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Reading notes: The Distraction Addiction

I have been looking forward to this book since Alex first told me he was working on it (he was kind enough to agree to serve on the advisory board for a project I planned).

The book doesn’t disappoint. OK, that’s an understatement. It’s one of those books I wish I had written.

Even though this is a book about the dangers of technology use, it is not one of those panicked, hopeless, technology-hating arguments. It is a guide for making the best out of technology – for using it rather than being used by it.

The book’s premise rests in the idea of the extended mind, a concept Alex reframes as entanglement with technology. At its best, entanglement is a state of feeling the body and mind being pleasantly and seamlessly extended by technology – perceiving technology as part of oneself, just like a skilled skier perceives the skis as part of herself when zooming down a slope. This kind of entanglement has been happening since the beginning of history and tool use. Whether you use skis, an axe, a bicycle, a pen, a car, or a computer, you can have that sense of it extending your human abilities, being a part of yourself. However, there are times when entanglement goes wrong, and technology feels like a pair of broken, uncomfortable, awkward high-heel shoes. Then, it becomes an extension of yourself that hinders movement, an arm that doesn’t obey the brain’s commands; a cause of frustration and stress.

The book is grounded in solid Western empirical research as well as Eastern thought and practice. It combines the two to propose a guide for the positive kind of entanglement. In the last chapter, it offers 8 principles for doing so:

  1. be human
  2. be calm
  3. be mindful
  4. make conscious choices
  5. extend your abilities
  6. seek flow
  7. engage with the world
  8. restore your capacity for attention

The book ends beautifully and hopefully:

“You are the inheritor of a contemplative legacy that you can use to retake control of your technology, to tame the monkey mind, and to redesign your extended mind. Connection is inevitable. Distraction is a choice.”

The question remains, how easy and feasible is the plan proposed in this book? I find it feasible, but not necessarily easy. It requires some training of executive attention (aka mindfulness) that might take a while to develop, and demands commitment to regular practice.

Reading notes: Identity and Interaction

As I’ve been working on a research project to examine how people manage their online identities across social networking sites (it’s not too late to participate in a research interview, if you’d like to help!), I have been thinking more and more that what we’re studying is how people speak about how they manage their online identities – not how they actually do so. That is because identity work (performing one’s identity) is not entirely self-conscious and strategic. Granted, online we have more time and opportunity to engineer the identity we present – and many of our research participants really do think about this in sophisticated ways. But what people say they do and what they actually do are different things. I’ve been thinking about the need to complement self-reported data with observational data.

And then, while consuming my Monday dose of lolcats, I came across this sociolinguistic study of LOLspeak – which lead to a conclusion that LOLspeak is used to construct online identity – not only as a cat, but also as an Internet-savvy person.

I followed the line of thought and some of the references cited in this study, and I was attracted to the line of work by Bucholtz & Hall (not that Hall, but the name coincidence helped). So I read a paper that I feel will become a cornerstone in one of my future studies of online identity. I summarize it here and think how it applies to my research of online identity management.

Bucholtz, M., & Hall, K. (2005). Identity and interaction: A sociocultural linguistic approach. Discourse Studies, 7(4-5), 585-614.

The paper integrates several strands of sociolinguistic, linguistic, anthropological, and cultural studies to define an approach to identity. This approach defines identity as emergent through social interaction, local and situated in specific interactions and contexts. This view of identity is contrasted with that of identity as a stable concept that the person brings to the social interaction. Identity is performed and created in millions of micro-interactions – small acts of speech and interactions. In the authors’ words:

[…] identity is emergent in discourse and does not precede it. […] identity [is] an intersubjectively achieved social and cultural phenomenon. […] the process of identity construction does not reside within the individual but in intersubjective relations of sameness and difference, realness and fakeness, power and disempowerement. (pp. 607-8).

This social constructionist view of identity is not groundbreakingly new. It echoes the social interactionist view of the self advanced by Mead, for example. But the paper goes beyond proposing a view of identity. It proposes five principles that can guide the study of identity.

Principle 1: Emergence

The first principle states that language does not play the limited role of reflecting an individual’s internal mental state (or sense of identity) – but that language use actively constructs identity. People “do,” or perform, identity through discourse.

Identity is best viewed as the emergent product rather than the pre-existing source of linguistic and other semiotic practices and therefore as fundamentally a social and cultural phenomenon (p. 588).

