Posts Tagged ‘web science’

Parallels between HCI and Web Science

Yesterday I read the cover story of the latest edition of ACM’s Interactions magazine: Reimagining HCI: Toward a More Human-Centered Perspective. The author describes a refocusing within HCI from evaluation of interfaces through system design and into “general sense-making of our world.” He calls for a refocusing in HCI towards “new forms of living with and through technologies that give primacy to human actors, their values, and their activities.”

Given that my doctorate concerned understanding user experiences towards designing better systems, it’s unsurprising that I found myself nodding in agreement — particularly given my concerns about unintended negative impacts from technology, an issue relevant to HCI and User Experience, but also to Web Science (which after all, encompasses unintended societal impacts of technological changes).

(Quick example: many of us now live in an ‘always-on’ culture, in which we expect one another to be constantly online, and feel guilty when we ourselves are offline. This arose from technological changes: the spread of smartphones, the widespread availability of affordable data contracts, and the rise of social technologies from email to social networks.)

I want to talk about Web Science here. Relatively early on in the article, Bannon remarks upon how issues such as ‘reliability’ are not purely technical, but are “inherently sociotechnical” — a phrase which put me in mind of Wendy Hall’s framing of Web Science as “the theory and practice of social machines.” However, he also remarks:

This panoply of ideas, critiques, art, designs, and reflections at times sits uneasily with a more scientific research agenda. There is something about the kinds of questions being raised that makes us realize this mixing of scientific knowledge, on the one hand, and design expertise, on the other, can create uneasy bedfellows.

Web Science is broader than “scientific knowledge plus design expertise” but the concept of tension arising from multiple domains is not unfamiliar here. Bannon goes on to cite Winograd, who reportedly argues that the challenge for interaction design is combining:

  • practical aspects from engineering
  • human concerns that guide design
  • social science perspectives on our world

Well that sounds familiar. Combining such facets may well be a challenge for interaction design, but it’s a challenge for Web Science, too. HCI is not Web Science; Web Science is not HCI. Nonetheless, it’s no surprise that interdisciplinary efforts to work in sociotechnical areas will share certain challenges.

So what — and how? — can these communities learn from one another?


Drawing lines: Digital Humanities and Web Science

One of the discussions I had at InterFace concerned the relationship between Digital Humanities and Web Science. My own opinion is that some things are DH; some are WebSci; some are both; others are neither 😉

Intriguingly, when I remarked upon my surprise about the ‘digital humanities’ positioning of InterFace to a colleague, her response was “well it isn’t Web Science is it?” (This seemed to imply to me that if you are working in an area where technology and the humanities overlap, it must be WebSci or DH! I suspect I misunderstood…)

So: her stance as I understand it is that Digital Humanities can be described as the application of technology in the humanities, while WebSci can be seen as the application of methods from the humanities (and social sciences) to technology.

I’m probably taking the comparison too seriously, but let’s go with this anyway: although there’s an extent to which its true, I think it short changes WebSci in some ways. (I don’t know enough about DH to have an opinion on that half of the equation!)

Web Science does involve use of tools from the humanities and social sciences — but also from Network Science, Computer Science, Biology, AI and plenty of other areas (is Art part of the humanities? Is Politics?). Besides, WebSci — the study of the Web as an ongoing process, and its impact on society, and vice versa — is about the use of tools from those disciplines in the context of the web (and internet), not ‘technology’ in general.

Of course, drawing lines around disciplines can be a bit of a false start anyway: one person may self-describe as a Web Scientist but be perceived by others as a Sociologist or a Digital Humanist. It all depends on context, and it’s all shades of grey.

A personal perspective on the WebSci summer school

You can probably tell from my previous burst of blogging that the recent WebSci summer school in Galway enthused me. As I believe I mentioned before, I wasn’t totally certain of what to expect or if the week would be worthwhile, but it absolutely was.

I had two minor niggles: firstly, 90 minutes is a very long slot even for speakers of keynote quality. Secondly, I couldn’t tell the difference between ‘talks’ and ‘tutorials’ (I expected the latter to be more interactive, and to include exercises). Overall, however, it it was an extremely well-executed week with a great range of speakers 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 networks.

For me personally, I especially valued three aspects:

  1. I met some new and wonderful (not to mention enthusiastic!) people
  2. I got to broaden myself, learning some new stuff around natural language processing and network analysis (a change, given my UX/HCI background!)
  3. I had some thoughts about a nice piece of Web Science-y work I’d like to do in advance of WebSci’12

Yes, we were enthusiastic...

It was a valuable week: if future WebSci summer schools run in a similar vein, I’d certainly recommend them.

WebSci’11 videos online

The good organisers of WebSci’11 recorded the talks, which are now available online. ( is new to me: quite a slick site.)

My talk on Teasing Apart with Meta Analysis, an approach for understanding user experiences online, is here. Meanwhile, this past post describes the gist of it, and links to the paper and slides.

Facebook: for staying in touch with, er, my next-door neighbour

A further thought on my leaving Facebook: I remarked yesterday that as an expat, Facebook was useful for seeing updates from UK friends. I realised last night, however, that I actually really miss interactions with my next-door neighbour here in Eindhoven!

