Archive for the ‘research’ Category

On Writing

One of my favorite authors, Jonathan Carroll, maintains a decidedly non-techy blog (Bill Gibson and Charlie Stross, not surprisingly, tend to be much more webizens in their online writings). He’ll sometimes share links but usually it’s small observations of the wonder of the mundane (his or his readers’), or excerpts from his writing that are appropriate for his mood. It’s a very nice blog, actually, rarely more than a graf or two a day but always worthwhile.

Today’s entry is more involved and descriptive than most, and quite helpful. I always enjoy reading writers writing about writing (or any practitioner writing about what they do, but given that I spend quite a bit of time fiddling with words, writers’ perspectives are especially useful to me). Not necessarily because their approaches are always applicable – neither profile of creativity/productivity Gladwell explored in “Late Bloomers” is anywhere near how I work – but just to see how all sorts of people approach the same issues.

Along those lines, here is some of what Carroll discusses:

One of the questions people frequently ask is do I ever get writer’s block and if so, what do I do about it? Luckily I’ve never had that gruesome beast but I do have some thoughts about it, and those thoughts run into the idea of creativity in general.

I like to write. I always have. I consider writing my friend. We sit down together in the morning and do our job. But (and this is a big but) if my friend Writing (notice the capital W) says not today because I’d rather goof off, or drink coffee, or nothing at all, I say fine—no work today. If that extends to a week, then so be it. Like the wild animals living so incongruously but comfortably in a gamekeeper’s house on the Serengeti Plain, Writing stays friendly so long as I let him come and go as he pleases. If he doesn’t want to stay in the house and walks out for a while, I simply do something else like read a book or go to the movies. I never, ever grab Writing by the neck and say you sit back down here and go to work. I’d never treat a friend like that, nor would I treat a tiger like that. So why treat the thing I love as much as my creative ability like that?

I believe people get writer’s block a lot of the time because they panic when the flow stops. Then they run around the house shutting the ‘doors and windows,’ trying to trap their creativity inside. Bad idea. I do think that if they were to just move away from the work for however long, many of their problems would solve themselves. Some of you could say yeah but I’ve been blocked for six months—what about that? I’d posit it’s likely some of your block, perhaps not all, is because you are frightened and trying to close all your windows. Which in turn has scared your Writing and made IT panicky. You get my drift. Of course there are exceptions. But I really do believe the greatest trick to either get going in the morning, or after a long dry spell, or even trying to conquer the fearsome mountain of ‘I don’t know where to go from here’….is to get up and walk away. At least until you feel comfortable. Or in the best-case scenario, until you are eager to get back to work again. Because at that point your friend Writing or Creativity says okay, I’m rested and ready to go. I’m so happy you left me alone to go out into the world a while to recharge my batteries.

Obviously it’s easy to take this advice too far, and just endlessly postpone dealing with the problem of Writing the Thing. There’s probably a contrast here between professional writers – for whom eventually finishing whatever they’re working on results in a paycheck and promise of another – and graduate students, for whom delaying completion of the dissertation can (to a point, after which the “Done yet?” questions feel like lead basketballs [or so I’ve heard]) extend a very pleasant life of inquiry and intellectual discussion in a nice place.

As I write this, I’ve just received the first feedback from my advisor on a very preliminary draft of one of the several chapters of my literature review. It’s a very incremental movement of the status bar across the screen, but it’s movement, and for me that’s one of the most important parts of the writing process. I tend to view writing as a problem-solving process: solving the problem of writing [WRITING OBJECT X]. This has been true for as long as I can remember, whether it’s a research paper, a newspaper article, a two-pager, an agenda, or what have you.

The first part of this process is understanding what the parameters are of [WRITING OBJECT X] – what are the variables I need to be aware of, what does it look like when it’s completed, what am I trying do here, etc.? Once I can quantify what needs to happen, I can start assembling the various elements and putting them together, and have at least a fair idea of how it’s going. The status bar is not a perfect analogy – at least for me, there’s no explicit “XX% complete” flashing – but useful nonetheless in that as I’m working I can definitely see/feel the movement towards completion. Iterations, drafts, processing of notes and citations are of course as important (moreso, actually) for me as the actual laying of words on the screen.

