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Research


An important rule I apply to writing academic papers is this: let the reader decide what's interesting and exciting. I read too many papers in which the authors deem their results interesting themselves, as though this was self-evident to everyone. I understand the urge, often fight it, sometimes unsuccessfully. I want to share with people what I find particularly exciting in my own findings. But the truth is, that's not for me to say. It's for others to decide what's interesting and exciting. That's not to say authors shouldn't highlight what they think is notable or surprising.

Now, this is an unrealistic goal – everyone breaks this rule in their papers. But I think it's important to shoot for. This is a 'show, don't tell' idea. I believe that if I've done good research, presented my topic and my arguments well, and written in an engaging style, I shouldn't have to tell readers what's interesting. And when I read papers that do too much of it, it detracts from the paper, and it loses some legitimacy in my eyes. I instantly think: If this were an interesting finding, I would have thought that already. The authors telling me they think it's interesting only makes me suspicious.

The same thing goes for wine labels. This weekend we had a nice visit from Tamar's parents, and we went wine tasting up in the Russian River. Ending up in Healdsburg, we tasted at Williamson's tasting room just off the town's main square. These were fairly good wines, and the tasting room does a unique thing by pairing each wine in the tasting with a little bit of food. Something different for each wine. But the bottles are so tacky. They tell all about the winery's Australian ex-pat owners, but don't even tell us what grapes are in the wines. What's worse, the description of the wine breaks my cardinal rule. It says something like (I'm making this up as I don't have the bottle in front of me…):

This exquisite Merlot shows hints of blueberry and ripe cherry on the nose, along with interesting undertones of earth and oak. The balanced tannins and long finish of this wine are ample evidence of excellent structure.

To me, this is tacky. A wine label should tell me a little bit about the winery, maybe much, much less about its owners, and focus on the wine. It should tell me what's in the wine, even if it's 100% Merlot. And it should absolutely describe what the wine-maker thinks about the characteristics of the wine, what foods it should be paired with, etc. But leave the interesting part to the drinker. Let me decide if it has excellent structure, etc. etc., etc. You get the point.

Today I feel like my research is starting to pick up steam. I just got news of CPHS approval (that's IRB for all you non-Berkeley folks), which is no great surprise, but a significant bureaucratic hurdle. Now it's on me to get started, and I couldn't be more excited. At the same time, I've made a lot of progress over the last few weeks, with the help of Coye and Robb, in focusing a broad proposal into a do-able project.

Motivated by Information: Information About Online Collective Action as an Incentive for Participation

Abstract: This paper describes research focused on understanding the role of incomplete structural information about online collective action systems in participation decisions. Specifically, I use qualitative interviews to examine knowledge about and perceptions of online systems that form public goods, questioning whether the notions of public goods and social dilemmas are relevant and meaningful for individuals making real-world participation decisions. This paper also describes concurrent experimental research focused on exploring the potential relationships between structural information about online systems as public goods involving social dilemmas, an individual’s personal characteristics, and participation. Finally, this research explores the potential to use informational feedback about the characteristics of online systems as public goods to promote increased participation.

If I've still got your interest, and you want to know more, check out this short (2 page) research summary. Still interested? Drop me a line.

An abbreviated bibliography on social loafing, for those few who might be interested. Karau and Willams' meta-study has a very long bib. up to its publication, but this shorter list hits some of the oldies and some of the goodies:

Charbonnier, Emmanuelle, Pascal Huguet, Markus Brauer, and Jean-Marc Monteil. 1998. "Social Loafing and Self-Beliefs: People's Collective Effort Depends on the Extent to Which They Distinguish Themselves as Better Than Others." Social Behavior and Personality 26:329-340.

Harkins, S., and Kate Szymanski. 1989. "Social Loafing and Group Evaluation." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 56:934-941.

Harkins, Stephen G. 1987. "Social Loafing and Social Facilitation." Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 23:1-18.

Harkins, Stephen G., and Jeffrey M. Jackson. 1985. "The Role of Evaluation in Eliminating Social Loafing." Pers Soc Psychol Bull 11:457-465.

Harkins, Stephen G., and Richard E. Petty. 1982. "Effects of Task Difficulty and Task Uniqueness on Social Loafing." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 43:1214-1229.

Harkins, Stephen G., and Kate Szymanski. 1988. "Social loafing and self-evaluation with an objective standard." Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 24:354-365.

Karau, S. J., and K. D Williams. 1993. "Social loafing: A meta-analytic review and theoretical integration." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 65:681-706.

Latané, B., K. D Williams, and S. Harkins. 1979. "Many Hands Make Light the Work: The Causes and Consequences of Social Loafing." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37:822-832.

Petty, Richard E., Stephen G. Harkins, Kipling D. Williams, and Bibb Latane. 1977. "The Effects of Group Size on Cognitive Effort and Evaluation." Pers Soc Psychol Bull 3:579-582.

Szymanski, Kate, and S. Harkins. 1987. "Social loafing and self-evaluation with a social standard." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 53:891-897.

Williams, K. D, S. Harkins, and B. Latane. 1981. "Identifiability as a Detterent to Social Loafing: Two Cheering Experiments." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 40:303-311.

I'm not sure you'd find the words 'Esther Dyson' and 'ignorant' in the same sentence very often, but she certainly embarrassed herself in a recent interview with Internet Evolution. On the subject of anonymity on this internet she has this to say:

First, I was a much bigger fan of anonymity then than I am now. I thought it was cool. And it is, but it turns out anonymity really encourages bad behavior. I’m not in favor of the government tracking everybody and so forth, [but] at least persistent pseudonyms and communities and stuff like that makes everything a nicer place.

