The golden age of newsprint collides with the gilt age of internet news

[This is an early draft of a column I wrote for ACM’s interactions magazine. It appeared here and the final version is available from here. It appeared in Volume 16 Issue 4, July + August 2009 of the magazine].

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Sitting in the Economy Class seat on a United Airlines flight, I ducked for the third time as the gentleman next to me struggled to turn the page of his broadsheet newspaper.

While he was assimilating what was happening in the world, I was contemplating the unfortunate juxtaposition of two iconic forms – the over-sized broadsheet newspaper and the undersized airline seat – and the current state of two industries that find themselves in deep financial trouble.

News stories. Crosswords. Horoscopes. Book reviews. Political cartoons. Recipes. Print-dirtied fingers. Papier mache. Stuffing sodden shoes. Wrapping fish and chips. Ad hoc packing materials. Fire kindling. These are things that I think about when I think of newspapers. And despite the fact that I could never quite physically control a broadsheet without the aid of a table, I cannot believe that this everyday artifact may go away. But according to my friends here in the digiphilic environment of San Francisco it is inevitable – you can’t walk into a coffee shop, never mind turn on a TV or the radio without hearing someone opine about economic crisis that newspapers are facing and the likely disappearance of the daily rag. I am as shocked and mortified by this as I was by the 2003 news story that bananas may be extinct by 2013.

Newspapers have a long history. The first printed forerunners of the newspaper appeared in Germany in the late 1400’s in the form of news pamphlets or broadsides, often highly sensationalized in content. In Renaissance Europe handwritten newsletters circulated privately among merchants, passing along information about everything from wars and economic conditions to social customs and “human interest” features. In 1556 the Venetian government published Notizie scritte, for which readers paid a small coin, or “gazetta”. The earliest predecessors of the newspaper, the corantos, were small news pamphlets that were produced only when some event worthy of notice occurred. In the first half of the 17th century, newspapers began to appear as regular and frequent publications. The first modern newspapers were products of western European countries like Germany (publishing Relation in 1605), France (Gazette in 1631), Belgium (Nieuwe Tijdingen in 1616) and England (the London Gazette, founded in 1665, is still published as a court journal). These periodicals consisted mainly of news items from Europe, and occasionally included information from America or Asia. They rarely covered domestic issues; instead English papers reported on French military blunders while French papers covered the latest British royal scandal. Newspaper content began to shift toward more local issues in the latter half of the 17th century. Still, censorship was widespread and newspapers were rarely permitted to discuss events that might incite citizens to opposition. Sweden was the first country to pass a law protecting press freedom in 1766. Timeliness was always an issue; news could take months to reach audiences. The invention of the telegraph in 1844 transformed print media. Now information could be transferred within a matter of minutes, allowing for more timely, relevant reporting, and newspapers appeared societies around the world. This was truly a revolution.

The Internet is bringing about an even bigger revolution: timeliness, open rather than controlled information sharing and easy access. This shake-up is bigger than any other that has been faced in the last 100 years from the likes of radio and television. Broadcast radio in the 1920’s was low-cost with broad distribution, and content delivery was often more timely. The newspapers responded by adding content that was not so easily represented through audio waves, providing more in-depth and visually vivid coverage of key stories. As the 1940’s and 1950’s came around, television appeared as the main challenger. Newspapers again responded, taking from television the short, pithy story format. Newspapers like USA Today responded with graphics and colour imagery. More generally, news publications started diversifying their content, mixing human interest stories with puzzles, crosswords, book reviews, cartoons, cooking recipes and all the good stuff we have grown to love. Newspapers became about browsing, grazing, sharing, surfing, with content that satisfied immediate information needs and longer-term general interests.

Despite radio and television, newspapers managed to retain their position in the information value chain. Not so anymore. There are three interrelated causes for this shift in the information ecosphere: internet-related innovations in news production and news dissemination; the impact of new digital devices that are changing the ways in which content is consumed; and a no longer viable business model.

Lets quickly look at these in turn. It is obvious that the Internet has revolutionized news production and dissemination. Speedy transmission of information around the globe means news can reach us as events are unfolding – hot off the keyboard rather than the press with images and video for that “being there” feeling. “Citizen journalists” give us the lay-person’s perspective on events that journalists cannot or have not yet reached. Indeed, reports from various disasters from the fires in California to the shootings in Mumbai came for many people first from Twitter, the micoblogging service that is currently the darling of the media and blogs from Iraq told us much more that we could possibly find out from our daily newspapers. The efficiency and effectiveness of this interconnected internet world cannot be denied. Production and consumption of news has also been transformed by the explosion of lightweight, wireless, internet-enabled recording and reading devices, plus the proliferation of computers in the home and in offices. Finally, the old business model is failing. The newspaper industry in the US has been generating most of its revenue from advertising for decades. The global recession and the resulting decline in advertizing revenues has dealt a possibly fatal blow; the Newspaper Association of America reports that in 2008 the total advertising revenues declined 16.6 percent to $37.85 billion, representing a $7.5 billion reduction on numbers for 2007. Proposals on the table for saving the industry now include micropayment schemes plus bailout and/or government subsidies.

