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Archive for March, 2012

Trip report – March 2012

Sunday, March 25th, 2012

I’ve been to a couple of conferences and presentations lately so I wanted to write a trip report, but then I thought it would be more useful to summarize it in terms of the most popular topics I noticed.

1. Big data. People are trying to figure out how to make sense of so much information and, more importantly, what to do with it. So far most of the work has focused on trying to understand costumers for marketing purposes, which I find pretty uninspiring. However, as part of this theme, I’ve seen a number of sub-themes that are more interesting. Here is one: The “quantified self” movement. As exemplified by Steve Wolfram’s analysis, he did of his own personal big data , the movement is getting more attention.

In general, it seems like Big Data is need for some innovative tools that can help lay people understand it and manipulate it for practical purposes.

2. Techno Politics. From SOPA, to the Arab Spring, to Wikileaks. An interesting question people are asking is on what should be the role technology tech companies. Some companies are gaining cultural capital by demonstrating how their services are being used for noble causes (like Twitter) while others are using their visibility to push publicly for their agenda (like Google supporting SOPA). Regardless, it seems like having a voice in this space will be even more important for tech services to demonstrate relevance.

3. Online learning. Seems like everyone is doing online learning these days, from the Khan Academy, to Udacity, to MITX, and others. It’s becoming a very rich space that is getting a lot of attention, but most efforts are focused on information delivery, which is only a small part of learning. Ironically the social aspects of learning, which some would argue are the most important, are being ignored.

4. Open vs Fauxpen. Now that “open” has become some sort of a brand, people are starting to realize that there’s a lot of fake openness. It seems like we are going to start seeing a bigger push for truly open systems (i.e. Creative Commons licenses, data portability, etc). Like “organic” food, I suspect web services are going to have to show how open they are. For example, Google’s data portability efforts and YouTube’s ability to upload content under Creative Commons licenses are these type of signals of openness. The reality is that many consumers didn’t used to care about this, but an increasing number do, especially those that are loud and influential.

5. Crowdsourcing. I saw three interesting platforms that go beyond Amazon MTurk. Crowdflower which is more reliable than MTurk, captures its audience from people playing social games (e.g. Farmville), and has a very high female base. Kaggle, which attracts top talent to compete in data analysis contests. Taskrabbit, which allows you to crowdsource things in the physical world (e.g. hire people to run errands). In general, it seems like crowdsourcing has shiften from buzzword to an actual usable tool for doing all sorts of things. I think there are opportunities to either leverage some of these platforms or build new ones that tap into a wider range of people.

Responsible Drama

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

I would  like to argue that drama, used responsibly, can be a positive factor for building online communities.

In this paper boyd and colleagues describe it as the “skirmishes and their digital traces” that teens have online  While typically undesirable, I would argue that a little bit of drama goes a long way and it’s even necessary for building community.

Designers of online communities, especially those focused on young people, tend to avoid drama like the plague. For example, Club Penguin has an option called “Ultimate Safe Chat” where users are not allowed to freely type their messages to other users (which is the whole point of the site). Instead users are allowed to communicate only from “a set menu of greetings, questions and statements.”

While the fear of drama is probably rooted in the fear of bullying, I don’t think we see this aversion to drama only in online communities for kids. We also see it in social technologies “for business,” which often strive to keep things as “clean” and “professional” as possible.

The cost of these anti-drama efforts, I think, is that they reduce the conversations to emotionless and sterile interactions. Any successful and worthwhile social system with more than one person, at some point will experience conflict, tension, and yes, drama. Removing it completely, however, can reduce the motivation for participation (people often go back to follow up on the heated discussion they had) and, given the right moderation strategies, a community can come out stronger and more united after a drama episode.

Of course, without the appropriate moderation, drama can take over the discussions and create a hostile environment that can also kill a community, but like, everything, drama with moderation can be used for good.