Irritation Based Innovation

If necessity is the mother of invention, irritation is the father.

People can be motivated to make changes based on so-called positive emotions, but I would argue that anger is more often the spark for fueling innovation. Some people live by the credo

Don't get mad, get even.

But as Mohandas Gandhi so adroitly observed,

An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

Aristotle offers additional insight into the challenges of channeling irritation:

Anyone can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person at the right time, and for the right purpose and in the right way - that is not within everyone's power and that is not easy.

When the wronged can transform their anger in constructive ways, they produce benefits that often outweigh and outlast the instigating incidents.

ImMadAsHell-Network I've been thinking about the inspirational power of irritation for a while now. The numerous clips I've seen and heard over the past several days from the late director Sidney Lumet's 1976 film, Network, have inspired me to compile some examples of irritation being a factor in empowering people to take action. The famous line repeated by the late actor Peter Finch as newscaster Howard Beale - and many of his viewers - is particularly on-point:

I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!

I have often described my own work as irritation-based research: don't [just] get mad about something, create a research project and/or prototype to solve it! MusicFX was born out of irritation with music playing in a fitness center; ActiveMap grew out of frustration with colleagues being chronically late to meetings; Ticket2Talk was a response to a newcomer's awkwardness of meeting people and initiating conversations at a conference

I believe we are all productive - or potentially productive - but differences in our personalities, training and experiences lead us to contribute in different ways in different realms. When irritation strikes, we naturally gravitate toward the channels through which we are best able to express or transform our frustration. Research happens to be a channel that has proven useful for me, but over the years, I've encountered numerous variations on this theme, applied to a broad range of domains. For the purposes of this post, I'll focus on a subset, exploring examples of people demonstrating how to constructively channel irritation to

  • write a book
  • write a program
  • create a company

Write a book

HowWeDecide One of the most inspiring convocation keynotes I've ever seen was Jonah Lehrer's Metacognitive Guide to College, delivered at Willamette University last fall. After presenting a fun and fascinating whirlwind tour of neuroscience, psychology and sociology, in the context of a 5-point guide to how to succeed in (and through) college, the 27 year-old author of How We Decide entertained questions from the audience. My favorite question was asked by a student who wanted to know how Lehrer decides which questions to ask (or pursue). He answered that he wrote a book about decisions primarily because he is pathologically indecisive, and generally tends to begin with his own frustrations. [Update, 2012-Apr-01: A Brain Pickings review of Lehrer's new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, includes his observation that "the act of feeling frustrated is an essential part of the creative process."]

More recently, in preparing slides for a guest lecture on human-robotic interaction, I highlighted the irritation that prompted Sherry Turkle to write her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Turkle experienced a robotic moment several years ago while viewing live Galapagos tortoises at the Darwin exhibit showing at the American Museum of Natural History, when her 14 year-old daughter, Rebecca, commented "they could have used a robot". While Turkle had been growing increasingly concerned about the ways that robots and other technologies were changing our perspectives and expectations, this moment provided the spark that led her to take on the daunting challenge of writing a book. And this constructive channeling of irritation has sparked numerous conversations about the relative costs and benefits of online vs. offline interactions.

Write a program

image from upload.wikimedia.orgOne of the earliest articulations of irritation-based software development I encountered as by Eric Raymond, author of the 2001 book, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, in which he states the first rule of open source software:

Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer's personal itch.

Later in the book, he begins the chapter on The Social Context of Open Source Software with the following elaboration of this principle:

It is truly written: the best hacks start out as personal solutions to the author's everyday problems, and spread because the problem turns out to be typical for a large class of users. This takes us back to the matter of rule 1, restated in a perhaps more useful way:

To solve an interesting problem, start by finding a problem that is interesting to you.

More recently, in a March 2008 blog post articulating 37signals' response to a critique by Don Norman, Jason Fried invoked a principle and rationale to support designing for ourselves (a fabulous post which also includes related insights about editing, software feature curation and not trying to please everyone):

Designing for ourselves first yields better initial results because it lets us design what we know. It lets us assess quality quickly and directly, instead of by proxy. And it lets us fall in love with our products and feel passionate about what we make. There’s simply no substitute for that. ...

We listen to customers but we also listen to our own guts and hearts. We believe great companies don’t blindly follow customers, they blaze a path for them. ...

Solutions to our own problems are solutions to other people’s problems too [emphasis mine]. By building products we want to use, we’re also building products that millions of other small businesses want to use. Not all businesses, not all customers, not everyone, but a healthy, sustainable, growing, and profitable segment of the market.

Interestingly, Don Norman's perspective on design innovation appears to have evolved since that exchange: a view articulated in a controversial essay on Technology First, Needs Last: the research-product gulf, which appeared in the March 2010 issue of ACM Interactions. Although he does not cite irritation as a prime mover, Norman does call into question the influence of necessity on innovative breakthroughs:

I've come to a disconcerting conclusion: design research is great when it comes to improving existing product categories but essentially useless when it comes to new, innovative breakthroughs. ... Although we would prefer to believe that conceptual breakthroughs occur because of a detailed consideration of human needs, especially fundamental but unspoken hidden needs so beloved by the design research community, the fact is that it simply doesn't happen. ... grand conceptual inventions happen because technology has finally made them possible.

Create a company

MartinTobias-FastCompany-December2010 One recent articulator of irritation as inspiration is Martin Tobias, a serial entrepreneur and currently CEO of Tippr, who was profiled in a December 2010 Fast Company article on Innovation Agents:

The one common thread throughout Tobias' entrepreneurial journey: a healthy dose of anger. With Imperium Renewables, Tobias was "personally pissed at the climate damage that oil companies were doing,” he says. “When I started Kashless, I was personally pissed that my friends in the local bar and restaurant business didn’t have effective ways to use the Internet to get people to walk in the door to their businesses. I’m saving small businesses that are run by my friends. That’s an incredibly personal thing.”

That kind of righteous fury, according to Tobias, is the secret to any startup. “Find a problem that personally pisses you off and solve it, and you’ll be a good entrepreneur," he says. "The day that I wake up and I don’t have a hard problem to solve, I will stop being an entrepreneur."

PatientsLikeMe-logo The personal problem that motivated Jamie Heywood, Benjamin Heywood and their friend Jeff Cole to create PatientsLikeMe was the the struggle of their brother, Stephen Heywood, who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 1998. They developed a company and web platform to enable patients to share and learn from each others' experiences, and track the course of their condition and treatment(s), enabling them to tell their stories in data and words. The company recently expanded from its initial focus on 22 chronic conditions (including ALS, Parkinson's disease, HIV, depression, epilepsy, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis and organ transplants) to support patients suffering from any condition(s).

The story of the family's frustration - and response - also provided the inspiration for a movie, So Much, So Fast:

Made over 5 years, So Much So Fast tracks one family's ferocious response to an orphan disease: the kind of disease drug companies ignore because not there's not enough profit in curing it. In reaction, and with no medical background, Stephen's brother Jamie creates a research group and in two years builds it from three people in a basement to a multi-million dollar ALS mouse facility. Finding a drug in time becomes Jamie's all-consuming obsession.

As I get to know more Health 2.0 activists, advocates and platforms - some of whom I profiled in previous posts on social media and computer supported cooperative health care and platform thinking - and encounter more examples of their blessing, wounding, longing, loss, pain and transformation, I increasingly appreciate the innovative power of irritation ... especially when the source of the irritation is a matter of life and death.

In reviewing these examples, I am repeatedly reminded of the wisdom of Carl Rogers' profound observation:

What is most personal is most general.

There are, of course, many other ways that people channel their personal frustrations in innovative ways that benefit a more general population, and I would welcome the contribution of other inspiring examples in the comments below.

I will finish off with a video clip of the scene from the movie, Network, that I mentioned at the outset. It's interesting to note how many of the problems that contributed to Howard Beale's madness in 1976 are still - or again - prominent in today's world ... providing plenty of fodder for future innovation.

All models, studies and Wikipedia entries are wrong, some are useful

A sequence of encounters with various models, studies and other representations of knowledge lately prompted me to reflect on both the inherent limitations and the potential uses of these knowledge representations ... and the problems that ensue when people don't fully appreciate either their limitations or applications ... or the inherent value of being wrong.

ScienceNewsCycle Daniel Hawes, an Economics Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota, analyzed the Science Secret for Happy Marriages, examining a study correlating comparative attractiveness of spouses and the happiness of marriages. He notes that many reports of the "result" - the prettier a wife in comparison to her husband the happier the marriage - did not note the homogeneity of the population, particularly the early stage of marriage for most subjects in the study, the lack of control for inter-rater variability in measuring attractiveness and happiness, or the potential influences of variables beyond attractiveness and happiness. These limitations were reported in the original study, but not in subsequent re-reports, leading Hawes to reference a very funny PHD Comics parody of The Science News Cycle and conclude with the rather tongue-in-cheek disclaimer:

This blog post was sponsored by B.A.D.M.S (Bloggers against Data and Methods Sections) in honor of everybody who thinks (science) blogs should limit themselves to reporting correlations (and catchy post titles).

