The Rediscovery of the Web

Oh you’re on Twitter now? Really, this has gotten insane.  Every TV show.  Every News source.  Every post. Over the last 6 months, while we were following everyone on Twitter from the NSF’s announcements to JPeterman’s prose, we’ve seen an explosion in something called the ‘real-time web’. This brings the rise of people beginning to discuss good questions like how do these systems like twitter help people organize protests? or what can we learn about H1N1 by following where people are mentioning it in under 140 characters. If you detect any sarcasm here, there is a little. Two things to remember. First – I heard this before except ‘twitter’ was replaced with ‘sms’ and ‘friends’ were replaced with ‘address book contacts’. (Think back to the protests in France several years ago.) In fact, much of the work from CSCW that we’ve seen over the past 10 years shows everything from design constraints to their social concern. Second – this is about as ‘real-time’ as adding a buddy on MySpace is actually a ‘friend’; more on real social interactions vs adding buddies later.

As Naaman knows, I have been working on Zync, a real-time synchronous sharing system, for a few years now. Google Wave seems to be also pushing on this quite a bit as well. Before that You-Tube made a ‘pretty pointless’ attempt. Wave and Zync share a similar beat. The act of sharing is a first class design consideration; this is to say we start with the point ‘I’d like to share this with Naaman now’ (for example)…this really says ‘I want to spend some time with Naaman’. Otherwise, I’d just email the video or the map or whatever. I wonder if our nouns and verbs are evolving to match the pivot to real-time?

Spin me up, Spin me down.

As Naaman turns in his grades and contemplates pushing the limits of the web’s asynchronicity, I’ve been rather quiet.  Mostly I was distracted.  You see I was doing two things: studying how people stream their performances online with in-browser webcasting tools and launching (now the third version of) an instant messaging video sharing tool.   More on the latter later.

Almost a year ago, I was wondering why many performers were choosing to webcast themselves.  Why not get a paying gig?  Or invite some friends over for an open mic night?  At that time, two colleages and friends of mine (Nikhil Bobb and Matt Fukuda) were working on Y!Live (RIP).  Live had several DJs who would regularly broadcast sets of house, hiphop, reggae – you name it.  After some prelimiary data studies and several MySpace emails, Elizabeth and I had conducted a round of field interviews via phone calls, meetups, and got lost several times in South Oakland.


DJ Doolow

While the details of this study have many implications on communities online, performances, and webcasting, you can read all that in the 2009 Communities and Technology paper yourself (or catch me live at the conference).  Or read Elizabeth’s complementary account. I would like to talk about ecology for a moment.  Turn to Slide 43.

All of the DJs we talked to mentioned this club ecosystem. 1) They get people on the dance floor. Once the floor is filled, they stick with a genre to keep people dancing. 2) People get thirsty so they head to the bar, they will now try new tracks and styles to get a second wave on the floor. 3) Wave 1 goes to the bathroom, Wave 2 goes to the bar. They now search for Wave 3. 4) Repeat with Wave 1. But what do they do in a webbrowser?

In Y!Live, slide 45, you find the overall view count (embeds + chat room). Every DJ we spoke to, pointed right there and said ‘that’s my dance floor‘. Once that count is high, (next slide please) they turn to the chat to see the volume of conversation and maybe the topic. And finally, (next slide) they look at the viewers – checking for that head nod or hand tap. The DJs were quite realistic, knowing ppl are sitting on the sofa or at a desk.

DJs, who make their life around wiring and routing sound, had no problem using webcasting systems. I believe this is because it fits into their craft. Similarly, the scanning pattern and ecology of ‘gauging the club’ or ‘how am i doing?’ translated online from the DJ booth to the webbrowser. So, as we build tools for creative people, many people tell you ‘dont make tools that require individuals to deal with more things’. I’ll say something to the contrary. Feel free to add cognitive load, as long as it fits into the practice of their expertise.

Everybody’s Twitter Now (plus: Hummus!)

It seems like everybody is trying to be Twitter these days. After the Facebook re-design, popularly believed to be Twitter-driven, I have just noticed this from Gmail/Gtalk: a new call-for-action when you update your status in Gmail. Looks at Gmail’s caption under the text entry box (I marked it dotted-red):

Gmail status CFA

Notice the highlighted box:

Let people know what you’re up to, or share links to photos, videos, and web pages.

I think that’s new. Has anyone notice this before? That’s Google saying: we want to be your Twitter. Don’t be surprised when Gmail starts to offer a feed of friends’ status messages, any day now. You heard it here first.

[On an unrelated note, hey Ayman, check out that hummus video and The Hummus Blog to learn about some real hummus.]

Class Edits Wikipedia: How Not to Win New Editors

This semester I find myself enjoying teaching an undergraduate class (who would have known). The class I am teaching is called “Retrieving and Evaluating Electronic Information” (I’d probably scratch “electronic” from the class name sometime soon). I had mentioned the class before as I was planning it. It’s about teaching undergrads about information retrieval, e.g. Web search and how it works, using other sources of information, and how to evaluate information found on the Web.

For the last topic, Wikipedia of course is an important special case. By now, they have heard countless instructors tell them to be careful when using Wikipedia, but I am not sure they have a good idea why. That’s why I performed a live Wikipedia edit in class, right in front of their astonished eyes. In addition, I had all of them perform a Wikipedia edit, and monitor their edit for a week to see if it is altered or removed:

Become a Wikipedia editor and contribute by creating a new topic or modifying an existing article. Your edit does not need to be extensive, but it must be substantive and non-trivial.

(the full text of the assignment can be found here; with credit to Nina Wacholder for co-developing it).

Here are a few things that I learned from the reports submitted, where they described the edits they performed and their thoughts about the process.

