Tag Archives: graduate school

Why my research is in Twitter

“Twitter’s a fad.”twitter

“The young kids use Twitter because they don’t want to have a real conversation.”

“Twitter is destroying society.”

“How do you know they’re real?”

“I really don’t care that much about what you’re doing all day.”

I’ve heard it all. From all types of people.

The only people who truly understand Twitter are those who are using it regularly, and have overcome the barriers to acceptance that it inherently presents as a tool of technology.

Academics don’t get Twitter. Including many of those doing research into social media.

Twitter represents a new way of communication. After lifestreaming on Twitter for over two years and researching it for over 12 months,  I understand the nuances of the communities on it, and have watched it morph as it has moved from being a geek tool to a plaything of the mainstream.

I’ve seen people pretend to be people they’re not. Consciously and unconsciously. Romances, flirtations and breakups. Proposals, business endeavours, connections – and their destruction. Lonely and socially inept people have connected with high flyers and leaders. I’ve watched as people going through the most intense pain of their lives have dared to share emotion and feeling that they’d never divulge to their closest friends in a physical sense. I’ve seen Twitterers decide, recently, that “in real life” friends and online friends really are the same thing. For many, normal people, physical presence does not matter any more.

In 2010 I’ll be completing my thesis in the communities of mombloggers on Twitter. I’m particularly looking at some individuals who have had things happen to them that we just don’t talk about in society. People who are judged through horrid newspaper reporting that does nothing more than enable the middle class and other everyone who doesn’t fit their beige lives. People in pain. Who perhaps with Twitter have found reason to keep going, found some sense of support they didn’t have available “in real life” – and through whose journey the rest of the community is learning more about things that often get swept under the carpet. Death. Abuse. Homelessness. Why some women hate others, and appropriate responses to companies and those we don’t understand.

It’s hard.

My big wish for my work in 2010 is that I can somehow do some justice to the women in the communities of Twitter, and give them the opportunity to be heard and appreciated. I can see the opportunities and topics for my PhD dissertation being unveiled, without my pushing them.

I know it won’t be easy when some decide to be contemptuous.

But I’m ready.

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The latent sphere of the network society

Time for a brain dump. I have just completed reading work coming from Mor Naaman, Jeffrey Boase and Chih-Hui Lai at Rutgers, slated for CSCW 2010, on the content of messages in what they’ve decided to call “social awareness streams.”

And right there I have an issue. I’m lumping it together with the term “weak ties” which found prominence in the 1940s (well before the internet was considered in social theory) and the found a new audience a few years back with its adaptation to online networks.

Today, referring to the activity on microblogging sites as either of these is probably very limited, based on myriad case studies of individuals and their very real connections and friendship strength, found through CMC. They are neither “weak” (as in traditional notions of acquaintances who can be called upon when needed), nor simply an “awareness” of others in a network. They are also not built in a heirarchical organization – they are horizontal. In fact, Castells’ emphatic assertions that when we talk about communication we are actually discussing realms of power and influence, means that “communication” isn’t a term to be thrown about lightly.

He’s right.

My theory of the strength of these relationships is discovered through a realm of CMC that is primarily representated in phatic communion. The relationships exist as communities within what I call the latent sphere of the networked society. (In this sense, I use the networked society as defined by Manuel Castells.)

ghostbusters slime

You can buy Ghostbusters-type slime like this at http://www.midnightwarriorsentertainment.com

If Vincent Miller is correct, and Twitter is nothing more than a celebrated phatic technology-a technology which exists purely to support phatic communion, then the very real relationships being discovered today through its use are far more tangible than those discovered through discussing the weather in real life. And the fact that Twitter has existed and morphed in so many ways over these short years I respectfully suggest dispels any notion that it fulfills the “social awareness streams” suggested by the researchers at Rutgers. It, in fact, provides people with real connections, in the most concrete form – in fact (hold on to your hat) in a way that potentially surpasses that experienced in real life.