A while later, in a blog post about his Hyptertext 2010 keynote on Model-Driven Research in Social Computing, former University of Minnesota Computer Science Ph.D. student and current PARC Area Manager and Principal Scientist Ed Chi offered a taxonomy of models - descriptive, explanatory, predictive, prescriptive and generative - and an iterative 4-step methodology for creating and applying models in social computing research - characterization, modeling, prototyping and evaluation. Most relevant in the context of this post, he riffed on an observation attributed to George Box

all models are wrong, but some are useful

All models - and studies - represent attempts to condense or simplify data, and any such transformations (or re-presentations) are always going to result in some data loss, and so are inherently wrong. But wrong models can still be useful, even - or perhaps particularly - if they simply serve to spark challenges, debate ... and further research. As an example, Ed notes how Malcolm Gladwell's "influentials theory", in which an elite few act as trend setters, was useful in prompting Duncan Watts and his colleagues to investigate further, and create an alternative model in which the connected many are responsible for trends. More on this evolution of models can be found in Clive Thompson's Fast Company article, Is the Tipping Point Toast?

BeingWrongBook Over the next few weeks, I encountered numerous other examples of wrongness, limitations, challenges and debate:

My most significant recent encounter with wrongness, limitations and debate was via Susannah Fox, Associate Director at the Pew Internet & American Life Project and a leading voice in the Health 2.0 community, who offered a Health Geek Tip: Abstracts are ads. Read full studies when you can. She describes several examples of medical studies whose titles or abstracts may lead some people - medical experts and non-experts alike - to make incorrect assumptions and draw unwarranted conclusions.

SanjayGupta In one case, “a prime example of the problem with some TV physician-'journalists'”, HealthNewsReview.org publisher Gary Schwitzer criticized Dr. Sanjay Gupta's proclamation that an American Society of Clinical Oncology study showed that "adding the drug Avastin to standard chemotherapy 'can slow the spread of [ovarian] cancer pretty dramatically'" as a dramatically unwarranted claim not supported by the study. I won't go into further details about this example, except to note with some irony that I had mentioned Dr. Gupta in my previous post about The "Boopsie Effect": Gender, Sexiness, Intelligence and Competence, in which he had complained that being named one of People Magazine's sexiest men had undermined his credibility ... and it appears that several people quoted in Schwitzer's blog post as well as in the comments are questioning Dr. Gupta's credibility, though I don't see any evidence that these doubts are related to his appearance.

My favorite example, even richer in irony, is what Susannah initially referred to as "an intriguing abstract that begs for further study: Accuracy of cancer information on the Internet: A comparison of a Wiki with a professionally maintained database". Another Health 2.0 champion, Gilles Frydman, tweeted a couple of questions about the study, regarding which types of cancers were covered and which version of the professionally maintained database was used. I've posted a considerable amount of cancer information on the Internet myself (a series of 19 blog posts about my wife's anal cancer), and I've long been fascinated with the culture and curation of Wikipedia, so I decided to investigate further.

ASCO The original pointer to the abstract came from a Washington Post blog post about "Wikipedia cancer info. passes muster", based on a study that was presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). The post includes an interview with one of the study's authors, Yaacov Lawrence. I called Dr. Lawrence, and he was kind enough to fill me in on some of the details, which I then shared in a comment on Susannah's post. The study in question was presented as a poster - not a peer-reviewed journal publication - and represents an early, and rather limited, investigation into the comparative accuracy of Wikipedia and the professionally maintained database. At the end of our conversation, I promised to send him some references to other studies of the accuracy of Wikipedia, and suggested that the Health 2.0 community may be a good source of prospective participants in future studies.

Wikipedia But here's the best part: while searching for references, in the Wikipedia entry on the Reliability of Wikipedia, under the section on Science and medicine peer reviewed data, I found the following paragraph:

In 2010 researchers at Kimmel Cancer Center, Thomas Jefferson University, compared 10 types of cancer to data from the National Cancer Institute's Physician Data Query and concluded "the Wiki resource had similar accuracy and depth to the professionally edited database" and that "sub-analysis comparing common to uncommon cancers demonstrated no difference between the two", but that ease of readability was an issue.

And what is the reference cited for this paragraph? The abstract for the poster presented at the meeting:

Rajagopalan et al (2010). "Accuracy of cancer information on the Internet: A comparison of a Wiki with a professionally maintained database.". Journal of Clinical Oncology 28:7s, 2010. http://abstract.asco.org/AbstView_74_41625.html. Retrieved 2010-06-05.

So it appears we have yet another example of a limited study - that was not peer-reviewed - being used to substantiate a broader claim on the accuracy of Wikipedia articles on" Science and medicine peer reviewed data" ... in a Wikipedia article on the topic of Reliability of Wikipedia. Perhaps someone will eventually edit the entry to clarify the status of the study. In any case, I find this all rather ironic.

As with the other examples of "wrong" models and limited studies, I believe that this study has already been useful in sparking discussion and debate within the Health 2.0 community, and I'm hoping that some of the feedback from the Health 2.0 community - and perhaps other researchers who have more experience in comparative studies of Wikipedia accuracy - will lead to more research in this promising area.

[Update, 2010-09-01: I just read and highly recommend a relevant and somewhat irreverent article by Dave Mosher, The Ten Commandments of Science Journalism.]

[Update, 2011-03-16: I just read and highly recommend another relevant article on wrongness and medicine: Lies, Damn Lies and Medical Science, by David H. Freeman in the November 2010 edition of The Atlantic.]

[Update, 2011-04-21: Another relevant and disturbing post: Lies, Damn Lies and Pharma Social Media Statistics on Dose of Digital by Jonathan Richman.]

[Update, 2012-02-23: John P. A. Ioannidis offers an explanation for Why Most Published Research Findings are False in a 2005 PLoS Medicine article.]

Preemptive Self-Disclosure: Still Unpacking Privacy for a Networked World

I have long attributed the idea of preemptive self-disclosure - sharing information about oneself in order to forestall negative consequences from not sharing - to Paul Dourish, but over the years, I'd forgotten exactly why. A couple of recent articles I've read about disclosing what many might consider private information - coupled with the 19th and final post I recently wrote about my wife's anal cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery - prompted me to seek out the exact source of this attribution: a 2003 paper he co-authored with Leysia Palen on Unpacking "Privacy" for a Networked World. The term "preemptive self-disclosure" does not appear in their paper, which is just as relevant now as it was 7 years ago (if not moreso). However, I found the section that I believe prompted the term - which may well represent my own shorthand for repacking the concepts - and will include an excerpt after briefly reviewing the more recent promptings.

Yesterday, Jeff Jarvis announced the title of his next book, Public Parts , which will be about "the end of privacy and the benefits of publicness". Jeff has written publicly about his private parts - the challenges he has faced over the course of his battle with prostate cancer - and his decision to preemptively disclose his experiences has yielded many unanticipated benefits, for him and for his readers:

In Public Parts, I’ll argue, as I have here, that in our current privacy mania we are not talking enough about the value of publicness. If we default to private, we risk losing the value of the connections the internet brings: meeting people, collaborating with them, gathering the wisdom of our crowd, and holding the powerful to public account.

Toward the end of his short post, Jeff references an article written by his friend, Steven Johnson, In Praise of Oversharing, in which Steven writes of discovering his friend's cancer diagnosis a year ago via a Twitter status update ... and not finding that strange. He goes on to write of the "obsession" with privacy exhibited during the early days of the Internet, and how that now seems "quaint", although he also warns against claims that "the whole concept of privacy is teetering on the edge of obsolescence". Noting the erosion of Facebook's "fortress" of privacy into a "drive-through", he suggests that we are on the leading edge of the learning curve with respect to navigating "the valley of intimate strangers" that lies between privacy and celebrity (or, at least, publicity).

Writing of his friend's public disclosures about cancer, Steven notes:

Within days of his [Jeff Jarvis'] initial post, he had hundreds of comments on his blog, many of them simply wishing him well, but many offering specific advice from personal experience: what to expect in the immediate aftermath of the surgery, tips for dealing with the inconveniences of the recovery process. By taking this most intimate of experiences and making it radically public, Jarvis built an improvised support group around his blog: a space of solidarity, compassion, and shared expertise. ...

In the end, it wasn't just a conversation for Jarvis, it was a conversation for the thousands of other people who will come to those pages through Google. There is an intensity and honesty to these public disclosures that can be enormously helpful, next to the formal, anonymous advice of a hospital cancer site. ... You get a truer account of what it actually feels like to go through that terrible experience than any official page on the Mayo Clinic or WebMD sites could ever offer.

The primary motivation behind my own initial foray into preemptive disclosure of potentially private [health] matters - the first blog post I wrote about my wife's anal cancer 5 years ago - was to reduce the overhead of sharing information about our progress - and periodic setbacks - with friends and family, going public so as to minimize the number of redundant emails and phone calls. However, it also created an unanticipated broader support group - which I'm sure is at least an order of magnitude smaller than Jeff Jarvis' - through which we've received encouragement from not only family and friends, but also from intimate strangers. Another unanticipated effect is that by opening sharing our experience, we were able to provide support - or at least personal information about the experiences - to others ... potentially far beyond those who have directly acknowledged that indirect support via comments and email. And we continue to receive gifts in the form of expressions of appreciation for our willingness to go public with what is, for many, very private matters.

