“Neverland” or “networked publics”? : A review of “It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens”

A few months ago, I started collecting data for my Ph.D dissertation. Since I study interpersonal and group behavior in multiplayer online games, I got quite involved in the online forums of my studied game. I also interviewed many gamers via Skype text chat. As I expected, most of these gamers are teens (aged 14 to 17).

Their stories are not so different from my assumption: They love their parents but they want to escape from the “boring” family lives; they crave for friendships but they struggle with finding “true friends” in school; they look forward to love and romance but they are afraid of responsibilities; they expect to grow up but they are scared of the “cold” adult world.

What is out of my expectation is how Internet and social media have become a “natural” part of teens’ social lives. Many of these teens described how disappointed they felt with their offline lives but how wonderful those friends they made online; and how they felt restricted at home and at school but how much freedom they enjoyed in social media platforms. Those “cool” places – Facebook, Youtube, Tumbler, Snapchat, Instagram, online games, etc.— become Peter Pan’s “Neverland” where they can fly and “never grow up.”

But teens are not trying to live virtually or escape from the real world. Instead, Internet and social media compensate their living world and extend their social lives. Their social lives are more complicated than we, as adults, assume. They are also, sometimes, more self-conscious than we expect. I am very impressed by those teens’ stories. So I read danah boyd’s new book It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens.

This book is definitely a good work to help adults understand the “mysterious” teens in the Internet Era. Its main goal is to depict young people’s experience of using social media, and the role of social media in shaping their lives. boyd’s work is based on two essential understandings: First, teenhood is an awkward period “between childhood and adulthood, dependence and independence” (p. 17), and the penetration of social media into many aspects of teens’ lives makes contemporary youth more complex than before. Second, many adults worry about youth engagement with social media, but few listen to teens’ stories or understand them from teens’ own stance. How teens use social media to make sense of the world around them may be very different from adults’ imagination.

Thus, one of the most important contributions of this book is its focus on the teens’ own voice. Drawing on rich qualitative and ethnographic material that she collected from 2003 to 2012—and interview data con­ducted from 2007 to 2010, boyd provides vivid images of the old and new impacts of social media on teens’ lives, and the quality that social media add to or take away from teens’ social lives. Based on detailed quotes from interviews and in-depth analysis of teens’ true stories, audience can better understand why and how teens use social media from teens’ own perspective.

boyd’s another focus is “networked publics,” a main concept throughout the whole book.  boyd explains this concept at the very beginning: “[s]ocial media has become an important public space where teens can gather and socialize broadly with peers in an informal way. Teens are looking for a place of their own to make sense of the world beyond their bedrooms. Social media has enabled them to participate in and help create what I call networked publics” (p.5). Networked publics is related to Ito (2008, 2010) ‘s work on digitally networked media and on “hanging out, messing around, and geeking out,” as boyd mentioned in notes on page 222.  But boyd uses networked publics here in a broader sense: Networked publics represent a complex interaction between technological affordances (i.e., networked technologies) and networked people. “Through engagement with publics, people develop a sense of others that ideally manifests as tolerance and respect.”

Based on this understanding, this well-researched book is organized into eight chapters that address seven important issues concerning youth engagement with social media, including identity, privacy, addiction, danger, bullying, inequality, and literacy.  As a conclusion, the last chapter summarizes the impacts of networked publics on contem­porary youth: To create a world of their own (not shaped by parents and teachers), teens use social media to seek networked publics. Teens both construct and participate in such networked publics in their everyday lives, “to see and be seen,” to belong to a broader public world, and to “build networks of people and information” (p. 201).

As a researcher, I appreciate boyd’s endeavor to let us, adults who “have power over the lives of youth” (p. 28), better understand teens’ actual social lives in the networked era. boyd expresses her hope that adults and youth collaborate together to create a networked world that we all want to live” (p. 213), which is also our hope. As an adult who had teenhood not long time ago, this book makes me think about my own teenhood and how important it is for my life experience. Charles Dickens’ words may still be appropriate to describe how complicated someone’s teenhood can be in today’s network society:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. 

 

References

boyd, d. (2014). It’scomplicatedThe social lives of networked teens. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Ito, M. (2008). Introduction. In K. Varnelis (Ed.), Networked Publics (pp. 1–14). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ito, M., et al. (2010). Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out: Kids living and learning with new media. Cambridge, MA: MIT press.

