Will the desire for other perspectives trump the “friendly world syndrome”?

Some recent journalism at NPR and The New York Times has addressed some aspects of the “friendly world syndrome” created by personalized media. A theme common to both pieces is that people want to encounter different perspectives and will use available resources to do so. I’m a bit more skeptical.

Here’s Natasha Singer at The New York Times on cascades of memes, idioms, and links through online social networks (e.g., Twitter):

If we keep seeing the same links and catchphrases ricocheting around our social networks, it might mean we are being exposed only to what we want to hear, says Damon Centola, an assistant professor of economic sociology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“You might say to yourself: ‘I am in a group where I am not getting any views other than the ones I agree with. I’m curious to know what else is out there,’” Professor Centola says.

Consider a new hashtag: diversity.

This is how Singer ends this article in which the central example is “icantdateyou” leading Egypt-related idioms as a trending topic on Twitter. The suggestion here, by Centola and Singer, is that people will notice they are getting a biased perspective of how many people agree with them and what topics people care about — and then will take action to get other perspectives.

Why am I skeptical?

First, I doubt that we really realize the extent to which media — and personalized social media in particular — bias their perception of the frequency of beliefs and events. Even though people know that fiction TV programs (e.g., cop shows) don’t aim to represent reality, heavy TV watchers (on average) substantially overestimate the percent of adult men employed in law enforcement.1 That is, the processes that produce the “friendly world syndrome” function without conscious awareness and, perhaps, even despite it. So people can’t consciously choose to seek out diverse perspectives if they don’t know they are increasingly missing them.

Second, I doubt that people actually want diversity of perspectives all that much. Even if I realize divergent views are missing from my media experience, why would I seek them out? This might be desirable for some people (but not all), and even for those, the desire to encounter people who radically disagree has its limits.

Similar ideas pop up in a NPR All Things Considered segment by Laura Sydell. This short piece (audio, transcript) is part of NPR’s “Cultural Fragmentation” series.2 The segment begins with the worry that offline bubbles are replicated online and quotes me describing how attempts to filter for personal relevance also heighten the bias towards agreement in personalized media.

But much of the piece has actually focuses on how one person — Kyra Gaunt, a professor and musician — is using Twitter to connect and converse with new and different people. Gaunt describes her experience on Twitter as featuring debate, engagement, and “learning about black people even if you’ve never seen one before”. Sydell’s commentary identifies the public nature of Twitter as an important factor in facilitating experiencing diverse perspectives:

But, even though there is a lot of conversation going on among African Americans on Twitter, Professor Gaunt says it’s very different from the closed nature of Facebook because tweets are public.

I think this is true to some degree: much of the content produced by Facebook users is indeed public, but Facebook does not make it as easily searchable or discoverable (e.g., through trending topics). But more importantly, Facebook and Twitter differ in their affordances for conversation. Facebook ties responses to the original post, which means both that the original poster controls who can reply and that everyone who replies is part of the same conversation. Twitter supports replies through the @reply mechanism, so that anyone can reply but the conversation is fragmented, as repliers and consumers often do not see all replies. So, as I’ve described, even if you follow a few people you disagree with on Twitter, you’ll most likely see replies from the other people you follow, who — more often than not — you agree with.

Gaunt’s experience with Twitter is certainly not typical. She has over 3,300 followers and follows over 2,400, so many of her posts will generate replies from people she doesn’t know well but whose replies will appear in her main feed. And — if she looks beyond her main feed to the @Mentions page — she will see the replies from even those she does not follow herself. On the other hand, her followers will likely only see her posts and replies from others they follow.3

Nonetheless, Gaunt’s case is worth considering further, as does Sydell:

SYDELL: Gaunt says she’s made new friends through Twitter.

GAUNT: I’m meeting strangers. I met with two people I had engaged with through Twitter in the past 10 days who I’d never met in real time, in what we say in IRL, in real life. And I met them, and I felt like this is my tribe.

SYDELL: And Gaunt says they weren’t black. But the key word for some observers is tribe. Although there are people like Gaunt who are using social media to reach out, some observers are concerned that she is the exception to the rule, that most of us will be content to stay within our race, class, ethnicity, family or political party.

So Professor Gaunt is likely making connections with people she would not have otherwise. But — it is at least tempting to conclude from “this is my tribe” — they are not people with radically different beliefs and values, even if they have arrived at those beliefs and values from a membership in a different race or class.

  1. Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M., & Signorielli, N. (1980). The “Mainstreaming” of America: Violence Profile No. 11. Journal of Communication, 30(3), 10-29. []
  2. I was also interviewed for the NPR segment. []
  3. One nice feature in “new Twitter” — the recently refresh of the Twitter user interface — is that clicking on a tweet will show some of the replies to it in the right column. This may offer an easier way for followers to discover diverse replies to the people they follow. But it is also not particularly usable, as it is often difficult to even trace what a reply is a reply to. []

Ambiguous signals: “the Facebook”

When Facebook was sweeping Stanford in Spring 2004, it wasn’t yet just Facebook — it was [thefacebook.com]. Many of my friends who were undergrads at Stanford around that time (and shortly after) will still refer to it as “The Facebook” or “the facebook dot com”. This usage can be a jokey signal to members of the in-group that one was an early user. This also may signal attendance at one of the universities Facebook was available at early on (e.g., Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Columbia).1

Of course, this signal can fail for various reasons. The audience may not understand — may see “the Facebook” as a grammatical error. Or widespread attention to Facebook’s history (say, via a fictionalized movie) may put many people in possession of the ability to use this signal, even though they weren’t early users and are not alumni at the appropriate universities.

