NSF Political Science cuts fail to predict the unpredictability of research

On March 20 the Senate de-funded political science grants from the National Science Foundation “except for research projects that the Director of the National Science Foundation certifies as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.” Since political science research, like most scientific research, is seldom undertaken to promote national security or the economic interests of the U.S., it seems doubtful there will be many such exceptions….

The amount of money saved is somewhere south of $11 million, out of a total NSF budget of about $7 billion. Cutting $11 million as part of a long-term effort to eliminate a budget deficit currently estimated at $1.1 trillion is like trying to fill an empty swimming pool by spitting into it. The real reason the NSF’s political science program is being eliminated is that Republicans are ideologically hostile to its content, not its cost.           — Political Science in the Crosshairs, The New Republic

As it happens, an NSF grant is what funded the lion’s share of my Ph.D. In my first year of graduate school, I successfully applied for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program, which funded most of my subsequent graduate studies with tuition support and a generous stipend. (Generous by grad student standards, not by living the high life standards.)

At the time of my application, I proposed to undertake just the kind of research that (as the New Republic speculates) Republicans might find distasteful: an investigation of the decline and resurrection of social democratic parties. But pretty early in my actual course of research, I pivoted towards research on the impact of the Internet on social democracy. Eventually, the social democracy side of the equation dropped out, and I wrote a dissertation about hacktivism: the phenomenon of politically-motivated computer hacking.

In other words, my dissertation ended up landing in exactly the area this Senate resolution proposes to exempt: a topic related to the natural security interests of the United States. While I was more interested in the implications for political participation than in the implications for cybersecurity, the breadth of interviews I undertook, the case studies I developed and the conclusions I reached all meant that my research was of interest to the security community. Interesting enough, anyhow, that my perspective has been sought out over the years by folks ranging from the Rand Institute to the US Department of Defense.

Yet none of that would have been apparent back in 1996, when I thought I was writing a dissertation about social democracy. Sure, my pivot may have been more dramatic than most, and unusual in landing so directly in a security-related field. But it is not at all unusual for research agendas to evolve, and to take a researcher in a direction quite different from what was anticipated. Indeed, I would argue that good research is defined by the openness to a change in direction, and by the researcher’s willingness to recognize when the outcomes or implications of research are substantially different from ex ante hypotheses.

By proposing to limit research funding to political science projects with direct and anticipated implications for national security or economic interests, the Senate vision precludes the kind of serendipity that may in fact be the source of some of the most surprising and useful research. Even if you buy the argument that research should only get funded when it has that kind of tangible benefit — which, by the way, I don’t — this kind of policy is far from guaranteed to produce the desired results.

Quite the opposite: in encouraging academic researchers to think narrowly about the relationship between their research and the national interest, it discourages the kind of broad exploration from which innovation emerges. And that isn’t in anybody’s interest.

A new path to social media insight at Vision Critical

People who post frequently on Facebook and Twitter are more than 3 times as likely to care about being the most fashionable person in the room, compared to more passive social media users.

That was one of the surprising findings that came out of a major social media study Emily Carr University undertook with Vision Critical, the Vancouver-based research and technology solutions company.  That study shed new light on the differences between active and passive social media users, and as a result, posed a challenge to the way social media professionals typically gather intelligence online.

And it led to a major change for one particular social media professional: me.

The survey itself engaged more than 80,000 people in the US, Canada and the UK, looking for answers to questions that social media professionals ask all the time:  Are Facebook users different from Twitter users? Do young people use social media differently from crusty over-40s like me? And most crucially, are there any fundamental differences between active and passive social media users?

This last question goes to the heart of how marketing, communications and web professionals work with the social web.  As social media usage has taken off, and social media monitoring tools have appeared to help us track all that online activity, we’ve come to rely on tweets, blog posts and Facebook updates as important sources of customer intelligence. We start our day by looking at the latest snippets of praise, criticism and insight, and we treat our social media audiences as key barometers of public sentiment about our businesses and organizations.