 

Impossible (?) Expectations of Overlap between Different Types of Mediated Interactions: Why Technology Has Not Yet Reinvented the Government “Wheel”

Ubiquitous participation in an inescapably digital society has led to well established norms of mediated interactions and socially mutual expectations for mediated environments, in terms of factors such as immediacy of feedback and constancy of accessibility. Panic ensues when Gmail services experience (brief) outages, for example, and Is it down right now? is commonly referenced when problems are experienced. Commercial services provide increasingly high levels of service and support, thus when online services and processes do not meet this comparative standard, they are disparaged. Public services frequently fail to meet the comparative standard. Discussion of healthcare.gov and other e-government initiatives often emphasizes disappointment and criticism upon evaluation of systems and implementation strategies.

Now assume the following to be true: ICTs and their contexts are mutually shaping, external factors affect interactions with information systems, and ICTs have social, technical, and institutional natures. Each of these precepts are individually supported within the corpus of social informatics literature and, given implied consistency of the paradigm, these general rules can be taken in concert. If technologies have social, technical, and institutional facets, each facet impacts and can be impacted by the context in which the technology is used and constructed, as well as by and with social actors using technologies.

Couple this with knowledge of policy implementation, bureaucracy, and complexity of government, and there is an indication that popular narratives of e-government and expectations for digitally mediated delivery of services simply are not grounded in the reality of citizen government interaction, but rather in something else entirely. Complexity is intuitively descriptive government bureaucracy. It has long been understood that the size of bureaucracy is directly related to complexity and differentiation of the social system, as context, in which it is situated (Noell, 1974). Furthermore, bureaucracy in the United States represents an increasingly complex environment as decision-making is both centralized in decision making and highly decentralized in implementation in many domains of government (Chen, 2013; Rice, 2013), yet centralized, direct management of e-government is extremely valuable to both the implementation and operation of complex e-services (Chen, 2013).

In this sense, the question ought not to be why can’t the government provide the same level of e-service as thousands of business are able to achieve, but rather: how has the complexity of bureaucracy in America impacted and been impacted by technology, and can technology be designed in such a way as to anticipate bureaucratic complexity so as to provide e-services in a way compatible with government? Given the healthcare deadline earlier this week, the complex interplay between policy and technology in the case of the Affordable Care Act presents an opportunity to examine how and why collective expectations are not met. A combination of knowledge about complex government sub-contracting regulation and cutting-edge technological expertise is relatively rare, yet the struggles of the online components of health insurance overhaul did not doom the project, as the goal of 7 million enrollees was met, but rather illustrated disconnects between bureaucracy and technological capacity.

Looking globally, e-government is often touted as a mechanism to increase access to government in attempts to spur development (Ahmad Mousa, 2012), yet the complexity of these contexts, and in particular the levels of social differentiation in non-democracies and ethnically diverse states implies that technology cannot radically transform government without parallel structural adjustments. Rather generally, e-government and digitally mediated citizen-government interaction must be thoughtfully integrated with the bureaucratic, and political, context to change government, with the expectation that it will be reciprocally impacted by government.

 

References

Ahmad Mousa, O. (2012). E-Government in developing countries: Framework of challenges and opportunities. Journal Of Theoretical & Applied Information Technology, 46(2), 1013.

Chen, Y. (2013). Improving transparency in the financial sector: E-Government XBRL Implementation in the United States. Public Performance & Management Review, 37(2), 241-262.

Noeli, J. J. (1974). On the Administrative Sector of Social Systems: An Analysis of the Size and Complexity of Government Bureaucracies in the American States. Social Forces, 52(4), 549-558.

Rice, D. (2013). Street-Level Bureaucrats and the Welfare State: Toward a Micro-Institutionalist Theory of Policy Implementation. Administration & Society, 45(9), 1038-1062. doi:10.1177/0095399712451895

A Technological Deterministic Crash: The case of the flight MH370

On Saturday March 8th, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 departed at 12:41 a.m. local time and was due to land in Beijing at 6:30 a.m. on the same day. The flight was carrying 227 passengers and 12 crewmembers. 20 days later, the only thing we can precisely say about this flight, as obvious as it may sound, is that the airplane went missing and its whereabouts is still unknown. But the puzzling question on everyone’s mind has been left answered: how could an aircraft like the Boeing 777-200ER simply vanish off the face of the Earth?

The motivation behind such a disquieting question is due to the trust and reliance on the Boeing’s Triple Seven. The aircraft is built with state of the art science and technology and, according to aviation specialists, is considered one of the world’s safest jetliners with a near-perfect safety record. The 777 has transponders, sensors and communication equipment that, even if it’s not triggered manually, still send data periodically and automatically. Mohan Ranganathan, an aviation safety consultant who serves on India’s Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Committee, said it was “very, very rare” for an aircraft to lose contact completely without any previous indication of problems. “The 777 is a very safe aircraft – I’m surprised,” (The Guardian, 2014). The situation becomes even more intriguing in light of the fact that the last known location of the airplane was the Strait of Malacca, which along with the area flown / to be flown by MH370, is one of the most radar monitored and busiest airways.