I don’t feel qualified to assess the likelihood of success for the various bailout schemes from micropayments to government bailouts, and for the purposes of this column, I will not go into the importance of ensuring we don’t lose good journalistic practice. But I am really worried about what is happening in the world of news, because I am screaming for a better news reading experience on my desktop and mobile devices. What the news industry at its best did really well is missing from the online reading experience: easy navigation of well filtered content plus effective selection and segmentation of content plus a clear voice/view of the publication. Can we take the best of what we had in newsprint and create a good digital news reading experience? Here are some basics I would like to work on:

(1) information quality- can we provide better tools for the collection and management of information gathered on the ground that would aid with quality and provide guidelines for the coupling of different media types (text, imagery, video) to avoid gratuitous visuals? Let’s be active in designing better technologies for production of the news by citizen and professional journalists and editors.

(2) information architecture design: can we design better relational models so we can surface relationships between stories that are actually meaningful instead of the ‘also see’ hyperlink that takes me to a story from 5 years ago that somehow got linked to the current one? Can we design better tools for following story developments, for enabling the creation of narrative by producers and consumers?

(3) can we improve the representation of information – graphics, fonts, layouts – so that it is possible to skim more effectively?

(4) can we design for reading the news – what is next after the Kindle? Is electronic paper or Xerox’s promised reprintable paper going to be a reality so I can have the large gesture, embodied experience of the broadsheet back and decent screen real estate for laying out content?

(5) can we design anything better than the crass, ugly and inconvenient model of url bookmarking to support different temporalities of information usefulness and different consumption paces, and for slow-burn stories to persist while fast-burn stories are updated with new content?

In sum, we should more deeply address the practices of news readership. We should design for convenience and skimming. We should design filters and surfacers of quirky items or items that for some reason search algorithms find unpalatable. We should develop better editorial tools than we currently have.

I am not alone in wanting some good design heads on these problems. Addressing people’s everyday news consumption practices, a 2008 Associated Press ethnographic study cited email and internet-based sources as a mainstay many young people’s experience of the news. However, these interviewees, plus interviewees in a study I am currently running in the Bay Area all talk about the “work” of reading the news online and that “news fatigue” is increasing. What this seems to boil down to is that there are plenty of places to find news on the internet, but in all this bacchanalian information glut the shallow story dominates, often it is hard to find the follow-up to a reported news item, and there is a lot of repetition. To the last point, the Project for Excellence in Journalism observed in their 2006 State of the News Media report that 14,000 unique stories were found on an internet news aggregator site in one 24 hour period, there were in fact only 24 discrete news events. There is vastly more content available of course, and things have improved somewhat since 2006, but that other content is relatively speaking hard to find. And online content usually does not offer the structured, well-designed experience that its printed counterpart does. Ethan Zuckerman of the Berkman Institute blogs about his experience of a national newspaper’s online presence “…counting possible links (using a search for anchor tags in the source HTML), there are 423 other webpages linked from the front page. A more careful count, ignoring ads, links to RSS feeds and links to account tools for online readers, gives 315 content links, possible stories or sections a reader could explore from the front page. While there are almost 14 times as many pages for a reader to explore, they’ve got much less information on what links to follow: while twelve stories have text hooks, the wordcount ranges between 10 and 26 words. While there’s a good chance one of those stories might convince you to click on it, you won’t start reading it on the front page, the way you might with the 200-400 word stories in the paper edition.”

I just replicated his analysis by looking at three online papers. He’s right.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves or judge too early. We are only at the beginning. Right now we are at the stage the car was in the last 1800s and early 1900s – in shape and form reproducing the horse drawn carriage, not yet having found its own aesthetic reflective of its infrastructure and capability.

Newspaper companies are on board with enlisting others to aid in the design of the next generation of news forms. In early 2009, the New York Times Developer Network hosted its first API seminar so we can start designing and building new forms of content provision. The aim is to make the entire newspaper “programmable”. Programmers will be able to mash up the paper’s structured content — reviews, event listings, recipes, and so on. This is a great opportunity for those immersed in information and experience design.

Some are for example pushing on really nice “read later” and bookmarking facilities. This is a good start. But you still have to know how to search for content, and spend time doing that. In my opinion, today’s aggregators/algorithms and automatically updated webpages are in no way shape or form replacing the work done by a good editor and a good layout designer.

As I have been thinking about news, I conducted an informal review of a couple of local and national newspapers. Bearing in mind that I am only am interloper who is curious because reading the news is integral to my identity, I took a quick review of the differences between online and print versions. I could not discern any consistent re-representations between online and print. I wonder: Are there standard reformulations and standard channel “jumps” for different content types? Who is making those decisions and how? How is the “shelf-life” or temporal relevance affected by the channel or the medium? And…… what of the services that were once the purview of the local newspaper have not been reformulated or replicated? What has happened to the content that once constituted the local daily paper? How has it morphed and reformed? Finally, and of course, I note that I have not seen many people argue for the fact that the very form of the newspaper, it’s affordances (size not withstanding), may be missed. No indeed, the print form of the newspaper still has affordances that cannot be matched by the digital medium. These are, to me at least, complementary forms, but perhaps I am in the minority; I still print things out rather than reading them on a screen.

And, there is another affordance about paper. It gets left lying around, apparently discarded but ripe for re-reading. That is not the case with contemporary digital devices, although who knows where the future may take us as device manufacturing gets cheaper. Information left lying around for others to consume is important. It allows others who are idling to encounter than which they may not have otherwise; to be literal, if I sit on a subway train and out of curiosity read the newspaper that has been discarded on the seat next to me, I am encountering something I did not choose, that was not filtered for me. And just perhaps, I will learn something unexpected.

