Why Are People on the Web?

I was born in the 80’s and was raised in an environment where the internet was just something that existed at school.  The first computer I remember using still only came in two colors: black and green.  Remember ClarisWorks?  I was introduced to that technology in middle school.  It wasn’t even until I got into high school that I began using the internet seriously for academics or entertainment.  And even then, I still had dial-up at home!  Remember PeoplePC?  That was my dial-up internet provider for several years.

That being said, I have seen the internet change from a place where you signed up through Xanga and Geosites to a place where some of the most obscure things on earth might have an entry on Wikipedia.  Why are people on the Web?  Because of the ease, speed, and availability of information at your fingertips.

Where I’m pulling all my ideas out of:

I read the following study:

Savolainen, R., & Kari, J. (2006).  User-defined relevance criteria in Web searching.  Journal of Documentation 62(6), 685-707.

which provided an insight into how people look at web searching, as compared to other forms of online information gathering (such as from encyclopedias, dictionaries, or other sources).  The paper took a closer look at some of the criteria that users take into consideration when making choices on whether to pursue a given link in their search for information.

A quick summary:

I found that the paper was somewhat difficult to read, if only because of the grammatical breaks in the writing itself.  Many of these mistakes can likely be attributed to the fact that the paper was intended for a Finnish audience (as much of the data was pulled from a Finnish study).  However, the ideas presented in the paper were simultaneously interesting and obvious.

Although it is often interesting and worthwhile to investigate the “obvious” with scientific rigor, if only for the fact that these “obvious” things are often the most overlooked, this particular study seemed to lack the in-depth analysis that I was expecting.  In comparison to similar papers presented by search companies such as Google, or even simply using data gathered from tools provided by search engines, the Savolainen and Kari study seemed to lack the information to back up their claims.  In fact, the paper only listed 9 informants responses as valid, because

“All videotaped case searches were not taken into the analysis, due to some informants’ inability to verbalize their search activities in sufficient detail…only the “best” searches were included in the analysis.”

Even if the study was conducted as more of a sociological venture or literature review, I feel that more attention could have been paid to the actual analysis of user criterion, rather than a simple reiteration of other, possibly more relevant, studies.

If you were wondering what the paper was actually saying, it was this:

“Our explorative study revealed that most of the user-defined relevance criteria found in the context of traditional online searching environments can be used to explore web searching, too.  Some new criteria…such as familiarity and curiosity were found…their role remained quite insignificant…Of the individual criteria, Specificity, Topicality and Familiarity were used most frequently.

web searchers tend to favour relevance criteria that pertain to information content; specificity and topicality exemplify most strongly criteria of this kind. Also criteria pertaining to information access and organization of information appeared to be of some importance, in particular, accessibility (or lack of accessibility). Criteria pertaining to the searcher’s domain knowledge, most notably exemplified by familiarity were primarily used in the context of accepting hyperlinks. Finally, criteria pertaining to the searcher’s personal preferences and emotions, for example, affectiveness and curiosity did not figure significantly. All in all, web searchers tend to select hyperlinks and web pages by primarily drawing on the content of links and pages.”

Essentially, users that are searching in an online environment are most likely to judge the value or relevance of a link in relation to their search on the following:

  • Specificity – how specific the information from the link is on a given topic
  • Topicality – how well the information from the link relates to the search topic
  • Familiarity – how familiar the user is with the link, or organization sponsoring the link
  • Access – how easily the information from the link could be accessed by the user

Why this matters:

So who cares and what’s the point?  Let me ask you a question: have you ever wanted to save the world?

Perhaps you’ve heard of them on the news, when a so-called “Real Life Superhero” was arrested in Seattle for assault, or from another perspective, saving someone’s life.

The organization called the Real Life Superhero Project catalogs some of these individuals, assisting in developing awareness and activism to build better communities.

“…what began as a gallery exhibit, has come to serve as the launching pad of something far greater—a living, breathing community that inspires people to become the positive forces for change we all can be. To become more active, more involved, more committed, and perhaps, a little super in the process.”

