Blog Review: SSW (Part 1): Q&A with Claude Fortin, Jennifer Wolowic and Elizabeth Shaffer
Posted by GRAND NCE, September 20, 2012

Five doctoral students from universities across Canada were sponsored by GRAND to join twenty-five American peers at the Summer Social Webshop (SSW), a four-day interdisciplinary workshop on Techonology-Mediated Social Participation (TMSP). The SSW was held August 20-24, 2012 at the University of Maryland, College Park. 

The event welcomed attendees from a broad range of disciplines, creating a forum for lively banter between students of computer science, iSchool, sociology, communications, political science, anthropology, psychology, journalism and other related fields. GRAND-sponsored students will share their experience in a series of Q&A style entries. 

Part One: 
Claude Fortin, Simon Fraser University 
Jennifer Wolowic, University of British Columbia
Elizabeth Shaffer, University of British Columbia

Photo credits: University of Maryland

 Describe one highlight of your experience at the Summer Social Webshop.

Claude One highlight of SSW12 for me was our visit to the Brookings Institute in Washington D.C. on Thursday, August 24th. There, we heard several speakers present on social media research. The most impressive speaker was the least orthodox of all, a special guest-speaker native to Washington, the ex-chairman of the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Reed Hundt. He deplored how social media was not living up to its promises. In his view, it could accomplish, and should accomplish, so much more. For instance, social media was not being used to mobilize and take collective action with regards to climate change. It was refreshing to hear this perspective after 3 days of hearing speakers talk about how successful social media is at changing the world. Like Hundt, I am a bit skeptical about many of the claims made by academic researchers on the social media revolution. As a means to increase the quantity and quality of political participation, I think social media still has a long way to go and that it’s full potential remains untapped

Jennifer One of the highlights of the SSW was learning about NodeXL and using the software to map ongoing comments made by Democrat and Republicans which, when analyzed through the software, revealed the different structures and connections between the two political parties. Another highlight was Nancy Braym’s presentation on her methodology and research finding on the social media practices of musicians to promote their music. Her 15 minute presentation on her qualitative methodology and work flow was the best I have seen in 6 years of graduate school.  

Elizabeth The Summer Social Webshop (SSW) at the University of Maryland was filled with interesting speakers, workshops and social activities. The opening remarks on the first day really set the tone for a creative and thought provoking week. In particular, Dr. Ben Shneiderman and Dr. Jennifer Preece framed the bigger picture and spoke about the larger ideas that would shape the week. Both spoke of the potential of social media research to have a large impact – telling participants to keep the UN Millennium Development goals in mind as we move ahead with our work; identify extreme challenges to focus on (e.g. security, privacy, universality); and develop deep questions. As Dr. Shneiderman posited: “What is the Higgs Boson of new media/technology?”

The Summer Social WebShop 2012 organizers often mentioned that some of the speakers had themselves once attended SSW as participants... So it made me think about an idea which I am adapting into a quote: “If you are meeting great people in the right place at the right time, there may come a day when they will recall that this is where and when they met you.”

- Claude Fortin

Q What impact will this experience have on your research? 

Claude Meeting peers and experts in my new research community is tremendously invigorating. I took a lot of notes during each presentation and am already using these to conceptualize my research design and ethics proposal for future empirical studies. These notes are especially useful with regards to methodology, and especially research methods and tools. In HCI and social media research, data collection and analysis methods evolve very rapidly. It’s almost impossible to keep abreast of new trends or to evaluate their efficacy. Hearing speakers and peers discuss these methods is like a crash course in the latest in HCI research. To say this is useful would be euphemistic.     

Jennifer I am definitely going to apply network theory to my analysis of the interactions and community building among First Nations youth both online and offline. The experience also helped me learn the methodology and best practices for my future research regarding Facebook use among First Nations in BC. 

Elizabeth Having primarily drawn on qualitative research methods in my research, it was exciting to be exposed to network analysis and begin to see the potential ways I could include it in my current research goals/projects. Additionally, just hearing from so many amazing researchers, investigating a variety of questions is always inspiring.

What networking opportunities did you find most useful?

