources, etc. Bridging social capital is associated with weak ties, where individuals will provide you with diverse perspectives and novel world views and increase opportunities. SNSs allow us to easily maintain a larger network of ties, and we can assume that these are mainly weak ties. (Mark Granovetter‘s work “The Strength of Weak Ties” describes how you can expand your network through these so-called weak ties, leading to greater social and career mobility.)

Nicole has carried out a series of surveys and interviews: the fifth annual Facebook survey was carried out this year. (Her 2007 work looked at the relationship between social capital and Facebook use, which significantly predicted bonding social capital.) In terms of communications practices, Nicole examined if people are using Facebook to maintain existing relationships, to meet new people, or for something in between. There was some evidence that meeting new people is less common, and it is far more common use to maintain existing ties. She wanted to investigate this further: to look at practices in terms of whether some were more productive than others from a social capital perspective. A person will have different experiences when using a computer to read commercial spam than when they are using it to create YouTube videos, so there are certain desired outcomes of specific uses.

She developed a series of survey items to ask users to imagine different types of people and to describe how they’d interact with them online or offline. Three classes were used: a total stranger, someone from your residence hall, or a close friend. They were trying to get at the notion of a latent tie – one that is technically possible, but not yet socially activated – since online tools enable you to make a connection you wouldn’t otherwise make offline. Latent ties becomes more diluted when talking about the almost 500 million users on Facebook. There may be some other offline connection, but you’ve never activated it online (e.g. if you just recognise someone in passing).

She and her co-authors conducted a factor analysis on these items, revealing three dimensions:

  • “Initiating” is where you use Facebook to connect with strangers;
  • “Maintaining” is where you have a close friend and they are also on Facebook, and you are likely to do various online activities with them;
  • “Social information seeking” is where people try to find out additional information about someone that they have some kind of offline connection with, e.g. trying to figure out something about someone, maybe to find common ground and lower the barriers to communication with that person.

A recent survey asked “how many total Facebook friends do you have at university or elsewhere”, and the median answer was 300. But when the question was “how many of your total friends on Facebook do you consider actual friends”, the median was 75 (a quarter of the total number). The research found that as predictors of bridging social capital, the total number of friends was not useful, but the actual number of friends was. For bonding social capital, there was a similar result. For latent ties, what’s important is not the ability to connect, but to connect with someone that has a relevant social context: finding something about them that you have the ability to talk about and share à la social objects.

User perceptions are important, but a lot of offline activity is hidden (for various reasons). Nicole talked about self-presentational goals in online dating, and how the eventual meeting or date will temper what you will present online. They took participants into the lab, weighed them, looked at their driver’s license to find out their age, in order to get ground truth on how people are misrepresenting themselves online. They found that 81% provided deceptive information (87% males, 75% females) of some sort. The majority of lies were only a 1% to 5% deviation from one’s actual self. But there were some whoppers: 3 inches in height, 35 pounds in weight, and 9 years in age!

S. Craig Watkins Investigates What’s Social About Facebook And Social Media For Young People

S. Craig Watkins from the University of Texas at Austin spoke at ICWSM today about young people‘s engagement with social media. He has collaborated with the MacArthur Foundation and is author of the recent book “The Young and the Digital“. His studies mainly examine people on Facebook from around age 14 or 15 to their late 20s or early 30s, in order to get a sociological perspective about social media and to examine the broader social context about social media practices.

The environment in which people use social media includes both a technological and social context. But what do people actually do with social media? What is it about the structure of everyday life that provides the parameters for what people do with social media? People often assume that social media is the same regardless of who is using it and where, but the fluidity of social media across mobile and web platforms does have an effect on how it is used. The parameters of age, gender, class and ethnicity do cause social media to be used to different degrees and at different intensities. There are many more nuanced ways in which people participate in social platforms.

The subtitle of Craig’s talk is that we are beginning to think about what is social about social media. For a lot of researchers, they are moving beyond if these places are social and thinking about why: what are the precise ways in which social media is social?

Facebook is growing, now approaching 500 million users. According to their data team, there are 60 million status updates per day. The average user spends 55 minutes per day online, but possibly up to 1.5 to 2 hours. Three billion photos are uploaded monthly. When it first started in 2004/2005, the demographic was almost exclusively 18 to 22 year-old college students. Since then, the age distribution has widened, and the uses have also broadened.

Social media behaviours are very particular depending on age and have different consequences. The digital tipping point is between 13 and 14 years old, at which point teenagers start creating their own profile, wanting to have an autonomous space and looking to extend their online experience. According to the surveyed students, once you get to high school, there is a large pressure to become a member of the online community.

There were three distinct genres of participation observed in a study from MacArthur:

  • Hanging out with each other to build friendships;
  • Using social media to mess around, explore, experiment, or learn about different things;
  • What is termed “geeking out”, i.e. trying to build up knowledge or master technologies (such as digital photography).

There is a tendency to generalise regarding young people on social networks, but there are nuanced ways in which they use these tools. They carried out a survey nationally to compare and contrast one unique moment in a young person’s life cycle: the change from being in one’s college years to being a recent college graduate. How does one’s status begin to impact the kinds of decisions or practices they take or make online? The survey took 905 students: roughly half and half between current and recent college students. The aim was to confirm that if you use Facebook in college, does your usage change once you enter the paying workforce? The questionnaire posed questions regarding community, social capital, types of communication, civic participation, gaming, posting photos, etc., recognising that social media strategies and usage have evolved.

