In the week since Google introduced Buzz, the most interesting thing about the fiasco has been watching the company. For an organization as risk-averse and PR-aware as Google, a public failure offers insight that can’t be gleaned from watching daily operations. As Google attempts to fix the problems and move the conversation onward, I thought I might reflect on some of the teachable elements of this event.
First, a little bit of back story. As part of my fellowship at the School of Information and Library Science, I teach a course about social network sites. Each week, I sit down with my students to discuss the social, legal, ethical and privacy implications of social network sites, among other things. Potentially noteworthy is that my course doesn’t spend a lot of time on social network science – graph theory, quantitative analysis of networks, etc. Rather, we concern ourselves with the interaction of people with social technology at large scale.
In our readings and discussions, we’re often challenged to think about how people present themselves in technology. When you create a profile in a social network site, or share a stream of Tweets, you’re essentially creating a representation of an identity. As we’ve seen time and time again in Facebook, we run into problems when identities collide during “context collapse” – when people from a different segment of your life view an identity you’ve constructed for your friends.
Taken one way, it could be argued that this problem of separate identities reveals some sort of fundamental character flaw: “Why aren’t you the same person to everyone?” As Google CEO Eric Schmidt pointed out, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” It is the intersection of technology and philosophies like Schmidt’s that are causing companies like Google and Facebook to stumble again and again, creating “privacy nightmares.”
Many of the readings in my class are influenced by Erving Goffman’s theories of identity and interaction. Goffman, the legendary Chicago-school sociologist and former ASA president, elaborates in rich detail the process of social interaction in his books The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Behavior in Public Places, and Interaction Ritual. In essence, Goffman argues that identity and interaction are performative, a concept that maps very well onto social network sites. By “creating” identities, we’re not living dual lives, but rather engaging in a well-established performance of identity that lets us share the proper “front” in context. We act differently on LinkedIn and Facebook because these sites have contextual norms, not because we’re duplicitous.
At the beginning of each semester of my class, I tell my students that they’re going to leave with a skillset that helps them negotiate human interaction with social technology. I’ve sat up at night, pondering the value of such a skillset. More than anything, the Buzz fiasco has driven home the point that we need interdisciplinary information professionals that can work with teams in negotiating the social implications of their tools. These are the students I’m working with, and I wonder how Buzz would have rolled differently if their voices were brought to the table.
The builders of social technologies are challenged to manage the relationship between technical affordance and what is, for lack of a better term, human inertia. That is, the tendency for people to act like people. As Google Buzz engineers attempted to reconfigure our notions of a social group (work/friends/romantic/etc. was collapsed to “most frequently contacted”), they ran smack into human inertia. Even though Google’s algorithms have likely figured out a more efficient way for us to group the people we know, it was simply too much to ask us to configure ourselves to the technology.
By fabricating new social groupings, Google ran head-on into Facebook’s biggest problem – that of context collapse. When we merge social groups together, we are challenged to manage our disclosures across these groups, which have different norms of propriety. How is it possible that Google didn’t see the potential problems of such context collapse at scale? I’d like to offer a potential answer.
If you read a history of Silicon Valley (such as Katie Hafner’s or Michael Hilzitk’s), you’ll notice a theme of interconnection. Silicon Valley’s tech economy is a dense series of highly entrepreneurial networks, where employment is characterized by acceptance of failure and short tenures. The work of AnnaLee Saxenian reveals this trait as being fundamental in the Valley’s success; ideas are gestated frequently, teams assemble rapidly through the uncharacteristically large networks of oft-moving tech employees. As good as this is for innovation, it is bad for the development of a social networking site.
Working in Silicon Valley is a classical embeddedness problem. If you work in the Valley, it is likely that many of the people you know share similar traits. They work at the same company as you, think about similar problems, went to similar schools. Such homophily is beneficial for allowing entrepreneurial teams to assemble quickly, but it is bad for finding heterogenous opinions. Consider the case-in-point of the Google Buzz test – it was rolled out initially to Google’s 20,000 employees. These employees – similar on many traits, richly compensated, cognizant of privacy – are different in key ways from the rest of the Buzz ecosystem. Perhaps the homophily of the test base accounts for how devastating edge-cases weren’t designed for, or perhaps groupthink shouted such possibilities down. Either way, this is an important lesson about the pervasive problems of homophily when designing privacy systems.
While involving interdisciplinary information professionals like the ones I train in the design process would be a good step forward, it is easier said than done. Just as Silicon Valley engineers collide with human inertia, the Valley has its own inertia of bigger, better, and faster. Introducing the human perspective into such a culture is an ongoing, and challenging problem (see the work on Values in Design). Right now, the market (and the opinion-sphere, to a lesser extent) regulates and acts as the proxy for human problems with systems. I’d like to think that by introducing informed, professional voices to the discussion, we can move beyond this reactionary approach to privacy. Perhaps Buzz is the case that moves this discussion forward.
Image used under CC-BY-ND, original source.
