Monday, April 18, 2011

Introverts, Conflict & Community Rules

The INFP forum (which I first posted about last week) doesn't have its own official rule document; instead there is just one short list of rules that cover all of Personality Café's various forums. It briefly covers the most obvious unwanted behaviors, such as spamming, trolling, flaming, and sockpuppets, as well as less malicious infringements such as incoherent spelling, and off-topic posts. Interestingly, the rules seem to make a distinction between flaming as deliberate harmful actions, and generally rude behavior such as discriminatory remarks (a list of which, besides the obvious offenses such as racism, sexism, and the like, specifically includes "typism"= discrimination by personality type). The document doesn't include any information as to what consequences potential rule-breakers may face, or advice for forum members on how to deal with infractions directed at or observed by them (although the FAQ, located in a completely different area of the site, does address this issue).
part of the Forum Rules
(full document here:

Back in the INFP forum, it wasn't easy to locate even small instances of rules being broken. At first I considered the possibility that any such incidents would simply be quickly and quietly removed by moderators, but exploring the whole site further I discovered a thread in which moderators documented all observed cases of offense, pointing out exactly how the user in question broke the forum rules, and what was done to remedy the situation. All of those examples also included links to the original rule-breaking situations, which were left un-edited with the exception of removing offensive or private information or images. So there must be another explanation for the lack of any visible cases in the INFP forum.

Moderators documenting rule-breaking & sanctions

A possible reason may be related to the particular nature of the INPFP personality type, which in all probability is a major influence on the unofficial and unwritten rules that govern interaction in that particular forum. Rather than reacting in an openly critical or judgmental manner to posts and users that don't fit in or violate either written or unwritten rules, the most common responses in the INFP forum seem to involve either offering advice on how to correct the improper behavior, or simply ignoring it altogether. The possibility of members alerting moderators in private can't be ignored either, but with no cases sowing up in the "Infractions" thread, one could conclude that this forum simply doesn't attract many troublemakers, and the offenses that do show up are usually minor and easily ignored or dealt with internally. This certainly seems to make the forum a relatively peaceful place, but it also makes for three pretty unexciting examples of rule-breaking situations, none of which necessitated any moderator involvement. Even posts on topics that commonly attract conflict due to widely differing views, such as religion, simply didn't provide me with any juicy rule-breaking material.

1. rule #7: Post Legibly & rule #12: No Discriminatory Remarks
A user posts an emotional rant titled "I HATE having this personality!", detailing why being and INFP sucks terribly, CAPSLOCK (which violates rule #7) and swearing inclusive. Although he doesn't address another user directly, his broad negative statements about the personality type could definitely count as "typism". His post attracts quite a few comments of users being sympathetic to his plight, at most asking him nicely to calm down and relax, and letting him know he's not the only one feeling that way.
At least one commenter is critical of his stereotypical descriptions of the personality type, another replies with this image, and several disagree with his perceptions or point out why being an INFP can be pretty awesome, yet almost all these disapproving replies lack real unfriendliness, and certainly no one reported the original user for any rule violations. One of the commenters points out that despite the fact that the poster, as a newbie to the forum, in essence told everyone there that as INFPs they really sucked, he still received a lot of thoughtful and even welcoming responses, and that alone should tell him something. To me that also sums up the mentality and the positive of the community to deal with conflict and rule-breaking quite nicely… but of course there's always more than one side to the story.


2. rule #6: Post with Quality in Mind
This rule essentially discourages off-topic posting. The Personality Café site includes a large number of forums specifically for different personality types and theories, as well as places for discussion completely unrelated to psychology or personalities, covering pretty much all the various ways users might want to express themselves, which makes off-topic posts even more unnecessary. The still pop up quite frequently though, and finding several instances in the INFP forum was not hard… I simply looked for all the posts with zero comments, and the large majority will be unrelated to any specific INFP issue. For example, a user posted a quote about frustration from another site, without explaining how this related to the community or INFPs.
Rather than pointing out that fact to the posters or making moderators aware so such content can be moved elsewhere, those posts are simply ignored and so vanish into history. Admittedly many of them sit somewhere on the borderline of being off-topic (unlike my next example), so there may not actually be a real need for moderators to deal with them, but their existence does illuminate a certain passivity and unwillingness to become involved on the side of the community.

off-topic post with no replies

3. rule #6 again
This is the flipside of the previous situation, in that some of the most active threads in the INFP forums are actually wildly off-topic and even less related to the personality type or anything connected with it than the previous example. Threads such as "Post funny youtube videos" or "how was your day" tend to attract a large number of comments, yet if one goes strictly by the forum rules, they don't belong in the INFP forum at all, especially since Personality Café offers several forums for such off-topic conversations. But again, neither members (at least those who don't participate in that kind of thread) nor moderators take any steps to make sure the rules are enforced.

off-topic post with tons of replies

Imagining myself as an administrator my first action would probably be to compile separate rules for the most active forums, keeping in mind the characteristics that make each community unique and in need of different guides of behavior. As Grimes pointed out, administrators (or designers) need to take users' needs seriously in order for communities to thrive, otherwise users may either ignore policies (does anyone even read forum rules, much less documents such as terms of service or privacy agreements?) or if that's no longer possible, leave for greener pastures. Maybe this is one reason why moderators allow off-topic threads, seeing that many users enjoy them. Still having a subset of rules specific to various communities might be helpful, especially if there was a way to involve members in the process of putting such a document together.

Sometimes ignoring potential troublemakers or not giving them the reaction they might be looking for (outrage, anger, etc) does seem like the right choice. In the first example the mostly positive reaction to the poster's rant certainly seemed to disarm him, and if he did post with the intention to troll (which I doubt) he would not have much ammunition to attack people who obviously were not fazed by the insults to their personality. In a much more extreme and serious shape this is how Dibbell describes the Something Awful founder dealing with threats and flames, yet in the case of online experiences leaking into real life there are definitely reasons to be cautious. As Kollock pointed out, there are various ways to sanction rule-breaking, from pointing out the rules to ignoring and making fun of the offender to banning them, and knowing the best way to react to any given situation depending on the community it takes place in is one of the major responsibilities of an administrator (even though many of those sanction can be applied by members without moderator involvement) A comment that's perfectly normal on Failblog would probably have INFP forum members up in arms (or determinedly ignoring). So being an administrator definitely requires more than just swinging the ban-hammer at every violation of the rules (and going through Personality Café's infraction documentation thread I noticed that while warnings were somewhat common, mostly for "inappropriate language" and "insulting other users", any further sanctions including bans seemed rare).

