Archive for the ‘research’ Category

On social networks and shared culture

April 25, 2008

I recently finished grading a lot of papers on the topic of “new” media and culture for Tarleton’s COMM 320 class. Our students had to react to the following statement using the class readings:

Digital media technologies tend to individualize us, to make us feel more separate; digital culture (i.e. the kinds of content those technologies give us access to and the cultural meanings that content regularly offers) tend to connect us, to make us feel more a part of something.

One of the prominent examples to how the “digital culture tend to connect us” was the social networks websites. This is probably why the following post caught my eye. It summaries results of social media study from Universal McCann, which shows major differences between the US and Asian countries in terms of online social networking. It seems that people in different parts of the world tend to join different social networks, which actually makes perfect sense, but undermines that globally-unifying factor that many of our students highlighted (also note the white spaces on the map). It also shows that even in the US itself there is not homogeneity in these environment. In fact, Eszter had a paper showing, among other things, that different ethnic groups in the US tend to join different social networking website.

It could be interesting to look at the complete report since it also suggest differences in patterns of grassroots content production in various regions of the world. I think when talking about “new” media and “digital” culture, it s very important to put things in context (and that is one of the ideas in my eyes behind thinking macro :). I wonder though what would be the best way to incorporate that in teaching.

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Dancing with technology

March 30, 2008

DancingI am now working on a paper about the histories of the “digital divide” for the upcoming ICA pre-conference. While re-reading some of the articles and organizing my own thoughts, I got stuck with the following image in my head. I tend to view our interaction with technology as a dance, sort of a passionate tango where the partners are competing for lead. As users we can take a step forward in this dance (embracing more technology) or a step back (dropping technological practices and devices). But we are not limited just to that back and forth motion. We can also step aside, turn around, spin our partner, let them spin us, and basically be both creative and innovative in what we do.

At the same time, it is a pair dance, so our decisions of what we do, or even an appreciation of what we can do, is a function of cooperation between us (users) and our partner (technology). We plan our next steps based on the feedback from our partner. The partner can limit our options of being creative and innovative, or even to move in a certain direction, and yet they can improve our dance, making us realizing unprecedented abilities. We are very attentive to our partner and respond to each little movement of their body, to every clue about how comfortable and/or excited they are about the next move. There is constant tension and continuous pressure between you two, because it is only through this interaction that your dance is born and this what makes it so exciting.

Although we, as a pair and each one of us as an individual, have a lot of agency in shaping the dance, it is also guided by the surroundings. If we are to participate in an official ballroom dancing competition there is a plethora of formal rules and convention we’d have to fit our innovation into (using technology at work). However, even we are just dancing for fun, the settings in which it happens encourage certain behaviors and discourage others (talking on phone in public). We may be more willing to innovate when we are among friends who share our passion to dancing, and be more reluctant to perform extravagant moves among strangers. In some cultural settings we might not be able to dance at all.

We also learn. The experience matters, and the more we dance and spend time analyzing this dance, the better we get to know our partner and work out little dancing routines within the limitations of our joint abilities. At the same time, being on the dance floor and observing other people dancing, we pick up steps and we allow ourselves trying new moves. As times goes by, as a pair we also learn to interact with the social settings, understanding the limits of extravaganza we can follow on different occasions and with different audiences. The more experience and knowledgeable we are getting (both about each other and about the different settings) the more confident we fill to stretch the boundaries and challenge the conventions. It works exactly the same with technology.

So, whether it is a tango or a dance with media and communication technology, this interaction is complex, dynamic, multidimensional, and constantly evolving. This is probably it is so fascinating to watch. Don’t you think?

Going mobile…

March 9, 2008

The “Pew Internet and American Life” project just published an interesting report about the use of mobile access to data and information. According to this report over 40% of the adult Americans have used mobile Internet access and almost 60% used non-voice services on their mobiles.