Regarding the degree to which current students vs. recent graduates shared personal information, there was not much difference. But for sharing political and religious views, there were some distinctions (as you’d imagine, recent graduates were more careful about this), so context and experiences impact the choices these people made online. Also, in terms of who they communicate with – i.e. people who live far away or nearby – there was also not much difference between current students and recent graduates.

There is also the question of the digital divide, and what previously was mainly the gulf between the technology rich and poor. Whereas 10 years ago we had the access gap, now we have the participation gap. There’s a more diverse population using the digital world, and this results in different levels to which diverse groups will use social media.

Two years ago, when examining segregated practices and looking at the ways Facebook and MySpace reflect different groups and uses, it was found that when young people left high school, they left MySpace; when they went to college, they went to Facebook. The words that students used when surveyed in relation to MySpace included: crowded, trashy, creepy, busy, general public, uneducated, fake, open, immature, predators, crazy. Facebook in comparison had words like: selective, clean, trustworthy, simple, college, educated, authentic, private, mature, stalker-friendly, addictive

Facebook has grown more diverse. Some recent figures reflect this: African American (11%), Hispanic (9%), and Asian/Pacific Islander (6%). A high percentage of initial Facebook friends share the same race/ethnic identity. When asked to rank the top three Facebook activities they used, there were roughly similar ranking patterns across different races/ethnicities. But performing a more qualitative analysis, the researchers began to see some differences.

There are also some interesting statistics (see this post by Craig) regarding the higher usage of media (and mobiles) by black youth and Latinos compared to their white counterparts (see the Pew Internet stats). This leads to another question: if people are using their mobiles to do a wider variety of things, what does this rise of mobile devices mean? Is it a means of empowerment or are there challenges to think about regarding this kind of experience?

Jamie Pennebaker Talks About Social Media Word Usage As A Reflection Of Psychological State

“We” is a complex word. It often means “you”. As in when I’m talking to my students, “We need to analyze this data”. — Pennebaker

Jamie Pennebaker, a professor from the University of Texas at Austin, is a social psychologist who has become fascinated with the nature of words and language. He spoke at the Weblogs and Social Media conference in DC today. The premise is that the words we use in everyday language, whether written or spoken, reflect who we are – our personality, our relationship with others – they are a window to us as a being.

As background, 20 years ago, Pennebaker was involved in research dealing with mind-body issues. He was intrigued with traumatic experiences and health problems, and the phenomenon of a secret trauma which served as a risk factor for illness. He wondered: what if we asked people to reveal secrets, to talk or write about them, and would there be a positive effect on their health. Some students were brought in to write about traumatic experience or superficial topics. When asked to write about traumas, and some had profoundly disturbing stories, their physical health improved. They also checked (through blood tests) their immune systems, and found that the students had a better immune function after writing about their experiences. There have been about 200 studies since then about expressive writing and health.

In the early 90s, he wondered what was it about expressive writing that makes a difference. He wanted to look at the writing itself and get a sense of what people were saying, so that they could train people about which is the healthier way to write. The problem was that the judges they used to determine this didn’t agree, and so they didn’t find out much.

Pennebaker then decided that (having studied Fortran in college!) they could do this more efficiently with a computer, and he told his colleague Martha that they could do it in three weeks. Three years later, when they got the program working, it had turned out to be an interesting system. They wanted to have categories of words such as pronouns, cognitive words, etc., but they also had to have some judges agree what words should be categorised. The resulting system, LIWC (pronounced “Luke”), analyses any kind of digital text, and provides output in about 70 dimensions. They then went back to their earlier studies on expressive writing, to find a profile that benefited from writing. People who benefited from expressive writing were found to have increased their use of cognitive words – realise, understand, know – and causal words – because, reason, effect. They also found that people who bounced around in the way they used pronouns tended to benefit.

During the mid-90s, he began starting to download stuff from the Internet. Looking at these words he found that the differences in gender/age hardly made any difference. Around this time, Pennebaker was inspired by George Miller’s book “The Science of Words”, where he talks about two different types of words associated with different regions of brain. In a sentence like “the podium is on the stage”, there are “heavy content” words like podium, stage, and the rest are function words (pronouns, quantifiers, adverbs, etc.). These types of words need to be processed differently, because he found personality differences due to these function words. This started to open doors to understanding some social and psychological features of people based on their speech.

Most people carrying out social media research focus on heavy content words, performing latent semantic analysis, looking at the content of speech, the style of speech, how they are relating to audience and the topic they are looking at. But the function words can be very useful indicators regarding people. Do men and women use such language differently? Yes.

  • I, me, my – women use these more, consistently.
  • We, us, our – about equal.
  • Emotion words more – also about equal.
  • Article words such as a, an, the – men use these much more.
  • Cognitive words such as because, cause, reason, rational – women use these more.
  • Social words, including references to friends, etc. – women use these more.

