UNC Social Software Symposium

Posted on: December 11, 2006

I just came back from North Carolina, after two amazing days at a symposium. The wiki (with session notes) for the symposium can be found here:

I kind of want to list my take-away’s from the meeting:

Social Tagging

According to Thomas Vander Wal:

  • a tag is a simple data/metada applied to an object
  • the act of tagging is done by the person consuming the information vs the producers of the information.
  • tagging is mainly about re-findability
  • according to neilson assessment, only .5% of the web are tagging

So then my question is, is social tagging mainly about re-findability? Other people at the meeting suggested that perhaps the social aspects of tagging are about sense-making, community building, gaining new ideas, norm-shaping.

Fred Stuztman brought up an interesting point, how do we get novice users to understand how to tag so that they can find the object later? The problem is that people are in a new mental/cognitive space when they are trying to find information versus when they are saving it, so it is not always easy to recall the thought patterns that you had when you stored and tagged the object when you are trying to retrieve it. My suggestion: perhaps additional contextual cues can be added to the object to help in trigger memory?

Other possible research questions that arose out of the meeting which I found to be interesting include:

  • How do tags function?
  • How do they help people find things and make-sense of things?
  • How do tagging practices change over time? How can we discover this methodologically?
  • What is the effectiveness of tags? How do we measure effectiveness?
  • What practices/people/professions are privileged by a textual tagging system? Who is represented in the system?
  • What can tagging practices say about the community of users? How can tags bring about community?
  • Do the tags that are least frequently used provide the most interesting information about the individual?
  • How are people using tags in non-standard ways?

Personally, I would like to see how tags/tagging habits are creating community, how tags are being used in novel ways (activism, expression, identity formation), and how the design of the system itself is privileges, defines, and limits the types of interaction that takes place.

Finally, Zeynap made an interesting point when she said that social tagging systems are at the intersection of the social and informational. I personally want to study what occurs at that intersection, and the role of tagging in that dynamic.

Social Network Sites

Andrea Forte brought up a very interesting point, which basically sums up much of the discussion about SNS. She said that social tagging is about openess, letting go of the (vocabulary) control, its about emergence. While SNS are about constraints – constraining natural social interaction within a bounded space. So we need to think about the design of the site or context of design (what the site was originally intended for), and how the uses of the site differ from the context of design. Additionally, values are being build into software by designers of the systems. How do these values shape sociality?

Other people raised the following interesting quetions:

  • Why are SNS sites closed off? Why can’t you add a MySpace friend to Facebook?
  • What is the nature of the artifacts created by SNS?
  • What is the definition of an SNS site? What does it look like?
  • How are people exploring identities in these communities?
  • How do expectations differ from online/offline communities? What are the costs?

We also spoke a great deal about the social tensions that arise from the design of the sites, such as the “Top 8” on MySpace, as well as the very ambiguous use of the word “friend” to describe connections. Social connections in real life are much more subtle and mutli-dimensional than the explicit, flat-space of SNS sites, how can the sites be designed to reflect that? Can the subtle differences be reflected at all? Should they even be? What does this mean for a person’s identity formation?

Fred also had an incredibly interesting insight: When we create profiles on SNS sites, are we actually tagging ourselves? (I am still chewing on this one, its mind blowing!)

Alice Marwick and I spoke about the fact that there hasn’t been much research done on the emotional/affective aspects of the SNS sites. The sites do create a great deal of social tension and emotional responses, and research (ethnographic of course) needs to be conducted to understand this very important link for people to SNS.

Also, I would like to mention something that myself and Fred talked about briefly, which is the tension between the commercial aspects of the SNS sites and the users. The site developers can implement or restrict any type of interaction, however their entire business model depends on user-generated content, so then there is perhaps a tension between what the developers think the users want and the actual user needs. This was exemplified by the Facebook news-feeds which upset many users of the systems. This type of tension is also exemplary of the work that I have recently been doing on activism, my adviser Dr. Leah Lievrouw calls it the cycle of co-opation. The users create the content that makes the site valuable, the corporations co-opt it (buy it) and perhaps modify it, the users en masse co-opt the system to fight against the corporate agenda.

Finally, I think the one aspect that we did not talk about at the meeting was a theoretical framework for researching the social sites. I personally feel that social construction and social epistemology would be a good start. I will certainly try to further (start?) the theoretical discussion through my academic work/publications (which I will be writing during my winter break).

Thanks again to Fred for a fantastic meeting!


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Alla Zollers

I design products and services that just. make. sense.

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