And while I didn't find an example of highly disruptive user behavior, visible or otherwise, in the INFP forum, I think Dr. Gazan made a very important point looking at such behavior from a different angle. It's easy to judge users that engage in behaviors that are destructive to themselves and the community, yet looking for ways to redirect such behavior is much more effective in the long run. Many of us wonder of anyone can get so involved, even addicted to any online community, but this is something that seems to become more and more common, with examples like virtual worlds such as Second Life, or even simple online games such as Farmville, environments that users spend enormous amount of time and oftentimes real money on. When members start deeply emotionally identifying with their online communities, administrators and designers will also have to re-think the ways that they can offer the best possible experience for all users, casual as well as highly involved.

Finally, here are my 5 unwritten rules for the INFP forum, some of which members clearly follow already, and a few that I believe would be useful for the community:

1. Approach all interactions, especially with new members, with an open mind.
2. If necessary, correct others' improper behavior rather than judging, criticizing, or ignoring them.
3. Practice peer oversight instead of involving moderators in rule-breaking situations.
4. Don't be silent or wait for some other person to deal with an issue... become involved!
5. To deal with deliberately annoying, complaining, or rude users: reply with pictures of cute furry animals with appropriate quotes.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Online Identity Expression, Introvert Style

For this week’s post, I chose a forum revolving around a particular type of personality type known as INFP. The “I” stands for “introversion”, which is what my final project will be about, to find out how being introverted affects people’s online behavior. The remaining three letters stand for other major personality dimensions (in this case iNtuition, Feeling, and Perception) as measured by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a well-known psychological profiling tool based on theories of Carl Jung. The forum is part of a larger site, Personality Café, which includes forums for every MBTI type, other personality theories, and more general topics, as well as related features such as articles, blogs, and personality tests. It lacks a general introversion community though, which is why I decided to give the forum dedicated to my own type a try.

When considering a definition of online identity, the first important thing I realized both from the readings and earlier assignments is how distinctly it is shaped by the site or community a person is interacting in. Any definition of the term that doesn’t take into account how users identify themselves in a particular online environment really isn’t complete. For the INFP forum, some the usual aspects of online identity, such as the choice of avatar and username, or a certain kind and amount of information displayed in a user profile page, clearly play a role in people finding and sharing an identity. But in addition, there are also some factors that seem more unique to this community and the theme it’s built around, a very specific type of personality that many of the users clearly identify with. It’s not surprising that the along with an avatar and some basic statistic (such as gender and number of posts), the forum gives users a choice to display their MBTI or other personality type, a piece of information that definitely has special meaning in this environment, and that the large majority of users (including many new posters) supply.

Another interesting aspect is the fact that the site allows users to upload an avatar (which is shown with every post or comment a user makes) and a separate picture that is only shown on the profile page. Many forum members use this feature to allow a piece of their offline identity merge with their online identity, by displaying some kind of public image (art, animals, celebrities etc.) as their avatar and a private picture of themselves on their profile, where it is likely seen only by others who for whatever reason are interested in finding out more about them. Features such as this remind me of both Hodkinson’s description of Goths using Livejournal as a community space, and Ploderer’s description of BodySpace as a passion-centric social network. Both make connections between their users’ offline lives and online activities, although the INPF forum resembles the functions of BodySpace more closely in that it doesn’t seem to use connections made online to carry over into an offline community such as the Goth subculture.

An example of a member's avatar and personality type info appearing with every post/comment.Part of the same member's profile page.
Includes personal image, information, tab for visitor messages etc.

So two important ways in which members of the INFP community shape their online identity is by stating their personality type, and by providing information (through images or text) and seeking interactions that connects their online presence to their offline identity. This actually in a way contrasts Wellman et al.’s idea of networked individualism because individuals can feel as part of a group that lies outside the traditional units of family or work. By providing separate forums for each personality type and allowing members to identify themselves by their types, the Personality Café site encourages a sense of common bonds that go beyond just a random interest such as desire for information or a shared hobby. A personality type isn’t something one chooses, and for many members of the forum it’s an important part of who they are as a person and how they express themselves both online and offline. At the same time one could make the argument that such a community is simply one of Wellmann et al.’s many sub-networks each individual navigates in an exceedingly complex world that isn’t tied to any one group identity. I think that both can apply to the INFP forum, at least partially depending on the each user’s motivation for being part of the community and the extend to which members appropriate the forum either as an information tool or as a social support network or something that combines aspects of both.

Scenario #1: The newbie (sunny day)
A very common situation on the INFP forum is the arrival of a new member looking for advice or support. Considering that introversion is a common trait among many (although not all) people coming to the forum, it’s not surprising to see that rather than just jumping into conversations or making their own introductory posts, many new users approach the community more cautiously. Which is probably a good reason for a thread title ”NEWBIES INFP and the rest of them ARE ALL HERE FOR YOU, Friends every where” being displayed prominently and permanently near the top of the forum.

A sample from the Newbie thread.
This also shows the "thanks " hearts tag feature.

New member Maru arrives at the forum looking for support and advice on how to better deal with criticism in his everyday life, something that he feels his introversion leads him to struggle with.

Maru sees the Newbie sticky posts and leaves a short comment introducing himself.

Several members reply welcoming Maru, some visit her profile to find out more about him and one leaves a “welcome” visitor message on his profile wall.

Maru feels encouraged by the warm welcome and decides to make his own post detailing his problems and feelings, and directly asking for advice and other members’ experiences.

Several members reply with encouraging messages, others relate their own feelings in similar situations, some even tag Maru’s post with a “thanks” heart.

Maru starts feeling more comfortable, replying to some of the comments and getting into conversations with other members.

Scenario #2: About you and me (sunny day)
There are many threads on the forum that continue to accumulate comments and offer easy opportunities for even the most introverted member to add their two cents, feel closer to other members (by discovering similar interests, tastes, situation etc.), and generally feel as part of the community.

User Jim posts a new thread asking members what song describes their current feelings.

User NotABricklayer replies with a youtube link.
User Monty says that he writes his own songs and posts a few lines of lyrics.
User Christine posts a video and explains how it reflects her feelings
UserGreenMan tags the thread with a “thank you” heart and comments how fascinating it is.

Users continue replying with video links or song lyrics, some explaining their choices, others leaving comments on particular songs or that they enjoy the thread in general, keeping the thread running and alive for weeks or even longer.

