Revenge of the Community Organizers
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Notes from CSCW 2008

CSCW2008-logo I attended the 2008 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work this past week in San Diego. There were a number of interesting people, papers and projects presented there, many focused on work, others focused on computer support for other kinds of cooperative and/or competitive activities.

During my first few years of blogging, I had been in the habit of compiling and posting careful and thorough notes from all the conferences and other events I attend, but I have not been very diligent about this practice - or blogging in general - since I began the practice of principally instigating at Strands Labs Seattle. This post will be a more abbreviated set of notes, focusing on a smaller number of personal highlights from the conference. Other sources of online information about the conference include slides and photos tagged with "cscw2008".

CoryOndrejka_441x500Cory Ondrejka delivered the opening keynote, on Recursive Collaboration: Building Linden Lab and Second Life. Cory was the co-founder of Linden Lab, who co-created Second Life, a user-created online world ("an online game without the game"), with 15 million accounts, 1 million active users, and $1 million / day in microtransactions in digital items and experiences. He is now Senior VP of Digital Strategy at EMI Music, but was willing to revisit a former career chapter and share insights and experiences on communication, innovation and collaboration in a set of 200 slides during his 45 minute talk [earlier career chapters included stints on a U.S. Navy submarine and at the National Security Agency].

Cory characterized collaboration as "a gateway drug" to technology, participation, entrepreneurship and community formation, and innovation as "productized knowledge", noting the importance of progressively decreasing barriers to with respect to capital, stigma and regulation in the Web 2.0 era, and communication as sharing information and experiences at a distance. He also defined a new term (to me): nichification - the ability to find what you want or value down the long tail of products and services, often through network of friends (rather than more traditional / authoritative sources).

His personal insights and experiences with the evolution of Linden Lab was also interesting. They started off with several desks right next to each other, promoting a culture of asking questions (which broadcasts what you’re working on,and  distributes wuffie - signaling the questionee is bright), and had a weekly "A’s & O’s" meeting (reviewing weekly accomplishments & objectives – noting that 60-65% of objectives accomplished is ideal if one is striving for innovation). As the organization grew, and became more distributed, they started eating their own dog food by using Second Life - the online world they were co-creating - as a platform for collaboration (hence the "recursive" nature of his talk). He also noted how they were able to practice organic and diverse hiring practices - hiring people who were already demonstrating creativity in various activities in Second Life - and emphasized that heterogeneous groups learn better than homogeneous groups. During the Q&A, I invited him to post his slides on SlideShare, and will add a link here if / when he does he has posted them here.

Kenton O'Hara presented a paper on Understanding Collective Play in an Urban Screen Game, in a session on Gaming in the Wild, describing experiences with the Red Nose game played on large BBC screens in urban areas in the UK. In the game, red blobs are superimposed on a large (5m x 5m) screen that shows a real-time camera feed of a public square, and people in the square - detected by the camera - can push blobs around on the screen. Kenton and his colleagues explored a variety of themes of great interest to anyone involved in public and situated display projects in - catchment area, zones of interaction, access and control, and the visibility of interactions. And, as is the case any time I see Kenton talk, my vocabulary was expanded, e.g., the catchment area - the population and/or geographical area served by an institution (or screen) referenced above. Prospective users experienced evaluation apprehension in considering whether to participate in a game; a compere - or master of ceremonies (another term to add to my lexicon of social instigators, which recently was augmented by a recent Kevin Marks blog post on tummlers, geishas, animateurs and chief conversation officers) - was instrumental in overcoming social inhibition.

In a session on Community Building, Andrea Grimes (Georgia Institute of Technology) presented EatWell: Sharing Nutrition-Related Memories in a Low-Income Community, a system for enabling people to record "voice memories" of attempts to eat well, and to enable others to listen to these voice memories. I don't remember too many details of the talk (nor any of the last talk in the session) - I was "on deck" to present in the middle slot - but although I was initially skeptical about the choice of voice (vs. text) for recording and replaying memories, my memory of the voice memories she played during her presentation is that they were emotionally evocative, and I suspect that emotional connection would be instrumental in changing behaviors.

