söndag 28 november 2010

Online networks vs online communities

I have previously written about the seminar series on "Digtal media and collective action" that the Dept. of Political Science at Stockholm University organizes. It so happened that I gave a seminar in this seminar series this past week on the topic of "Online networks vs online communities". The seminar invitation below is followed by some post-seminar comments of mine.


Online networks vs online communities
Some researchers have made the connection between social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) and a modern (western), personalized, fast-paced, hypermobile, multiple-affiliation, rich-networked, ”friendster” society (Bennett and Segerberg 2010). In tems of Tönnies’ (1887) well-know dichotomy "Gemeinschaft" - community - and "Gesellschaft" - (modern) society - (Asplund 1991), this seems to represent a continuation that goes “beyond” his ideas about fluid, modern late-19th century Gesellschaft; a “Gesellschaft-plus” society?

In a previous text in this seminar series (“Small change”, 2010), Malcolm Gladwell conflated all kinds of social media and point out how networks (social media) and hierarchies (for example high-risk social activism or even terrorism) in many ways are opposites. His point is that social media does not really entail social change, as summarized by the subtitle of his text; “
why the revolution will not be tweeted”. To him, the strong ties between people engaged in high-risk endeavors (for example political activism for unpopular causes) are the opposite of the large networks of weak ties that are typical of social media "armchair activism" which to him represents “all talk and no action”.

Despite the 130 year that separate them, both Tönnies and Gladwell both paint a picture of society moving in a direction away from strong hierarchies and small groups of people united by strong personal ties (i.e. communities) and towards loose networks and large groups of people connected by weak personal ties (i.e. networks).

I have personally on the other hand seen social media been used in quite different ways in order to satisfy our needs for connection and community (Pargman 2005). This would seem to represent a movement in the “other” direction; towards rather than away from "Gemeinschaft". The best example of how people subsume their individual autonomy to become part of, and for the greater good of the collective, are so-called "guilds"; instrumental, goal- and action-oriented groups inside massively multiplayer games such as World of Warcraft (Lin et. al. 2003).

This leads us to the following questions:
- How can our understanding of these phenomena progress beyond simple causal relationships between individual, media and society?

- How can we further our understanding about different characteristics / uses / "affordances" of different digital media in terms of communities/ hierarchies and networks?

- What does a model that can account for the existence of both tight online communities and loose online networks look like?

- For what purposes and under what conditions do these different forms of organization emerge and thrive on the Internet?

Literature. There are no less than nine texts recommended for this seminar.

- Two texts are repeated references to texts from previous seminars in the seminar series (Bennett and Segerberg, Gladwell)
- One text is a short newspaper article (Thente)
- One text is optional (Granovetter)
- The three scanned texts on Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft are all relatively short

On Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft
- Asplund (1991), “Essay about Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft”, pp. 37-53 [in Swedish].
- Bauman (2001), "Community: Seeking safety in an insecure world", pp. 1-5
- Nisbet (1953), "The quest for community", pp. 69-77

On "Geselschaft-plus" society (repeat use of literature from previous seminars)
- Bennett and Segerberg (to be published), "Digital media and the organization of collective action".
- Gladwell (2010), "
Small change". The New Yorker.

On strong and weak ties
- Granovetter (1973), "The strength of weak ties".

On communities and online games:
- Pargman (2005). "
Virtual community management as socialization and learning". In P. van der Desselaar, G. De Michelis, J. Preece and C. Simone (eds.). Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Communities and Technologies, Milano, Italy, June 2005, pp. 95-110. Dordrecht: Springer.
- Lin, Holin et. al. (2003) "
Exploring clan culture: social enclaves and cooperation in online games". Digra 2003: Level up Conf. Proceedings.
- Thente, Jonas (2010) "
Wow! I låtsasvärlden finns riktiga affärsnäsor". Dagens Nyheter, Aug 30.


I talked about online community for one hour at the seminar. I suggested it was the task of me and the other seminar participants to together discuss or suggest how my musings about "online community" relates to and can be connected to "online networks" (the topic of previous seminars in the seminar series). The work of connecting these two concepts was not an instant success story, but we did ok and some new thoughts were born. What I personally gained was the overall need for a change of perspective on my behalf.

