tisdag 20 december 2011

Para-social interaction

I've been fascinated by para-social interaction and para-social relationships ever since I heard about the terms 10 or perhaps 15 years ago. They are the kinds of perceived relationships we have with celebrities even though we only know them from TV - and they don't know us at all.

Ten years ago, when my wife was new to Sweden, we got onto the subway one morning and she stepped in and walked right up to our former prime minister, Ingvar Carlsson. She, not knowing who he was, didn't think twice about standing right next to him. I was a little bit more hesitant, but of course followed her and stood beside her (and him). When she started to talk about totally prosaic things like what we would eat for dinner or that we forgot to take out the trash, I felt very uncomfortable. It felt like when the former prime minster listens to your conversation, you should talk about more statesmanlike topics; politics or perhaps at least academic topics.

My problem was that I couldn't find any way to get out of the situation. I wanted to tell her to shut up, but how could I? Even more interesting was that I felt an urge to enlighten her as to who we were standing beside, but how could I? On the one hand, I wanted to, well, present her to Ingvar; "Tessy, this is Ingvar Carlsson, our former prime minster". And then what? "Ingvar, this is my wife, Tessy"? I realized how ridiculous that would be since he not only did not know her, but he of course didn't know me either. My relationship to Ingvar was not a "real" relationship, but a para-social relationship - a one-way relationship mediated by mass media. I had seen and heard him many times (on TV, radio and in newspapers) and it viscerally felt like I "knew" him. Which I obviously didn't.

Based on this event, my interest in the topic and a discussion at one of the seminars in my recently-finished social media course, I have formulated two thesis proposals that both touch upon how social media changes our relationships to other people. Mass media changed our relationships to other people decades ago, and some perceptive social scientists noticed, analyzed and wrote about it. With the shift from mass to social media, our behaviors are once again changing. My students notice this and I want them to explore and document how, and analyzed and explain why. I will hopefully get hold of some students to do this already this spring (bachelor's and master's thesis season). The first thesis proposal is called "Para-Social Facebook relationships" and the second is called "Impact of social media on social behavior".

I have also formulated a third (unrelated) thesis proposal, "E-sports/professional computer gaming" and will formulate a bunch of more proposals during the next couple of weeks (before thesis season starts).

torsdag 15 december 2011

Social Media Technology 2011 line-up

This is a list of the 2011 line-up of our 8 guest lectures in the course DM2578 Social Media Technologies:

- Jonas Bosson, hacker and former KTH computer science student. "Building a social service for charities and webshops".

- Jorge Zapico, Ph.D. student at KTH Center for Sustainable Communication (CESC), "Sustainable Internet: Social media in a sustainable future".

- Pernilla Josefsson, Ph.D. student at KTH Media Technology, "E-learning"

- Henrik Åhman, Ph.D. student at KTH, Human-Computer Interaction group, "A war on totality: Social media form a postmodern perspective"

- Gustaf Lundström, student at KTH M.Sc. student in Media Management, "Social Media: A shortcut to democracy?"

- Wu Qi, journalist for the Southern People Weekly, China, "Passive Governor: Censorship in Chinese online forums"

- Therese Reuterswärd, Former KTH Media Technology student and Online Market Manager at Scandic Hotels, "Relationship marketing through social media"

- David Kjelkerud, Former KTH Media Technology student and co-founder or Readmill, "How we built Readmill"  

Beyond these guests, I also gave six lectures in the course (one each week, most often based/structured around the course literature), namely:

- "Introduction"

söndag 11 december 2011

Gripe session vs course evaluation

I'm not very fond of course evaluations. Or rather, I like to get feedback from the students, but I dislike the fact that I have to summarize these evaluations and write a report (a "course analysis"). That report should (for example) state what the students though about different aspects of the course and what changes have been made in the course since the last time it was given etc. yada yada. During those few occasions when I actually have summarized students' course evaluations, I have not received any feedback and I thus don't see the point of it all. To summarize; I don't think anyone reads what I write. And if they do, I don't get any feedback. And if I do, I don't get any help to discuss and think about new ways of changing or improving the course in question - because that would of course cost money (someone else's time) instead of "just" incurring costs in terms of my time (and work satisfaction). It really is every man for himself; as a university teacher you are free to improve (change) your courses as much (or as little) as you want, but the demands are low and the institutional support for improving the quality of the courses is even lower.

