Naturalistic Inquiry and Silk Purses

September 22, 2016 Leave a comment

For me as a social computing researcher, some of the most insightful and useful parts of the research literature are qualitative sociology written thirty to fifty years ago. For example, The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg (1989) documents how people need a “third place”—one that is neither work nor home. Within the third places Oldenburg studied, he observed timeless patterns of human behavior like the role of “the regulars” and how people greet a newcomer. Or consider The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman, originally published in 1959. Goffman documents how people are always performing for one another, and the impressions they deliberately give may differ from the impressions given off (what people actually infer from someone’s performance). How could we even begin to understand social behavior on sites like Facebook and Twitter without Goffman as a foundation?

When I think about this style of research, I often think about how it would be reviewed if it were submitted for publication today. No doubt Goffman would be told his work was insufficiently scientific—how do you really know there are “impressions given off”? Can you measure them? I doubt he’d make it through the review process.

How do we know that Goffman’s observations are “true”? Honestly, we don’t. The “proof” is in how useful generations of researchers to follow have found his observations. Goffman took messy qualitative data, and used that as a touchstone for his own powers of inference and synthesis. His observations aren’t in the data, but emerged from a process of his examination of the data. It’s probably impossible to make a firm statement about how valuable this type of work is at the time of writing—the evidence is in the value that others find in building on the work later.

Contemporary researchers are still working in this style. I call writing in this mode “silk purse papers.” They say you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, except sometimes you can. Insights emerge from messy data in an act of interpretation. The first paper of my own that I would put in this category is my paper “Situated Support for Learning: Storm’s Weekend with Rachael,” published in Journal of the Learning Sciences in 2000. In it, I take a case study of a weekend in which one girl taught another to program and draw broader conclusions about the nature of support for learning—support for learning is more effective when it is richly connected to other elements of the learning environment. I can’t prove to you that those observations are valid, but I can say that others have found them useful.

I’m always vaguely embarrassed when I’m in the middle of writing a silk purse paper. A tiny little voice in my head nags, “You’re making stuff up. You could use this data to tell a dozen different stories. You’re saying what you want to say and pretending it’s science.” But then I remember Goffman, and try to cheer up. It may not be “science,” but it’s certainly a valid mode of naturalistic inquiry. Take a second and think about foundational writings in your area of expertise. How many of those papers are silk purses?

In fact I wonder if we are all always making silk purses. Just because a paper is quantitative does not make it any less interpretive. My colleagues and I just finished a complicated analysis of content people post on Facebook publicly versus post to friends only (to appear in CSCW 2017). It’s totally quantitative work. But what we chose to measure and not measure and how we explain what it means strike me as much acts of interpretation (to be evaluated by the passage of time) as the complicated stories we tell with qualitative data.

Where we as a field get into trouble is when people with naïve ideas about “science” start reviewing qualitative work, and get it wrong. Sociology of science and technology should be featured in more graduate programs in human-computer interaction and human-centered computing. And as a field we need to have a more nuanced conversation about interpretive work, and how to review it.

Online Misbehavior: Blocking Mechanisms and Understanding Mechanisms

August 9, 2016 6 comments

Some time in the 1990s, I had terrible algae in my fish tank. I posted a question about it on USENET on the group alt.aquaria, and got a helpful answer from a guy I’ll call Oscar. Oscar really knows his fish, and spent a tremendous amount of time answering people’s questions on the group.

Later that day, I wandered into a crazy USENET flame war. Someone had created a group called alt.good-news. The group’s description said it was a place to share happy news—kind of like Upworthy in the days before the web. However, the phrase “the good news” has significant meaning to some Christians—it’s the good news that Christ is here to save us. Within hours, alt.good-news ironically deteriorated into a nasty flame fest with people arguing about whether it was a Christian group. I saw Oscar posting on the group, and sent him a private email: “Isn’t this flame war crazy? This group was supposed to be happy!” And he mailed me back:

“Don’t assume people always behave the way they behave when they talk about fish.”

It took only a moment’s exploration for me to learn that Oscar was actually a legendary USENET troll. Who just happened to also be an expert fish keeper who took pride in politely helping others with fish questions.

I think about Oscar a lot when I contemplate the mess that is Twitter. Social norms tend to be local, but on Twitter there is no local. People with radically different ideas of appropriate behavior run directly into one another. Or as one wise Redditor commented, “Twitter is like everyone shitposting on the same subreddit with no moderation.” Unfortunately, the blocking mechanisms we have at our disposal are crude. There’s no easy way to say, “I want to read what Oscar has to say about fish, but only about fish.” You either block Oscar or you don’t. And if you do decide to block him, there’s no easy way to say, “And please block him on the three other sites that we both use.” Our existing blocking mechanisms are too coarse grained and too weak.

