My Research

My research addresses, broadly speaking, organizational and social change that is related to the evolution of communication technologies, and particularly what have come to be called “social media.” I am interested in the ways in which new technologies result in shifts of power and structures of control, even if temporary and localized. I think communication is intimately tied to the process of learning and creativity–for the individual, for groups, for institutions, and for cultures.

Pathways on the Web

My interest in the social uses of the internet began as an undergraduate at UC Irvine, where I was lucky to be exposed to some of the key thinkers in social informatics and the political implications of computing. While social informatics has been slow to emerge as a cohesive field, the questions it addresses has guided my research interests since.

All along, I’ve been interested in the small processes that reflect larger technological and social structures. My research as a graduate student at the University of Washington examined the linkages among sites on the web. The research for my masters thesis–which was later published as an article in the then new journal New Media & Society–sought to examine the question of transborder data flow on a system that claimed to be “world wide.” My dissertation looked at the unusual structure of one of the earliest collaborative blogs–Slashdot–and suggested that its position in the larger web, as well as the formal structure of interaction on the site itself, made it worthy of investigation.

The hyperlink and its relationship to existing physical geography made up a part of the work I did that followed, as I investigated links between global cities, and worked with one of my doctoral students, Jia Lin, to discover the relationship between blogs and urban structure. I worked with another (at the time) graduate student, Maria Garrido, to examine the global hyperlinks among NGOs and grassroots organizations. Some of this work is referenced in a broad essay that appears as a chapter that is included in the Hyperlinked Society book.

Collaborative Infrastructure

While I continue to have an interest in hyperlink structures, I’ve recently moved on to another element present in my my dissertation, examining the design choices that lead to effective collaboration. In particular, I’ve examined elements of the structure present in eBay (with a graduate student: Alex Tan), and more recently in an article that examines the structural motivations and learning that occurs among users of the Digg website.

At present, I am completing research with a former master’s student, Helen Martin-Elmer, examining the diffusion of a threading convention on highly trafficked blogs.

Discourses and Publics

I’m also interested in what the broader effects of these participatory systems are in terms of participation and culture. Some of this is reflected in global NGO networks investigated above. I am currently working again with Maria Garrido to investigate the use of Twitter as a way of tying physical, located protest with online awareness and discussion.

I’m particularly interested in how certain publics are affected when their discourse moves into networked environment. Some of this is reflected in my teaching, which addresses issues of cyberculture. In other work, I’ve examined the intersections of institutions of religion with online practices, and of the evolution of white nationalism in the online context.

I’m interested in ways in which discussion can indicate a general sense of public interest. Some of this relates to studies in what is traditionally identified as “agenda setting.” For example, I’ve looked at ways of identifying trends in online discussion and in blogging as “social weather.” I’ve also looked at the convergence of coverage in traditional mass media, employing an computer-aided analysis of the text of newspaper coverage of political discourse.

Networked Learning & Scholarship

I’ve employed new technology in my teaching for some time, and this has evolved into an interest in technology and learning generally. In the past, I’ve published a bit on the scholarly uses of blogging, and related topics. At present, this is perhaps the most active piece of my research, particularly applied research. I’ve been involved in the design of sites to encourage collaboration among researchers as part of the Digital Media and Learning Hub, a MacArthur Foundation funded center located in the University of California Humanities Research Institute. In addition, I am currently in the planning process (along with Jason Schulz, at UC Berkeley) of a series of workshops to investigate mechanisms for supporting distributed social research, including sharing protocols, data, and early results.

Personal Knowledge Systems

Finally, I am interested in wearable and mobile technologies and how they are related to personal knowledge management and learning. While this has always been an interest, it has not until recently become part of my active academic research. It extends in two directions.

The first is providing a stronger theoretical basis for understanding the role of communications technologies that are worn on or in the body. There has traditionally been a focus on “screen” media, and an assumption that “pocket” media is a recent innovation. In fact, nomadic forms of recording and transporting knowledge have always existed, and the most recent devices represent only the latest form of these technologies.

The second is much more practical. I’m working on ways of building learning and “situational awareness” systems on publicly accessible locative infrastructure. I’m hoping to create infrastructure to provide easy ways for anyone, and particular young people, create locative applications using their mobile devices.

An Agenda

Given what my seem to be fairly disparate areas of interest in technology and social learning, the title of my recent book–Search Engine Society–may seem to be a bit of a surprise. In fact, it neatly addresses many of the issues above. After Google, search engines are reliant on the deep structure present in hyperlinks to determine the most relevant sites on the web. As the book argues, they are increasingly reliant on collaborative structures to draw on other latent cues as well, and to encourage users to contribute to collective searching. They have reshaped political institutions and public discourse, and perhaps most importantly the way we learn about the world. And, more recently, they recognize the importance of being able to provide search that is aware of the physical context of the user.

These areas come together in other areas as well. Centrally, however, I find myself drawn to questions of how people learn throughout their lives, and how the devices they surround themselves with (and that they surround) affect what they know and how they come to know it.