2014 in books

One of the things that I wanted to do with my “sabbatical” was to delve more deeply into some of the literature related to [online] communities. Below follows short overviews of some of the books that I read this year. If you’ve got any recommendations of your own, please do add them in the comments.

The Death and Life of Great American CitiesJane Jacobs

This was one of those books that was recommended to me from multiple directions in strikingly coincidental short succession. So I finally conceded that I should read it, even though urban planning seemed a strange topic to spend my free time thinking about…

How wrong I was to have not read this sooner! Jacobs, a resident New Yorker, uses many examples from her home town to lead a fascinating discussion about what’s wrong with how we think about cities. She places particular emphasis on why the street is such an important unit in planning successful communities. Excitingly, I could see various parallels with online communities, and how social network design could benefit from some of Jacobs’ theory. For example, when talking about the role of the street, Jacobs identifies 3 key factors that enable streets to contribute to a sense of safety in neighbourhoods (quoted directly):

  1. There must be a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space.
  2. There must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on the street equipped to handle strangers and to insure the safety of both the residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it blind.
  3.  The sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers. Large numbers of people entertain themselves off and on by watching street activity.

I think there are clear parallels with how the Twitter stream operates, for example. This prompted me to bloabout the ideas at the intersection of Jacobs’ and Danah Boyd’s work – specifically thinking about online safety. I would love to consider this topic some more in 2015.

Jane Jacobs, urban planning, and the need for concentration. Sunny day in a deck chair with afternoon tea optional ;) Image credit: author's own.

Jane Jacobs, urban planning, and the need for concentration. Sunny day in a deck chair with afternoon tea optional 😉
Image credit: author’s own.

It’s complicated – the social lives of networked teensDanah Boyd

I really enjoyed Danah Boyd’s dissection of the various beliefs about how teenagers use social networks – indeed, it was probably my favourite book of 2014. But it’s not simply an internet explainer/debunking of scare stories for the worried parent. Yes, each chapter addresses a topic of potential misunderstanding – from online identity, to privacy, to the naive belief that the internet is a great leveller. But, Boyd frames many of her arguments in relation to the 4 affordances of online networks – the behaviours that the various online tools make possible.  I enjoyed considering persistence, visibility, searchability and spreadability as key factors in sharing content online – and have started a series of my own musings about these affordances. More to come on this topic in 2015.

Context collapse is the other big idea that has been picked up from the book. It occurs when people comment on content that they may technically be able to see, but which was not meant for them to publicly interact with e.g. your mum commenting on the photos of the party you went to last night.

Alone TogetherSherry Turkle

This is a classic text that’s often quoted when considering the influence of modern technology on interpersonal relationships. Turkle, who’s spent many years at MIT as technology and society specialist, describes the results of almost 15 years of interviews with adults and children about their interactions with technology. The first half of the book focuses on interactions between people and robots, while the second half focuses on our lives online, including how cell phones are enabling us to be constantly connected.

Turkle’s thesis is that by being constantly available for many small interactions – from text messages to IMs – we’re finding deeper emotional intimacy more elusive: “Technology promises to let us do anything from anywhere with anyone. But it also drains us as we try to do everything everywhere. We begin to feel overwhelmed and depleted by the lives technology makes possible. We may be free to work from anywhere, but we are also prone to being lonely everywhere. In a surprising twist, relentless connection leads to a new solitude. We turn to new technology to fill the void, but as technology ramps up, our emotional lives ramp down.”

However, Turkle also acknowledges that while being online may now feel very familiar, it’s still early days for deciding as a society how we use the internet. By observing and reflecting on how we use technology to engage with other people online, we can decide how we would like these technologically-mediated relationships to evolve in the future. This certainly seems to be echoed in the various blog posts on the theme of “digital detoxing”. There’s also an increasing emphasis on messaging apps that allow us to share directly with specific friends, rather than the broadcast model of sharing that we became familiar with thanks to Facebook.

In summary, I found the second half of this book especially interesting, but its conclusions are based primarily on what seem to be small-scale interview data, and they cover a range of different online environments – from multi-player games to the use of social networks by teens. As Boyd’s book illustrates, these are complex topics, each of which can require many different studies to refute what may have been “intuitive” ideas about identity, privacy and internet addiction. It was good to read both in quick succession and compare.

Everything is obvious – once you know the answer – Duncan Watts

As they say, “Hindsight is always 20:20” and Duncan Watts argues that this is exactly the problem when trying to make conclusions about group behaviour after events have taken place. We convince ourselves that there were obvious, rational reasons why the stock market plummeted or that catchy song topped the charts, and yet we remain poorly placed to make predictions for future events. “Everything is obvious…” includes examples from Watts’ own work, such as the MusicLab online experiment that he used to demonstrate the importance of social cues (“the rich get richer effect“) on the popularity of content in social networks.