It’s like a lot of things. I’m pro choice, but I think abortion is an unfortunate thing. I think the same thing about anonymity: Everybody should have the right to it, but it’s not something one wants to encourage. And that’s not weasel words, that’s the reality of it.

[Anonymity] should be allowed. People should be able to make that choice, and there are many reasons to make that choice. If you live in an oppressive regime, you may well want people to be able to remain anonymous or have secret communications. But at the same time, it should not be encouraged, and it should be acknowledged that it’s a response to a bad situation.

So, apparently anonymity, like abortion, is a necessary evil. I think this reflects an extremely dated notion of anonymity on the internet. Freedom of speech under oppressive regimes isn't the only legitimate reason to be anonymous on the internet. Sure, some people use the cloak of anonymity to say nasty things and behave badly. But anonymity also allows people to free themselves from the prejudices, stigmas, and social pressures. I'm not saying anything new here.

I would be willing to bet that the freeing applications of anonymity far, far outweigh the nasty ones. Meanwhile, I think Dyson's views reflect a stark dichotomy that doesn't really exist. The line between anonymous and not is not nearly so clear. Sure, either you have a persistent screen name or you don't. Either your online identity is formally attached to your offline one, or it isn't. But in reality, our identities are more fluid. Even without a persistent screen name, others may guess who I am from context and content. As a poster, I may be completely aware of this, but even a sheer blanket is enough to overcome the pressures that would silence me. In the other direction, what about sockpuppets? Bottom line, online identity isn't so cut and dry.

I'm delving deeply into this topic in my dissertation, too, so it's obviously close to my heart. In my research, though, I look at anonymity of content rather than anonymity of individual, in particular in online collective action situations (think user-generated content). I'm exploring the ways in which the popular notion that everything on the internet should be stamped with an identity is wrong – where the fact that your content can be identified is actually a disincentive for providing it.

Anyway, I think the analogy between abortion and anonymity on this internet is crass and dated. Suggesting that anonymity is 'a response to a bad situation' is only fair if you consider the reality of the world a 'bad situation.' Otherwise, it's just our situation. Even then, I think it's important to start looking at anonymity through a more positive lens, and at the same time try to shake off the all-too-common idea that everything you do on the web, anywhere, should be stamped with an ID.

Amazon Web Services is making a variety of large data sets available in the cloud. This is great news, as these giant data sets are often difficult to find, compile, and host.

So far the list of data sets includes some biological and chemical data, census info. and labor reports. I'd love to see this list grow to include the complete history of the GSS, for example. In another area, Amazon should keep a complete, unpacked, current dump of Wikipedia in the cloud. The complete XML dump of the English language Wikipedia with all revisions is in the 10s of terabytes, I think.

New word from the Pew Internet and American Life project is that the internet isn't driving a wedge between family members after all. Quite the opposite actually. It turns out mobile devices, digital media, and the internet are giving families new ways to keep in touch, new activities to share. Pew does really nice surveys, and this report has been written by some smart people. (Here's an overview of new findings from CNet.)

I hope, then, that this will really put an end to anyone talking about the HomeNet study. Back in 1998, a group of researchers from CMU published a study (called HomeNet) that claimed, among other things, that the Internet increased social isolation. In fact, they claimed all sorts of negative social psychological influences. Of course, the media took the story up with gusto, writing headlines like 'Sad, Lonely World Discovered in Cyberspace' (from the New York Times). Oh no, the world will come crashing down.

But wait. Just a few years later, the researchers re-did the study with a new sample, and found that nearly all the negative influences had disappeared. Hallelujah, we're saved! Rather than refuting their original results, however, the authors explained the reversal by noting that the internet had changed, and network effects combined with broader diffusion had eliminated the isolating effect of internet use. Hmmm. That might be part of the story.

But if you think that explanation seems too simple to be complete, I'd agree with you. Last year some colleagues and I re-examined the original HomeNet data, which the study's authors kindly make freely available. We applied a technique called Matched Sampling in order to look at the influences of internet. Some day I'd really like to get around to publishing the results of our work here. To make a long story short, when you compare apples to apples – like people to like people – you find almost no negative influences of internet use in the original HomeNet data.

Now, I would never state this as a definitive result. Our method has flaws too. But it's a good one, and just as carefully done as the CMU folks'. When the results differ in that situation, I start to worry that the results are model-dependent, and not reflecting a true inference. So, it's not that the internet changed, though it most certainly did, it's that the original inference might have been wrong. And that study was done by some very smart, careful researchers who used excellent statistical methods.

Why do I tell this long, geeky story now? Because I think refuting the HomeNet results is important for understanding the history of the internet. We should stop telling a story (if anyone is actually telling it), in which the internet isolated people at first, and then tapped them in. The internet is a case study in the diffusion of a new communication technology, and we should get the story straight. These new Pew data show what I believe has been true all along: people who are more social offline are more social online. The internet, mobile devices, etc. give people more ways to communicate. And rather than diffusing that communication over many new people, most people are using email, SMS, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, etc. to communicate with people they already know: their family and friends.

Well, I've spent the last year thinking about my dissertation proposal, the last 2 months writing it, and on Friday I'll defend it. Eep. Actually, it's been great, and I can't wait to finally get started on this research that's all my own. Or, mostly, since no one really has a new idea anymore.

As soon as my Quals. are over, I'm going to start blogging a lot more about my research, data as it comes in etc. For now, I can tell you that it's called 'Motivated by Information: Information About Online Collaboration as an Incentive for Participation.' I've also been inspired by Joe to feed my proposal into the very cool Wordle word-cloud tool to see what comes out.

Motivated By Information
(Click for a larger version)

OMG! It's about information! Also, I think it kind of looks like a grenade. An information grenade.