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Computing Challenges We Can’t Solve with Research: Simple Ideas and Platform Lock

September 22, 2017 3 comments

Critical problems for computing and society are increasingly economic. It’s not that we don’t know how to fix them—it’s that a purely market economy model to fund software development doesn’t support some simple things that would make the world a better place.

My students and I research and design collaborative computing systems. We start by studying existing groups and trying to understand their needs. For example, Kurt Luther studied animators trying to work on collaborative projects with teams of fifty or more artists. Based on what he learned, he built a project management tool for creative collaboration that tried to balance decentralized and centralized creative decision making. Jill Dimond worked with the nonprofit Hollaback, which is trying to end street harassment, and helped redesign their website with a federated structure that helped them to rapidly spread around the world. In these cases, as researchers were able to understand the problem, and innovate to solve it.

Lately though, we’ve been exploring problems and finding solutions that are straightforward but impossible to realize. The problems are two-fold: things that are too simple to make for meaningful research problems, and there is a barrier of platform lock.

For example, a team of GT students led by Hayley Evans found that people trapped in the economic crisis in Venezuela are increasingly using Facebook Groups for barter of basic necessities. It’s no longer possible to buy diapers at a fair price, but you can trade staples like flour for them. However, people are still price gouging and duping others with fake products. The solutions here are simple—a price comparison tool like the one Stubhub provides for ticket sales could give everyone a calibration on what exchanges are fair. A reputation system like the one on ebay could help stop scammers. If people have public reputations, then individuals can choose not to trade with someone who has a negative reputation and be extra careful with a new account with no history. These are established solutions, but it’s not clear who can build these tools for the Venezuelans, even though the need is desperate. It’s certainly not research—it’s too easy. To do something as a research project, we need something that we can raise grant funding for and publish about—we need to innovate. But solving this problem doesn’t necessarily need much innovation.

The second part of the problem is platform lock. Venezuelans are using the platform they are already on—Facebook. It would be hard to imagine bringing people to a custom platform, even if we had the time and resources to try to build one. And although you can make some small changes to platforms like Facebook with browser scripting, those solutions are limited and fragile.

Here’s another example. In 2012, Dimond did a study of the use of mobile and social computing by survivors of domestic violence. Her research concluded that there are some simple things that could really help people in this situation. For example, features developed as parental controls could be adapted to provide protection from harassment for adults. But we have the same problems again—the solutions are largely so simple as to not qualify as research, and they’d have to be implemented by mobile carriers. What is missing is societal—why can’t we find resources to do these simple things? A purely market-based model for software development falls short of meeting people’s needs.

These issues are going to multiply. As software reaches into more and more nooks and crannies of everyday life, we need an economic model that can deliver needed features that don’t make sense from a pure profit motivation. This will involve more activity by software nonprofits like Mozilla that design tools for the public good. It will further require better computer science education and extensible platforms so that people can develop solutions for themselves.

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Common Sense Symmetry: Language and Political Correctness

July 31, 2017 4 comments

I’m part of a Facebook group for women, and one of the members recently posted a “news story” about a man who went sunbathing nude. According to the story, a bird of prey mistook his private parts for turtle eggs, and the man ended up in the hospital. There are so many problems with this posting that I hardly know where to start. First, it’s fake news. Second, it’s not funny. Third, if someone posted a similar story with the genders reversed, wouldn’t there be an outcry that it was offensive and sexist? Can you imagine the reaction to a story about a naked sunbathing woman being attacked in delicate places by a bird of prey?

Fortunately, few members of the group “liked” the posting, and several responded positively to my comment that perhaps this wasn’t appropriate. But I was still left shaking my head: why don’t people use common sense to see the symmetry? If you can’t say that about women, why can you say it about men?

Similarly, why is it OK for some people to complain about “white people” on Twitter? I was astonished recently to see a favorite fiction author going on tirades against white people. In my view it wouldn’t be acceptable to go on a tirade against “black people,” so why is it OK to complain about “white people”? Common sense symmetry: if you can’t reverse it, don’t say that. How about instead going on a tirade against “racists”? Or even about “white people who don’t recognize their implicit privilege,” or “white people who <any adjective you like can go here”>? Yes, we can and should talk about race. Yes, racism is a pervasive problem that is critical for the future of our society. But aren’t you reinforcing racism by complaining about “white people,” “black people,” “Asians” or any group as a whole? Even just adding an adjective like “some” (or even “most”) helps.

Some people argue that it is more acceptable for members of a comparatively disempowered group to be critical of other groups—i.e., it’s more acceptable for women to be critical of men, and African Americans to be critical of Caucasian Americans than the other way around. I don’t really understand that argument—rudeness is just rudeness. It’s particularly problematic because it adds fuel to the fire of the culture wars. Over the last two years, I have spent time online with groups of people (particularly members of the GamerGate movement) who among other things advocate for men’s rights. Their online discussion sites are filled with outrage at cases where common sense symmetry is not applied. They are justifiably outraged at tasteless cases like the tale of the “turtle eggs.” Going beyond that, some take the next step to argue that men are just as oppressed as women. We could have a long and complicated discussion about how to measure the relative oppression of various groups within society, but I’ll go on the record as saying that I believe that the statement that men are as disempowered as women is not supported by the facts no matter how you measure. But every time we tell turtle egg jokes or vent about “white people,” we give energy to groups that are not in favor of working towards embracing diversity and empowering all groups.