My talk was a whirlwind tour (53 slides in 23 minutes) of The Context, Content & Community Collage: Sharing Personal Digital Media in the Physical Workplace, a system developed at Nokia Research Center Palo Alto along with Ben Congleton (University of Michigan) and Max Harper (University of Minnesota) in the summer of 2007. The C3 Collage was the latest generation of proactive display applications that can sense and respond in contextually appropriate ways to the people and activities taking place nearby (though it is now the second most recent generation, as we have yet another proactive display application - the Community Collage, or CoCo - deployed in a coffeehouse in Seattle). In the Nokia application, users could associate their Bluetooth devices (e.g., mobile phones) with one or more collections of photos on the Flickr photo sharing web service (their own photos or those of others), and whenever they were detected near one of eight 46" touch-screen computers around the lab, their photos would be added to a dynamic collage of images shown on the screen, creating new opportunities for awareness, interactions and the creation or enhancement of relationships in the workplace. Throughout the conference, I was encouraging as many people as I could to use SlideShare ("YouTube for Powerpoint"), and to demonstrate it's use - and practice shameless self-promotion - I'm going to embed the slides I used for the talk below.

Proactive Displays CSCW2008
View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: strands nokia)

A session on Social Tagging included two papers and an extended discussion on the topic. In the presentation of the first paper, The Microstructures of Social Tagging: A Rational Model, author Wai-Tat Fu (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) described tagging as an instance of distributed cognition, wherein internal representations of individual users (mental concepts) interact with external representations (tags) to produce interesting aggregate usage patterns. Tagging was also described as a form of knowledge exchange (representation change induced by others), but I found myself wondering whether it was really knowledge exchange or opinion exchange (thinking back to the googlebombing episode linking the search term "miserable failure" to George W. Bush ... this was links in a search engine, not tags per se, but I do think it interesting to consider in this context). Of course, ever since a college course on epistemology, I've never been fully convinced that knowledge is anything more than widely held opinion(s) ... but I digress.

During the presentation of the second paper on social tagging, Influences on Tag Choices in, co-author Emilee Rader (University of Michigan) noted that there are both personal and social motivations for selecting tags. She described tags on the social bookmarking service as informational, i.e., they are organized to find, re-find and navigate information on the web. I agree with her claim that future tag choices are heavily influenced by tag choices that users have made in the past, especially with respect to exact wording (e.g., "blog" vs. "blogs" vs. "blogging" - a particular example that I have struggled with from time to time in my own use of; sometimes I opt for whatever word form I initially chose, but sometimes I opt for a new form that is more "popular". Emily suggested that tags in other services - (music), Flickr (photos) and YouTube (videos) - were not informational; it may be that she meant that tags selected by users of these services were primarily social - vs. personal[ly informational] - in nature, but I remember posting notes from CSCW 2006 on a paper by Kathy Lee, "What Goes Around Comes Around: An analysis of as social space" (who, incidently, posted her slides on SlideShare), highlighting the social motivations and practices within In any case, I thought that Mor Naaman hit the nail on the head during his discussion after the papers, suggesting that perhaps no one really knows what motivates users in their selection of tags in social media sites ... but I am glad people are looking into these issues.

Another session, on Building Relationships and Teams, lead off with a paper on Being Online, Living Offline: The Influence of Social Ties over the Appropriation of Social Network Sites. Co-author Bernd Ploderer (The University of Melbourne) profiled some users of BodySpace, a body-building online social network service (SNS). He distinguished friend-based SNS (e.g., Facebook), which are organized around people, enabling them to keep in touch with offline ties, with a "deeply entwined" connection between the online and offline, and what he called passion-centric SNS, (e.g., BodySpace and dogster) which are organized around a shared passion, and primarily enable people to connect with “strangers” who share their passions. Bernd also noted that bodybuilders appropriate SNS as a tool, theatre and community, but this seems to be the way users appropriate all SNSs, at least the successful ones (users and services). I really liked this distinction between passion-centric and friend-centric SNS, and wondered whether there any examples of successful special-purpose SNS that are not based on passions (vs. mere interests).