These people will regularly never have met in real life, until at least having met online first. Homophily still exists – we still form communities on this phatic network. (Just look at the hashtags to find the communities and topic areas that draw people together. And that’s before Twitter added the List function. And then also, what about all the third party tools that operate solely on allowing you to classify your ‘groups’ of people in that space, such as Tweetdeck…) But these communities are not just asking simple stuff like what the weather is like, or just passing the time of day. The depth of feeling is not just as acquaintances. This depth of connection to people we never before would have connected with, and in fact to many we would never approach in real life (such as the homeless), has never before been realised by any other form of media. It’s new. It’s potentially both scary and exciting.

Even though Twitter is accepted by the mainstream middle class to such an extent it no longer receives explanations in newspapers (and in fact is used as the basis for reporting by lazy journalists), it still has not reached critical mass. But it will happen.

I believe the mommyblogger community is leading the way in demonstrating the case study proof of my assertions. We have seen real connections, and real support – people reaching out in very real ways to support each other, typically in times of great need – within this community. This latent sphere bubbles up and is electrically tangible. Like Flubber (it’s highly viscuous, highly volatile, and has a great sense of rhythm) or the slime in Ghostbusters. (Sorry, but you’ll understand my meaning :)) It’s not just “aware”.

So imagine the future – where more communities realise that potential. And then take it that step further, where the brands you love most are able to be part of that space. You know the old saying that if mums ruled the world, there’d be no more war? Here we are in a global networked society, with mums leading the way. Who can tell what comes next?

 

I’ll pay for content when there’s Twitter with penguins

Usually, I don’t consciously pay for content. I say ‘consciously’ because if I click on a link and there’s a paywall, I won’t do it. I also don’t subscribe to any newspapers or magazines (online or in ‘dead tree’ format). Basically, the quality of the content I’m seeing doesn’t make me want to pay for more of it.

Mr Murdoch does have the right idea. Getting people to pay for content is definitely a way forward. But News Corp. is missing the biggest opportunity they have. It’s a global organization, and while about 1% of their content producers are the best in the world, they are still.. the best. Why doesn’t News identify that globally based 1%, and put it in a paid-for format? At a really, really high price?

If Mr Murdoch thinks that I, or anyone else, will pay for the other 99% of his writers who are complete crap, then he’s mistaken. I’d rather read the far more professional blogs, with the diversity of opinions and transparency News cannot offer.

After freelancing, creating content for a few different publishers it also appears that organizations don’t like to pay their contributors. Waiting six months for a payment on any work done is not a viable business model. I don’t know why some people think it’s all hunky dory. And it’s been this way for many years.

So I don’t pay for content, and I’m wary of accepting any freelance job at all these days. Because I simply don’t like waiting to be paid when my time is better spent on more pressing things.

But my kids? That’s another thing entirely. I currently pay for three social network memberships. And while I’m a member of about 15 social networks, none of these payments are for me. They’re for my kids. My kids totally expect to pay to get access to information, community and technology. They’re growing up with a pay-for-it frame of mind. At the moment it’s a mum-pay-for-it model, and I’m fine with that because the quality of content accessed by my kids on networks like Club Penguin is really worth $5.95 a month. It’s a vibrant community, with great quality stuff. If organizations continue to treat them this way, by the time they’re my age they’ll be paying for content, and believing they should.

But a key part will be getting rid of the 99% of crap for adults and creating something worth subscribing to. We need a Club Penguin for grown ups.

Sidebar: For the “something shiny” HCI people: Twitter with penguins. Now we’re talking.

 

 

NestleFamily, breastfeeding and social media

I have a great amount of data from the recent NestleFamily twitterstorm. Luckily, I was able to see the storm coming. As a few of the attendees began tweeting about meeting up a few days prior to the start of #NestleFamily, I could see that there was going to be some fallout. My interest had been piqued a few months earlier with the Nestle “What’s for Dinner” junket that received some backlash (which I was a part of, albeit briefly).

Even though I was prepared for it, I doubt anyone saw the enormity and longevity of the community’s outrage. The tail of it is still going. This was a key happening on Twitter, and it had far more impact than the Motrin Moms speedbump. I would argue that Twitter’s community has morphed again as a result. Focus on the types of junkets mommy/daddybloggers who call themselves “PR friendly” accept, and what it says about who they are doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There were real responses from the community. Many negative. This great post by cynematic discusses this responsibility further.