Addressing issues in the creation and dissemination of news is important; it is not enough to say that late adopters or those who not actively seek the news as opposed to having it literally pushed through the letter box should catch up with us digerati and get those phone applications downloaded. Making it harder to get access to information affects civic engagement. Following the closure of the Cincinnati Post in late 2007, Princeton University economists Sam Schulhofer-Wohl and Miguel Garrido showed a decline in people voting in elections, fewer candidates running in opposition to the incumbents, and less knowledge of and debate around issues and policies supported by the incumbents. If democracy in some sense depends on an informed electorate, then making it harder for people to easily find digestible but detailed and well-balanced arguments is a serious problem. Even if you don’t agree with everything you read in a newspaper, encountering things that you have not actively selected broadens your outlook, the flip-side of how filtering and narrowing can save time. Specifically, filtering saves time, but also shuts down challenges to assumptions, and it is those challenges that help us grow and create the debate of a functioning, democratic society. Newspapers can of course do the opposite; they can function to bring a community together in a shared narrative (whether they agree with the narrative or not will drive whether then accept or fight it). Moving to purely digital forms, some say could increase ‘discovery’ problems for the non-digerati, and thus the number of ‘news dropouts’.

So, I confess that personally, I love the materiality of a good broadsheet newspaper and of the magazines that I read. And it annoys me just a little that, thanks to my beloved Kindle electronic reading device, I don’t have newspaper lying around the house to stuff my rain sodden shoes. But I am also looking forward to a world with better designed digital news formats. What we need is some technical savvy, a design sensibility and a deeper human-centered understanding the Gestalt of news consumption in practice between and across representational forms. We need something more that the current state of the art, which offers us only the most superficial, easy to implement, of technical convergences. We need more than the horseless carriage of digital news.

Open, closed, or ajar? Content access and interactions magazine

[This is a draft of a column I co-authored for the ACM’s interactions magazine with Mark Vanderbeeken of Experientia.  It appeared in September 2008 — interactions, ACM Press, Volume 15, Issue 5 (2008)].
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Harvard’s Law School announced it would open access to the intellectual content created by its faculty members. This means content that is produced by faculty at Harvard will be available for us all to read. A driving issue behind this turn of events is the sheer cost of academic journals. For most individuals, certainly, the costs are prohibitive. But it’s sobering to note that fewer and fewer libraries can afford to stock titles that are directly relevant to academic courses.

The university’s blog post states, “the faculty voted to make each faculty member’s scholarly articles available online for free, making HLS the first law school to commit to a mandatory open access policy. Under the new policy, HLS will make articles authored by faculty members available in an online repository, whose contents would be searchable and available to other services such as Google Scholar.” Contrary to some of the negative rhetoric around openness, “open” does not necessarily mean losing control of ownership altogether; publications will be made available with copy/share-friendly licenses. The blog goes on to say “Authors can also legally distribute the articles on their own websites, and educators here and elsewhere can freely provide the articles to students, so long as the materials are not used for profit.”

Appropriately, this announcement rattled swiftly around the blogosphere. For many it represents a significant step, a step toward the vision for democratic access to information on the Internet. Commentators and open-access campaigners were articulate on what this means for individuals and for the broader intellectual community. Peter Suber, a research professor of philosophy at Earlham College, and John Palfrey, of Harvard’s Law School (also the executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and a principal investigator of the OpenNet Initiative) are both long-term open-access campaigners involved in the motion at Harvard, and both blogged the event. Writer Cory Doctorow, who has benefited from publishing novels online before moving to print, reported the event with enthusiasm on the technology and Internet “pulse” blog, BoingBoing.

Even for those not immersed in debates around open content, it is easy to see that this is an important event. From its inception, one of the founding concepts of what sociologist Patrice Fiichy refers to as the “Internet imaginaire” has been democratic access to content. Many have argued that closed knowledge bases limit innovation, stunt business potential, and reduce creative growth potential for business globally; personally, I recommend Eric von Hippel’s 2006 book, Open Innovation, and the writing of authors like Dominique Foray and Steven Weber  on open and closed innovation and the economics of knowledge.

How does all of this relate to us, the readers and writers of interactions? Well, directly. Recent debates around interactions illustrate how discussions of openness and open content are challenging traditional views of publication, content distribution and dissemination, and indeed the economics of idea circulation. This issue was foregrounded when the interactions website went live earlier this year, with a number of people expressing surprise that only the first paragraphs of articles were available for download unless one had a subscription to ACM’s digital library. Currently, two pieces in each issue are available in their entirety on the interactions site; they’re pieces that promote the magazine as a whole and the editors’ vision for the magazine. But a subscription to the magazine is required for viewing the rest of the articles.

At CHI 2008 in Florence, a discussion arose on whether or not interactions should publish more articles, and possibly the magazine in its entirety, for open download, online (acm.org/interactions). Mark Vanderbeeken, of the experience design consultancy Experientia, and I spoke on the “Interactions Magazine Comes Alive” panel. We discussed some of our personal thoughts and experiences of open content, and discussed our perspectives about making the content of interactions freely available on the Web. Some of the points we brought up there reappear here.

First and foremost, paraphrasing John Thackara, quality that is not communicated is simply not quality. To put it crudely, who cares how great the ideas are if we make barriers to hearing/reading them so high that the ideas reach only a small in-group? Closed content is restricted content, and restricted content shared among the few is likely to have limited impact.

