Category Archives: Social Informatics and Current Events

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

We’re back… and with new brilliant minds!

Hello all!

After a nice summer break, the Social Informatics Blog is back, and we bring great news! Lynn Dombrowski and Shad Gross is joining our team of core authors! We are very excited to have them on board and looking forward to their posts. Here is more information about our new members. Welcome Lynn and Shad!

 Lynn Dombrowski
Lynn Dombrowski is a third year doctoral student at the University of California in Irvine in Informatics. Broadly she is interested in social informatics, human computer interaction, and design. Her research topics pertain to exploring how agency, control, and politics manifest in sociotechnical systems and exploring the practical concerns surround issues of access and use of technologies. Currently she’s working on three research projects. First, her work investigates the role of nonprofits in assisting their low-income clients in gaining access to and use of social services and the underlying technologies of social services. Second, her work explores changes in the social relations between the social services and an ecology of stakeholders, including citizens and nonprofits, when new technologies and practices are adopted by the social services. Third, she thinks about how design might better serve communities by encouraging the creation of communal and social capacities to help ensure healthy and successful communities. Website: www.lynndombrowski.com
Shad GrossShad Gross is first year PhD student in Informatics at Indiana University Bloomington, with a focus on Human-Computer Interaction. His undergraduate degree is in Studio Art from the college of Wooster, with a focus on photography and drawing and has previously worked as a graphic designer, videographer, and developer. His current work focuses on two threads: how material is used in digital devices as part of a communication process and the ways that behavior in virtual worlds relates to behavior in real life. The former has involved using perspectives from material culture and media studies to examine tangible interactions as a communicative process between designer and user. The latter has involved examining the current ways virtual worlds are studied and how this relates to games as related to, but also distinct from, real life. Ultimately, his goal is to combine these, and other, forms of meaning-making into a greater concept of rituals of digital technology, and investigate what this implies for design and use. When not tackling that, he still likes to take photos and generally mess around with graphic design. Website: http://www.shadgross.com

The Quantified Self; The Partial Self

A few months ago, in an effort to start eating better, I began using an iPhone app to count calories. For four months, I diligently entered every precisely portioned amount of food I consumed into my smartphone. I was also running a lot. I kept track of how far I was running, for how long, at what pace, etc. For the most part I engaged in this bookkeeping adventure alone– praising myself when I landed below my weekly calorie goal and berating myself when I didn’t. I soon realized, however, that there was a whole world of people out there doing the same thing I was and that we formed this thing called ‘the quantified self movement.’

I quickly learned that self-tracking, bio-data or personal analytics, as it is sometimes called, is a growing area of interest for smartphone users, data-philes, journalists, marketers, the tech industry, the health, industry, etc. There are articles circulating from the Economist on the topic, there was a 2012 SXSW competition using personal data generated by BodyMedia, a TED talk on the subject, websites, a Facebook page and daily Twitter conversations all about the quantified self. Also, there’s an annual international conference dedicated to understanding and capitalizing on the quantified self. It’s embarking on its third year (the first two were sold out).

One of the founders of the quantified self-movement, Gary Wolf, suggests that bio-tracking devices and the social practices that accompany them help to change our sense of self in the world. In his TED talk, he says that these tools are mirrors that tell us about who we are and that they should be used help us improve ourselves. “They are tools for self-discovery, self-awareness and self-knowledge,” he says. Used in this way, according to Wolf, we also see our “operational center, our consciousness and moral compass” more clearly.

This is true, of course, of all media. Facebook, and before it, TV, radio, magazines, theater, literature, oral histories, hieroglyphics, etc. have always shown us who we are by showing us abstracted depictions of ourselves. These media portrayed the peasants, the aristocracy, the moral citizen and the outcast. The obvious difference is that over time, mediated depictions of ourselves have become more and more individualistic and personal.

As months went on in my own self-tracking experience, I began to grow tired of the constant bookkeeping. As I entered my default breakfast into the program morning after morning on the bus ride to school, I began to realize that I was becoming somewhat obsessed with life decisions that amounted to very small amounts of food. However, I also noticed I was changing my life to maximize exercise opportunities whenever I could. As I became more and more obsessed with the numbers my iPhone app was generating every day, it seemed I was making healthier life choices. In addition, I realized that I was gaining more and more emotional satisfaction, happiness and excitement from the hobby. I started feeling like I was becoming hedonistically yet healthily addicted to consuming the numbers my life was producing.

