Monthly Archives: March 2009

Bernie Hogan: “Networking in Everyday Life”

One of the coolest things about being at Microsoft Research is that there are systems in place that make it very easy to collaborate with faculty at other institutions. I took advantage of this for the first time last week when I invited Bernie Hogan of Oxford Internet Institute to come and play with me. Bernie and I have known each other for a long time and vowed that we would work together when we got through our individual dissertations. The time has finally come to make real on that promise. So we sat down and started plotting some research that we’d like to do together.

If you read my blog and you don’t know Bernie’s work, you should. Bernie’s dissertation – “Networking in Everyday Life” examines how people leverage different channels of communication to connect to people in their lives. In other words, rather than focusing on just one genre (e.g., Facebook or telephone) or comparing specific genres to face-to-face, he looks at how communication is differentiated across these different channels. His argument is that each individual channel makes things more convenient but that, in sum, communication is far less convenient because we now have to remember who to contact through what means to achieve the desired result. Bernie’s diss does an amazing job at thinking about the role of technological affordances in shaping people’s mediated communication.

Bernie is a true sociologist (whereas I’m whatever label you paste on me today). He’s also a social network analyst. And he’s wicked smart. So I feel like a little kid in a candy store for having spent a whole week chewing on puzzles together. What is especially amazing to me is that we continue to circle in on similar topics from vastly different directions. He and I are both obsessed with context, inequality, communication choice, etc. but we think about these issues from VERY different perspectives. But now I get to play with him and I already feel smarter for that.

I feel like I’m writing a Testimonial. But what I mean to say is that those of you interested in social media, social networks, information overload, and other such related concepts should really read Bernie’s diss: “Networking in Everyday Life”.

I just learned that Bernie’s diss has won the Communications Dordick Award for Best Dissertation – ROCKING! That’s just way cool!!

Seeking: Boston-based developer for prototyping work with moi

Back in the day, I used to build interactive visualizations and other tools to mark up and analyze data. My research agenda is leading me back there and so Microsoft Research has kindly agreed to give me the resources to try out working with a developer.

Thus, this is a call for a Boston-based developer interested in working as a contractor on a full-time basis. This is not a permanent gig, but there’s budget for at least the next three months. This position is being contracted through Talent Source and you would be officially reporting to someone who is more code-minded. You would be working in Kendall Square amidst a bunch of lovable researchers who speak in mathematical equations, physics models, and social science mumbo jumbo. Start date is effectively now.

The ideal candidate would be fluent in C# and Java, comfortable working with SQL servers, and have a penchant for learning new web technologies for fun. There’s a decent chance this project will involve a combination of Python, Processing, Rails, AJAX, etc. or whatever tool makes the most sense for the situation. This will also involve learning various APIs (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, etc.) and toolkits (e.g., Guess, Prefuse).

The ideal candidate would love prototyping off of half-baked drawings scribbled on napkins in crayon. This is not going to be a good gig for someone who needs a proper spec or development process. The “products” are going to be research probes and will need to evolve with use. The end-goal is far more prototype than stable product and the goal will be to iterate quickly at the expense of stability.

The ideal candidate would be self-motivated and patient with an eclectic work environment. The work environment is a research lab and my management style is quite flexible (a.k.a. virtually non-existent). This is not going to work for someone who functions best through heavy management or direct intervention. Flexibility and patience are pretty critical and I expect a bunch of eye-rolling when I make crazy suggestions.

The ideal candidate would enjoy thinking about how to interact with data and coming up with new adhoc ways of scraping, aggregating, sorting, manipulating, analyzing, visualizing and interacting with online social data. Someone who loves social data and would enjoy understanding the patterns in large data would find this gig especially fun. The ideal candidate might even have a personal interest in research themselves.

If you are interested in this position, please reach out to the Talent Source Program Office via email at and/or call 1-877-673-8877 and reference the Job ID 7819-1. Talent Source will connect you with an approved temp agency right away.

Feel free to pass this on to anyone who you think might be into this gig, especially folks who you think might gel well with my quirkiness.

a random act of kindness

Due to poor planning, G and I were on different flights back to Boston from SXSW. I was already booked on the early flight and had already been assigned my upgrade. So when we reached DFW, we raced across the airport to get him on standby. Success, but of course, he got stuck in a middle seat in coach. Standing around waiting to board, I’m feeling all mega-guilty about being in first while he’s in coach so I’m more affectionate than normal. The plane boards and I proceed to 1A. The guy sitting in 1B looks at me and says, “Aren’t you traveling with someone?” After I nod, he says, “Why don’t I switch with him?” I explain that he’s in coach and he shakes his head to say “no problem” but I proceed to protest and point out that he’s in a center seat in coach and he protests further by saying that he flies all the time and no problem, no problem, I should sit with my partner… By this time, first is wide-eyed. I mean, what business traveler in their right mind wants to give up a bulkhead first seat to sit in a center in coach? But before I manage to protest louder, he grabs his stuff and heads back to coach. The woman behind me and I laugh uncomfortably with big eyes, verbalizing what we were thinking: “did that really happen?”