My research

I manually copied thousands of tweets using the #NestleFamily hashtag. I also created an online survey that people were invited to complete during the twitterstorm. I’m very excited to have that data. The 66 completed responses are authentic, grabbed at the time it was all happening, and the qualitative survey responses are about as true to real emotion as you can get – people were telling me what they were doing at the same time as doing it. That’s not easy to get when questioning people about their about online activity. When I write it up it will be a chapter in my thesis, and probably a paper/conference presentation as well. I’m going to write up a short version of the results and post it here on my blog soon.

The most positive outcome has been the amazing work done by Annie, aka @PhDinParenting, who took the opportunity to ask some very pointed questions of Nestle. Nestle has been responding to her questions, so good on them. And Annie has posted their responses in the best, most transparent means possible. She then adds her own analysis and research, with links that are exhaustive, informed and inspiring. It is her work that represents the future of real journalism. It’s why I say that the future of journalism is social.

My question to Nestle

I kept largely out of the limelight on this twitterstorm so as not to taint the data I was collecting. I did, however, want to find out Nestle’s views on the dismal rate of breastfeeding in the USA. Nestle promotes its substitute milk in the USA, and with the USA’s very low rate of exclusive infant breastfeeding at 6 months of age, I wanted to find out what they thought about it all. I submitted the question as follows:

As a premier substitute baby milk manufacturer and marketer in the USA, I’d like to know what your opinion is about the fact that the rate of exclusive breastfeeding in the USA lies at just 12%, when the WHO says it recommends 100% exclusivity for the first six months.

Your Nestle site states that WHO is the “gold standard” so I’m assuming you would agree this statistic is troubling.

Why do you believe this statistic exists? Do you think it can change? And if so, how?

It took a few weeks (I think Nestle lost my question, and then located it when I enquired again about their response), but their response is here:

Thank you for contacting us. We apologize for the delay in our response and we appreciate your patience.

At Nestlé Nutrition we support the positions of the American Academy of Pediatrics and WHO that exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of age is best. The most recent statistics from the 2008 CDC Breastfeeding Report Card (2006 data) show that the national average from exclusive breastfeeding is around 13.6%, which is below the Health (sic) People 2010 goal of 17%.

According to the CDC Infant Feeding Practices Study (IFPS) II (http://www.cdc.gov/ifps/ , there are many reasons why mothers might stop breastfeeding, ranging from difficulty with sucking and latching to worries about producing enough milk. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/122/Supplement_2/S69#T2

We believe that optimal infant health is truly the goal and we advocate for more infant feeding support and education for mothers, regardless of whether they breastfeed, formula feed or both.

We are encouraged by the improvements reported in breastfeeding initiation and duration and will continue our efforts to educate and encourage mothers to give their babies a healthy start. That includes providing education and resources for her, and if she cannot or chooses not to breastfeed, or chooses to supplement her breastmilk, we provide high quality, iron-fortified infant formula-the only safe and healthy alternative to breastmilk.

Robyn Wimberly RD,LD.
Nestle Nutrition Contact Center

So there you go. I have my own thoughts on this response. The final paragraph, to me, is just disgraceful – it’s written very poorly. It seems to be saying that Nestle’s substitute formula is the only “safe and healthy alternative to breastmilk.” I know that those words “safe and healthy” are definitely not something I agree with. But I’m a breastfeeding advocate, ex-journalist and PR queen, and am used to spin. I have done the research. I know what I know and have made up my own mind. The US Government has initiated the Healthy People plan, but where breastfeeding rates are concerned it is failing – and it doesn’t reflect the WHO “gold standard” referred to on Nestle’s own site. There are holes all over this response. The last paragraph made me wince. I think Annie does a brilliant job of dissecting these responses and calling out the holes. I’m not going to do that here. I recommend you read all of Annie’s work, and if interested in more, you can read my short research blog piece on Breastfeeding in America, see the Ignite presentation, or email me for the full papers to see how the numbers stack up. And then make up your own mind.