This reminds me of Barry Wellman’s WebSci’11 keynote on ‘networked individualism’ and how the internet has changed the way we live our lives. One comment was that a large proportion of online interactions are between neighbours (i.e. people who live within 5km of one another). (His paper Does Distance Still Matter in the Age of the Internet? looks at the impact of distance on the frequency of email, phone and face-to-face contact… I’m not certain if there was a publication on distance and social networking specifically: anyone?)

I find it intriguing that one of the links I miss most from the online world of Facebook is in fact someone I see in person all the time. Strong and weak ties, people, strong and weak ties.

Enric Plaza at the WebSci summer school

The talk was entitled ‘The Web of Human Experience’: I spent a lot of my doctorate looking at User Experience issues, so this was always going to interest me 🙂

Enric was interested in the reuse of other people’s experiences in the context of ‘case-based reasoning’ (learning from experience). Examples of relevant experiences include: a restaurant review; a music playlist; a ‘how to’ guide. The web is a good platform for sharing this kind of content, of course, but he felt that despite the a wealth of experience online, it isn’t modelled explicitly on the web. Additionally, we don’t necessarily understand how people browse, filter and use results.

Queries are, of course, deeply context-dependent: the answer to the question “Which are Barcelona’s airports?” depends on your purpose and community of practice — do you want to know about the tiny budget airport that’s miles out of town?

Similarly, queries such as “Which hotels in London have a room on these dates?” need different results depending on context: a business traveller is probably interested in the availability of wifi, while a family planning their vacation may be more interested in proximity to attractions and friendliness of staff. (I was a little surprised he didn’t touch on software agents as a possible approach here.)

He also spoke about implicit knowledge, which caught my attention as it links with my previous work. I think his meaning was different to my own, though: I  believe that by ‘implicit knowledge’ he meant knowledge embedded within a community, knowledge that only becomes explicit when multiple people share their indvidual insights.

So, if people constantly trawl the web in search of people’s experiences solving given problems, how can we represent, organise and reuse such content? I don’t think this is a universal problem: for instance, sites such as Tripadvisor provide pretty decent structures as a starting point when planning one’s travels. On the other hand, there really is a lot of unstructured information out there… maybe I need a software agent after all.

The multiplicity of human relations, and how online social networks don’t support that

The following came up during Bernie Hogan’s talk at the WebSci summer school. I touch on other aspects of the talk here, but this topic deserves a post of its own.

This got a touch long: there’s a summary paragraph at the bottom if you’re in a hurry!

How we (don’t) understand our own networks

Hogan reports that when people are asked about clusters in their online networks, they are very able to articulate them — for instance, “friends from Oxford”, “colleagues from my last job”, “university buddies”. However, they find it very, very hard to see how those clusters overlap, imagining that they are non-overlapping worlds when that is not true.

Interesting issues arise from this: how do we present ourselves to networks which contain multiple clusters? If we present to the “lowest common denominator” (the people we trust the least), we rapidly find that all we can really share are baby and holiday photos (not even those if we’re pulling a sickie!). (This paper elaborates.)

So, we can’t share sensitive information with our networks… except we do, don’t we?

And we often just post publicly, not realising (or caring about) the visibility of our updates — not realising (or caring) that they are persistent and linked. For instance, here are searches of Twitter and Facebook for updates with the words “I hate my boss.”

We lose context in online spaces

One tweet during Hogan’s talk remarked “sometimes it’s valid to have multiple social identities, which we don’t want to disclose.”

I disagree: it’s always valid to have multiple social identities (and why shouldn’t they be private?). It’s what it means to be human: no one presents the same behaviour to their parents, their colleagues, their buddies and their kids.

We have no good mechanisms for managing our clusters of contacts... running to new, sparsely populated networks doesn't count!

This is a problem on Facebook, of course: you are ‘friends’ with people from multiple arenas, so how do you handle it? Some attendees described deleting their Facebook accounts because the overhead of handling different clusters of people was just too high.

So, we have issues with broadcasting inappropriate information. The flip side of the problem is receiving it: we see baby pictures from work colleagues, updates about wild nights out from family members, meaningless work-related statuses from friends. Privacy is about more than keeping secrets, it’s about managing information and making it contextually appropriate.

Restoring our context online (I don’t see a lot)

Google+ begins to try and address this with Circles (see my initial impressions), but I’m unconvinced Circles will work. We have many, many people in our networks: aside from the fact that human relationships cannot be easily dropped into buckets, people often aren’t good at categorisation, and maintaining Circles will be a real pain. (A partial solution would be to let people create publicly-available Circles, for example a “WebSci summer school” circle… that would help, but I don’t know if it would be enough.)

Google+ tells us which circles we’re posting to, but Hogan thinks it isn’t made crystal 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 during talks at this summer school, but the talks are broadcast online, tweeted and blogged. How well do we adjust to that?

In summary

So, we struggle to understand our own social networks, and we fail to share appropriate information with clusters within those networks. People are talking about the problem, and social network providers are attempting to respond… but the people who’re talking are an academic/technical minority, and the responses are very ‘engineered’, failing to acknowledge the complexity of human relations. I don’t have any silver bullets, but this is a tough problem and I think we need to work together as a community — academics and industry, sociologists and engineers — to address this.

Will we see progress in the area come WebSci’12? I hope so.