I got some (justified) critique. It was polite, but broken down to the essentials it to me sounded a lot like "so what?" or "what now?", i.e. "how can this be taken further?", or, "in what direction do you want to take this?". I thus realized that I might have become a little too cozy with theorizing about (online) community almost for it's own sake. It is intellectually fulfilling to dig down really really deep and then live in a world of your own intellectual ideas. You can spend pleasurable time there, having small imaginary conversations or battles with intellectual friends (who have formulated ideas you draw on or "cooperate" with) and enemies (who just don't "get it" and have formulated (to you) obviously flawed ideas or theories).

Perhaps because of too much inward-looking navel-gazing (or just the fact that I haven't spent that much time thinking about issues of community in some years), I was however stumped and couldn't really provide good answers on the fly to really good questions such as:
- What sorts of collective action do communities make possible in our modern society?
- What is the role of modern (social) media technologies in relation to (online) communities?
- What is the role of direct (face to face) communication vs mediated communication in relation to (online) communities?
- How do "old" groups and social movements use and incorporate new (social) media? How do "new" groups and social movements incorporate and are in fact predicated upon the use of new (social) media? Two examples of new groups are the Transition Town movement and the right-now launching Swedish liberal democrats political party.

I did however realize that it might be the case that the more something can be called a community, the less relevant it might be to social movements, societal large-scale action and online networks (that can successfully mobilize hundreds of thousands or millions of people). Or, could it (depending on your definition of community) be argued that such online networks build or draw upon online and offline communities? How then would these "communities" need to be defined?

Ending this section of the text, what do you think about community and what do you think community is in the 21st century?

I have a draft of an (unfinished) article about "community and online community" with the aim set for the online peer-reveiwed journal First Monday. It's been sitting in a drawer (or rather in an unopened folder in my computer) for several years. The text starts out really strong, but I have had problems finishing it. I now realize that part of the reason the article never got finished was because of a lack of answers to the same questions that were posed at the seminar, i.e. "so where is this going, how is this important, how can it be applied to other examples or phenomena?".

After the seminar I now realize that my problems finishing and creating closure in the text is not a matter of finding a good example for which to apply the theories presented in the text, but rather has more to do with the more fundamental lack of direction of where to take the theories presented in the text. The theories might be useful to others in their present form, but they do take on an air of theorizing for its own sake. With a clearer and better formulated goal for what to do with these theories, it might also be a lot easier to finally end and create closure in the article and for the article (by submitting it to First Monday).

Some more practical ideas, leads, tips and questions that I took with me from the seminar (and that might admittedly be of little interest to the casual reader of this blog (who did not attend the seminar)) are:
  • On talking about fuzzy membership of categories (i.e. community), I might want to have a look at Wittgenstein's writings on the same issue (about "games"). Me and Wittgenstein, we go waay back you know...
  • On the cynical corporation's use of feel-good terms and concepts (such as community) for the sake of salesmanship ("our family of products" - how can a bunch of products be regarded as a family?).
  • How anonymity/pseudonymity affects relationships and community.
  • One participant wanted to talk about community in terms of "feelings of belongingness". Such feelings might correlate with community but in my mind has little to do with the way I (analytically) conceive of community. There might be feelings of belonging even in a radically dysfunctional family (especially if it is the only family you have). But those feelings might by an outsider (for example a psychologist) be regarded as severely misplaces. The fact that some members have feelings of belongingness does not make this into a loving family - much as feelings of belonging has little weight in how I define and perceive "community".
  • The suggested "community of Södermalm" makes almost as little sense to me as an America Online (AOL) ex-CEO's statement about the "tens of millions of members" who belonged to the "AOL community". Further explanation: If a long-time Södermalm resident meets me on stroll in Södermalm, he/she would not know if I am a "fellow member" of the Södermalm community. The fact that you habitually can't even recognize members of the "community" you "belong to" would in my book be a strong argument for this not being a community in the first place!
  • I regard the medieval village as the "prototypical" community. But what is the relationship between modern and medieval community and between "feelings of belonging" and belonging (plain and simple). What is the relationship between the fact that you to a very small extent freely could chose membership of communities in former days, while we nowadays have large possibilities to choose membership of communities and can jump ship with little regard to consequences and costs (barriers to entry/exit are low).
  • To what extent is (or isn't) community equal to Tönnies' concept of Gemeinschaft?
  • What exactly is "anti-community"? Is it equal to Gesellschaft, (modern) society, the city/metropolis or what? What is the core nature/characteristics of anti-community?
  • To what extend are rich "communities" within large cities, and rich "communities" (guilds) within online games to be regarded as (real) communities (or not)? What are the salient characteristics that make them part of (or disqualifies them from) my analytical concept of community?
  • What is the relationship between rich "communities" within big cities and collective action (in matters that matter to these communities)? According to Granovetter, communities in cities need weak ties to mobilize and defend themselves against oppressive change from the outside. Are the terms/dimensions strong-weak and robust-brittle perhaps of use in such a discussion?
  • Online communication can foster both tighter (Gemeinschaft) connections and looser (Gesellschaft) connections. But it does seem though that it (in a McLuhanesque sense) is in the nature of the medium (Internet - social media) to on the whole make possible/encourage looser ties (Facebook, Twitter). It seems reasonable that the Internet on the whole nurtures loose ties and fluid Gesellschaft rather than the opposite.