Finally, returning to the CHI 2003 paper that I believe first gave rise to my awareness of preemptive self-disclosure, I want to include a relevant except - though I recommend the entire paper - from the section entitled "The Disclosure Boundary: Privacy and Publicity". It's worth noting that although the paper addresses and/or anticipates several of the themes raised this week by Steven Johnson, it was written in 2002, before the advent of boundary-challenging social networking services such as Foursquare, Twitter, Facebook and MySpace -  although I believe Friendster may have been on the scene by that point - and is based largely on a book by social psychologist Irwin Altman published in 1975. To me, it demonstrates how forward-thinking Altman, Palen and Dourish were [/are], how good science - like good art - is always ahead of its time, and how much unpacking remains to be done in the continuously evolving landscape of privacy and publicity in our increasingly networked world:

As Altman theorizes, privacy regulation in practice is not simply a matter of avoiding information disclosure. Participation in the social world also requires selective disclosure of personal information. Not only do we take pains to retain certain information as private, we also choose to explicitly disclose or publicize information about ourselves, our opinions and our activities, as means of declaring allegiance or even of differentiating ourselves from others (another kind of privacy regulation). Bumper stickers, designer clothing, and “letters to the editor” deliberately disclose information about who we are. We sit in sidewalk cafes to “see and be seen.” We seek to maintain not just a personal life, but also a public face. Managing privacy means paying attention to both of these desires.

Furthermore, maintaining a degree of privacy, or “closedness” [from Altman's 1975 book, The Environment and Social Behavior: Privacy, Personal Space, Territory and Crowding], will often require disclosure of personal information or whereabouts. The choice to walk down public streets rather than darkened back alleys is a means of protecting personal safety by living publicly, of finding safety in numbers. We all have thoughts or facts we would like to keep secret, but most of us also need to ensure that others know something about ourselves, for personal or professional reasons. For some, this management of personal and public realms is analogous to the job of a public relations agent who needs to make their client available and known in the world, while at the same time protecting them from the consequences of existing in this very public sphere. Celebrities operate in this space, but so do many lesser-known people: academics, for example, often feel compelled to maintain web pages, not only to advertise their expertise and experience, but also to keep requests for papers and other inquiries at bay. Therefore, one of the roles of disclosure can ironically be to limit, rather than increase, accessibility. Views of privacy that equate disclosure with accessibility fail to appreciate this necessary balance between privacy and publicity.

Notes from @BigBlog meetup at Soulfood in Redmond

I enjoyed attending my first SeattlePI.com BigBlog meetup last night at Soulfood Books, Music and Organic Coffee House in Redmond. Monica Guzman (@moniguzman) organized the event, and Nick Eaton (@njeaton), who writes the SeattlePI.com Microsoft blog, was the special guest. According to a tweet posted by Monica at the outset, other bloggers / tweeters / people there include @jimgaynor @gumption @stephaniemcc @ryanbartholomew @luizmarq and @jasonp107; @howardcwu arrived later.

SeattlePI BigBlog meetup @ SoulFood

Since Nick, the SeattlePI.com Microsoft reporter, was the special guest, we could hardly help but discuss the recent Op-Ed piece by former Microsoft VP Dick Brass on Microsoft's Creative Destruction. The piece kicked off a firestorm of conversation and controversy, online and offline. Nick posted an article about Microsoft has 'dysfunctional corporate culture', ex-exec says that prompted considerable commentary from readers (although Nick says he generally has to wear a virtual flak jacket for every article he posts).

In searching for Nick's article on SeattlePI.com, I discovered an earlier article syndicated from the NYTimes, by John Markoff in November 2000, about Brass in the Middle of Microsoft's Cultural Shift , which notes Brass' former job as New York Daily reporter, his personal passion and sense of mission around eBooks and tablet computers, and a reference to an earlier [stage of] reinvention:

The tablet computer is one of the best examples of Microsoft's multibillion dollar effort to reinvent itself for the presumed post-PC era.

And, for further multidimensional irony, given that Brass chose the NYTimes in which to publish his recent Op-Ed piece ... and the fact the earlier article appeared in the SeattlePI, which then had a printed counterpart:

Among other impacts, he predicts that The New York Times will publish its last version on paper in 2018.

[Note to self: revisit this article in 8 years.]

I suspect other Microsoft-related topics were discussed at the other end of the table, but we spent most of the time at our end talking about other things. Among other interesting things shared by other participants at the meeting:

Finally, a few people strongly recommended the OmniFocus Mac application for Getting Things Done ... which reminded me of a recent dinner meeting / presentation / conversation with David Allen - after which I wrote a blog post about motivations, conversations and book-centered sociality  ... after which [I thought] I was sufficiently motivated to re-read GTD and re-apply the techniques. In a conversation a few days later, another friend, Jason Simon, had told me "there's an app for that" and strongly recommended OmniFocus ... but it often takes N > 2 recommendations for me to overcome inertia ... especially when the recommendation is for a tool designed to help overcome inertia.

In any case, I've taken the first step, and ordered a new copy of the book - I gave away my first copy of GTD several years ago to my friend, Elizabeth Churchill (who clearly gets a lot of things done) - and if this trial is more successful, I may blog more about Getting Things Done ... if I'm correctly remembering GTD terminology, "there's a folder for that".

Co-promotion Reconsidered: The Recursive Attraction of Attention

Amybeth Hale, a Talent Attraction Manager with AT&T’s Interactive Staffing team, wrote a great primer on 4 Essential Traits for Social Media Success in your Career, which was recently posted on Mashable. The four traits are:

  1. Develop authentic relationships
  2. Be a digital trendsetter
  3. Take risks
  4. Give back (and/or pay it forward)

I think there is one important trait missing:

  1. Reference other people who attract social media attention

Although it might qualify as a corollary to #4 (Give Back), I think it's important enough to give it separate billing, as I've noticed many people who appear to be successful at attracting attention in the social media world, especially Twitter, exhibit this trait. When that attention is amplified through retweeting by those whose attention was initially attracted, it represents a recursive attraction of attention. And few practices are more effective at attracting attention than referencing someone in a blog post or tweet (not that this is necessarily the primary goal in referencing someone, but I suspect it is rarely an unwanted side effect).

Amybeth herself demonstrated the value of this essential trait in her post, referencing 16 people, each of whom has more than 1,000 followers on Twitter (and some of whom have tens or even hundreds of thousands of followers), and 8 of whom tweeted or retweeted the post.

Name Twitter ID Following Followers Listed Tweets Retweeted?
Amybeth Hale @ResearchGoddess 1,163 4,808 198 34,873 yes
Elisa Camahort @ElisaC 780
4,430 145 20,945 no
Keith Burtis @KeithBurtis 8,752 10,520 365 75,767 yes
Chris Brogan @ChrisBrogan 106,679 121,009 8,379 181,423 no
Amanda Mooney @AmandaMooney 997 4,048 135 21,022 yes
Dan Honigman @DanielHonigman 3,949 6,048 860 22,106 no
Jennifer Leggio @mediaphyter 906 15,352 1,139 87,870 yes
Kaitlyn Wilkins @CatchUpLady 894 1,693 55 3,033 no
Dave Knox @DaveKnox 1,333 5,631 456 2,221 no
Kipp Bodnar @kbodnar32 2,684 3,904 282 26,995 yes
Venessa Miemis @VenessaMiemis 901 2,317 363 2,166 yes
Jessica Randazza @JessicaRandazza 1,976 3,258 187 13,932 yes
Laura Roeder @lkr 460 7,616 350 21,864 no
Kneale Mann @KnealeMann 11,254 12,973 304 34,218 yes
Ken Burbary @KenBurbary 6,950 7,211 805 32,143 no
Len Kendall @LenKendall 2,544 5,630 490 54,775 no
Sarah Evans @PRsarahevans 10,157 38,325 2,824 47,747 yes

The combined Twitter followership of the 16 people is nearly 250,000 (though I'm sure there is considerable overlap in their sets of followers); while only 8 of them tweeted or retweeted the post, that represents a potential amplification of attention beyond Amybeth's followers of up to 90,000 followers (modulo the aforementioned overlap). Now, with @Mashable's followership of 1,956,431, I'm not sure how many additional users lie in the set difference between Mashable followers and the combined followers of all those referenced in the article, but I still believe the social media value of the trait holds, as not everyone posts articles on Mashable.

Four years ago, I wrote about Co-Promotional Considerations: Customerizing and The Brand "Us", in which I described the practices of Jones Soda and Luna Bars, which respectively incorporate photos or quotes from their customers on their labels, representing what I called a customerization of their [co-]promotional campaigns:

I had earlier speculated on the evolving nature of promotional considerations as new social marketing channels arise, noting possible conflicts of interest that may diminish the potential impact of some of these channels (e.g., how much can we trust reviews by people who may derive direct financial benefit from the products or services they are reviewing).  What I particularly like about the Jones and Luna customerization techniques is that they are really co-promotional: customers whose visual or verbal content is co-opted for use on labels can promote themselves (and/or their loved ones) along with the product(s) they are telling people about.  Neither Jones nor Luna offers any financial incentive to people whose content is chosen for co-promotion on their labels; the wealth they are sharing is attentional rather than financial.




