Social Mind-Extensions

Many have suggested that what makes humans different from other animals is our use of tools. Our most important tool is language. It is through language that we are able to coordinate our work and form civilizations. We build our conceptions of the world through conversation, but we also build our physical and social world through conversation. The idea that we could build a shed, let alone tunnel under the English Channel, or a large corporation, or a hospital, without communication between individuals is absurd. It is not unreasonable then to assume that studying and improving the way we communicate as a society might be an especially effective way to improve the world we live in. This is what drew me to the field of communication, and continues to guide my research in this area.

My interest is in how social structure and social change are related to conversation, especially conversation at a large scale. The internet and the World Wide Web change the way in which we communicate with one another, and I suspect that this will have far-reaching effects on how our society functions over the long term. I have a feeling that we are already seeing many of these changes, and simply not recognizing their significance. Therefore, I try to seek out venues in which collaboration and social change are most pronounced and attempt to understand what makes these interactions work so well. At present, I think online communication yields some of the most interesting cases to work with.

My dissertation examined Slashdot, a weblog that has gathered a large and vocal participatory “audience” (or, arguably, “community”). Slashdot appealed to me as an example because they represented a field study in using technology to help to enable effective communication within a very large group. The social and technical attempts to mediate this conversation have been largely effective, depending on your measure of success. That they continue to attract a participating audience of hundreds of thousands is one such measure. But that they have a significant effect on what an audience of that size is interested in and focusing on is even more exciting. The idea that one site can focus the attention of hundreds of thousands of people on a given obscure site, even for just a few hours (the “Slashdot Effect”) is a kind of power worth studying.

Slashdot benefits from having a small number of people who influence how individual messages are exchanged. The Web at large has a relatively large number of people who are collectively trying to affect how messages are seen. One of the most influential technologies for controlling the flow of messages on the Web is the hyperlink. The importance of the hyperlink has been even further extended by Google’s reliance on collective hyperlinking to help filter results. Sometimes, those who are shaping these hyperlinks are unaware of the communication structures they are creating. When Maria Garrido and I looked at the structures surrounding the Zapatista movement, we found that the impact of the revolt was not only global, but that it had affected the connections and relationships of hundreds of organizations on the World Wide Web.

More recently, I have been looking at personal weblogs and their effects on existing institutions: research, education, law, medicine, and other areas. The “blogosphere” — the totality of interconnected weblogs — is represents a way of organizing a social information space. Can weblogs be used to measure or otherwise gage this social group? Or are they a force for change, affecting the agenda, making connections, and focusing effort? How do the new networks of information flow on the internet relate to traditional mass and personal communication networks?

Finally, I am also interested in “the last 3 feet” : the interface between the human and the machine that mediates communicative action. What kinds of visual and interactive representations allow for more effective communication? What happens when these devices move into the living room or into the street with mobile devices? What happens when they disappear entirely and melt into other everyday objects? How does interacting with and through a machine change the way we think and act?

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