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

Over Sharing

October 7, 2011 1 comment

I might play a quick game of Bejeweled Blitz right now, but my friends would see my score. I’m kinda bad at it. It shows your high score for the week to all your friends.  I like the game because it takes one minute to play, and a couple one-minute games is all I have time for most days. But it takes me five or six games at least to get a non-embarrassing score.  Mid-week, I’ll stop in and play one game. At the start of a new week, I know I need 15 to 20 minutes to achieve something approaching dignity in the score my friends see.  And lately I just haven’t had 15 minutes, so I’ve stopped playing altogether.  There’s no way to tell it “don’t share my score.”

More and more social computing apps are over-sharing.  Especially Facebook. On Facebook yesterday in the new  scrolling timeline feature that shows what your friends are doing, I saw a work colleague say something… something edgy to a male friend of his I don’t know.  He would never say anything like that at work. I wanted to cover my eyes–I didn’t need to see that.  I can’t un-see it.

If Facebook’s increased visibility causes problems for work/personal life boundaries, I can only imagine what issues it causes for people who are in a dating phase of life. I am having nightmarish visions of the drama that ensues with people watching their beloved post an innocent comment on a friend’s page and agonizing over whether there is flirting taking place.  This inadvertently happened to me in prehistory (the mid 1990s). Our sysadmin had accidentally left our UNIX history files (the record of commands you’ve typed) readable to others on the system by default, and a fellow grad student I’d gone on a few dates with jealously demanded an explanation for why I was fingering (looking up the online status of) my friend Brian so much.  Um, Brian and I were working on a class project together?

I don’t know why I care whether my friends see my Bejeweled score.  I don’t really–I don’t have any problem blogging about my Bejeweled ineptitude. But it’s just enough disincentive for me to stop playing that game. Going forwards, I imagine sites in general will land on different spots on the “how much to share” spectrum, and people will pick sites to use that are comfortable for their style. But as site designers we still need to understand more deeply how much sharing is too much.

Gender Swapping Reinforces Stereotypes

May 17, 2011 1 comment

At CHI 2011 in Vancouver, Nick Yee and colleagues presented a fun note about gender swapping on World of Warcraft: “Do Men Heal More When in Drag?
Conflicting Identity Cues Between User and Avatar
.” There are many gender-based stereotypes about people’s behavior on MMOs. For example, people assume that women are more likely to play healing characters. However, Yee found that women are in fact not more likely to heal than men. However, men playing female primary characters are more likely to heal a lot.  When gender swapping, players live up to their stereotype of gendered behavior, even if that stereotype is not true.

This fascinates me, particularly because Josh Berman and I found the same thing in our study of an online identity game we created in 1999, The Turing Game.  In the Turing Game, a panel of players pretends to be a particular identity–for example women. (Game types were user created, so people played lots of fun games like who is from Canada, who is under 30, who is a parent, and more.)  The audience asks questions, and votes on who they think is telling the truth. After the game, contestants reveal their real identities and discuss how everyone knew the truth or was fooled. In many of these post-game conversations, audience members would say things like, “I knew you were really a woman, because you use long sentences with lots of dependent clauses. Women talk a lot. Men say things like ‘I’ll be back.'”  The only problem with this is that Susan Herring can conclusively show you that men use more words per conversational turn online.  The stereotype is wrong. And just as Yee found 12 years later, gender swapping  reinforces stereotypes.

We are currently redesigning and reimplementing The Turing Game as a web game with Facebook Connect. Our challenge in the redesign is to figure out how to help these playful explorations yield deeper insights and less bandying about stereotypes (whether true or false).

Social Computing and Productivity: Resisting Impulse

March 4, 2011 4 comments

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.

 

A victory for free speech: you can insult your boss online!

February 8, 2011 1 comment

Can you be fired for insulting your boss on Facebook? That’s what happened to an employee of a Connecticut ambulance company in 2009.  Yesterday the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has ruled that the firing was illegal. Labor laws let you discuss working conditions and salaries with others. Venting about the boss is covered. You still can be fired for releasing company secrets, but calling your boss a psychiatric case doesn’t count!  (The employee referred to her boss using the company’s code for a psychiatric patient.)

The most interesting part of Monday’s ruling is that the ambulance company agreed to revise their company policy that prohibited employees talking about the company online. It’s still not smart to go online venting about your employer. But you can imagine a future world where social media policies are used as excuses to get rid of people for minor offenses. Want to fire him and not pay severance? Check his Facebook page and see what cause you can come up with. This would have a serious chilling effect. The NLRB ruling is a big victory for free speech.

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