They show some interesting trends in people’s readiness to give up information technologies. If in 2002 only 38% said it would be very hard to give their mobile phone, in 2007 this number jumped to 58%. At the same time the percentage of people who find it very hard to give up television went from 47% in 2002 down to 43% in 2007. Even more interesting is the percentage of people who think that it would very hard to give up a land-line. That went down from 63% in 2002 to 40% in 2007, which actually is consistent with notions that more and more people are giving up land-lines. Also interesting is the willingness to give up email. The percentage of those finding it very hard to give up their email went from from 35% in 2002, to 34% in 2006, to 37% in 2007. Although there is no clear trend here, it seems like email is keeping a rather stable position in the communication lives of adult Americans using email. I wonder thought, if the situation with young Americans is any different though. The Pew report does not survey people younger that the age 18, yet, there are some trends noticeable even in the available data. The summaries presented in the report clearly show that the younger people are more willing to experiment with technology. For example the difficulty to give up internet and mobile phones grows as the age goes down, while the difficulty to give up land-line and television is growing with the age. I find this fascinating!

The interesting aspect of this increasing mobility however, is the actual type of activity. According to the report text messaging is leading the way with 31% of the users performing this activity on a typical day. The next most popular activity is picture taking with 15% of the users reporting doing so. To me, the latter point is particularly interesting in light of my recent post on digital photography. Pew data shows that 58% of the users tried taking a picture with their mobile device (same percentage as that of people who tried sending a text message), but only 15 view that as part of their typical day (as opposed to 31% mentioned above). It seems to me that my intuition about mobile photography was right.

When it comes to the types of activity, the younger people are really standing out. As i mentioned earlier, they are more willing to experiment with technology. Yet, they are also using more technology in general. Here again, text messaging is the leading activity (60% of 18-29 years old reported it to be part of their typical day) with taking pictures (31%), playing music, playing games (both 16%), and consuming news (14%). I find the last point particularly interesting from the societal point of view and also because this activity seems to be really distinct for this age group (only 7% of 30-49 years old, 3% of 50-64 years old, and 1% of 65+ years old reported that kind of activity as part of their typical day).

There is more demographic and especially racial specifics discussed in the report. Very interested and rather concise read.

When the virtual and the real converge…

March 7, 2008

Two separate articles found their way into my RSS reader.

The first told a story of 26-year-old Fouad Mortada of Morocco, who was sentenced to three years in prison and $1300 US fine for creating a FB profile in the name of King Mohammed’s brother. As absurd as it sounds, something that can be considered a harmless joke in the virtual space, has very tangible repercussions for a real person (and i am not talking about the King’s brother here who, as i understand, was actually presented in a very favorable light in that FB profile). That may be an extreme example, but there are many other stories when online activity, particularly on FB, cost people careers or other tangible expenses. It appears that developments in the virtual world are deeper and deeper weaved into our real lives bringing in not just intended, but also unintended consequences.

The second story is about a US government project called “Reynard”, which is aimed at monitoring WoW in order to detect suspicious behavior and identify potential terrorists. Of course it will be based on data mining and will look at behavioral patterns (thus raising the obvious privacy questions. ) Yet, while the idea of an Elf and an Orc planning the next 9/11 while fighting giant spiders or collecting magical blueberries is somewhat surrealistic, it is another mind stretching example of how converged the virtual and the real are becoming now days.

One thing i completely disagree with in the latter article is that: “the cultural and behavioral norms of virtual worlds and gaming are generally unstudied”. Just last October i was at the AoIR conference, a significant portion of which was explicitly dedicated to this. But that highlights a totally different issue. My guess is that the primarily qualitative research presented at AoIR considered to be of limited use by data-mining quantitative people of “Reynard”. Well, one can only hope that at the end people will benefit from combining the strengths of different approaches to research.

To summarize this rumbling on virtual and real, i would like to bring it back to the idea of perception of media and information technology and its role in constituting social fabric. Apparently the view of Moroccan authorities of FB activity is different than that of people actually using the platform and who are immersed into this culture. If WoW is used for conspiring terrorist activities, it is again another example of different perceptions of the platform and what it could/should be used for. Similarly, if there is nothing of this kind is going on in WoW, than the entire “Reynard” project is fueled solely by perceptions of what WoW could be. I find it really interesting, because these supposedly abstract perceptions have very tangible impacts on the very real societies and individuals.