The design of blocking mechanisms is in its infancy. Even farther behind is the design of understanding mechanisms. What if we could somehow scaffold people coming to a more nuanced understanding of the other person’s point of view, instead of just dismissing them entirely?

Got an idea for how to support more nuanced blocking or understanding? Leave me a comment!

Categories: Uncategorized

It’s about Underpayment in (Game) Journalism

June 4, 2016 12 comments


A Twitter acquaintance shared this video with me last night: Buzzfeed’s Color Cabal Conspiracy – Harmful News. In it, the narrator critiques a Buzzfeed article where a naïve writer takes the words of trolls as truth, and Buzzfeed publishes it (with an added footnote later that it might not be true).

I’ve been studying members of the #GamerGate movement, and I’ve seen some awful stuff posted online: misogyny, rape threats, racism, and more. But at the same time, I also see that a subset of GamerGate supporters are reasonable people, and the movement has some valid points. One point is that journalism is in crisis.

The tag line for GamerGate is “It’s about ethics in game journalism.” I object to the use of the word “ethics.” Using that word implies that people are deliberately writing incorrect things. I think that’s giving the writers too much credit, assuming they know the truth and are deliberately subverting it. I’m sure there are cases where that is true, but I will argue that in the overwhelming majority of cases, Hanlon’s Razor comes into play: never attribute to malice to what can be explained by simple incompetence.

Changing business models have created problems for the current state of journalism—all the incentives are out of whack. If a freelance writer is paid a couple hundred dollars for a story, how much time can they afford to spend on it? I used to write short articles for Wired when I was a graduate student, and made enough for a bit of extra spending money—like going out to dinner or on a weekend trip. But for an adult with rent to pay, it can’t even scratch the surface. And payment has dropped dramatically over the last several years.

If you pay people pocket money, you get amateurs. Even worse, if you pay per click, you get writers pandering to prurient interests. Jack Murtha writes in the Columbia Journalism Review:

[Pay-per-click] was once the crown jewel of content-heavy startups like Gawker, where young writers typed dozens of articles each week, aggregating and snarking their way to a digital-media empire. Now it’s something of a financial loophole used by content mills that prey on desperate young journalists, who scrape together clickbait in exchange for pennies.

Contrast the situation of a pay-per-click writer to a salaried journalist. The person on salary is rewarded for careful work, and is assigned to cover topics based on their importance, rather than self selecting what they think will earn clicks. In his foundational work on the nature of peer production, Harvard law professor Yokai Benkler notes that a strength of peer production is that individuals self identify for tasks they are qualified for. That works pretty well for things like open-source software and Wikipedia. And it even works pretty well for unpaid writing—expert bloggers often self-identify to write pieces on topics they care about and are knowledgeable about. But where it doesn’t work is when in journalism the peer production economy overlaps with the micropayment economy, and we get, as Murtha notes, clickbait in exchange for pennies.

Instead of saying “It’s about ethics in game journalism,” I suggest that GamerGate folks say, “It’s about underpayment in game journalism.” And we might as well remove the word “game”: It’s about underpayment in journalism. I will argue that the gaming press is a bellwether for the rest of the industry. Because game journalism is arguably less important than political or business journalism, it is leading the way in de-professionalization.

Fortunately, the solution to all this is pretty easy: Be willing to pay for quality news. If you care about game journalism or journalism more generally, find a venue that pays a living wage to talented professionals, and be willing to pay for it.


Addendum: Since a few people were confused, I am not a journalist. I teach and do research at Georgia Tech.

Activity Balance: An Alternative Approach to Manage Kids’ Screen Time

May 11, 2016 3 comments

Our boys (ages 10 and 12) love video games. And following the truism that every generation has media choices that baffle their parents, they also love watching videos of other people playing video games. They would play and watch all day, if we let them. On weekdays, by the time they get home from school and finish their homework, we don’t mind if they spend the free time that remains playing games. On weekends, we have always limited their screen time.

This policy has always chafed. A few months ago, our twelve-year-old protested, exasperated, “Do you have any evidence that too much video games is bad for you?” I patiently explained, “It’s not that video games are bad for you. It’s that we want you to have a balanced life—read a little, get some exercise, play some video games, practice your saxophone. If you did any one of those activities to the exclusion of others, we’d ask you to balance more: ‘Put down that book and go play a video game! You can’t read all day!’”