Society and the Internet – how networks of information and communication are changing our lives

This collection of short essays, edited by two members of the Oxford Internet Research Institute, considers a wide range of studies of the Internet – from our relationship to our online profiles to the role of social media in journalism. There are also chapters on the economics of attention (and implications for advertising) as well as sections on big data.

The most interesting chapters for me focused on digital democracy – including whether the Internet has been used successfully to engage voters in discussions about politics. One chapter considered the importance of personal networks in the success of online petitions, noting that for the two UK government sites studied, a petition lived or died in the first 24 hours after it was posted (where living or dying is defined as being on track to obtaining the minimum number of signatures required for Downing Street to issue an official response about the petition’s topic).

Another chapter analysed the promises made by the current UK coalition government to use the Internet as a tool to encourage political debate, concluding that there is a lack of places for genuine deliberation online. Instead, the favoured route to gathering public opinion is aggregation e.g. via petitions, upvoting or hashtags that cluster individuals with similar opinions. However, aggregation does not provide an opportunity for participants to exchange, discuss and modify their beliefs.  How we create forums for deliberation is something I’d like to focus on in more detail in 2015.

Learning about society and the Internet in a local cafe this summer. Image credit: author's own.

Learning about society and the Internet in a local cafe this summer. Image credit: author’s own.

The Book of Trees – Manuel Lima

This was prize fruit from an afternoon of book store foraging, and provided a beautiful visual break from some of the other books I was reading. The book is an exploration of the use of tree diagrams as communication tools for over 800 years, with gorgeous images ranging from computer-generated visualisations of linguistic relationships to hand-drawn scientific diagrams and mythological imagery. A lovely, visual take on how we depict relationships between things, and over time.

The book of trees - visualizing branches of knowledge. Image credit: author's own.

The book of trees – visualizing branches of knowledge. Image credit: author’s own.

Buzzing CommunitiesRichard Millington

Buzzing Communities is a great starting point – or opportunity to reframe your thoughts – for anyone working with online communities. Millington outlines 8 elements that he believes every community manager should include in their role, and devotes a chapter to each. The chapters consider what is practically involved in each area, and which metrics to track in order to determine whether your activities are working. Topics covered include: planning events, creating content calendars, building meaningful relationships with community members, and when to step in if discussions are getting heated.

There’s some referencing to research literature throughout the book, but it’s my sense that because this is a rapidly evolving area, there are likely to be omissions. For example, there’s a quick comment in one chapter about putting all your important info above the fold, but recent data and discussions about this topic are less clear-cut. Ditto some of the information about encouraging online discussions, where I’d like to see some more reference to areas such as Communications Studies, and to recent trends with moderating comment threads on news articles. These changed have ranged from closing comments entirely, to introducing new tools to encourage better commenting, to studying the influence of participating editors on the amount of deliberation in comments sections. Perhaps one of the main issues is that this book aims to cover a lot of ground, and to delve into the key literature in many of the areas would probably be a book in its own right.

Finally, one thing I particularly liked was the emphasis on a proactive rather than reactive mode for community management, to ensure that time is being spent on areas that will have most overall benefit for the community as a whole, instead of being side-tracked by small, noisy flare-ups.

Co-ordinating communities - dressing for the role ;) Image credit: author's own

Co-ordinating communities – dressing for the role 😉 Image credit: author’s own

Dealing with Disrespect – Jono Bacon

Jono Bacon is the former Ubuntu community manager who has extensive experience working with online communities. His first book, the Art of Community, is a great introduction to community management, delivered in Bacon’s straightforward style, yet covering a lot of ground. In 2014 he followed this with Dealing with Disrespect, a freely available online handbook for coping with difficult interactions online.

Much of the emphasis here is on developing empathy, and improving our individual communication skills – things that I’d certainly agree are good foundations for any successful conversation. But after the abuse problems that have become increasingly apparent on Twitter this year, it’s hard to believe that these suggestions alone are enough to counter what feel like much deeper cultural issues.

So how do we create safe online spaces? And whose role is it to intervene when things turn unacceptably nasty? Can community management ever successfully mediate a truly meaningful exchange of opinions, or is there an acceptance that we retreat to more private spaces for difficult conversations? Or perhaps we decide that we can converse only with those who share our opinions? I’m interested in how these conversations develop in 2015.

Sharing our lives online – risks and exposures in social media – David R. Brake

I’ve not finished this yet, but I’m enjoying the perspective on why we choose to share online, and the possible consequences. Brake starts by detailing the various potential harms from posting online and then moves to consider scholarly perspectives on what motivates us to share, as well as what is different about social media compared to offline interactions. This includes the concepts of time and memory online – something I’ve been particularly interested in this year (e.g. when considering the persistence of online content). Looking forward to reading the rest of this.