Not writing course analyses is a small act of disobedience on my part. I would actually love to write them if I got something out of it (like constructive feedback from a "qualified" or least interested discussion partner), but since I don't, I often won't. From this year though, I've decided to actually write something that could maybe be regarded as a course analysis of kinds here, on this blog. These coming blog posts will probably not be very interesting for the casual reader of this blog. They will be interesting for the students who have or will take the course, for me (to return to next year) and perhaps for someone in my organization.

For the same reasons that I dislike to summarize students' feedback, students hate to fill out course evaluations. If I ask them to do it on the web, many don't no matter how many times I remind them. And why should they? I can understand that it is hard to motivate yourself when you don't get any feedback, don't see the results and don't know if your opinions have an impact, make a difference or if they evan are acknowledged in the first place, i.e. the same reasons why I myself dislike to produce course analyses.

For those reasons, I decided to exchange the course evaluation for a "gripe session" in my social media course (most recent blog post here) that ended this past week. My experiences of gripe sessions come from science fiction conventions; an informal meeting at the end of the event where organizers get the opportunity to hear both praise and complaints from attendants. Some of those in the audience might attend the gripe session because they are next in line to organize the next convention and thus have an interest in not repeating mistakes that might have been made.

Transferring this feedback format to a university setting, I disseminate a single page with just three questions and asked the students to take a few minutes to think about them and fill them out ("what were the three best things in the course?", "what were the three worst things?", and "what could be improved?"). Posing these questions is also a way to get students to start thinking about the course. I wrote down a number of different categories on the blackboard that students might have opinions about (lectures, seminars, administration, examination etc.). Then students then had the opportunity to raise opinions (both praise and complaints) about different aspects of the course. We unfortunately had only 30 minutes for the whole gripe session and while it was enough time to take down their opinions and also provide short answers, it wasn't really enough time for in-depth discussions about any of the issues. Note-to-self: make sure to have at least 45 minutes for the gripe session next time around

The format has many advantages compared to traditional course evaluations and I specifically see two large advantages:
1) Students know for sure that their opinions are heard and they can even get (short) answers and perhaps also explanations about why things were the way they were right then-and-there from me.
2) Both me and the students get to hear what other students thought, and we will together get a better understanding of what both individual students and what the class as a whole thought about (different aspects of) the course

For any course, some students will like it better and others will like it less. Having a discussion is a great way to "neutralize" (?) outliers. When a student expresses an opinion that is contradicted by another student, I am to some extent relieved of having to defend or explain specific decisions - since the students themselves are of different opinions about that/those issues. The whole event will also give students an idea of if their opinion is shared by others or not.

Since this more specifically concerned a course about social media, I also managed to justify the gripe session format in terms of social media terminology. Ordinary course evaluations are "one-way", based on a "hub-and-spoke" architecture where the center (the teacher) controls all communication. Such exercises turn students into passive "course evaluators" (c.f. consumers, viewers, readers, listeners). A gripe session instead has the potential to turn students into active "discussants" (c.f. producers, participants, storytellers, players). A gripe session makes a one-way conversation social by opening up the a course evaluation so that everyone can participate in the process of evaluating the course.

During a course, I like to be able to post administrative messages to a blog and have students leave comments on the blog if they have any questions. Every course participant can see both the question and the answer and sometimes students can even answer the questions of other students faster than I do. It sure beats having questions mailed to me privately and it offloads my incoming email. Course evaluations (paper or web form) are like e-mail - private communication between each student and the teacher. A gripe session is like commenting on the blog - a discussion out in the open that everyone can listen in to.