Five months ago, it occurred to me: Why not make the policy better match the rationale? Instead of limiting our kids’ screen time, we started requiring them to do a variety of activities each weekend day: read, exercise, and practice their musical instrument. As long as those things are done at some point during the day, they can have as much screen time as they like.

So far, the policy is a huge improvement. There is much less grumbling, and better balance in their weekend days. When asked how the policy is going so far, our twelve-year-old explained that he agrees that reading and exercise are important. (He’s less sure about music practice!) He also finds the new policy makes for a more relaxing weekend day. Our ten-year-old comments, “I like it better. The point is so that I do other things with my day, and I think it’s fair.”

The day-to-day implementation is not without challenges. We still need to remind them, “Did you exercise yet today?” And if the reminder comes too late in the day, it’s just not going to happen. If we forget to remind them and monitor, the new system deteriorates to a full day of screen time. But then again, the old system did too (“Did you forget to turn the timer on? How long have you been playing?”)

It’s encouraging to me that our kids have embraced the values that underlie this system—that you must make choices about how you spend your time, certain activities are important, and balance is important.

What approach does your family use? Leave me a comment!

Categories: balance, games, kids

On Immoderate Speech

May 1, 2016 6 comments

In my last post, I mentioned GamerGate, and tried to say some balanced things. A few people complained that I needed more evidence for one of my statements (and they’re right—I need to do more research), but most people were incredibly polite in their responses. I really appreciate that.

In the blog comments, a friend from grad school decided I had lost my mind, and let me know. That’s OK—we’ve been friends for over 25 years, and he’s a good guy to argue with over interesting things. I politely told him that I disagree, and that I have data to prove it. He is sticking to his view. I’m fine with that—we’ll agree to disagree.

After that, some folks who care about GamerGate attacked my friend in the blog comments. My friend was immoderate in his tone. Some of the replies were polite requests for facts. Others were insults with less substance behind them, and the intensity of the comments escalated. It was, uh, interesting to watch….

One of the fundamental disagreements on the Internet today is about the role of immoderate speech. Is it OK to call someone a rude name or use obscene language? Are the rules different if the person is a public figure?

There’s actually, believe it or not, a correct answer to this question: It depends on where you are on the internet. The internet is not one place. Social norms are local. What it’s OK to say on 4chan or 8chan is not OK to say on your work mailing list or on comments on a mainstream news site.

Social norms differ even on different parts of the same site. One team of students in my Design of Online Communities class this term studied Shirley Curry’s YouTube Channel. Shirley is a 79-year-old grandmother who plays Skyrim, and posts her unedited gaming streams. My students found that everyone is extremely polite on Shirley’s channel. The social norms are different on her channel than on the channels of anyone else streaming the same game.

None of this is new. I wrote about how social norms differ by site in the 1990s. But one new challenge for social norms of online interaction is Twitter. What neighborhood is Twitter in? It’s in all of them and none of them. What social norms apply? No one knows. And sometimes people who think they are interacting in a Shirley-like world end up in a conversation with people who think they are on 4chan. Oh dear. Neither side leaves that encounter happy. And that’s why a lot of online conflict starts on Twitter, and on other sites that don’t have clear social norms.

Regarding what sort of neighborhood this blog represents: I’ll post (almost) any comment, but I’d appreciate it if folks would keep things more Shirley-like. I don’t mind a bit of immoderate speech now and then. But the problem is that when you crank up the intensity, a significant group of people stop listening. Calm, polite discourse might actually influence people—we all might learn something.

The Rheingold Test

April 29, 2016 50 comments

In 1993, Howard Rheingold explained the new phenomenon of online communities to a skeptical public. To convince people that online communities are really communities, he told powerful stories of members of the California BBS The WELL supporting one another not just with words, but with their time and money. For example, WELL members sent books to a bibliophile who lost his library in a fire, and helped with medical evacuation for a member who became seriously ill while traveling.

I offer this definition:
An online group where members offer one another material support passes “the Rheingold Test.”

I’ve written before that it’s silly to argue about what “is a community.” We have different mental models for “community,” and online interaction can be like and unlike face-to-face groups in nuanced ways. But I will argue that when a group passes The Rheingold Test, something special is happening.

