August 26, 2014

Review: Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory Of The Web

Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory Of The Web
Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory Of The Web by David Weinberger

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Only on the web does a book 12 years old feel like ancient history. In many respects, Weinberger was prescient, identifying trends that have become more and more powerful (e.g., one passage could be seen as predicting the rise of Wikipedia, and another the advent of the currently omnipresent "Like" button). Even more often, he provides insights that are still deep and thought-provoking.

Weinberger is a philosopher by training, and this book is strongest when Weinberger focuses on philosophy. For example, he argues that the web is a push back against the turn toward realism in society. He argues that the web is a completely constructed space, without the constraints of the real world, and the fact that we can find such meaning and purpose through that sort of "unreal" environment says something about what our real needs and desires are.

At times, the book is overly technological deterministic, and at times Weinberger makes claims about the nature of the web that may have been true 12 years ago, but feel less true today (e.g., today's web is much more organized around real-world friends and less around interests). However, I find his argument that using the Internet subtly changes the way we see the world to be both persuasive and important. Just because the Internet isn't "changing everything" rapidly before our eyes doesn't mean that there it isn't influencing culture in really important ways.

Overall, an important and interesting book. Should be required reading for anyone interested in the cultural impact of the internet.

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Review: It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens

It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens
It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by Danah Boyd

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

boyd is an ethnographer of teens and technology. She has spent the past decade observing and talking with teens about how they use technology.

Like much of the recent literature on the web, I would characterize the overall takeaway as, "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose." Phones and the internet are not changing teenagers into new creatures, who hide themselves away in their rooms, lit only by the screen of their phone and laptop, furtively typing and texting - alone together.

Rather, boyd argues that much of the tech-centricity of the lives of teenagers is a result of a shift in societal norms. Parents no longer allow teens to hang out together; malls and other public places have also started to disallow groups of teens to congregate. boyd claims that teens would prefer to spend time face-to-face with each other - technology is simply the next best alternative in a society that is making that more and more difficult.

I find myself to be something more of a technological determinist than boyd, and I think that teens (and the rest of us) are being molded by our technology, although I agree that this is certainly more subtle than some earlier commentators on the web might have us believe.

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July 8, 2014

Facebook and Manipulation

I thought I would add my small voice to the large chorus of voices surrounding the recent Facebook study on mood manipulation.

Let me begin by saying that it's sort of fun to see social science getting so much attention! :) This is broadly my area of research (computational social science and online communities), and this is somewhat similar to the kinds of research I have done, and would like to do in the future.

So, naturally, I think that this sort of research is OK to do. I'll leave out the question of informed consent for now (although it's certainly important), and give a few reasons why I think that this sort of research is important and should be done.

  1. Websites provide a great way to study the understudied. For years, the main source of our knowledge about human psychology has been college undergraduates. Facebook users provide a much, much broader group of participants (although certainly still skewed toward Westerners).
    Using these sites as a context for research should allow us to be more representative in the way we understand the world (and therefore in how we create policy based on that research).
  2. Critics of this research underestimate our autonomy. The press around this has acted as though Facebook's experiment was causing suicides, and creating chaos around the world. This is similar to the "magic bullet" theory of communication. Some early Communication scholars thought that messages from the media could directly influence people.

    In reality, messages from the media (or our friends) combine in a very complicated way, and we choose how to respond and react. Indeed, the effect of the Facebook study was just barely statistically significant - people were barely, barely more likely to post positive things when reading positive things, and barely, barely more likely to post negative things when reading more negative things.
  3. This leads to my next point. There are opportunities for real insight. My wife has been incredibly supportive of my career, but she studied genetics, and doesn't appreciate the social sciences as much as I do. She often says that the results of social science are obvious. I argue that the results seem obvious in retrospect, but that the opposite result would also seem obvious.

    For example, one of the arguments against this study is that Facebook was intentionally making people sad by showing them more negative posts. However, previous research actually suggested that when people saw lots of positive posts they became more sad - they would see all the great things their friends were doing, and become depressed by comparison. The Facebook study showed that this isn't true - an important finding.
  4. This is related to my main point. We are spending more and more of our time on these types of sites. We need to understand them. Facebook and other sites have every right (IMO) to run these sorts of experiments in order to improve the experience of users. We can either encourage them to publish their findings, and make their insights available to the public, or we can criticize their research, and encourage them to keep it private, and manipulate our behavior without our knowledge.

    I prefer the former.