Sharing our lives online - or jotting down thoughts in our notebooks?  Image credit: author's own

Sharing our lives online – or jotting down thoughts in our notebooks?
Image credit: author’s own

Additional reading

  • Critical Mass – how one thing leads to another – Philip Ball. An easy-to-follow and wide-ranging exploration of human behaviour in terms of  the actions of groups. Too much to summarise in a single post with topics including modelling diversity, the economics of markets and traffic flow.
  • Six degrees – the science of a connected age – Duncan Watts –  A network science classic, not reviewed here partly due to lack of space, partly because it’s already reviewed online, and partly because I realised fairly early on this year that online behaviour and technology was what I wanted to explore in more detail, rather than more mathematical approaches to network theory.
  • Triumph of the city – Edward Glaeser – I read this as part of my explorations of social networks as online cities. It’s not strictly relevant, but had some interesting chapters about what causes urban decline and the relative “economics” of urban and rural spaces.

And what’s next on my list…


Instant replay: how a study of online communities helps to re-run scenarios in order to understand popularity

In the last post, we looked at how groups behave when binary decisions are involved. There, it’s assumed that each individual in the group has their own threshold that needs to be exceeded before they’ll take action. Granovetter’s riot model provided a useful place to start thinking about why the interactions amongst individuals in a group are important, but the simple threshold model doesn’t take into account more complex dynamics that are involved in social relationships or how these might affect decision making.

One noted social phenomenon  is cumulative advantage (also known as preferential attachment). Here, once a few people express their liking for something, it will become more popular still, and any differences between the popular choice and any less popular alternatives will be amplified.  Cumulative advantage tells us that it’s the number of people that like something that’s important to its success – not necessarily any intrinsic qualities of the object itself.  As Duncan J. Watts argues in his book Everything is Obvious, this goes against our common sense feeling that it must be that a popular item has some special, distinguishing features.

If we had the chance to repeat life multiple times, we could test which of the two ideas was actually true. If it’s the intrinsic features that are important, we’d expect that every time we replayed history, the same item would emerge on top. But if cumulative advantage is at work, then different items might emerge as favourites each time.

But of course, we only get to play history once. And this is where the internet becomes an incredibly useful tool for studying network effects – the large numbers of users and ability to create different online environments can allow hypothesis to be tested in multiple parallel situations, as if history were being allowed to play out several times. This is nicely demonstrated by Watts and his collaborators in a fascinating 2006 study of an online community of people interested in listening to music (no, not YouTube!).

Do you like what you hear? Image credit: Photo by Flickr user Mark JP http://www.flickr.com/photos/pyth0ns/6757854133/

Do you like what you hear?
Image credit: Photo by Flickr user Mark JP http://www.flickr.com/photos/pyth0ns/6757854133/

In the experiment, participants from a teen social network were recruited to a site called Music Lab, specifically created for the study. Each visitor was assigned to one of two types of condition – “independent” or “social influence”. In both cases they were asked to listen to and rate songs and given the opportunity to download them.  In the social influence condition participants could also see how many times others had downloaded the songs – the “social” aspect.

Over 14, 000 people took part in the experiment. The researchers divided them into 1 of 9 different “worlds”  – 8 of which had the social feedback about downloads displayed to members. All worlds featured the same 48 songs and started with download counts at zero. As songs were downloaded, this social data contributed only to the specific world where the song was accessed so that each world provided an independent repetition of the study. The additional group that wasn’t shown any social feedback provided a control for quality – given that participants couldn’t see what anyone else had downloaded, it was assumed that songs that became popular there might be the ones that were intrinsically better.

So what happened?

Where downloads were shown, the social input did influence what other users downloaded, and popular songs became more popular than anything in the independent, non-social conditions. What proved to catch on in one social world was also quite different to what was popular in another. So social influence increases not just inequality in decision making (“the rich get richer”), but also adds an element of unpredictability.

Interestingly, for those interested in online marketing, the whole experiment was also repeated to compare the layout of the songs on the website – displaying the songs as a ranked list in one scenario but as a random grid in another. The ranked list provides a clearer signal about the preferences of other users, and unsurprisingly, resulted in even more inequality and unpredictability about which songs would end up topping the ratings.

The results as a whole were even more dramatic because the experiment as a whole was likely to represent a toned down version of the social signals than might be observed in the real world, where marketing tactics and even discussion amongst users might be taking place. Finally, just in case you’re wondering if the experiment merely revealed some quirks about teenagers’ music tastes, the study was also repeated with adult participants with similar results.

So, after considering riots and music preferences we’re starting to get a feel for the importance of capturing the relationships between individuals if you want to understand group behaviour. Next, we’ll move onto thinking about the role of influencers in prompting changes in behaviour.

