Friday, September 26, 2008

The Social Web: an academic research fad?

One enduring core value in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) research has been the development of technologies that augment human intelligence. This mission originates with V. Bush, Licklider, and Engelbart, who inspired many researchers such as Alan Kay at PARC in the development of the personal computer and the graphical user interface.
A natural extension of this idea in the Social Web and Web2.0 world is the development of technologies that augment social intelligence. In this spirit, the meaning of “Augmented Social Cognition” builds on Engelbart’s vision.

Beyond HCI researchers, scientists from diverse fields such as Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), WWW research, Hypertext, Digital Libraries are feeling the impact of such systems and are publishing research papers that characterize, model, prototype, and evaluate various systems. Studies from behavioral microeconomics, organizational economics, sociology, ethnography, social network analysis, information flow analysis, political science, and conflict resolution are potentially relevant to Social Web researchers. Researchers are seeing a surge of new research on Web2.0 technologies distributed in a wide variety of disciplines and associated conferences. In this past year, I have attended conferences in these different fields to gain a sense of the horizontal effect that the Social Web is having on academic research.

• At the light-end of collaboration spectrum, we have researchers trying to understand the micro-economics of voting systems, of individual and social information foraging behaviors, processes that govern information cascade, and wisdom-of-the-crowd effects. HCI researchers have productively studied information foraging and behavioral models in the past, and are trying to apply them in the new social context on the Web. Economists are trying to understand peer production systems, new business models, and consumption and production markets based on intrinsic motivations.

Our own research on using information theory to study global tagging trends is an example here.

• At the middle of the collaboration spectrum, researchers are building algorithms that mine new socially constructed knowledge structures and social networks. Here physicists and social scientists are using network theories and algorithms to model, mine, and understand these processes. Algorithms for identifying expertise and information brokers are being devised and tested by information scientists.

Here we have been building a system called MrTaggy that uses an algorithm called TagSearch to offer a kind of social search system based on social tagging data. I'll blog with a screencast demo soon.

• At the heavy-end of the collaboration spectrum, the understanding of coordination and conflict costs are especially important for collaborative co-creation systems such as Wikipedia. Researchers had studied characteristics that enable groups of people to solve problems together or collaborate on scientific endeavors. Discoveries such as the identification of “invisible colleges” by Sandstrom have shown that implicit coordination can be studied and characterized.

Our research into coordination effects in Wikipedia is an example of research here.

The horizontal effect of the Social Web is changing academic research in various and important ways. The Social Web is providing a rich playground in which to understand how we can augment web users’ capacity and speed to acquire, produce, communicate, and use knowledge; and to advance collective and individual intelligence in socially mediated information environments. Augmented Social Cognition research, as explained here, emerged from a background of activities aimed at understanding and developing technologies that enhance the intelligence of users, individually and in social collectives, through socially mediated information production and use.

In part this is a natural evolution from HCI research around improving information seeking and sense making on the Web, but in part this is also a natural expansion in the scientific efforts to understand how to augment the human intellect.

The Social Web isn’t just a fad, but a fundamental transformation of the Web into a true collaborative and social platform. The research opportunity is to fully understand how to enhance the ability of a group of people to remember, think, and reason.


Amber Case said...

Thanks for posting this.
I am a Cyborg Anthropologist studying the effects that the internet has on the extension of presence. I wrote my thesis on cell phones and the hybrid technosocial self.

My friend Steven Walling informed me that you presented at Recent Changes camp last year. I would love to hear about your experience there.

Ed H. Chi said...


Yes, I presented at the Recent Changes camp in July, I think. It was a very interesting experience, as there were a lot of people very passionate about Wikis there. Wikihow founders invited me there to give a talk on the ecology of Wikipedia and our research in trying to understand it.

There is certainly some interesting social science questions in this research, about the extension of self into the digital world, and how it affect our sense of identity. Our research tend to be a lot more quantitative, however, but the goal is the same: to understand the social dynamics that make social web work.

Ed H. Chi said...

Got this feedback about our Wikipedia work, but was unable to get back in touch with the sender of the message:

I came across your work regarding Wikipedia and found it intriguing.

In the past, I've tried unsuccessfully to contribute a biography of an infamous civil rights violator, Francis X. Livoti, only to have it repeatedly attacked and ubsequently removed despite my best efforts to write it in a neutral tone.

Wiki seems to be successful in that they have bastardized "Cogito ergo
sum," allowing contributors to edit content reflecting opinions suiting
their own needs. If you differ politically, you're more likely to be deleted / ostracized.

I thought it was my duty to report the truth as I saw it, since I've
been born and raised in NYC, as an ABC... In my adult life, I've witnessed how the media manipulates society into buying sensational, racially charged headlines and I am appalled out how they thrive off other's misery and misfortune.

I have since stopped relying on Wiki, since I find that they are biased and I have learned not to shovel sand against the tide.

I try my best to convey to my students that tending to one’s garden, is the only way to make it flourish. That and you're less likely to get a bee in your bonnet when you mind your own beeswax.

I also like to encourage people to pursue what they like to do best so
that the positive energy comes back to them.

So keep up the good work, Ed Chi!

Sophia Donohue*