Worse still, for some audiences, this usage might seem to put the speaker in a late-adopting category, rather than an early-adopting one! For example, in President G. W. Bush’s visit to Facebook today, he said he is now on “the Facebook”. So to many ears, “the Facebook” does exactly the opposite of the effects described above.

In fact, at least one friend has had just this experience: she used “the Facebook” and got a “are you a luddite?” kind of response. To avoid ambiguity (but also subtlety), “the facebook dot com” is still available.

  1. Though it is worth noting that by the time of the domain-name change, many more schools had access to Facebook. But I would guess the likelihood of adoption and attachment to the name is lower. Update: see this more detailed timeline of Facebook university launches. []

Public once, public always? Privacy, egosurfing, and the availability heuristic

The Library of Congress has announced that it will be archiving all Twitter posts (tweets). You can find positive reaction on Twitter. But some have also wondered about privacy concerns. Fred Stutzman, for example, points out how even assuming that only unprotected accounts are being archived this can still be problematic.1 While some people have Twitter usernames that easily identify their owners and many allow themselves to be found based on an email address that is publicly associated with their identity, there are also many that do not. If at a future time, this account becomes associated with their identity for a larger audience than they desire, they can make their whole account viewable only by approved followers2, delete the account, or delete some of the tweets. Of course, this information may remain elsewhere on the Internet for a short or long time. But in contrast, the Library of Congress archive will be much more enduring and likely outside of individual users’ control.3 While I think it is worth examining the strategies that people adopt to cope with inflexible or difficult to use privacy controls in software, I don’t intend to do that here.

Instead, I want to relate this discussion to my continued interest in how activity streams and other information consumption interfaces affect their users’ beliefs and behaviors through the availability heuristic. In response to some comments on his first post, Stutzman argues that people overestimate the degree to which content once public on the Internet is public forever:

So why is it that we all assume that the content we share publicly will be around forever?  I think this is a classic case of selection on the dependent variable.  When we Google ourselves, we are confronted with what’s there as opposed to what’s not there.  The stuff that goes away gets forgotten, and we concentrate on things that we see or remember (like a persistent page about us that we don’t like).  In reality, our online identities decay, decay being a stochastic process.  The internet is actually quite bad at remembering.

This unconsidered “selection on the dependent variable” is one way of thinking about some cases of how the availability heuristic (and use of ease-of-retrievel information more generally). But I actually think the latter is more general and more useful for describing the psychological processes involved. For example, it highlights both that there are many occurrences or interventions can can influence which cases are available to mind and that even if people have thought about cases where their content disappeared at some point, this may not be easily retrieved when making particular privacy decisions or offering opinions on others’ actions.

Stutzman’s example is but one way that the combination of the availability heuristic and existing Internet services combine to affect privacy decisions. For example, consider how activity streams like Facebook News Feed influence how people perceive their audience. News Feed shows items drawn from an individual’s friends’ activities, and they often have some reciprocal access. However, the items in the activity stream are likely unrepresentative of this potential and likely audience. “Lurkers” — people who consume but do not produce — are not as available to mind, and prolific producers are too available to mind for how often they are in the actual audience for some new shared content. This can, for example, lead to making self-disclosures that are not appropriate for the actual audience.

  1. This might not be the case, see Michael Zimmer and this New York Times article. []
  2. Why don’t people do this in the first place? Many may not be aware of the feature, but even if they are, there are reasons not to use it. For example, it makes any participation in topical conversations (e.g., around a hashtag) difficult or impossible. []
  3. Or at least this control would have to be via Twitter, likely before archiving: “We asked them [Twitter] to deal with the users; the library doesn’t want to mediate that.” []

Using social networks for persuasion profiling

BusinessWeek has an exhuberant review of current industry research and product development related to understanding social networks using data from social network sites and other online communication such as email. It includes snippets from people doing very interesting social science research, like Duncan Watts, Cameron Marlow, and danah boyd. So it is worth checking out, even if you’re already familiar with the Facebook Data Team’s recent public reports (“Maintained Relationships”, “Gesundheit!”).

But I actually want to comment not on their comments, but on this section:

In an industry where the majority of ads go unclicked, even a small boost can make a big difference. One San Francisco advertising company, Rapleaf, carried out a friend-based campaign for a credit-card company that wanted to sell bank products to existing customers. Tailoring offers based on friends’ responses helped lift the average click rate from 0.9% to 2.7%. Although 97.3% of the people surfed past the ads, the click rate still tripled.

Rapleaf, which has harvested data from blogs, online forums, and social networks, says it follows the network behavior of 480 million people. It furnishes friendship data to help customers fine-tune their promotions. Its studies indicate borrowers are a better bet if their friends have higher credit ratings. This might mean a home buyer with a middling credit risk score of 550 should be treated as closer to 600 if most of his or her friends are in that range, says Rapleaf CEO Auren Hoffman.