Knowing that the event was so heavily surrounded by technology adds to our frustration: “how could the best technology out there have failed us?” It is not surprising that people turn to technology looking for answers. Technology gives us single cause with a single effect and it is also predictive. Since the pieces of technology – the airplane or any debris – have not been found, no answers could have been given, and because our society is so strung up on this inexistent precise science, we pressure authorities for proper answers. The Malaysian authorities, seeking a scientific answer and trying to look progressive, released a statement saying that everyone on that flight is dead based on a complicated and confusing math theory. Unfortunately, the family members of the MH370 passengers got such uncomforting answer through a text message on their mobile phones.

I’m not here to discuss the possible theories out there to explain the plane’s disappearance, or to say whether the passengers are alive or not. I’m trying to stress that our technological deterministic hunger had led us to situations of absurdity, discomfort and frustration, just like what is happening to the MH370 event. Such mind set, made us find, in a mathematical formula, the answer for a very complex social situation. The answer given by the Malaysian authorities is causing international and political tensions since China is demanding Malaysia to hand over all relevant satellite data analysis on the missing plane. If these frictions keep happening, it could compromise the efforts done by the international search team since nations that are not happy with the way things are handled could leave the team.

Up to this point, the MH370 case is a clear example of technological determinism, to the point of being presented at “Introduction to Social Informatics” lectures along with WIRED Magazine statements. It is too soon to make any precipitated conclusions, but in such case we can already notice a suspension of ethical judgment and the unintended consequences caused by “naïve science”. From now on, I hope the passenger’s family find better comfort and the authorities involved in this case be less technological deterministic, even if society demands them to be so. As David E. Nye (2007) stated: technologies do not drive change. They are the product of cultural choices and their use often has unintended consequences.

The Guardian (March 8th, 2014). “Malaysia Airlines: experts surprised at disappearance of ‘very safe’ Boeing 777”. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/08/malaysia-airlines-experts-surprised-at-disappearance-of-very-safe-boeing-777

Nye, D. E. (2006). Technology matters: Questions to live with (pp. 194-198). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

2014 is finally here for the Social Informatics Blog!

Hello After a nice winter break, the Social Informatics Blog is back, and we bring great news: we have new brilliant brains among us! Padma Chirumamilla, Ammar Halabi, Paula Mate, Philip Reed and Madelyn Sanfilippo are joining our team of core authors. We are very excited to have this diverse team on board and looking forward to their posts. Here is more information about our new members. Welcome everyone!

BioPhotoMadelyn Sanfilippo is a doctoral student in Information Science at the School of Informatics and Computing, Indiana University, Bloomington. She received a Master of Information Science (MIS) degree from Indiana University and a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she studied Political Science, Spanish, International Studies, and Environmental Studies. Madelyn is interested in the relationship between social inequality and information inequality. Her work addresses social and political issues surrounding information and information technology access; she plans to specifically consider the interaction between information policy and information technology in the domain of government information, from a social informatics perspective. Website: http://ils.indiana.edu/faculty/spotlight/index.php?facid=301
philip-rioPhilip studies how information technology helps (or otherwise affects) people in low-income countries and communities, both in economic and noneconomic ways. He is a second year PhD student at the University of Washington Information School.
chirumamilla_padmaPadma is a doctoral student at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, studying under Finn Brunton (who’s now at NYU Steinhardt) and Joyojeet Pal. Her current interests lie somewhere within the histories of media, science and technology (especially considered from a critical postcolonial perspective); theories of everyday life and temporality, material culture and anthropology, STS studies, and ICTD.
Ammar_avatarAmmar Halabi examines the role of Internet tools and social media in local communities in Syria. He is currently a PhD student in Informatics at the University of Fribourg, where he takes an ethnographic approach to study how community members communicate, collaborate, and organize themselves. Ammar also holds an MSc in HCI Design from Indiana University Bloomington, and a BSc in Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence from the University of Aleppo in Syria. In his previous work he has been involved with international development organizations and in local volunteer communities. Ammar currently focuses on the design and implementation of online tools that facilitate collaboration and self-management of local communities, and especially those located in Syria.
paulamatePaula Mate is a PhD student in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University. She is specializing in Social Informatics.  http://www.linkedin.com/pub/paula-mate/31/954/661