Research implication: Examine discourse, and especially interaction, to see how people actively construct and perform their identities. In social media, the advantage is that this discourse is already inscribed. The examination of interaction means looking at actual conversations, not just profiles.

Principle 2: Positionality

Social science often associates identity with broad demographic categories, such as age, gender, race, etc. However, identities are much more local than that. Even in a group that seems homogenous according to demographic characteristics, local, temporary roles are enacted by participants in moment to moment interaction. Participants may assume and enact temporary roles, and orientations (stances) that depend on the particular context and situation, and can only be grasped through a detailed, ethnographic approach.

Identities encompass (a) macro-level demographic categories; (b) local, ethnographically specific cultural positions; and (c) temporary and interactionally specific stances and participant roles (p. 592).

Research implication: This principle points to detailed ethnographic observation as a necessary research method to understand identity construction. Survey research is not only self-reported, but assigns identity based on demographic categories. Ethnographic observation has access to understanding local contexts and the specific cultural position an actor takes in a given context; and to the transient, temporary roles and stances participants assume. This means, for example, that studying an interaction on Twitter is necessary, but not sufficient. To make sense of that interaction, one needs to understand the cultural context of the participants. To a great extent, the cultural context is defined by Twitter culture and social norms (whatever those are). So, an ethnographic, participant understanding of this culture is a prerequisite to being able to draw any conclusions about Twitter interactions (and one of the reasons why social media immersion is required in my social media seminar). It also follows that identity on Twitter is constructed through several micro-interactions. Each micro interaction is temporary and local, and in any give micro-interaction the participant may assume any given role of stance. These roles of stances need not be consistent and coherent across time, although I can see that patterns would emerge in time.

Principle 3: Indexicality

Indexicality gets down to the very mechanisms by which identity is constructed. Simply put, the way we talk use language positions ourselves and others as certain kinds of people. At the more obvious level, this is done by assigning labels – stating that someone belongs to a certain social category. At more subtle levels, the way we use language may be associated with a certain group of people – for example, scholarly language with academics, or certain linguistic structures with women, members of ethnic groups, etc. The study of LOLspeak mentioned earlier concluded that use of LOLspeak serves to build one’s identity as an Internet savvy person, one who is informed about memes. This is done exactly through the process of indexicality. Other mechanisms through which identity is produced through language use are implicatures and presuppositions; orientations or stances; footings and participant roles; style; etc.

Identity relations emerge in interaction through several related indexical processes, including: (1) overt mention of the identity categories and labels; (b) implicatures and presuppositions regarding one’s own or others’ identity position; (c) displayed evaluative and epistemic orientations to ongoing talk, as well as interactional footing and participant roles; and (d) the use of linguistic structures and systems that are ideologically associated with specific personas and groups (p. 594).

Research implications: Research should include microscopic attention to how language use positions the participant and others in social categories, or exhibits styles and stances associated with social categories. For example, an accumulation of forceful stances may be equated to a display of a masculine gendered identity. These social categories can only be understood in the context of socio-cultural values (aka the ideology) of the group. For example, many people on Twitter post recommendations – mostly, recommendations for things to read. How does this practice position them and others? Is the implication here that one is the recommended and the others are the audience, that one is the expert, and the other ones the students?

Note how in this tweet, the user is positioning himself both as a student, and as a recommender to other twitter users.

Principle 4: Relationality

This principle emphasizes that identities “acquire social meaning in relation to other available identity positions and other social actors” – in other words, identity is relative to the others’ positions. One can define oneself in relation to others – for example, as the same or different. In addition to similarity/difference, the Bucholtz and Hall propose two more types of relations: genuiness/artifice and authority/delegitimacy.

Identities are intersubjectively constructed through several, often overlapping, complementary relations, including similarity/difference, genuiness/artifice, and authority/delegitimacy (p. 598).

Bucholtz and Hall expand on these moves participants in social interaction can make to position themselves in relation to others, and discuss several “tactics of intersubjectivity;”playing up similarities or differences, establishing authority/credibility or sabotaging it by delegitimizing it, etc.

Research implication: It takes a trained, careful eye to begin to notice these tactics in the fast flow of everyday discourse. The fact that these tactics can be complementary and simultaneous makes things even more difficult. All that comes to mind right now is a type of discourse I often see on Twitter, that against people who self-define as social media experts or gurus. With this type of tweet, the author may do all 3 tactics at the same time: differentiate self from these self-proclaimed experts; point out the artifice/fakeness of the other; delegitimize the other while building up own authority.

