I gave the after-dinner talk at the recent Horizon Doctoral Training Centre’s Summer School at the University of Nottingham to a roomful of extraordinarily inspirational PhD students who are doing their research in the field of Ubiquitous Computing and the Digital Economy.  In it, I focus on what it is that computing cannot (currently?) capture about the human experience when online (accurate readings of friendship, social capital, trust, reputation and identity), but how applications like Twitter are helping populate the empty spaces that binary digits are unable to represent.

This is a first stab at the synthesis of these topics based on my research and reading in this area with the aim of turning it into a chapter/chapters in a book,  and I was pleased to receive feedback and comments from the audience. For example, is it possible to quantify social capital in some way and then use that as the basis of a game to influence attitudes and behaviours? When I re-posed this question on Twitter, Matt Locke at Channel 4 Education (a publishing hero that has an award-winning stable of games for change) was adamant that, “games may create social capital, but it’s not a game in itself… It’s dangerous to think of social capital as an asset that can be measured or created… social capital is a story, not data.” I’d love your take on it too.

Hello and thank you very much for the warm invitation. When I found out I would be speaking with people who  studied and designed ubiquitous computing, I must admit that I had a moment of panic. After all, you people are from the future, like the place inhabited by replicants and mechs and billboards that sense what you want and give it to you. That freaks me out. Frankly, you freak me out.

So I’m going to retreat into a topic that I know something about and hopefully this will be of interest – and entertainment perhaps – to you, the people of the future, of what we were thinking about computers and digital technologies at the beginning of the 21st century. It was a time that was just beginning to grapple with the Internet – the most powerful communication tool known to civilization – and what it was that this tool taught us about ourselves as we left a wave of information about ourselves across the virtual ether.

I’m a social psychologist, so I believe it is important to recognise what it is that can be understood through the data we leave behind in our daily lives – the digital footprint generated by our movements through virtual space, as it were. But I’m interested in the soft as well as the hard stuff that we can understand through our online activities. For me, the current volume of data available from our online activities is like finding the greatest treasure chest on the planet: finally – a phenomenal trove of human activity in natural settings that we can use to test theories about human behaviour and create new ones! In a natural environment! With real human responses! And no one acting differently because they feel they’re being watched by a lady in a white coat! Quick! Scrape everything, before the human subjects ethics committees realise!

We know that our behaviours are captured online, and that these are used to create a digital identity that can be sold for corporate gain. The example of how Google pays for itself – through intel gleaned by slurping up our intentions – is a case in point. But it’s the softer, meat-space side that I’m interested in, how the ubiquity of computing will transform our relationships with one another and how we perceive ourselves. I feel these are important things to consider when designing applications and services that utilise ubiquitous computing, because of the social phenomena that emerge – through traceable or untraceable means – and what it is that, through more thoughtful design that includes features of social interaction, we can learn about humanity.

active versus passive/computers versus meat-space
There is currently, in most cases, a disconnect between us and the machine. Even in the case of Google, the best data capturing agent out there, we must be active in producing the information that they can use to generate our online identity. Their databases are full of our proactive behaviour, not our passive lives.

So here we have a conflict between the digital space and the meat-space. I’d like to take a look at two of the things to think about when it comes to the bits that it’s more difficult to currently capture with digital technologies and when using the tech that’s coming close: the role of closeness, and how the feedback loop of constant updates is creating what I like to call a cult of me.

the good old gooeyness of different types of friendship
First, let’s examine the basis of our social interactions: friendship. Friendship is simplest form of connection, and a feature of offline life that social networks in particular have exploited in their designs. In fact, they’re the basis of the business models that networks like Facebook and LinkedIn run on today: they operate on idea that individuals with friends will influence friends to join, thus increasing the value of the networks for themselves and for future customers. Facebook and LinkedIn then sell those connections on to highest bidders – in Facebook’s case, Microsoft – and you and your friends become the property of very rich organisations.

Now, connection with people you care about or have similar interests with is what I believe is the basis for the success of the World Wide Web. It’s the social that made it more of a phenomenon than the simple library of information it provides.

Of course, this wasn’t the original intention of the creators of the Web; Tim Berners-Lee did not think about this when he developed his hyper-text protocol. He’s an engineer and he was thinking about allowing people to connect with assets and content, not to one another. And so it’s up to social scientists like myself to try to understand how this very simple innovation became the vastly important interpersonal communication tool it is today. Even more importantly, it’s up to us to understand what it means for the offline person to be friends with someone else online.

Anthropologists became the first people to really look at the communities that began to develop out of the technology as academics and fans, actually, of the Grateful Dead and others started interacting with one another via the Web. To the horror of the rest of the world, reports emerged about how human behaviours – like emotional connectedness, community, hierarchy, belongingness, stereotypes (the things that aren’t immediately obvious through binary digits) – were not only possible, but thrived in cyberspace.

This is a controversial contention, of course. There are proponents – of course you can have meaningful friendships online – and there are detractors – how on earth can a lean medium full of anonymous users replace the physical and visceral richness of meat-space?