Art, Video Games, and Research

During the last year of my undergraduate education, I (Shad) encountered my first experience of the video games are(n’t) Art debate. While there was certainly a lot of passion surrounding the argument, the logic was somewhat lacking. One side seemed to center around the fact that Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (which had been released earlier that year) contained vestiges of the stylistic aesthetic of the 1980s and presented a compelling point for social engagement with a distinct cultural setting from recent history. Alternately, the opposing side argued that these elements were simply superficial, and that the game’s message, at least in terms of any artistic merit, did not represent a real cultural statement to the degree required by the title of Art. However, these arguments seemed to center on the games themselves, as if Art were a property that is intrinsically part of some artifacts and intrinsically not part of some other artifacts. In short, the argument had missed the social connections that surround Art evaluation: the relationship between the concepts of Art, the Art World (comprised of critics and consumers of Art who ascribe a cultural value as well as a monetary value to Art objects), and the objets d’art themselves. At the time, I felt as if the current courses of debate were not ever going to result in any kind of conception of video games as Art, and that it would be a while before the discourse would develop to a point where video games could be spoken of as Art.

Ten years have passed since that point. At CHI 2013, the opening plenary was presented by Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator and Architecture & Design Director for Research & Development at the MOMA. Her presentation focused on exhibitions that have looked at video games as Art at the MOMA and, more broadly, the importance of the relationship of design to art (and vice versa). It seems that, at least in practice if not in theory, my question from a decade earlier has been partially answered. Video games are beginning to be treated as Art is treated. Design, as an applied art, could act as an indicator or close relative of Art, but not a true member of the club. Video games should be appreciated in a manner similar to Art, video games, as designed experiences, can equally be treated as art.

Art and art theory have had a history of relevance to HCI, as is especially evident in the ACM SIGGRAPH Digital Arts Community (http://siggrapharts.ning.com/) and example topics including (but not limited to) the convergence of goals of Art and HCI (e.g. Sengers and Csikszentmihályi, 2003, Blythe 2013), collaboration (e.g. Adamczyk et al., 2007, England, 2012), and creativity support (e.g. Morris et al., 2009, Kerne et al 2013). While not a comprehensive list, from this it can be discerned that there is some sort of connection between the aims of HCI and Art, that there are challenges in the connecting of the two (both in terms of aims and in terms of what is considered valuable in a piece of art) and that supporting art is one possible goal for interaction design. As a possible overarching theme, there are elements of Art that are important to the practice of HCI and the creation of technology in general, but that there are both practical issues such as the economics of art and concerns of would-be collaborators and theoretical issues such as the density of art theory. Supporting creativity makes a convenient bridge point because it is a concept of equal importance to art as it is to HCI.

Returning to the consideration of video games as art, from the end of technological design there is some sort of convergence between the two and that this has warranted looking at art as a mean of understanding interaction design. As partial confirmation of this, it would seem that the Art World (of which the MOMA is certainly a part) has an interest in looking at some of the results of interaction design, including video games. So, for both stakeholders in the discourse, there is a benefit to treating video games like Art. But again I return to the question of discourse surrounding video games, which we believe leads straight to the questions of why and how to study video games.

So why should it matter that video games are beginning to be considered as art is considered. First, it means that there may be even greater cause to take video games seriously. Not just Games With a Purpose or games that are explicitly made to embody a political statement (such as the excellent games created by Lucas Pope (http://dukope.com/) but video games in general. Previous work has already started to look at video games from an ethnographic standpoint (see Boellstorff et al 2012 as well as the individual works of all its authors) as well as more quantitative approaches that look at data taken from play (e.g. Yee et al, 2012). There also have been calls for a much more in-depth study of games as a source of “social rationality,” taking a more critical stance of their content (Grimes and Feenberg, 2009). As a continuation of this trend, it seems like the way that games are observed – as both an aspect of social engagement and a reflection of society in general, needs to change. As more artistic elements become prevalent in a greater number of games, it will be important to understand how these elements developed in a historical sense. Even in games that do not attempt to challenge the norms and folkways of virtual worlds, as players become more aware of video games as art, there performances within those games may very well change with respect to this perception. Looking at virtual worlds as some sort of indicator of social phenomena, then, not only has a number of different approaches but seems to demand them to varying degrees. Employing the tactics of art theory and new media along with ethnographic investigations and analysis of data traces may very well result in new understandings not only of games, but also society and art.

It is an exciting time for the study of games. While they now have an increasing number of different meanings to different people, the fact that they have importance is becoming more difficult to ignore. However, along with the increased potential of game studies, there is also a necessity to broaden the approaches used to study virtual worlds.

Adamczyk, P. D., Hamilton, K., Twidale, M. B., & Bailey, B. P. (2007). HCI and new media arts: methodology and evaluation. In CHI’07 extended abstracts, pp. 2813-2816

Blythe, M., Briggs, J., Hook, J., Wright, P., & Olivier, P. (2013). Unlimited editions: three approaches to the dissemination and display of digital art. In Proc. CHI’13 pp. 139-148.

