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Separation Between Work and Home, from 2001 to 2011

September 12, 2011 1 comment

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.

The Future of the Obituary

April 26, 2011 2 comments

Have you ever wondered what will happen to obituaries as print newspapers becoming increasingly irrelevant? Nope, honestly, I hadn’t wondered about it either. Until I met Mike Dowdle. Mike has started a site called Generation Station, where you can create a profile for your loved one. Friends and family can help write their biography, and share stories and photos. It’s a combination of a an obituary site and one for family history/genealogy

Generation Station is a wiki-style site. Anyone can change someone’s biography, and if you don’t like it you can change it back. It’s kind of like Wikipedia for everyone–you don’t have to be famous to have a page. (You just have to be dead–the site doesn’t allow profiles of living persons.)

You can see how a genre of communication like classifieds is better in digital form. It’s getting hard to even remember that we used write and read classifieds on paper. Obituaries as a form has been slower to evolve, but the changes ultimately I think will be more transformative. Obituaries traditionally have always been single-author, but making them collaboratively authored will create a much richer record and experience for everyone affected.

The advantages of online, collaborative obits over the traditional paper form are easy to see. The harder question is how the business model adapts. When I look back on the online sites I’ve assigned students explore in online communities class over the years, I get a glimpse of what was obvious ten year ago and what wasn’t. Looking back, the business questions strike me as  harder than the interaction questions.  It’s not too hard to figure out what people want do, but what and when they’re willing to pay is a puzzle. Generation Station is currently a free service, but you can pay for premium features.  It’ll be interesting to see how viable that is. The other business question is what this means for paper newspapers. This is yet another source of revenue that may be redirected away from them–unless they do a better job of innovating in this space.

Friends who knew my sister-in-law, Gretchen Weimann Cline, can contribute to her page here.

Categories: news, social computing

Social Media News and Egypt

February 7, 2011 1 comment

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.

Categories: news, social computing, Twitter
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