What we learn from those audiences is crucial to understanding how our customers, members or the general public think about our products, services and brands. But what if what we’re learning – what if what we’re gleaning from all those updates – is only a partial view? What if the voices that dominate our social media dashboards don’t represent the public at large – or even the vast majority of social media users?

The results of our survey, which was the biggest survey of social media users ever undertaken, suggest that social media monitoring provides only a very partial view.  The most active social media users – those who are tweeting or updating Facebook more than 10 times a week – have preferences that look very different from people who post only a little, even though those “lurkers” include many people who log into Facebook or Twitter multiple times each day.

What allowed us to identify that gap wasn’t an analysis of social media updates: it was the long-term survey data Vision Critical gathered from hundreds of thousands of people who have agreed to take multiple online surveys over a period of months or even years.  That survey data provided a depth of insight into shopping habits, demographic patterns and media consumption which cast a new light not only on social media usage itself, but also on the extent to which social media updates can and can’t act as a proxy measure of overall consumer sentiment.

Digging into the results of our study demonstrated both the opportunities and challenges for using social media to generate customer insight. As someone who has spent the past 7 years exploring the power of social media as a catalyst for tightening the relationship between companies and customers, and between organizations and members, that research left me newly inspired with the possibilities for harnessing online conversation. Social media can not only help us hear what customers, members and citizens have to say; it can help us understand why they are saying it.

But we can only achieve that understanding if we take a rigorous approach to analyzing what we see on Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere; if we have the context that connects all those tweets and updates to who these social media users actually are, what they think, and how they spend their money. That’s the context we got from hearing directly from the tens of thousands of social media users who responded to our survey.

And that’s the context I hope to provide to even more of the companies and professionals who rely on social media intelligence, in my new role as VP, Social Media at Vision Critical. After a fascinating research collaboration with the company this year – which grew out of a longstanding working relationship – I’m delighted to be rejoining the Vision Critical team.

Vision Critical has grown tremendously since I worked with them in 2005: it’s now the world’s number one provider of market research solutions, with operations on six continents and clients like Banana Republic, NASCAR and Yahoo! Their growth mirrors the explosion of the social web, as online conversation – which at Vision Critical includes not only panels and surveys but also customer communities – has emerged as a key source of customer insight.

We now have the opportunity to unite these threads of business intelligence: to combine the authenticity of social media feedback with the rigor of customer panels. As our research this spring uncovered, combining social media with panel research gives us new ways of incorporating the social web into the marketing toolbox; it also gives us fresh insight into social media itself.

In my new role at Vision Critical, I’ll lead the company’s efforts at integrating social media into the development of customer intelligence.  I will work with the company’s product development and marketing teams, led by the delightful Andrew Reid and Tyler Douglas.

Sadly, this means saying goodbye to another wonderful team: the brilliant and generous colleagues I have worked with for three years at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. Led by Ron Burnett, a president who is as delightfully geeky as he is inspiring and visionary, it’s a community made up of remarkably innovative, dedicated and kind-hearted people. There is much more to say about what I’ve learned from my time at Emily Carr, and about the extraordinary artists and designers who work there, so that will come in a separate post.

As someone who has spent the past sixteen years delving into the implications of our online migration for the way business, organizations and government engage with the public, I’m excited to have a new vantage point on that transition.  What I’ve learned in the past year of working with Vision Critical has already changed my perspective on how to use social media as a source of feedback and insight. I look forward to learning – and sharing! – even more in the years ahead.

Stop worrying about your kids’ online future

I’m one of more than a thousand Internet experts who contributed thoughts about our emergent digital world to the 2012 Elon University-Pew Internet & American Life study on the future of the Internet. My comments were picked up in the Globe and Mail and MindShift, where I got to carry the banner for the pro-digital side of the equation (surprise!), so I wanted to post my full comment about the impact of the Internet on kids, as it appears on the Elon University site. Amazingly, the quote that got picked up is also the same quote I Facebooked after completing the survey in the first place!