Scenario #3: Nothing to say (rainy day)
The INFP forum is a very active place, and it’s rare to see posts with very few or even no responses, but many of them seem to follow a similar pattern that doesn’t give members enough incentive to become involved enough to respond. The users who post this type of content (ranging from newcomers to moderately experienced members) seem to look for communication rather than information or support, and this is where the usually very helpful and open network of the community fails to respond, as there is no clearly visible need for help, nor do these posts encourage a general sharing of interests or experiences.

User Sam posts a short observation about introversion without relating it to herself or a particular person, situation, or experience.

User Dean replies with a short comment agreeing with the sentiment.

The thread goes silent.

These examples show some of the ways that members of the INFP forum express their online identity. A majority of the interactions in this community depend on users willing to share not only information or interests but personal experiences and feelings. The most visible part of this openness is reflected by members revealing personal information (including pictures) in their profiles, acting as signals of a user’s reliability and trustworthiness (Donath). But actions such as offering advice or support, leaving visitor messages, or tagging posts with “thanks” are just as important in acquiring a level of trust within the community, and are therefore another part of members’ online identity. These actions also tend to lead to users “friending” one another, which strengthens the community itself by creating closer ties between its members.

Unlike social networking sites such as Myspace, where users’ interests are a major part of creating online identities to the point of being fashioned as signs of belonging to a group rather than describing actual taste (as described by Liu), personal preferences are only of secondary importance in the INFP forum. They can serve as a starting point to explore another user’s profile and maybe friend them, but they don’t usually influence the majority of interactions in the community, which largely depend on a sense of sharing based on the INFP personality type, regardless of the otherwise different tastes of individual members.

Visitor messages: another part of social identity expression
"thanks" tagging in action

Compared to the other examples from our readings, the way this forum serves as a space to find emotional support as well as information and personal advice from a group who has something in common, most closely resembles Ploderer’s examination of passion-centric social networks. One major difference is that the level of that passion probably varies to a greater degree than in a place such as BodySpace... so while some INFP forum users are certainly deeply involved with the idea of personalities and obviously put a lot of thought in the ways their personality type affects their thinking, behavior, and life, there are also others who may simply be curious about the concept or just want to get some additional information, for example after taking a personality test and finding out their own type. But the essential connection between real life (offline) experiences and online interactions based on trust and sharing definitely play a major role in both communities, dissimilar as the overall topics (personality types versus bodybuilding) may be.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Scary Librarians and Serial Killers or: The Pitfalls and Perils of Social Knowledge Production and Access

Looking at the list of different topics they all seemed interesting, but then I ran into a realization during the readings that led me to choose the connections between Social Q&A sites and libraries as the topic for this post. The word "social" should probably have tipped me off, but I didn’t realize until halfway through Dr. Gazan’s article that sites such as Yahoo! Answers can provide far more than just a quick response one’s question. I’ve always wondered why such sites remained popular despite the fact that one has to wade through an ocean of off-topic or plain incorrect answers to find any useful information, overlooking the possibility that "useful" does not necessarily equal "factual", and that the process of sharing and connecting may actually be more important than the eventual answer. This is what Leibenluft describes as a combination of social networking and reference tool, yet the system of such Q&A sites, based on user contributions and seemingly built around opinions rather than facts, appears completely at odds with traditional reference services offered by libraries. Still, it seems that both systems could benefit from adopting some of each other’s successful aspects in order to offer a more complete experience to their users, combining the speed and connectivity of social networking with the reliability and trustworthiness of libraries.

Since I’m already somewhat familiar with Yahoo! Answers I decided to take a look at the social Q&A site Dr. Gazan mentions in his article,, and to carry over the balance of unfamiliarity I also chose a library site completely new to me, in this case the Seattle Public Library. Starting from the two homepages, the different focus of the sites was instantly apparent. The first thing that jumped at me on Answerbag’s main page is a long empty space to submit my question. Clearly they cut right to the chase and offer information the quickest and easiest way. Everything surrounding that empty box waiting to be fed my question is aimed at highlighting the purpose of the site… not only to inform, but to connect. There is a leader-board listing the most prolific "answer-people" (including assigned levels such as "maestro"), which seems to whisper "you can be on this list too! contribute, contribute!" in my ear. There is a list of current Q&A activity, which displays little avatars and username before the actual question, as well as a list of poplular questions. There is a poll, links to a forum, blog, and discussions, all of which emphasize the importance of sharing and community, inviting visitors to feel comfortable among others just like them, who may need answers, but can also provide them.

comparison: Answerbag's main page & Seattle Public Library's help page

where would you prefer to ask your question or find your answers?

The Seattle Public Library homepage on the other hand is informative, but not intuitive to someone seeking answers, quick or otherwise. After some clicking around I found a small "Get Help" section at the very bottom of the "Using the Library" page, which featured two possibly helpful services to an information seeker, "Ask a Librarian" and online homework help by "expert tutors". The library offers several ways to directly contact a librarian for help, including chat, email, and text messaging, yet it’s not very clear if that means help in finding library materials or answering just any kind of random question. The online homework help suffers from a similar problem, as those services obviously are geared toward a particular group (students) and limited to topic related to schoolwork. Although all pages are accompanied by picture of smiling people using laptops or phones, one doesn’t get the sense that there is any kind of cooperation or sharing going on here. This information highway is clearly one-way only, with experts providing factual information to a particular kind of questions limited by scope and topic.

It seems that these two systems are too different to even compare, let alone find common ground from which to use each others strengths to improve their overall function, but the most important requirements are already in place. Both systems have an online presence and a diverse user-base of people who visit them (online or in person) at least in part to find answers to their questions. Besides an online catalog Seattle Public Library also offers e-books and other digital media through their websites, including recommendations, themed book lists, and podcasts, so the potential for a more interactive connection with their users is already in place.

part of Seattle Public Library's online presence... recommendations & more

By offering the possibility of asking questions anonymously through chat, the library has already adopted one of the Q&A sites major advantage, the ability to ask any question, no matter how weird or embarrassing, without the fear of being of judgment or other consequences reaching beyond one’s online personality. As Leibenluft points out, this aspect is easily abused not only by those asking questions, but in the case of communities such as Answerbag, also by users providing pointless, offensive, or plain wrong answers. Yet as Dr. Gazan describes, this anonymity is also what makes Q&A sites not only popular but a powerful tool, despite their drawbacks when it comes to accuracy and trustworthiness. How many of us have been reluctant to walk up to a reference librarian even for the most harmless question, simply because we wanted to avoid feeling stupid for something that was easily answered? (or was it the chilling stare from across the desk spelling doom for everyone who dared to approach? just kidding, reference librarians are awesome and not scary at all... mostly)

