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Archive for July, 2011

The Oversharer (and Other Experiments)

Friday, July 29th, 2011

Preface: I’m also blogging over at the Social Media Collective.  This entry is cross-posted with our collective blog over there.  –CS

What new norms are we evolving via the use of social media?

Way back in 1967 sociologist Harold Garfinkel proposed that the social world was filled with hidden rules for behavior that were so taken for granted it could be very difficult to notice them even if you tried to.  To make this point he famously sent his college students home for spring break with an assignment: He asked them to “spend from fifteen minutes to an hour in their homes imagining that they were boarders and acting out this assumption” (p. 38). In short, they were to be polite to their families and note what happened.

It turns out that people aren’t polite to family.

As family norms were broken the result was often pandemonium.  Unsuspecting family members quickly diagnosed their children as ill… or even insane. Speaking politely to your parents is so unusual that most families took it as cruel mockery, or as a kind of elaborate, unsuccessful joke.  Students found the experience unaccountably stressful, given the apparently innocuous instructions. Garfinkel’s experiment is now widely known as “the lodger” or “the boarder.”  He advocated this technique of de-familiarizing everyday life by challenging some unstated assumption as a way to discover the existence of hidden norms.  He called it “breaching.”

What would Garfinkel’s breaching experiment look like if we designed it to investigate emerging norms in social media?  In the class that I teach at the University of Illinois called Communication Technology and Society we set out to figure this out.  Here is a sampling of some of the breaching experiments we designed and conducted.  (Siddhartha Raja, Matthew Yapchaian, Dawn Nafus, and Ken Anderson contributed to this list.)

I’ll list the experiments here but not the results.  Note that a few of them produced results we did not expect.  Dear Internet: Can you think of any other social media norms to investigate with norm breaching experiments? This is like making your own failbook for the sake of science. All new Garfinkels welcomed.

Social Media Norm Breaching Experiments

  • CHATTY FLICKR MARKUP: Sign up for an account and find users on Flickr ( that you do not know. Try to start a conversation with them using the “add note” tool and the “add your comment” box to mark an image that they have uploaded. Try varying the kind of image you comment on from those that are very personal (wedding, kids birthdays, etc.) to those that are very impersonal (buildings, landscapes) and see how the reactions vary. Note that you may have to post a lot of notes and comments to get any reaction. You may have to try different and creative strategies to get people to respond to you. Describe the reactions.
  • GCHAT STRANGER. If you have a gmail account already, use gchat to begin chat conversations with people that you don’t know (or don’t know very well). Vary the kinds of things you say to see if you can get them to start a chat conversation with you. Describe what kind of chat message will successfully get a stranger to chat with you on gchat. Remember to be polite and respectful at all times. Note: You may have to try to gchat A LOT before you get someone to respond to you. Do not keep trying the same people if they do not respond.
  • WAY OFF TOPIC. On Facebook or a similar site that has threaded conversation (e.g., status updates with replies), over a period of three days leave a large number of comments that are all completely and obviously off-topic and not relevant to the thread. For this to work, there can be no relation between the reply and the topic at all; just start talking about something else. If you like, address some of them to the wrong person as well. Describe the results.
  • FACEBOOK WALL INQUISITOR. On Facebook, friend five strangers — people you don’t know (maybe friends of friends). Once they accept your friend request, post a public comment to their wall introducing yourself and asking them about themselves. In your posts, do not refer to any friends that you have in common; just talk about yourself and ask them about themselves. Try to get information from them about themselves. (You must start this assignment before Monday for it to work!). Describe the responses.
  • ONLY ONE MEDIUM. Choose one popular communication technology. Only use that technology for 3 days. (e.g. Use Facebook direct messages for ALL communication even when it is obviously inappropriate or impractical.) Describe the reactions.
  • ALWAYS MIX MEDIA. For 3 days, always “mix” media–always respond to a communication using a different medium of communication than the one that was used to contact you. (example: if you get a phone call, let it go to voicemail then SMS them. If you get an email, send a picture to their phone, etc. Respond to your twitter @’s in person.) Describe the reactions.
  • THE OVERSHARER. Pick either an acquaintance you don’t know that well or a parent. In a 24 hour period dramatically increase the amount of information you send this person using a text-based mobile communication technology that you know they can receive (likeIM on your phone, text/SMS, or e-mail on your phone/PDA). For example, you could communicate with them every time you do anything (“hi I am getting on the bus”, “arrived in class,” “class is boring,” “having lunch,” “talking with friend.”) Describe the reactions.
  • LAPTOP ALTRUISM. In a public place, ask to borrow a stranger’s laptop “for a second” to check something and then spend an excessive amount of time using it to do things on Facebook. If you get no reaction or the overall experiment is very short, repeat the experiment with another person.

