Archive for April, 2013

SimLife as Successful Educational Technology

April 30, 2013 Leave a comment

Reading lately about invasive super-species like the snakehead fish and lionfish, I can’t help but smile and remember the mountain beast.

The game SimLife came out in 1992, and I used to enjoy playing it on my computer at The Media Lab in the evenings.  I’d set up a world, and let it run all night.  One evening before I went home, I added a new species that I called a “mountain beast.”  I made the mountain beast the best possible at everything.  Does it eat plants?  Sure. Eat meat? Sure.  Live in deserts?  Sure.  Live in mountains? Of course!  Eats everything, lives everywhere.  I added a few mountain beasts and went home.  And in the morning… I had nothing but mountain beasts.  Every other species had gone extinct!

It was a memorable experience.  Ecosystems are complex and hard to understand, but I felt like my mountain beast experience taught me something.  So tip of the hat to the memory of a good simulation, and to my mountain beast. 

Categories: Uncategorized

An Epidemic of Pointless Social Computing Research

April 23, 2013 10 comments

I went to a talk a while back where a senior researcher analyzed some large-scale social computing data, and proved that it displayed an elegant mathematical property.  I raised my hand during the question period and asked (as politely as I could muster), “Why does this matter?  Does this have some kind of broader implication or application?”  The researcher had no answer for me.  In fact, he seemed puzzled by the question.

I’ve been going to a lot of talks like that lately–they seem to be breeding.  People are playing with big data and coming up with incredibly clever results–with no evident broader implications.  Lately, Twitter data seems to be a chief culprit.  It’s so easy to get (or it was), and look at all the cool analysis you can do on it!  I’m betting most of the those papers will rot uncited. I hope when our enthusiasm for this new big data toy wears off, people will invest their energies in results that matter.  Of course, defining “matter” is the challenge.

What is the distinction between basic research and playing with data as a clever puzzle game?  How do you even tell the difference?  That’s the hard part. Personally, I’d like to see more people doing user-centered design: starting with problem statements that are significant for some group of people for some reason.  

Categories: Uncategorized

Changes to Online Communities: Mobile Use and Cross-Site Ecosystems

April 19, 2013 6 comments

I’ve taught my class Design of Online Communities since 1998.  (The first couple offerings were called “Design of Virtual Communities.”)  The class is structured around having students do a qualitative study of an online site, using participant observation and interviews.  The students did fantastic work this year as always–with studies of Something Awful, LifeKraze, Board Game Geek, Lord of the Rings Online, and more.  As things are wrapping up for this year, I am taking notes for next time, and realize I need to make two changes to the assignment.

Mobile: I need to explicitly ask students, does your site have a mobile app?  What is the relationship between mobile and desktop use?  Is all the functionality of desktop available on mobile?  Are mobile and desktop user behavior different?  This wasn’t even a blip on the radar in 1998 or even 2008, but today it’s essential to understanding many sites.

New Project Option: a Cross-Site Phenomenon.  In some ways it’s increasingly an anachronism to ask students to study a single site.  This became particularly clear in a great project my students did this year on “bronies,” grown men who are fans of the television show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.  My students focused their study on the site Equestria Daily, but it became increasingly apparent in their work that there are a set of sites that form a kind of ecosystem, with activity on any one of them affecting the others.  It’s impossible to understand Equestria Daily without understanding the adult site Equestria After Dark.  And did you know that bronydom’s early history is tied to 4chan, and led to the creation of PonyChan?  Amazing stuff.  So next year, students will optionally be allowed to pick a focus site plus surrounding online ecosystem to study (with a warning that this is harder!)

Thanks to my awesome students for a great semester. Looking forward to next year!

Categories: Uncategorized

The Limits of Crowdsourcing: A Coming of Age

April 19, 2013 Leave a comment


“Then we learned why cyberspace wasn’t going to stop wars, wasn’t going to bring peace and understanding throughout the world, tra-la-la-la.” — Stacy Horn, Cyberville, 1998

Writing in 1998, Horn was retelling the story of a racist woman on Horn’s ECHO BBS who hated Korean people. After discovering her online buddy was actually Korean, she didn’t change her racist views at all.  For Horn, it was a coming of age moment.  And today we have another coming of age moment: crowdsourcing will not necessarily save the world either, and some jobs are best left to professionals.  In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, netizens on a special subreddit and from the group anonymous banded together to try to identify the bombers.  And ended up finding and harassing the wrong people.