Adding social media components such as a forum, including usernames and avatars, or the ability to comment on site features such as recommendations, might be a first step. Displaying and maybe archiving "Ask a Librarian" interactions in an open format similar to social Q&A sites rather than a closed chat could allow other users to comment or weight in with their own opinions, supplementing the expert advice of librarians. This would also introduce a factor that so far has barely if at all been touched by library reference, yet constitutes a major draw of communities such as Answerbag: the kind of information that expands beyond facts and figures and depends on personal experience and opinions. For example, one of the questions listed in Answerbag’s "Most Popular" list asks: "Who is the most demented (famous) serial killer?"

example of a Q&A interaction on Answerbag

This is a topic few people would approach a reference librarian with, or even ask by phone or e-mail. Yet “Freaky_chick” obviously felt perfectly comfortable to ask it in a somewhat anonymous setting, and the replies of over 150 people indicate that she wasn’t the only one interested in an answer. This question could certainly benefit from accurate information on serial killers, which a librarian could provide, but it also clearly benefits from opinions (hopefully not personal experience in this case), for example why Ted Bundy may be worse than Jeffrey Dahmer, and maybe even thoughts that may relate to the original query but also pose new questions, such as if Hitler should be counted as a serial killer or not. The latter, for example, was not mentioned at all in the Wikipedia article I used to look up the name of a second serial killer, and a librarian might not have considered it in her reply to a reference question, so this is an example of the combination of various viewpoints offering new perspectives on the original topic. Unlike Duguid’s suggestion that uncoordinated contributions by many users to one task can lead to fragmentation that ultimately lowers the quality of the whole, the process he calls granularity can lead to positive results in the Q&A environment, allowing for a variety of opinions to come together to shape a broad, multi-layered picture of possible answers.

Of course, it won’t always work this way, and more often that not you’re simply end up with comments that are clearly unhelpful (such as "all serial killers are demented") or incorrect ("OJ Simpson"). Other questions call for facts rather than opinions… rather than feeling enlightened by new perspectives, someone asking for the Nobel Peace Prize winner of 1998 would very likely be confused and possibly annoyed by a large number of different replies. Another aspect that sites such as Answerbag usually don’t address is the possibility of providing sources for further information", such as links to relevant websites providing more in-depth information, or even recommendations for books or other offline material on the topic. Those are two areas where trained librarians could definitely add a new dimension to the Q&A process, as experts with the ability to either provide facts or recognize and isolate correct information from a multitude of contributions, and as knowledgeable providers or additional sources or recommendations.

With an environment in place that encourages interaction and community, and the expertise and trustworthiness users expect from a library, a combination of social Q&A and traditional reference could possibly overcome the limitations of both the purely user-based and mostly un-moderated system of the latter and the rigid top-down structure of the latter. In the end what counts most may not be the “correct” question to any given answer (most of which users could probably find with reasonable easy on Wikipedia or elsewhere anyway), but the ability to help users understand that answer, and enable them to pursue it further on their own. Because at least to me, that’s what both libraries and social Q&A sites in their own unique ways have always been… not a place to find a quick answer, but a starting point to explore a question or topic on my own.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Gold Stars and Flag Paths: Trust Mechanisms and Social Roles in Online Communities

As a member of various different online communities, I’ve never given much thought to the importance of trust and how it plays out between users. Like most of us I have given feedback on eBay and participating in many other systems of trust building, such as rating fellow users or even just adding them to my list of friends, but this week’s readings made me realize for the first time how important trust really is to the health of any online community. Social roles on the other hands are a concept that seems more obvious at first, bringing to mind both visibly recognized function such as moderators and administrators, as well as loosely defined roles such as newbies, BNFs (big name fans), or lurkers. Yet by the end of this assignment I feel more confident in my understanding of the former, while the somewhat nebulous and unspecific definition of the latter has left me more uncertain about what social roles really are all about, something that was only intensified by my experience in two different online communities.

The communities I chose are Postcrossing, specifically the forum portion of the site, and the Expat Blog. Postcrossing is a community enabling users from all over the world to exchange postcards, and the forum is an extension allowing members to initiate “unofficial” contacts such as private swap or round robins, form communities based on different languages, and more. The Expat Blog is a site offering information, help, and networking to expatriates, people who have left their home country to live in another, and those who are interesting in doing so. I joined both communities, attempted to contribute by leaving comments on the posts of others as well as adding my own content, and tried to observe and compare some of the social roles and trust mechanisms at work there.

"my" two blogs

One of the most noticeable differences between the two communities struck me right after signing up: the level of activity. Despite the wealth of information and features the Expat Blog offered, its forums were almost completely dead, with very little interactivity or user contribution going on. The Postcrossing blog on the other hand seemed a very lively place, featuring many current threads and lots of member activity. With a similar community set-up and comparable audiences (both postcard collecting and expatriate experiences are probably very appealing to a certain group of people while being of minor interest to the general internet population) this start contrast definitely raised some questions, and my next step was to use the concepts of social roles and trust to try and find some answers.

Both sites require a similar sign-up process and offer the usual profile features such as an avatar and a “bio” field to display personal information and interests. Some of these details, along with the number of posts, are visible every time the user participates in the community, and this gives other members a better idea who they are interacting with. Added visual clues such as national flags revealing the member’s country of origin can also lead to a feeling of connection between users, especially in a place like the Expat Blog where the focus is on life in different countries. Their feature of displaying the “path” of their members through a sequence of little flags certainly gave me a sense of interest in and even trust of users whose path mirrored my own. The site offers many such additional features, including the ability to add detailed information and create photo albums for each country in one’s “path”, to have one’s own blog listed, and to be part of a network of expatriates in one’s current location.
Yet despite all these mechanisms to encourage trust and connections, there was very little activity in both the country or city specific forums and the general “Expat Café” open discussion, and looking at some threads and user profiles it seemed that many members either just lurk or lose interest soon after joining (as hinted at by the very low number of comments of almost all members encountered). The only exception to this rule were official moderators, who acted not only as discussion initiators but at times explicitly rewarded contributions by members by posting “thank you” comments, and a handful of regular users fulfilling the same function of opening discussion and sometimes even keeping it active by contributing their own replies. Still many forums looked pretty sad and dead… like the community for expatriates to Hawaii which was filled with moderator’s encouragements to share and discuss and posts by 1-post-users, some of whom never even bothered to acknowledge the rare reply to their own question. The balance of social roles definitely failed on this site, and mechanisms used to encourage trust between members did little to stimulate participation.