As I noted in that earlier post, I think the practice of co-promotion can be a positive thing, although that is not always the case. For example, in the academic world, researchers often employ defensive citation in conference and journal papers - citing work by peers who may be reviewing their submissions, partly or even primarily for the purpose of assuring that those peers do not feel slighted by the omission of what the reviewers may consider to be relevant work to the submission. A related practice, gratuitous citation, is sometimes employed to flatter or compliment other researchers, especially prominent or senior researchers, with an aim to curry favor with the powers that be.

I don't mean to suggest that most - or even many - citations (or authors) are defensive or gratuitous, but it is a fact of life (or work) in many domains that one must be careful to please - or avoid angering - the people in positions to potentially promote you, and so I don't think anyone would dispute that these considerations factor into some submissions [and I never thought about the double entendre of that word in this context]. And since the most prominent and senior researchers tend to be the ones who sit on program committees and editorial review boards, there is an unavoidable Matthew effect, wherein the rich get richer ... or more precisely, those with many citations (and hence prominence) are cited more often. 

In my last post, I expressed some concerns about the commoditization of Twitter followers [about which I was tempted to post the tweet "How to Write a Blog Post that Won't Get Tweeted"]. One of the things I mentioned was the growing plethora of various tools and techniques attempt to measure Twitter influence. The quest for [evidence of] attention and impact is not restricted to social media (although, in a way, I supppose that academic publications could be considered a special case of social media). For example, Harzing's "Publish or Perish" tool is designed to measure academic influence:

Are you applying for tenure, promotion or a new job? Do you want to include evidence of the impact of your research? Is your work cited in journals which are not ISI listed? Then you might want to try Publish or Perish, designed to help individual academics to present their case for research impact to its best advantage.

Returning to the recursive attraction of attention in social media, I want to be clear that I do not mean to suggest that Amybeth's blog post is either defensive or promiscuous. In fact, I chose it primarily because I think it is a well-written article that provides an engaging overview with helpful examples of best practices ... and given that its aim is to highlight those practices, I thought it may be useful to use it as another helpful example of an important practice in the successful use of social media ... especially if one of the metrics of success is attention.

DarkTwitterBird-reversed One of my posts that has attracted the most attention is on the dark side of digital backchannels in shared physical spaces back in early December. As in Amybeth's post, I also referenced a number of people prominent in the social media world, e.g., danah boyd (@zephoria, with 22,669 followers), Brady Forest (@brady, with 6,169 followers), Scott Berkun (@berkun, with 3,267 followers) and Jeremiah Owyang (@jowyang, with 59,141 followers). I know that danah and Scott retweeted my post, but don't know if Brady, Jeremiah or anyone else I referenced did. I would have used that post as the strawman here, but finding tweets that old would be challenging; using Amybeth's post was far more convenient, and - given its focus on social media best practices (vs. some of the worst practices I was highlighting) - more relevant.

I keep grappling with the issue of appropriate attraction of attention. I believe that some level of attention is necessary to survive - if we don't attract the attention (and affection) of our parents or other caretakers as infants, we will die. In my blog post on coffee, community and health, I wrote about some of the health benefits we derive later in life from the attention of consequential strangers and acquaintances, such as we might enjoy at coffeehouses and other third places. But as Don Miguel Ruiz warns in the Introduction to The Four Agreements:

With that fear of being punished and that fear of not getting the reward [of attention from our parents, teachers, siblings and friends], we start pretending to be what we are not, just to please others, just be good enough for someone else.

Again, I'm not suggesting that anyone I've mentioned here is pretending to be what they are not, but I do want to highlight the risk of becoming addicted to attention.

I'll conclude with another risk regarding attention and social media (as well as the fragmentation resulting from multi-tasking), which was articulated in an interview with Cliff Nass, part of which was broadcast on PBS Frontline's Digital Nation earlier this week:

One of the biggest points here I think is, when I grew up, the greatest gift you could give someone was attention, and the best way to insult someone was to ignore them. ... The greatest gift was attention. Well, if we're in a society where the notion of attention as important is breaking apart, what now is the relationship glue between us? Because it's always been attention.

I've already written elsewhere about my reflections on issues of ambivalence and attention raised in Digital Nation, in response to an insightful critique by Cathy Davidson on The Digital Nation Writes Back, so I'll do my best to approximate one of the social media best practices that I rarely use - keep it simple, keep it short - and end this here.

The Dark Side of Digital Backchannels in Shared Physical Spaces

DarkTwitterBird-reversed Recently, I've been disturbed to read about some significant frontchannel disturbances arising through the use of Twitter backchannels to heckle speakers at conferences. Having finished off my last blog with an example of the beneficial ways that Twitter helps us connect with consequential strangers, I want to revisit some issues that initially arose [for me] 5 years ago, surrounding the use of another backchannel tool in another conference context, and reflect a bit on the dark side of how Twitter can leave us vulnerable to maliciously consequential strangers, even when we are in the same physical place ... and in some cases, especially when we are in the same physical space.

Five years ago, at the first Microsoft Research Social Computing Symposium (SCS 2004), a speaker was in the middle of a presentation when laughter spontaneously erupted from several people seated at different tables around the room. Apparently, someone had made a snarky comment about the presentation in an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) backchannel that had been created for the event, and a few people found the comment so amusing that they could not contain themselves. Fortunately, after a relatively brief period of confusion - for the speaker and for many people in the audience who weren't previously aware of the backchannel - the speaker was able to continue the presentation. Although there were a number of other issues that arose on or about the backchannel (details about which are described in Liz Lawley's blog post - and ensuing vigorous debate in comments - on "Confessions of a backchannel queen"), the event proceeded without further significant disruptions.

CSCW2004 At another conference (CHI 2004) a few weeks after later, danah boyd - who at the time was a graduate student at UC Berkeley and was also at SCS 2004 - and I were talking about how surprised many of the academic and industry researchers were about seeing IRC used as a backchannel at the symposium. We conspired to propose a panel for the upcoming conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW 2004), in which we would bring this discussion to a larger group of researchers who were interested in innovative uses of computer-mediated communication tools. We also conspired to bring the experience of the backchannel to the conference itself, and succeeded in persuading the organizers of the conference to offer wireless Internet access (a first for CSCW) and to promote the use of sanctioned IRC channels (one for each of the three conference session meeting rooms).

The backchannel attracted varying levels of engagement throughout the conference, depending (in part) on the nature of the different sessions, e.g., the channel was most active during panels, which are generally intended to be highly interactive, and least active during keynotes, which tend to be more like formal lectures (at CSCW). Several people on the panel (e.g., Richard Hodkinson, Liz Lawley and danah) and in the audience (e.g., Jack Vinson, Eric Jurotich, and even USA Today) have written about their experiences during the panel. danah and I later compiled and analyzed the experiences in a CHI 2005 short paper on Digital Backchannels in Shared Physical Spaces: Experiences at an Academic Conference.



What I want to revisit in this context is the various ways that backchannels were brought into the foreground during the panel. In my own blog post about the experience, frontchannels, backchannels and sidechannels at CSCW 2004, I wrote:

In many respects, this panel offered a hands-on, or at least eyes-on, experience.  For example, during Elizabeth [Churchill]'s opening statement, she projected a series of photos of herself, with bubble thoughts (comics-style), creating yet another "channel"; one backchannel participant posted the message "She's talking on one channel, putting up those slides ... evil! evil!" ... After the short position statements by each of the panelists, we decided to project the IRC window onto the main screen, so that everyone in the audience -- not just those with wireless personal computing devices that enabled them to directly participate in the channel -- could see what was going on.  At one point, there was a lively and creative series of posts proposing new names for backchannels such as the one(s) created during the panel, including "crackchannels", "smackchannels", "trackchannels", "hackchannels", "cochannels", "snackchannels", "lackoftactchannels" and "FAQchannels".

It's important to emphasize that the projection of the backchannel into the frontchannel was done with the intention of broadening the awareness and discussion of the backchannel in the frontchannel. After all, the backchannel was the topic of the panel, and its projection on the big screen thus served the goals of all the stakeholders: the panel organizers, speakers and the audience.

Web2expo-logo Flash forward 5 years (almost to the day), and I was disturbed to read about a resurgence of "lackoftactchannels" in Rude Tweeters Take Over Web 2.0 Expo, describing "a roomful of content co-creators who, along with their status as members of the audience, have also shed their human decency". The author, Nicole Ferraro, references an earlier post on "Twittering a Distraction During Twitter Business Panel", and goes on to talk about her most recent encounter with Twitter-fueled distractions at the Web 2.0 Expo in NYC last month:

A similar situation just occurred here at the Web 2.0 Expo during a keynote given by Microsoft researcher danah boyd, who was apparently speaking too fast for the Twitterati -- how ironic. Throughout her entire presentation -- entitled "Streams of Content, Limited Attention" (also ironic) -- boyd stood in front of a giant screen of Tweets, most of which were attacking her presentation skills

Actually, in reading and watching danah's talk (which I highly recommend), I'm struck by the many other elements of unintended irony that can be found throughout the themes and topics she presents: the "flow" state described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi; living "with, in, and around" information; adding to, grabbing and redirecting streams; "the law of two feet"; the non-democratization of attention; our addiction to gossip; the unhealthy cycle of manipulation for stimulation; and the prejudice, intolerance, bigotry, and power promulgated by homophily in networks ... to name a few.

