August 2009

Via Marc Smith's Connected Action blog, I learned about Jenny Preece and Ben Sheniderman's paper in a new journal:

Preece, Jennifer and Shneiderman, Ben (2009). The Reader-to-Leader Framework: Motivating Technology-Mediated Social Participation, AIS Transactions on Human-Computer Interaction (1) 1, pp. 13-32. (link)

Drawing on a huge amount of prior research, the paper develops an interesting model of the progression of participation in online collective action (although they don't call it that). Actually, I would say the references in this paper are almost entirely must-reads for anyone interested in online participation, and the manner in which Preece and Shneiderman go through them is almost like the syllabus for a good course on understanding online participation.

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The figure above highlights the paper's main model. I like that the authors include all those arrows to indicate that it's not a step-wise progression from one stage to the next. I think this is a key point. Preece and Shneiderman talk a bit about Lave and Wenger's notion of Legitimate Peripheral Participation. One of the key misconceptions of that work is that it suggests a linear path from periphery to center. But Lave and Wenger go out of their way to argue that although there are some activities that are peripheral (yet legitimate) there are many paths from them towards others types of participation. They also argue that 'central' is not the right idea since communities are constantly in flux, and suggest 'full participation' is a better term. I think Preece and Shneiderman are on board with all of this.

I am thinking about another way to conceive of this model which highlights another key point: progressing in participation usually means supplementing participation with new knowledge, activities, and social interactions, but not supplanting the previous forms. A 'leader' on Wikipedia is certainly still a 'reader,' and though she may spend less time fixing typographical errors (as a 'contributor' might) and more time arbitrating disputes, the progression is often about growth rather than a substitution. An alternative way of visualizing this progression is below.

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This is not a perfect way either, more of a straw man. Gain some things, lose some things. One thing lost in this new visualization is the progression of thick green arrows that indicate the path that Preece and Shneiderman argue many users follow.

I don't think this alternative way of looking at the progression of participation fundamentally alters Shneiderman and Preece's argument. From one point of view, this is just a quibble about visualization. But actually I think the venn-style highlights that reading is a starting point, and the progression from there goes in many directions. At the same time, deeper forms of participation each share much in common with others, but some new activities as well. For me, even though the more linear style is common for visualizations of conceptual models, it's important that the model not imply separations that might not exist, and that it emphasizes that increasing participation is often a process of learning and growth which allows deeply embedded participants to experience more and share more with a diverse array of others.

The NY Times is reporting that the English language Wikipedia will soon moved to a "flagged revisions" system by which edits to articles about living people will have to be approved by a more experienced editor before they appear on the live site. This system has been tested for about a year on the German language Wikipedia. On that site, an "experienced editor" is someone who's crossed a threshold of number of successful edits. There were about 7,500 of them in the German case, and there are likely to be an order of magnitude more in the English Wikipedia.

The NY Times article notes that:

Although Wikipedia has prevented anonymous users from creating new articles for several years now, the new flagging system crosses a psychological Rubicon. It will divide Wikipedia’s contributors into two classes — experienced, trusted editors, and everyone else — altering Wikipedia’s implicit notion that everyone has an equal right to edit entries.

In reality, those classes have been present for some time now. As part of my dissertation research I've been interviewing less experienced Wikipedians about their perceptions of the site. One constant theme has been the perception of a class system in Wikipedia. Casual editors worry that their edits aren't good enough, and that they'll be rebuked by Wikipedia's upper-classes. They perceive a mystical group of higher-order contributors who make Wikipedia work. They believe that the barrier to entry is high and that they don't know enough about how the system works even to make small edits. Partly I think this is a function of the increasing complexity of the Wikipedia system. Partly it's because of Wikipedia's increasing stature – less experienced users feel the consequences of their actions, when so many millions read the site each day.

I also think classism is something that Wikipedia's heavy-editor community actively cultivates. The NY Times notes the work of Ed Chi at PARC. Ed and he colleagues have done some really interesting work. Among other things, they've noticed a trend towards resistance to new content. In a recent paper presented at GROUP, Tony Lam and his colleagues found that the rate of article deletions is growing, and that most articles are deleted shortly after they are created. Wikipedia has a core of frequent editors who zealously guard their territory, sometimes actively discouraging newcomers, and enforcing complicated and arcane policies in ways that can reduce new participation. The ideology of Wikipedia is a level playing field in which everyone has a voice, but the practice of it is often far from that ideal.

This latest move is troubling in that it seems to represent a lack of faith in crowdsourcing and the wisdom of crowds, in the model that made Wikipedia what it is today. This change will also remove another of the important social-psychological incentives that draw new people into the Wikipedia fold: the instant gratification that comes from seeing your work reflected on a Wikipedia page. There will certainly be many papers written on the before-after comparison, and I suspect we'll see significant changes in the dynamics of the site, at least for the pages that will see this change.