Second, the Internet has been called a disruptive technology for the publishing industry in general. Disruptive technologies shake things up. Disruptive technologies lead to the creation of a new industry or transform an existing one. They can add value and shift market position. They can destroy existing competencies and drive/enable change in a value network. And most strategists agree that the only losers are those ossified in an outmoded business model. That said, readership of print magazines in the United States remains stable; around 85 percent of adults read consumer magazines, and this figure has not changed since 2003. So far, it looks like digital publication of articles is simply not a replacement for a carefully designed printed artifact.

Why? Well, for starters, print and digital artifacts simply have very different properties. They invite a different interaction, and the experience of the content is radically different. For example, I am a big fan of O’Reilly’s Craft magazine. I have given copies as gifts to a number of people. I like to annotate my own copies with scribbles and notes. I share my annotated copies with friends. Copies sit around the house visibly waiting – plaintively calling out – to be read. And, crucially, my magazines can be read in the bath and can get just a little soggy without catastrophic effect.

The layout of a magazine differs greatly from the layout of content on the Web. Flicking through a magazine and stopping when something catches your eye is different from browsing through windows, pointing and clicking. Tearing a page out feels different from bookmarking or printing a page. In short, the Web page and the magazine have different informational, tangible and aesthetic properties and ‘affordances’. And in my opinion, the core product, the print magazine, is not going away.

Digital artifacts should invite the reader to desire the physical artifact. And vice versa: I go online to sites like ravelry.com, to instuctables.com, and to YouTube.com to find other crafters and to see videos of how to do something—some skills, especially motor skills, just don’t get communicated as well in static print. I believe that medium matters, and we need to take seriously the careful design of a complementary relationship between the two.

Third, there are many kinds of value, aside from charging hard currency, for content. Value may be purely nonmonetary. For individuals who do not charge for their labor to produce content, the value may be personal satisfaction, or reputation and contribution to the community. For companies who produce materials, like print magazines or web sites and blogs, the value the artifact provides may come from a subscription, it may come from where the content points people to perhaps spend later. The artifact may be a link in a chain of value but not the point of monetary exchange.

Mark’s report of Experientia’s strategy on content sharing renders abstract assertions around value generation concrete. Experientia has demonstrated that the paradigm of company information as proprietary, protected at all cost, is now completely obsolete. Rather, an alternative approach is being taken there: Everything not protected by NDA or of strategic value (e.g., the markets they plan to address in the next four months), should be open to all. All important content and ideas are published on the company blog, Putting People First. The blog started out as something internal. However, it was not protected, and before long, it was getting more and external visitors. The team decided that was not such a bad thing. Many visitors now come to the blog from major international companies like Yahoo!, Intel, Microsoft, Motorola, Nokia, Philips, and Samsung.

The company has directly experienced several benefits of this approach:

  1. A channel—Putting People First provides an easy-to-handle communications channel (no email newsletters, no expensive advertising campaigns);
  2. An audience—usually about 6,000 professionals a day
  3. A reputation—a company that has its finger on the pulse of what is going on;
  4. A brand—substantial brand recognition for a company that is not even three years old;
  5. Loyalty—readers feel involved in the content that is given for “free” (Putting People First has become a professional research tool for many, thanks also to its categories and effective search engine), and this openness creates loyalty;
  6. Regularity—the blog is updated nearly every day, so to some extent Experientia is constantly in the minds of its readers;
  7. Relations—people contact the company regularly based on the blog; the blog offers a social nexus;
  8. Jobs—Experientia even got a few new clients, although that is not the main reason for the firm’s doing this; if anything, PPF confirms the firm’s reputation rather than landing new clients out of the blue;
  9. PR opportunities—Experientia staff is regularly invited to conferences and offered writing assignments based on their perceived qualifications;
  10. Dialogue—reactions and reflections on what is going on, either informally or publicly, either directly, or because people link and relink to the site

As the Experientia example suggests, the value-add of the open content is the ripple effect—the other things that become known, which do generate monetary reward. In the case of scholarly journals and magazines like interactions, much of the labor of content production is volunteered, not for monetary gain. But the labor fits within a system in which the rewards are very real—promotion of ideas, of products, of companies, of self, personal satisfaction, growth of future opportunities.

Printing a magazine has a price tag of course. The costs of magazine production include editing, illustrating, layout, printing, distribution, and archiving. Online distribution does not erase operating costs; funds are needed to cover platform and interface development and maintenance, promoting, and archiving. The revenue model currently in place to cover these costs is subscription, or what has been called “reader page charges.” Other models that we can start playing with are:

  • Free access after an embargo period—charge those who want content immediately, but after a while the content can become freely available; this is one of a number of possible tiered revenue models
  • Author page charges—charge authors for the content
  • Institutional, governmental, and vested agency payment—with open content in the academic domain, many argue that taxpayers have already paid for government-funded work through taxes, so the results should be freely available
  • Advertising—arguably, the model that drives much of the Internet
  • Sponsorship is another possibility—this could be issue-based sponsorship or section-based sponsorship

Mark and I argued on the panel that there is a great opportunity with interactions to generate interest and gain momentum around important sociotechnical design issues through a thoughtful, well-written, and well-edited magazine very much appreciated by the professional user-experience community. interactions provides—as named above—a great entrée point: to ideas, people, and potentially, to our funder, the ACM.

We sparked debate from the panel with ideas that simply scratch the surface on the issues involved. What are your views? Are you someone who would/do pay for the subscription, who would pay to download the articles? Do you have artful suggestions for business models not explored in this brief article? So the question is, what does open content mean for a magazine like interactions? Please share your thoughts on the interactions site.