Screenshot of the Hawaii forum... compare the high number of page views to the almost non-existent participation.

The Postcrossing forum presented me with a completely different picture from the very start. Despite offering no special features beyond the regular forum characteristics, active threads and groups are common, and even as a newbie without much social capital I not only felt connected to like-minded people as I had on the Expat blog, but I was able to participate as a part of that group right away. The social roles of the two communities seemed similar, with “official” moderator and administrators sometimes action as discussion starters, and some particularly active regular members doing the same, but instead of just starting random threads much of the activity was organized around certain ongoing threads that received continuing input, such as an “Introduce yourself” thread for new members, and a very current “Question & Answer” thread. Identifying these roles beyond visible labels was made easier by a system of gold stars displayed under the user’s avatar, indicating “member status”. From my observation the most active regular members, who often acted as unofficial “answer people” or “greeting people”, always had a high number of stars. One possible scenario is that by accumulated a large number of comments/posts and therefore stars regular members may eventually “earn” official moderator/administrator status.

example of the Q&A thread... "answer people" and their gold stars

This system of ranking users encourages trust, especially since in this setting threads that help or encourage fellow members seem to be the ones that accumulate a large number of comments, thereby giving users wishing for a special role in the forum a chance to “collect” more stars. Trust becomes especially important in a setting where exchanging personal offline information, in this case mailing addresses, cannot be avoided. This is not quite as risky as Massa’s example, but requires a similar trust statement to make a possibly unsafe practice more secure. (Massa) One mechanism that encourages trust, and makes it possible for forum newcomers such as myself to display social capital, is the practice of many users to link back to their profile on the main Postcrossing site, allowing other members to see the number of cards they have sent and received through the “official” system. The larger the amount of postcards, the more likely it will be for community members to trust a person new to their group (the two are not directly connected, have separate sign-up processes and profiles, and only a fraction of the main site users seem to join the forum).
I encountered this trust mechanism myself when, as a complete newbie with 1 post (in the introductory thread) to my name, I started receiving responses to a trading offer within minutes of my post, and 24 hours later have a private message inbox filled with 30+ replies from users who willingly share their personal information with someone who, apart from a link to their main site profile, is a complete unknown quantity to them. Another measure of trust connected to this is the practice of posting public feedback for trades in the original threads (“got the cards, thanks” etc.), despite all initial interactions, including the exchange of addresses, taking place through private messages (knows as u2u in the forum).

My PM inbox 24 hours after posting a card trade offer as a total newbie.

In general I had the impression that the Postcrossing forum made the best use of the pretty basic tools available to create a balance between very active social roles on one side and the more reactive majority of the member-base on the other, and to encourage trust through simple mechanisms such as providing private messaging and the gold star system with users creating their own additional tools such as linking back to the main site. The Expat Blog on the other hand could not achieve this balance despite its many features and active moderators, maybe because creators or administrators put too much emphasis on those features rather than making sure enough members would actually have a stake in the site and start using them. It seems to me that there was little to encourage newcomers to stay part of the community after their initial information need was fulfilled (or not). Both sites are examples of “bridging social capital”, with users from different backgrounds come together to exchange resources of information (Williams), yet providing clear yet simply trust mechanisms and visible indicators of social roles that allowed users to influence their own status made the Postcrossing forum the more active and successful community.

The idea behind the Expat blog is a good one, and could be an example of Ellison et al.’s bridging social capital as a force that offers new opportunities to members of the community, such as networking and gaining knowledge about a country from someone who has made the experience of moving and adjusting to life there. But unlike Facebook this site doesn’t make use of the immense potential and proved too few opportunities for members to not only initially connect but maintain that connection. Of course unlike the original Facebook there is no location-based link between users from all over the world, but the fact that I did feel somewhat connected to other German expatriates in the US shows that country of origin could be used to create stronger ties. One of the goals would definitely be higher user participation in the forums, which could then lead to members identifying with the site and connecting to each other, building trust and really forming a community. But it doesn’t seem that a simple tool such as gold stars would work in this case, and having “official” moderators fulfill the social role of discussion starter doesn’t work if there are no user who are contributing… this is a good example of Gleave’s role ecology, which in this case is out of balance and therefore does not work.

comparing visible user information:
the Expat blog vs. the Postcrossing forum... the latter gives far more clues about possible status/social role and could inspire trust (you can also see the main profile link I mentioned before)

So a suggestion for the Expat Blog might be to introduce some kind of ranking system of users who contributed, maybe linking it to country or expatriation “path” since those seem to be strong links between users, and focus less on the personal connection and networking features that already exist but are rarely used. The Postcrossing forum, with a strong system of trust mechanisms already in place, may benefit from attempts at deepening connections between users and expand into bonding social capital such as social support. (Williams) I have already seen some examples of this in threads such as “Random Acts of Smileness” which includes sending post cards to people, including non-members, who are ill or in other difficult situations, as well as surprise or birthday cards, in general giving support without expecting anything in return. Adding features such as birthday reminders, as suggested by Ellison et al., or maybe virtual gifts that users can display on their profile or with their avatar (something some Livejournal users are even willing to pay for), could encourage such bonds.

Finally some ideas for my project. My main interest is in how personality (such as introverted/extraverted characteristics) or even gender affect user behavior or choice of communities to participate in, but I haven’t been able to come up with a specific question yet. I personally really enjoy exploring and observing new online communities, so to be able to make that part of the project would be nice, but I would also like to explore more readings on various viewpoints and research that has been done in this area. I’d be grateful for any suggestions to help me to narrow my focus or any general comment/ideas. Thanks!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Motivations for Participating in Online Communities

As someone who has only ever considered a user’s perspective of online communities, it was really interesting to see a different point of view, and get some insights into why networks, forums, and other online groups functioned the way they do. This week’s readings offered many such insights, including an approach from a business perspective, something I never thought to connect to an activity that seemed so purely personal to me. While the role of business in running a community and making profit from it by selling advertising space or from users directly (such as offering paid accounts with special features), the idea of companies creating and managing communities for their own purposes still seems foreign to me, so it would be really interesting to see anyone who has experience with that sort of thing share some more information about it.

Another aspect of the readings I found curious is the way they all seemed to agree on the types of motivations at work in keeping online communities active, even though thee authors had different mind-sets and used different approaches to reach their conclusions. Ridings and Gefen examined the different reasons for joining a group, the desire for information exchange and friendship being most important, with social support and recreation less significant, and came up with three main motivation factors: being part of a group, reaching goals, and being rewarded. They introduce the concept of lurkers being part of a community as well, despite their lack of interaction, and the idea that while many users enter communities with the goal of gaining knowledge, in line with the original design of the internet as an information exchange, connecting to others with the purpose of gaining social support or finding friendship have become major aspects of online interaction as well.