My two favorite - and most ironic - insights from her talk (which was written before she went on stage) are given at the very end:

  • Advertising is based on capturing attention, typically by interrupting the broadcast message or by being inserted into the content itself.
  • Y'all are setting the tone of the future of information. Keep it exciting and, please, recognize the power that you have!
I wasn't at the conference, but after watching the talk, and reading numerous accounts of it on blog posts and comments, I would say that some members of the audience clearly recognized their power, and were setting the tone by using the backchannel to insert content and thereby interrupt the message. And they were, in effect, advertising themselves, offering an example of the impact of negative advertising.

danahboyd I was tempted to add a comment on Nicole's post noting an additional irony, that danah had, once again, though unintentionally, "sparked a broad conversation about the implications of turning the backchannel into part of the frontchannel", but I was hesitant to write about this event, as I didn't want to focus any [additional] attention on the whole affair. However, a few days later, danah herself wrote about the "spectacle at Web2.0 Expo... from my perspective" (starting with the description about sparking conversation that I quoted in the preceding sentence), and a day later, in response to an outpouring of support through various channels, she tweeted "there's nothing like being publicly vulnerable for starting convs. THANK YOU for the digital hugs." So I felt it was OK for me to talk about it, too.

danah notes that she was surprised by a number of factors: she was not allowed to use a laptop, nor a properly angled podium for her notes, she was blinded by the lights and unable to see or visually connect with the audience, and she hadn't realized until shortly before the talk that a live twitter feed would be projected on the screen behind her. She started out a bit flustered, and then things got worse:

within the first two minutes, I started hearing rumblings. And then laughter. The sounds were completely irrelevant to what I was saying and I was devastated. I immediately knew that I had lost the audience. ... The more people rumbled, the worse my headspace got and the worse my talk became. I fed on the response I got from the audience in the worst possible way.

Afterward, when Brady Forrest, co-chair of the conference - and one of the most innovative and engaging conference chairs I know - explained what had transpired on the Twitter stream (and how they had shut it down temporarily a few times when things got really ugly, creating even more rumblings), she was surprised that she had misread the feedback - even though it was all going on behind her - and noted yet another dimension of irony: the unseen "feedback" (if it can be called that) about her going too fast had actually prompted her to go faster. In her final analysis, though, she nailed the core issue:

The Twitter stream had become the center of attention, not the speaker. Not me. ... The stream was not a way for the audience to communicate to the speaker, but for the audience to communicate with itself.

I have written before about my view of Twitter as a witness projection program, in that it addresses our fundamental human need to matter or to have a witness, and even adds a layer of witnesses to our publicly articulated witnesses. I had been focusing on the online implications of projected audiences and witnesses, and hadn't specifically considered the prospect of a physical projection of the "witnessing". Unlike the CSCW 2004 panel, where the backchannel was the intended focus of attention (for all stakeholders) - and was shown on a screen that was visible from both the stage and the audience - at the Web 2.0 Expo, it appears that the projected backchannel was serving the needs of only a subset of stakeholders, offering a vocal minority an irresistible opportunity to literally - and publicly - talk behind the speaker's back. 

ScottBerkun danah says she can imagine how, with the right kind of event, the right kind of speaker(s) and the right kind of audience, the projection of the backchannel into the frontchannel could be a positive influence. Scott Berkun, who recently wrote a book about public speaking, also spoke at the Web 2.0 Expo, and has offered his views on how to meet the challenge of visible twitter at conferences. He also suggests that the projection of tweets may be beneficial in certain contexts, with appropriate support, but also asks an important question:

What problem are you trying to solve?

Jeremiah Owyang has written about an "audience revolt" via Twitter at SXSW 2008, about how the tweeting audience influenced his own moderation of a panel at Web 2.0 Expo 2008, and more recently offered a compilation of lessons that he and others have learned about How Speakers Should Integrate Social Into Their Presentation. [Those who want an even more comprehensive guide may be interested in Olivia Mitchell's 62-page eBook on "How to Present with Twitter and Other Backchannels", or in Nancy White's compilation of backchannel resources.] While I agree with some of Jeremiah's recommendations - regarding greater preparation of presentations and better knowledge of the audience - I don't agree with his general assertion that "speakers, panelists, and moderators must monitor the back channel" [emphasis added], although he does provide some examples that suggest such monitoring can be useful in certain cases. Whileh he doesn't generally recommend projecting tweets on a screen behind the speaker, he suggested in a comment that:

A displayed back channel on stage behind a speaker should be used when the message from the organizers clearly say "the audience is of equal importance as the speaker" It's right for some conferences --but not all.

I'm trying to imagine conferences in which "the audience is of equal importance as the speaker". Speakers are typically paid - or at least invited - to present, whereas audience members typically pay to hear and see what the speakers have to say and show. The relationship is, by definition, unequal, which becomes evident when one considers the relative impacts of an attendee not showing up vs. a speaker not showing up. Attendees in the audience may have considerable expertise and experience in the topic(s) the speaker is talking about - in fact, ideally, there is such an alignment - but that does not give the audience the right to be rude, and certainly doesn't give them the right to gang up to tear down the speaker.

The most extreme example I've read of a cyberlynching by a Twittermob [at a conference] didn't involve a projection of the tweetstream. In an article by Marc Parry in the Chronicle of Higher Education on "Conference Humiliation: They're Tweeting Behind Your Back", he offered a word to describe the practice:

Tweckle (twek'ul) vt. to abuse a speaker only to Twitter followers in the audience while he/she is speaking.

[a commenter on his article later posted a reference to an earlier tweet that allegedly defined tweckle]

Highedweb-homepageopenconnected Parry describes a mob-like "virtual lynching" that arose in the Twitter backchannel of the HighEdWeb 2009 conference in October, which had the ironic theme, "open + connected":

Perfect conditions propelled this Twitter torrent: a speaker who delivered what was apparently a technically flawed and topically dated talk to a crowd of Web experts who expected better. They reacted by flaying him with more than 500 tweets in one hour. The onslaught grew so large that it went viral—live. The conference became one of the most popular topics on Twitter, meaning strangers with no connection to the meeting gaped at [the speaker]''s humiliation when they logged onto their home pages. One consultant who coaches academics on public speaking now uses the disaster as a what-to-avoid case study.

And it all started at 11:59 a.m. with one measly, harmless, innocent tweet, a dig at [the speaker]'s hard-to-read PowerPoint slide: hella drop shadow.

[Since I have not read anything about the speaker's response to the event, I've elided the speaker's name throughout this post.]

Parry goes on to share other examples of collective cyberbullying in other conference contexts, and notes some of the strategies employed to thwart the attacks - publishing social-media “courtesy” guidelines or publicly calling out the twecklers (i.e., cybershaming ... or perhaps reverse cybershaming). The comments on the article comprise a mostly civil and engaging discussion of a variety of related topics, including civility, engagement, protocols, preparation, propriety, mutuality, reciprocity and transparency, as well as references to positive and negative uses of backchannels at other conferences, and other recommended strategies for moderating the backchannel, e.g., an "audience ombudsman". One comment references a fascinating analysis of the HighEdWeb Great Keynote Revolt of 2009 (measuring the "snark factor" in the tweetstream on a scale of 1 to 5), and another describes a #positweet-worthy story about using Twitter to band together to replace a laptop that was stolen from an attendee. [Interestingly, while examples of #positweets abound, I couldn't find any examples of #negatweets ... that is, until I #negatweeted a link to Parry's article.]

So what is it about conferences that brings out the mob on backchannels? I've been ruminating on this - on and off - ever since reading the first account of danah's experience at Web 2.0 Expo last month. Three things I read this week helped me get a better handle on this troubling trend.

One was an article by Elizabeth Bernstein in this week's Wall Street Journal, "The Dark Side of 'Webtribution'" (defined as retribution via the Internet), which describes several examples of how spouses and intimate friends - or former spouses and formerly intimate friends (or friends of formerly intimate friends) - have used email, blogs, MySpace and/or Facebook to publicly humiliate their [former] loved ones. The article references the online disinhibition effect, which can take benign or toxic forms, and talks about how "The Internet turns us into a mob". Interestingly, though, there really aren't any examples of a mob in the article - they are all more personal, or individual, attacks - and none of them involve Twitter. I remember, with lingering indignation, a mob attack in the blogosphere a few years ago (around the time of another O'Reilly conference), but I was unable to find any such attacks in the Twitterverse ... except those (listed above) that have taken place at conferences.

The Wikipedia entry for online inhibition effect lists six components:

  • You Don't Know Me (Dissociative anonymity)
  • You Can't See Me (Invisibility)
  • See You Later (Asynchronicity)
  • It's All in My Head (Solipsistic Introjection)
  • It's Just a Game (Dissociative Imagination)
  • We're Equals (Minimizing Authority)

However, when online tools are used in shared physical spaces, they transform them into what Adriana de Souza e Silva and others call hybrid spaces. In such spaces, the first four components are not as relevant or applicable, and so the hybrid inhibition effect may only involve the last two, and I think the one that best explains the Twittermobbing at conferences is the last one.