This is the organization that I would like to work with for the Google Online Marketing Challenge.  As far as I can tell (according to the Challenge Guidelines), the organization is eligible as a non-profit organization.

Some information about the organization:

The core audience of the organization are community leaders and activists, although the website itself seems to attempt to reach out to all individuals.  Given the nature of the organization, its audience also likely includes individuals who are interested in superheroes and comics.

Currently, the organization (and others like it) have been getting scant media attention and represent a small niche among community activists.  Although one could discover the organization relatively easily by searching for “Real Life Superheroes” (it’s the 2nd google search result), searching with other criteria will often bring up other results, such as Superman, Spiderman, and other fictional heroes.  In addition, searching for the group using community activism terms leads to other, more prominent groups.

Why are these “Real Life Superheroes” important?

With respect to the “core” audience of the Real Life Superheroes project, there are at least 5 different points that make them relevant:

  1. The project’s emphasis on community action and activism may inspire leaders to perform.  Because the project itself is fueled through volunteers, there is little possibility of “corruption” or fear that resources may be misused.
  2. The superheroes that participate in the project are often high-profile figures, in the sense that they are extremely visible to the general public.  As a result, the project and its supporters can often gain a kind of “return” on their time and effort put into the project by having a visible recognition of their work.
  3. Superheroes are generally very relatable and familiar to the project’s audience; as described in the Savolainen and Kari study, if the project’s audience can easily relate to, or is already familiar with, the project (or its members), the audience is more likely to interact with the project.
  4. With the 2012 American elections in the near future, the social topics of equality, justice, and general activism have once again jumped to the front of the public’s awareness.  As a result, more individuals have been searching for causes like the “Occupy Movement,” SOPA activism, or the more vigilante-oriented “Anonymous.”  Thus, the Real Life Superhero project could relate perfectly to the current events.
  5. Finally, the fact that anyone can obtain the information regarding the Real Life Superhero project, as well as any information about the heroes’ mission makes the project highly accessible to its audience.  In fact, many of the heroes’ pages link to specific charities or other non profit organizations that can further benefit a community.

How to start:

If you visit the project’s page, you may be immediately impressed with the finished look of the page, the detailed graphics, photographs and professional looking text.  Nearly all of the information about the project is legible, comprehensible, and easy to access.  In comparison with other superhero related pages, such as “Real Life Superheroes.org” and “The World Superhero Registry,” the Real Life Superheroes Project seems quite well put-together.

However, unlike the other sites, the Project’s page lacks much of the content of the other sites, making for a comparitively sparse page.  While this is not inherently bad, a user seeking to become inspired by real life superheroes may visit another site for lack of emphasis on heroes’ activities.  In order to improve this, I would first suggest that the project increase their content, either through collaboration with other participating sites or by adding more heroes to their project.  By increasing content, it is more likely that the audience will be able to connect with these heroes and be drawn to contribute or be inspired by the project.

How Ideas Emerge and Flow

Have you ever compared the relative sizes of things in the world using a logarithmic scale?  If not, try playing with this.  It’s an interactive site comparing the sizes of things in the universe, from the smallest understandable concepts to the entirety of the (known) universe.  Try starting from the largest items and move toward the smaller things, just to get an idea of the scale of our individual experience, compared to both the micro and macro universes.

Once you’re done playing with that, compare these three articles:

The “I couldn’t take the time to actually read things,” summary and comparison.

In each of these articles, it seems like the same concept (diffusion of innovation and ideas based on certain environmental and agent-oriented factors) is being discussed, but on different levels.  The first article (Wejnert) discusses innovation and diffusion on a global and societal scale, discussing concepts at an academic level.  Even the language of the article, compared with the others, feels much more lofty:

“As these and other studies suggest, the spread of innovations with private consequences occurs largely due to spatial and temporal contiguity between a source of a new practice and a potential adopter.”