It’s very difficult for a computer to understand and derive some facts from statements representing emotions or social relationships like “why does Bob love Sally when she loves someone else?” compared to “why doesn’t a carburetor work?”. There are also big differences between when people tell the truth and when people lie. These differences can be important when trying to make social connections. When looking at a group, you can look at how any two people are sharing their use of function words (the common usage of function words increases in geographically-localised groups or people who begin to converse). Long-term relationships, how they succeed or fail, can also be gauged simply by looking at words. These invisible words provide a window into how people are thinking, and more on this can be found in papers on

New York Public Library Uses Ghostbusters, Tillman And Social Media To Fight Budget Cuts

Photo by Katie Sokoler.

The New York Public Library (NYPL) is facing a $37m reduction in financing. The resulting reduction in services and job losses will inevitably reflect the huge scale of cuts which are outlined in the Mayor’s Executive Budget Proposal.

It is hard to argue against fiscal responsibility in these straitened times, but it is not hard to argue for fairness. The cuts heaped on the NYPL are more than four times greater than the next public sector service area affected. A disproportionate difference by any measure.

This decision may reflect a Philistinism in the Mayor’s office or maybe the bureaucrats saw an easy target to pick off. Who knows? The decision has been made. The question is what can people do to save their library system from being stripped to the bone?

“Luckily for us, social media is the great equalizer,” says Deanna Lee, Vice President for Communications and Marketing. “Don’t Close the Book on Libraries” is the title of the advocacy campaign “aimed towards getting restorations from the City Council and Mayor from the current proposed City budget cut”. Visitors first arriving at the main NYPL site will see a ‘homepage hijack’.

Instead of standard celebrity appeals, which Deanna describes as work-intensive to produce and to make viral, she has tapped into what is already working in the social media space. In concert with Improv Everywhere whose mission is to cause “scenes of chaos and joy in public spaces”, the Ghostbusters video was created. With over a million and a half hits and rising, it is a viral success by any standards. There is a behind the scenes slideshow in this Huffington Post article where you can see pictures that did not appear in the video. And let’s not forget Tillman the Skateboarding Dog, who in his own inimitable manner has already registered 20k plus hits.

But social media is not just about one particular campaign on YouTube. Its power lies in its ability to reach out to various people in different ways wherever they may be. But just as importantly it is about the engagement of others. It is not a one-way street.

The following are examples of spontaneous support for the library:

The results from all this activity have been extraordinary. NYPL originally hoped to raise $50k in donations to help fund the campaign. But after $78k was raised, they have now had to readjust the target to $100k. Facebook visits have tripled at the campaign site and friending at the main site has gone up by almost half. Twitter followers have also increased by 10% since the start of the advocacy campaign and this is only week two!

It is all very fitting. The NYPL is a community service and it is right and just that the community can be involved in saving it. If social media technology has to have any value beyond corporate branding, then it has to be from a ground-up, roots-based, approach.

Contact NYPL if you want to donate or have an idea that might help. Obtain widgets from here to show support for the library on your website or blog.

Don't Close the Book on Libraries

Bob Kraut Talks Community Design: “It’s Not Enough To Analyse Social Data, We Need To See The Effects of Interventions”

I’m at the 4th International Conference on Weblogs and Social Media (ICWSM 2010) in DC this week, and the first keynote talk was given by Robert Kraut, a professor at the Carnegie Mellon University. The topic of his talk was how to build better online communities by adapting existing social science theories. This is a pretty long post but there are some interesting observations.

For the past seven or so years, Robert and his team have been studying how online groups or communities operate, and how the social sciences can benefit these groups. His theory is that some of the accepted wisdom about how offline groups work can be useful as a basis for understanding and designing online communities, but on the other hand, they are also limited since they weren’t designed for the online world. Looking at a few variables at a time (the norm in organisational analysis) doesn’t suffice for a complex system like an online community, especially if you are trying to intervene in the design of that system, as there are potentially hundreds of variables you are trying to play with.

Online communities and social media in general are both really important phenomena due to the large numbers of people that participate in them. An online community is basically an interconnected collection of people who interact over an extended period of time around some shared purpose or need. Current social media research mainly treats online communities as a natural phenomenon, using standard methods from the social sciences, but ignoring what we need to do to make sure that any interventions we make in online communities are beneficial.

If we intervene in the development of an online community, we are most likely trying to achieve stuff like making more people join the community, allowing people to generate more social capital, or just improving the community in general. In order to achieve these aims, there’s a need to go beyond simply looking at/analysing the data, and to start doing interventions and simulations to see how perturbations in the community will affect the community.

Online communities face many challenges, such as: how to get started when there are no people to provide content or there’s no content to attract people; how to recruit, select and socialise with new members; how to get people to stick around long enough so they can operate in that community; how to regulate the behaviour of outsiders and possible vandals; and how to coordinate activity in general. Features of online communities (in comparison to offline groups) such as anonymity, weak ties, high turnover, and a lack of institutionalisation make these challenges more daunting online. For example, how do you introduce newcomers to Wikipedia so that they know how to coordinate edits, be successful in their contributions, and not antagonise the old-timers who think of it as their own domain.

Commitment is an obvious problem in online communities (i.e. one’s psychological commitment to a group), and if one can examine the behavioural outcomes from different communities with the aim of improving commitment, then we can produce members who are more likely to help serve in the group’s name.