- post-Gladwell text on networks, hierarchies, strong & weak ties etc.

måndag 22 november 2010


I have given talks relating to energy and resource depletion a couple of times by now, for example in a seminar at my department this past spring together with Daniel Berg (Dept. of Economic History) as well as more recently in Denmark, at the "Culture of ubiquitous information" network meeting (conference).

This past week I was invited to speak at Vetenskapens hus [House of Science] and I gave a short (25 minutes long) talk to a group of high school students ( ~ 100) for the first time. The talk was part of an afternoon of activities there (pdf file with program in Swedish) and I was one of three invited speakers, the other two being Louise Hård af Segerstad (Albaeco) and Mikael Höök (Global Energy Systems group at Uppsala Univeristy). To speak directly after Mikael was perfect for me! He established Peak Oil as a fact (backed up by oodles of data) and I just took that ball and ran from there.

I had to spend some time thinking about what message I wanted to convey to this audience and how to structure the talk so as to convey a suitable mix of urgency and hope to these youngsters. It was a pity that the event was one-way-ish. There was time for a couple of questions from the audience (not seldom posed by their teachers), but I unfortunately left without having a good grasp of how my message was received. If I do a thing like this again, it would be nice to get in touch with the students and leave the event with a better understanding of their reaction to my (and Mikael's) message about us heading towards "disruptive" change.

The main theme of my short talk was that we all encounter - and have - two conflicting worldviews in our heads; one extolling the virtues of "a world of possibilities" and the other warning about the consequences of "a world of limitations".

We live in a world of possibilities whenever we hear the story of science (and economics and politics) bringing us more, better, faster, more affluent, less expensive and technologically more advanced futures (and gadgets). We move in a discourse of possibilities whenever we are taken in by new social networking software with hundreds of millions of users, by a new-better-faster version of our favorite computer or mp3-player or when we hear that carbon capture and storage (CCS) or cars running on electricity (or hydrogen or compressed air or...) effortlessly will bring us a greener better future. I use these great Motorola ads (for home electronics from the 1960's) to illustrate this world of possibilities:

We on the other hand move towards a world of limitations whenever we read about overfishing, species extinction, ecological damage, climate change, floods or droughts, water scarcity, overpopulation, higher oil prices/peak oil, economic crisis/recession without end, higher unemployment and so on. As a contrast to the above presented pictures of the future (as it was imagined 50 years ago), I show these 100 years old pictures of life (and scarcity and poverty) as it actually was in the U.S. at the time:

These two sets of pictures illustrate the range and the division between the always-present and conflicting world of possibilities and world of limitations. We don't know what the future holds for us, but we can be pretty sure we will land somewhere in-between. The perhaps-overlooked good news is that plain old poverty is still a much better deal than pop-culture eschatological apocalyptic visions of the future as it might unfold if we don't pay heed...

Do you think the idea of these two worldviews (weltanschauung) jockeying for position and fighting for dominance in our culture and in our brains make sense?

torsdag 18 november 2010


I playtested the board game CarbonOpoly this week in the evening course "States and trends" that I take this term. The game is developed by a student at KTH, Patrik Larsson, and he has worked with the concept for two years. It is a labor of love and it is quite obvious he must have poured hundreds and hundreds of hours into this project. Here is the KTH press release from when the game was released earlier this year. Patrik's goal is to find a partner who can finance sending the game to all Swedish high schools. And then there is the rest of the world waiting (something Patrik is already working on).

The game does not really challenge your strategical or tactical skills, so it has limited replayability. You might play it a few times but that's probably about it. On the other hand, it does not try to maximize replayability as it rather aims to be a facts-based trivia game with questions in the fields of energy, sustainability and natural sciences. The goal is to make young people more interested in energy issues and perhaps make a few of them apply to a (technical) university education for a career in that field. The game is comparable to Trivial Pursuit, but I actually found the game mechanisms to be better than TP. Patrik's idea is to send out new packs of cards every year so that the questions stay current and are up-to-date, and this sounds like a really good idea.