The idea is that since you are more likely to behave like your friends, their behavior can be used to profile you and tailor some marketing to be more likely to result in compliance.

In the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University, BJ Fogg has long emphasized how powerful and worrying personalization based on this kind of “persuasion profile” can be. Imagine that rather than just personalizing screens based on the books you are expected to like (a familiar idea), Amazon selects the kinds of influence strategies used based on a representation of what strategies work best against you: “Dean is a sucker for limited-time offers”, “Foot-in-the-door works really well against Domenico, especially when he is buying a gift.”

In 2006 two of our students, Fred Leach and Schuyler Kaye, created this goofy video illustrating approximately this concept:

My sense is that this kind of personalization is in wide use at places like Amazon, except that their “units of analysis/personalization” are individual tactics (e.g., Gold Box offers), rather than the social influence strategies that can be implemented in many ways and in combination with each other.

What’s interesting about the Rapleaf work described by BusinessWeek is that this enables persuasion profiling even before a service provider or marketer knows anything about you — except that you were referred by or are otherwise connected to a person. This gives them the ability to estimate your persuasion profile by using your social neighborhood, even if you haven’t disclosed this information about your social network.

While there has been some research on individual differences in responses to influence strategies (including when used by computers), as far as I know there isn’t much work on just how much the responses of friends covary. As a tool for influencers online, it doesn’t matter as much whether this variation explained by friends’ responses is also explained by other variables, as long as those variables aren’t available for the influencers to collect. But for us social scientists, it would be interesting to understand the mechanism by which there is this relationship: is it just that friends are likely to be similar in a bunch of ways and these predict our “persuasion profiles”, or are the processes of relationship creation that directly involve these similarities.

This is an exciting and scary direction, and I want to learn more about it.

Motivations for tagging: organization and communication motives on Facebook

Increasing valuable annotation behaviors was a practical end of a good deal of work at Yahoo! Research Berkeley. ZoneTag is a mobile application and service that suggests tags when users choose to upload a photo (to Flickr) based on their past tags, the relevant tags of others, and events and places nearby. Through social influence and removing barriers, these suggestions influence users to expand and consistently use their tagging vocabulary (Ahern et al. 2006).

Context-aware suggestion techniques such as those used in ZoneTag can increase tagging, but what about users’ motivations for considering tagging in the first place? And how can these motivations for annotation be considered in designing services that involve annotation? In this post, I consider existing work on motivations for tagging, and I use tagging on Facebook as an example of how multiple motivations can combine to increase desired annotation behaviors.

Using photo-elicitation interviews with ZoneTag users who tag, Ames & Naaman (2007) present a two factor taxonomy of motivations for tagging. First, they categorize tagging motivations by function: is the motivating function of the tagging organizational or communicative? Organizational functions include supporting search, presenting photos by event, etc., while communicative functions include when tags provide information about the photos, their content, or are otherwise part of a communication (e.g., telling a joke). Second, they categorize tagging motivations by intended audience (or sociality): are the tags intended for my future self, people known to me (friends, family, coworkers, online contacts), or the general public?

Taxonomy of motivations for tagging from Ames & Naaman

Taxonomy of motivations for tagging from Ames & Naaman

On Flickr the function dimension generally maps onto the distinction between functionality that enables and is prior to arriving at the given photo or photos (organization) and functionality applicable once one is viewing a photo (communication). For example, I can find a photo (by me or someone else) by searching for a person’s name, and then use other tags applied to that photo to jog my memory of what event the photo was taken at.

Some Flickr users subscribe to RSS feeds for public photos tagged with their name, making for a communication function of tagging — particularly tagging of people in media — that is prior to “arriving” at a specific media object. These are generally techie power users, but this can matter for others. Some less techie participants in our studies reported noticing that their friends did this — so they became aware of tagging those friends’ names as a communicative act that would result in the friends finding the tagged photos.

This kind of function of tagging people is executed more generally — and for more than just techie power users — by Facebook. In tagging of photos, videos, and blog posts, tagging a person notifies them they have been tagged, and can add that they have been tagged to their friends’ News Feeds. This function has received a lot of attention from a privacy perspective (and it should). But I think it hints at the promise of making annotation behavior fulfill more of these functions simultaneously. When specifying content can also be used to specify recipients, annotation becomes an important trigger for communication.

—————

See some interesting comments (from Twitter) about tagging on Facebook:

(Also see Facebook’s growing use and testing of autotagging [1, 2].)

References

Ames, M., & Naaman, M. (2007). Why we tag: motivations for annotation in mobile and online media. In Proceedings of CHI 2007 (pp. 971-980). San Jose, California, USA: ACM.

Ahern, S., Davis, M., Eckles, D., King, S., Naaman, M., Nair, R., et al. (2006). Zonetag: Designing context-aware mobile media capture to increase participation. Pervasive Image Capture and Sharing: New Social Practices and Implications for Technology Workshop. In Adjunct Proc. Ubicomp 2006.