So what does all this mean?

Now, I know that this storm has ended up being thrown in the “too hard” basket by many people on both sides of the fence, as well as those who sit on top of that same fence. Statistics are being used pragmatically. Manipulation of data is rife. There’s aggravation, and it becomes personal for many who feel attacked by even discussing it. For many, it sucked the ‘fun’ out of Twitter.

But the fact is, this milestone proved the resilience of the microblogging community. It’s opened a conversation that will bind the community even more solidly. It’s given us a view of people that we didn’t know before. People to both connect with, disconnect from, and understand better, even if they disagree with us. If Twitter were really nothing more than messages about eating candy and frozen dinners, then this storm wouldn’t exist. People have taken it upon themselves to get better educated about something they might not have known about before. They were provided links and questions. They had the opportunity to follow up, and go deeper into the issues than they have ever been led by mainstream media, and Nestle ended up without the buffer of media to spin their messages to.

Key Learnings

For the community: Mainstream media is no longer an excuse for not knowing about stuff. The depth of information you have is up to you and your attention span. That’s a hard responsibility to own. In Nestle’s case, I congratulate anyone (including some attendees) who tried to find out more information or followed it up, no matter where you ultimately sit on the ‘issues’. I challenge those who simply sought an easy path and blindly continued tweeting Nestle-friendly inane statements on Twitter, without addressing any of the twitterstorm. It won’t, in the longer term, help your credibility in the community. The really influential people in this equation can be easily identified. And that’s awesome.

For companies: You don’t get to own your messages any more. Social media represents a revolution, not an evolution. It’s another tool in your promotional strategy, but you have to be ready for the real conversation. The one where your comments get called on. The one you don’t direct. And you will never have the last word unless the community deems it to be okay.

Disrupting the barriers of media in the 21st Century

This pre-internet installation was and remains a vital consideration in the future of media. It has been supposed for a long time that communication and media technologies allowed people who already knew each other to improve existing relationships. Alternatively, broadcast media were used to send corporate-owned messages to the ‘masses’. There has been very little in the understanding of communities and how they are built and morph through media. To date, due to the expense of entry to creating content for media communication technology, most middle class people have been limited to the telephone – and that form is one-to-one rather than the one-to-many formats offered by social media. This installation’s first day shows how people who did not know each other were able to create conversations and relationships – even for a short time.

People in the video respond a certain way because they realize people in the other location can actually see them. This created an ‘event’. In the 21st Century, when everything that happens in public locations could readily and easily be posted to the web, are we seeing a change in everyday public behaviors due to the fact that we are aware, more than ever before, that someone might be posting our actions? From music concerts to classrooms, from traffic accidents to natural environments, people are creating ‘events’. The greater questions are how have we as a community become the public entity we are creating, and what impact does this have on how we relate to each other. What has made people immediately reach for their cell phone to take a picture when something happens? This is a stage of history we’ve never faced before.

While we have come through an era where “the medium is the message,” we have moved on from this. The medium is still the technology. The message today is found in the resonance of community. One is not the other. In fact, the irony as stated by Steve Harrison in his essay on this particular video (found in HCI Remixed), is key. Separation does in fact, invite a connection. If we believe that human beings seek resonance with each other, eliminating some of the barriers to finding that resonance through disrupting the accepted norms of relationships and community will in fact deliver us to new ways of ‘seeing’ each other. Through these new ways of discovering resonance we will be able to grow an international array of communities. The international would relate not just to geographical space, but also class space. We have a media which will offer everyone an opportunity to find resonance of community with the homeless, the traditional-media famous, and their neighbor.

Do online communities pretend to care?

I am fortunate enough to have been invited to attend IMSI, the Invitational Masters Student Invitational, to be held at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, the weekend of October 16-18. Given Rutgers received over 100 applications, to be one of the 25 students invited to discuss their current research and proposed dissertation topic with Rutgers faculty, existing doctoral candidates, and other invitees is a privelege and real highlight of my academic career.