Keep your hair on: Designed and emergent interactions for graphical virtual worlds

[This is a draft I wrote for my column, P’s&Q’s in ACMs interactions magazine. For it, I interviewed Bob Moore who was at the time with now defunct Multiverse. It came out in Volume 15 Issue 3, May + June 2008. The final version can be found here.]

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Chatting with virtual world researchers Jeffrey Bardzell and Shaowen Bardzell, I found out that a seriously desired artifact in Second Life, not unlike in First Life, is hair. Swishy, shiny hair. But there is one problem with this real-dreamy hair: Such hair is computationally costly compared to render in comparison to your average avatar body. And so, sadly, your avatar body arrives before your hair. For a matter of moments, no matter how fashionable the outfits, everyone is bald as coots.

And it’s worse than that. Often from other players’ perspectives, your hair has failed to “rez,” but not from your perspective. So you think you look hot-REALLY hot–until, that is, some newbie says, “Why are you bald?”

There are now apparently a lot of people routinely spending time hanging out in virtual worlds. MMO Crunch reported 36 million regularly active MMORPG players in August 2007. And they are getting more popular.

“Virtual worlds are fundamentally a medium for social interaction. One that takes the face-to-face conversation as its metaphor. As such it leverages users’ common sense knowledge: I see a humanoid avatar and I know that if I want to talk to that player, I should approach his or her avatar with my own” says Bob Moore interaction researcher and designer at Multiverse. As with all metaphors, however, there are fractures in the metaphor. Which matter and which don’t? When do we happily immerse and feel like we are really there and when do we get amusingly or annoyingly jolted by something that doesn’t work? What are key things designers are thinking about right now? Bob and I chatted for a while, reflecting on the work that has been previously done on the research areas of graphical worlds, collaborative virtual environments (CVEs) and online gaming environments. Given my own background in researching text-based virtual worlds and animated interface characters, I was intrigued to her Bob’s perspective. Here are some of the main points we covered in our conversation:

(1) For virtual worlds, user interface design is also social interaction design

Bob argues that one thing UI designers for virtual worlds have not yet fully grasped is that when users are interacting with the system, they are often at the same time interacting with other users. When standing avatar-to-avatar, if you ask me, “Did you get the sword?” and I promptly open my inventory, that UI action is a relevant part of the interactional context. Or if I say, “Let’s go” and you promptly open your map, that’s a relevant next action that I should know about. In almost all current virtual worlds, opening your inventory or your map triggers no public cues, only private cues for the individual user. So you not only need to give the individual user feedback about what the system is doing, also need to give the other players feedback about what the individual user is doing. In other words, users’ interactions with the system should be made public.

(2) Where avatar bodies are not like physical bodies

Unlike real life, most people tend to play virtual worlds with their camera view zoomed back so they can see their avatars rather than in true first-person view where you can only occasionally see your hands or legs. There are a couple of good reasons for this. Computer screens don’t allow for peripheral vision. But pulling back the camera can help mitigate this limitation by widening your field of view. Similarly, as Bob points out, avatars don’t allow for proprioception, or our awareness of the positions of our body. Zooming back the camera also helps players deal with this fact. I may think my avatar should be waving like the Queen of England or winking flirtatiously at someone else because I typed /wave or /wink, but it’s hard to be sure if I can’t see my avatar. Maybe I mistyped the commands or maybe the animation associated with the command actually looks more like a New Yorker hailing a taxi than Her Royal Highness.

(3) When the conversation lags behind the avatars

Despite a lot of the interesting audio experiments that were being conducted over 15 years ago–see Benford, S. D. and Fahlén, L. E., Awareness, Focus, Nimbus and Aura – A Spatial Model of Interaction in Virtual Worlds, Proc. HCI International ’93, Orlando, Florida, 1993 as a good example–most virtual world conversations take place through chat. The avatars may be wandering about gesturing and wiggling their hips, but chat does not come out in audio from the mouth of the avatar. One problem this causes is the discontinuity, the lack of congruence, between action and uttered words. Bob points out that typing a chat message is another kind of action that other players should know about, and he recounts a case in which a team of players is about to attack a group of “mobs,” or computer-controlled opponents. While one player is composing a question about how the team might change its tactics, a fellow player initiates combat. The tactical question then publicly appears too late. The pseudo-synchronous chat lags behind the synchronous avatars. Bob, who was trained in Conversation Analysis, explains that a key feature of real-life conversation is that you can hear a turn unfolding in real-time. This enables you to do things like determine who should speak next, anticipate precisely when the turn will end so you can start your next turn with minimal gap and overlap, and even preempt the completion of the current speaker’s turn if you don’t like the direction its going. In other words, the ability to monitor other people’s turns-in-progress is a requirement for tight coordination in conversation. Most virtual worlds (with the exception of There) use IRC- or IM-style chat systems, and therefore, do not allow players to achieve this tight coordination among their turns-at-chat and avatar actions. The result is an interactional experience that feels very unnatural (at first) and which motivates players to invent workarounds to the system.