Sure enough, he proceeds to sit in coach. The flight attendants are astonished and find him a seat in the back with more room and continue on to send back ice cream and food and whatnot. At one point, I asked one of the flight attendants how he was doing and she smiled and said that he was an extremely kind man and that the flight attendants were all loving him. That she had never in her day seen someone give up a first class seat as a random act of kindness. We were all quite floored.

The truth is that I was completely flabbergasted and without a script in which to operate. I never caught the man’s name. I couldn’t find him after we landed. I never really got to properly say thank you. But, Mr. Nice Businessman, if you’re out there, I want you to know that your random act of kindness made me a giddy happy kid; flying home next to G was really wonderful. And you made a lot of people smile. So THANK YOU!

it’s time for SXSW!!

After taking a break to finish my dissertation, I’m heading back to SXSW and I. Cannot. Wait. SXSW is one of my favorite-ist conferences evah. It’s filled with fun folks who are truly engaged with the web, social media, and other forms of culture. There’s such a large contingent of cool and interesting people that I’m always overwhelmed, overstimulated, and otherwise bouncy as could be. The parties don’t hurt either. Tehe.

Anyhow, I do very little scheduling at SXSW because I personally do better when I’m unscheduled and just go with the flow. That said, I find that it’s useful to show up at one’s own talks and parties. And it’s even more fun to attend said scheduled activities when your friends know about it and want to come and play along. Sooo, since all of my BIG events are on Saturday, I thought I’d take a moment to share these bits in the hopes that those of you attending might come along!

Panel #1: Is Privacy Dead or Just Very Confused?

  • Who: me (moderator), Judith Donath, Siva Vaidhyanathan, Alice Marwick
  • When: Saturday March 14, 10-11AM in Room A
  • Abstract: While many assert that “privacy is dead,” the complex ways in which people try to control access and visibility suggest that it’s just very confused. Rather than throwing the baby out with the bath water, let’s discuss people’s understanding and experiences of privacy and find ways to 2.0-ify it.

Panel #2: Everything I Needed to Know About the Web I Learned from Feminism

  • Who: Heather Gold, me, Betty Flowers
  • When: Saturday March 14, 3.30-4.30PM in Room 9
  • Abstract: Last year’s panel on Gossip packed up via twitter word of mouth and was described by Get Satisfaction’s Lane Becker as “the best panel I’ve ever seen at SXSW.” This year we might top it and revive/re-frame feminism at the same time. Feminism teaches “the personal is political” and the web shows that the personal is now public. Christmas newsletters and recipes are the social media of their time, and women are the key social nodes of our culture. In her comic and though-provoking style, Heather Gold brings together amazingly smart women and the people f/k/audience to discuss what makes social networks strong and predict where they’re heading next online.

Party: StandardAnswer Launch Party

  • StandardAnswer is an online community built around questions and answers (think personality quizzes). This is a new startup; I’m on the advisory board and this is the launch party.
  • When: Saturday March 14, 8PM-2AM
  • Where: Red Eyed Fly, 715 Red River
  • Deets: all welcome, music by Black Joe Lewis, American Princes, and White Denim; RSVP is required

Sooo… if you want to see me be all serious, come to the panels. If you want to see me all goofy and bouncy, come to the party! Saturday is bound to be loads of fun so I hope you’ll join me!!!

“Social Media is Here to Stay… Now What?”

Last week, I gave my first talk at Microsoft since joining MSR. This talk was part of the annual Tech Fest where researchers from labs around the world come and share their work to the broader Microsoft community. For the most part, it’s like a large science fair. There are booths and demos and posters and swarms of people descending to ask questions of researchers. It was pretty trippy to be thrown into this mix after only being with the company for a month. I had the privilege of “demoing” (a.k.a. waving my hands and trying to explain what I do) to Bill Gates. There was great humor involved because I gave my “demo” immediately following one of my colleagues’ (Henry Cohn’s) brilliant explanation of optimizing the Gale-Berlekamp lightbulb game. (Think: pure math to pure ethnography in under 60 seconds.)

Anyhow, I wrote up the crib of my talk in case anyone outside of Microsoft might find it interesting:

“Social Media is Here to Stay… Now What?”

This talk is intentionally not a research talk, but an applied talk. It’s a sampler plate of my work as it applies to developers, policy makers, community managers, product designers, and other folks who work inside companies like Microsoft. Enjoy!!