Boellstorff, T., & Marcus, G. E. (2012). Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method. Princeton University Press.

England, D. (2012) Digital art and interaction: lessons in collaboration. In Proc. CHI’12. Pp. 703 – 12

Grimes, S. M., & Feenberg, A. (2009). Rationalizing play: A critical theory of digital gaming. The Information Society, 25(2), 105-118.

Kerne, A., Webb, A. M., Latulipe, C., Carroll, E., Drucker, S. M., Candy, L., & Höök, K. (2013). Evaluation methods for creativity support environments. In CHI’13 Extended Abstracts. pp. 3295-3298.

Morris, D., & Secretan, J. (2009). Computational creativity support: Using algorithms and machine learning to help people be more creative. In CHI’09 Extended Abstracts pp. 4733-4736.

Sengers, P and Csikszentmihaly, C. (2003) HCI and the arts: conflicted convergence? In Proc. CHI’03, ACM, pp. 876-7.

Yee, N. Ducheneaut, N. Yao, M and Nelson, N. (2011). Do men heal more when in drag?: conflicting identity cues between user and avatar. In Proc. CHI’11. pp.773-776.
776.

Social Informatics: The Basis for Informatics Systems Implementation in Healthcare Today

By Grant Webb

Many people don’t automatically think of the human element when they think of technology, but people and technology can’t help but influence each other. This mutual influence, which forms the basis of the field of social informatics, can be seen in the way that we use technology and the way that technology shapes our daily lives. Social informatics involves the study of information and communication tools in cultural or institutional contexts. Specifically, it examines the social aspects of computerization and its role in social and organizational change as well as how social practices influence information technology.

One of the most important contexts for social informatics is healthcare. Historically, healthcare has been a paper-intensive industry as practitioners kept printed copies of patient records and created written orders for tests and medications. Perhaps due to habit or possibly due to mistrust or unfamiliarity with computers, many healthcare professionals continued to rely on paper-based systems long after computerization gained wide acceptance and usage within the field.

One significant problem with paper-based systems is the lack of consistency in how records are filled out and maintained and how long they are stored. Individual doctors, nurses and other providers often have their own way in which they record notes and update patient records, even those who hold the same job title within the same institution. Thus, records differ from doctor to doctor, nurse to nurse and facility to facility, which introduces inconsistency and fosters miscommunication. These differences can also lead to a variety of errors that can negatively affect patients.

In addition to the differences in the ways that individuals keep records, manual record-keeping typically introduces a significant amount of human error, which also increases medical errors. Medical errors can range from relatively minor impacts, such as ordering unneeded diagnostic tests, to major impacts that can put a patient’s life at risk. At the point in which a provider’s personal social informatics habits, as related to patient record-keeping, conflict with those of other providers, paper-based systems then become detrimental to patients’ wellbeing. Discrepancies inherent in paper systems can also inhibit information sharing, collaboration and the expansion of collective knowledge.

As a result of various medical errors over the years, the Federal government has mandated that healthcare providers implement electronic health records by January of 2014. This mandate, part of the Affordable Care Act, represents a drastic change for the healthcare field in an effort to reduce medical errors and streamline healthcare delivery and has increased the breadth of health informatics job offerings as a result. The electronic health record requirement has prompted many healthcare providers to abandon social informatics based on manual record keeping. In turn, this increasing implementation of electronic health records has led to the rapid expansion of health informatics.

Health informatics combines information technology, health science information and patient data to enhance and support clinical care, health services, administration, research and education while helping to contain costs and increase efficiency. Health informatics relies heavily on healthcare information technologies, such as electronic health records, computerized physician order entry and decision support systems but the implementation of these technologies is only as good as the people who use them. Management, clinicians and health information technology staff often assume that healthcare information technologies will deliver the results promised by vendors. As a result, they may unintentionally overlook the impact of interactions between new technologies and the existing sociotechnical environment. In the same manner, those who take for granted that technology will improve things may underestimate the contributions of clinical judgment and interaction with patients.

Healthcare providers are often quick to blame undesirable consequences and implementation failures on new technology. In reality, although technical issues are sometimes at the root of the problem, negative outcomes of healthcare information technology more often stem from the providers themselves due to differences between the new technology and the existing social and technical systems.

Health informatics can help pinpoint changes needed to existing social informatics such as workflows, culture and technology, to minimize negative outcomes and maximize the benefits of healthcare information technology. These benefits include improved patient safety, increased positive patient outcomes and greater levels of efficiency.