The student of socio-technical studies inside of me couldn’t get over the contradictory feelings I was having about all of this. I wanted to understand it better. After bludgeoning many of my loved ones and friends by imposing lengthy conversations on these topics and thinking and reading about the role numbers play in our lives (and have only played for a relatively short part of human history) (oh, and I should mention that I’m enrolled in my first statistics course ever at the moment. ☺). It occurred to me that the thrill derived by self-tracking behaviors can be traced back to fundamental pedagogical advice Plato gave to Socrates: “know thyself.” Plato advised Socrates that only after one knows himself, can he then begin trying to know “obscure” things. Furthermore, then one also has a better platform from which to understand others and human beings in general. The numbers, then, that our bodies create – like all previous forms of media— are a part of a fundamental quest for humans to help know ourselves better.

So, if it is the case that we use these new biometric tools to extend, yet again, our quest to know ourselves, as a society, we land in one of two places. 1.) after thousands of years we still do not know ourselves but we are now closer to doing so or 2.) we may need to realize that we can never know ourselves completely through fixed abstractions like numbers (or media). Personally, I’m partial to the latter conclusion.

Drawing on media materiality scholarship, I would argue that each mediated reflection of ourselves has its own advantages and shortcomings in its ability to show us who we are. Numbers, offer us a clean, neat, easily digestible packet of information about who we are. I’ve seen many self-quantifiers refer to numbers as beautiful. My heart rate is 107/64. I consumed 1543 net calories yesterday. I walked 2.1 miles, mowed my yard for 33 minutes and did yoga for 60 minutes. These data are precise, clean, digestible.

What numbers do not- and cannot- capture are the chaos that is an inherent part of the human condition. Humans are messy. Emotions drive us to do things we would never expect. We dance, cry, laugh, sing, kiss and fight when we least expect it. The unanticipated invitation for beers outside in March in the warm sun (when the plan was to do statistics homework in the library) is memorable where the bar graph on my iPhone that tells me I’ve met my weekly caloric intake for the past 4 weeks in a row is not. These unknowable surprises, one might argue, are the most beautiful aspects of being human and are only weakly depicted through abstracting them into fixed mediated form (especially numerical form).

I think numbers are helpful. However, I hope there is never a time when that unanticipated invitation for beers outside in March comes and I decide to go solely based on how those beers will impact the weekly bar graph on my iPhone.

Social Informatics – Where good ideas come from

I came across this video the other day while I was preparing a guest lecture for an undergraduate class on participatory culture and while it’s perhaps old news to many, it was the first time I had seen it and I wanted to share it.

For the last few days this little video has been inside my head; I keep thinking about it, pondering it, so here are some of the thoughts that I am thinking.

Social informatics is, will, and should be an environment where hunches are born of our interactions and discussions, where hunches collide with one another, and where eventually after incubation those hunches develop into great ideas. I suppose every environment in academia would make this claim – I mean we all want to cultivate great ideas, right? But social informatics has something going for it that Johnson discusses in this video; it is a connected space. It is a connected space in a way that is different from either traditional disciplines or areas of study that have a more strongly defined community.

One of social informatics’ biggest strengths, and simultaneously biggest challenges, is its (inter/trans/anti)disciplinarity. As a relatively new and emerging area of study, social informatics is difficult to define. It is difficult to identity a community of people whose work is labeled social informatics. The kind of work that goes on in our group here at IU is also done all over the IU campus (and other campuses as well, of course) by other folks using different labels. While this presents a challenge for a doctoral student trying to decide where to publish, who to talk to, who to work with and so on, it also facilitates an amazing amount of connectedness if we can make those connections happen.

Almost two weeks ago I successfully completed my doctoral qualifying exams. In the oral defense I was asked to explain more about why the work I have done should be considered social informatics. Part of that answer had to do with this very idea: there are many areas of study (media and fan studies, communication, human computer interaction, computer supported cooperative work, anthropology, and sociology) that work in what I have defined as my problem space, but each has a different lens through which they view the space and as a result each has something that is missing from the others. When these pieces are placed together, we can garner a more holistic understanding of the problem space. One strength of social informatics, and hopefully all (inter/trans/anti)disciplinary environments, is such a perspective that can see these connections, put different hunches or ideas into conversation, and use these convergences to cultivate great ideas.