References/further reading

Everything is Obvious – once you know the answer – Duncan J. Watts – Chapter 3 – The Wisdom (and Madness) of Crowds

“Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictibility in an Artiifical Cultural Market” – Salganik, Dodds and Watts (2006). Science Vol 31. 854-856.

Preferential attachment (cumulative advantage) – this has been used to explain links to pages on the Internet and differences in citations of scholarly articles.

Do you wanna riot? Thinking about group behaviour from the perspective of individual preferences

Over the Christmas and New Year break, I started to read Duncan Watts’ “Everything is obvious – once you know the answer”. It’s an interesting discussion of why the thing we call common sense is often inadequate for explaining why we behave the way we do. And it’s provided a really useful starting point for me to ponder network effects.

Watts describes how those who seek to explain group behaviour are faced with the “micro-macro” problem. This is the need to rationalise the “macro” actions of large groups of people — why certain people become celebrities or what people want to buy — in terms of the “micro” activities of the individuals within a study’s population.

One theoretical way to tackle this is the representative-agent approach – create a fictitious individual who is designed to represent the behaviour of the population as a whole and then use this theoretical character to attempt to predict how the population would react under different circumstances. While it seems like a simple, intuitive solution – and it’s one that’s been used in fields from economics to sociology and political science – this theoretical approach is often inadequate to make sense of group dynamics. Watts uses sociologist Mark Granovetter’s 1978 threshold model to highlight why.

The example used by Granovetter to illustrate his model is whether or not a given population of individuals would take part in a riot. The model relies on a couple of assumptions. Firstly, that individuals within a population are being asked to make a binary decision – whether or not to join the riot (but it could equally be whether to pass on a rumour, or whether to leave a social gathering etc).  Secondly, each individual has a threshold at which they will change their behaviour, set by a personal assessment of the costs and benefits of doing so. Opting for one course of action is at least in part influenced by other people e.g. the more others join in the riot, the less “costly” or risky it is deemed to do so oneself.

Bear debates whether he should start a riot of his own...  Image credit: Photo by Flickr user Jenny Downing: http://www.flickr.com/photos/7941044@N06/5764351769

Bear debates whether he should start a riot of his own…
Image credit: Photo by Flickr user Jenny Downing: http://www.flickr.com/photos/7941044@N06/5764351769

Watts explains Granovetter’s paper by asking the reader to imagine two towns, each with a population of 100, where there may be good cause for the individuals to want to riot. In town A, each individual has a threshold to take part in violence that ranges from 0-99, with no one having the same threshold as anyone else. In this instance, a rowdy instigator with a threshold of 0 would start the riot. Then a neighbour with a threshold of 1 would decide to join in. This would prompt the next person who had a threshold of 2 to participate and so on, in a domino effect that would lead to widespread unrest.

Compare this to town B, where the thresholds of the population are the same, except that no one has a threshold of 1 — instead, 2 people have a threshold of 2. In this instance, the rowdy instigator would be a lone vandal because the domino effect would not be triggered, since no one had a threshold of 1 to follow the instigator’s lead and subsequently set off the cascade.

While it sounds simply like an interesting thought experiment, this model is useful precisely because it permits an explanation of why two populations with seemingly similar people and circumstances can result in two strikingly different outcomes. The representative agent model could only account for these differences by looking for some critical factor that distinguished between the two populations – was one of the instigators particularly persuasive or had one of the towns been suffering from hardship for longer? That doesn’t really work in the riot scenario described above, as the average townsfolk are pretty much identical. Hence, any approach such as the representative agent model that relies solely on a theoretical individual’s behaviour is inadequate to explain what actually happened: it doesn’t capture any of the effects of interactions between individuals in the two towns.

But just how helpful is the threshold model? For starters, to use such a model in a predictive manner, you’d need to know the thresholds of everyone in the population you were studying, which is reality is rarely the case. Theoretically, you could study something such as the adoption of birth control in villages in developing countries, and use the recorded effects from one village to calculate the likely threshold distribution present there. You could then extrapolate this to other villages, potentially adjusting the implementation of similar schemes based on what you learn. But it’s clear that this involves many assumptions.

Secondly, the model only deals with binary decisions, whereas in reality many choices involve a more complex array of options. And finally, there’s no acknowledgement of the strength of relationships between individuals, or whether it matters that those relationships are reciprocated. If you’re my friend and you take part in the riot, does that lower my threshold for taking part too? In the next post, we’ll look at another study of group dynamics, one that attempts to take into account social influence in a different way.

References/further reading

Everything is Obvious*  *once you know the answer – Duncan J. Watts – Chapter 3 – The Wisdom (and Madness) of Crowds

Mark Granovetter – Wikipedia article. Granovetter was also behind the idea of the strength of weak ties.

Threshold models of collective behaviour – Mark Granovetter, The American Journal of Sociology (1978), Vol. 83, No 6. 1420 – 1443.