Grant Webb is an SEO Specialist at Bisk Education

http://www.bisk.com/

Just hanging out: challenges in transmediated ethnography

Questions about the practice of ethnographic research, both as a method and as an analytic way of knowing, have been a focus of my dissertation work.   The new Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method by Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, and Taylor has been helpful to think through my own ethnographic experiences. Although the subjects of my research do not inhabit virtual worlds as defined within this handbook, the bulk of their interaction occurs through networked digital media.  The handbook defines a virtual world as requiring the following traits: place, worldness, multi-user, persistence, and user embodiment (p 7). The groups that I study construct a social world (Star and Clark) that exist offline and online across many different media platforms (for example, interaction happens in person, through text messaging, across Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and other online media), and as such they do not inhabit a particular virtual place. I have called this type of social engagement transmediated sociality (Terrell 2011).

While Boellstorff et al encourage ethnographers of virtual worlds to follow their informants into contexts (both online such as blogs, message forums, and Facebook and offline such as meetups and conferences) that extend beyond the in-world platform around which they are centralized (for instance, Second Life or World of Warcraft) ethnography of groups that are decentralized, spread across many online/offline spaces might be different in nuanced, but meaningful ways.

Doing ethnographic research with groups that are highly transmediated has presented a number of different challenges. Participant observation, a key component of ethnographic research, can be particularly challenging in transmediated settings. In my experience, participant observation can happen in two different ways. First one can attend, participate in, and observe events that are more formal and scheduled. In my work this is something like attending a wizard rock concert or a festival, which may be digitally mediated or may be in person. The second way one needs to participate is to just hang out, to be around to interact with others or observe interactions and cultural production as they happen in mundane everyday interaction, without a scheduled event.

Learning, knowing, and deciding where to hang out seems to be the most difficult aspect of participant observation of transmediated groups because one’s informants could be, and indeed are, hanging out in several different spaces all at once. As researchers we must struggle to define our field site. This never seems to be a simple task, even when our field site is apparently tied to a specific space; we must make choices about whom and what we include within our study. This is true for sites that are both virtual and non-virtual. While I recognize the difficulty in defining one’s field site, I wonder the extent to which the transmediated nature of the groups that I study give this struggle a new dimension.

In what ways is the lack of persistent placeness needed for the construction of a virtual world a challenge to the construction of the ethnographic field site? How does one decide where to hang out when the people she is studying could be interacting in several other mediated spaces? Are the challenges faced by the ethnographer of transmediated groups different than those faced by the ethnographer of virtual worlds where place is more strongly defined and more centrally located?

These are of course broad questions, but they are issues with which I struggle. I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

 

References:

Boellstorff, T., Nardi, B., Pearce, C., and Taylor, T.L. 2012. Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method. Princeton University Press: Princeton, New Jersey

Star, S.L. and Clarke, A.  2007. The Social Worlds Framework: A Theory/Methods Package, in Hackett, E., Amsterdamska, O., Lynch, M., and Wajcman, J. (Eds.) Handbook of Science, Technology, and Society.(113-138). MIT Press

Terrell, J. 2011. Transmediated Magic: Sociality in Wizard Rock. In Proceedings of International Conference on Information Technology: New Generations (ITNG 2011), April 2011, IEEE

 

Digital Divide Research as a Practice of Big Data

Big Data seems to be the new buzzword of the moment and the solution to all of society’s problems. Often we hear people coming up with studies involving a great amount of data aggregated from Twitter, Facebook and so on. I truly believe these studies are good; they take snapshots of scenes, let us know of interesting moments in a specific time and give us an overall idea of the problem.

boyd and Crawford (2012) define big data as “a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon that rests on the interplay of: (1) Technology: maximizing computation power and algorithmic accuracy to gather, analyze, link, and compare large data sets. (2) Analysis: drawing on large data sets to identify patterns in order to make economic, social, technical, and legal claims. (3) Mythology: the widespread belief that large data sets offer a higher form of intelligence and knowledge that can generate insights that were previously impossible, with the aura of truth, objectivity, and accuracy.” (p. 663)

Big Data is usually thought as big numbers, the big N approached quantitatively. These numbers are generated based on people’s produced data; people that are online and constantly talking, sharing, posting, tweeting and “liking” things. But what about the people that are not doing that frequently, or even, not doing these activities at all? If we take Big Data and extend it to the ones experiencing digital inequalities, we would be imposing a colonial practice in which the voice of those constantly online will be obscuring the voice of those who are not. These voices are often clashing in different of contexts since they are rooted in social tensions and differences of power.

So, how can Big Data tell us the story of the people that are on the “wrong” side of the digital divide?