Some of the people who are more cautious suggest that people can really only be friends online with those people who they’re already connected with offline. Dr Will Reader, from Sheffield Hallam University made headlines with that announcement a few years ago when he reported his pilot study to an audience of his peers at the British Psychological Society’s annual conference.

I’d like to come out on the side of the former: my own research and experience has demonstrated that it is possible to have strong emotional connections with people online that you’ve never met before, but that you spend time with in a community. And I also feel it’s possible for these relationships to demonstrate a spectrum of closeness. And moreso, it’s even possible to capture a very basic piece of that information by scraping behavioural data off the Internet.

There are many ways to define closeness in networks (for more on this, check out Rob Comber‘s recent presentation at the Cyberpsychology and Computers conference) Technologically, some people choose to look at the number links between people, say hypertext links between blogs in the blogosphere, or the number of times people refer to one another in instant message chat. On a technology like Twitter, you can look to see who follows who, if the follower follows the followee (aka a reciprocal relationship), and, on top of that, how often they @ one another. Rogers calls that a ’communication closness’, and yes, it’s interesting, but I don’t think it captures everything.

In fact, I feel that if you want to get to the nitty gritty of what defines friendship, you have to look at the psychological features of closeness. Across a vast body of literature about online and offline closeness, I focus on trust. But how do you capture trust relationships through bits and bytes? By identifying who’s giving who money? That’s one way. But the more meat-space way is to ask, outright, who one trusts, or who one feels close to. That was what I had to do.

I studied the people who use Second Life, the online virtual world that became very popular a few years ago. I asked over 750 users users of SL about their almost 6,000 connections. What I found was that indeed, there was a spectrum of closeness relationships between people who didn’t know one another offline, and that this closeness developed in the same way as offline friendships and relationships develop: through sharing, through disclosure, through reciprocation of personal information and through perceptions of similarity. Deb Levine wrote about this a decade ago in her paper, “Virtual Attraction: What rocks your boat”.

Why is this interesting? Well, because many of the theories about how people influence one another’s attitudes and behaviours focus on friendship. The closer the friendship, the more likely attitudes and behaviours will be similar. And if there is  the possibility of people influencing one another online, we should understand how they operationalise friendship.

ubiquitous computing and friendship

So I’ve talked about how it’s difficult for computers to capture our nuanced understanding of friendship, and why it’s actually important to think about it. But how are our friendships affected by technologies that are almost ubiquitous (but still require our input), like Twitter?

Well, as I said, people develop relationships online in a similar way as offline. One of the things I didn’t mention, however, was that proximity – the experience of being ‘together’ – is also vastly important for both developing and maintaining relationships. I live in the UK, my parents and family live in the US. I have a sense that we are ‘close’ not just because of our histories, but also because we communicate regularly online. My mother, hilariously, sends me email responses to my twitter feeds and now uses words like ‘nom nom nom’ because I write that on my twitter updates.

Also, facilities like Twitter or Facebook or other social networks that are constantly updated give people a lot of information about which they can base a feeling of similarity on. Similarity online is a fascinating area. Because it’s so lean, we have to rely on interpersonal cues that we extrapolate from the communication that’s actively – proactively – distributed (check out more on this within the SIDE framework from Martin Lea and Russell Spears). So, Facebook or Twitter updates give people minute-to-minute detail about what people are eating, the kinds of new stories they find important, who they’re chatting with, the kinds of activities they take part in – and these help to form a basis of similarity. More likely it’s a false basis – both because it’s a constructed reality on the part of the person who’s tweeting or updating, and because we as beasts insist on filling in the gaps with confirmatory content: stuff that makes us think that other people are actually more similar to ourselves than they really are.

And here’s a little aside – a cautionary tale, as it were – mine and others’ research has shown that not only do we perceive people to be like us when they aren’t (hold similar attitudes, do similar things), but we perceive them to be more extreme than us. We make assumptions based on false perceptions (known as pluralistic ignorance) that confirm our existing biases. See Magdalena Wojcieszak’s 2009 paper, “False Consensus Goes Online: Impact of Ideologically Homogeneous Online Groups on False Consensus” for more.

This weird self-confirmatory loop that we find ourselves in online because we gravitate towards the people who we perceive to be like us because of what they say and do on Twitter can actually make us more extreme. So here’s a call to arms, clever future people: it’s your job to create applications that can break this, to give us serendipity online, to force us to look at people we think are dissimilar, and to recognise that there are other views on the internet than those that are like ours. Please.

Either that, or do what I did a few weeks ago, and I followed three people who’s opinions I actively dislike on Twitter. Yes, I feel more incensed. Yes my blood pressure is a little bit higher. But I also feel a little more intelligent about the world because I’ve remembered that it’s not all about me and people who think like me.

the cult of me me me
Which leads me onto my next point. I’d like to go back to something I briefly said earlier:  I said that our realities online are constructed. And yes, this is not a new insight. Websites for decades have been decorated just like teeenagers’ bedrooms: identity is plastered everywhere, but in the most rosy and attractive way possible.

