Liveblogging at the Social Computing Symposium 5

Julian Dibbell asks, “What is the place of games in social spaces, in virtual community? What difference does a game make?” He points to something that I think is really important, what he calls an authenticity problem: it is still hard to explain to people who haven’t used or experienced a particular social computing application what is attractive or important about those experiences. He points to cases where you get hit coming AND going, because people who are heavily invested as users in a given virtual space tend to really dislike attempts by scholars or researchers to describe or represent that virtual space to outsiders. Ah, I like his major point especially: how do you describe to outsiders the ludic, imaginary, fictional, narrative moments that really create communities, or I would say, equally are the things you remember most? How do you tell people about what’s funny about Leroy Jenkins, or what was moving about a particular quest? We can do that as literary critics describing a key moment in a novel: why can’t we do it about imaginative or fictive moments in virtual spaces? Is that a problem with our descriptive or analytic language? Is it that most people reading literary criticism know what a novel is?

Fernanda Viegas talks about the bureaucratic processes behind Wikipedia, behind what gets an article onto the Wikipedia front page as the featured article. The process behind the hood at Wikipedia is very interesting, and she really sets it out very well. Increasingly, she notes, peer review processes at Wikipedia are becoming deeply self-referential to the emergent culture of Wikipedia, its accumulative meta-standards. This semester I’ve really found myself thinking about Wikipedia. What’s amazing about it the more I use it is the depth and usefulness of articles on popular culture: if I want to know about even the most obscure comic book characters or cartoons that I can think of, there’s going to be something on Wikipedia. What is dissatisfying about it are the articles that get whipsawed every day between partisans of some kind, and a layer of absent theoretical or conceptual terms where I’d love to be able to direct students to.

Kyle Brinkman talks about MySpace. Can I make a confession? I’ve only looked at MySpace two or three times; I know it mostly through Danah Boyd’s blog and some general blogger chatter. I readily understand what’s interesting and important about MySpace, but this is actually one of those moments that Julian Dibbell was talking about in his presentation. I have a hard time explaining what’s happening inside the space of World of Warcraft to someone who hasn’t played it; I have a hard time appreciating or connecting to what’s happening inside the space of MySpace when someone who knows that social space well tries to describe it to me. Danah’s work helps me with that because she uses the analytic language of anthropology. Maybe that’s the language we’re reaching for, I suppose, though in line with my established criticism of anthropological writing, I almost wonder if what we really need is something more like compelling travel writing. (Which Julian’s writing often seems like to me.)

Judith Donath talks about interface design for social interaction online. She mentions that signalling theory in biology has been useful for her in thinking about design. She observes that organisms try to have visible signals that communicate hidden qualities (“I am dangerous”; “I am a good mate”; “Don’t come into my territory”). My thought about this: this is a great thing to think about it, but it actually complicates the design problem she’s talking about, because animal signalling contains immense amounts of deception or misinformation. (Butterflies saying with their wings, “I am actually an owl”; praying mantis saying “I am a stick, it’s ok to land right here”) and so on. Any interface that lets people communicate valuable hidden attributes about themselves in an online environment is of necessity going to have to allow people miscommunicate or lie about the same attributes, the two things come bundled together. The analogy is really useful, but it doesn’t actually solve the design problem.

(Sideline comment: you could have a drinking game at a social computing meeting where you have to take a drink every time Erving Goffman is mentioned, but if you did, everyone would be blotto one hour in.)

Scott Golder talks about “socialist computing”, just a play on words, what he’s actually talking about is software and technologies that could facilitate shared ownership of online products and transactions. He points to the possibility of microloans from one person to another person facilitated through an online market, pointing to something called Prosper. He mentions Netflix as well. An example that occurs to me is it would be useful if a large group of people dispersed across a region could rent a storage unit, pool libraries, and share the group library through an online interface. Obviously one barrier to that would be the difficulty of knowing what co-owners were doing at any moment, and protecting a resource which wasn’t onsite or physically present from disappearing without the knowledge of other owners.

Karrie Karahalios talks about the use of audio in social computing and new media. She reminds me of the issue of audio in virtual worlds and computer games: who relies on audio cues and who doesn’t? I noticed that my fellow World of Warcraft players here don’t really rely much on audio cues from the environment, where I really do: the sound of an arrow or a rogue stealth-reveal is to me a vastly more important piece of information about my environment in many cases than visual tools like the radar or the landscape around. Karahalios points out the density of signal or information that is within voice: tone, emotional state, spontaneity. Oh, my god: she’s showing a tool for communicating real-time feedback from a faculty meeting, where participants were rating during a conversation which comments they wanted to hear more of and which they wanted to hear less of, basically a kind of “conversation market” where people were bidding on the value of comments or voices. She says that made people really angry. I would SO like to try something like that in a faculty meeting at Swarthmore, but yeah, it could be incredibly explosive. This talk is kind of a revelation: she’s travelling over tons of creative landscapes, tools, applications. This is where I really fall in love with social and information technologies, it’s first and foremost an aesthetic domain for me, a site for profound creativity. I can’t do that kind of invention myself but oh how I love it when I see it.

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