Ling et al. examine the role of motivation in a more complex way, questioning if social science theories predicting user behavior can be useful to designers in order to create communities that remain active and encourage participation. They introduce the concept of social loafing, something that can be commonly seen in groups when the majority of members remain passive or contribute less than they would as individuals, and the collective effort model, which explains factors that can reduce social loafing, such as user’s belief in the importance, uniqueness and recognition of their contribution, as well as their affinity to the group. One significant conclusion of their research is the finding that motivation needs to happen internally, with extrinsic efforts such as the promise of benefits to users rarely generating lasting participation.
Tedjamulia et al. analyze motivation from a business perspective, in order for community “managers” to create a productive group environment by providing feedback and rewards and prevent loss of funding through problems such as disorganization and unstable membership. They describe several levels of participation from lurker to veteran, suggesting that a balance between them is necessary for a thriving community. In order to increase motivation and sidestep knowledge-sharing dilemma, the authors suggest personal and environmental factors such as high self efficacy, trust in the community, interesting content, and visibility of contribution, as well as goals and rewards, showing some overlap with ideas put forward by Ridings and Ling.

Schrock addresses motivation from a personality perspective, suggesting different user patterns between introverts and extroverts, with the former using text-based communities to overcome offline difficulties of expressing themselves, while the latter prefer more visual resources that offer more disclosure, such as youtube. He also examines gender differences of online community use and motivations, indication that males use such sites to expand their social networks while females tend to maintain close ties to already existing connections.
Java et all concentrate on the new concept on microblogging, which fulfills a need for ever fast modes of communication and higher number of updates. The authors propose a high reciprocity between users, with previously existing social networks making up a majority of the active user base, and point out different user roles depending on this reciprocity, with members acting as information source or seeker. They also show that switching between roles and directing various types of posts at different audiences with the clear division between friends and communities, or categorizing/filtering tools that exists in other online communities such as Facebook or Livejournal, can make interaction confusing.

Having observed many of the motivations and behaviors described by these authors, I find myself agreeing with much of their eventual results, if not all of their original proposals. For example, Ling at al.’s observation of group goals being more effective motivators of contribution that individual goals reminded me of several instances where Livejournal communities I joined initiated fundraising events, for example for victims of the Haiti earthquake, and were able to collect thousands of dollars as a group, while only a few of those who contributed would probably have donated purely on their own incentive (this also confirms the value of a clearly stated goal in motivation, as the this effort also included a set amount of donations to be reached, which probably encouraged members to continually work toward that number).

While personal experiences such as this generally confirmed the concepts and conclusions addressed in the readings, I do disagree with some of the basic approaches and specific premises used. In general, it seems to me that all this research is based on perspectives and interests other than that of the users themselves, who after all represent an essential part of the equation. Managers and designers of communities can only be efficient if user’s needs are taken into consideration, and sometimes the best way to find out what motivates contribution is simply to listen to what members have to say and observe what they do. Social theories and business practices are certainly concepts to take into consideration, but if they clash with the actual needs of a certain member base, sticking to them as the only tools to run a community can do more harm than good. I have experience this numerous times on Livejournal, where the most active member groups (which are usually also the ones who invest the most money in the site) are very vocal about their ideas and motivations yet are repeatedly ignored in the implementation of new features that go against community mentality. This not only leads to an unhappy community and in many instances the need for designers to adjust features in the face of protests, but also to a loss of revenue due to users retracting their financial support of the site.
Specifically, I also found myself to question assumptions such as Schrock’s concerning female users being less tech-savvy and therefore in more danger of falling prey to online predators or similar pitfalls of community interaction. Conclusions such as this make me doubt the usefulness of surveys that identify women and girls as less knowledgeable of technology, and make me wonder if the problem doesn’t lie in a different approach to answering questions regarding such topics, or cultural norms that lead to them assessing their own skills at a lower level then they actually might be at. To point out the high number of female users in online communities and yet continue to rate their skills of using online technologies as less than males should really lead us to question where this discrepancy really comes from rather than what it may lead to.

For the second part of the assignment, I observed the forum of F1 Fanatic, a blog that is usually my news source for anything Formula 1 related (Formula 1 or F1 is an international car racing world championship). While I visit the blog regularly, I’ve never paid attention to the forum until now, so searching posts and examining participation and contributions in this environment that was connected to something familiar but yet completely new was really interesting.

Modes of Participation
I realized quickly that the basic setup of the forum was very simple. This could be part of the close connection to the blog itself, as several aspects were not directly part of the forum itself, but linked through the interactivity of the blog. I included those modes in the list because they’re still important to the participation on the forum. Forum users are able to:

- post content
- comment on posts
- tag posts by subject
- track favorite posts (this is not visibly to other users in the individual posts, only on the user’s profile)
- post guest entries on the main blog
- comment in polls on the main blog

How is participation encouraged?
- users’ contributions are identified
(example: they can create accounts, upload a user icon, profiles show posting activity, date of joining & favorites)

- performance rewards/social recognition
(example: blog owner picks “comment of the day” displayed on main blog)

- forum is organized for easy viewing and use
(example: search function available, users can create rss feed of favorite threads)

- members offer easy ways to become part of the group and contribute
(example: many open-ended questions/discussion, “introduce yourself” post)

- members post interactive content
(example: meme, trivia, “what’s your favorite…” posts)

What content gets the most responses?
These results really surprised me, but the reason for the pattern may be that most news items, and even specific drivers or races are usually discussed in comments to main blog posts by the owner of the site. Numbers would also differ not quite so much if I had taken into account the amount of time for which posts had been up in the forum, but I could find no easy way to include both types of posts, ones that had been up for months but were still active, and those that were more numerous but very short-lived. It was obvious to me though that even if I would divide the high comment numbers by the amount of time the post had been up, they would still outnumber the type of post that stops receiving comments after a day or two. In general, recreational topics had a much higher rate of response and stayed current even after months of the original post dates, while posts relating to news, particular drivers, technology, or other discussions only gathered responses in a short time-frame.

