Social and cultural costs of media multitasking

Today I’m attending the Media Multitasking workshop at Stanford. I’m going to just blog as I go, so these posts are going to perhaps be a bit rougher than usual.1

The workshop began with a short keynote from Patricia Greenfield, a psychology professor at UCLA, about the costs and benefits of media multitasking. Greenfield’s presentation struck me as representing as an essentially conservative and even alarmist perspective on media multitasking.

Exemplifying this perspective was Greenfield’s claim that media multitasking (by children) is disrupting family rituals and privileging peer interaction over interaction with family. Greenfield mixed in some examples of how having a personal mobile phone allows teens to interact with peers without their parents being in the loop (e.g., aware of who their children’s interaction partners are). These examples don’t strike me as particularly central to understanding media multitasking; instead, they highlight the pervasive alarmism about new media and remind me of how “helicopter parents'” extreme control of their children’s physical co-presence with others is also a change from “how things used to be”.

Face-to-face vs. mediated

The relationship of these worries about mobile phones and the allegedly decreasing control that parents have over their children’s social interaction to media multitasking is that mediated communication is being privileged over face-to-face interaction. Greenfield proposed that face-to-face interaction suffers from media use and media multi-tasking, and that this is worrisome because we have evolved for face-to-face interaction. She commented that face-to-face interaction enables empathy; there is an implicit contrast here with mediated interaction, but I’m not sure it is so obvious that mediated communication doesn’t enable empathy — including empathizing with targets that one would otherwise not encounter face-to-face and experiencing a persistent shared perspective with close, but distant, others (e.g., parents and college student children).

Family reunion

Greenfield cited a study of 30 homes in which children and a non-working parent only greeted the other parent returning home from work about one third of the time (Ochs et al., 2006), arguing — as I understood it — that this is symptomatic of a deprioritization of face-to-face interaction.

As another participant pointed out, this could also — if not in these particular cases, then likely in others — be a case of not feeling apart during the working day: that is, we can ask, are the children and non-working parents communicating with the parent during the workday? In fact, Ochs et al. (2006, pp. 403-4) presents an example of such a reunion (between husband and wife in this case) in which the participants have been in contact by mobile phone, and the conversation picks up where it left off (with the addition of some new information available by being present in the home).


I’m looking forward to the rest of the workshop. I think one clear theme of the workshop is going to be differing emphasis on costs and benefits of media multitasking of different types. I expect Greenfield’s “doom and gloom” will continue to be contrasted with other perspectives — some of which already came up.


Ochs, E., Graesch, A. P., Mittmann, A., Bradbury, T., & Repetti, R. (2006). Video ethnography and ethnoarchaeological tracking. The Work and Family Handbook: Multi-Disciplinary Perspective, Methods, and Approaches, 387–409.

  1. Which also means I’m multitasking, in some senses, through the whole conference. []

Etching by Da Vinci? Representing legend, culture, and language

A photo I took in Piazza della Signoria
A photo I took in Piazza della Signoria of an etching, reportedly a self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci that he etched behind his back on a dare onto the side of the Palazzo Vecchio.

Is this etching a self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci created hundreds of years ago? That’s what I was told by a Californian friend who had “gone native” in Florence. Another matter: is this, in fact, a commonly believed and shared legend, and what other variations are there on it?

I shared the story with some fellow visitors in Florence on a lunch-time return to the piazza. Ed Chi tried to verify the rumor using a Web search, but with no success.  At least in English, there didn’t seem to be much on this in the Web. (See my photo and comments on Flickr.)

I posted the photo on Flickr. I asked questions on LinkedIn and Yahoo! Answers, with no success. I also asked for help from workers on Mechanical Turk. Here’s part of how I asked for help:

There is a portrait etched in stone on the wall of Palazzo Vecchio in Piazza della Signoria in Florence (Firenza), Italy. It is close behind the copy of the David there. I have heard that there is a legend that this is a self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci. I am looking for any information about this legend, alternate versions of the legend, or information about the real source of the portrait.

What results have been offered seem to suggest that this legend exists — though perhaps it is “actually” (at least as captured online, since perhaps the Leonardo theorists aren’t as active digital content creators) about Michelangelo:

The best way of finding out seemed to actually be my Flickr photo itself, since that’s where Daniel Witting provided the first two links above — however, this was a few months after the photo was first posted to Flickr. Turkers provided a couple useful links also (“Curiosities” above) on a shorter schedule and with a higher price. (I should have also tried uClue — where many former Google Answers researchers now work. This was recommended by Max Harper, who has studied Q&A sites in detail.)

Question and answer services along the lines of Yahoo! Answers rose to global (and U.S.) significance only after success in Korea, where Naver Knowledge iN pioneered the use of an online community to power a Q&A site. A major motivation Korea was the limited amount of Korean content online. With Naver’s offering, Korea’s Internet saavy, English population made information newly available in Korean (and did plenty of other interesting work).