Principle 5: Partialness

This is best explained in the authors’ own words:

Because identity is inherently relational, it will always be partial, produced through contextually situated and ideologically informed configurations of self and other. Even seemingly coherent displays of identity, such as those that pose as deliberate and intentional, are reliant on both interactional and ideological constraints for their articulation:

[Principle 5]: Any given construction of identity may be in part deliberate and intentional, in part habitual and hence often less than fully conscious, in part an outcome of interactional negotiation and contestation, in part an outcome of others’ perceptions and representations, and in part an effect of larger ideological processes and material structures that may become relevant to interaction. It is therefore constantly shifting both as interaction unfolds and across discourse contexts.

The authors relate this partialness principle to the concept of agency – the degree of autonomy and intentionality behind a social act. However, a more productive view of agency is that of accomplishment of social action, whether that action was deliberate or not.

Research implications: To me, this seems that identity cannot be fully known – because it is a moving target, constantly shifting and evolving, and its meaning depends not on internally defined states, but on a lot of external meanings – those of other people, of the context, culture, ideology. So, while it is possible to capture tactics and processes by which individuals construct identity, even observe longitudinal patterns, in may be impossible to capture one’s identity fully. It would be simple and simplistic to consider each social network a “discourse context” – e.g. Twitter is a discourse context, and Facebook another one. And while this may be partially (partially!) true, it may also be true that one can experience – participate in, even create, several discourse contexts on Twitter alone. What are the defining boundaries of a discourse context?

It also means that self-reports are insufficient for capturing identity processes, because not all identity actions are fully conscious, and because there are many other relational and contextual factors that need to be taken into consideration.

And finally, it means that the factors that contribute to identity construction are multiple: the self, others the self interacts with, the larger context, culture, ideology, material structures. Any study of identity that looks at only one of these is partial. Any study that looks at all of them must be… an ethnography. It may not be feasible or desirable to look at all of them, but it is important to acknowledge and articulate the partialness of the very knowledge we produce.

Research article: Online influencers

There are many attempts in the industry (and many apps) to identify online influencers. My main concern with them is that they operate with a seat-of-the-pants operational definition of the concept of “influencer.” What are, exactly, the behaviors that characterize an influencer? And how do you know that the behaviors a certain app is measuring (e.g. number of followers and number of retweets on Twitter) are actually measuring social influence and not something else? We have seen that, according to such measures, Sockington the cat is more influential than Chris Brogan.

This is where academic research can help. I’m browsing the latest issue of Human Communication Research and came across this article:

Huffaker, D. (2010). Dimensions of leadership and social influence in online communities. Human Communication Research, 36(4), 593-617

[note: David Huffaker completed his Ph.D. at Northwestern and now he is a researcher at Google, according to his website. This paper was part of his dissertation work.]

The article set out to identify the communication traits of online leaders (aka influencers, but influencer is not a word, so it can’t be used in an academic publication). These communication traits are of two types: (1) linguistic characteristics; and (2) social interaction patterns.

To identify influencers’ communication traits, Huffaker used both automated textual analysis and social network analysis.

Drawing on previous literature on leaders in the offline world and opinion leaders, Huffaker proposes the following abilities that define online leaders: The ability to:

  • trigger feedback
  • spark conversations within the community
  • shape the way other members of a group discuss a topic

in other words, they…

  • set agendas for discussion by causing or facilitating dialog on a particular topic
  • frame discussion by shaping the way a topic is talked about

The study was designed to examine the relationship between 3 characteristics of online leaders and online leadership itself. If there is a strong relationship, this means that the 3 characteristics are good indicators of online leadership. So, the 3 characteristics were the independent variables, and online leadership was the dependent variable:

Independent variables:

  1. communication activity (measured as: number of posts a person has contributed to a group; number of replies a person contributes to messages initiated by other group members; length of participation in the community, as an indication of credibility)
  2. social networks (measured as: expansiveness – the number of times a person replies to different group members; reciprocity – frequency of a person’s participation in a back-and-forth dialog with another person; brokering – being the link between two otherwise unrelated groups)
  3. language use (measured as: talkativeness – the average length of messages contributed by a person; linguistic diversity – the number of unique words found in a message; assertiveness – frequency of certain words indicating assertiveness, such as “always” and “never;” affect – frequency of words that represent emotional language, such as “nice,” “ugly,” “happy,” etc.