The impact of technology on young brains will be a mixed bag: it will enhance some capacities and diminish others, and will probably help certain kinds of people perform better and others will end up performing worse. I checked the positive box because I am concerned that with all our hand-wringing about the way brains are being rewired, we are focusing excessively on the down sides.

Yes, I expect that my now-8-year-old daughter will spend less time reading novels and more time playing video games, and that makes me sad: I have a generational and cultural bias that makes novel-reading seem like a more worthy pastime. The key is to recognize that our cultural and generational biases strongly shape our judgments about the way younger people think and spend their time. If we live in a world that values and rewards now-declining capacities—like the ability to sustain attention on a single subject for a long period or to write in full, grammatically-correct sentences—that world is not going to be around a lot longer, and it seems pretty clear that the new world is necessarily going to be driven by the skills and values of this younger generation.

If we can stop fretting about what we’re losing, we can make room to get excited about what we’re gaining: the ability to multitask, to feel connected to ‘strangers’ as well as neighbours, to create media unselfconsciously, to live in a society of producers rather than consumers. The question we face as individuals, organizations, educators and perhaps especially as parents is how we can help today’s kids to prepare for that world—the world they will actually live in and help to create—instead of the world we are already nostalgic for.

3 reasons to check out the latest research on social media and food

In the past, ethnicity and family traditions dictated the foods we prepared; we bought our groceries at a neighborhood store; we learned our recipes from “mom” or a cookbook; and we ate our meals together around a table. In contrast, today social media introduces us to new tastes, cuisines and possibilities; we source food via multiple channels including restaurants and online, often basing our decisions on the recommendations of friends; we learn recipes and techniques from TV shows, websites, blogs and online videos; and it is normal to eat with computers, phones, televisions and, increasingly, alone and often without a table.

That is from the executive summary of Clicks & Cravings: The Impact of Social Technology on Food Culture, a new research study from the Hartman Group. It’s worth a look because:

  1. It’s a focused snapshot of how the very uses of social media that we most eagerly embrace — like integrating it into our passions, hobbies and meals — are also the uses that can most profoundly disrupt crucial social ties and relationships. Calling my mom for her advice on whatever I’m cooking remains one of our strongest ways of connecting; it’s the one place where my desire for advice and my mom’s desire to be heeded consistently align. Yes, I consult Epicurious, but if I listened to Epicurious users instead of my mom, I’d have to give my mom absolute authority over some other aspect of my life, like how I dress. (Hello, ankle-length skirts!)
  2. It demonstrates the value of focusing social media research on a narrow slice of culture change. As social media permeates more and more of our work and personal lives, big-picture, across-the-board analyses must be complemented by targeted investigations of specific areas of social media’s impact.
  3. Food is good. Social media is good. Food + social media? Delicious.

Internet researchers tackle the future of reading & publishing at AOIR

True confession: I treat conference panels as competitive events. Whenever I’m participating in a multi-speaker panel my secret goal is to “win” the panel. This doesn’t mean I try to take down my fellow panellists: it’s not like wrestling or ice hockey, where you’ve got to crush your opponent in order to take home the gold. It’s more like rowing or cycling or maybe figure skating, where the goal is simply to turn in the best performance.*

Today I did not win my panel, because I had the privilege of being part of a totally kick-ass conversation at AOIR with 3 smart people doing very cool work on reading and publishing in the digital world, fluidly woven together by Janet Salmons. More amazing still, our work all intersected (not something you can take for granted) in ways that were incredibly constructive for my research, and I hope for others’ as well.

So who were these crazy digital rock stars, and what did I learn from them?