Robert listed some of the problems in online communities such as Usenet, Wikipedia, etc.:

  • In Usenet, 60% of people who post in a month are never seen again.
  • In Wikipedia, a typical editor edits a page only once.
  • In MovieLens, the half-life of newcomers is less than 18 days.
  • A World Of Warcraft guild loses 25% of its members per month.
  • In Second Life, 90% of users leave after registration.
  • In an online cancer group, 85% of those who register never participate.

But there are lots of design levers available that should allow us to encourage commitment. We often take decisions when we set up an online community such as: should there be policies for newcomers; should they be kept in a sandbox; should one create subgroups for a community; should off-topic conversations be moderated; or do we allow anyone to say anything at any time. These sort of decisions that will have an influence on how committed people are to the community. But we don’t have a priori knowledge on how those decisions should be made or how those decisions will interact with each other. When designing online communities, social science research and theory gives us some hints about how to use these design levers and guide these decisions, but it gives no guarantees. For example, it’s not clear how small group theories in organisations apply to online communities where you have a high turnover. It is also not clear if the theories we have from the social sciences, which typically take three or four variables at a time into account (reductionist theory), are sufficiently rich to give us an insight into the design of online communities.

Robert’s approach is to use empirical methods to assess if the methods from the offline world can be extended to explain the differentials and successes of online communities, and to use computational simulations to perform ‘what if’ experiments to see what the effects of a design intervention will be on an online community. His three main theories are:

  1. Social science theory is a useful basis for understanding behaviour in online groups. In line with socialisation theory, the first interactions that newcomers have shape in a very fundamental way the long term behaviour of those newcomers.
  2. Social science theory is a basis for designing online communities. The theories of social identity and liking help indicate how a person becomes more committed to an online group.
  3. We can get some leverage from existing literature but it is somewhat limited and results differ from those observed for online communities, so some new computational simulations are required.

Social science theory is a useful basis for understanding behaviour in online groups

The development of commitment amongst people in a group is a process that occurs over an extended period of time. What goes on as an individual becomes committed to a group changes over time. For the group, they have to decide if it is a benefit to have this new member join, and members themselves will assess the group to see if they want to maintain a relationship: its like two dogs sniffing around each other. Newcomers will stick around in groups where they are treated nicely and are granted membership – its like a prediction of the future where they figure out if they will get benefit by joining. The group is looking at the initial interactions with the newcomer to get a sense of what the individual is like. If both the newcomer and the group perceive this positively, it can be a mutually-reinforcing upward spiral.

Some of the CMU research focusses on the cues that groups give off that newcomers use to figure out if they want to join or not. What is it that individuals give off that allows the group to determine if they want to be nice to the individual? In a survey of 98 Usenet groups, with 28869 newcomers joining over 650 days, the research looked at 221092 messages that they posted. Newcomers – when the group is responsive to them – are much more likely to stick around than if they weren’t (initial interactions make a big difference). The signs of acceptance are more powerful if the group uses inclusionist language, ‘we’ vocabulary terms, and avoids exclusionist language, ‘us’ vs. ‘them’. If groups engage, then newcomers are more committed. There are also things that the newcomer can do to demonstrate commitment – which in turn help the group respond more positively to them – such as displaying visible signs that they are more committed to the group.

Groups will respond to a newcomer’s “membership claims” in a reciprocal vetting process:

  • A message from a newcomer such as “Has anyone tried this?” with no membership claim usually doesn’t get many replies.
  • A message such as “I’ve been here for a while and am ready to jump in, has anyone tried this?” gets a much better response (where the person says that even though they’ve been invisible, they have been a part of this group, and they are now ‘de-lurking’).
  • A message such as “I’m interested this topic because of reason X and I wanted to ask if anyone has tried this?” also gets a good response (where the person is saying they are part of the social category from which this group draws its membership).

Membership claims increase replies, and the group-oriented claim has a significant increase. Their research replicated this fundamental result in Wikipedia projects (where a named group of editors manage a collection of pages on a particular topic). In the first two weeks of interaction after someone added their name to the list of members, where there was a higher degree of interaction between newcomers and old-timers, the more edits the newcomer made over the coming months (12 times more in fact).

Socialisation theories claim that one of the ways you can get newcomers to be more happy and to participate/stick around is to give positive feedback about their behaviour in the group. The same theories say that what doesn’t work is constant criticism. One of the tests from CMU was to find out if the old-timers in the Wikipedia project were taking the best route by giving positive feedback (such as an exceptional newcomer award) or by offering regular constructive criticism (e.g. you need to avoid copying materials from other sources). They found that there is always a slow decline in a person’s participation in a project. However, with criticism, there’s a slower decline than without it. The implications of this research for community design are that offline theories are helpful but not definitive: the nature of interaction is different from conventional organisational behaviours. Wikipedia has welcoming committees, but research found that if these welcomers use templates to interact with newcomers, it drives them away (it’s almost worse than ignoring them), and the committees do exactly that (standardised templates serve as the basis for interaction).