This is as significant a motivation for Q&A sites by English-speaking folks in the U.S., but the present case is an exception.

Some of the questions that made this case interesting to me:

  • What culturally-shared beliefs get manifest online? During this whole process, I and others wondered whether perhaps this local legend was only shared orally. It seems that it is represented online after all — at least the Michelangelo variant, but it could have been otherwise.
  • How does the pair of languages a task requires knowledge of determine the processes, structres, and communities that are optimal for completing the task? For example, it seems quite important whether the target or source language has many more speakers than the other. (One could think about this simplistically in terms of conditional probabilities of skills with language A given skill with language B and vice verse.)

Being a lobster and using a hammer: “homuncular flexibility” and distal attribution

Jaron Lanier (2006) calls the ability of humans to learn to control virtual bodies that are quite different than our own “homuncular flexibility”. This is, for him, a dangerous idea. The idea is that the familiar mapping of the body represented in the cortical homunculus is only one option – we can flexibly act (and perceive) using quite other mappings, e.g., to virtual bodies. Your body can be tracked, and these movements can be used to control a lobster in virtual reality – just as one experiences (via head-mounted display, haptic feedback, etc.) the virtual space from the perspective of the lobster under your control.

This name and description makes this sound quite like science fiction. In this post, I assimilate homuncular flexibility to the much more general phenomenon of distal attribution (Loomis, 1992; White, 1970). When I have a perceptual experience, I can just as well attribute that experience – and take it as being directed at or about – more proximal or distal phenomena. For example, I can attribute it to my sensory surface, or I can attribute it to a flower in the distance. White (1970) proposed that more distal attribution occurs when the afference (perception) is lawfully related to efference (action) on the proximal side of that distal entity. That is, if my action and perception are lawfully related on “my side” of that entity in the causal tree, then I will make attributions to that entity. Loomis (1992) adds the requirement that this lawful relationship be successfully modeled. This is close, but not quite right, for if I can make distal attributions even in the absence of an actual lawful relationship that I successfully model, my (perhaps inaccurate) modeling of a (perhaps non-existent) lawful relationship will do just fine.

Just as I attribute a sensory experience to a flower and not the air between me and the flower, so the blind man or the skilled hammer-user can attribute a sensory experience to the ground or the nail, rather than the handle of the cane or hammer. On consideration, I think we can see that these phenomena are very much what Lanier is talking about. When I learn to operate (and, not treated by Lanier, 2006, sense) my lobster-body, it is because I have modeled an efference–afference relationship, yielding a kind of transparency. This is a quite familiar sort of experience. It might still be a quite dangerous or exciting idea, but its examples are ubiquitous, not restricted to virtual reality labs.

Lanier paraphrases biologist Jim Boyer as counting this capability as a kind of evolutionary artifact – a spandrel in the jargon of evolutionary theory. But I think a much better just-so evolutionary story can be given: it is this capability – to make distal attributions to the limits of the efference–afference relationships we successfully model – that makes us able to use tools so effectively. At an even more basic and general level, it is this capability that makes it possible for us to communicate meaningfully: our utterances have their meaning in the context of triangulating with other people such that the content of what we are saying is related to the common cause of both of our perceptual experiences (Davidson, 1984).


Davidson, D. (1984). Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Lanier, J. (2006). Homuncular flexibility. Edge.

Loomis, J. M. (1992). Distal attribution and presence. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 1(1), 113-119.

White, B. W. (1970). Perceptual findings with the vision-substitution system. IEEE Transactions on Man-Machine Systems, 11(1), 54-58.

Situational variation, attribution, and human-computer relationships

Mobile phones are gateways to our most important and enduring relationships with other people. But, like other communication technologies, the mobile phone is psychologically not only a medium: we also form enduring relationships with devices themselves and their  associated software and services (Sundar 2004). While different than  relationships with other people, these human–technology relationships are also importantly social relationships. People exhibit a host of automatic, social responses to interactive  technologies by applying familiar social rules, categories, and norms that are otherwise used in interacting with people (Reeves and Nass 1996; Nass and Moon 2000).

These human–technology relationships develop and endure over time and through radical changes in the situation. In particular, mobile phones are near-constant companions. They take on roles of both medium for communication with other people and independent interaction partner through dynamic physical, social, and cultural environments and tasks. The global phenomenon of mobile phone use highlights both that relationships with people and technologies are influenced by variable context and that these devices are, in some ways, a constant in amidst these everyday changes.

Situational variation and attribution

Situational variation is important for how people understand and interact with mobile technology. This variation is an input to the processes by which people disentangle the internal (personal or device) and external (situational) causes of an social entity’s behavior (Fiedler et al. 1999; Forsterling 1992; Kelley 1967), so this situational variation contributes to the traits and states attributed to human and technological entities. Furthermore, situational variation influences the relationship and interaction in other ways. For example, we have recently carried out an experiment providing evidence that this situational variation itself (rather than the characteristics of the situations) influences memory, creativity, and self-disclosure to a mobile service; in particular, people disclose more in places they have previously disclosed to the service, than in  new places (Sukumaran et al. 2009).

