Ten years ago yesterday, I did a remarkable thing: I went to work. I was having breakfast at the kitchen table, and turned on CNN around 8:40 am. It was on when the newscasters first reported that “a small plane” had hit the World Trade Center. I called my mother in New York City–“Mom, turn on your television!” We watched together for a few minutes. Before the second plane hit, I went to work. I had a CHI paper to work on, and the deadline was approaching.
By the time I got to work, it was apparent that something more serious than a freak accident was happening. My PhD student, Jason Elliott, called the lab–should he still come in today? I remember telling him yes, get your sorry posterior in here! We have a paper to work on! And what is the possible benefit in wallowing in mind-numbing disaster news coverage all day? The longer we wait to look at the news, the more we’ll get the real story and avoid all the confused false rumors and speculations. It’s all too terrible to contemplate, so let’s just get some real work done, OK?
Looking back, what strikes me is that in 2001, there was less news at work. At home, I had television and radio. At work, I didn’t. Sure there were websites with news–but they presented text and still pictures–and much less quickly updated than is the norm today. Video and audio online were rare. By going to work, I could focus on my work.
On December 25th, 1992 I wrote an essay called Christmas Unplugged about the way the Internet is reducing the separation between work and home. I tried to publish it in time for Christmas 1993, but no one was interested. A year later, I sent it out again, and got an immediate positive response. It appeared in Technology Review in January 1995. Since then, the interconnectedness of work and home via the Internet has slowly increased. Yesterday was a fascinating point of comparison. In 2001, work was still a somewhat separate realm. In 2011, if something momentous happens, I don’t think going to work could help you block it out. The news is in my Twitter stream. In fact, today news arrives faster when I’m at work than at home!
The ability to avoid distractions and focus on news is just one of many consequences of this connectedness. Another is the ability to work at home. Which is both good and bad. When I was a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab, people were in the building at all hours of the night. Sometimes we were working late, and sometimes we were playing Diablo. Two or three nights a week, my graduate advisor, Mitchel Resnick, was nice enough to offer me a ride home–typically around 11 pm. When I was back to visit recently, I asked if people still kept crazy hours there. The answer I got was: people still work just as hard, but they do it from home. Whether this is a net gain or loss for either productivity, sociability, or work/life balance I can’t say.
People have always had to make choices about work/life balance. The difference today is that geography is no longer a tool we can use to help. Work life, home life, and the greater world around us are with us at all times on our desktops and our phones, all mixed together. We still need to make those choices, but we can’t implicitly make them by choosing to be at the office or not at a given time. Maybe we need new tools to help.
Tonight while I was waiting for the bathtub to finish filling so I could give my 5-year-old his bath, I pulled out my phone to check Twitter. There was a huge rush of Tweets from @apsupdate, Twitter account for the Atlanta Public School system, which my kids attend. I saw someone answering questions about APS, and scrolled down to see this tweet:
apsupdate: Have a question for our superintendent candidates? Tweet them now. #aps
OK, sure–why not? I replied:
@apsupdate What can APS do to address cyber bullying, and should schools get involved in online behavior that happens off school grounds?
I got a tweet thanking me for the question. After bath, I checked back. I got these replies:
We have trained high school students who work with m.s. students and m.s. students who work with elem students re bullying. -Atkinson #aps
Our teachers, children and staff need to be trained on how to deal with traditional bullying. -Atkinson #aps
Cyber bullying is particularly hard to address outside of school. -Atkinson #aps
Our caution with technology has been how do we control things such as cyber-bullying. -Atkinson #aps
If we find out about it, we address it the same way based on our code of conduct the way we do traditional bullying. -Atkinson #aps
Very hard to address, but we have evolving policies. -Atkinson #aps
Not a bad answer, I think. The experience for me was fun. They asked my question! I got an actual answer! This leaves me with a big question: Was this a gimmick, or something more profound?
It’s not an easy question. Is participating via Twitter really participating? It certainly isn’t the same thing as being there. But it’s something, isn’t it? What if lots and lots of people could participate just a little in this fashion? Would something more emerge from it? This leads me to wonder what civic participation really is and what does it contribute anyway. If I tweet a question, did I contribute to my community? If I stand at a corner during rush hour holding a sign for Today’s Cause, did I contribute? If I turn my avatar green in support of Today’s Cause, did I contribute? Is all civic participation meaningful? How can we understand what any isolated contribution means? And then I wonder if I should go get a degree in government or public policy–I’m in over my head!