  • Peter Boot talked about how online communities enable new kinds of conversations about books, which go beyond reviewing to content creation and identity construction, and made me think about how that kind of identity work could happen within an ebook if it offered a community to its readers
  • Kathleen Fitzpatrick talked about how we can get over the conventional model of peer review, already, and start editing in ways that actually enrich scholarship — and made me think that is a universe in which I could get pretty excited about academic publishing
  • Tim Laquintano talked about the stigmatization of “vanity publishing” and how it’s giving way to “indie publishing”, and saved me about $5,000 in future psychotherapy by convincing me to just get over this obsession with being published by an Official Imprint

My own talk shared some of the ebook research we’ve been up to at Emily Carr, where I’ve been part a team of designers and researchers including Jonathan Aitken, Celeste Martin and Ron Burnett. In particular, I talked about our interest in creating social ebooks — ebooks that support not only collaborative annotation and highlighting but fuller social experiences in which readers converse and even contribute to book content. To think about how an ebook might deepen reader engagement, I’ve been drawing on the reader-to-leader framework of Preece & Shneiderman, which has been used to study many different kinds of online communities:

Reader to leader framework shows 4 levels of participation


If we think ebooks can act as some form of community, then perhaps the reader-to-leader framework can apply to ebooks. Based on the work we’ve done so far, here’s how different ebook features might map onto this framework — along with a minor adjustment to the framework that makes it a little more useful in this context.

eReader to Leader adds a "user" layer above "reader"


It’s going to take me at least a few days to digest the ways in which these talks fit together. When I have something semi-coherent to say, I’ll follow the spirit of the panel and share it digitally, as fodder for further conversation.



* Yes, I am using a sports metaphor — a move that is guaranteed to cost you crucial points in any panel performance I might be judging. And yes, I said “ice hockey”.

Social e-books as online communities, for AOIR 2011

Tomorrow I’m off to the conference of the Association of Internet Researchers, an event I’ve always wanted to attend and this time actually get to present to! I’m part of a session on Books and Publishing, where I will be talking about the e-book research I am now undertaking at Emily Carr in collaboration with Jonathan Aitken, Ron Burnett, Celeste Martin and other colleagues.

Our research has morphed a little in the many months since I submitted my session proposal, so here’s a slightly updated version of what I’ll be discussing in this talk.

Would you friend a novel? Social e-books as online communities

Social e-books are now emerging as a new form of participatory culture. The iPad and other tablet devices have ushered in a new generation of books that blur the line between text and performance, book and app, e-publishing and online community. These e-books that are now appearing on tablet devices differ from their modestly enhanced predecessors by incorporating not only text, image and video but also features like collaborative annotation, game mechanics, interactive animation and socially generated content. This paper argues for the incorporation of social e-books into the study of online community and participatory culture, introducing a model for analyzing social e-books as online communities. It provides a preliminary test of that model through the case of a social e-book now under development.

To date, the literature on electronic books has largely fallen in the fields of information science, publishing and education addressing topics like reader perceptions of electronic books (often by analyzing library usage) (Hurst et al. 2009); examining implications for the book industry; or the assessing impact of electronic textbooks on student learning (Chau 2008) and reading habits (Simon 2001). This emphasis on the fundamental experience of reading made sense as long as PDFs and black-and-white virtual ink readers like the first Kindle represented the technical frontier of e-books of mainstream readers.

The advent of the iPad created a critical mass of consumers who now have access to a tablet with the technical capability to support much richer forms of media interactivity. In the ten months since the arrival of the iPad, social e-books have begun to enter the mainstream discourse on electronic book publishing, although rudimentary speculation on its potential features goes back at least as far as 2002 (Henke 2002). Social and interactive iPad titles, mostly aimed at children, have dovetailed with the predictions of industry observers who anticipated e-books that support sharing reading notes (Johnston 2010); the exchange of voice annotations, book lending and socially-based reading time estimates (Rose 2010); and “crowdsourced wikis linked within the book” (Wolf 2010).

By reviewing a selection of leading-edge social e-books that represent the range of functionality now being incorporated into electronic publications, this paper creates a taxonomy of these emergent features. These include the e-book’s incorporation of video (as per a wide range of Vook titles); interactive animation (for example in Alice in Wonderland and The Heart and the Bottle); animated illustration (The Pedlar Lady); game mechanics (Dusk World); social sharing of book highlights (Copia, and the latest Kindle update) and user-generated content (on the recently announced SocialBooks platform).