1. trivia,meme, games
# of posts:13
# of comments: 5872

2. requests to share experiences, favorites etc.
# of posts:10
# of comments: 1074

3. news discussions
# of posts:13
# of comments: 185

4.general discussions of individual drivers, races, etc.
# of posts:5
# of comments: 90

5. F1 game discussions
# of posts:6
# of comments: 46

The results were really surprising to me, since I had expected much more technical and general discussion, the content I was used to from reading comments on the main blog. But this definitely makes sense, as followers of the blog obviously use the forum to connect to others and even form friendships rather than repeating the more information-heavy exchange from the blog. This conforms with Riding’s and Gefen’s ideas of communities staring out as places of information exchange, but often leading to further connections and friendship. It also made me remember how, when the forum was unavailable for a few months due to technical site issues, users would continually comment on the main blog with questions about the forum’s status. So for many followers, being able to have those personal connections in addition to the information exchange on the blog itself had already become an essential part of their experience of this particular site.

It also shows that microblogging may constitute a form of online communities somewhat different from traditional forums or journal sites, as the type of connections formed is the direct opposite of Java et al.’s observations of pre-existing social networks with high reciprocity. Here the mode of connection is completely based on a shared interest, with users having no previous connections, and while personal information not directly related to the shared interest (in this case F1) is exchanged and some friendships develop, much of the interaction is more recreational and less personal. This also constitutes an online environment very different from what I personally participate in, where shared interests play a role but social support and the simple daily life interactions make up a far more essential part of the community experience. Which is probably one of the reasons why I have never used this forum, despite being a daily visitor and occasional commenter on the main blog, and why, despite joining many similar communities throughout my years online, I’ve never become an active contributor in any of them.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Are people online really "real"?

As someone who has been involved in online communities for years, this week's readings really hit a nerve with me. At the same time they also taught me an essential fact, something that I had been aware of but never consciously examined before: People on the internet are still people. This may sound trite, but it actually explains a great deal of how online communities compare to and affect real life relationships and connections. Yes, the online environment allows behaviors and personalities to be exaggerated and even transformed, but in the end we all put at least a part of us in our online selves, even if that self may take the form of a talking white rabbit with OCD.

Unfortunately if judged by the readings, many researchers and commentators on the subject of online communities seem to have forgotten or prefer to ignore this very basic fact, and treat online communities as something completely removed real life society, and in some cases even from the people they're made up of. They portray members alternately as driven purely by narcissist desires for status, as lacking in real life bonds and socialization, or as naive and unwitting tools of a corporate money-making machine”. No matter which state of things one believes to be true, it’s hard to trust in the objectivity and validity of research conducted by anyone who calls the possibility of online communities reflecting real life communities "absurd".

The first assessment by Rosen is certainly true in some cases, and some online communities such as MySpace definitely seem to encourage such status-seeking behavior, for example by putting emphasis on the number of friends displayed. Everyone who has spend a certain amount of time in such communities has probably heard of or witnessed examples of some "destructive" behavior, such as the case of a man publicizing the break-up with his fiancé on Facebook by changing his status to "single" for all to see. Yet at the same time, do we judge the value of real life interaction by those who act badly? In the "real" world, do we condemn a whole group by the actions of some of its members? Of course there are some who do, but in general this would not be considered wise or useful, especially using it for research.

Yet this is exactly what happens whenever the community in question is online. Does no one consider how these users who are made examples of may resemble their real life personalities? Would the man who airs his break-up for everyone to see act less callous offline? Again, a platform such as an online community makes it easier to exhibit such behavior, but does it actually cause it? Similarly those who yearn for thousands of friends and some elusive status supposedly conferred by them will probably be the same people who in real life drive a big fancy car or tout their supposed wealth, good looks, of whatever makes them feel above everyone else.

Another aspect that Rosen mentions briefly and Bigge expands on is the alleged naiveté of users who not only don’t realize the need for a certain amount of privacy protection, for example to keep Facebook communications out of employers’ hands, but who are completely unaware of a hidden system or corporate power that ensnares them and turns them into willing tools for surveillance and profit. Yet witnessing how earlier research ignored important factors doesn’t exactly make me confident in the statistics proving this kind of unawareness, and as there may be reasons other than ignorance for users to be very open about certain parts of their online presence.
Albrechtslund definitely has a point when describing the "eternity" of private information on the internet, yet he ignores very common possibilities of dealing with this problem such as filtering, withholding, or even faking privacy data, all of which can easily be observed by browsing through a few Facebook profiles. And while making money certainly is the major motivation for the companies that run online communities, this is not at all a secret to members, who often actively pursue ways of dealing with unwanted ads and other intrusions to their community experience, for example by using AdBlock, restricting privacy settings, or simply ignoring marketing attempts.

In general one of the major concerns about online communities seems to be the question of their value to their users. Can online relationships be equated to those in real life? Can virtual communities offer more to their members than simple connections based on one common interest? Despite Galston’s claims that online interactions are inherently shallow and distant, and can only lead to the formation of weak "voluntary communities", La Rose proves that sufficient experience of the medium can actually lead to a situation in which online communities become a valuable support structure, especially for those cut off from their traditional offline communities. This is a situation that I myself, as someone separated by two oceans and a continent from family and friends, can definitely identify with, and at least my personal experience clearly reflect LaRose’s rather than Galston’s conclusion on the matter.

To me it is this aspect, the ability of an online community offering real closeness, that would prove its equality to real life connections. While users joining in fanclub-like groups in order to enjoy a common passion is of no less value in my eyes, no one expects the bonds of such a community to be very strong, online or in real life. A user’s motivation to be part of such a group is obviously their own enjoyment, but are there other reasons to become part of a social network or group? Is it really all about status, self-interest, or quick shallow connections? Or can an online community really provide the same support and companionship we experience in real life?

It turned out that the best answers did not come through careful selecting of a community that I hadn’t been part of before, or, when that reminded me of a newcomer’s limitations, the creation of a new Livejournal account, and the planned interactions in a newly discovered journal community that pertained to my interests. Instead it was a tragic event, the deadly crash of a passenger train in Germany, which vividly served to illustrate the nature and possibilities of online communities. Without even thinking of this assignment, I posted about the accident on both my Facebook and my Livejournal.

Livejournal screenshots (3 seperate images - click for full size)
(I didn't screencap all the comments but hopefully it's enough to give you a general idea)

Facebook screenshot (click for full size)
(it's in German, sorry)

Within minutes, the first person had commented on my journal, while even until now, almost 24 hours later, the only response on Facebook remains that of a real life friend who lives only a few kilometers away from the crash site. Out of the eight individual users who replied to the Livejournal post, only two are people I know in real life, including that same friend. And every one of those eight I originally met through fandoms, i.e. shared interests, yet as in real life, some acquaintances just happen to develop into a stronger connection, while others never grow beyond the "how’s the weather?" stage, something that Evan’s clearly points out in the article on Social Responsibility (which is another important issue, but this post is already way too long as it is so I better skip that). After all people on the internet are still people.