I have a confession to make–it never crossed my mind to even consider attending the interview with APS superintendent candidates in person. When the APS automatic caller told me about the meeting for the second or third time, I hung up a bit more energetically than was strictly necessary. I’m way too busy to go to random community meetings. I have two kids, a more than full-time job…. You can forget it! But would I listen in on Twitter again? Sure! It was fun. I’m certainly more interested in the APS superintendent search now than I was this morning. If there’s an article about it in the morning paper, I’m more likely to read it. Maybe those tiny steps do mean something in the end. Malcolm Gladwell argues that meaningful civic participation has nothing to do with the kind of trivial interactions among weak ties that social media fosters. I think the jury’s still out. And what social media does for civic participation now doesn’t explain what it could do in the future. The challenge for researchers in interactive computing is to find ways to deliberately engineer the future of the social media socio-technical system to make those little steps matter.
To @apsupdate, thanks for asking my question!
I ‘ve fallen into some bad habits lately: finish one task, check email, check Facebook, check Twitter. Start next task. Does this sound familiar to you? It seems innocent enough–do some work,check in, do more work. But I’ve gradually come to realize that it’s sucking up time. Especially since sometimes the size of Task gets small. If Task is an hour or two of work, this might work. But it gets problematic when Task becomes 10 minutes of work.
Checking Facebook or Twitter is an impulse. It’s there, it’s interesting it’s a quick break since I did indeed just finish Task. But if I look at my day as a whole, all those little check ins add up. No individual quick check in is a problem. It’s all of them together. The same can be said about teens sending text messages. One text message at a time adds up for many teens to 3000 a month. The problem is the sum of the parts. It’s easy for me to raise an eyebrow at the number of texts kids are sending, but my suspicion is that my little between-task check-ins would add up to something equally ridiculous, if I had a taxi meter running on them. I need less impulse and more rationality. In her new book Alone Together, Sherry Turkle details a number of disfunctional patterns emerging in a world pervaded by mobile and social computing. I think a lot of the problems boil down to acting on impulse. Because it’s fun. Because it’s there.
Starting today, I took Facebook and Twitter off of my browser bookmarks bar. I took Tweetdeck out of my MacOS dock. I will check in when I eat my sandwich at my desk at lunch, and at night after the kids are asleep. So far I’ve been doing this for… three hours. And already I feel more productive, but also more alone. With my social media applications open, I feel like I’m working but also hanging out with a supportive and smart group of colleagues,students, and friends. There’s definitely something lost by turning it off. But it’s time to try.
Over the past few days, I’ve had a growing sense of disappointment about social media news about Egypt. Followed by puzzlement at my own disappointment–what was I expecting anyway?
In theory, news events conveyed through social media should offer powerful immediacy and authenticity. If official channels are unreliable, real people can give you the story. People collaborate, and something greater emerges. Sharing information, gawking might even turn into meaningful action.
Which brings me to the historic events in Egypt over the last fortnight. Watching events in Egypt unfold on Twitter, I was reminded more than anything of 24-hour television news coverage of major events. Like the newscaster standing out in a hurricane, watching pieces of a roof blow off, and interviewing a random person hunkered down at a bar, waiting the storm out. The mismatch is in the temporal domain: I don’t need that many updates to know what’s going on. After a while, it becomes more maudlin entertainment than information that can either enlighten or move to action.
Am I the only person who turned the television and Internet off on September 11th? I knew my family in New York City were OK–my Mom called to say hi and it was me who told her to turn the TV on, something was happening downtown. I got the gist of what was happening, and I turned the news off and went back to work. I had a CHI paper to work on, after all. I was glad to have the CHI deadline looming–a reason to focus on something constructive and not sit slack jawed watching horrors unfold. I got a better understanding by waiting for composed and verified news later, rather than hearing every rumor in real time. Likewise, hundreds of tweets a day about every sign in Tahrir Square are not helping my understanding of current events in Egypt.