The e-publishing literature is not well-equipped to predict, analyze and elicit user engagement with books that include these kinds of participatory features. In contrast, research into online community and participatory culture provides a rich source of inspiration and insight for e-book creators; the field may also be enriched by incorporating the study of newly social e-books. This follows the path of other emergent forms of online community that have been successively recognized and incorporated as appropriate subjects of inquiry, such as photo-sharing communities (Nov, Naaman, and Ye 2009), social networks (Boyd and Ellison 2008), YouTube (Rotman and J. Preece 2010) and mobile/SMS-based communities) list-making systems (Krüpl 2010), and Wikipedia (Gleave et al. 2009)

To assess the value of online community research in analyzing social e-books, the paper draws on the reader-to-leader framework (J Preece and B Shneiderman 2009), a relatively recent contribution that has already informed research and experiments as diverse as an online community to address climate change (Malone et al. 2009), an investigation of distributed participation in scientific research (Nov, Anderson, and Arazy 2010), and an analysis of geocaching communities (Clough 2010). This framework articulates the user’s experience of deepening social participation in terms of successive levels: “reading, contributing, collaborating, and leading.” (J Preece and B Shneiderman 2009) By mapping the taxonomy of social e-book features onto the levels in the reader-to-leader framework, the paper establishes both the utility of this framework for analyzing reader participation in existing social e-books, and suggests some of the framework’s limitations.

It then demonstrates how the framework has been used in planning a specific e-book project by demonstrating how it has been applied to the e-book projects now underway at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. The relevance and gaps of the reader-to-leader framework in structuring the design choices for this project will inform the paper’s conclusion, which identifies the implications for the research agenda in the fields of online community and online participation as well as e-publishing.

10 ways academics can use Twitter

M.H. Beals has a terrific overview of Social Media for Researchers and Academics, based on a one-way workshop held at the Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services in Edinburgh. Her post provides a great roadmap of the different ways academics can use social media, ranging from delicious to Wikipedia, along with pointers to resources that can help them get started.

Her post includes a delightful list of ideas for how academics can use Twitter:

  1. asking for reading suggestions or reviews “Any recent articles on….”
  2. advertising a speaking engagement “In London? Come hear my paper on…..”
  3. searching for specialists “Looking for assistance with….”
  4. finding a peer reviewers “Almost ready to submit. Anyone fancy a read of…”
  5. locating the right room at a conference “#AHA2011 Where is Foner’s panel being held?”
  6. advertising an event, call for papers, or publication
  7. facilitating an online discussion group in large lectures

…but let me add three more to bring us to a round 10:

8. organizing a backchannel conversation during a paper or panel presentation at an academic conference by using a hashtag for that session

9. finding colleagues who tweet about a certain topic by using Listorious or a Twitter keyword search (rather than posting a general request for help)

10. identifying potential research subjects by noticing who tweets about a specific topic (for example, finding people with diabetes, single moms, finance managers, etc.)

For more great ideas about how to use social media as a research tool, read the full post.

Social media insights from recent research

  • The more time college students spend online, the worst they do in their first semester….but they end up with better social lives.
  • Facebook activism doesn’t detract from offline activism: people who are politically active on Facebook are actually more politically active than average offline, too.
  • Policies for online professionalism are most successful when they are developed through consensus-based discussion.

Those are a few of the insights that Mo Kochmal gleaned from his round-up of recent academic publications on social media. There are lots of interesting ideas in his blog post: read it here.

“Since I started blogging…”

I overhear more and more conversations about how people cope with their lives online. We talk about our day-to-day strategies for coping with e-mail overload. We gossip about our friends’ Facebook profiles and worry about whether we should be joining the latest social network. We criticize people who spend more time online than we do for being Internet addicts, and deride the people who spend less time online as pathetic Luddites.

What’s harder to dig into is how the Internet is affecting our lives, not just on a day-to-day basis, but on a decade-to-decade basis.  Sure, we notice it’s easier to book our airplane tickets, or harder to reach someone by phone. But how often do stop to think about the way the Internet is changing how we live and who we are?

