There are better ways to do research…

As the small uproar over the recent Facebook experiment subsides, there will be an unexpected victim.  The nascent public/ private research cooperative where academic researchers work together with private firms will probably die.  At least it will go into hibernation and not be seen again for a long time, if ever.  Which is a terrible tragedy.

Experiments will still go on.  Firms always need to know what marketing strategies work, what practices make the users more engaged, they will continue to experiment on how customers react to changes. All this has always happened and will continue to happen, only like the NSA data collection, we won’t hear about the results.  And because of that, we all lose.

Sad Smartphone

From Pandodaily 06/24/14


This is truly sad, because as a social scientist I can fully appreciate how hard it is for us to collect data.  We have to go through a complex IRB process and make sure that the interests of our subjects are highly protected, that they are informed about an experiment and fully debriefed afterwards.  This protects the rights of the subjects, but it also makes it more and more difficult to find participants, since many people have grown weary of any research, thinking that some entity will only try to “sell” them something.  Also, once they are informed, their behavior changes—they are wary and alert for what is happening.  Therefore, it is almost impossible to truly have external validity on any type of laboratory experiment.

However, online behavior presents an interesting space where social scientists can observe and learn.  It is a space that can be analyzed (and anonymized) in ways that allow social scientists to observe real behaviors and real interactions in a depth and quantity that was never imagined possible only a few years ago. Recently, the promise of working collaboratively with major companies, using their wealth of data, has the potential to truly further science and understand computer-mediated communications in new ways.  This can be done in ways that protects the privacy of the individuals, but this process must be done carefully, since too much meta-data can reveal far more about an individual than most people imagine.  It is far more revealing than including their name or other personally identifying information.

word cloud

From Stanford University Computational Science

This particular experiment, crossed a line however, and this line is what has caused the furor.  They purposely manipulated the newsfeed algorithms to measure changes in the emotional tone of the subjects’ posts.

If you haven’t noticed, there already are algorithms in place that manipulate your feed.  People that make posts you frequently “like” show up more often.  These manipulations make you enjoy reading your newsfeed, and bring you back to Facebook. The goal is you will see the ads, that are also carefully manipulated to match your interests.  Imagine what would happen if every time you to came to FB, every posting from every person you have friended was on your newsfeed…overload.  Or imagine that irritating co-worker ( that you don’t dare unfriend) constantly showed up on your wall.  You probably wouldn’t come back to check things so much. On the other hand, your best friend always posts great stuff, you can hardly wait to see what witty comment they have next.  You like all of their postings, and surprise!  Guess who shows up most often on your newsfeed.

But I digress…

crossed out Facebook friend

From TechGear 07/02/2010

This particular algorithm change was done to measure the changes in the comments of those whose newsfeeds were manipulated.  The participants didn’t know before, during, or after.  This is far different from the little surveys that pop up on FB and ask your opinion of something.  It was an actual change, an experiment done to measure users’ response, no permission, no IRB, no informing participants.

If FB had kept it quiet, no one outside the organization would have known anything different.  As people are finding out about the experiment, there is a growing uproar over being treated like lab rats.

Also, everyone in academia is scrutinizing the findings, the survey design, and pretty much every word will be picked apart (I am SO glad I am not on that research team).  I’m sure the FB liability lawyers are pulling their hair and deciding that any future research will have major hurdles to overcome if researchers EVER want to publish anything.  That is why we all lose.

sad kitten

From Collectively Emma Boulton 06/18/2014

There must be better ways to inform participants in a way that will allow them to behave naturally.  For instance, researchers could offer $5 in FB credits if they participate in research that may or may not happen in the next few months.  This would allow people to be informed, but also the uncertain timing could allow behavior that is more natural.  After the time frame, they could be informed about the experiment and see the results if they are interested.  This would be a more scientific method that would produce better results AND protect the subjects.

I truly hope that this is not the end of academic/ business research alliances in FB or other computer mediated communication areas.  But I do hope that it is the end of uninformed experiments.  There are better ways to harness this tremendously important resource.


Leaving a Videomail

Imagine leaving #VideoMessages instead of voice messages, how would this change things? #MicrosoftResearch is looking in to exactly how this might rock our world.  Yesterday, I had the privilege of listening to Kori Inkpen Quinn of NeXus Research at Microsoft share about their research and later talk to her personally about future innovations.  They are doing some wonderful research and it is clear to see how improving video communications could truly enhance user experience. Having a research team that is scattered not just across campus, but also around the world has become commonplace.  The richness that these conversations bring when facial expressions are combined with words can help teams be more cohesive and productive. However, often the experience is less than optimum. 



I know how much FaceTime, Google HangOut and Skype have changed my life, allowing me to talk to family and friends I would otherwise rarely see.  The richness of video enhanced conversation cannot be denied, but it is not used as frequently as other channels (email, texting, or voice mail).  I usually reserve video for a time when both sides are ready to talk and prepared for a video feed.  The new insight I gained from the discussion with Kori was to think about the affordances of having a video dialog asynchronously. It was something I hadn’t really thought of before.  I’ve seen so many videos that people make for YouTube: they make us laugh, cry, happy, or mad. But they don’t really connect…they speak to everyone, but it isn’t a dialog.



Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

Using asynchronous video messages there is the potential to build a dialog between people.. a way to connect, a way to build relationships. 

POV “High Tech, Low Life” a must see, available online

The Internet has changed everything.  That seems like a strong statement, but only it is hard to think of an aspect of life, or a place in the world that hasn’t been affected in some way by the power that the Internet has brought upon us as computers link together and allow the transfers of data.  Mountains of data.  Pictures from satellites circling on the outer edges of the atmosphere, measurements of the waves in the sea, readings of temperature changes in the arctic, radar alerts from storms gathering in the great plains, packs of wolves running across the northern woodlands, human movement within cities, transfers of money, the list is endless.

However, one of the most radical changes is the ability for humans to communicate with other humans.  Through the Internet we can communicate with friends, with family, with people of like mind, or with total strangers.  This unleashes the potential for great changes. A film that I highly recommend is currently featured on POV on PBS is “High Tech, Low Life”.  It is something every blogger should watch.  It chronicles the lives of two bloggers “Zola” and “Tiger Temple”.  Their very simple lives and desire to just speak the truth in a peaceful and respectful way are truly humbling.  The documentary shows a deep dignity and desire to do the right thing even among the most humble of people.  These bloggers are actually people that China should be very proud of, they want to fight corruption and help officials to follow the law, no matter what position they hold.  In watching the documentary I felt great hope for China’s future, so many are hungry to make the world a better place.

Screen capture from trailer for "High Tech, Low Life" video on PBS

High Tech, Low Life

 However, I found this film is very convicting.  Living in the United States, I tend to take our freedoms to speak, to write and to blog for granted.  Do I use these freedoms to do good and help bring justice and improve the world, or do I just seek to be entertained. Something to think about…


Telling the story of wealth distribution in the U.S.

Distribution of scarce resources is an important factor in the study of economics, education, telecommunications, or actually almost any field. This video is the best representation I’ve seen, in a very logical and informational way about the economic realities in the United States today.

In my work at both a major public university and a large urban community college I have had the opportunity to look utter poverty in the face.  I’ve worked with students as they lost jobs, relationships, savings, homes, and listened to their stories as they were struggling to survive. One of my students was worried about finding a bed in the homeless shelter, since they didn’t even have a car to live in.  To be certain, many of the life choices they made were the reason that they were facing such utter poverty.  However, there were scores (who were probably representative of tens of thousands) of people who were good, hard-working people; however, they had lost their middle class manufacturing jobs and were on their last of their unemployment with no prospects for anything better than a part-time retail job. They no longer had a pension, health insurance, or hope of income growth.  Their only hope was to improve their educational levels so they could get a better job and take care of their families.

In my work with technology, education, and writing, I see the importance of telling these stories, letting people know that they are not the only ones struggling — and for those who are blessed to have enough to share with others — to see ways to help give hope to the hopeless and a voice to the voiceless.

With technology we are able to get past the censorship of “big media” that is owned by the 1% of top earners who have strong motivation to misinform the masses and keep the status quo.  Also, hopefully with digital revolution we can inform and educate those in middle and bottom tiers of the income brackets so that they can again be productive earners in society. Yet, we also need to realize that current policies in both the governmental and business realms have accelerated this problem.

Samsung’s Galaxy S4 eye tracking– sweet possibilities

I love my iPhone 4, I truly do…I think if I had Siri we could be really good friends.  But, the idea of being able to scroll through a page by simply looking at it, well, it honestly makes me wonder about my next phone upgrade.  If they get it right, it could be utterly awesome, getting ever closer to where we just “think” the commands and our ICT devices do the work for us. Probably the first iteration will be rough, but it will get smoother and better. I’m sorry, but Apple will really have to do better than a watch that interacts with me.  Personally I’m waiting for the Google glass.


Will the next Galaxy smartphone use eye-tracking software?

(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)

For more information check out the story on C/net

Author (R)evolution Day-

As a writer and educator, the changes that have come to our world because of the digital revolution have shaken the very foundation of how things are done.  These changes and how they have affected  is one of the reasons I am pursuing my current studies.  An interesting live seminar is streaming right now at .  They have some interesting insights on what is success for writers. They are learning to see success as bigger than just book sales-also to learn how to find our own areas of comfort and competency and define success for ourselves.

author revolution day

Some of the opening quotes were quite intriguing “We all feel like we have been shot of out a cannon…the rush of change is coming so quickly”  –this seems true in almost every field.  As a result, no matter what area we work in,  we need to “build Community as soon as possible”.  We need the support, challenge, and insight we gain when we live in spaces that embrace communities.

Reflecting on MLK Jr. Day

image of Martin Luther King, Jr.