As my friend and previous colleague Mats went to Fortum after he completed his ph.d. and started up and developed activities where they invite and "inform" high-school students about energy and about Fortum (including playing a board game), I asked Patrik for a copy of thegame. He couldn't give me one of the trial games then and there, but he promised that he could produce a copy of me. I promised to play the game with Mats and get back to Patrik with feedback in return. This blog post will be a reminder for me to get in touch with Patrik now and then until I get my copy of the game!

All 25 playtesters had lots of advice for Patrik and my most important advice (as a long-time board game geek) was to think about ways for players to interact more with each other within the game. If I can help or hinder another player to a higher extent, this will bring lots of feelings and passion to the game and it might be an important factor in making high school students play the game twice or three times (and go through all the questions), rather than just once. All in all I did find the game really enjoyable and I think it is a great way to challenge your energy-besserwisser-friends on a knowledge duel!

Last but not least, I will from now on try to end each blog posts with a question so as to entice you, my dear reader, to leave a comment and transform it into something different from the one-way channel it is at the present. My first question is thus: Would you like to play the game? With who and in what context?

söndag 14 november 2010

Upcoming virtual worlds book series

This is a busy time of the year and the past week has mostly been filled by teaching. Also, two theses that I supervise (one master's and one bachelor's) are almost finished and the students have sent me the final versions for review before it's time to hand them in, present them and have them judged/graded. Preliminary titles for these two theses are "Cheating and creative gaming in online games" and "Personal integrity in social media: A study of adolescents' personal lives on Facebook" (links to the finished web-accessible theses will eventually turn up here [FYI: both theses are written in Swedish].

What I want to touch upon in this text though is the fact that I have accepted an invitation to be a member of the editorial advisory board of a new book series on Virtual Worlds. Springer is publishing a series of "Briefs" in many different disciplines/research areas and they are now setting up a book series on virtual worlds.

These SpringerBriefs consist of relatively short texts (50-125 pages - up to 68 000 words) on current topics, and the turn-around time is short (they books can be printed in as little as 8-12 weeks after acceptance).

As a member of the board, I am expected to:
  • keep my eyes and ears open to recruit authors for the series
  • review book proposals
  • help steer the direction of the series
  • promote the series (i.e. what I am doing right here right now)
The work to specify the aim and the scope of the virtual worlds book series has just commenced and I will get back to this topic here as soon as there is an official text with more detailed information about the profile of the book series (and a webpage to point to for further information). Typical topics in these SpringerBriefs are:
  • A timely report of state-of-the art analytical techniques
  • A bridge between new research results published in journal articles and a contextual literature review
  • A snapshot of a hot or emerging topic
  • An in-depth case study or clinical example
  • A presentation of core concepts that students must understand in order to make independent contributions

As much as I like the idea of these Briefs - they seem to fill a gap between journal articles and full-length books - I'm not too fond of one specific justification for the SpringerBriefs book series: "Briefs allow authors to present their ideas and readers to absorb them with minimal time investment". What the...? As if the goal of (disseminating) research should be that it's easily digestible...? Behind such a statement I sense an underlying assumption that short, fast and easy is good, and that long, slow and difficult is bad. This immediately gets me thinking about Nicholas Carr's latest book, "The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains" - since I'm reading it right now. It is a book-length argument that can be summarized by the "teaser article" Carr published two and a half years ago in The Atlantic; "Is Google making us stupid?". I use the short article in my course on social media.

I don't think it's wrong to publish a book series like SpringerBriefs - I actually happen to think it's a very good idea, but I on the other don't want such a series to be the CliffNotes of virtual worlds literature either. The tagline of Cliff Notes is "the fastest way to learn". I've never actually read a CliffNote, but having only read about them, I hope their tagline doesn't crassly mean "the fastest way to pretend to have learned", or, "learning painlessly and with a minimal investment of time, effort and engagement, and, without having learnt anything of substance and without remembering anything of importance a week after the exam"... I notice that CliffNotes now have downloadable mp3 "CramCasts" where you can listen to "a quick and authoritative summary of [a] classic on the go". I crammed the CliffNotes CramCast for George Orwell's "1984" (4 minutes and 23 seconds) and let me tell you, it was a nightmare. One of the things I now know is "the top three things every student should know about the novel".

