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Social Media for Social Change http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia a project of the Philadelphia Applied Research Lab Mon, 14 Sep 2009 03:56:22 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.4.2 SMSC at ISEA2009 http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia/2009/09/smsc-at-isea2009/ http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia/2009/09/smsc-at-isea2009/#comments Mon, 14 Sep 2009 02:50:32 +0000 Jeremy http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia/?p=244 I recently travelled to Belfast to attend ISEA2009, the International Symposium on Electronic Art, and to give a short presentation on the Social Media for Social Change project. The event afforded a great opportunity to look back and reflect upon our work and process to date. It was valuable to assemble the various iterative steps along the way in order to communicate a cohesive story about the project. So, the fundamental question we are asking is: how can we reimagine civil discourse in the context of social media and networked communication? Our objectives are: 1) to learn more about human interaction (online and offline); 2) to create structural changes (as opposed to merely tweaking existing tools); and 3) to build environments that accommodate divergent perspectives, mediate disagreement, and encourage civil debate.

The presentation also marks the end of phase one. Future funding for the project is uncertain — our funding from UArts has ended — but we hope to continue on. The NIMBY Game has number of possible ways forward, including:

  • a limited edition production of the game
  • use the game as an educational or training tool in more specific applications, e.g. neighborhood conflict resolution and mediation, training for urban planners, general civics education
  • a version that replicates an actual neighborhood to give players a more intimate knowledge of the place and deal with very specific conflicts residents may be confronted with
  • scale the game up to the urban level by developing a BUG (big urban game)
  • digital versions that more explicitly incorporate social media and networked technologies

Look for more updates here soon. In the meantime, here’s the slide show from the ISEA presentation:

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Um, Where’s the Media? http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia/2009/07/um-wheres-the-media/ http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia/2009/07/um-wheres-the-media/#comments Mon, 27 Jul 2009 03:23:53 +0000 Jeremy http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia/?p=242 After several rounds of testing the paper prototype for the NIMBY game, we are close to finalizing the rules of play and planning for the next iteration in the evolution of the SMSC project. Looking back on where we began earlier this year, we are excited with the development of the game and pleasantly surprised about the trajectory this project has followed. We certainly did not expect to be designing a board game when we set out to explore questions about the efficacy of social media in strengthening civil discourse in the public sphere! But, the game follows logically. In presenting real-world problems of land use and and planning in cities, it establishes a common set of problems that the players must debate and to a large degree work together to solve in order for the game to progress to the end. This is exactly the kind of scenario in which people meet, disagree or agree, debate, discuss, and form communities everyday. Can a game prepare people to better handle these conflicts and differences in their daily lives? We think so.

So, where is the media? We’re still working on “how networked technologies and social media may be used to create hybrid public spaces where civic discourse and meaningful participation are facilitated, organized, and nurtured at a grass-roots level.” The NIMBY game has given us a great deal of insight into the “networked” and “social” aspects of the public sphere; we needed to first understand fundamental ideas about how people relate to each other (offline and online) so that we can begin to develop the technology and media aspects of the project. It is unclear (to me anyway) if this compartmentalization is overly reductionist, or if our process has failed to encompass the rich subtlety of the design problem(s). What is clear is that the problem is quite large and complex (most interesting problems are!) and the limitations of our team’s capacity and resources required us to take a slower, more deliberate series of steps through the research, design, and prototyping. There’s still much to be done.

On the horizon is developing a version of the NIMBY game within the context of social media. We would like to start by mocking up a web-based, asynchronous software iteration of the game, most likely starting with an iPhone app because of its built-in interface and functional constraints. Initially, this will be pure conceptual design until we can move into phase two of the project as we secure more resources (funding and developers). I will be presenting the SMSC project at ISEA 2009 in Belfast at the end of August. Look for more refined documentation between now and then.

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The NIMBY Game: More Prototyping http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia/2009/07/the-nimby-game-more-prototyping/ http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia/2009/07/the-nimby-game-more-prototyping/#comments Fri, 03 Jul 2009 01:55:45 +0000 Jeremy http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia/?p=240 We’re working through more iterations of the NIMBY Game with this refined paper prototype.

The NIMBY Game

The NIMBY Game

The NIMBY Game

The NIMBY Game

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The NIMBY Game http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia/2009/06/the-nimby-game/ http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia/2009/06/the-nimby-game/#comments Sun, 21 Jun 2009 04:43:53 +0000 Jeremy http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia/?p=238 We’ve spent the last couple of meetings working out the details of a really interesting game that we believe will create productive situations in which players compete but with the end goal of insuring that everyone wins — that is, the object of the game is to work together, negotiate differences, and hopefully learn skills that can translate into civil discourse within the commons. The value of such a problem-solving game is to suggest new formats for engagement within the realm of social media.