Each spring when I teach CS 6470 Design of Online Communities, I’m surprised by the groups my students discover that pass the Rheingold Test. Years ago, master’s student Vanessa Rood Weatherly observed members of the Mini Cooper brand community sending flowers to a member whose daughter had a miscarriage. It’s not what you’d immediately expect from a group of people brought together by a car brand. In our increasingly secular society, people are looking for a sense of belonging—and finding it in affinity groups.

This term, my students’ research projects found two more sites that pass the test when I wouldn’t have expected it. The first is Vampire Freaks, a site for Goth enthusiasts. In the press, Vampire Freaks is notorious for a few incidents where members have posted about violent acts and then gone ahead and committed them. But those incidents don’t characterize daily activity on the large and active site. Just like the Goth kids at your high school stuck together and would do anything for one another, the members of Vampire Freaks support one another in times of trouble. One member comments:

“I’ve helped quite a few of my friends [on Vampire Freaks] through a lot of hard times… family issues, losing parents, losing children, drug problems even. And just being there as someone that’s supportive, instead of putting them down. Even offering a place for people to come stay if they needed somewhere… I’ve had friends off this website that have actually stayed at my house… because they were traveling and didn’t have money for a hotel. So I’d known them for a few years and figured, it’s a weekend, I’ll be up anyways. Let them stay there and hang out.”

Grad students Drew Carrington, John Dugan, and Lauren Winston were so moved by the support they saw on the site that they called their paper “VampireFreaks: Prepare to be Assimilated into a Loving and Supportive Community.”

The second surprising example from this term is the subreddit Kotaku in Action (KIA), a place for supporters of GamerGate. Although the popular press portrays GamerGate as a movement of misogynist internet trolls, the truth is that the group is made up of a complex combination of members.  KIA includes many sincere (and polite) civil libertarians, people tired of excesses of political correctness, and people tired of the deteriorating quality of journalism and angry about the real-world impact of biased reporting. People who identify as GamerGaters also include people who dox people they disagree with (posting personal information online), send anonymous death and rape threats, and worse. (Those things are not allowed on the KIA subreddit, and moderation rules prevent them.) It’s a complicated new kind of social movement with its own internal dynamics. I’ll be writing a lot about them, but for now I just want to note that they have a strong sense of group identity, and help one another when in need. Posts on KIA show members donating money to a member in financial crisis, and one who needed unexpected major dental work. They also banded together to raise money for a charity that helps male abuse survivors. They are not a viper’s nest (though there are some vipers in the nest). And they care about one another in the classic way.

When a site passes The Rheingold Test, it means there is something interesting happening there—that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Do you know a site that passes the test? Leave me a comment.



  • “GamerGate” is a social movement centered around a Twitter hash tag among other things. GamerGate and the KIA subreddit are not the same thing.
  • Doxxing and threats have definitely occurred, but were sent by anonymous people. Whether or not those were “by people who affiliate with GamerGate” is disputable.
Categories: social computing

Social Media Insults and Donald Trump’s Hair

March 22, 2016 Leave a comment

Mocking someone’s appearance on social media is admitting rhetorical defeat. In a non-fashion context. If we’re at a fashion show in Milan, that’s another story. But if we’re talking about any other topic, I propose that if someone says you look like a donkey, then you should reply: “I win!” Because you have. Because making such an irrelevant remark means, “I have hostile feelings towards you, but I don’t have any substantive arguments.”

I was thinking about this last week when an acquaintance posted on Facebook a picture of Hilary Clinton next to one of Captain Kangaroo (in a similar outfit), with the caption “Who wore it better?” This from a democrat. One of the most accomplished and experienced women in the world is a candidate for president, and this is what you post?

Which brings me to Donald Trump’s hair. Dear fellow democrats: Please stop mocking Donald Trump’s hair. It’s not funny, and it’s not enlightening. And every time you do it, you are screaming to the world: “I give up. I have nothing of substance to say. But hey, here’s a hair insult.”

Someone did indeed call me a donkey on Twitter last week. I am honored—I actually earned being trolled! Actually, my great uncle wrote Francis the Talking Mule, so I think the troll is confused—I have more mule in my background than donkey.

I have been researching GamerGate lately, and finding that both sides have valid points to make. And both sides have a mix of nice, principled people and angry people who are spewing bitter nonsense in public. I’ll have a lot more to say about this in the future. But for now, my advice for both sides is to calm TF down, and keep your sense of humor. And remember that if someone throws an irrelevant insult at you (like your outfit looks like Captain Kangaroo), then just laugh and say, “I win!”

Categories: Uncategorized
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