(4) Perennials of place

One of the amazing things about virtual worlds is how quickly we get a sense of being co-present in a place with other people, even though it may be an image on a screen, a world into which we are kind of peering. And, as in the real world, ambience is created by building and room size and scale in relation to crowd size. In my research on MUDs/MOOs with Jeni Tennison and then later work with Sara Bly, we found that even very simple text exchanges in textually described “rooms” can make dyads and groups feel co-present, imersively in the virtual world together. Humans tend to get engaged with each other as long as there is some consistent chain of action-reaction. Indeed some analysts would argue that turn-taking in conversation is the fundamental unit of human communication and connectedness.

As we explored these concepts, Bob described a comparative ethnographic study he’d done of bars and dance clubs in multiple virtual worlds. He hung out in these social public spaces and analyzed features of the design that impacted the success of the space as a social environment. One key feature of club design is size. Bob discovered that, while construction in these worlds is cheap compared to real life, it is more difficult to fill these spaces with people than it is to fill the real-life urban centers that researcher William H. Whyte examined. As a result, the dance club in City of Heroes and the majority of player-built clubs in Second Life are simply too large. They feel like an airport terminal or concert hall rather than a corner pub.

So in order to achieve the kind of social density necessary for a vibrant social space, or “third place” as academic Ray Oldenburg would call it, designers should make virtual bars and clubs much smaller than they currently do. The most successful virtual third place that Bob discovered was a Second Life bar that was intentionally tiny. In order to get into the place, you had to “rub elbows” with other patrons. The place felt “busy” with only five players and “hoppin’” with twenty. And everyone was within everyone else’s chat radius, which facilitated the public conversation. In other words, lessons from real-life urban design appear to apply in several ways to the design of virtual public places.

(5) A range of skill sets and a modifiable world.

There are challenges in designing a world where “newbies” or newcomers can learn the ropes. If you want to learn about interacting in one, you simply have to get off (or rather for most people onto) the sofa and get in there. Go in-world. It is much easier to learn in-game than to learn out of game, just like learning to play golf requires you take up a golf club and try it. You just can’t learn by watching someone else. Bob says, “I’d recommend getting into a pick-up group and go and doing some adventuring”. There are plenty of folks in-world who are willing to help out, to show off their knowledge. Bob agrees that not everybody likes to help, and admits that whether you are more of less likely to be helped depends on some other factors……you guessed it-having an attractive female avatar means you are more likely to get help.

There are other things to learn aside from interactions and activities. Many virtual worlds allow people to buy, build and exchange things. Second Life is perhaps the primo example, it is a sandbox with a constructive geometry, which enables them to stream your data and create your objects on the fly. But that also means people arrive and build stuff and leave it behind. There is a certain  “I just learned to build today” look that Bob identifies as one of the main scars on the aesthetics of the virtual world. Despite the parallels that some people make between the real live music/art/dance festival known as the Burning Man Project and playful interactions and explorations in Second Life, there is no motto inviting us to “leave no trace” in Second Life. Of course the ecological consequences are somewhat different but the visual aesthetic of clutter and detritis is experienced as the same for Second Life afficionados. So, there is a tension between giving people freedom to build anything they want and making sure the world doesn’t end up looking like the aftermath of an afternoon in a Montessori School for Gremlins. Beyond clean-up though, there is another point. At this juncture the building tools are much better than they were but they still leave a lot to be desired. I say: If we want Gaudi not Brutalism, we need to provide better tools to scaffold the building endeavours of the folks in-world.

To get an understanding of issues like these above and push on understanding how people really experience these virtual/online places, Bob advocates a close and detailed analysis of what is actually going on as it unfolds in real time, looking at patterns of action and interaction, how those patterns develop and are understood, learned and evolved, and identifying patterns that are persistent and prevalent. Too many people have theories about what is going on that are based on something completely external to the situation. “You need to get close to the phenomenon/experience” says Bob. And we need to “be concerned both with the in-world simulation of face-to-face interaction AND the usability of the interface for puppeteering the avatars and interacting with the system.”

By looking at the challenges in interaction that people routinely encounter and work around, it is possible to ask how important – or disruptive to interaction in-world – those challenges are, and propose ways to address them through interaction, interface and system (re)design. I could not agree with him more.

And on that note, it’s time for me to get my hair on and go build a shack.

Reference: Bardzell, S., & Bardzell, J. (2007). Docile avatars: Aesthetics, experience, and sexual interaction in Second Life. Proceedings of British HCI 2007. Lancaster, UK

Telling Tales from the Field

These notes were written in partial preparation for teaching a class
for Steve Portigal to undergraduates in CCS. This is the first draft.

Telling Tales From the Field: Ethnography, Design and Why Who You Are Matters

The class
In this class, I will give a very brief introduction and background to
my views on ethnographic work and its place in design – I have some
notes below to introduce you to ethnography and design work.

After a short introduction, the majority of the time in the class will
be in discussion around central topics, using the results from the
exercise (see below) you bring to the class. We will review your “tales
from the field” – considering central concepts such as “the
ethnographic eye”; participant/observer, known and unknown
investigators, degree of embeddedness, and roles; notions of “data
site”; issues of access to data sites; data recording methods;
elaboration of “units of analysis”; framing, perspective, data
extrapolation and generalization; objective/subjective and
impressionistic analysis; reflexive analysis; rhetoric; and legal,
ethical issues in conducting fieldwork.

Class Exercise

To have content for discussion, before the class I’d like you to think
about checkout lines. Please spend some time thinking about checkout
lines – I’d like you to observe at least one checkout line and come to
the class prepared to tell us what you know about checkout lines – and
how you know it. Your task in the class will be to explain to others
what it is like to be in a checkout line, and in the checkout line(s)
you have considered. We will be reading and sharing these stories and
using them to reflect on important issues in carrying out
ethnographically inspired fieldwork.