Sherry Turkle wrote extensively about this in 1995 in her book Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. Prescient woman. However, things haven’t changed much except how many people are online. I do wonder how her observations, made a long time ago in Internet-land, have transferred into the modern day, mass media consumption of Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and other web phenomena.

Case study: me. I will tweet things that make me look good. You’re not going to get the fugly, though you might get close. My #phdhell hashtag exposes a whole lot about what my mental state was like when I was going through what you fools are doing now. No, the real ugly stuff is preserved for my personal, secret, totally private and untraceable account that will take an injunction from twitter to get access to. That’s not an invitation.

But you know, how happy and proactive and brilliant everyone is online sometimes gets to me, frankly. I think it was Morrissey who said ‘we hate it when our friends become successful’. It’s great to see that friends are doing well, but only hearing how awesome they are and how excellent everything is can have a negative effect on the self-confidence if things are hum-drum in your own existence, despite the fact that it’s not a realistic account of what their lives are actually like.

This is a strange culture of the Cult of Me. Me me me me: you have to update or you disappear. You have to wave your arms around like a digital extrovert, or people will forget you. You have to: you’re only as good as your last tweet. And so it becomes an exercise in personal marketing: I am more brilliant than you. But really, are you? No one is that one-sided. Where does the bad stuff go if you’re constantly on show?

It does seem as if people do want to know the bad stuff; I’ve heard some people say that they think the reason the British population felt wary about Gordon Brown when he came into the Prime Minister’s position after Tony Blair stepped down from the Labour leadership is because he didn’t have an archive of embarrassing gaffes – images, videos of him with marigolds on, stories about him from friends from his college days – that made him more “human”. They thought he was considered two-dimensional.

Ubiquitous computing applications and technologies will inevitably expose the bad side. But that is when you’re are going to start getting real issues in the public sphere about privacy, and what should and should not be shared online. After all, it’s the bad stuff that can really ruin your reputation.

the epic importance of social capital online
Reputation: part and parcel of trust, and one of the other important aspects of influence. Your online social capital – the interpersonal currency that wraps interpersonal trust and reputation up into a bundle and defines your value as an individual of influence over others – is the basis for much of the influential interaction in cyberspace.

My social capital, for example, has increased loads since doing the virtual revolution documentary because people think that I am now connected to Tim Berners-Lee, Bill Gates, Al Gore and Stephen Fry. They think I can get them in touch with these people, that I can facilitate some kind of meeting, that I can make things happen.

Social capital is, of course, not just about celebrity. Social capital is what makes the world go ‘round: it enhances social cohesion, it brings disparate groups together and it gets things done. Putnam bemoaned the demise in social capital in the latter part of the 20th century using evidence from the decline in rates of Boy and Girl Scouts, attendance in churches and other community groups and so on, suggesting that it was the media – including the Internet – that was responsible for these trends. The passive media angle was extended most recently by Clay Shirky in his latest book. But as I said in another post, I don’t actually think it was the increase in media consumption, but the increase in separate media consumption and the proliferation of content equating to the loss in precious water-cooler moments that has had the biggest effect. But that’s an aside.

In fact, I’m willing to put myself on the line and say that social capital is the only currency in cyberspace. Dimitri Williams‘s online social capital research concurs. But frankly, it’s damned difficult to capture with 1s and 0s (though even Dmitri has tried). What you do and what others say about you – including your digital footprint left behind by your online behaviours – is all you have to trade on in the online world.

But the difference between social capital online versus social capital offline is that it’s possible for individuals to manipulate how much social capital they’re perceived to have – note the word perceived – and that’s one of the wonderful outcomes of the most interesting feature of the Internet experience: the flattening of hierarchy.

Take Twitter, for example. I can quite happily communicate with people whom I admire. There’s no barrier to getting their attention. All I have to do is direct a message at them, and they’ll be aware of my presence.

Even better, my peers who follow me will see that I am communicating with these people, and my level of apparent social capital will increase, because it will appear that I’m associated with them.

But really, anyone can do that. Scratch under the surface to get to the reality: the real indication of social capital is to get them to respond back in public. To get them to @ me. And then, their followers will see that I am actually associated with them, and they’ll come and check me – and my inane wittering about constantly being late and what i ate for breakfast – out. And suddenly, my influence quotient goes up. But its still not the whole picture. I’m still an online fabrication. You’re reading a first-person perspective of me.

the end
What happens when it’s all out there, when you don’t have to search for it. Suddenly you can’t big yourself up nearly as much as you did before. Nor can you create a false self that will win friends and influence people.

I guarantee that with advances in and pervasiveness of ubiquitous computing technologies and data, you will will generate a more powerful trust  because all your cards will be laid on the table for all to see. Parsing it is another issue.

That is the power of what you are doing: you are bringing the social to the web. And for that, as a social psychologist interested in the ephemera of human behaviour, I thank you very much.