The second article focuses the topic on a professional level, targeting the ideas of innovation, adoption, and personal leadership to a group of individuals entering a specific profession, rather than the larger, global community.  As a result, many of the “academic” details mentioned in the Wejnert article were omitted, replaced with practical advice and information for the development of professional communities.

Compared to the language of the first article, the second article reads much more like an article in a semi-professional magazine:

“In the old days the leadership-averse could hide out in bureaucracies. But as institutions are turned inside out by technology, globalization, and rising public and client expectations of every sort, the refuges are disappearing. Every professional’s job is now the front lines, and the skills of leadership must become central to everyone’s conception of themselves as a professional.”

The last article focuses the idea of innovation and leadership even further, applying it to a specific individual, working on a specific project.  Although it does discuss the ideas of innovation and the adoption and spread of new ideas, Hong focuses on the impacts these ideas have on function and design, specifically as applied to the relationship between a designer and user.  The article, unlike the previous two, is written in an obvious blog format, incorporating specific personal experiences and opinions into the article.

“To a large extent, I do agree about the point about the importance of functionality. If we had a system that could predict tomorrow’s stock market prices but was completely unusable, I’m sure we’d still see a lot of people making the effort to learn how to use it.  However, functionality and design aren’t separate things… [Design] also includes the internal “skeleton” of how the application is organized, the conceptual model, and metaphors conveyed to the end-users, as well as its functionality.”

To put it simply, each of the three articles was discussing the same or similar ideas, but just applied to different environmental scales (global, local communities, and personal).

Still don’t get it?

Here’s an example:

“In 5 years, one will not need a post-high school degree (that is, bachelor’s, master’s, or beyond) to be successful.”

Ridiculous sounding?  Good.  According to Dr. James Dator, professor of Futures Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, “Any useful statement about the futures should appear to be ridiculous.”  That’s not to say that I’m just throwing out a random statement that seems unfeasible, but a statement that only seems ridiculous when thought about given current conditions.  After all, think about your own world 5 years ago.  Did you ever imagine that the iPad, what is essentially a very large iPod Touch, would be successful?  How about 5 years before that?  Did you ever imagine that something like the iPhone would be invented and change the world?  Looking back at it though, one should be able to see the trends leading up to these events.

So where do I get the gall to make such a ridiculous statement?  I started with this article (found on Lifehacker, of course) about obtaining a free online college education.  Turns out I had actually used some of these sites (particularly the MIT courses) in my actual college education.  That is: My college professor used free material from MIT in my PAID college education.  On top of finding free college material, this article in Forbes on the idea of a “free college education for all” supports the idea that a college education from an “accredited” university may not become so relevant in the future.  Rather, what will be important is the knowledge that one actually has, regardless of the certifications accompanying the individual.

So where do the readings come in?

If we apply Agre’s analysis and ideas (that is, innovations and leadership on a community scale) to my statement, one could imagine that upon recognizing the economic benefits of a free college education, students (i.e. consumers of a university education) could begin to adopt the idea, eventually changing the behaviors of other students, particularly across the individual fields of engineering, education, and other schools.  As leaders begin to emerge who have discovered the value of knowledge (as opposed to obtaining a degree), such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Ty Warner, and Harrison Ford, many more individuals may follow their lead.  In addition, Wejnert’s approach takes this idea a step further, detailing the specific processes that would affect the diffusion of a “knowledge-centric” education, opposed to a “certificate-centric” education.

Wejnert’s discussion of media and socio-economic factors would be particularly important in drawing attention to the idea, especially as more individuals are exposed to successful individuals “adopting” a knowledge-centric education.  The social networking factors discussed in Wejnert’s article and detailed in the Agre article would also begin to play a major role as “early adopters” began to emulate the innovators.