Kurt Luther (Georgia Institute of Technology) presented another paper in that session, on Leadership in Online Creative Collaboration (and he shortly thereafter posted his slides on SlideShare), which focused on the distributed online creative collaborative organization Pass-My-Flash 2, whose members work together to create short, Flash-based movie animations. These types of collaborations differ from some of the more famous examples (Wikipedia, Mozilla, Apache), with respect to completion, originality and subjectivity. Kurt highlighted three themes that are important for this type of collaboration: structuring, directing and integrating. What most struck me about his presentation were the quotes from project leaders that highlighted the delicate balance between power and empowerment, which I think apply to offline as well as online collaboration, and to forms of work beyond loose-knit groups of hobbyists:

  • If you’re collaborating, you gotta make everybody feel like they’re a part of it. You’ve got to make sure—you’ve got to make them feel like it’s all their movie. Because if it’s not, then they won’t want to work on it. (Tyler)
  • I just led ‘em. They did the rest. (Massimo) 
  • I don’t think of it as a position of power. I think of it as a position that enables me to … give them things to participate in. (Joseph R.) 

Finally, I want to note two papers that were focused on the use of technology by people helping people. The first was The View From the Trenches: Organization, Power, and Technology at Two Nonprofit Homeless Outreach Centers, in which co-author Keith Edwards (Georgia Institute of Technology) described an investigation into the use of technology at two homeless centers. What I found most interesting was the differences between the centers. Center A was focused on homeless activism and outreach, had a stratified organization with unclear division of labor, poor use of office technologies to support work coordination and collaboration, and workers who felt like indentured volunteers. Center B focused on employment-focused case management, had a flat organization and clear division of labor, relied on recognizable office technology (email, calendars, shared documents) and whose self-directed volunteers often came from within the ranks of clients. I found this particularly interesting due to my recent reading - and writing - about the technology employed by community organizers in the Obama campaign ... and wonder whether their "secret weapons" of the Internet, databases and psychology can play a broader role in helping more people help people more.

The other paper in this vein was Charitable Technologies: Opportunities for Collaborative Computing in Nonprofit Fundraising, in which co-authors Amy Voida and Steve Voida (University of Calgary) highlighted six ways that technology can be used to help organizations raise funds to help those in need, and offered a number of examples of organizations currently employing technologies to accomplish these goals:

  • Communicating Information about Nonprofits
  • Helping Potential Donors Discover Nonprofits
  • Enabling Donations
  • Enabling Directed Giving
  • Enabling Individual and Community Advocacy
  • Helping Nonprofits Learn about Technology

Unfortunately, I had to leave before the closing plenary, but the closing keynote speaker, Sara Diamond, attended the entire conference, and asked a number of insightful questions after several paper presentations. [Aside: I also asked a number of questions, and received subsequent positive feedback from both some questionees and others in the audience about those questions (for which I'm grateful); I've written before about questioning questioning, and I think I'm making progress in mustering the gumption to stand up and ask questions] I would have liked to have heard what she had to say, given the stage and a more significant allotment of time ... perhaps she'll post her slides to SlideShare.

David McDonald (University of Washington) and Bo Begole (PARC) did a nice job of co-chairing the conference (and in posting their opening and closing slides to SlideShare). In addition to their coordination of the logistics behind the event, they injected a playful dimension at the outset, with mismatched flipflops inserted in conference bags that they encouraged attendees to trade with each other in order to arrive at matched sets. Although I never actually exchanged flipflops, I did find other pretexts for meeting a number of new people and reconnecting with many friends and acquaintances.

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