The NIMBY game (as most may know, that’s “not in my back yard”) challenges a group of four players to basically plan a city in such a way that the quality of life for all players is maximized. Players are forced to make difficult decisions and compromises in order to place a range of urban elements — parks, factories, a casino, a convention center, and so on — so that they do not disproportionately affect any one neighborhood. (Interesting  how so much of our other work outside of this project factors into this particular game!) The rules and physical prototype of the game are in development and we’ll be testing it soon.

While we think that this is quite an exciting game, the challenge before us is to more specifically connect it to the social media and communication technology that are the focus of this design research project. Ultimately, I think that the game must be developed as an online multi-player application (probably not feasible for this first phase), but there are opportunities for other iterations in the physical domain — experiments with limited language, other mediated communication, etc. — that we can explore as well. Any thoughts?

SMSC: The NIMBY Game

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Extremes and Nuances http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia/2009/06/extremes-and-nuances/ http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia/2009/06/extremes-and-nuances/#comments Fri, 05 Jun 2009 15:07:40 +0000 Nick http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia/?p=231 I’ve been thinking about the earlier iteration of the tool we’re developing – specifically about incentives to help each other have more meaningful conversations even if we disagree with each other. The ideas behind the Think Tank that is yet to be named suggest (at least to me) some other options that we may want to explore in the future.

One of the important components of the Think Tank’s work is the requirement that participants acknowledge their perspectives openly. We have talked about doing this kind of thing in our designs – having people declare their perspectives and then pairing them up with someone who disagrees with them – effectively tying the fate of each person to someone who they disagree with. We could take this further by selecting multiple topics. By having people choose a side on 3-4 topics and then having their opinions declared throughout the conversations, we might create a situation where partnerships across divisive subjects could be more organically created.

For example, one might  declare their perspective on several topics and then enter a chatroom where the moderator starts a discussion on only one topic. Each person could be fully identified throughout the discussion:

Sally (pro-choice, against charter schools, for stronger border controls): I think its important that we invest in our public schools rather than make them compete against each other.

Jim (pro-choice, for charter schools, for stronger border controls): That works in theory, but what about the kids who are in school now? Why should they have to go to bad schools just because we believe this utopian idea of “public schools?”

By declaring our opinion on more than one topic, its possible that we’ll get people to think in more complex ways about the other people in these discussions. Knowing that someone is going to be an ally in a later discussion might make us less likely to say something belligerent to them in the current discussion.

We also might be more willing to listen to someone who we agree with on some topics, or even weave our thoughts on these topics into discussions on other topics, which could create a more nuanced over-all discussion.

Going deeper, forcing people to declare their own opinions and have them shown in extreme terms might be an ongoing reminder that such descriptions fail to account for subtleties in our views. By holding up that mirror, we may be able to get people to think twice before judging other participants. And as these conversations proceed, they will hopefully be reminded of this. For example, while Sally is “pro-choice” she likely has complicated feelings on the topic, and when these more subtle thoughts are expressed immediately after her “pro-choice” declaration, it may nudge participants to put less weight on other people’s labels.

Cass Sunstein (one of the authors of Nudge) has a new book out called Going to Extremes which discusses how we are pushed toward more extremist views when we are surrounded by people who agree with us. Is it possible that declaring these views in an extremist manner in a discussion might push us in the other direction?

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Anticipation http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia/2009/05/anticipation/ http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia/2009/05/anticipation/#comments Fri, 08 May 2009 16:22:44 +0000 Ona http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia/?p=226

I think I’ve waited so long to write about SMSC because I was more curious to read about other’s feelings first. I’m happy I did because like I suspected we’re all pretty much on the same page, nailing on the head our key issues.

The ability to talk about this from various angles getting in the way of a clear and concise plan of action.

Trying to coordinate conflicting schedules

A lack of definition.

I also agree with Jeremy that this project is a great opportunity. By revisiting this at a later date will not only give us the time to rejuvenate but we will let this opportunity sink in, juice us up for a marathon of work that needs to run between the point of return and our new dead line.

Like always bring it on! I’m more than excited to upgrade to the physical realm. Although many of our previous discussions of conducting a game has seemed like a social experiment, maybe because essentially that’s what we are doing. So let the games begin.

Regardless, as the school year is winding down, I’m starting to get super excited about the new possibilities of this project and how the dialogue since our hiatus has seemed already promising!