Claude On Wednesday, August 22nd, I sat next to Elizabeth Churchill during lunch hour and had a really nice chat with her about large digital displays, my research subject. I had read five of her papers this year on the research she did in Palo Alto on digital community bulletin boards, and had cited her profusely in a paper I submitted to CSCW. It was pretty wonderful to have the opportunity to meet with a legend in the field of HCI and talk about social interaction design from the perspective of (architectural) space. She asked about my research and asked for my SFU SIAT business card. I can’t imagine a more fortuituous encounter! . 

Jennifer Other students were quick to help me work through specific challenges regarding managing my data and how to document my information in a way that will help me find new patterns in the future. I certainly have contact among computer scientists after the experience and several told me they would put me on the top of their list when doing qualitative data in the future.

Elizabeth Because of the structure of the workshop and the number of attendees, there were a number of opportunities to network. A large number of the speakers were attendees at previous SSW and stayed for a number of days to listen and participate so there were plenty of informal opportunities to engage with a number of excellent researchers. Often the best conversations took place over informal exchanges, such as meals and on the lunchtime walks Dr. Shneiderman led across campus. All of the researchers were very generous with their time and expertise. 

The SSW was a truly interdisciplinary experience where people with different backgrounds and expertise shared a common interest in the future potentials of human interaction. The even was mind blowing, exhausting, invigorating and definitely an experience that will shape my career. 

- Jennifer Wolowic

What was the coolest thing you (over?)heard during the workshop?

Claude The principles outlined in Dr. Zeynep Tufecki’s presentation were articulated in short, catchy phrases such as “On the Internet, nothing stays simple”; “Participation can be a machete”; “There is no new versus old media”; “Information walls are coming down”; “Public is a meta-concept (Era of pluralistic ignorance may be over)”. The concept of “pluralistic ignorance” in this last phrase in particular became a bit of a meme on the last 2 days of the workshop. What does “pluralistic ignorance” mean according to Dr. Tufecki? It refers to how people accept oppression, suffering and tyranny as their fate until social media allows them to realize that it is the reality of the majority of people in their country/regime. Once social media uncovers this truth and ends the mystification, it is the “end of pluralistic ignorance” and the beginning of collective action.

Jennifer During a discussion with a representative of google on the train ride about peoples social practices into DC for dinner one of the fellow research looked at me and said “you’re the anthropologist aren’t you?”

Since I was the only anthropologist in attendance, I found people appreciated my different perspectives on the use of computer design and the how people of different cultures use the technologies.

Elizabeth "In the olden days of Facebook." 

The SSW was a fantastic opportunity to engage with excellent researchers and peers. One leaves the SSW feeling inspired and energized – enthusiastic to investigate big ideas and ask big questions. 

- Elizabeth Shaffer

Would you like to give kudos to a presenter or fellow researcher?

Claude I was especially moved by Dr. Zeynep Tufecki’s talk on social media activism at the Brookings Institute the day of our field trip to Washington, D.C. She discussed the pros and cons of social media as a tool to facilitate collective action, referring mostly to the Arab Spring. She outlined certain assumptions about social media that she argued had now become solid principles that researchers should build on in theorizing this networking tool. To illustrate these, she discussed specific events and people. One of the most compelling examples she gave was the controversial mass diffusion on YouTube of an amateur videotape showing the stoning of a Middle Eastern woman who was being punished for having fallen in love with a man from a different tribe. Much to my surprise, Dr. Tufecki said, “YouTube is the largest news channel in the world”.

Jennifer I’d like to give kudos to Nancy Baym, Mark Smith, and the rest of the GRAND sponsored students. Elizabeth and I enjoyed sharing the same flights to and from DC, which gave us time to discuss our research.

Elizabeth There were so many amazing presentations it is hard to pick out any one in particular. Because of the variety of researcher students present, Dr. Alan Neustadtl offered an impromptu workshop on the basics of network analysis. It was a great overview for those with only a basic familiarity with network analysis and very useful moving forward in discussions throughout the week. The field trip to the Brookings Institute, where we heard from Lee Rainie from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, Zeynep Tufekci on globalized media and others.

Read Summer Social Webshop (Part Two): Jenna Jacobson, University of Toronto and Ana-Maria Teohari, University of Reading / University of Toronto

Return to Summer Social Webshop 2012