Web 2.0 criticized

March 5, 2008

The last issue of First Monday is dedicated to criticizing various aspects of the “Web 2.0” idea. Michael Zimmer provides a great introduction where he presents the pieces and drafts logical links among them. While I really appreciate the analytical strength of arguments developed by the contributors, I would be really glad to see some empirical testing of these ideas. I am not talking specifically about the First Monday, which may not be the venue, or the specific issue and its contributors (I read only a few articles from that issue), but I am talking more general about critical research.

The lack of empirical evidence is often used for attacking the critical thinking as demagogic or even simply dismissing it as having little hold in reality. While it is very difficult to produce high quality empirical research, and sometimes it is even contradictory to the origins of the critical thought itself, I think it is essential for making the critical perspective more prominent in the public discourse.

It seems to me that marginalization of critical perspectives to scholarly discourse only is not doing good nether to the ideas presented in it, nor to the industry that is carrying the changes in the media. Even though it it is understandable why industry spokespeople would be inherently enthusiastic about technology, careful assessment of socio-economic environment can help making better decisions. For example, I expect that the currently evolving recession might expose another technocratic-discourse driven bubble, as we already experienced back at the end of the 1990’s. However I do believe that paying attention to the critical analysis, could prevent repetition of at least some of the mistakes of the past.

More on Digital Divide in US election

February 26, 2008

Following on my previous post about Obama’s talk at Google, here is a very interesting post from Andy Carvin shedding more light on the candidates’ rhetoric about social role of information technology, digital divide, and the related education. Having read a lot about the discourse surrounding these issues, it is striking me again and again how little change there was in this domain. They are still talking about technology in rather technocratic and deterministic terms, framing it mainly as an economic factor.

It is also interesting how the political discourse reacting to academic research and market forces. Only about a decade ago, the discourse focused primarily on issues of physical access. This view gained a lot of criticism from the academic community and research (like this) showed that skills play a very significant role in what we label as the digital divide. Simultaneously, it seems like the markets for infrastructure neared certain levels of saturation (i don’t have exact data on that, but my own observations). The combination of the two created another domain to public discourse about digital divide – skills. We can see both components in Andy’s post or in fact in any other political speech/document on the subject.

Of course i am simplifying a very complex story, but i hope that I manage to clarify the basic idea. Now it will be interesting to see what happens next. The academic community moved further with conceptualizing the digital divide in terms of inequalities and viewing it as a more complex social construct. What is going to be an associated market change and how will it impact the public discourse?

Just some thoughts triggered by reading blogs…

Market analysis – studying the trends or setting them?

February 22, 2008

Recently I read a Ynet article (HE) on the future of digital photography in light of growing presence of mobile phones with embedded cameras. The basic argument of the article is that the growing numbers of mobile phones with embedded cameras and the constant improvement of image quality produced by these cameras, are inevitably leading to extinction of photo-cameras as we know them.

To a degree this is a typical article trying to analyze technological trends with a deterministic flavor. However, what really surprised me is the way they build support for their argument. The support comes from analysts who suggest various numbers that are supposedly illustrate the point. For example they point at Nokia as the largest producer of digital cameras who went from producing 100 million mobile phones with embedded cameras in 2005, to 140 million in 2006, to 170 million in 2007. All is good, but how do we know if the people are buying the phones because of the camera or because of the phone? In fact, today it is really difficult to buy a phone without an embedded camera. I even got one for free.

Another example the analysts provide is that in 2006 there were 750 million users of mobile phone cameras and 500 million users of regular digital cameras; in 2009 they expect 3 billion users of mobile phone cameras and 1.3 billion users of regular digital cameras. One thing that isn’t clear to me is what constitutes a user. I may be an anomaly, but since i got my phone with embedded camera a year and a half ago, i took something like 20 pictures with it, most of which stayed in the phone and will probably remain there (and i am a picture freak taking probably at least 100 pictures a month). My guts feeling is that everyone who owns a mobile phone with embedded camera was considered a user for the purposes of this analysis. I think their argument could be stronger if they would actually refer to the usage patterns of the various types of cameras. Alternatively, and i wonder if this is feasible, it could be really interesting to estimate the actual number of pictures taken by mobile phone cameras vs. regular digital cameras.