The Personas Project out of the MIT Media Lab's Sociable Media Group has been making the rounds lately. It uses data-mining and natural language processing (NLP) to gather data about you from the web and distill it into a pretty info. graphic that is supposed to represent 'how the web sees you.' Here's mine:

My Results from the Personas Project

My Results from the Personas Project

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Like any art project, this one seems intended to make us think about how we're portrayed on the web and about the data that's out there floating around. A project like this is intended to inspire an 'OMG, is this how the web sees me?' reaction. It's meant to shock and awe us by getting things right, and perturb us by getting things wrong. It's one of many that tries to do these sorts of things, and I think it's getting attention right now partly because it comes from MIT and partly because it's very pretty. The authors are due a lot of credit, however, for recognizing the limits of their tool:

[The Personas Project] is meant for the viewer to reflect on our current and future world, where digital histories are as important if not more important than oral histories, and computational methods of condensing our digital traces are opaque and socially ignorant.

I love that last clause. Well put. I think data mining is particularly opaque and socially ignorant when it's employed for abstract purposes. There are lots of really tightly wound, well scoped questions that we can answer with data mining techniques. I use data mining as a tool myself, but I use it to gather evidence of behavior in support of very narrow, specific claims. But as a tool for telling us how we're viewed on the web, for example, they stink. I'd imagine that most researchers know they stink. But we're still using them as a primary tool to talk about social processes, even though social processes require context and time-lines that data mining can't begin to capture. Why is that? Why haven't we seen more backlash against these autistic methods? Why haven't we seen more studies that mix data-mining with qualitative methods, for example, to lend context where it's lacking? I suppose it's because data-mining is easy. Computation and storage are cheap, and talking to people is hard.

I hope that this sort of tool will reveal the danger of these methods, and encourage researchers to advance the state of the field. We've dwelled too long on the digital traces / privacy meme. At this point it's just getting tired and exploitative of the digital paranoia that's rampant in the media right now. We need to get past it.

Southern Gentleman

The Southeastern Conference (SEC) in NCAA college football is run, I'm guessing, by some good 'ol boys in linen suits who split their time equally between mint juleps and spitting contests. They've tried to ban fans at any SEC football game from using Twitter, Facebook, or any other social media during the game. They also want to ban cell phone pictures or videos. It's no surprise what's going on here – the SEC has a ginormous ($3 billion) contract with CBS and ESPN, and the guys with the cee-gars are getting nervous.

But that was yesterday. Today, someone pulled those guys' heads out of their asses, and they've done a (partial) about face. Tweet away, but still no cell phone video. I'm sure that many words have been spent talking about how backwards and out of touch these guys are. Social media doesn't replace traditional media. Embrace social media, and it can enhance traditional media. The notion that fans with cell phones are the competition, the enemy, the revenue-killers doesn't have much of a future.

What I wonder is: who's giving these guys advice? Or rather than bad advice, are they just getting no advice at all? This is hardly the first time a large corporate entity or conservative institution has utterly failed to grasp what social media is for. Has no on realized that, at the very least, they need to talk to a consultant who was born after 1975? If an idea (social media) is a technology, then I suppose we'll just call these guys the laggards. But it's hard to believe that anyone in the big business of football has missed the last two years so completely that they still revert to a protectionist attitude. Huge market for new consultancy!

Ever since Tony Bourdain went back for seconds, there's been some serious hype about Voodoo Doughnuts, Portland's famous all-night doughnut hub. On a recent trip there to visit our good friends Alex and Kat, we decided we needed to see what all the hype was about. Voodoo Doughnuts - 1 of 2

Voodoo is without a doubt the most interesting doughnut experience I've ever had. If nothing else, they get a big gold star for having fun with a genre of food that can seem a little repetitive. There's nothing boring about the 'VD', as Voodoo Doughnuts is called on the bumper sticker that I would never own. After waiting in a short line, we ordered the Voodoo Dozen for $8.50, and the woman at the counter picked a random selection of their wares for us. A maple bacon to boot, and we were on our way.

To make a long story short, VD makes good hole. We got two doughnuts with frosting and cereal stuck on top – Capt'n Crunch and Cocoa Puffs. Cocoa Puffs came up huge on a cakey chocolate doughnut, but the CC was like a decent doughnut with cereal on top. We also got the candy coat – one with crushed butterfinger (which Alex loved) and one with tiny M&M's. Another had Oreo chunks, and was so-so. We also tried a blue frosted jobbie with sprinkles. None of us could figure out what it tasted like. Tamar said 'it tastes blue.' Maybe Kool-Aid, we think.

Voodoo Doughnuts - 2 of 2
The slightly less hipster doughnuts were some of the best. There was a fantastic cinnamon cake specimen (no frosting) with a just a hint of heat (chili powder?) that came on late. A lemon glazed was subtle and not too sweet.

Finally, there was the Bourdain special – the maple bacon doughnut. I hate to validate the hype about this doughnut, but I can't help it: it is truly awesome. The sweet-savory mix is truly special. The bacon has just enough salt, smoke to balance the sickly sweet doughnut and sticky maple frosting. So good. Want… now.