Social science theory is a basis for designing online communities

We can not only use these theories as a basis for understanding but also for design. CMU’s research looked at the commitment of newcomers to groups, illustrating two theories in social psychology about how people are attached to communities:

  1. A person feels committed to the group as a whole and the things they stand for. Therefore, we should be focussing a newcomer’s attention on a group’s or subgroup’s characteristics.
  2. A person likes the people in they group, they don’t care about group as a whole, they just like hanging around and talking to those people after hours. If they all left, the person would leave the group too (Facebook cliques are like this because you like the friends you participate with). Therefore, we need to focus a newcomer’s attention on the individuals who are participating, not on the group as a whole.

The research took the generic MovieLens site, with 75,000 members, and where the average member stays less than 19 days. The aim was to try to see how they could increase how much people stick around, add ratings, etc., by focussing on either groups/subgroups or individuals. They began with a version of MovieLens with a focus on creating group profiles, emphasising group membership with a mission statement, comparing the group with other groups, and allowing newcomers to get information about the group as a whole, but the individuals themselves are submerged (‘identity-based’). The second test created a MovieLens with a focus on individual profiles having a name and picture, a profile of interests, comparisons with other people, etc., making it more like a Facebook profile in order to allow newcomers to get connected to individuals (‘bond-based’).

They randomly assigned newcomers and old-timers to one of three experimental conditions: a “vanilla” MovieLens; an identity-based MovieLens with social identity features focussing on groups; and a bond-based MovieLens with interpersonal features focussing on individuals. The MovieLens with the bond-based design (individual focus) had 11% more logins, but the identity-based design (group focus) had 44% more logins. This shows the strong effects of identity-based features, and the weaker effects of bond-based features. One explanation for this given by Robert is the time course involved: it takes a while to develop friendships, whereas social identity can be shifted instantaneously: give someone a t-shirt and they starting thinking of themselves differently than they did before. (There was another issue involved in MovieLens: interpersonal communication is essential, but they couldn’t get people to talk to each other much in the system).

Some new computational simulations are required

Finally, the researchers tried some agent-based simulations to provide some design insights by integrating separate theories (not one at a time as used by most previous studies). Existing theories use a small number of variables, but real online community design is multidimensional with many outcomes (beyond newcomer commitment) that you are trying to optimise across. Without going into the technical details, this agent-based model is used to explain a member’s motivation to participate in an online group (whereby people will participate if they perceive that they will get various types of benefits from the group). In brief, the model says that:

  • Design interventions (discussion methods, moderation techniques, newcomer socialisations, incentive structures) are based on…
  • Community characteristics (message quantity and quality, the size the group influences, how similar the person is to other members, and what kinds of interactions the person has from the group), which in turn shape…
  • Member benefits (accessing information, sharing information, having an attachment to the group, making friends with particular people, having fun in group, or having some benefit from their good reputation in the group), that then motivate…
  • Resultant actions (reading and posting messages).

As an example with this model, the researchers looked at what was the effect of discussion moderation on turnover rates, community growth and activity. Three types of moderation were considered:

  • No moderation: anyone says anything.
  • Community-level moderation: a human throws out off-topic messages, and there are rules that discourage members from discussing off-topic things.
  • In between these two extremes, there is personalised moderation: a person can create a profile of things that they care about, and anyone can say anything, but the user only sees messages that match their profile.

The research found that personalised moderation dominated in terms of logins per user for larger volume sites and more topically diverse groups. They also looked at what kind of benefits were individuals receiving from these groups with different moderation types. Personalised moderation improved both the information and social (bond) benefits, whereas community-level moderation improved a user’s information benefit, but only in homogenous communities.

Robert Kraut is currently writing a book on this topic called “Evidence-Based Social Design: Using the Social Sciences to Design Online Communities”. 90% of the content is available in draft form for free.

The End Of Innocence – Why Social Media Is The New Corporate Media

Let my start by saying that my career in media has been paying the bills since 1988. So I firmly embrace corporate media, advertising revenue and all media endeavors that enjoy commercial success. The lure of a life in TV (i’m a news cameraman by trade) was its combined appeal of an adventurous lifestyle and comfortable livelihood. This is what prodded me to take my plunge into TV news. But as with many things in life, my timing was off. I came up in the ranks of cameramen well into cable’s affront on broadcast dominance, admiring the legendary lenslingers before me, or more precisely their glorious tales of lavish travel and limitless budgets. Those were the glory days of TV news, and I got to see the vanishing apparitions – the vestigial remnants of those times.

Disruption Past

As a child of cable’s disruptive power, I understood that challenge, that shift, that imperative for change. So when blogging, podcasting and social networking emerged on the radar screen of my consciousness, I wasn’t prepared to grasp their nascent and then unrealized impact on mainstream media. Not until an unlikely series of events prompted the purchase of an iPod, did I come to realize that great numbers of people out there were dissatisfied with passively consuming mainstream content and advertising. They were out there creating their own content and speaking to each other and were quickly becoming disintermediated. With revolutionary zeal, web-preneurs sprang up like weeds creating platforms empowering people to share content and ideas. Brands, of course, took note and migrated their messaging and their spending from TV, print, radio to the then “new” media.