I have attended many conferences where there are people in the audience who, at times, believe that they know as much - or more - than the speaker (and in some cases, I'm sure they do). Having a digital backchannel allows for explicit and implicit assertions of authority, and even superiority, by members of the audience. The fact that Twitter usernames and avatars can reduce or eliminate anonymity and invisibility (the first two factors above) may create a powerful disinhibition effect in such face-to-face contexts.

The laughter I witnessed 5 years ago at SCS 2004 came, in part, from a number of "A-list" bloggers - bloggers with tens or hundreds of thousands of readers (analogous to microblog "followers") - in the audience during a presentation on some of the earliest academic research into blogging. I don't recall the actual comments on the IRC backchannel there, but would not be surprised if some of the experienced bloggers were offering some contrasting perspectives. I was not present at any of the more recent conferences listed above, but I would not be surprised if some of the attacks were variations on this theme.

The second thing I read this week that helped shed some light on this behavior was the last chapter, appropriately called "The Downside", in the Consequential Strangers book I reviewed in my last post. The authors make several references to a paper by Ronald S. Burt, Bandwidth and Echo: Trust, Information, and Gossip in Social Networks, which shows that shared dislikes (negative information and attitudes about specific people or things) is more conducive to group bonding than shared likes (positive information and attitudes), and so gossiping about, say, someone presenting at a conference can enhance cohesiveness of the audience.

The third relevant item I read this week was another blog post about the Web 2.0 Expo cyberlynching, in which Michele Riggin-Ransom references the term harshtags to reflect the way "people start tagging their related tweets with something insulting in order to get it to trend". She goes on say:

There’s something seriously wrong about a thousand people who won’t talk to each other in the hallways bonding together to silently mock presenters, who have taken time, energy and in many cases personal expense to come speak. ... this livestream Twitterbashing (Tweckling?) seems a bit like the bully in my Spanish class who used to reflect a circle of sunlight glinting off his watch onto the teacher’s bottom while she was writing on the chalkboard just to make the class laugh.

I'm going to resist the urge to speculate further on the personality profiles of the mockers, though I am interested in learning more about the personality and social psychology that underlies such behavior. I would also be interested in learning more about the Twitter profiles of mob members (e.g., # of followers, # of followees, # of tweets and the photorealism of their avatars), and their Twitter influence (an ill-defined metric for which there seems to be a new tool deployed every day). But I'm going to leave those topics for another post.

However I can't resist the urge to end off with a cartoon that danah recently tweeted about. In the commentary on his cartoon, Tweuology, Rob Cottingham notes:

There’s a fascinating renegotiation going on between audiences and speakers. Twitter and backchannels are part of it, but I suspect something deeper is afoot. There’s a revolution sweeping all forms of communication – ask anyone who works for a newspaper or a record company – and maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that even something as seemingly timeless as public speaking would be affected.

But that doesn’t mean we have to be jerks about it.



Satirization or Assassination?

NewYorkerCover-20080721 The New Yorker published its July 21 edition this week, with a cartoon on the cover depicting U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, in a way that reflects some of the worst fears of what I suspect is a nontrivial percentage of the electorate. On the cover, shown on the right, Barack is wearing a turban, Michelle is sporting an AK47 assault rifle and ammunition belt across her chest; the pair exchange a "fist bump" under the gaze of a turban-bedecked Osama bin Laden in a portrait hanging over a fireplace where an American flag is burning. The cartoon has a caption "The Politics of Fear", but this listed on the bottom of page 2 rather than on the cover.

I have no doubt the cartoon is intended as a satirical critique of some of the more egregious and hyperbolic extrapolations and projections that have been appearing in the press, e.g., Fox News anchor E.D. Hill using the infamous Fox News question mark to make sideways editorial comments (which I've intentionally invoked in the title of this post) in asking "A fist bump? A pound? A terrorist fist jab?", unsubstantiated rumors of a video of Michelle Obama making "anti-white" statements, the ridiculous controversy over Obama's [earlier] refusal to wear a flag pin, and, most recently, a Newsweek poll released on Friday that reported some surprising statistics about how many people believe various flavors of the rumors about Obama's connection to Islam:

Twelve percent of voters surveyed said that Obama was sworn in as a United States senator on a Qur'an, while 26 percent believe the Democratic candidate was raised as a Muslim and 39 percent believe he attended an Islamic school as a child growing up in Indonesia. None of these things is true.

This follows an earlier Pew Research poll released in March showing that 10% of Americans believe Obama is Muslim; among those most likely to believe this are people in rural areas (19%), white evangelical Protestants (16%), conservative Republicans (16%) and people who never attended college (15%).

What I wonder is how the satirization intended by the cartoon is likely to affect the level of misinformation about Barack Obama - will it decrease the misinformation by opening up a dialogue (through all the controversy it is engendering), or will it increase the misinformation - and misinformedness - due to the media's echo chamber effect ("a group of media outlets that tend to parrot each other's uncritical reports on the views of a single source, or that otherwise relies on unquestioning repetition of official sources") and confirmation bias ("a tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions and avoids information and interpretations which contradict prior beliefs").

In my last post, writing about my experiences at Foo Camp 2008, I noted a session in which a prominent former blogger was subjected to online harassment with strong sexually-oriented and violent images, e.g., a Photoshopped image in which a noose was inserted in a photo of her head and neck and another Photoshopped image that superimposed a pair of panties over her face in a way that might be interpreted as muzzling or suffocating. Some of the people defending the authors of these images and similarly harsh words posted in an online forum dedicated to harassing this woman claimed that these were intended as "satire", and that she and others were simply taking these words and images too seriously. I found myself wondering what the response might have been if similar images had been created and posted with, say, Hillary Clinton as the target of the "satire" ... I suspect the FBI would have been involved and arrests would have been made. I now wonder what the reaction would be if Michelle Obama had been the target ... and even wonder whether she already has been such a target (!).

I'm hearing similar "overreaction" sentiments being expressed about the New Yorker cartoon - that people who are reacting negatively are simply taking it too seriously. I do tend to take things too seriously at times, but I'm not alone ... and I wonder how many "serious" people are - or were - in the "undecided" category of the U.S. electorate. The "satire" directed against the aforementioned blogger led to her departure from the blogosphere, and while I don't think the "satire" directed against [the people who spread or believe rumors about] Barack Obama will cause him to drop out of the race, I am concerned that this may negatively affect his chances for being elected president.

Despite numerous reports over the last several years that Saddam Hussein had no connection with the 9/11 attacks, an earlier Newsweek poll suggests that a surprisingly large proportion of the American public believe there is a link:

Even today, more than four years into the war in Iraq, as many as four in ten Americans (41 percent) still believe Saddam Hussein's regime was directly involved in financing, planning or carrying out the terrorist attacks on 9/11, even though no evidence has surfaced to support a connection. A majority of Americans were similarly unable to pick Saudi Arabia in a multiple-choice question about the country where most of the 9/11 hijackers were born. Just 43 percent got it right -- and a full 20 percent thought most came from Iraq.

[I cannot find a direct reference to this poll on the Newsweek site, purportedly reported in June 2007 ... so maybe I'm just spreading rumors here ... the second-hand reports of the poll certainly confirm my biases.]

I hope we'll soon see additional polls to determine the impact of this controversial cartoon. Among the questions I'd be interested to know answers to are:

  • How many people saw the cover in a physical magazine vs. a reproduction of the cover in traditional news media or somewhere on a web site?
  • How many people had even heard of the New Yorker before, or know that the New Yorker often engages in satire, especially in its cartoons?
  • What are people's initial reaction to seeing the cover? Satire? Character assassination? Confirmation of their deepest political fears?
  • How do the statistics mentioned above change over the next week or two, e.g., how many people now believe Obama is a Muslim?
  • How many copies of this issue of the New Yorker are sold? (I bought one)
  • How does the number of subscribers change?

And, of course, on November 4, we'll know the outcome of a much more important poll ... the question is whether we'll know how much this "satire" has affected that outcome.

Do YouJustGetMe? Do I Even Get Myself?

David Evans presented a paper at the International Conference on Weblogs and Social Media (ICWSM 2008) this week on the science of interpersonal perception, or more specifically: how well people are able to understand (or "get") others based on others' online profiles, and what elements of those profiles are most important to that understanding.

Yjgm The results presented in the paper, "What Elements of an Online Social Networking Profile Predict Target-Rater Agreement in Personality Impressions?", are based on data collected through an online site, YouJustGetMe, that invites users to answer a set of 40 questions designed to enable assessment of their personality - based on the "big five" personality traits, which, according to Wikipedia, include the following:

  • Extraversion - energy, positive emotions, surgency, and the tendency to seek stimulation and the company of others.

The research questions that David and his co-authors, Sam Gosling and Anthony Carroll, posed were:

Are people getting to know each other via social media? Are they at least seeing others as the others see themselves? Under what conditions?

The YouJustGetMe web site was designed to answer these questions. The site enables users to conduct a personality self-assessment (i.e., answer the 40 questions for themselves), create a profile of themselves based primarily on things they love or hate (33 pre-defined fields), and assess (guess) others' personalities - answering the 40 questions as they would apply to the "target" person - based on the target person's profile. The self-assessments are then compared to assessments by others to measure the impression agreement. They also created a YouJustGetMe Facebook application to enable the same kind of experiences within a specific, and popular, social networking website (which they acronymize as SNW). In both contexts - the YJGM and FB sites - users who created profiles could invite friends or family  to provide assessments of them, and/or they could enable other random users to provide assessments of them.