I haven't had time to look at the actual course evaluations yet (that's the topic for another blog post), but I very much thought the gripe session was productive and successful and will for sure use that format again in other courses. A "problem" might be that the gripe session format will yield less hard information ("on paper") than a traditional course evaluation. I wonder if that will get an "ok" by "higher-ups" who perhaps expect me to analyze and sum up lots of written information (that I haven't collected) into a report? A gripe session in combination with writing up a text and publishing it on the blog will on the other hand be a lot better than what I handed in last year (i.e. nothing).

fredag 9 december 2011

Future of Media 2011 line-up

This is the line-up of the no less than 19 great guest lectures in my course DM2571 "Future of Media". The course has a new theme every year and the 2011 theme was "The Future of Radio / Radio of the Future":

- Nina Wormbs, associate professor at the Division of History of Science and Technology, KTH, "Radio history - cultural importance and technological dependence"

- Adam Davidson, International business and economics correspondent, radio host and producer on the public radio network NPR"The past and the future of public radio in the US"

- Kerstin Brunnberg, CEO for Swedish Radio (SR) from 2007-2009, "Shift happens still radio prevails!"

Charlie Gullström & Ori Merom, KTH School of Archtecture, "On design thinking and sketching as memory etching"

- Henrik OlinderMyndigheten för samhällsskydd och beredskap (MSB), "Kriskommunikation och när radion blir informationsbärare" [Crisis communication and when radio becomes an information carrier]

- Roger Wallis, professor emeritus at Media Technology, KTH, "The development of radio - past, present and future"

- Daniel Johansson, CEO of TrendMaze, "When everyone becomes a radio channel"

- Gunnar Bolin, kulturkorrespondent vid Sveriges Radio (SR), "Att bevaka all världens kultur" [To cover the whole world's culture]

- Michael Forsman, Ph.D. Media- and communication studies, Södertörn University, Stockholm, "With a local flavor? On "localness" and competition in Swedish radio of today and of tomorrow"

- Kerstin Morast, Head of licensing division, The Swedish Broadcasting Authority [Myndigheten för radio och TV], "Broadcasted radio - towards digitalization?"

- Nino Cirone, Director, Broadcast Research Ltd, "10 things you should know about audiences"

- Dr. Claire Wardle, Digital consultant (BBC College of Journalism), "Moving beyond broadcasting: Digital technologies and collaborative radio"

- Nancy Updike, Producer and reporter at the radio show "This American Life", "Radio is better than other media and I can prove it"

- Anna Swartling, Usability architect at Scania CV AB, "Project TEAM work"

- Simon Redican, Managing Director and Radio Advertising Bureau and Mark Barber, Planning Director at Radio Advertising Bureau, "Media and the mood of the nation"

- Lars Jonsson, Technical strategist at Swedish Radio (SR), "Digital radio - future trends"

- Fredrik Stiernstedt, Ph.D. candidate in Media and Communication Studies at Södertörn University, "The 'future of radio' as a discourse in radio production"

- Valerie Geller, President, Geller Media International Broadcast Consultants/Training, "Becoming a more powerful communicator"

No less than eleven different project groups presented their visions of the future in the form of a larger (200+ persons) public presentation on Friday December 9, 2011 (see the online documentation here and the book (pd file) here - each project group contributed with one chapter).

During the autumn 2011, I wrote a number of texts on this blog that related to the course:
- Architecture vs Media Technology smackdown

Here is the previous, Future of Media 2010 line-up - The Future of Music / Music of the Future.

onsdag 7 december 2011

Books I've read lately

"Books I've read recently" is a recurring topic and here is the previous blog post (same topic, different books). I actually read most of the books below during the early autumn, but I like to gather some books together in these blog posts and for some reason it took a couple of months (again!) to read the last 25 pages of one of the books below. Also, I've had so many other topics to write about lately and writing up a blog post about these books have taken a backseat compared to other topics. All four books below are books that I bought before the summer and that I read primarily in order to prepare for this year's edition of my course on social media (which actually ends this week).