Join the Conver$ation

This media revolution made YOU Time magazine’s Person of the Year back in 2006 – and was at once an empowering energizing force, but at the same time, made me fear for the future of my career. Back then, it was all about the “conversation”. As a brand, one couldn’t just stumble in and “sell”, one had to honest, transparent, conversational. As social media has matured, I get the sense that we have moved beyond that – and now we’re back to where we once were. Brands just want access to us and the transaction remains the same. Look, I understand that companies need to make money and that investors need to get returns on hopes of 10x exits. But i’m struck by the rapacious speed with which social media, its adherents, and platforms are pursuing the buck. Ironic to me, considering that it was dissatisfaction with traditional media and “push” advertising that in many respects gave rise to social media.

It’s strange, but I still haven’t completely shaken my nostalgia for the salad days of old media as I begin to feel twinges of longing for new media’s simpler times. When old media was king it was advertisers buying access to passive audiences. Now, marketers are paying to become part of this:


Power Shift

The mantra of the Social Media Club, “If you get it, share it” has been modified by “ninjas”, “gurus”, and “experts” in the field with the following addendum: “for a fee”. Meanwhile, tech/Web 2.0 headlines point to leaner, meaner more competitive times. Here are some trends pointing to a shift in social media from being people-powered media to corporate driven:

In a move akin to ABC News recent staff slashing, popular, free social network platform Ning is free no more and has cut its staff by 40%.
How Facebook shares private information with third party companies is being scrutinized by Washington now, prompting one Senator to urge the FTC to get involved.
Twitter has announced “sponsored tweets” prompting some to point out – if companies were using Twitter right, they wouldn’t need sponsored tweets.
Pepsi passed on Super Bowl ads this year in favor of a $20 million social media campaign, and it’s probably not just about meeting new Twitter and Facebook friends.

So while this post may seem wistful, and perhaps critical of the direction that “people-powered” media has taken – none of this should be terribly surprising and it is perhaps inevitable. I still believe that successful, profit-motivated media can coexist with the community/individual driven kind. For my part, I’m just trying to stay ahead of it all and finding my place in this ever evolving landscape.

This article was originally posted on Verge New Media by Jim Long.

Infographics: Communicating The Essence Of A Tidal Wave Of Information

As databases around the world begin to share and compare their data with ever-greater meaning and relevance through the rapid roll out of Linked Data implementations, it is going to become more and more challenging to corral that data and make it into something user-friendly and practical. After all, data isn’t worth anything unless it is usable in some form.

We do know that there is a tidal wave of data coming right at us just over the horizon. According to one source we passed 3 zettabytes (21 zeroes) in 2008. So how so we begin to make sense of it?

One answer to help solve the need for increased intelligibility lies in the nascent field of information graphics or infographics for short. Up until now it has been a geeky/arty sub-genre of the Internet and regarded as something quite separate from the hard-core, often macho world of ‘real’ coding. But researchers, artists, statisticians and folks from all sorts of other fields are realising that not everyone wants to plough through all those numbers and data tables, and why should they, when a simple picture can tell the whole story.

But infographics has the possibility of being something far more than the mere prettifying of data. Assembling data in this manner to produce an infographic, a chart, or some other means of communicating an idea visually is really content production. The most important rule of content production is tell a story. That is the secret of all the most interesting infographs.

The all-time master (so far) has to be Hans Rosling: it’s worth taking a break now and watching his TED presentation where he sets the record straight on widespread notions concerning the ‘developing world’. There is even more of his work over at gapminder.org.

In his historical graphs not only can you view a data subject over time, you can also compare it to other neighbouring data subjects. Plus, in the graphs at Gapminder, you can set your own parameters to achieve a very great degree of fine tuning. It is impossible to play with this data without garnering some very interesting insights into how the world has developed over the last hundred and fifty years or so. Up until very recently, for Hans to have been able to communicate this knowledge and information, which he presents in such an understandable and approachable way, would have required hours, days, weeks, months even, to assemble and put together. Then there would be the time spent writing the book or making the film so that he could share the findings and insights with others.

Not only do we have the the chance to make data sensible and easy-to-use, we can – through the application of Linked Data and various new applications – do it in relatively short periods of time.

The possibility arises not just of a new and important channel of communication but of a new and exciting possibility of new art form. There will be a great need for more practitioners in this field with the creativity and talent to be able to make huge swathes of data intelligible and useful.

In the same way that IT departments devolved into separate computer services and web services departments and we now have a further devolution of social media functions as a professional sector in its own right, I can see data representation as becoming an entire skillset/profession as well.

Further reading:

  • This article from the Association of Computing Machinery that was helpful in laying out the land and the terms involved.
  • Protovis is an open source programme from Stanford University. It is free and probably a good place to start building your own infographics.
  • Google Fusion Tables is another place you can try building something for free.
  • Nathan Yau (@yfd on Twitter) has been leading the way for some time with, for instance, the use of UN data to create a world progress report. There is a nice interview with him in the magazine for the School of the Art Institute in Chicago in which he lays out some of his thinking.

Riposte To Shirky’s Semantic Smackdown From 2003

In normal circumstances, I have the highest regard for Clay Shirky. A copy of his book “Here Comes Everybody” is making its way to my great delight to the top of my reading stack. His talk at the London School of Economics is a classic lesson in presentation and delivery.