Introduction: What is Ethnography?

Ethnography as a method is historically associated with the discipline
of anthropology. Ethnography literally means “writing the culture”. In
more recent years we have increasingly heard of ethnography in design
circles as a method that is being used to inform us about the use of
existing designed objects (e.g., technologies, environments, consumer
commodities), and to inspire us about new design possibilities and how
their adoption may fit in with what people already do (their
“practices”). Many such studies are fairly short term and are focused
on deriving inspirations for products or processes that will in fact
change people’s practices.
As the term ethnography implies, traditionally ethnographies are
carried out to really reflect what is going on in a cultural setting
and typically take a long time. Thus, to acknowledge that fieldwork
ethnographies are often (but not always) fairly shallow, I refer to
fieldwork in most design contexts to be ethnographically “inspired” or
“oriented”.

The basic method of carrying out an ethnography is to observe in a
natural setting – to watch what people do, to listen to what they say,
to observe the setting in which they do it over time, and to thus come
to some understanding of how the social order comes about and is
maintained. When people talk of “doing fieldwork” they typically mean
any observation work that takes place in the setting in which they are
studying – a field worker I talked to recently said they considered
“anything out of my office” to be field work, as they were always
watching and observing. In addition to watching, ethnographic work also
can involve carrying out informal interviews to learn about the setting
and to clarify what one has seen and heard. An ethnographer often feels
like an apprentice in a new world, and uses all the techniques
apprentices use to “get up to speed”, that is to rapidly develop an
understanding of the social setting. Depending on the purpose of the
study, the ethnographer will spend more or less time, will be more or
less involved in the day-to-day lives of the social setting and people
under study and will focus on different things. These “different
things” are what constitute the “units of analysis”. That is, I may
focus on a mobile worker, but be most interested in their use of the
mobile phone to keep in touch with colleagues and customers. To carry
out an ethnography I may follow them (“shadow them”) through their work
day, focusing on them, the situations they are in and the phone – when,
why, where and how it is used. Here, the mobile worker, the phone, the
conversations and the settings are the primary units of analysis. The
weather, what they are wearing are the secondary units of analysis
initially – but may come into more focus if, for example, they are on
foot and it rains constantly such that using the cell phone becomes
impossible. The focus of attention shifts frequently until the
ethnographer gets a real sense or impression of what things are
“constant” and what things are part of the current observed setting but
not common to other settings.

Learning to do good ethnographic work involves learning to see and
hear, and then learning how to speak about or recount what one has seen
and heard. Good ethnographic work takes time, and it takes practice to
carry out deep analyses and summarize those findings to recount the
important findings “faithfully”. The “real” work begins when the
ethnographer leaves the field site and tries to make sense of what they
have seen. And how the research is presented is at least as important
as what is presented. Issues about point of view, voice, style, and
audience have been long considered in the field of “rhetoric” and
narrative studies, and it is important that the ethnographer know that
the way in which they report findings affects what is understood by the
reader/hearer. Being able to reflect on the style of reportage and be
more aware of how we do that is essential – what we are choosing to
highlight and what we choose leave out. In multidisciplinary design
teams, the reader/hearer is often one’s colleague(s). The result of the
discussion may be a process or product change that affects people’s
activities. So, being clear as to framing of reports is very important
– reports can have major consequences in terms of how the setting is
affected should a design based on fieldwork be introduced.

This class will focus on the gathering of data and the reportage of
that data, as a way to introduce concepts that are important in
ethnographically inspired fieldwork for design.

References
–Lofland, J. and Lofland L. (1995) Analyzing Social Settings. A Guide
to Qualitative Observation and Analysis (3rd Edition). USA: Wadsworth
Publishing Company
–Emerson, R.M., Fretz, R.I. and Shaw, L.L. (1995) Writing Ethnographic Field Notes. London, Uk: University of Chicago Press.
–Van Maanen, J. (1988) Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography.
Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing. Chicago, USA: University of Chicago Press.
— Wolcott, H. F. (1999) Ethnography. A way of seeing. Oxford, Uk: Altamira Press.

Blog confessionals #1

So after weeks of thinking about writing a blog, I am stymied.

I (re)discover that I am a curmudgeon. I (re)disocver that I hate
writing. I (re)discover that I have a messy mind that thinks about 10
things in parallel. So, I find I am trying to differentiate what I'd
write for myself, or for a specific audience and what I would write
that would be something of an opinion I'd like to share with random
whoever out there. What is my schtick (and how do you spell schtick
anyway)? What is my angle? What form would I like – Image+text (most
comfortable for me)? Sudden fiction? Academic discourse? Proto-papers?
Thought pieces on the way to punditry? What rhetorical stance should I
take, and how should I organise my site to reflect the differences? Or
should I not bother? More than that, I hate reading poorly written
things that offer unsubstantiated opinions and which don't refer to
relevant literatures. I like rambling opinions to be saved for pub
conversations. Which is why my enjoyment of the blogosphere is limited
to the few people I think can write. I fear that I am not among them –
I have written a few papers I am very proud of, but I always stay close to the data, and/or to the technology I have helped design/build. I prefer conversing about things I don't know with those close face to face or in email, person to person.

But reader be warned, there is *no* quality control on my blog. Finally, I hate this editor. It sucks. So now I suppose I have to work out how to get to use a better one.