Clay Shirky's new book is called "Cognitive surplus: Creativity and generosity in a connected age" (2010). I read his previous book, "Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations" a few years ago. Both book are easy reads, engaging, full of fun or interesting anecdotes and examples. Both feel less "academic" and are written with larger audiences in mind. This is both a pro and a con. Pro because they are fun to read and full of examples and insights. Con because the books are more story-driven and less driven by some grand underlying structure or idea(s) that are easy to discern and peg down. It's a little of this and a little of that, fun to read but difficult to synthesize. Perhaps the lack of overall structure comes from Clay writing insightful shorter texts at his blog and then putting them together into a book every few years? The "cognitive surplus" that Clay refers to is the leisure time we nowadays have when we "only" work 40 hours per week, and the activities we choose to spend it on; from (only/mostly) watching television to now also spending a sliver of it on collaborative online projects (Wikipedia etc.). What if, Clay asks, we would spend just 1% of the time we (as a society) watch television on Wikipedia-like projects for the betterment of communities and societies?

In contrast to Clay's rosy dreams of the potential of using social media for the betterment of humanity's lot, Evgeny Morozov warns us about a darker vision of the future of the Internet and social media. My copy of his book is called "The net delusion: How not to liberate the world" (2011), but I notice that the subtitle now has been changed to "The dark side of Internet freedom". Evgeny reminds us that Internet and social media can be used not just for emancipatory purposes ("Twitter revolutions" or "Facebook revolutions"), but that it can also be used as effective tools for surveillance and oppression by dictators and authoritarian regimes. In fact, he dislikes the very term "Facebook revolution" as it hypes an American company/tool rather than the real flesh-and-blood Egyptians who risked their lives on the streets of Kairo. In order to further democracy and freedom in the world, so much more is needed in terms of policy an patient support to dissenters and democracy movements than just releasing suits of social media tools that can be used both for good and for bad. Although Evgeny's message is interesting and important, I found him not be the best wordsmith and felt that reading his book was a little like taking medicine; the reading experience wasn't very pleasurable because of his slightly "wooden" writing style, but it's a good book to have read.

Jaron Lanier's "You are not a gadget: A manifesto" (2010) is a book-long rant about everything that is wrong about the Internet (or the direction that the Internet is heading in). What makes the book poignant is that Jaron is a member of the techno elite, having been one of the first persons to explore and commercialize Virtual Reality (VR) technology in the 80's and 90's. But Jaron has also been an avid and longtime musician who also upholds more "spiritual" values and who with his manifesto mercilessly critique some of (the opinions of) his techno elite friends/acquaintances. I found Jaron's book to be a little uneven; some passages are not that easy to understand (having not had long conversations with Jaron, and not being as technically literate as he is) and other parts are rant-ish and sounding like someone who has gout or a bad tooth and who "likes" to complain about both this and that. Still, some passages are brilliant and thoughtful in this book based on Jaron's opinions (I personally prefer research results before opinions, or opinions that are based on research results).

...and that is why I liked Sherry Turkle's new book a lot. In "Alone Together: Why we expect more of technology and less of each other" (2011), she confirms several of Jaron's opinions, but this time around based on her research and on numerous interviews. The book consists of two (very) separate parts; the first half of the book concerns our relationship with robots (robot toys as well as more advanced experimental systems) and our thoughts and dreams about future use of and future human-robot relationships. The second part describes our (incessant) use (and in her opinion, not seldom mis-use) of mobile/social media technologies such as texting (SMS messages), mail, Facebook etc. Where Turkle has been very non-judgemental in her earlier books, this time around she is clearly worried about where we are heading in this hyper-connected world of ours. I could imagine using this book (the second half) as course literature (when the inexpensive paperback edition is available) as there are soo many topics and soo much to discuss with students in these chapter. I very much recommend this book and believe it is pretty much unique in terms of the questions discussed and the perspectives presented.