I’m lucky enough that this is all a pretty enjoyable process for me, which makes graduate school both a great place and something that is necessarily going to end as part of its nature. If there’s one central takeaway that I have found as a key to this whole process for me, one piece of advice that people seem to find useful, it’s this: words are not precious. Conceiving of the writing process as a problem-solving exercise allows me to let go of attachment to any particular set of words, phrases, or formulations. Revisions become not an ego-wounding and heart-wrenching process of letting go and moving on, but rather something more like adding a second (third, fourth…, nth) coat of paint to a room – something that is simply part of the project. And just as with any project that’s a problem-solving exercise – tilling and planting a garden, putting together a bed from Ikea, etc. – at the end of writing [WRITING OBJECT X] I tend to feel not the disgust and loathing that many writers describe with their just-completed works, but simply the satisfaction of a job done.

Speaking of which – back to work, now.

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Real Long Distance“/Josh Ritter

What is the lag between proposal of new theories in a field and their widespread adoption (if they are adopted at all)? Is there a consistent model by field for this lag, or for adoption? What would be the important factors to examine in a cross-field metanalysis of new theory adoption?

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Black Swan“/Thom Yorke

What are the factors that lead to rationalization of markets – in goods, services, thoughts, artistic expressions – online? How does this compare with rationalization of markets in a city

  • pre-newspaper
  • in the newspaper era
  • in the phone book era

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Status Updates

It’s been a busy fall for me offline. My continuing work with the Bot2.0 project was a big focus, as was research on Facebook and Flickr use patterns. The former resulted in a poster at the International Conference on Dublin Core and Metadata Applications, which you can get here [PDF], and also in a presentation I gave at the ASIS&T annual meeting, filling in for Jane Greenberg – that’s available here [PPT]. The latter two streams of research resulted, so far, in posters with Fred Stutzman and Carolyn Hank, respectively, at the ASIS&T Annual Meeting in Columbus, OH at the end of October. We’re continuing further analysis of the data – some good stuff there – and I’ll probably be talking more about that in the coming months. For now, here’s the poster [PDF] me and Carolyn put together – lots of fun and some interesting findings so far. Myself and Fred will probably get around to putting together a better-looking version of the poster data up at some point.

All of these updates and a few others have been logged over at static me, including an up-to-date CV, if you’re into that sort of thing.

As semester five rapidly draws to a close here in North Carolina (it started?), I find myself getting frighteningly close to thinking I might know what I’m talking about, a bit. And also aware that it’s a pretty small slice of the whole thing, but that that’s okay. Unless it’s not. That tension will, I’m pretty sure, describe the next 18 months or so of my life (current target/guess for how long the next several steps of the process will/should/might take). May or may not inspire me to get around to updating here more often; for more banal day-to-day observations check here.

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As Fred noted, there is a new, excellent-as-always report out from the Pew Internet & American Life Project – “Teens, Video Games, and Civics.” [PDF] To get it out of the way up top – no, not really, there’s not much positive correlation in terms of civics and game-playing. Nor negative. This is in part because being a teen means playing games today – 97% play some games, 99% of boys and 94% of girls. But also (and as the report points out), a single data point often isn’t enough to really draw out relationships between categories of behavior – you need longitudinal data for that, to see if, e.g., long-term people substitute civic activism for game-playing, vice versa, there’s a positive correlation between the two, etc. As of now, a first study is a good place to start.

There’s a lot to pull out here, but a few points bear mentioning especially. Teens today continue to follow the general pattern of all Internet users for as long as there’s been an Internet in one key way: a very small minority of them are involved in virtual worlds/IVEs/MOOs. For as long as there’ve been stats on this, somewhere between 5-10% of those online have participated in these worlds – for teens today, it’s 10%. That makes it by far the least popular genre of games, no contest – by contrast, 74% play racing games, 72% puzzle games, 68% sports games. MMORPGs are the next-least-popular genre of games, with only 21% of teens playing one.