Now, I haven't actually read a SpringerBrief myself yet, but I would personally prefer a Brief book to be regarded as a teaser or as an introduction to, rather than as a replacement of something, whatever. For difficult questions, a full-length book might be more appropriate - and that's totally ok.

I'll wrap this argument up by quoting Alan Kay (about the design of programming languages): "Simple things should be simple. Complex things should be possible". This ought to be true for academic publications too. Texts about "simple things" should be simple (short, easy and quick to read). But books about complex phenomena, demanding a more substantial investment in time and brain cycles by both the author and the readers should also be possible! We definitely don't want to trivialize our research so that it will better appeal to the breathlessly fragmented schedule of a scatterbrain ADHD twitterhead, right?

The editorial advisory board (at the moment) consists of around 20 persons and the only other Swede is Robin Teigland from the Stockholm School of Economics ("Handelshögskolan"). I know of her and in some sense I perhaps even "know" her (we have exchanged e-mail), but we have never actually met IRL (in real life). Perhaps this is an excellent foundation for cooperating on a book series about virtual worlds...?

The person who is putting all of this together, working with Springer and recruiting editorial advisory board members is Anna Peachey, but it was my old "nemesis"(?) Ralph Schroeder who floated my name to her. Ralph literally shredded my ph.d. thesis manuscript to pieces a decade ago at a semi-formal "final seminar" half a year or so before I presented the real thing ("Code begets community: On social and technical aspects of managing a virtual community"). Ralph also gave me very helpful advice about what was badly needed to straighten it out, and all in all helped me make it into a much much better ph.d. thesis.

Coming back to the virtual world series, do you have interests that can be related to that theme? If so, which? Do you think they could be published in the form of a Brief at some point in time?

110623: the series will actually be called "Springer Series in Immersive Environments".

söndag 7 november 2010

Social Media Technologies

My largest single committment in terms of teaching this term is a course called Social Media Technologies and it started just last week. The course is an "advanced" course, meaning that is open for 3rd year students and master's (4th or 5th year) students.

Much of the one-way day to day communication is done through the course blog. This is really a great way to off-load my mail inbox. Everything that could have been published on a webpage or sent by mail is instead published on the blog. Any student questions that could have been send by (multiple) e-mails by (multiple) students is instead to be posted as comments on blog posts. I'll answer in the form of another comment for the benefit of all students who take the course. This arrangement of course depends on the fact that students actually read the blog and pose questions there. It also hinges on the fact that I have to subscribe to the RRS message flow of the blog and read/answer regularly. I was surprised at the introductory lecture that so few students make use of RSS readers. Well, it's either that or check on the blog at least a couple of times per week throughout the course.

Besides this official course administration blog, there is a companion blog where I invite all students who take the course to become co-authors. The purpose of that blog is to collectively keep our eyes and ears open and post messages to each other about interesting social media-related phenomena (that might relate to lectures or seminar topics) on the Internet.

The participants themselves are a diverse bunch. Perhaps half are Swedish students from our media technology program and another large group are foreign students who study a masters in "media management" that my department gives. These students come from all over; China, Vietnam, Morocco, Turkey, Indonesia and a variety of European countries (especially Germany and the Netherlands). The final group who attends the course are "free agents", often exchange students from different European countries, who come to the Royal Institute of Technology to study for one or two semesters. They might take the course out of personal interest or out of any other reason, including the fact that they might have a limited choice of English-language courses to choose from at KTH.

After the week that just passed (the second week), I know the students a lot better. I used the first seminars for a speed-presentation format called Pecha Kucha. Each student had to put together 8 PowerPoint pictures in order to on the one hand present themselves and on the other hand present their use of, and thoughts about social media. The slides automatically switched after 20 seconds so each students had a little less than 3 minutes to present themselves in front of their seminar groups. I think it was a great success, but hearing 60+ students and seeing 500 PowerPoint pictures sent my mind spinning.

A really good thing I did was to clearly specify that each student had do include a portrait of him- or herself somewhere in the Pecha Kucha presentation. This solves the very difficult problem of connecting the physical person to the name, something that becomes exceedingly difficult in a course with dozens and dozens of students of which some have names that are very unusual for me (and therefore difficult to remember).

I will post more texts based on the course (for example based on the guest lectures) in the coming weeks as this course will take up the majority of my time from now on and until the course ends (mid-december).