Mary L. Gray (2011) makes the case that Critical Ethnography is a practice of Big Data. She invites us to think of Big Data not solely as numbers and quantitative approaches, but also as a practice that is able to balance the value of ethnographic significance and statistical significance. Big Data is usually deeply concerned in mashing as much number as possible to be able to have some sort of reliability and statistics strength. The more you can get, the more reliable the information is.

Qualitative work is often seen as being too specific and doesn’t tell us anything, but Gray argues the opposite, qualitative approaches tell us something different, they give us a different perspective of the story. Ethnographic significance should be integrated as a complement in collaboration with statistical significance, so we are able to get something transformatively different.

I agree with Gray; at an earlier post here on the Social Informatics Blog (Digital Divide Research: one myth, problem and challenge) I make the case that the Digital Divide Research should move on from the statistical charts, census and Big Data, and go in the field to tell us about the context of those who are not on the internet, or not as often due to digital inequalities.

Big Data was the reason why I ended up going to the slum of Gurigica in Vitoria, Brazil. According to the census, the locals have a very low access to the LAN Houses and Telecentros that are inside the community. But if it wasn’t for my ethnographic research, I would have never known that this was happening due to the activities of the drug cartel that didn’t allow them to circulate freely on the streets. Therefore, Critical Ethnography is a powerful tool to approach the issues of the Digital Divide and contextualize the notions that Big Data gives us.

References (I highly recommend Gray’s video):

danah boyd, & Crawford, K. (2012). CRITICAL QUESTIONS FOR BIG DATA.Information, Communication & Society15(5), 662-679.

Gray, M. L. (2011). Anthropology as BIG DATA: Making the case for ethnography as a critical dimension in media and technology studies. http://research.microsoft.com/apps/video/default.aspx?id=155639

Of rituals and technology

I have always enjoyed fixing computers. This is not because of the challenges that are presented by the process of computer repair (although there is a certain amount of enjoyment to be found there as well) but because it is interesting to hear how people feel about their computers both in terms of their normal functioning and their malfunctioning. There seemed to be a near-infinite number of ways that people had come up with to make the functioning (or malfunctioning) of these machines make sense. I came to think of these little quirky approaches to grappling with the black box of computational devices as little rituals. Cultural anthropologist Victor Turner describes rituals as symbolic actions, grouping them alongside other forms of symbolic action such as social drama and metaphor (4). However, I did not have a concrete definition of what a technological ritual was; I just knew it when I saw it.

Fundamental to these is the idea that rituals are activities that occur in the material world, but have some sort of importance beyond their material qualities. Metaphor has become an important to aid users in understanding the functioning of the otherwise complex functioning of digital devices (e.g. 1). Digital technology also has its share of social drama: Facebook relationship status being one way to solidify a romantic engagement between two people. Even ritual itself has been spoken of in the context of computation. One study has examined how “ritualized interactions often play a major role in the performance and experience of the art or performance work,” (2) while another has looked at how ritual activities could be used to make virtual characters seem more like real characters (3). However, art performances hold a kind of lofty ambition and a focus on making virtual characters have rituals focuses on representing people to make them easier to interact with. I wonder how looking at the more everyday practices of people as they relate with technology could lead to a better understanding of both people and the technology they use. As an example of how to look at technological interactions in terms of ritual, I point to Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero.

It is common to hear people complain about having too much email. It takes a lot of time to sort through all of one’s messages, it causes problems with missed communication, and it can make people feel overwhelmed with the amount of information they are receiving. As an answer to this problem, Merlin Mann describes Inbox Zero (http://inboxzero.com/) , a way of handling email overload. At one level, this is a prescription of simple actions of sorting, removing and addressing the demands presented in a person’s inbox. However, it is also a set of small actions that in combination hold a certain higher personal and social value. The empty inbox described by the processes name not only reduces distractions when new email comes in, it also gives a symbol of technological well-adjustment. It is social in the sense that the person’s relations to others are kept in check. The material of Inbox Zero is an empty in box, it’s meaning is control of technology in a way that also incorporates interactions with other people.

This idea of ritual, as it pertains to technology, is still quite rough. However, as HCI has focused more on experiences and the designing thereof, the kind of duality of meaning that comes from ritual acts may prove to be a valuable way of understanding the relationships between the form and function of artifacts and the meanings that people ascribe to them. Looking at interactions as rituals may point to better understandings of digital artifacts and the people who interact with them.