The findings, in a nutshell, are:

  • People get each other
    SNW profile owners are generally seen by others as they see themselves (i.e. impression agreement was substantial)
  • People on Facebook get each other
    Impression agreement was associated with context (agreement was stronger on the basis of Facebook profiles than on YouJustGetMe profiles)
  • Women are better guessers and easier to guess than men (random assignment)
    within the context in which raters were judging unknown targets (i.e., YouJustGetMe profiles), women were better raters than men and were rated with higher levels of agreement than men
  • Some profile elements provide better clues than others
    several specific elements of the profiles were associated with increased or diminished levels of impression agreement.

The first two results are not terribly surprising to me. The first finding is consistent with other studies that suggest dating profiles are pretty accurate, e.g., Nicole Elison's presentation on "Deceptive Self-Presentation in Online Dating Profiles" at the recent Communities and Technologies conference (C&T 2007). I don't mean to imply that Facebook is a dating site, but like online dating sites, I believe most Facebook users know, want to know, or might come into physical contact with (or at least proximity of), each other. The second is consistent with other papers presented at this conference (e.g., the two papers presented by Kristin Stecher and Scott Counts - which I hope to blog about, along with other presentations at the conference, sometime soon) and other conferences (e.g., papers presented by Cliff Lampe and Scott Golder at CHI 2007 ... for which I just realized I never finished / posted my blog summary) that provide evidence for the efficacy of Facebook features in conveying information.

The third result is interesting, as it brings to mind some of the ideas that Louann Brizendine writes about in her book, The Female Brain, regarding the evolutionary biological basis for women's keener perceptual abilities:

If you can read faces and voices, you can tell what an infant needs. You can predict what a bigger, more aggressive male is going to do. And since you're smaller, you probably need to band with other females to fend off attacks from a ticked off caveman - or cavemen.

She also writes about how and why women - and girls - are far more keenly aware of their own appearance than men (or boys), which I suspect would lead to higher agreement between the image they want to project and the image that is perceived by others. [Aside: the last time I wrote about The Female Brain - in the context of Content-Centered Conversations (regarding teen use of social media) - a comment directed me to some other material questioning some of Louann's claims; I remain open to further clarifications and corrections about my interpretations of this and other books.]

The fourth item was also interesting. The most useful profile elements that led to people "getting" other people (in decreasing order of utility) were:

  • A link to funny video
  • What makes me glad to be alive? 
  • Most embarrassing thing I ever did
  • Proudest thing I ever did
  • My spirituality
  • A great person
  • I believe this

The least useful profile elements in helping people get other people (in increasing order of utility) were:

  • Profile picture was a non-person
  • An awful website 
  • An awful person
  • A great book

I'm surprised that the link to a funny video is the most useful profile element, but the other elements make sense to me. Looking over the least useful elements, I'm glad to see that the things we love are better able to help us understand each other than the things we hate, however I'm surprised that a great book was among the least useful ... especially given the recent NYTimes essay by Rachel Donadio on books as markers for compatibility, It’s Not You, It’s Your Books:

Anyone who cares about books has at some point confronted the Pushkin problem: when a missed — or misguided — literary reference makes it chillingly clear that a romance is going nowhere fast. At least since Dante’s Paolo and Francesca fell in love over tales of Lancelot, literary taste has been a good shorthand for gauging compatibility. These days, thanks to social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, listing your favorite books and authors is a crucial, if risky, part of self-branding. When it comes to online dating, even casual references can turn into deal breakers. Sussing out a date’s taste in books is “actually a pretty good way — as a sort of first pass — of getting a sense of someone,” said Anna Fels, a Manhattan psychiatrist and the author of “Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives.” “It’s a bit of a Rorschach test.” To Fels (who happens to be married to the literary publisher and writer James Atlas), reading habits can be a rough indicator of other qualities. “It tells something about ... their level of intellectual curiosity, what their style is,” Fels said. “It speaks to class, educational level.”

Again, I don't mean to equate Facebook with [online] dating, but I do think there are strong similarities. Perhaps the key differentiator, here, is that getting someone is not the same as getting along with someone.

One of the [other] interesting findings that David revealed was that Facebook reveals more about agreeableness and neuroticism than face-to-face encounters. He showed an interesting graph in his slides (which I hope he'll post to SlideShare) that provided some insights into how different systems (online and offline) mediate revelation in each of the five categories.

As I noted in the MyStrands Labs, Seattle "mini-manifesto", one of our goals is that "our technologies will be designed to help real world communities better enjoy the benefits of virtual communities, digital communications and electronic commerce." Perhaps we can create new technology-supported channels for people to better get each other's agreeableness and neuroticism in physical spaces; although this may not be welcomed by disagreeable or very neurotic people, I do think it would meet our goal of ultimately creating benefits for everyone.

On a more personal note, I've created a YouJustGetMe profile that has nothing more than a link to his blog. I've long been a fan of personality and social psychology, and have earlier taken a Myers-Briggs personality typology assessment (I'm an ENFP), the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment (my top 5 strengths are Woo (Win Others Over), Connectedness, Relator, Ideation and Adaptability), the "five things you don't know about me" self-disclosure blogospheric meme (I am/was a picky eater, I'm a recovering Catholic, my only "A" in high school was Personal Typing, my only non-A in grad school was Theory of Computation and I met my wife over a keg of beer) and a music and personality assessment ("reflective and complex").[Aside: The latter assessment was based on some of Sam Gosling's earlier work with Jason Rentfrow, and I enjoyed meeting Sam at the conference and talking about other dimensions of mutual interest, such as workspace personalization.]


I would be very interested to learn whether / how other people "get me" based solely on the material posted here on this blog ... or perhaps even just this post, as I've included a number of snippets from earlier blog posts in the foregoing paragraph(s). I think that between the posts and sidebar links to photos, books, people and organizations I find inspiring, that most of the 33 elements in the YouJustGetMe profile are covered. If you are reading this, I invite you to contribute your assessment of me - or, more specifically, my profile (and if you have a blog, I invite you to create a profile based solely on your blog, and if you post a comment or send me email, I'll be happy to provide an assessment of you ... and, of course, I don't take anything personally ... and hope you won't either).

As the title of this post suggests, I was originally planning to go on to ruminating on whether I even get myself, but I've already reflected on self-reflection and self-expression ... and will save further rumination on this topic for another time.

I'll include - and conclude with - the YouJustGetMe analysis of my self-assessment in the post-continuation below (which you can view by clicking the link), hoping that not including it in the main body of this post will reduce the likelihood of irreparably biasing the outcome of this informal experiment.

[Note: if you do want to contribute an assessment via my profile on the YouJustGetMe web site, please do not read the rest of this blog post until you make your contribution. Thanks!]

Continue reading "Do YouJustGetMe? Do I Even Get Myself?" »

Commenting on Validation / Validating Comments

Ever since my last post, which started out about locked-in syndrome (inspired by The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), but which developed into a revisitation of a frequently discussed topic [on this blog] - "the need for approval ... for validation ... for appreciation ... for mattering" - I've been attuned to validation in a variety of forms and forums.

The stream of comments that followed my initial post were incredibly engaging and validating - to know that two people I admire so much were touched by the post, as was another person who serendipitously stumbled upon it - and all of them helped draw me a bit deeper (and more broadly) in a followup comment into the topic(s) I'd touched on in the initial post ... culminating in my revisiting one of the most validating poems I've ever encountered: "Love after Love", by Derek Walcott ("... You will love again the stranger who was yourself ...").

However, another comment on that thread - and a number of other recent comments on a number of other posts - initially appeared validating, but upon closer inspection (and reflection), seem less so. In an earlier post, in which I was commenting on commenting, I explicitly named - and thus (I believe) alienated - a friend who had posted a validating comment which had a very similar syntactic look and feel to other comments which I labeled spampliments - thinly, though sometimes effectively (due to my incurable addiction to validation - online or offline), disguised spam compliments. Such comments appear to be primarily intended to add "google juice" to various web sites - by incorporating a URL in the comment itself and/or in the commenter self-reference. I'm tempted to delve deeper into this shadow - I tend to be very self-referential in both my blog posts and comments on this and other blogs - but given my perception that I lost a blog commenter (if not reader (if not friend)) last time I ranted about this, I think I'll simply drop it, but not without first noting that validating comments that [initially] appear to be validating me (or my blog ... not that I think the difference is significant (and therein lies the rub)) is an ongoing challenge. I do want to be very explicit, though, that I really do appreciate (and feel validated by) comments from people who are in some way moved by what I write. [Ironically, I recently noticed that the number of comments on my blog has superseded the number of posts ... and that trend may reverse itself [now] ... but I feel impelled to write what I think and feel.]