This morning, participants on the find Boston bombers subreddit wrote:

 All this subreddit has done is make a bad situation worse.

This is why you leave important work to professionals, not kids with an internet connection and too much time on their hands.

The baseless accusations and harassment this subreddit enables is disgusting. When it actually appeared that one of the guesses here was right, there was a smug celebration over just how right you were, like you bet on the right racehorse. You aren’t helping and you should probably close this subreddit if you have any shame. I sure hope demonizing that family’s missing son was worth the couple hours where you felt like Encyclopedia Brown.

There will still be miraculous things the crowd accomplishes. Things we can not yet dream of. Things that will make you grin from ear to ear.  But not everything can be crowdsourced, and we need to temper our enthusiasm.  In the age of the amateur, we also need to honor professionalism and hone our sense of when professionals are needed.

How much time are you spending on your smartphone?

April 18, 2013 1 comment

“What time is it?  That clock has got to be wrong.”  I was early getting to the office this morning.  And yesterday too.  Twenty minutes to half an hour earlier that I expected.  It’s been happening a lot lately.  Actually, every day since I quit playing Words With Friends.

I knew playing that game was distracting.  But I didn’t realize just how much time it was taking up.  Here’s how it added up:  In the morning, I used to look at WWF over breakfast (instead of reading the paper, no time lost).  Then I drop the kids off at school. I’m not quite done making my moves over breakfast, so in the car in the school parking lot, I look at it quickly.  Drive to the gym.   In the parking lot before going into the gym, look at it quickly, responding to a move a friend made in our game while I was driving.  Swim. Shower.  In the locker room before driving to the office, look at it quickly.  Each of those quick looks must have been five to seven minutes long, so three of them adds up to 15 to 20 minutes.  Now add a traffic penalty–leaving just a few minutes later can add five to ten minutes to my drive time.  And voila!  20 to 30 minutes wasted total.  I had no idea.

Some of the seemingly ‘instant’ things we do are not so instant.  And they add up!  It’s  hard to understand the over all impact of lots of little things–until you remove a stack of them all at once, and find yourself at your desk mysteriously early.

Categories: Uncategorized

A Great Experience That Must Stop: Words With Friends and the Mindful Use of Technology

April 6, 2013 12 comments

I wrote a couple years ago about how much I enjoyed playing Farmville, and how glad I was to quit it.  And a week ago I quit another fun game: Words With Friends (WWF), Zynga’s version of Scrabble on Facebook.  It’s been a peaceful week.  My quality of life has improved.  Which is odd because the game seems so lightweight–a social and casual game that doesn’t demand your attention at any particular time (like Farmville does), or any particular quantity of time (you can play for a minute or two).  So why do I feel like a burden has been lifted? 

I first need to tell you how much fun WWF is.  I like word games, and WWF is a challenging one.  I take genuine pride in a good play.  And though there is certainly luck involved, it’s primarily skill based–and I’ve been improving in both knowledge and tactics.  I can tell you now that there are no valid two-letter words beginning with c or v, that there are five s’s and two blanks, and that a ‘ratel’ is a small african mammal also known as the honey badger.

As I wrote in my last post, I feel close to people when I play WWF with them.  I’ve played with my cousin, colleagues in my field, friends from high school, college, and graduate school, a former student, and my new department chair.  I feel closer to all those people as a result.  You do learn something about people based on the words they play. I had to laugh when a mischievous friend from college was playing naughty words, while in another game a kindly colleague from another department was playing Christmas words just in time for the holidays.  People are funny.

It’s a fun game, and making a move takes only a couple minutes.  You can play right away after your opponent, or you can wait a day.  It’s creative, challenging, and fun.  So what could be wrong?