In addition to the methods discussed in the readings…

Attention could be drawn to this issue by using some of the methods detailed in this article.  First, using “reverse psychology,” the idea of a knowledge-centric idea could be made appealing by presenting a less desirable alternative: the current education model.  Next, by emphasizing related ideas, such as correspondence learning and trade schools, the idea that a knowledge-centric education could be made more appealing.  Finally, by “underselling” the idea, or making it more compatible with current cultural and societal norms, individuals could be made to feel less alienated from the idea.


The Hong blog discusses the details of how to “wrap up” the idea, presenting the idea of a knowledge-centric education as a complete package, rather than just an alternative to the current system.  Hong’s blog encompass the idea behind many successful products, such as those developed by Apple; both design and innovation are key, creating a unique, usable product, rather than a simple tool.

The Social Information Infrastructure

This being my first post, let me introduce myself first.  I’m an undergraduate at the University of Hawaii, currently studying Information and Computer Science.  I have a myriad of interests, ranging from baking and reading comics to composing poetry and studying the way people speak.

What is a Social Information Infrastructure?

That being said, I actually know quite a bit about infrastructure.  I once starred in a play called “How the West was Won/One,” detailing the era of the Pony Express, the construction of the Transcontinental railroad, and the effects that these improvements in transportation and communication had on America, and ultimately, the world.
Given these extensive qualifications, as well as the fact that I have diligently analyzed the following texts and articles:

  1. Geoffrey C. Bowker, Karen Baker, Florence Millerand, and David Ribes (2010).  Toward Information Infrastructure Studies: Ways of Knowing in a Networked Environment.  In J. Hunsinger et al. (eds.), International Handbook of Internet Research, Springer, 97-117. http://interoperability.ucsd.edu/docs/07BowkerBaker_InfraStudies.pdf

  2. Thomas Erickson (2012).  Social Computing. In: M. Soegaard and R.F. Dam (eds.), Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction. http://www.interaction-design.org/encyclopedia/social_computing.html

  3. Cora Buhlert (2011). The Bacon Cat Law of Internet Popularity.http://corabuhlert.com/2011/07/12/the-bacon-cat-law-of-internet-popularity/

I would define the social information infrastructure as the platform on which information can be provided and processed according to some community guidelines.  This definition, of course, is an amalgamation of definitions provided in the above readings, combining the common idea of infrastructure:

“…collective equipment necessary to human activities…” (from Toward Information Infrastructure Studies)

with the communal aspects depicted in Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction.

But what does this definition mean, at least in terms of the average, Facebook-reading, Wikipedia-citing (which you need to stop doing by the way), and Twittering person?  It means that all those technologies, programs, handheld devices, and most especially, people that you interact with are part of this “social information infrastructure.”  Without each part, you wouldn’t have information, infrastructure, or a social aspect.

A brief aside on the Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, by Thomas Erickson

After reading this chapter, , I compared it to more traditional textbook formats, and found that in an online format, the material became much easier to read, in part because there were no page breaks to distract from the flow of information.  The most significant difference between a “traditional” textbook and this online chapter was the ability to include and incorporate interactive videos and images into the text, providing the reader with a greater immersion into the material.  This format seemed reminiscent of Wikipedia articles such as this one and this one, for inclusion of video and voice interactions, respectively.
In addition, the commentary following the bulk of the “article” was interesting, particularly since each item was included in the interactive table of contents.  Each comment, rather than being a “non-canonical” addition to the page, was treated as a part of the article itself, serving to further illustrate the practical applications of the chapter’s topic.
In spite of all the interactive features and additional commentary, I found that this particular implementation of a “textbook” was  disappointing, especially compared to other sources of encyclopedic knowledge.  Qwiki, for instance, is a wiki-like program that provides its informational content in the form of videos; users can click on links that appear in videos to gain further knowledge on a topic, similar to clicking a link in a Wikipedia article.  Other sites, such as the TED site, cover a diverse, albeit limited, array of topics, again in a much more interesting fashion.  One “article” on this site generally consists of a professional presentation, covering an expert’s views or ideas on a given subject.

Now, back to the social information infrastructure.