I’ve started searching out and compiling those moments when people do stop to take stock of their lives online. Contrary to research that casts the Internet as a great boon or a great evil, first-person reflections on the Internet reflect the same incredible variety of human perspective and experience that you find offline. Just look at some of the ways people describe their experience as bloggers:

  • Since I started blogging it seems to me like a new universe has opened up, one of discussion and debate, of sharing and generally good intentions. It has increased my belief that the world is generally full of great people.
  • It’s been 4 years today since I started blogging. It wasn’t really a plan. I had just looked into it for a bit and one day I had something to say and kept going…
  • I started blogging after someone I cared about very much committed suicide…I needed to be able to tell someone how broken I felt, and the Internet was there to listen. Since I started blogging in November of 2001 I have shared things online my friends never heard, I forged friendships with people I never met, and I felt the support a community of strangers can provide. They didn’t judge my relationship or care if I was or was not better off with this person dead. They knew and understood my pain. Through them, I found what I needed to heal.
  • Since I started blogging, I’ve become a fan of more kinky blogs.
  • Since I started blogging a little less than one year ago, I have developed a few very special online friendships. I have not had the chance to met any of them in person yet. But a few of the female movie bloggers that I have met on Twitter have formed an alliance– and believe it or not 4 of us live in the same city. We are planning to meet soon. We are all different ages, races and even blog about different film genres. It will be an interesting meeting.
  • Since I started blogging publicly in 2007, I’ve learned a lot about blogging and blogging culture. Along with things I’ve learned about myself and my own style there are some universal rules to follow to be a successful blogger, no matter who you are or what you’re writing about.
  • I’ve made a ton of mistakes since I started blogging. Some out of inexperience, some out of ignorance, and some out of excitedly following some brand new idea without stopping to think about it first.
  • Since I started blogging in March, I can count about 10 bloggers that just quit. I wish they had stuck with it.
  • Since I started blogging over a year ago, I do find myself writing, journaling and jotting a lot. Some of it goes into my blog, some of it doesn’t. But at least it gets out of my head. I never thought to make money from it, it was merely a way of sharing the insides of my head with others and see what came of it.
  • It’s been almost six years since I started blogging. Not nearly as long as some of my friends, but long enough to have a few things that I know I’d do differently…You want the moral to this story is? Don’t worry about how you start…. Just start and write. No one is going to laugh at you. No one is going to judge your blog as being less than some other person’s. If you write with passion. If you write about what you want to write about. If you just write what you feel. It’s going to be a great blog.

How has your life changed since you started blogging? I’d love to hear from you via Twitter (@awsamuel) or in comments below.

Research reveals people can survive up to 24 hours without Internet access

I’m fascinated by the number of people who are experimenting with different forms of unplugging: journalists, bloggers and tweeters who take some kind of solo holiday from connectivity. But a recent study at the University of Maryland took a larger-scale approach, asking 200 students to go offline for 24 hours. The top 5 findings of their experiment:

  1. Students use literal terms of addiction to characterize their dependence on media.
  2. Students hate going without media.  In their world, going without media, means going without their friends and family.
  3. Students show no significant loyalty to a news program, news personality or even news platform.  Students have only a casual relationship to the originators of news, and in fact don’t make fine distinctions between news and more personal information. They get news in a disaggregated way, often via friends.
  4. 18-21 year old college students are constantly texting and on Facebook—with calling and email distant seconds as ways of staying in touch, especially with friends.
  5. Students could live without their TVs and the newspaper, but they can’t survive without their iPods.

None of these results strike me as particularly surprising, but the methodology points in a useful direction. I’d love to see a study like this conducted among a more varied group of unpluggers, so we can find out about how different demographic groups (and especially age cohorts) respond to disconnection. Most of all, I’d love to find out how the unpluggers’ discovery of the benefits of going offline affect their strategies and approaches to using the Internet once they plugged back in.