I haven’t read Johnson’s book and I haven’t decided if I completely agree with all of the claims he makes in this video, but I can stand behind the sentiment that “chance favors the connected mind.” I think that’s what we’re trying to do here, both as a social informatics program at IU and with this particular blog.

A few weeks ago the IU campus was able to host both Henry Jenkins and Mimi Ito for a set of talks and gatherings. During a joint brown bag for graduate students, Henry and Mimi gave the students some of the best advice I have heard in awhile. They told us that when we feel like we don’t fit into a nice neat disciplinary space, we need to work on growing our own network of colleagues.

So. Let’s get on with incubating and colliding those hunches.

Billionaire Steve Jobs, an Inspiration to the Occupy Wall Street Campaign?

A week ago we lost a leader in the field of social informatics. Though Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs was not a scholar, he was keenly aware of how important people, their desires and mental frameworks were to the design of computer technologies. In the design process he consistently resisted collaborators who designed with code and machinery in mind instead of actual, human users. Like most social informaticians, he called for design principles to reflect culture and make communication, work and entertainment more efficient, intuitive and beautiful.

His passing happened at an interesting economic and cultural moment as so many people today are out of work (some might even argue that this is due to the success of technology developers like Apple and Steve Jobs) and political tensions have never been higher. A growing number of activists who lament the US government’s apathy toward wealthy corporate entities has emerged also in recent weeks. In just under four weeks, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) campaign has quickly spread all over the country and has observers around the world taking note.

In the OWS protesters’ mission statement, they say, we organize “at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.” Their efforts are to express animosity toward corporate greed and the US government’s apathy toward this greed. Furthermore, they feel the government should be more active in correcting this problem. Namely, they call for the taxing of the richest one percent of the population so that the other ninety-nine percent might face less financial uncertainty.

Protester holds a sign that reads Jobs

Protester's Mourn Jobs' Passing

It occurs to me that the passing of Steve Jobs and the emergence of the OWS campaign intersect in an interesting way. Jobs, worth about 7 billion dollars, was undoubtedly in the one percent of people the protesters are asking the government to tax. In spite of this, many groups of protesters took time away from the protests to mourn his passing. A tweet from Twitter account @OPWallStreet on the night of his death said, “Sad to announce the death of Steve Jobs.”

While some may see this as an inconsistency in the message of the OWS, perhaps noting the genealogy of certain core values of the OWS campaign will help illuminate why OWS protesters, and so many others, feel a sense of grief at Jobs’ passing. Jobs was not just an innovator of technical artifacts. In many ways he also created new ways for communication to occur, new ways for entertainment to happen, new ways to work, to travel, to fall in love, etc.

One can easily trace the ideology and socio-technical structure that the OWS relies upon to share information and establish their movement back to innovators like Steve Jobs.   First, Jobs is a product of the sixties. He was a flower child and hung out with anti-war protesters and activists while he was beginning to develop his desire to work with computers. This influence impacted the design of Apple technologies and made past and present underdogs fall in love with him. In the world of conservative tech companies, Jobs was almost always on the lunatic fringe. He fought for the things his artistic, and humanistic intuition told him were right. OWS protesters see themselves in Jobs’ shoes: They are fighting against the status quo in an effort to put the human back in the center of the system’s design.

Second, Jobs developed technologies that were networked. His masterpieces the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, etc. are windows into the social world. Social informaticians know that these technologies bear a certain internal structure which predetermines a certain kind of use, requires certain skills, etc. The structure of a computer network is at the heart of both the OWS campaign and Jobs’ most influential Apple technologies. As information is exchanged, the OWS campaign is replicated across the country. It’s copied and pasted. A new instance emerges in a new location because people have seen pictures of others, read stories, watch videos and are inspired by others through their iPhones & iPads. The OWS information structure, which is the heart of the movement, is itself an instance of the computer network Steve Jobs envisioned in the design of his most influential Apple technologies.

The protesters aim to upset the government’s apathy. They, like Jobs, suggest that the system should reflect today’s socio-technical culture and empower users by giving them more tools to make life easier and more beautiful.

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