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Back in the Game? http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia/2009/05/back-in-the-game/ http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia/2009/05/back-in-the-game/#comments Thu, 07 May 2009 05:05:44 +0000 Jeremy http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia/?p=219 We have decided to take a short hiatus from the project during these few last hectic weeks of the spring semester in order to deal with the requirements of the academic calendar. As a result, we will be extending this first phase of the SMSC project into the summer months, a move which will give us the much needed extra time to focus more exclusively on our work and culminate with something more substantial. In my opinion, this pause has been helpful; a chance to let go of some of my own frustrations with the sluggish pace of our work, but more importantly a chance to reflect on our discoveries to date and determine our next steps. As I indicated in my last post, the problem of designing social media better conducive to civil discourse is complicated and slippery and there are so many interesting aspects and ways to enter into it that we’ve had a difficult time establishing proper constraints. Jethro and Nick have encouraged us to return to the game structure that we’ve previously developed and I absolutely agree. In my eagerness to get our hands dirty so to speak with some of the social media technology, I had moved us prematurely away from the game strategy partly because the logistical questions of organizing and recruiting the scenarios seemed too daunting given our capacity.

Perhaps I’m just a bit slow (or distracted, more likely), but I finally have some clarity about how to tie together a few loose ends of the project — hence, the above diagram which describes how the game can be organized in a public space with or without any prior recruitment of participants. Here is a structure that builds off the initial game outline (an inner circle of engaged discussants surrounded by bystanders and potential participants) but inserts itself right where we want to be: the Commons. The space of discourse delineated by the circle of chairs is messy, provisional, temporary. Why does someone enter it? Why do the stay or leave? What do they say and how do they say it? Various communication scenarios can be iterated, starting with purely verbal but then introducing other means of communication (perhaps technology, perhaps not) and limited vocabularies. Do traces of these discussions get documented and left behind, adding an asynchronous thread to the discourse? No doubt this will need to be refined and the rules and incentives more carefully worked out, but I’m really excited about this direction. It gets us out there in the world and it’s messy cuz that’s the nature of the Commons, physical or digital.

(It’s curious but completely obvious that this scenario is related to other projects that Nick, Jethro, and I have created and participated in as Directors in the Think Tank that has yet to be named; Publicly Held Private Meetings that operate in a very similar fashion.)

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The Space of Embodied Anonymity http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia/2009/04/the-space-of-embodied-anonymity/ http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia/2009/04/the-space-of-embodied-anonymity/#comments Mon, 27 Apr 2009 03:34:39 +0000 Jeremy http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia/?p=215 The problem is: How can networked communication — specifically social media — be better designed in order to strengthen and foster civil discourse within these networked digital spaces? We have proposed to discern what makes a viable commons, or public space, in the conventional sense so that we may begin to envision more appropriate spaces created by social media. On the one hand, we have public and quasi-public spaces where citizens may brush past each other (or ignore each other), converse, organize assemblies, share information, ideas, snacks, play games, shake hands, exchange glances, smells, and be together in physical and temporal proximity. On the other hand, we have the spaces defined by communication networks and social media where “users” can connect to friends, acquaintances, and, more often than not, strangers via image, sound, and text both synchronously and asynchronously and not bound by (but potentially reinforced by) physical proximity. Framed in this way, I find an inherent paradox in the attempt to hybridize these two very different spaces, where the anonymity and insecurity of the vastness of networked communication space opposes the intimacy and exposure of public space.

The fact of being physically in proximity with others in a public space heralds a fundamental degree of exposure (dare I say vulnerability) that charges my potential interactions with others in that space. My name and other biographical details may not be known on the surface but other characteristics about me — overt and more subtle — are readily discoverable. As are those of my fellow citizens. Potentially revealed are gender, station in society, ethnicity, physical (dis)ability, and other superficial signs. More importantly, though, to interact even on the most basic level with those around me — “hey pal, where is the nearest coffee shop?” — is to engage in a complex subtextual dialogue that allows us to quickly negotiate the terms of our interaction. This is the inflection of a voice, the gesture of an arm, a quick frown, a nervous tick, a roll of the eyes, and so much more. We may technically be anonymous in such situations (e.g. not identified by name) but it is an embodied, conspicuous anonymity.

And this is quite different from anonymity in digital space.* We construct and reconstruct our identities in digital space according to the parameters and terms of the networks in which we circulate. Some networks require authenticated usernames and profiles (i.e. Facebook — and their terms of service specifically prohibit fictitious users); some merely ask us to create temporary, even non-unique usernames (i.e. 4chan); others don’t require any registration at all. We’ve been spending a great deal of time using Omegle, which forces anonymity as a baseline for 2-way instant messaging between strangers (the nomenclature is “you” and “stranger”). To assert one’s identity here is a delicate proposition as one balances the safety of online anonymity with the vulnerability and exposure often necessary for meaningful communication. As simple as Omegle is (and excepting the occasional sexual trolls and spambots), what is exciting is how close the framework comes to allowing the kinds of chance encounters available to us in public space. We digital pedestrians walk through Omegle, bump into each other, engage or ignore, and are presented with the potential for meaningful conversations. But the wired anonymity and lack of collective public audience here is still open to the kinds of abuses and behavior that make many digital spaces insufferable for civil discourse.