Dependent variable: online leadership, operationalized (measured) as:

  • reply trigger – the ability to inspire responses
  • conversation creation – the ability to spark a long dialog between users
  • language diffusion – measured as the number of words used by the author of a message that were repeated by other users in subsequent replies (so, if A triggers a discussion using the word “inappropriate,” if the same word is used frequently in other posts on the topic, this indicates high language diffusion, and therefore, social influence

The author used linguistic analysis(LIWC)  and social network analysis (UCINET) software and performed the analyses on a random sample of 16 Google Groups on various topics. The sample included 33,540 users and 632,622 messages written between June 21, 2003-January 31, 2005.

The measures of the independent and dependent variables were analyzed using correlations, regression analysis, and hierarchical linear modeling analysis (I wish I could explain these to you, but I can’t – especially not the last one) to test a series of hypotheses that are neatly summarized by the author in this one sentence:

“Users who generate the most message replies, comments, or conversations, or spread the most word choices [aka online leaders, the dependent variable – MV’s note] were expected to exhibit more communication activity and tenure in the community, more network centrality and brokering behaviors, and language that exhibits talkativeness, affect, assertiveness, and linguistic diversity [measures of the independent variables, MV’s note].”

After testing relationships between these variables, the following emerged as characteristics of online leaders:

Online leaders:

  1. post a lot of messages and a lot of replies (high communication volume)
  2. have been part of the group for a long time (online tenure)
  3. engage with several different members of the group
  4. engage in back-and-forth dialog with members of the group
  5. tend to write longer messages than other group members
  6. use a richer vocabulary that other community members. Tthis is linked in the research literature to cognitive complexity – i.e. how smart one is – and therefore, to credibility. Or, it is possible that the richer, more colorful language draws readers in.
  7. are assertive
  8. express affect and emotion (attitudes) – which, along with assertiveness, may be an indicator of leaders’ passion for the topic
  9. are able, through behaviors 3 and 4 above, to create supportive, loyal relationships with other community members and between them. Leaders are important to the success of the group as a whole because they are instrumental in creating and maintaining relationships within the community.

The only characteristics that was not associated with leadership was brokerage.

Of course, these findings are valid for discussion groups. We don’t know yet if they apply to other types of online communities.

So, what do you think? Do these sound to you as reasonable characteristics of online leaders? Will this study change the way you identify online influencers?

How social media change organizing

I gave this presentation in TECH 621 today – I’m pretty proud of the way I synthesized and organized (what I thought were) the most important ideas from Clay Shirky‘s book “Here Comes Everybody.”

I’m not sure how well it went over in class – students seemed tired, and we didn’t have time to discuss as much as we might have liked to. So I’m posting here and inviting students and readers to continue the conversation in the post’s comments. If you have read the book, I believe you’ll appreciate this synthesis. If you haven’t, I’m not sure how much sense it makes…


Questions? Comments? Cabbage jokes?

Reading notes: Twitterville

Twitterville is a collection of stories about Twitter written by a twetizen who is enchanted with the Twitter village. It is a business book as much as it is a piece of
anthropology – by reading stories about a place, we infer its values, social norms, and culture.

Most of the stories are wonderful, uplifting, and show the positive side of Twitter. They are not, I think, your everyday Twitter stories – they are the extraordinary events that stand out in a place’s history. I’m glad someone took the time to document and save them. I remember living through most of them, and it felt great to read these accounts of recent Twitter history. Israel is an excellent story teller, and if I didn’t envy his warm, fluid, friendly, yet clear and simple writing style so much, I’d go on and on praising it :).

I loved reading the book, and enjoyed every page of it. I can imagine critics complaining that the book is overly positive – that it portrays Twitterville as a better place than (they think) it is. Israel’s Twitter enchantment doesn’t bother me, primarily because, like a respectable ethnographer, he spells out his biases clearly and repeatedly. He explains his point of view and enables the reader to decide how to interpret the content. As a qualitative researcher, I do not believe in the myth of objectivity. I think the best we can do is explain our biases, so readers can make informed decisions about interpreting our writing. I see very little of this in popular literature, and I hope more authors will adopt this practice.

… and Israel’s enchantment with Twitter doesn’t bother me, because I can relate to it and I share his point of view. I was initially amused by the claim that Twitter can lead to… world peace. But as I read the last chapter, I realized that, as a firm believer in the power of communication to make and break our world, I too, think, that conversation is the best solution – and that it can, indeed, help us make peace.

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