I want to evolve to not hear the cell phone

Whenever I’m in a public space where folks are blabbing away on their phones, I want to scream. Trains, cafes, busses… they all drive me batty. I’m dreading the day in which cell phones are viable on planes. Or when VOIP isn’t blocked. When I’m forced to listen to half of a conversation, I start fuming. First, I mentally grumble about how rude the person is. But then I start berating myself, lamenting my age, and wondering if I were younger or from a different culture if half-conversations wouldn’t drive me so utterly insane.

Years ago, I read a study (that I now can’t find) about why half-conversations are so disruptive. Your brain is pretty good about tuning out conversations in a restaurant, but it sucks at tuning out just half of a conversation. Y’see – your brain wants to fill in the other half. It worries that it’s supposed to respond and so it listens even when you tell it not to. You can’t just close your ears and blasting other sounds into them may not achieve the desired serenity either, especially if you’re like me and the urge to dance kicks in with the music.

This all makes sense for those of us whose brains stabilized pre-mobile phones. But I can’t help but wonder if this is changing. If you grow up in a world where half-conversations are everywhere, does your brain cope with it better? Does it learn to tune it out? If you grow up in a culture where everyone is always rattling on loudly in public, can you tune out noise better than if you grew up in a culture where silence is more than norm? I’m always fascinated by cross-cultural events involving people from more quiet cultures (say Japan, Finland) and those from louder ones (say Russia, Israel). Do these cultural differences affect your ability to tune out noise?

More importantly, can I be retrained? Can I evolve to not hear those blasted half-conversations? I know that I can learn to tune out car noise after a few weeks in a new apartment. What will it take for me to stop fuming? I feel far too old and crotchety before my time on this one.

when research is de-contextualized

This week has been filled with news stories that make me sigh. Since everyone keeps asking me about them, I feel the need to comment. Scratch that, rant.

Let’s start with the Economist’s Primates on Facebook. This article is framed around Robin Dunbar’s classic work published in Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. Dunbar argued for a parallel between humans gossiping and monkeys grooming. He found that there appeared to be a cap of how many people one could maintain in one’s network. This “Dunbar number” never referred to how many people you could possibly know, but how many people you could actively “groom.” Your contacts on Facebook are not equivalent to the people you groom. These can contain close and dear friends, but it can also be used as a rolodex for ties you don’t actively maintain.

The bigger issue is that performed network ties (“Friends”) are NOT the same as the personal networks that sociologists and anthropologists have historically measured and theorized about. Comparing them is futile at best and dangerous at worst. The Economist article mixes apples and oranges, creating a sense that the networks people maintain are the same that they perform through the public articulation of contacts. Marlow’s work is extremely interesting, but the framing of this piece is problematic. One of the reasons that I wrote Friends, Friendsters, and MySpace Top 8 back in the day was to highlight that Friends and friends are different. I think that we need to keep remembering this.

And then there’s the discussion of Lady Greenfield’s claims that social network sites are “infantilising” the human mind. She made a speech to the House of Lords to encourage people to research her hypothesis. There is NO EVIDENCE to prove her claims. Listening to her talk, it is very clear to me that she has no idea how social network sites work. She bemoans users’ practice of collecting friends on social media, saying that no one _really_ has that many friends. She claims that today’s youth are spending more time with social network sites than any previous generation spent with TV or rock-n-roll (with no evidence to back that claim). She clearly doesn’t understand how people are using these, how they are being integrated into people’s lives. Nor does she have evidence for her claims. But the press has picked up her call to action as a formal report, often juxtaposing it with the MacArthur Digital Youth Report as a counterpoint. I find this deeply frustrating because I think that the fears of how the brain are being reworked are driven by a misunderstanding of youth engagement with social media.

That said, I think that there’s something to be said for how today’s youth are thinking differently than their parent’s generation. But I don’t think that it’s simply “caused” by new technologies. I think that we’re living in a society that has different priorities and I think that multi-tasking is more deeply prioritized than sustained attention by professional circles today. I think that we are being trained to be “creative” thinkers rather than productive doers and I think that this means that we are encouraged to draw connections between new things. I think that we are living in an environment that is structurally divided and that sociality is increasingly mediated. But I don’t think that the technology is to blame. I would argue that we’re addicted to our friends, not the computer. When the computer lets us get access to our friends, we look like we’re addicted to the computer. I think that a lot of the claims that are being made about the technology have more to do with systemic factors in today’s lifestyle. And I think that we do ourselves a disservice when we focus on the technology instead of the larger systemic picture.

Anyhow, I’m disappointed that the coverage of social media continues to be so sensational. Le sigh.


Italian Translation of this blog post:

Quando si decontestualizza la ricerca

traduzione di Luisa Doplicher, revisione di Isabella Zani

Questa settimana sono uscite moltissime notizie di quelle che fanno sospirare ohimè. E visto che tutti continuano a chiedermi cosa ne penso, mi sa che devo proprio dire la mia. Leviamoci questo sfizio, partiamo con la tirata.