Not only does the situation vary, but mobile technologies are increasingly responsive to the environments they share with their human interactants. A system’s systematic and purposive responsiveness to the environment means means that explaining its behavior is about more than distinguishing internal and external causes: people explain behavior by attributing reasons to the entity, which may trivially either refer to internal or external causes. For example, contrast “Jack bought the house because it was secluded” (external) with “Jack bought the house because he wanted privacy” (internal) (Ross 1977, p. 176). Much research in the social cognition and attribution theory traditions of psychology has failed to address this richness of people’s everyday explanations of other ’s behavior (Malle 2004; McClure 2002), but contemporary, interdisciplinary work is elaborating on theories and methods from philosophy and developmental psychology to this end (e.g., the contributions to Malle et al. 2001).

These two developments — the increasing role of situational variation in human-technology relationships and a new appreciation of the richness of everyday explanations of behavior — are important to consider together in designing new research in human-computer interaction, psychology, and communication. Here are three suggestions about directions to pursue in light of this:

Design systems that provide constancy and support through radical situational changes in both the social and physical environment. For example, we have created a system that uses the voices of participants in an upcoming event as audio primes during transition periods (Sohn et al. 2009). This can help ease the transition from a long corporate meeting to a chat with fellow parents at a child’s soccer game.

Design experimental manipulations and measure based on features of folk psychology —  the implicit theory or capabilities by which we attribute, e.g., beliefs, thoughts, and desires (propositional attitudes) to others (Dennett 1987) — identified by philosophers. For example, attributions propositional attitudes (e.g., beliefs) to an entity have the linguistic feature that one cannot substitute different terms that refer to the same object while maintaining the truth or appropriateness of the statement. This opacity in attributions of propositional attitudes is the subject of a large literature (e.g., following Quine 1953), but this  has not been used as a lens for much empirical work, except for some developmental psychology  (e.g., Apperly and Robinson 2003). Human-computer interaction research should use this opacity (and other underused features of folk psychology) in studies of how people think about systems.

Connect work on mental models of systems (e.g., Kempton 1986; Norman 1988) to theories of social cognition and folk psychology. I think we can expect much larger overlap in the process involved than in the current research literature: people use folk psychology to understand, predict, and explain technological systems — not just other people.


Apperly, I. A., & Robinson, E. J. (2003). When can children handle referential opacity? Evidence for systematic variation in 5- and 6-year-old children’s reasoning about beliefs and belief reports. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 85(4), 297-311. doi: 10.1016/S0022-0965(03)00099-7.

Dennett, D. C. (1987). The Intentional Stance (p. 388). MIT Press.

Fiedler, K., Walther, E., & Nickel, S. (1999). Covariation-based attribution: On the ability to assess multiple covariates of an effect. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(5), 609.

Försterling, F. (1992). The Kelley model as an analysis of variance analogy: How far can it be taken? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 28(5), 475-490. doi: 10.1016/0022-1031(92)90042-I.

Kelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution theory in social psychology. In Nebraska Symposium on Motivation (Vol. 15).

Malle, B. F. (2004). How the Mind Explains Behavior: Folk Explanations, Meaning, and Social Interaction. Bradford Books.

Malle, B. F., Moses, L. J., & Baldwin, D. A. (2001). Intentions and Intentionality: Foundations of Social Cognition. MIT Press.

McClure, J. (2002). Goal-Based Explanations of Actions and Outcomes. In M. H. Wolfgang Stroebe (Ed.), European Review of Social Psychology (pp. 201-235). John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Retrieved from

Nass, C., & Moon, Y. (2000). Machines and Mindlessness: Social Responses to Computers. Journal of Social Issues, 56(1), 81-103.

Norman, D. A. (1988). The Psychology of Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books.

Quine, W. V. O. (1953). From a Logical Point of View: Nine Logico-Philosophical Essays. Harvard University Press.

Reeves, B., & Nass, C. (1996). The media equation: how people treat computers, television, and new media like real people and places (p. 305). Cambridge University Press.

Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 10, pp. 174-221). New York: Academic Press.

Sohn, T., Takayama, L., Eckles, D., & Ballagas, R. (2009). Auditory Priming for Upcoming Events. Forthcoming in CHI ’09 extended abstracts on Human factors in computing systems. Boston, Massachusetts, United States: ACM Press.

Sukumaran, A., Ophir, E., Eckles, D., & Nass, C. I. (2009). Variable Environments in Mobile Interaction Aid Creativity but Impair Learning and Self-disclosure. To be presented at the Association for Psychological Science Convention, San Francisco, California.

Sundar, S. S. (2004). Loyalty to computer terminals: is it anthropomorphism or consistency? Behaviour & Information Technology, 23(2), 107-118.

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].)


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.