References
[1] Blackwell, A. F. (2006). The reification of metaphor as a design tool. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI), 13(4), 490-530.
[2] Loke, L., Khut, G. P., & Kocaballi, A. B. (2012, June). Bodily experience and imagination: designing ritual interactions for participatory live-art contexts. InProceedings of the Designing Interactive Systems Conference (pp. 779-788). ACM.
[3] Mascarenhas, S., Dias, J., Afonso, N., Enz, S., & Paiva, A. (2009, May). Using rituals to express cultural differences in synthetic characters. InProceedings of The 8th International Conference on Autonomous Agents and Multiagent Systems (Vol. 1).
[4] Turner, V. W. (1975). Dramas, fields, and metaphors: Symbolic action in human society. Cornell University Press.

The Amish: Making the most of life at the margins

In our field of study, many of us want to know how technologies can be used for the social good. As professional academics (someday), we may wear cloaks of scientific objectivity, but deep down, many of us are motivated by a desire to figure out how communication technologies can be used to improve [all] lives. This trend can be traced back to the countercultural origins of personal computing; to 1960s California, The People’s Computer Company (PCC), the Homebrew Computer Club, The Whole Earth Catalog, The WELL, etc. The mantra was “information wants to be free.”

During that time, it was thought that social structures could be made more egalitarian if access to information via new communication technologies was more open. And many people today might agree that this has been the case. Because of information seeping into places like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria (among other issues, of course), authoritarian regimes have (s)tumbled. We know, however, that the (s)tumbling of dictatorships does not necessarily mean that the people living in their wakes are better off. In many (maybe all) societies, where new technologies proliferate, surveillance exists– giving state and corporate entities often more (or, at least an additional channel of) power than they had before.

The media we receive through state and corporate controlled media channels trains us to behave in profitable and predictable ways and we are monitored to ensure this is working. The egalitarian social structure envisioned by early computer revolutionaries never quite materialized. Although, (at least in relative terms), the technology is there, it has more or less just made the hierarchy invisible (See Sennett).

Going off the grid (I use ‘grid’ to describe today’s global, social, technical and economic structure to which we are all currently plugged in.) entirely is virtually impossible today. For young people, it is the equivalent of social suicide. For adults, it’s professional or financial suicide. It sends up serious red flags to the powerful who watch us. For example, his compound’s lack of an Internet connection is what gave Bin Laden’s hideout away to the U.S. government.

For these reasons we may now be entering a phase where living at the margins of the grid is where the sweet spot is. This is not such an easy thing to do, though because the grid is so difficult for us to perceive. It has both technical and social components which, depending on context and materiality, can be used by an individual or group to empower itself or by others to enslave or bully the same folks.

A diverse collection of people operating at the margins of the socio-technical-economic grid, taking from it only what they want and rejecting what they don’t, are the population of Amish people living in the United States today. The Amish are a conservative religious group dedicated to living a simple, (rather) old-fashioned way of life in the hopes of pleasing God. In their community, deference to God and each other are one and the same. Along with God, community and family are everything.

The relationship the Amish have with new technologies is quite complex and not actually anti-technology, as is commonly thought. Their parsimonious approach to adopting technologies is a designed feature of social life that is meant to maximize community and limit corporate and governmental interference. Economic activity is not about individualism, it is an activity in community building. Amish decisions about technology use privilege a strong family and community that lasts generations. For them, the material allures of modern capitalism, short attention spans and mobility are threats to the way of life they want to live. The Amish make decisions about how to use technologies because they are guided by specific values. And it is specifically these values that make the grid visible to them.

Today, new technologies like cell phones, the Internet, social media and solar/wind power are taking hold in various ways in different Amish communities across the country. Still, car lot, electricity from power companies, modern clothing, television and radio are generally off limits. These are not haphazard decisions, they are decisions that the Amish hope will protect their community and their values for the long term. So far by the way, it is working. Their population is currently growing exponentially. Approximately 90% of Amish youth, after being allowed to experiment with the outside world, decide to come back and join the Amish church and adhere to their simple way of life.

The Amish live at the margins of today’s global social, technical, economic power structure. They have built an enclave that is safe from the kinds of surveillance the rest of us are subjected to daily. They are not living in the dark ages, though. They see the grid and use it to survive financially. Their businesses have websites and Facebook pages. Yet they erect walls where they feel their community is vulnerable to outside influence. They don’t drive cars or allow phones in the house because these make it easy for community to dissolve and family time to be interrupted.

Perhaps we can learn from them. If a future anthropologist were to study your use of technologies today as an artifact, what would they determine your values to be? Efficiency? Individualism? [Self promotion?] Compassion? Generosity? Perhaps by consciously deciding how to adopt and use our technologies, starting with the values that are important to us, we would be better at seeing the grid and living our lives (more) freely at the margins of it.

[For more on this, stay tuned. Your's truly is currently in the process of writing a dissertation on this very topic. :) #shamelessselfpromotion]

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