Ok, first thing is to import stuff from "Cyberxee analects", "Xeepiphany" and "Xeel" my previous marginal use of blogs to collaborate with myself and others.
 

Four Things

Rashmi Sinha tagged me to post something to my blog, and I guess Four Things is as good a way to start as any.
Four Jobs I’ve Had
1. Post Office Clerk
2. Promotions and Merchandizing Coordinator
3. Fashion Model
4. Researcher

Four Movies I Can Watch Over And Over
1. Meshes of the Afternoon
2. Dream On (Amber Films)
3. Safe
4. T2

Four Books I recently enjoyed
1. The Companion Species Manifesto
2. The Devil in the White City
3. Death and Material Culture
4. The Secret History of Disco

Four Places I’ve Lived
1. Moubhandar
2. Newcastle-Upon-Tyne
3. Brighton
4. Cambridge

Four TV Shows I Love
1. The Office (UK version)
2. Couples (UK version)
3. Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends
4. Ali G

Four Places I’ve travelled to or want to
1. Tokyo
2. Seoul
3. Budapest
4. Granada

Four of My Favorite Dishes
1. Sunomono with tako
2. Filet Mignon
3. Prawn Vindaloo
4. Shepherds Pie

Four Sites I Visit Daily
1. news.bbc.co.uk
2. flickr.com
3. NYT
4. engadget

Four Places I Would Rather Be Right Now
1. In the UK with friends
2. On my snowboard, anywhere with powder
3. Eating
4. Looking at the stars

Four Bloggers I’m Tagging
Sadly I don’t think I know four
bloggers well enough to tag them to add to this meme. I will think of
some and update! My personal Web pace is 0.25, not 2.0.

The Diversity of CyberEthnography EPIC 2005 Abstract

Submission for EPIC 2005 Methods PaperTitle: The Diversity of Cyberethnography: Approaches to the Study of Sociality in Virtual Lifescapes

Authors: E.F. Churchill, R. Moore andB. Jordan
Abstract:

If cyberspace is “the total interconnectedness of human beings
through computers and telecommunication without regard to physical
geography”
(Gibson, 1984), then cybersociality lies in the details of engaging,
maintaining and indeed managing this disembodied, mediated
interconnectedness. For ethnographers, for whom seeing, observing,
recording and analyzing patterns of activity across and through time
is the very foundation of understanding sociality, such
disconnectedness is more than Gergen’s postmodern fragmentation of the
saturated, information loaded self; it is positively maddening in its
methodological implications (Gergen, 1991). It highlights that humans
live lives beyond our gaze – palpably so – and often actively
operating simultaneously within multiple “social worlds” as they
switch between different mediated engagements (Strauss, 1978).

“Cyberethnography”, by derivation and colloquial extraction, is the
ethnography, the writing of the culture(s) of the computer mediated,
telesociality of the physically disconnected (Gajjala, 2002; Hine,
2000). We have been using ethnographic methods (again, cyber and
otherwise) to paint in the details of interconnection in “global
corporations”, “virtual teams” and “cybercommerce” settings. Unlike
many excellent cyberethnographies which focus solely on life “online”, we have triangulated online and offline observation.

We present highlights from three studies, which lie along a
continuum of ‘cybersociality’ and ‘cybermodification’ possibilities
(i.e.,
offering more or less latitude for modification of the technology, the
virtual experience and therefore, presumably, the social experience).
The first is a study of distributed teams collaborating through video
and digital shared workspaces; the second a study of collaborative
work in a text-based virtual environment where interactions take place
mostly in the virtual environment, but also on occasion, face to face;
and the third, interactions in massively multiplayer environments,
where virtual commerce is growing but where people never meet in
person, always in persona (avatar). In all three cases, we present an
ecology of communication technologies, but focus on those through the
lens of an ecology of flows, spaces, and connection practices – within
the context of the broader social settings within which the
interactions we have observed take place.

We illustrate how, in our studies, an understanding of that which
lies beyond the keyboard and screen frames our understanding of what
takes
place “virtually”. We consider what can be recorded (technically,
ethically and legally); what can be analysed (time, distance, data
complexity issues), and finally what can be reported effectively.

Finally, we reflect on cyberethnography itself. While we have drawn
on data gathering and analysis methods in cyberethnography texts, we
ponder what the prefix ‘cyber’ adds to the encompassing, entirely
worldy word “ethnography”. Ethnography, after all, means to write
culture. We reflect on how questions raised (e.g., what is “the
field” and where it may be found; what are appropriate data for
reflecting sociality in these contexts; what does it mean to get
permission to record from an avatar, one persona of many?) differ from
debates within ethnography as a whole. In our online/offline
ethnographies, have we seen anything that makes us more ‘cyber’ than we were before, or is it just what we have done?

References
Gajjala, R. 2002. An interrupted postcolonial/feminist cyberethnography: complicity and resistance in the ‘cyberfield’.
Feminist Media Studies 2 (2): 177-93.

Gergen, K.J. (1991). The saturated self: Dilemmas of identity in contemporary life. New York: Basic Books.

Gibson, W. (1984) Neuromancer. Ace Books.

Hine, C. 2000. Virtual ethnography. London, Thousand Oaks & New Delhi: Sage.

Strauss, A. (1978). A social worlds perspective. In N. Denzin
(ed.),Studies in Symbolic Interaction, vol. 1, Greenwich, CT: JAI Press,
119–128.