Malcolm Gladwell has written a couple short pieces recently arguing that social media has nothing to do with social movements and meaningful civic participation. I think he’s wrong. Communications media don’t cause major political and social shifts, but do they facilitate them? Even with the Internet literally turned off in Egypt all last week, I’m still convinced many-to-many communications played a non-trivial role in sea changes in public opinion. But the details matter, and we’re not there yet–the technology can be consciously iterated on to help achieve desired aims. This is what I hope to contribute to.
PhD student Jill Dimond and I are studying what factors encourage people to become more meaningfully involved in social movements, and how social media can help. Dimond is webmaster and mobile app developer for ihollaback.org, a federation of sites that encourage women to report instances of street harassment. Hollaback’s founders hope that awareness can promote change. The key research question is understanding what the general public can contribute to any given social movement, and can social media help them be better informed. Better informed not about the latest plank flying off the roof but about what it means and what they can personally contribute to making the situation better.
I don’t understand either the current impact of social media news and journalism, or its future potential. I don’t think anyone does. But I have a hunch there’s an opportunity here for researchers to help shape that potential towards democratic aims.
Saturday Morning Cartoons and Other Choices About Technology Use–Thoughts on Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together”
When I was a kid, Saturday morning cartoons were a weekly ritual. I watched several, and carefully planned which channel to watch at 8, 8:30, 9…. It was important to me. I sat there for hours, and loved it. I looked forward to it every week. My husband Pete had the same experience. We share an encyclopedic knowledge of Bugs Bunny and Scooby Doo.
Did that harm us? I don’t know. I feel kinda like we turned out OK. But we would never let our kids vegetate all Saturday morning that way. Saturday mornings they usually have a soccer game (spring and fall), basketball game (winter), or swimming lesson (summer). They get half an hour of TV a day, and we don’t ever just give them the channel changer and let them watch whatever’s on–they have my old TiVO, and they pick among shows we have recorded for them. (Their current obsession: Myth Busters. Hooray for good TV! But we don’t mind when they get on a run of lighter fare like Phineas and Ferb.)
So what happened in the intervening generation? We are both the product of what I would call typical middle class families of the time. But in the years since then, our cultural sensibility about appropriate TV use for kids has shifted. In a great paper to be presented at CSCW 2011 this March, Morgan Ames, Janet Go, Jofish Kaye and Mirjana Spasojevic show how currently practices about kids’ “screen time” today in America vary by social class. Middle class parents worry about limiting their kids’ use of all kinds of screens (TV, computer, video game, and cell phone) much more than working class parents. What impact will this have in the long run? It’s an intriguing question.
Television is seductive. The easy thing is to just let kids watch what they want. Today, we have come to a point where parents (at least educated parents) are making choices to not do the easy thing and let kids have all they want. But it took a generation for those cultural norms to begin to evolve, and that process is still happening.
My reflections on the indulgent TV habits of my youth were prompted by Sherry Turkle’s insightful new book Alone Together (which I am currently half done reading). In it, Turkle draws attention to many of the “three hours of Saturday morning TV” issues of the present. Teens texting over 100 times a day on average? Parents using smart phones at the dinner table? Professionals flying all the way to Tokyo to attend a meeting but then opening their laptops and ignoring the discussion? This can’t be healthy.
Turkle is a psychoanalyst, and psychoanalysis is an inherently normative undertaking. Psychoanalysts help people identify what “the good life” is for them personally, and learn how to make choices that help them achieve their full human potential. This often involves some compromise between individuality and cultural norms. What is “healthy” and what are the limits of the acceptable range of “normal”? These are profound questions for any individual. But what happens when our new cultural “normal” gets out of whack? That’s the fundamental question posed by Turkle’s book.
If all the other kids get to watch three hours of Saturday morning TV, it becomes harder for me to tell my child he can’t. If all the other kids are texting continually, it becomes harder for any one teen to refuse to join in. A generation later, there is some structural resemblance to the challenges. But the difference is, the intensity has increased. We have upped the ante. As pervasive as television once was for my generation, the media issue of today concerns every waking moment of kids’ lives–their phones are always there. A key issue raised by Alone Together is that our cultural “normal” is drifting away from “the good life” for all of us.