I always find this holiday a rather bittersweet one.  Remembering the man, his mission, and the progress that has been made since his life and death is a mixture of joy and sorrow.  Dr. King was able to galvanize the power of a disaffected people into an effective and non-violent movement.  He was not afraid to share how his faith was the basis and core to all the the good that he did. As a result, he shown in bright contrast to similar leaders of the day who espoused violence and hatred to achieve their goals. These memories bring joy.  However, there is sorrow at how his life was cut short and how people’s attitudes towards him are still often affected by the lies and disinformation purposely spread by the FBI and other organizations.  Yes, I know he was far from perfect, he was very human, yet many of our attitudes –both for and against him– are formed based on the narrative that we have chosen to embrace, and usually these narratives are driven by the goals of the writers rather than the truth. 

Today is also the inauguration of President Obama’s second term. This is also a bittersweet day. There is joy that our nation has changed to the point where a family of African heritage can live in the White House, a sharp contrast from only a few decades ago where there were many neighborhoods that wouldn’t even allow this same family to move in. Yet, there is sorrow that our nation is deeply divided, many people have chosen to embrace narratives that are far from the truth. They either see President Obama as a “little emperor” with a evil agenda that will destroy the nation, or they see him as the only hope to stop the advancing power of the Republicans who have an evil agenda that will destroy the nation.  

The truth is that neither narrative is entirely true. However, truth takes mental effort to embrace and often forces us to have to examine our hearts and be willing to change our lives. As a result, most people choose to embrace a narrative that supports what they already wanted to do or believe.

Whenever truth and light shines in the darkness, it makes the darkness flee, but unfortunately there are people who are ashamed of what they are doing and love the darkness…they try to put out the light and eliminate those who are bringing the light. Just at the greatest light bringer, Jesus, once said, “You are going to have the light just a little while longer.  Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you.  Whoever walks in the dark does not know where they are going.  Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of the light.” (John 12:35-36) 

Even though many things have changed, those of us who are children of the light still have to face the darkness, and in many ways fight against the darkness.  For me, that includes finding ways to utilize new technologies to:

  • distribute the truth (the basis and reason for education)
  • help the disadvantaged (by gaining educational opportunities)
  • protect human rights (through education)
  • improve the environment (through awareness and education)

I hope you choose to embrace the light and the truth. 

Sci-Fi seems to be coming true – Pre-cog software

Cities are starting to use pre-cog software that predicts the likelihood of a criminal committing a more violent crime like murder so they can be more closely followed.  This seems like a very efficient way to funnel resources.  Especially since so many probation officers have a much greater load than they could possibly follow due to budget cuts. This is an almost inevitable conclusion.  The creative minds among us almost predicted it, and they also predicted that the system would be abused.  In one sense it can relieve the workload and protect the public.  



But the better solution would be to hire more people to work in counseling, training and teaching.  If we spend (as a community) more money to efficiently train and equip youth with realistic dreams and the skills to achieve those dreams, this would reduce the pressure to go in to crime and the overall hopelessness that leads to a collapsing society.  Personally, I’d rather see my tax dollars go to pay teachers instead of having to pay for prison guards.   

Google Chairman arrives in North Korea

Eric Schimidt, Google executive chairman, arrives at Beijing International airport before his trip to North Korea

It is with great interest that the world is following the arrival of Google executive, Eric Schmidt, to North Korea.  He and Bill Richardson are extremely brave in reaching out to the “hermit nation”.  They are on a humanitarian mission and have gone despite the protests of the U.S. state department.  It is hopeful that this trip will start to open the door for future communication with the leaders of North Korea.  This is a mission of hope for all who truly care about the people of this nation, who by all reports, are generally suffering from malnutrition and the natural deprivation that comes from lack of beneficial trade.  Remembering the benefits of “ping-pong diplomacy” and how simple outreach helped break down the walls of isolation in China, and the resulting benefit to the economy of the world,hopefully this mission will also open a door to further communication that goes beyond the constant threats and militant demands that marks current communications. Our thoughts and prayers hope that this will bring positive change, even if it is just a tiny bit, to North Korea.

For more information you can read the Financial Times coverage

The Human API

Brian Solis recently wrote about his speech at Le Web in Paris about the future in the Internet of things- as our things start to work together and communicate with each other to optimize their functionality.  He had some fascinating data about projections that 50 billion things will be connected to the Internet by 2020.

His fundamental question for developing a user interface, a user architecture that is a new paradigm- the Human Interface Design- to think about connecting devices in such a way that they revolve around the user, rather than the user adapting themselves to work around the things. He writes-

“This raises questions that experience architects need to consider:

  1. What does all of this tell us about ourselves and those around us?
  2. How do our devices better communicate and improve how we communicate and adapt?
  3. How does the IoT bring people together around a purpose, outcomes, or aspirations?
  4. How does it enable us to optimize the lives of our users and customers?

The future of the Internet of Things requires the balance of experience architecture and the exchange of human information between people and machines, and it is beautiful. And, it takes design.”

The following is his talk at Le Web