  • Most of the students had taken the assignment very seriously. They took time to select a topic they cared about, and add some substantial, serious edit to that entry. Some of them had meant to start a new Wikipedia topic.
  • The assignment clearly made all of the students understand both the danger and the power of Wikipedia. They saw, at once, how easy it is for anyone to put information on Wikipedia pages; and how the policies and practices of Wikipedia at least partially protect against vandalism, unreliable data, or unverified information.
  • The WIKI formatting was a complicating factor, but all the students were persistent enough to figure it out. Especially important was the reference format, which they were encourage to use. Most have handled the formatting issues by adapting examples from other pages. Others have scaled back their edits, choosing to go with plain text. Some have noted the difficulty of inserting images and tables.
  • Some students will definitely edit Wikipedia again, but for some, that was it.

Indeed, as part of the assignment, some students commented on whether or not they are likely to contribute to Wikipedia again. There was an even split, more or less. Two common themes emerge for a student predicting they will make no more edits. First, some simply felt they are not specifically experts on anything and therefore are not likely to contribute any substantial knowledge (despite the fact that the exercise they have just been through shows exactly the opposite).

Second, and more disturbingly, the students that had their work deleted for various reasons indicated the least likelihood to contribute again. I imagine the Students’ edits were deleted for various reasons, including lack of citations. However, in almost no case of deletions had the students gotten a good idea of why their contribution was removed — at best there was a short note in the edit history of the page. Unfortunately, students found that lack of feedback and arbitrary nature of deletion not only confounding, but also somewhat inappropriate: why was their content removed without comment?

I can definitely see how such a first experience could dishearten anyone. A better approach might be for experienced editors to notice the fact that edits were made by first-timers (or beginners), and send them a personal note explaining what they did wrong and how they can improve their contribution. Yes, time consuming – but a personalized explanation might do wonders in having the new editors come back for more.

The reverse experience was also lacking. The students whose edits stayed on the page were not clear whether their edits were reviewed by anyone or just left there because of neglect. Of course, they had no way to learn about the impact of their edit (e.g., how many people looked at the article since they added their information). Both these factors can serve as positive reinforcements for new editors – I am hypothesizing here…

Now go edit the Wikipedia page for Ayman!

Talking Tomorrow and the Day After

In case you didn’t talk to me enough at CHI or didn’t get your fill during my brief cameo on the Make blog – I’m talking in Tech tomorrow during the CogSci brown bag at Northwestern (gcal). It has been three years since I walked away with my PhD from NU after a great commencement speech by Barak Obama.  The day after I’m at UIUC…also talking. I’m hoping Naaman will attend both talks.  What are the talks about you ask? Enjoy this title and abstract:

(we need to talk): conversations, media, and social relationships

Most internet media sharing sites like Flickr and YouTube support asynchronous content sharing through commenting and forwarding capabilities. However, as social scientists, we have known for a long time that social relationships are fostered and deepened when people truly share experiences together–that is, when they experience and reflect on things at the same time. In this talk I will talk about two projects that address the real time sharing of internet media experiences, and how relationships are fostered, maintained and deepened through these technologies.

The first project addresses the question: Given that DJs typically connect with the engagement of their audiences by monitoring the dance floor, how do DJs broadcasting online invite and stay connected with the engagement of remote audience members? Specifically I will present the results of a fieldwork case study of House and Hip Hop DJs who connect with other DJs, and with audience members by broadcasting their music sets online while chatting in real time using synchronous chat rooms. Our study revealed the ways in which DJs maintain awareness and gauge audience engagement, and how their audiences affect the performance of sets while broadcasting online.

In the second half of the talk, I will present the architecture and early results from Zync, a tool embedded in an Instant Messaging environment that allows synchronous sharing of video content coupled with real time chat capabilities. Through analysis of people’s sharing practices, I will address the question, what keeps your friend from walking away from a chat window when you share a video from YouTube? I will also discuss some early results from our more than 10,000 people a day using Zync, and briefly discuss our plans for future data analysis as we address the nature of conversational media sharing.

Ayman and Naaman Going to Boston

Sounds like a bad movie title or a beginning of a great joke (you are welcome to suggest the joke in the comments, winner gets a reply comment recognizing their achievement). But we really are both going to be in Boston next week for CHI2009. Look us up! Those of you who know me realize I am easy to find. As for Ayman, well… he’s easy to pick out: his reputation marches ahead of him. If you can’t recognize him by reputation, you can find him at the DIY for CHI workshop, where he’ll be showing off his Mac OS Foot Switch from a Guitar Amp Pedal.

No Homophily on Facebook? Yeah, right.

The New York Times attends to Facebook. The article makes a fun read, and is not a very deep one (not that I expect deep analysis – they’re writing pieces against deadlines there – oh wait, so do we). But at least one incredible claim is made that is not even backed up with their usual “random quote from researcher”, and seems to stem right from Facebook’s PR book:

Uniting disparate groups on a single Internet service runs counter to 50 years of research by sociologists into what is known as “homophily” — the tendency of individuals to associate only with like-minded people of similar age and ethnicity.

Beh! Wait a minute here. Facebook does indeed allow one to at least attempt to connect to people not similar to them — like any electronic network since Email. Is there any evidence that these connections are attempted? whether they are successful? whether this happens in any scale beyond Facebook’s “model stories for journalists”? (key quote: “Discussing Facebook’s connective tissue, Mr. Zuckerberg recalls the story…”). I’d be surprised.

On the other hand, Ayman is my friend on Facebook, so anything is possible!

I’m Feeling Undying Obedience to Our Fearless Leader

Speaking of Google and bias, can I show this clip in class or is the search query a bit much?

(The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, January 30, 2006)