What is so interesting and challenging about this problem is how difficult it really is to delineate between public space and digital space as I’ve attempted above. There’s just so much slippage! For example, online anonymity is complicated by the fact that one’s device IP address is technically a unique, traceable ID that can precisely locates a user device (and the user by proxy). Or, face to face interactions in public space can be quite psychically and physically imposing to a degree that silences dissenting or minority voices, thus negating the democratic possibilities of such spaces. These spaces overlap, and furthermore are increasingly integrated with the rise of ubiquitous computing and situated technologies. I’m convinced that a productive trajectory for our project is to experiment in this messier zone where public space and networked space overlaps (which truthfully was not readily apparent at the start of this research). My hope is that we can design a hybrid public space/networked space that capitalizes on the richness of embodied anonymity and the expansiveness of atemporality and distal relations.

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If a comment falls in the forest… http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia/2009/04/if-a-comment-falls-in-the-forest/ http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia/2009/04/if-a-comment-falls-in-the-forest/#comments Sun, 19 Apr 2009 21:53:13 +0000 Nick http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia/?p=210 Dana Milbank of the Washington Post has an apology for his readers: he’s a left-wing, Obama-hating, bitter, Republican-hack, lame, Democratic water carrier. At least, that’s what the comments on his columns say. According to his column, this is the first time he’s read the comments on his pieces that appear on the web, and hopefully for him, the last. Which begs the question: who are comments for? From reading a few of the ones he chose to highlight, they seem directed at him, but I’m guessing many people in his position don’t ever read their comments, or at least don’t get a lot of useful feedback from that forum.

But maybe that’s not what comments are for. Whole websites, indeed, whole subcultures (see 4chan) have sprung up that are either free-for-all dueling grounds for people who disagree or places to write lengthy running jokes as a group activity. Both of these tire me out very quickly (Reddit, for example, used to have more thoughtful comments, but they’ve devolved as the site got more popular) but some obviously enjoy the fight or the funny, and if the people writing the original posts that set off this kind of chaotic banter don’t read them anyway, what’s the harm?

Or, does this phenomenon become the practice grounds for real-life interactions? Are people who yell and scream on websites more likely to yell and scream at the people they encounter face-to-face?

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Online Group Chat Experiment (v. 1) http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia/2009/04/experiment-v1/ http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia/2009/04/experiment-v1/#comments Wed, 15 Apr 2009 03:41:39 +0000 Jeremy http://teach.boxwith.com/socialmedia/?p=198 This past weekend we conducted our first experiment to better understand the behavior of people participating in an online group chat (using an instant messaging application). Two groups of 4-5 participants were recruited and asked the same series of three questions, in each case asked in a slightly different order. The discussions for each question lasted approximately 10 minutes before being abruptly halted by the moderator. While this batch of participants was gathered from the SMSC team’s personal network of contacts, all of the participants in each discussion had never met and their identities were generally unknown to each other.

The questions we posed were:

  • If newspapers continue to go out of business, what will replace them?
  • Are zoos a humane institution?
  • From the perspective of the United States, was it the right decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan?

The newspaper question was chosen due to its timeliness; the issue has been widely reported in the media recently with the shuttering of several print newspapers. The second question was chosen because of its ethical dimension and the fact that it may not be a topic that many have given sustained consideration to. Finally, the third question was chosen for its potential “polarizing” effect. The order that this question was asked switched from the third position to the first position in the second group chat.

We’re still digesting the results of this first iteration, so I’ll refrain from drawing any conclusions at this point. Overall, the experiment was highly instructive in establishing a baseline for our future work and we’ve already begun to plan for successive iterations. It’s clear that we need a different strategy for recruiting a more diverse group of participants, and the importance of the polarizing question is increasingly apparent given our attempts to break down civil discourse within social media in order that we may rebuild it in a different fashion.

Earlier in this process we had been very excited about a game-play strategy for structuring mediated communication between strangers. I think this approach is still potentially valuable, but we first had to make a few smaller steps in order to better understand the terms (and the problem); the game had too many variables for us to contend with at this stage. Stay tuned for future iterations in sited in public that maybe reintroduce game play.

Posted below is a selection of short video documentation from the experiment.


SMSC – Discussion in preparation for an online group chat experiment: the importance of asking a polarizing question.


SMSC – Discussion in preparation for an online group chat experiment: formulating the polarizing question.


SMSC – Online group chat experiment

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