Life in the Slow Lane

Friday, July 29th, 2011

(Or, Non-Broadband Broadband)

I’m on Marketplace Tech Report this morning talking about the slowest broadband Internet in the USA, which is located in Pocatello, Idaho according to a new study by Pando Networks.

Click here to listen to the story, or read it.

We all know that the Internet isn’t the same everywhere in the US, right?  That may not be the most riveting finding in the story.  Also we know that the rich are probably more likely to have faster Internet.  Nothing new there.

What *is* the most interesting thing about this story is the shift from describing broadband by presence/absence toward describing its qualities. We are finally starting to appreciate the idea that a high-latency connection, an unreliable connection, or a low-bandwidth connection might each be examples of non-broadband broadband, if you follow my meaning. Each of them rules out some class of important broadband applications.  For example:

  • Low-bandwidth: no video for you, and even some flashy Web sites won’t be pleasant
  • High-latency: forget your interactive gaming
  • Low-reliability: you won’t be using skype or Google talk for business
  • Transfer-capped: video looks like a bad idea, and watch those software updates!
  • Very asymmetric: no content production for you

I hope we’ll see more of this kind of careful analysis.  It’s the kind of thing that the national broadband map was supposed to tell us, before the mapping requirements were eviscerated by the carriers.

Avoiding New Media: Impossible?

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

(or: Are Media Fast Assignments Inherently Dishonest?)

I just received a fascinating comment in my teaching evaluations from last year.  On the back of the eval form there is a free-response section where people are invited to make constructive suggestions about the course.  The results are usually fascinating, but in a bad way. Or in a puzzling way.

For example, one student in a previous class complained extensively about the discussion sections in a course that didn’t have any. I’ve also been propositioned in Korean. There are compliments, yes, and insults.  But this particular comment I received made me pause.

In the course I teach at the University of Illinois titled, Communication Technology and Society, one of my assignments is a new media fast. Basically it is 24 hours without “new” media, with a short reflection on it followed by an in-class discussion about what happened. This was accompanied by readings about the Amish, the Luddites, and the Appropriate Technology movement.

Media fasts have been a part of media studies courses forever, but I gave this assignment because I was particularly influenced by David Silver’s attempts to teach media by getting away from them.  (I also got my definition of “new media” from this other fast assignment I found online.)  I’ve attached the full text of my assignment at the end of this post.

Here’s the anonymous comment I received that made me pause (slightly paraphrased):

Requiring a media fast is inherently dishonest. It is impossible for anyone to be away from media for this long, or at least it is so much easier to lie than to complete the assignment that you’ve done nothing more than incite dishonesty… among 100% of the class.

At the time, I thought some of the responses to the fast were interesting, even insightful.

One student noted that they had to ask everyone the time all day because the only clock they own is a Blackberry. Another student wrote “I feel like I’m being punished for something.”

Someone decided to define the microwave and dishwasher as “new media” and voluntarily fasted from using them as well.

A student had previously fasted for religion and compared the two experiences of doing without: they concluded that doing without media is harder than doing without food.  (I’m sure a longer fast would reverse the situation though.)

Now I’m going over these in my head and thinking… are all of these lies?  How many of these responses are fabricated? It’s true, it would be much easier to simply make up the response than to actually complete the fast. Is this assignment worth giving?

It may be that for the U.S. college student avoiding new media is functionally impossible… or at least unlikely to ever work as an assignment.



ASSIGNMENT: New Media Fast

Part I: Select your fast time. The word “fast” used in this context means “to abstain.” Choose a time frame between now and this assignment’s due date when you will be able to spend 24 consecutive hours without new media. State the time period that you chose. Be sure that the time period requires some adjustment to your lifestyle, but it should not make you lose your job or harm your work in another class. For instance, you might choose one evening and the following morning so that you are not offline for an entire day. (No fair choosing 24 hours when you would already not be using new media.)

Part II: Fast. For the purpose of this assignment, new media technology is being defined as anything that has become common among consumers since 1980. During your “new media fast,” do not use these technologies. Keep notes (with paper!) about the adjustments that you needed to make in order to stay honest to your fast.

Part III: Reflect. After the end of your fast, write a blog post reflecting on this experience. Make specific reference to at least one quote or concept discussed in lecture on 3/30 (on Technology Resistance) or in the C&T book, Ch. 5 or Ch. 6 in a way that demonstrates that you understand them. Please explain:

  • What you gave up.
  • How you did it.
  • What you did instead.
  • What was easiest and what was most difficult to forsake.
  • If you failed (i.e., used new media), what you did when you failed and why.
  • Your thoughts, emotions and feelings about the assignment as it began and evolved.
  • What you learned about your own media consumption habits.
  • How this relates to the ideas in the readings.

This assignment must be at least 300 words (about 1 page).

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