Work from home, get money credited to your Amazon.com shopping account.  Jobs are simple, requiring anywhere between 10 seconds to 2 hours to complete.  Sounds pretty awesome right?  Do you know what a mechanical turk is?  It was a chess-playing machine created in the 18th century, designed to entertain royalty.  Check it out here.
Why did I switch topics so abruptly?  Do you know what a mechanical turk is?  It is a system under Amazon.com to provide and pay for services that can only be accomplished by humans, or “human interaction tasks.”  Amazon Mechanical Turk workers engage in simple tasks for a relatively menial pay (usually between 1 to 25 cents per job).  Tasks may be as simple as clicking a link, tagging a picture, or completing a survey on their personality.
That’s pretty cool, right?  I mean, a service that you can get paid for doing something that may take as little as 30 seconds?  I’ve made about 5 dollars so far, over a period of approximately 30 minutes (not including time I spent on searching through and applying for tasks).

Oh, right.  Something about the social information infrastructure.  Well, I first heard about this opportunity from this article on the Lifehacker.com website, which provides articles on general life-improving skills, ideas, and activities.  In addition, I had first heard about the Lifehacker website through a friend’s recommendation on Facebook.
This long chain involved several aspects of the social information infrastructure, requiring dozens of people to create, assimilate, and then distribute the right information for me to become aware of, and interested in, making a few bucks on the Amazon Mechanical Turk system.  For instance:

  • First, the Amazon.com company must have developed and created the Mechanical Turk program, advertising and distributing information about the project to a network of individuals.

  • Then, at the Amazon Mechanical Turk program, someone must have created a job that they intended another individual to perform; this job would then be included in a list that other users would search and rate according to the requester.

  • Next, someone at the Lifehacker website must have been made aware of this program and become interested enough to produce an article about the project.

  • Simultaneously, one of my friends on Facebook would have had to somehow become aware of the Lifehacker website and enjoy reading it enough to post a link about it to their network.

  • Finally, I, as a part of the social information infrastructure, would have had to come into contact with the posted link and eventually come into contact with the aforementioned Lifehacker article; thus, following the chain of links back to the Amazon Mechanical Turk project, and eventually making a trifling amount of money because I was bored.

If any one of these items had not occurred, through lack of interest, technical problems preventing publication, or even if there was a lack of economic incentive, the information and usefulness of the Mechanical Turk project would have been lost to me.
As described using the Matlab example in Erickson’s Social Computing text, the value of the service (in my example, the Mechanical Turk service) accumulates over time, becoming more valuable (i.e. getting a higher “score”) the more individuals are involved with the item.  While Amazon.com may be obtaining value from their service, the added layers of the Lifehacker website and social connection with my friend increase the value of the service; essentially, not only do I obtain the 5 dollars from doing tasks, I have also obtained the resources of Lifehacker.com and knowledge that my friend provides interesting and useful links.

LOLCats and Bacon cats, and O hai.

Who knew that one day, a 24 year old (okay, technically, I’m 23) student in Hawaii would sign up to make 5 bucks with an online retailer, because of his particular financial concerns, and after reading an article on how to make money in his spare time?  Apparently bacon cat did.
Essentially, the “Bacon Cat Law of Internet Popularity,” (not to be confused with the “rules of the internet“) states that no one can predict what will eventually become popular, or interest people.  My personal experience with the Mechanical Turk is an example of this fact, as there are nearly 150,000 tasks available to perform, a testament to the value of the project.  If the project was not popular, or had a smaller audience, there would likely be a significantly reduced number of tasks.
The Mechanical Turk project is similar to the “ESP Game” mentioned in Erickson’s text, as it incentivizes otherwise menial tasks.  The popularity of both the ESP game and the Mechanical Turk project further illustrate the Bacon Cat Law, especially when compared to other, less popular distractions.

Last thought: Did you know that the article by Cora Buhlert (the one about Bacon Cats) also references an XKCD comic?  Did you know that I am an avid XKCD fan?  Another example of the connectivity on the Social Information Infrastructure.