So, the question I had in my mind after reading this article was a more general one about the role of market analysts. To what degree their role is analyzing the trends vs. setting them? Of course i am not doing justice to the cited analysts, because i have never seen their actual reports and I am sure these are more detailed compared to the highlights picked be the media. At the same time they are being used to propagate certain agenda and they don’t seem to object.

The analysts are in a privileged position compared to everybody else, for they are looked up to as experts and in this sense they do act as agenda setters, particularly when it comes to technology. I would even go further by saying that they are in a position to influence the frameworks we use to think about and interpret technology and innovation. Putting it in Giddens’ terms, they enjoy comparatively stronger agency and thus ability to shape the relevant structures, and the media here serve as an amplifying mechanism.

So, the question i am stuck with at the moment is to what extend market analysis is in fact aimed at analyzing trends and to what extend it is actually setting them. What do you think?

Information seeking and voting behaviors

February 18, 2008

I think the current presidential election in the US is really interesting. Whatever the outcome of democratic primaries will be, it will be a historical nomination. This is why i think our WikiCandidate project is particularly timely, but that is not the central theme of this post (you can still however go and register at the website :)

Recently Hitwise published an interesting analysis comparing demographic profiles* of visitors to campaign websites of Clinton, Obama, and McCain (the three leading candidates). Their analysis shows really nicely how stereotypically liberal voters tend to visit Clinton’s and Obama’s websites, and stereotypically conservative voters tend to visit that of McCain.

The interesting part is however the information seeking behavior of those who are labeled as independents, as they are the ones who perceived as deciding voice in this election. When they account for group size, Hitwise conclude:

So the data indicates that Clinton and McCain’s websites are appealing to a broader sprectrum of voters than Obama and that McCain is appealing most to those more likely to include Independents.

which i think is interesting.

The question for me now is what is the link between information seeking behavior and voting patterns. Is the fact that I often visit Obama’s website associated with higher probability of me voting for Obama? There must be quite a lot of research on this topic. I wonder also how these behaviors are correlated with mainstream media consumption and prominence of particular candidates in given periods of time? Another thing that I think would be interesting to compare is Obama vs. Clinton, as this is the most discussed political battle at the moment. Somehow this comparison is missing from Hitwise analysis.

Frankly, I envy Hitwise and the data they have about online behaviors. There are so many interesting questions one could investigate…

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* More about the profiles here (look for “update”).

The wonders of Russia

February 16, 2008

I am currently assisting Phil Howard with his World Information Access Project. Particularly, i am looking for raw data on internet access in Russia (if you have any, please let me know).

Browsing the RUnet, i came across this post telling the story of the campaign website of Dmitry Medvedev, the leading presidential candidate in Russia. Apparently, his campaign website is hosted by the Russian Academy of Science…

Although the blog telling this story is explicitly anti-Medvedev, the information they use to determine this fact is publicly available. So, what do you say my internet gurus, is it really so?

A strong sense of deja vu

January 7, 2008

I am sitting now at a conference on privacy in social networks, organized by the Netvision Institute at TAU.  The first part of the conference brought a strong sense of deja vu.  It focused primarily on the “danger” of fictive identities online and the legal implications of it.  I felt like reading Sherry Turkle again, but found it very difficult to connect to the speakers (particularly one of them who drifted into talking about a digital camera that can see through your clothes).

Gladly, i wasn’t alone, and another person in the audience asked about the repercussions of actually sharing the real information.  How come we came back to discussing the “danger” of the fictitious, while the potential harm of the real is much more tangible?  The speakers didn’t have concrete answers.  However, as if to prove my line of thought, the current session is focusing on issues of dealing with real information and privacy issues.  Interestingly, this session consists only of industry people who actually build these social networks.