In my application I had to submit an existing paper to demonstrate my research. The paper I chose to submit was on identity work performed on twitter through the use of language and sentence structure. This paper looked at how people create and present an identity of themselves on Twitter, primarily through the use of @ replies, hashtags and retweets. While it’s a decent paper, for Rutgers I’d like to extend it to look at this identity work, and how the Twitter community sees its need to create an identity of concern in crisis and tragedy. This is where I’m headed.

Online communities and crisis

We’ve all seen media stories of tragic events, and how people are affected by them – and how they’ve gathered together online as a result. While sites exist to create online memorials, sometimes it crosses over and a personal fun page is morphed into a place for others to gather when they’ve passed on. On Twitter, I have personally witnessed multiple occasions where someone has ended up tweeting their own tragic events. The death of a wife. The death of a child. I wonder what would have happened if Twitter had been so commonplace during larger tragedies such as the Virginia Tech shootings.

I have watched the online community gather to provide concern and support to individuals directly affected by tragedy. It is this kind of resonance that led me to undertake a small content analysis on the tweets associated with the Australian bushfires last year. I wanted to find out who was tweeting about it? How were they involved? What were they saying and why?

The paper was a very small, very specific analysis in which I was surprised to discover that two thirds of people who twittered during the high point of the bushfire-related tweets were located nowhere near the tragedy. In fact, they were overseas. None of them knew people directly affected. And what were they saying?

Apart from retweeting basic information, the majority of people wanted to know how could they help?

Seeking triangulation? I’m not quite there yet…

Last week I attended the presentation of Leysia Palen’s to-date work in crisis informatics at CU. And the data appears to be reflected in her unit’s research (in particular, on the American-located Red River floods) as well. Exactly the same percentage – two thirds of people tweeting during a disaster are not directly involved.

So, is this real?

I hear a lot of people who doubt the friendships experienced in online communities. They say “how do you know they’re real?”

Now, of course they’re not doubting that the person tweeting is human (sometimes now, however, that presents an entirely different issue), but they are definitely doubting their authenticity. How do you know someone is really concerned about you if you’ve never met them face to face before? And it’s a really good question.

The Karen Walker factor

Karen Walker was a special character who found life, and resonance with many in the hit sitcom, Will and Grace.  While the show has had its day, there are many Walker moments that still hit the nail on the head.It is what is swimming in my head as I plan my paper for the Rutgers Invitational.will and grace

One of these is in an episode when Will and Grace are not talking (after a massive argument in which Will tells Grace to move out, which I swear was one of the strongest bits of acting on television I’ve seen). In chatting with Jack about how to get Will and Grace to talk again, she firstly says, “pretend to think, pretend to think.” She then follows it with “Pretend to care, pretend to care.” Of course Karen does care. She’s just conscious of the need to appear to care as well. Plus it’s funny.

So here I am:

* Are people who offer support in online communities ‘pretending to care’?

* Is the expressed concern a demonstration of identity work that gains them favour and positions them as caring individuals you’d want to have as a friend?

* How does the caring from the community affect the person experiencing tragedy?

Do you have any experience of this? Would you be willing to undergo an interview for my research? What do you believe is true?

My sincere thanks goes to the SJMC at CU, without the support of which I wouldn’t be able to conduct any of my research and also in particular to Dean Paul Voakes who saw fit to support my application with a letter of recommendation that I never saw, but am convinced was highly influential in my acceptance.

Don’t think influence, think resonance

The new buzzword in social media appears to be Influence. According to conferences, some marketers it’s what people want. To influence others.

This is a mistake. It demonstrates a very shallow, one-sided view.

(cartoon from xkcd.com)

Talk to most people in social media for example, and they’ll tell you the truth. What they’re doing is looking for, and responding to resonance, not influence.

What all of us seek in social media is Resonance.

The influence part happens afterwards.

In social media, you can’t influence someone unless they want to be influenced.

Guess what… if traditional media had understood the need to find real resonance with its market, it wouldn’t be in the situation it is today.

Resonance. It’s what creates meaning. Just like the rice here.