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.

  2. Thomas Erickson (2012).  Social Computing. In: M. Soegaard and R.F. Dam (eds.), Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction.

  3. Cora Buhlert (2011). 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 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 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 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 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 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 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.