March 2013. Here's someone who has obviously read Turkle's book and made a YouTube video of the possibly negative consequences of using social media too much.

lördag 3 december 2011

On students' writing skills

We don't have a (home) exam in my social media course (most recent blog post here) this year. The most important part of the examination instead consists of six seminar assignments. Each week's readings is examined in the form of a two pages long "essay" (400-1000 words) and each assignment is roughly equivalent to a question on an exam. The instructions for each assignment set some limitation and at the same time provide a framework and a focus, but the instructions still give students a lot of freedom to take the task in any direction they would like to. Since the course started, I have read, judged and graded around 20 of these essay per week and felt that while the language in general is quite good, the essays surprisingly often aren't. So one week ago, I shared these thoughts of mine with the students in question:

I have read quite a few of your assignments by now. This comment arrives so late in the course that it is of less use here, but perhaps it can be of more use later and in other contexts where you have to write texts (not the least your upcoming master's theses).

My feeling is that many, well, actually the majority of you students spend too little time thinking about what you will write and planning what you will write and that you instead just sit down and start to write something up.

It's better to spend 75% of the time planning, sketching, perhaps drawing up an outline, perhaps adding some headers and a sentence of two about what you will write about under each header - and only then spend the remaining 25% of the time producing the actual text. I get the feeling many of you spend 25% of the time, and sometimes less, thinking some about what you will write, and then too quickly sit down and try to squeeze out the required 400 - 600 - 800 - 1000 words for the assignment.

The result is that you reach the production goal (number of words), but that the text oftentimes is unfocused and difficult to follow. I often have a hard time to find a red thread or something that keeps the text together. It's rather a little about this and a little about that, a reference here, a quote there and then some opinions added. When I have finished, I'm unsure what the text actually was about, and going back to the start might not always help me to understand what The Issue you wrote about was. I instead find several smaller issues or just a string of ideas.

Beyond the concrete advice I gave above (on planning vs execution), I would suggest you pose a question somewhere in the first paragraph ("...so how does ... relate to...?", "why doesn't the music industry...?"). This will help me and you understand what the topic of your text is. You should let your eyes stray back to that question whenever you don't know what to write next in your text. It might also be a good idea to think about that question when you finish the text, perhaps add a conclusion to the question or a summary of your arguments?

I'm an experienced writer and while it's not fair to compare my texts to yours, I still encourage you to have a look at this "extended abstract" (500 words) that I submitted to a workshop only earlier this month. I can promise you that I live as I learn and did spend the vast majority of time thinking about and sketching out what I would write ("hmm, first I'll write something about ... and then..." "hmm, I need an argument that ties this and that together", "hmm, should things be said in this order or is it better to first state that..."). I only spent a little time actually writing up the final text. Do also note how much can be said in only 500 words - (the assignments for this course should be between 400 and 1000 words).

So, my question now is if other teachers share these experiences of mine? I don't know if I have higher demands than last year, but I (very subjectively) feel that this problem is much greater this year than it was only a year ago. So what has happened in the meanwhile? Has Facebook eaten our students' brains, or what? Is Facebook turning students into zombies (zombies have no higher faculties of thinking and are incapable of planning).

Just this week I sat for a day at the library to get some work done. A student sat beside me a for several hours I couldn't for the life of me see that she got any productive (study-related) work done. She listlessly leafed back and forth in a textbook, copied text from a hand-out (pdf file) to a MS Word document, played with her phone, listened to music, checked out Facebook and wrote text messages any number of times etc. Is this what our students do? Spend time "studying" but without getting anything done? I wonder if this student in question felt that she had put in "a day's work" when she left the library? What is your opinion about these issues?