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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

twitter following study

I'm currently conducting a study of following on Twitter. in the process of recruiting participants, more than a couple people have asked for a non-PDF version of the recruitment information, so here it is.


Do You Use Twitter? Join Research about Following on Twitter

- A regular user of Twitter or other microblogging service (such as Jaiku) – must be following at least 5 other users
- Can participate in phone/Skype interview, or lives near Orange County, CA
- Owns a personal computer
- Age of 18 or over

The purpose of this research is to investigate how people follow and interact on Twitter and other microblogs. Participation in this research will involve in-person interviews every 4 to 6 weeks lasting through Spring of 2010, and possibly one or more group interviews. There is no risk to participants and involvement can be ended at any time. Participants will be entered in a drawing for a $100 Amazon.com gift card at the end of the research period. Participants’ privacy and rights will be completely protected. Participation is completely voluntary and may be discontinued at any time.

If interested contact:
Lead Researcher
Eric P. S. Baumer: ebaumer@uci.edu
Department of Informatics
University of California, Irvine

Allison Leis: aleis@uci.edu

Faculty Sponsor
Bill Tomlinson

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Tuesday, March 09, 2010

activism for activism: the necessary locality of tactical knowledge

yesterday, Richard MacManus from ReadWriteWeb interviewed Mary Joyce about the founding of her new meta-activism project. the idea is, in short, that most activist strategies were based on social and technological (technosocial?) conditions before the advent of mass digital communication. however, these strategies must be radically altered to enable what's being called digital activism. the focus of the meta-activism project, then, is to provide potential digital activists with the knowledge, tools, and tactics necessary to make full use of these novel technologies.

this seems like a rather sensible goal, depending on how it's accomplished. yes, it makes sense that tools for digital activism require new strategies and tactics; to some extent, this is the "more is different" argument about digital/social media. however, it seems that such tactics would also need to be grounded in local contexts. the same digital activism tactics that work with incredible efficacy in, say, Iran may fail entirely in Egypt, or the US, or anywhere else. I feel that a major portion of this project should be focused on situating digital activism in local cultural, political, social, and historical contexts, and on understanding how those contexts interrelated with the success or failure of given efforts.

speaking of success and failure, in the interview, Mary is pretty candid about how effective this digital activism has been, noting that "few cases of digital activism are actual successes." she goes further, noting the difficulty of even assessing success. is a campaign successful if it mobilizes a sufficient number of people (in which cases, what constitutes a sufficient number)? is it successful if it achieves its stated goal? by either criterion, few such campaigns succeed, and it's only a minute portion that achieve success in the latter terms of actually affecting change. this brings up a point I've wondered about often: why do some online social movements succeed, and why do some fail? there have been tons of studies of success stories, but I feel like these need to be complemented with studies of the failures, perhaps focusing on campaigns that succeeded in mobilizing large numbers of people but still failed to achieve their goals (if anyone knows of such work, feel free to point me in the right direction).

another point Mary made caught my attention. she described how, for a digital technology to be highly useful, it needs both scale and "use neutrality" (even she uses scare quotes around that phrase). by scale, she means simply that there must be a critical mass of users (again, what constitutes a "critical mass" is likely a topic for some debate). by "use neutral," she means that the technology "can be easily co opted, that its architecture can facilitate a wide variety of interactions and does not dictate the content of hosted files." she cites YouTube, Blogger, Facebook, and Twitter as use neutral, while she says LastFM and Bloglines are not.

I think I have to disagree with use neutrality, both on a terminological level and on a conceptual level. first, none of the tools she has described are use neutral; each is designed for a specific set of use cases. Twitter is not conducive to long, thoughtful, complex argumentation in a way that blogger would be. Facebook cannot host videos the way that YouTube can. however, I will admit that LastFM has a much more focused, constrained set of use cases than, say, Facebook. furthermore, these tools are anything but neutral. the ontological categories invoked by tools such as Facebook (friends, networks, feeds, etc.) privilege a certain type of configuration between the individual and society, and arguing that these tools have use neutrality distracts from the social, political, and cultural (not to mention philosophical and epistemological) commitments made in their design.

I think the point is not that these tools have "use neutrality," but rather "use plasticity." that is, while a tool such as Facebook or Twitter has a certain intended use, the tool is flexible enough, plastic enough, that it can be adapted to serve a variety of purposes in a variety of contexts. and again, we're back to what I think is the crux of the interesting issue here: how are these various tools repurposed and adapted to local contexts, and how do those processes of repurposing and adaptation change the tool (and, reflexively, the context) in ways that enable a digital activism campaign to succeed (or prevent it from succeeding)? synthesizing across different instances of the interplay between the plasticity of digital/social media seems like it could be a highly advantageous approach for enabling efforts such as the meta-activism project to make a real, significant contribution to understanding digital activism.

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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

alternative carbon footprint calculators

how do you determine your impact on climate change? perhaps you use a carbon calculator, a nifty tool that asks for a bunch of stats about how you live your life and spits out a number indicating how many tonnes of CO2 are released as a result of your activities. the less CO2, the less your environmental impact. or at least, that's the theory.

I've been thinking about these carbon footprint calculators quite a bit recently, since some folks in my research group have been working on the Better Carbon Calculator. the premise is that filling in all the details about yourself necessary to calculate your carbon footprint--your home energy bill, how much you drive, your car's gas mileage, how much you fly, how often you buy new clothes, how much meat you eat, etc.--is not only tedious, but many people don't have that info ready at hand. Better Carbon uses collaborative filtering to make best guesses; think Netflix's movie recommendation system, only for your consumption patterns. don't know how much meat you eat? chances are you eat just about as much meat as other people who are like you. if you know you happen to eat less meat (e.g., you're vegan) or more meat (e.g., you're a body builder trying to bulk up), you simply change the suggested defaults. pretty clever.

however, most carbon calculators (including Better Carbon) are about individual behaviors, specifically, individual consumption choices. however, there are lots of things you do other than buy/eat/consume stuff that impacts the environment. what about a system that could calculate the carbon footprint of a vote? based on the legislation for which senator so-and-so has voted and her/his position on upcoming bills, your vote for that senator has the following carbon footprint. you could envision similar tools for domains. what's the carbon footprint of my 401k, based on the companies in which I'm invested? what's the carbon footprint of an average semester's tuition at a given university? what's the carbon footprint of my health insurance? the idea here is to get people thinking at scales beyond individual consumption patterns and considering alternative community, organizational, and/or political means of enacting environmentally sustainable decisions.

in some ways, this could be a useful exercise. on the other hand, carbon footprint is only a small component of one's larger environmental footprint, and can be somewhat opaque at that. what does it mean that I cause 13.39 tonnes of CO2 per year? even if that's better than most people near me or in my peer group, is it sustainable in the long run? is tonnes of CO2 even a sensible figure on which to focus? granted, greenhouse gas emissions are a major contributor to climate change, which is probably one of the most pressing environmental issues, but it's certainly not the only issue. footprint calculators are nice, because they make readily quantifiable one's impact. however, they also distract from the complexities behind why some actions are more sustainable than others and thus, I argue, don't do a great deal to help foster debate about improving the situation.

(acknowledgment: many of these thoughts were highly influenced by insightful conversations with Paul, Six, Catherine, Bill, Joel, and many others)

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