David Silver is using Twitter in his media studies classes (check out the amazing “Eating San Francisco”). Twitter is the class’ main mode of communication, and he writes that Twitter has replaced three classroom technologies:
twitter has replaced the class listserv. for years, i’ve used a listserv (alternatively called a mailing list or discussion list) to extend our discussions beyond the classroom. these days, when we want to continue conversations, the 12 students in DMP, the 17 students in ESF, and i use twitter.
twitter has replaced email announcements. in the past, if something’s come up, or i want to add a reading, or we have a location change, i would send all the students in class an email. these days, when i have something to announce, or when my students have something to announce, we use twitter.
twitter has replaced the cardboard box i used to bring to class on due dates. in the past, my students would print out their papers and bring them to class; i’d collect them in a box and take them back to the office to grade. these days, my students write blogs, design flickr sets, upload video, and post works-in-progress. when finished, they tweet about it so that i – and, more importantly, their peers – can check it out.
This is instructive for designers of educational technology. The “traditional” trajectory of educational technology is specialization and feature-creep. For example, a class must have an email list, a forum, website/CMS, each with its own space and identity. When I log into BlackBoard, I see about 30 different things I can do, and for each I have to click a link and go to a page to do the action. Twitter strips away the features, instead using an inherently flexible textual space to facilitate communication, accomplishing the same goal of other feature-ridden “course technology.”
I see Twitter’s artificial limit on post size as an important factor in classroom success. First, it keeps the information space managable, meaning information is economized and easily retrievable. Second, and this is pure speculation, but I see Twitter’s short form as a communication equalizer. In any class, you’re going to have verbose individuals and quiet individuals – the same applies online. Twitter forces the verbose to be concise, and it makes it easy for the quiet/reluctant to contribute “normally.” To illustrate this point, let’s imagine a traditional class forum. Our verbose individuals may contibute multi-paragraph posts. Our quiet individuals may look at those long posts, struggle to replicate them, and end up not enjoying or participating in online communication. We’ve lost “communication” because a student struggled to replicate a “form.” In the case of Twitter, the difference between the verbose and the quiet is 140 characters. Form goes away, more or less, and the forum focuses primarily on the communication of raw ideas. Again, this is just speculation – but there’s plent of research in CMC on media richness and form effects that might provide theoretical basis for this sort of research question.
In my class, we’ve used Facebook groups for discussions with (in my opinion) great success. We’ve also experimented with Ning, where that success was not replicated. I believe that Ning suffered from the problems endemic to BlackBoard and other CMS – too many functions, too many buttons to push, too many markup styles to remember. This “overfunctioning” leads to a segmentation of communication, and in an online discussion where communicants may be reluctant, segmentation is death. Twitter is the opposite of segmentation, forcing all communication through a single, flexible channel. This creates the impression of activity, again stimulating discussion.
If I were going to build a CMS (Course Management Software), I would start with Twitter as the prototype, and only add features to the dashboard screen. In this sense, the CMS would only have one page, and everything would tie into and key off the communication sream (i.e I would join Twitter with something like Facebook’s News Feed). If I were to employ Twitter in my classes, one thing I might ask for is “Groups” or “Rooms.” It would be a challenge for me to keep track of all of my student communication (though a second Twitter account would probably suffice).
Instead of using Facebook to avoid studying, students in Fred Stutzman’s “Online Social Networks” course are making it the basis of their class.
Stutzman, a Ph.D. student in the School of Information and Library Science, is studying social technology and writing his dissertation on programs such as Facebook.
Now he is sharing that knowledge with a diverse group of about 15 students, including undergraduates, international students and older adults returning to college.
His dissertation covers how people who are transitioning between stages of life use social networks to get personal support, expand friendships and incorporate those connections into daily life.
Very cool! In other news, I’ll be uploading slides from this course to Slideshare. Feel free to follow along.
Today a well-known entrepreneur, leaders from NASA, and a futurist known for his claims that machines will soon outsmart humans announced the creation of an unusual academic institution called the Singularity University.
The university’s goal is to encourage the cross-fertilization of ideas across a range of high-tech disciplines in which major breakthroughs are expected in the next decade. The hope is that such communication will speed the use of technology to cure diseases and solve other major problems, while helping to understand emerging technologies to better avoid potential downsides of radical new technologies. Classes will take place at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, starting with a nine-week program this summer.
… Although the university will offer courses, one of Mr. Diamandis’s goals is to create a sort of exclusive club where some of the top thinkers in several areas can interact — and maybe team up to start new companies or government projects. “We’re pulling in the future CEO’s and university presidents and government ministers when they’re young in their careers,” said Mr. Diamandis, “pulling them together and allowing them to really meet in a setting where the message is ‘Anything is possible, what is the future?’”
I’m not sure how I feel about the explicitly clubby nature of the venture, but egalitarianism in academe is one of those myths that help us sleep better at night. The question I have is how the organizers will construct a dialogic teaching environment – and prevent this from becoming a 10-week long TED. Close access to top-tier faculty is an exciting proposition if you’re getting beyond the slideshow from their most recent book.
It is an important sign that the organizers are attuned to the club – or network – aspects of this venture. Kurzweil and Diamandis are network entrepreneurs, and this university will create a “network forum,” much like those created by Stewart Brand, and described by Fred Turner in the wonderful book From Counterculture to Cyberculture. I will be watching this with interest – and look forward to checking out Singularity U’s website once it recovers from its Slashdotting.