And just like in real life, people have different motivations. My shock over the crash, which involved a train that I had rode myself many times, may have been too vivid or emotional for many of my Facebook friends to deal with. Some may not even have noticed or cared. This is not to a criticism, it simply shows the different nature and function of this online community. Most people use Facebook for quick connections, to easily keep track of a large number of friends, acquaintances, fellow students, etc. MySpace seems to be the place to be self-centered, and to collect and show off status symbols. And then there are communities out there for people to share interests and maybe even make closer connections. For me that has been Livejournal, but it could be anything. Just as we choose groups or communities that suit our needs in real life, we do so online as well, which also explains why so many people belong to more than one social network.

Just to round this up, I’m also including a link to the journal community post I originally planned to use for this assignment (it’s an open community so the link should work for everyone… if anyone has problems just let me know and I’ll try make some screenshots instead)
I just thought it was interesting because the pattern continues there… in a group where I’m a total newcomer with a brand new profile, people respond to the post and request of a complete stranger by sharing their own experiences. Most of this is probably due to the common interest (in this case foreign languages), and again it just shows how online communication mirrors real life… after all those in search of self-validation, status symbols, or quick connections would probably choose a different kind of community. It's also something that would have been very hard to achieve offline... to in the period of 24 hours find and connect to with over a dozen strangers with a similar interest, and get them to share some very random language related experiences not just with me, but among each other. All this has definitely shown me that blanket statements about people being generally shallower, more self-centered, or unable to form valuable or complex relationships online (and maybe even in real life due to their online activities) are not only obviously uninformed, but pretty shallow in themselves.

Articles referenced:
- Reformulating the Internet Paradox: Social Cognitive Explanations of Internet Use and Depression
- Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillance
- Social Responsibility and the Web: A Drama Unfolds.
- Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism
- The Cost of (Anti-) Social Networks: Identity, Agency and Neo-Luddites
- Does the Internet Strengthen Community? (William A. Galston, National Civic Review 89(3))

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Session 1: Social Media, Violence, and Control

At first glance, the role of social media in the tragic attack on Rep. Gifford seems pretty clear. After all many of us, including myself, first learned of the shooting through Facebook, Twitter, or other parts of the social media universe, which highlights its importance as not only a tool of communication, but as a major part of people’s lives. Yet taking a closer look reveals a more fragmented picture of social media as a force than can be both valuable and beneficial as well as controversial and even harmful, and everything on the spectrum in between, depending on how we use and view it.

One aspect of the impact of social media in this case stood out to me was the link of social media and violence. Making this connection was hard to escape… in my first encounter with the shooting, a Livejournal post, the friend who broke the news also right away pointed out a connection that had been quickly raised by many other voices: the possible role of Sarah Palin and her outspoken violent imagery may have played in the attack. Retrospectively, it’s easy to see Palin’s “target list”, which included the graphics of the crosshairs of a gun directed at certain democrats, and her aggressive rhetoric such as “Don’t retreat! Instead - RELOAD!” as a dangerous influence, especially on those with an already unstable mindset. This connection between violent speech and violent action was highlighted not only in the response of large section of social media, but carried over to traditional news media as well, although mostly in the shape of commentaries rather than actual news reports.

With these connections in mind, reading Julian Dibbel’s thoughts on violence in cyberspace, and how the experiences, rules, and consequences in a virtual community relate to those in the real world, was especially interesting. Everyone who has been part of an online community has probably experienced online violence of some degree, even if in less virulent shapes such as nasty anonymous comments, trolling, or flame-wars, and few would disagree with Dibble’s conclusion that virtual violence, while not equivalent to its real life counterpart in impact and consequences, does reach beyond online boundaries. The Gifford shooting takes this idea one step further, suggesting that people’s online behavior can have powerful and violent consequences in the real world.

Although the recent attack is not the first this is not the first case to highlight the role of social media as a potential tool in the relaying of actual violence, the idea that words and actions expressed online can cause harm in “real life” has maybe never so easily been stamped as the truth than when they lead to a tragic and shocking result such as this shooting. But is it really that simple? While I personally in no way agree with Palin’s sentiments, nor with the way she expressed them, I also believe that we should be cautious in assigning blame for a crime on the grounds of broad rhetorical statements.

Directly linking expression to violence in this way can easily be used as support for the idea that the open and unfiltered nature of social media is a negative, even dangerous state, implying that users cannot be trusted to tell the difference between the truth and false advertising, or a metaphor and a call to go out and shoot a person. This is the argument Carol Tenopir presents in her article, in which she warns of a “dangerous dumbing-down of culture” caused be the uncontrolled and anonymous state of social networking, and the unreliability and bias of non-expert news sources (despite those called “expert” news sources having proven themselves more than once to be neither infallible nor unbiased, including during the course of the Gifford shooting when one major new agency mistakenly reported the Congresswoman to have died from her injuries).

And while neither Tenopir nor Andrew Keen, whose ideas she outlines in her article, propose any kind of control mechanisms in order to deal with the threat of “sites where ‘ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule’”, it is easy to see how some would make the leap from criticism to control to censorship, especially when violence is concerned, similar to the way that such attempts have been made for example in regards to music (lyrics), video games etc. This is not at all to say that anyone in favor of responsible expression in social media is implicitly favoring censorship, but I do believe it’s important to keep this possible connection in mind, since it’s easy to overlook especially when the speech in question is something many of us may personally disagree with.

Exploring the class readings and responses to the Gifford case has definitely given me some new perspectives on the possibilities and problems of social computing. I have been a participant in this world for years, yet never consciously thought about the unwritten rules or consequences involved. The idea that the openness of blogging, journaling and social networking could have actual negative impacts in real life first occurred to me when a former advisor told me about the case of a fellow professor who actually lost her job after a dispute with students over an online rating site for academics, which turned into a real life conflict.

And this seems to be what characterizes social computing of today. It involves more than virtual interaction and community on interactive platforms, instead it has become so much a part of our everyday lives that it has to includes real world connections and rules as well. This is a definite evolution from the far less interactive environment presented by Nadir and Herring, where people simply expressed their own ideas without much feedback or obvious connection. But who can image Facebook without commenting? And how different would the Gifford case have been presented in the media without the enormous number of Twitter responses, blogs, and comments to news stories?