Anyhow, returning to the original thread, yesterday, during the 4+ hour drive down to MyStrands HQ in Corvallis, OR, I had an unusually long time for audio engagement. During the first portion of the drive, I listened to the audiobook rendition of The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz. I've already written about his second agreement - don't take anything personally (the same post in which I explored my shadow(s) about commenting on commenting) - and his fourth agreement - always do your best (about which I [still] feel strongly ambivalent). One of the things that jumped out at me during this particular listening experience was his description of how, as young children, the adults in positions of authority (parents, teachers, ministers) hooked our attention, and "domesticated" us by cultivating an addiction to future attention ... resulting in, among other things, our willingness - and even desire - to [try to] be who we are not simply to please other people ... i.e., just to receive validation (from others).

Sheryl_crow_300 Sherylcrow TuesdayNightMusicClub I then switched on the radio, to catch some NPR news ... which was immediately followed by Terry Gross' Fresh Aire interview of Sheryl Crow, one of my favorite artists (make no mistake). During the interview, entitled Sheryl Crow: Gracefully Navigating "Detours", she spoke - among other things - of her need to be accepted and appreciated for her music, not [simply] for her physical beauty. She said she intentionally dressed in a bedraggled style and used black makeup in the photo shoots for the cover[t] art on her first two albums - Tuesday Night Music Club and the self-titled Sheryl Crow (I always thought it odd to have a self-titled second album) - in an attempt to obscure her visual attractiveness, so that people would be better able to hear and appreciate her aural artistry. Well, at the risk of dating myself, and without delving too deeply into this shadow, her first two albums were my gateway into opening up again to popular music, after a nearly 20-year "dry spell". Her musical talents shined brightly (for me), and despite her attempts to hide her physical attributes, those too shined through pretty clearly (I'll briefly note that Pink Floyd's song, "Shine On, You Crazy Diamond", was released near the end of what I consider the [last] golden age of rock and roll). Anyhow, the point I really want to emphasize here is that I find it reassuring that even an artist as immensely talented as Sheryl Crow still feels the need to be validated ... which makes me just a wee bit less self-conscious and more accepting about this need in my self ... perhaps enabling me to better love [myself] with a paper thin heart.

Content-centered Conversations: The Pew Internet Report on Teens and Social Media

Pew_logoI finally read the recent Pew Internet & American Life Project report on Teens and Social Media. Among the most interesting findings, for me, were the correlation between the creation of content (online stories, photos, videos) and conversations about that content, and the connections between connecting online and connecting offline. As I'd noted with another recent Pew report I blogged about last month (on Digital Footprints), there were [also] a number of surprises in the magnitude of some of the numbers.

The concept of object-centered sociality - social practices (such as conversation and other acts of communication and connection) that are inspired by objects of interest within some kind of community - is something that I (and others, notably, and more eruditely, Karin Knorr Cetina and Jyri Engestrom) have written about before. Object-centered sociality is one of the central concepts behind our proactive display applications, which use large displays to show online media associated with people whenever they are detected nearby; our goal has been to spark conversations in the physical world based on objects typically only shared in the digital world.

What is interesting about the Pew study is that it offers some numbers to characterize the socializing that transpires around the social media created and shared [online] by teens (ages 12-17):

  • Photos: 89% of teens who post photos online receive comments on those photos (52% "sometimes", 37% "most of the time")
  • Videos: 72% of teens who post videos online receive comments on those videos (48% "sometimes", 24% "most of the time")
  • Blogs: 76% of teens who use social networking services (SNS) post comments on blog posts written by others.

Power Law of Participation I've noted before that commenting is a form of "filling buckets" (saying or doing things to increase others' positive emotions) online, and have often wondered about what factors influence readers' decisions about whether or not to post comments. The Pew numbers are interesting, but I'm still interested in knowing more. For example, the first two figures are about receiving comments - on photos and videos - and the last figure is about giving comments - on blogs (and only by SNS users). I would be interested to know the full set of numbers for giving and receiving for blogs, photos and videos, as well as the correlation between people who create content (post blogs, photos and/or videos) and people who comment on content created by others. I suspect the correlation is very high, and indeed, if one subscribes to Ross Mayfield's conceptualization of the Power Law of Participation, content and comments are simply different points along a continuum. And, speaking of the power law of participation, I'd also be interested in other social media practices by teens, e.g., favoriting, tagging, subscribing, etc. (an earlier Pew study on tagging reported that 28% of online users have tagged content, and 7% do so on a daily basis, but that study did not include the under 18 population).

I imagine the level of commenting - and other forms of participation - is affected by the scope of people who have access to the content, but I wonder if content that has restricted access (e.g., to family and/or friends) is more or less likely to promote participation - I'm wondering whether a variation of the bystander effect, wherein a smaller group may be more likely to take action (e.g., comment) than a larger group, might apply in this context. Anyhow, the report does offer some numbers on access restrictions as well:

  • Photos: 39% of teens who post photos online restrict access to their photos "most of the time", 38% restrict access "only sometimes", and 21% "never" restrict access.
  • Videos: 19% of teens who post videos online restrict access to their videos "most of the time", 35% restrict access "only sometimes", and 46% "never" restrict access.
  • Blogs: Unfortunately, no numbers are provided for how many teens who post blogs restrict access :-(. I, for one, would be very interested in these numbers.

The Pew report notes that that 64% of online teens (and 93% of teens are online) are content creators - "online teens who have created or worked on a blog or webpage, shared original creative content, or remixed ontent they found online into a new creation". I can't find a reference now, but I seem to recall an earlier Pew study sometime in the past year or two that reported the number of adult online content creators - er, I mean the number of online adults who create content - was 19%. This number has probably grown, as well, but probably not to anywhere near 64%.

The report also includes a breakdown of some specific online creation activities:

  • Photos: 47% of online teens post photos (vs. 36% of online adults); girl photo posters outnumber boy photo posters by 54% to 40%.
  • Videos: 14% of online teens post videos (vs. 8% of online adults); boy video posters outnumber girl video posters by 19% to 10%.
  • Blogs: 28% of online teens are bloggers (vs. 8% of online adults); girl bloggers outnumber boy bloggers by 35% to 20%, and the gender gap is growing larger over time.
  • Remixes: 26% of online teens have remixed content (vs. 17% of online adults), with no significant gender differences in this activity.

The largest arenas for online social media use are social networking sites, e.g., MySpace and Facebook. 55% of online teens have SNS profiles, and those teens are among the most active content creators in all the categories mentioned above, and often by huge margins (e.g., 73% of online teens with SNS profiles post photos, whereas only 16% of online teens without SNS profiles post photos). Of course, given the fact that many SNS platforms include tools for posting or embedding photos, videos and blogs, the wide discrepancies are not terribly surprising.

What may be surprising - especially to many critics of teen online media use - is another finding: "in many cases, those who are the most active online with social media applications like blogging and social networking also tend to be the most involved with offline activities like sports, music or part-time employment." And, teens who use social networking sites are nearly one third more likely to spend time with friends in person on a daily basis than average teens (38% vs. 31%).

One area that I found initially surprising is the observation that "95% of teenage girls participate several times a week in at least one communication activity, compared with 84% of boys" ... meaning that 5% of girls and 16% of boys are, well, rather uncommunicative. Upon further reflection, though, I realize that I have known some people who might fit this description (my wife might claim that I often fit this description). It's [also] interesting to note the significant gender difference here - boys are nearly 3 times more likely than girls to be uncommunicative.

FemaleBrainCover This - and other elements of the Pew report showing that teen girls tend to be more communicative than teen boys (e.g., 35% of teen girls blog whereas only 20% of teen boys blog) - is consistent with some statistics I recently read about in The Female Brain, by Louann Brizendine: e.g., women's brains have 11% more neurons in the centers of the brain used for language and hearing. Another interesting statistic in the book was that men's brains have 2.5 times more neurons in the areas associated with sexual drive than women do. She puts these together in some interesting observations relating to teens:

We know that girls' estrogen levels climb at puberty and flip the switches in their brains to talk more, interact with peers more, think about boys more, worry about appearance more, stress out more, and emote more. They are driven by a desire for connection with other girls - and with boys. Their dopamine and oxytocin rush from talking and connecting keeps them motivated to seek out these intimate connections. What they don't know is that this is their own special girl reality. Most boys don't share this intense desire for verbal connection, so attempts at verbal intimacy with their male contemporaries can be met with disappointing results.


Why do previously communicative boys become so taciturn and monsyllabic that they verge on autistic when they hit their teens? The testicular surges of testosterone marinate the boys' brains. Testosterone has been shown to decrease talking as well as interest in socializing - except when it involves sports or sexual pursuit. In fact, sexual pursuit and body parts become pretty much an obsession ... Young teen boys are often totally, single-mindedly consumed with sexual fantasies, girls' body parts, and the need to masturbate.

I plan to blog more extensively about Louann's book in the near future, but for now, I'll just note that there is a whole area of social media use by teens that is not covered by the study, which is prompted in part by the book, and in part by my having recently watched the movie Superbad. If, as some claim, the Internet is for porn, and teens are the most active users of online media, I suspect there is a use case that is significant to at least half of the teen population that is not covered by the study. I won't hold my breath about this usage model being included in some future study by Pew - and I'm not sure whether it really qualifies as social media - but I wonder if the pervasive loneliness, shame and fear of being "found out" that teen boys suffer can be ameliorated through some kind of content-centered conversation in this shadow dimension of online life ... perhaps it already is.