Well, one big thing: WWF was slowly taking over my life.  Consider the following situation.  I’m picking my kids up at aftercare at their elementary school.  When I arrive, they are somewhere in a large school building (Doing art in the cafeteria? Out on the playground?) and they are paged to come to the lobby.  It usually takes about five minutes for them to stop what they’re doing, clean up, travel across the building, find their backpacks and coats, and be ready to go.  So it’s a perfect time to make my WWF move, right?  Perfect except that if I’m playing a couple different games, I won’t be done when they arrive.  So I put away my phone, but part of my brain is still thinking about my move (what words end in ‘u’? ‘Tofu’?  ‘Bayou’?) rather than paying full attention to what happened at school today.  Until I finish making that move, I won’t fully be there.  And it’s like that through my entire day. The little gaps I have don’t match the amount of time it takes to make my WWF moves.  The fact that you can play on your phone makes the temptation pervasive.

The design of WWF draws you into playing more and more games in parallel.  Once you start a game with anyone, it will suggest you as an opponent to other friends.  And it seems rude to decline, especially when invited by someone you are fond of but haven’t seen in a while.  After each game, it asks both parties if you’d like a rematch.  If you don’t say, “OK, one more,” your opponent probably will.  It seems impolite not to–especially if you just won.  And pretty soon one game at a time becomes four or five.  A single move can take less than a minute.  Or you could pore over it for longer than you realize (‘I know there’s a seven-letter word in these letters!’)

I confess that I can get intense about the game.  It’s funny because I don’t care if I win at other computer games I play like MMOs or puzzle games.  But I guess I take pride in my skill with words more than other things, and I take the game too seriously.  I don’t mind if my opponent makes a spectacular move–bravo for them!  But if I accidentally leave a triple word score open when I didn’t mean to, I’m genuinely angry with myself.  When I’m focusing on a WWF move, I’m seriously concentrating.  It brings out a competitive side of me that I don’t like.

Fitting WWF into my life worked better when I was playing fewer games. And it worked better when I decided I would only make moves at the start and end of the day.  But then I’m waiting for a meeting to start and folks are late… OK, I’ll make a WWF move. But wait, now the meeting is finally started and I’m still thinking about words ending in u again.  You’ve heard this story before, haven’t you?  This story was weaving its way through my life.

I’m definitely never playing Farmville again.  I’m not sure about Words With Friends. The challenge for all of us is to understand how the technologies we use affect the daily rhythms of our lives. And to make mindful choices.


Categories: balance, games, mobile computing Tags:

Reconnecting with Old Friends Online–Is the Sense of Connection an Illusion?

April 2, 2013 3 comments

I’ve been hanging out with my friend Mike lately.  Mike’s a great guy.  I sat next to him in French class in high school.  He’s a year younger than me, but his family had spent a year in France, so he was in French class with us.  They should’ve sent him to class at a college nearby–he was in a whole other league.  The last time I actually saw Mike was in the mid 1980s–he invited me to a party at his university, which wasn’t far from mine.

Well, I’ve sort’ve been hanging out with Mike–we’ve been playing Words With Friends (WWF), Zynga’s variation on Scrabble on Facebook. We’re friends on Facebook, and WWF can be quite insistent about who you should play with.  It’ll highlight someone and tag underneath “plays at your level!”  Their algorithm is obviously broken, because Mr. Polyglot crushed me like a bug in four or five consecutive games.  But I don’t mind–he’s always been better than me at that kind of thing.  And it felt great to reconnect with an old friend.

But did I really reconnect with him?  What does it mean to reconnect with someone online? WWF does have a chat feature.  But you tend to use it for things like “nice one!” I did learn a few details about the last 30 years of Mike’s life. While half our high school went on to become successful bankers, Mike went to become a successful international banker. (Language skills rule!)  I think he has one child, a daughter, who is a few years older than my oldest son.  They recently moved back to New York after many years in Europe.  OK, that’s really all I know.  That, and the fact that he’s a tough opponent at word games.  Is that really connecting?  What does it mean to ‘connect’ with an old friend?

I would be inclined to dismiss the sense of connection as an illusion, except for one thing: Mike mentioned that next time I’m in New York I should look him up–we’ll get coffee.  The likelihood that I’ll take him up on that invitation is fairly high.  Before we played WWF, it wouldn’t’ve crossed my mind.  The chance of meeting up in person has gone from near zero to moderately high–a difference of multiple orders of magnitude.  The real re-connection will take place in person.  But it wouldn’t have happened without the online connection.  And there’s a more broadly applicable lesson there–that’s how online interaction typically works.

Categories: Facebook, social computing
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