Cominciamo con l’articolo dell’Economist intitolato Primates on Facebook [in inglese], basato sull’ormai classico scritto di Robin Dunbar ne La nascita del linguaggio e la babele delle lingue. Dunbar tracciava un parallelismo tra gli esseri umani che spettegolano e le scimmie che si spulciano a vicenda, affermando che a quanto pare esiste un limite al numero di persone che si riescono a mantenere nella propria rete di amicizie. Questo «numero di Dunbar» non si riferiva mai al numero di persone che è possibile conoscere, ma a quelle che si riescono effettivamente a «spulciare». I nostri contatti su Facebook non corrispondono alle persone che spulciamo: possono includere amici intimi e persone care, ma Facebook si può anche usare come agenda di contatti che di fatto non coltiviamo.

Il punto centrale è che i legami stretti sui social network (gli Amici) NON coincidono con le cerchie di amicizie personali storicamente oggetto di misure e teorie sociologiche e antropologiche. Confrontarli è inutile nel migliore dei casi, dannoso nel peggiore. L’articolo dell’Economist mette insieme pere e mele, dando l’impressione che coltivare una cerchia di amicizie personali sia identico al crearsene una tramite la pubblica gestione di contatti. Il lavoro di Marlow è interessantissimo, ma la base teorica di quell’articolo è discutibile. Uno dei motivi per cui tempo fa ho scritto Friends, Friendsters, and MySpace Top 8 [in inglese], era proprio sottolineare che gli Amici sono diversi dagli amici: bisogna continuare a ricordarselo.

E poi c’è la discussione sulle tesi di Lady Greenfield, secondo la quale i social network “infantilizzano” la mente umana [in inglese]. La baronessa ha tenuto un discorso alla Camera dei Lord per incoraggiare studi della sua ipotesi: ma non c’è ALCUNA PROVA che corrobori le sue affermazioni. Ad ascoltare il suo discorso, mi sembra chiarissimo che Lady Greenfield non ha alcuna idea del funzionamento dei social media: deplora l’abitudine di collezionare amici in quel contesto, dicendo che nessuno in realtà ha così tanti amici, e sostiene che oggi i giovani passano più tempo sui social network di quanto ne passassero le generazioni precedenti davanti alla tv o a sentire musica rock (senza citare prove a sostegno di quest’affermazione). È chiaro che non capisce come la gente usi i social network, come questi vengano integrati nella vita delle persone: e non fornisce prove di quanto sostiene. Però la stampa ha preso la sua chiamata alle armi per una relazione formale, accostandola spesso al MacArthur Digital Youth Report [in inglese] nel ruolo di altra campana. Cosa che trovo molto irritante, perché mi sembra che i timori di lavaggio del cervello siano guidati da un equivoco rispetto al modo in cui i giovani interagiscono con i social media.

Detto questo, penso ci sia davvero una grossa differenza tra il modo di pensare dei giovani di oggi e quello dei loro genitori: ma non credo che le nuove tecnologie ne siano la causa. Credo che la società in cui viviamo abbia priorità diverse e che al giorno d’oggi l’ambiente lavorativo metta molta più enfasi sul multi-tasking che sull’attenzione prolungata. Penso ci preparino a diventare pensatori «creativi» invece di esecutori produttivi; e secondo me vuol dire che ci incoraggiano a tracciare collegamenti fra cose nuove. Credo che viviamo in un sistema dalla struttura frammentata e che l’interazione sociale sia sempre più mediata. Ma non penso che la colpa sia della tecnologia. Direi che noi siamo dipendenti dai nostri amici, non dal computer; solo che quando lo usiamo come mezzo per raggiungere gli amici, pare che siamo dipendenti dal computer. Credo che molte tesi riguardanti le nuove tecnologie siano molto più legate a fattori intrinseci allo stile di vita odierno; e credo non giovi a nessuno concentrarsi sulla tecnologia anziché allargare lo studio al complesso di questi fattori intrinseci.

Comunque, il sensazionalismo con cui i mezzi di informazione continuano a trattare i social media è proprio deludente. Ohimì ohimè.

feature requests for my blog

As many of you have probably noticed, my blog is crashing beneath its weight. It’s time for it to be updated and given new life so that I can integrate my various output in a way that is useful for others. I intend to do that in the next couple of weeks. So, given that y’all do the reading, I thought you should have a chance to share your thoughts.

  1. What blog features would make this blog more useful to you?
  2. What other types of output would you like me to integrate into my blog and in what form? (e.g., twitter, video, delicious, etc.)
  3. What design fixes would you like me to address?
  4. Are there any bugs that are driving you batty?

Thanks for reading and hopefully an upgrade can make it a more enjoyable experience.