I have a hard time not saying again and again, “I told you so,” here, and won’t resist the urge with this data. As fascinating as IVEs and MMORPGs might be, it is beyond a doubt at this point that they represent intensely exceptional behavior in terms of any possible population. The future keeps not being MOOs, MUDs, the Metaverse or Second Life. Because more or less everyone is online, now [87% of teens in the last Pew study], it’s not for lack of opportunity – they just want to do other things. And what they want to do is play all sorts of other games with their friends – 65% of teens play games with friends in the room with them, 27% with friends online, and only 24% play games only alone.

All of this adds up to a number of conclusions, but chief among them is that the portrait of Internet users and/or gamers as reclusive loners is more or less a total figment. Games are social, because people are social. Some people aren’t social, but most are – and in a population who all play games, and almost all of whom are online, those who play games or are online non-socially are the exceptions, not the rule.

Which is not to say that there aren’t interesting things to ask and find out about those people who are exceptions – from other data Pew collected here, it’s clear that users of IVEs and especially players of MMORPGs are different and different in interesting ways from other teens, generally. What this data calls for is more thorough ethnographic investigation of the communities of practice within the group “gamers” which is at this point synonymous with the group “teens” and, increasingly “people.” And I want that research to happen! But it shouldn’t be generalized – it should be contextualized.

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Input Roundup

This summer I’m going to be involved in a lot of media production while on the Digital Natives team at the Berkman Center, but not a lot of it is going to be routed (directly) through here. So, a short roundup of where you can find me:

Hopefully, I won’t get too bored of myself. There seems to be a lot of me out there.

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A phrase that every student of information science becomes acquainted with quickly is “Vannevar Bush’s classic article “As We May Think,”…” followed by some discourse on the evolution of information science/the Internet/technology/etc. Bush’s article is a classic for a reason – published in 1945 in The Atlantic, it provided a conceptual and operational framework for “a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, “memex” will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.”

While framed in the context of contemporary technologies – it was essentially an enormous desk with many drawers for storage of, and screens for display of, microfilm, microphone for voice notes, keyboard and levers for manipulation – the process Bush describes is unmistakable as the exact one which has emerged with the combination of desktop computing and the Internet. Bush notes as much in saying, “All this is conventional, except for the projection forward of present-day mechanisms and gadgetry. It affords an immediate step, however, to associative indexing, the basic idea of which is a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another. This is the essential feature of the memex. The process of tying two items together is the important thing.”

I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about memexes lately, due to a project on which I’ve begun working, the goal of which is to rethink approaches to instruction and learning (in this particular case) by engaging students in spaces of social media, by meeting them where they are (literally and figuratively). In our early meetings we’ve settled on an approach that emphasizes not some single device as a memex, or on a black box of software to manage these informational relations, but rather an process that first identifies needed capacities and then utilizes current best-available offerings for them.

In this particular case, we will be heavily using many of the big name-brands in social media: Facebook, Flickr, Google Docs, and perhaps one or two other. In part this is because these services just work, but another contributing factor is, of course, the fact that many students are already “there.” The key underlying consideration is how to most seamlessly integrate the various streams of data between and within different services, and different students – “the process of tying two items together,” itself the underlying principle of the Internet.

This same theme came up earlier this morning in a conversation with Paul Jones about Web2.0 generally, and why an information science approach understands questions that computer scientists find beside the point. As he noted, AJAX is nothing special – it’s the understanding of the associative human elements of online communications that make Web2.0 approaches interesting and useful. Computers and the Internet are at a point of working, reliably – now it’s a matter of figuring out people.

And that, ultimately, is going to be the pivot point of any memex approach (which is to say, any PIM approach)- not a single magical AI repository that tells us who we are and what we want, but a flexible suite of applications, places, and most crucially, ways of connecting with other people, that can help us adapt to our own changing circumstances and needs.

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