Of course there are wonderful aspects to mobile and social computing technology too. I was Turkle’s student over 20 years ago, but through Facebook and Twitter I learned that she was going to be a guest on The Colbert Report. Before she went on, I wished her luck, as did many other friends and colleagues. I feel privileged to have been able to wish her well in advance, rather than hearing about the event third hand a week later. I will never be on Colbert, but I feel like I shared a bit of the moment. I can tell you countless stories about staying in meaningful contact with old friends, looking up an interesting fact for my kids on my phone that led to a deep discussion at just the right moment, and more. There are entirely good reasons why this technology is so popular and so pervasive. But we still need to put the technology back in its place–both in terms of how and how much we use it. And that may take another generation.
Some time in the mid 90’s, I asked Albert Lin, an MIT undergrad working with me, to please send someone an email. It was just a quick question we needed help with. He hesitated. He looked nervous. After much stalling, he wrote something incredibly formal. I was puzzled. It was, after all, just an email–right?
I talked with him about it later, and figured out what was going on. He and his undergrad friends used Zephyr for informal communication. Zephyr was a kind of instant messaging that worked at MIT before either the Web or IM clients were invented. Undergrads used it a lot. Grad students (like me at the time) not so much. Albert was used to using Zephyr almost exclusively, and that made email seem more formal to him–like a business letter. For me, email felt quite relaxed and informal. Communications technologies form a kind of ecosystem, and your use of any one can affect how you use all the others.
Which brings me to PhD student Sarita Yardi’s tweet from this afternoon:
@yardi: Since switching from private to public on Twitter, I feel FB is more private now, more personal content there. (though nothing is private)
I couldn’t agree more. How you use Twitter changes how you use/feel about Facebook (and vice versa). And email and LinkedIn and IM. Like Sarita, I started off with a private Twitter feed. But after a while, I felt like it just didn’t make sense. Twitter works better public. When I switched my Twitter to public, I started to view my Facebook account as more private. My Facebook status updates are filled with cute things about my kids, what we’re actually doing… my life. My Twitter posts are more professional.
Sarita and I may be in the minority–I think most folks don’t see Twitter and Facebook as so different. PhD student Kurt Luther tweeted yesterday:
@resurgens: Almost identical feeds on FB and Twitter. Few updates/tweets are worth reading twice. Time to stop logging into one — but which?
Even if Kurt wanted to see Facebook and Twitter as different, his friends don’t. The same message shows up in both places. That ‘ecology’ of communications technologies is affected by friends’ uses as well as your own.
I’ve mentioned here before that I currently have two Twitter accounts–one public, one reserved for close (wedding-guest-level) friends. I like this approach in theory. I think it would work if my friends were doing the same thing, using two accounts. In practice, my friends are mostly using Twitter in a more professional fashion. So it feels weird to be posting personal things while they post back interesting news about new technologies. I still post a personal tidbit on my private Twitter account once in a while, but I’ve mostly given it up. The couple friends who have also tried the two-account approach have done the same.
Of course your use of communications technologies may be affected by the chance that your advisor will blog about your tweets…. All part of that ecosystem I guess!
Thanks for the great comments! I started to write a reply comment, but it grew into more of a post:
Of course “no bragging, no whining” is overstating for simplicity. A fairer statement would be “think carefully before saying something that might be perceived as bragging or whining.”
I do think sharing successes is a good thing…. But when possible, it’s nicer when someone else does it for you. So for example I tweeted about what an awesome keynote Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg gave at WikiSym (and I meant it–they rule!) I’d rather it be that way than F & M tweeting about it themselves. (Which they didn’t, for the record.)
I started following Neil Gaiman @neilhimself on Twitter coincidentally just before he won the Newbury Award. His first genuine excitement at winning made my day–it was wonderful, even if he was telling us all about it himself. But in the weeks following, he had a surge of fame and constant high-profile interviews, and his lack of any humility about it soured the whole thing rapidly. Unfollowing him felt like getting a grain of sand out of my eye. I don’t know if it’s safe to refollow these days… I haven’t dared to look. OK, I completely forgive him for getting a bit full on himself immediately after a major life accomplishment. But you see the broader point–bragging is delicate business.
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