However, his article on the Semantic Web is a bit of a shocker. He begins the the article asking “What is the Semantic Web good for?”, a phrasing strongly reminiscent of Edwin Starr asking “War: what is it good for?” which of course demands the response “Absolutely nothing.”

To save us all from chanting in unison he provides us with his own answer. “The Semantic Web is a machine for creating syllogisms.” Even for 2003, when his article was written, that wasn’t true. The stated aim has always been to make information more relevant by making it more meaningful and more accessible.

At first I thought that Clay had made the error of mistaking triples for syllogisms, since at first glance they have the same form as a syllogism. But one only has to realise that what something looks like doesn’t necessarily mean that is what something is.

Syllogisms were what we would call in our post-Einstein days thought experiments written up in two books by Charles Dodgson of Oxford University in the late 19th Century. We know him better today as Lewis Carroll, the writer of Alice in Wonderland and other stories. They are an intellectual conceit. Triples, on the other hand, while coming in three parts like a syllogism, have a structure and content that enables Semantic Web developers to create and use them within a given context. Syllogisms are based on their own internal logic and usually go nowhere. Dodgson himself referred to them as sillygisms.

Clay goes on to note, quite correctly, that syllogisms aren’t very useful. But since neither triples nor the Semantic Web has very much use for syllogisms this is hardly relevant.

He then goes on to talk about the Semantic Web’s proposed uses. He mocks the idea that users may have to fill in multiple fields to retrieve information. He indicates that Jeff Bezos of Amazon won’t be losing any sleep over this. Since this refers to anything that would help customers find the items they are looking for, then I cannot see how Jeff Bezos could possibly be threatened by the arrival of a new and better technology.

Amazon’s search engine works fine (up to a point). All you are doing is matching a search query with a database of items you already have. But what if the item, subject, object you were looking for had parts or aspects of the answer needed spread over several databases. Databases that in a pre-Semantic Web world could well be oblivious to each other’s existence and with the corresponding inability of the data contained inside them to be accessed or made relevant in any kind of useful way.

The Semantic Web is not the replacement of what we have now with something shinier and newer, but is essentially a variation on a theme. It is a progressive step forward into the future of web usability and information retrieval. So to do something more complicated or which requires deeper digging than just a single entry search on Amazon or Google, then it may be necessary for people to fill in an extra couple of boxes to help the system to help them find what they want. Really, that is not such a big ask, is it, especially when you consider what you get in return?

I have to quote the next part directly:

This example sets the pattern for descriptions of the Semantic Web. First, take some well-known problem. Next, misconstrue it so that the hard part is made to seem trivial and the trivial part hard. Finally, congratulate yourself for solving the trivial part.

Apart from the kettle calling the pot black this is just mean and Clay should be ashamed for himself for descending to common room sneering. But the question starts to arise: why is he so down on the idea of the Semantic Web? Since he has already misstated the meaning of the Semantic Web, I am beginning to think that he is taking a contrary position for the sake of contrariness. (One cannot tout oneself as a thinker if one is thinking the same as everyone else.) The mean comments may have been intended to provoke a response (or a flame war) from interested parties, but it looks a lot like grandstanding to me: grandstanding in a very unpleasant manner.

Before we know it, he is back to misrepresenting syllogisms as Semantic Web thinking, and he goes on to the next paragraph which is headed “Meta-data is not a panacea”. And why is that? We’ll never know, as he is back to abusing syllogisms once again. After that, he turns his focus on to ontologies. (To be fair there is a debate still going on about their necessity or the degree of their necessity.) However, he claims that we don’t need the Semantic Web because we have RSS, and because RSS was easy to develop and the Semantic Web isn’t, therefore it must be superior. He asks us to look at how simple RSS is compared to the Semantic Web. Unfortunately, RSS is for distributing already found information. It is not a lot of use when trying to organise a trip to Finland by accessing airplane databases, ferry databases, hotel databases and so on.

Clearly since Clay has nothing much to say about ontologies, he uses RSS as a counterpoint. Which, unfortunately, for him it isn’t.

In the next section, he chooses to put the Semantic Web in the same box as Artificial Intelligence (AI), claiming that AI was found to be sub-optimal which in turn will be the fate of the Semantic Web. I don’t want to start defending AI in this article, but suffice to say thanks to developments in neuroscience, AI development is thriving quite happily. In short, the brain in a vat has been set aside and work is now focused around the idea of embodiment. As far as Semantic Web development is concerned, there is no objective place where you can say that the work has reached anything like a dead end. Obviously, there were plenty of sub-projects that didn’t pay off, but that is the nature of all experiment and development.

Finally, the conclusion isn’t really a conclusion. Since Clay has clearly misunderstood the role of the basic technologies of the Semantic Web, citing their irrelevance is irrelevant in itself.

So why have I taken so much time to take down the work of someone I usually admire. The answer is that what he says is important outside and what he says is taken seriously by business leaders and other leading thinkers. The fact that this article is seven years old does not matter because as we know nothing on the Internet ever goes away. If you type in “semantic web cricticism” to Google, Clay’s article appears as the first result.

But to contrast all this negativity, I would like to cite a few examples from the recently published Pew Research Center report entitled “The Fate of the Semantic Web“. It is an easy read and it is well worth downloading the PDF.

