Marc Smith at the WebSci summer school

I have no intention of blogging every single talk at the WebSci summer school, but the ones that really grab me, I will 🙂

Marc was our first speaker to come from sociology, presenting himself as “a social scientist who speaks geek as a second language”: very good he was too. I’ve been watching with interest to see how ‘Web Science-y’ talks are, and this was bang on: he first gave us a rich, accessible introduction to the relevant parts of social theory, before whisking us on a whirlwind tour of NodeXL, a “non-techy-friendly” tool for displaying/analysing network graphs.

He mused on various things, including how our actions are culturally situated (for instance, eye contact has different meanings depending on culture and context), and Google’s oh-so-powerful history of our past searches (“I can’t remember what I did in February 2007 but Google can… Google knows me better than I do”).

Smith spoke of ‘back stage’ and ‘front stage’ presentation: a waiter will be ever-so-polite to customers (front stage), but may bitch about them as soon as he’s in the kitchen (back stage). Now, we have recording devices everywhere — cameras, phones, microphones, social media platforms… what does this imply about the accessibility of the back stage? When can we safely assume we are not being recorded?

So, computation changes the dynamic of our interactions: we leave traces everywhere, all the time (a recurring theme; see also my post on taking responsibility for our data). Many relationships are digitally mediated, and while the spoken word is ephemeral, digital traces are not so. Smith remarked that in his opinion, the true destination of all data is either oblivion or the public domain: a controversial stance!

I can’t help but feel we’re used to the non-digital world: it’s where many of us grew up, and how we are wired. I suspect human nature is to be optimistic, to assume behaviour is ‘back stage’ when in fact that may be far from the truth. There’s certainly plenty of anecdotal evidence out there about that, but has this been formally studied?

Of course, the talk was broadcast, tweeted, and as of now, blogged. There are no closed doors here!


3 responses to this post.

  1. It’s not just whether you’re being recorded that makes it front-stage or back-stage; it’s also peoples’ opinions.

    For instance the “gentleman’s agreement” Mark Bernstein mentions: “We know that people could intercept our mail, for example, but most of us don’t worry terribly about it because gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail.”

    I’m also reminded of these “two takes on privacy”. Taken together, they show both why we need privacy and how privacy is constructed by society and how we interpret ‘face’.


  2. […] clear. Offline, of course, we have a wealth of cues for understanding our current context. Still, as mentioned by Marc Smith, things are changing: the role of ‘speaker’ and ‘audience’ is crystal clear […]


  3. […] and topics… for instance, see my write-ups of talks from Wendy Hall, Bernie Hogan and Marc Smith, not to mention my rants about data and social […]


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