Friday, May 30, 2008

Raising the (Side) Bar

The trope of the "side bar" in the margins of online documents proved to be a useful figure as a way to visualize self-presentation and connectivity between agents in the Social Computing Workshop about wikis, social networking, and social bookmarking today.

IBM's Joan DiMicco introduced the first roundtable sessions with a reminder of the fact that traditional HCI "user-centered design" with a "user-needs" model had only been relatively recently supplanted by the current computer as "communication tool" paradigm. DiMicco worked with the group that created Beehive, an internal social networking site for the company with 30,000 members to suit a corporate culture that increasingly depended on a consulting rather than production role. Later in the day, she discussed how members of this online community frequently revolted against top-down dictates yet also called for more governance within the system, despite possible redundancy with pre-existing employee codes of conduct.

DiMicco asserted that designers could structure "what two people see about each other" and thus had "tremendous power to control the type of communication." (Perhaps the most disturbing example of these constraints that I can think of would be the limited lexicon of allowed vocabulary in Club Penguin, Disney's highly popular social networking site for children.)

DiMicco also introduced the following provocative questions to spur discussion:
  • How does a system engender trust? Encourages competition
  • Should a system allow for deception?
  • Is the online community for group polarization or group critique?
  • How do you motivate users to participate? Persuasion, rewards, or neither?
The fact that DiMicco was considering possible social goods to be gained from deception was certainly refreshing in a group that was often extremely earnest about presenting an authentic online identity and seemed to be resistant to the salubrious effects of some dissimulation.

As an academic, I could use a social networking site that does two things Facebook can't: 1) recognize hierarchies and asymmetries in social relationships defined by institutions and 2) represent the dissensus in the university that makes for productive dialogue and debate among people who aren't merely "friends." (DiMicco very helpfully pointed out the existence of, but I was looking for something that was better suited to more subtle theoretical arguments rather than to relatively crude face-offs between members of differing political parties or "foes" in the system.)

DiMicco was joined by workshop organizer Alan Liu who described a "dream" that literally woke him up at night with a glorious vision of something that he described as "not a document but an identity," which included information about "authors, audiences, and genres." Perhaps more successfully than Ted Nelson has done with his Xanadu system, Liu was able to show several models to demonstrate the "action on the sidebar" that goes far beyond the simple text-encoding approaches of the past. As Liu said, "a template is a personality" that is humanized by virtue of having both a "head" and a "foot."

At the simplest level, this could be a blogroll that indicates an individual's discursive connections to others, as this blog does in a column to the right. Liu argued that it can also take more elaborated and collective forms, such as the set of reading tools on the sidebar of the Open Journal System. Although he admitted that there were many technical challenges, he was not opposed to automating this process, at least in principle. He did point out, however, that his own testing of Xobni (or "inbox" backward, since the firm chose not to use the Web 2.0 Company Name Generator) had come with some frustrations, since the software for organizing his mail into a sidebar of recognizable human conversations, people, and documents apparently slowed his system to a crawl.

Given our dependence on the code and systems of others, Liu very justifiably complained that too often what he called our "communities of treasured people" were stuck to particular proprietary applications or relegated to a sidebar that trivializes rather than acknowledges others. He even saw value in the portable system that he was imagining in "carrying around honored and valued dead," such as his recently deceased colleague Richard Helgerson. Thus, following Bruno Latour, he argued that "agents" may be the right way to think about making social connections more transparent to include posthumous participants. Particularly when a flavor-of-the-month mentality may dictate trends in online behavior, in which sites like Friendster fall into disuse, Liu's hesitance to commit to any of the current offerings for his dreamlike sidebar of cherished social connections is certainly understandable.

At one point, Liu asked attendees to raise their hands to indicate how many of them were active users of Facebook, and then he documented the moment with the photograph below. Liu is clearly a Facebook lurker, since he has no identifying picture or network to separate him from dozens of Alan Lius around the globe, but I was shocked to see how few other people, particularly of my age, counted themselves as active participant-observers. I don't know if that would be true of any other meeting of Internet researchers that I have attended during the past two years, and in the case of the recent Software Studies workshop, discussion about the conference continued on Facebook. Although I would agree that Facebook is obviously ad-driven data-collecting proprietary software, it is somewhat different in that its feeds and tagging features (and more intimate venue) make the act of citation more clearly related to the act of discussion. Unlike the perpetual "Zero Comments" syndrome that Geert Lovink describes in his book by the same name, I often get more comments on a blog posting inside the walled garden of Facebook than I do in the more impersonal space of the World Wide Web.

Yet Wikipedia co-founder and current Citizendium head Larry Sanger expressed concern that the group was too eager to collapse distinctions between "education" and "entertainment," and even described his own blog as not "individual" or "personal." Of course, from reading the Citizendium Blog, I might be inclined to disagree, especially when Sanger includes items like his public appearance at Oxford with anti-Web 2.0 gadfly Andrew Keen with a title like "Sanger versus/and Keen at Oxford" and a "should be fun" link to the event.

Medievalist Carol Pasternack observed that documents and the conversations surrounding them have frequently not been separable during the history of literature and that certain aspects of our social media behavior are consistent with the practices of the Middle Ages. She seconded Liu's point about the valorization of friendship for fellow scholars in the humanities who are long dead, but she also concurred with many at the workshop that forgetting could be as important as memory in many cases to preserve a functioning social document system.

As a group, we looked at a number of examples of tools for visualizing social networks, such as TouchGraph, which looked cool but did not show people's relationships to institutions. For example, my name is apparently unencumbered by professional associations, academic institutions, or scholarly presses. Liu also pulled up Where's George, which tracks the travels of a given dollar bill through user input of the relevant serial numbers; it is also a literal reminder of the "viral" character of Internet culture, in that it has also been used to model the progress of a pandemic. At the level of code, we learned about Facebook Markup Language or "FBML" and how the new P5 Guidelines from the Text Encoding Initiative incorporate "personagraphy."

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Anonymous Larry Sanger said...

Hi Liz...use my name on a blog post, and I am apt to show up, Voldemort-like!

First, let me say that my call for preserving useful old distinctions was not meant in any way to denigrate others' contributions in the forum, which I found interesting and helpful, if occasionally puzzling.

I do think, however, that there is a pretty obvious and useful distinction to be made between education and entertainment, or between communication-to-impart-information versus communication-to-socialize-and-entertain.

If that's not obvious, one can make the distinction in another, maybe more straightforward way. Most Internet communities and communication can be said to be oriented around people, their news, their tastes, and various content associated with them (pictures, whatever), or else oriented around information, and the person offering the information is not the focus of the information itself.

Actually, it's difficult to draw the distinction concisely, but for me there is a definite know-it-when-you-see it element here.

It is also a distinction that matters--in perhaps obvious ways I won't illustrate now because I'm getting on a plane, flying back from Santa Barbara!

Oh, and re my comment about my blog being not personal--I mean that it is not primarily about my life, but about my thoughts. My thoughts (and events I go to to express them) are part of my life, but they are a reasonably clearly-delineatable part of my life. I do not typically write about my pets or lack thereof, my love life, and so forth.

6:09 PM  
Blogger Liz Losh said...

Glad you decided to pop up and comment! I'm afraid I'm still writing up the session that you introduced, so I haven't fully represented your contributions to the conference.

Since I coordinate a large-scale writing program with an information literacy curriculum in conjunction with our campus librarians, I am certainly sympathetic to your concerns. And, as a rhetorician, I didn't mean to imply that personalizing one's blog is at all a criticism. There is certainly a difference between the personal and the confessional when it comes to one's online ethos.

7:40 PM  

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