In this very nice quote, the writers summarise why it is so hard for people outside the environs of Semantic Web research like myself to get a grasp of what it is about.

The concept is so revolutionary that people have difficulty describing it in just so many words and its proponents self-consciously struggle to describe the ‘killer app’ for the Semantic Web that will make users understand its power – and support its creation.

Its ineffableness is what makes it so hard not only for the general public but also for database owners to grasp that it is a really, really good idea to get that data tagged and the various protocols installed.

This is why it has been slow to take off, but also why it will never be left to gather dust on a shelf somewhere. The Semantic Web is just too powerful a technology to fade away, but it needs awareness and acceptance. And as the quote points out, without the killer app it is hard to incentivise people to climb on board the train that leads to greater accessibility and relevance. It is happening but slower then it could be.

Transparency As It Relates To Government, Privacy, And Just Getting Things Done

There are a number of ways that the idea of transparency can be applied to the digital world.

Transparency in government. Through the marvelous work of such organisations as the Sunlight Foundation, we are now able to see more and more deeply into the workings of government, to see how decisions are made, and by corralling data, to see how effective those decisions have been. Our representatives become increasingly more accountable for the decisions they make as we are able to see the same factors of influence that influence the decision process as them. Conversely, we are increasingly providing data to governments so information hitherto inaccessible can be taken into account. By seeing the same factors and the same budgets, we can be more understanding of (if not necessarily agreeing with) the decisions that do get made.

There is a whole separate article to be written discussing the notion that data can still be “interpreted” in many different ways, but the one point that should be noted is the idea that in the future, politicians, civil servants and public figures will be held even more accountable by means of solid evidence derived from available information. This must surely make even the dimmest and most self-serving of them pause for thought.

Transparency as it relates to privacy. In the digital world, it really boils down to one sentence. Be careful what you put on the Web. It is something you have to think about and be clear about. Trusting others with vital information, well…

These are two kinds of transparency that dominate most thinking about the Web at the moment, but there is another kind of transparency which offers another type of insight. A window that allows us to look into a world of wonder and fascination.

Transparency about getting things done. Last November, the New York Public Library (NYPL) put a short video on to YouTube showing the evolution of the design concept for the library’s new logo. It was a curiosity published to the Web with no particular aim in mind. They didn’t even bother to add sound. It received thousands of hits in no time at all.

Folks at the NYPL were stunned and puzzled by the response. After much discussion, it became apparent that what was going on was that they were witnessing the true nature of transparency in action. Viewers were given an insight into the creative workings of the NYPL and they found it fascinating. A barrier between the public and the library had been transcended. The possibility of a new relationship between the institution and people it was intended to serve was created.

Although transparency is often thought of as keeping the noses of the bad guys clean and seeing who is friends with your friends, this sense of being able to see the magic behind the scenes does not destroy the illusion but makes the whole game far more interesting, as Dorothy discovered when she pulled back the curtain in the Wizard of Oz.

As a job seeker, what would it be like working for a particular organisation or in a particular field? Up until now there has been no way of knowing that except to talk to a succession of people who work there and derive whatever underlying cultural dispositions there were from the few clues presented to the public.

Corporations, institutions and individuals all have a face they like to show the world. But this sort of transparency (for which I don’t have a name but feel free to suggest one in the comments) is not about accountability or revealing confidentialities – it is about sharing what we take for granted, the everyday how-tos, that we simply don’t consider that others would find fascinating.

For me, Formula 1 racing had to be one of the dullest events on earth until they let the cameras into the pit lanes and garages. For the first time I could really see that it wasn’t just about a lone driver out there on the track going pointlessly around in circles. They were just the tip of a pyramid of organisation and planning devoted to going faster and winning. Just having evidence of that made the race more interesting.

Most famously Penn and Teller have a whole sub-routine in their shows that reveals the secrets of their tricks. It is fascinating and doesn’t spoil the entertainment at all. Which only goes to show when it comes to performing it’s all about the performance.

In the world around us, we now have a window into the soul that exists inside the real and virtual edifices that we encounter daily. We may not necessarily know more about the essential details of a system, but we can understand more as all endeavours are intrinsically human endeavours and we can share the sense of adventure.

We don’t really learn much about designing from that NYPL video, but we do understand that it is an iterative, evolving human process and is probably akin to many of the tasks that we do in our own jobs. It is fascinating because it is something we can directly relate to. And through understanding something of their design process, we in turn understand something more about the New York Public Library, the people and its culture.

By sharing our work in progress, our blogs about the frustrations of getting agreements with clients and suppliers, our videos of what we have to pack for a weekend hiking trip, we share what it is to get things done in this world. This may be more meaningful than any amount of friend-ing on Facebook or wherever.

There is a long video on my Vimeo site about what goes on behind the scenes on a documentary shoot. Not many people watch it (there are some real longeurs in it so I don’t blame them) but I don’t mind because it was always intended for those interested in such things. It was worth making because the questions I do get asked about it aren’t usually what I expect and very often make me think about the very nature of our approach to filming: why we did the things we did and how we could do it differently, valuable stuff.

These windows into other worlds are at the heart of the whole idea of openness in society.