Thursday 6 August 2009

Collegial Consultation with Bernie Hogan

(Bernie in action at the OIISDP 2009. Photo: Eric Cook)

I'm back at the office after a couple of months on the go. In July, I spent two glorious weeks at the Oxford Internet Institute Summer Doctoral Programme, in Brisbane, Australia. One of the very productive discussions I had there was a "collegial consultation" session with Bernie Hogan of the OII. I liked it so much that I decided to record it, transcribe it, and (with Bernie's blessings) publish it here. I realise that it might not be the best of reads, but for people in my field (political participation and social media) there are some really good suggestions. Rock and scroll!

TRANSCRIPT (I've cleaned it up a little):

Bernie Hogan (B): [commenting on the fact that I started recording our conversation]…make that cleavage between that which is now and that which happens that’s not now and that which stays secret, which is worse. But Jeff Boase, and his report is about the strength of Internet ties, and that’s a Pew Report, so it uses U.S. data.

Now, also in the social network world, there is work by Nicole Ellison, and her contemporaries at Michigan State, Charles Steinfield and Cliff Lampe, and they show that people who are bidding on social network sites have larger networks. The issue there is one of causation that they don’t really address, the same with Jeff, it’s also an issue of causation, one that he doesn’t really address that the people who have a propensity to be online might themselves be very social individuals. The idea that there is a difference in space on this…

Nils Gustafsson (N): I mean people, people before social network sites, you would have people who would be very social but they, the possibilities wouldn’t be there. I mean, you could take like people in the 50s and try to see…

B: But people in the 50s, the ones who were very prone to communicate would probably find an avenue to do it. The problem is that we’re dealing with things that are not static.

N: Yeah.

B: So, in my view, I think that one thing that we lose from offline interaction, in this new networked world which is the world of Adam Greenfield’s, you know, going from browsing to searching and what not, is, and this is my comment that I made there about rhythms and habits: one thing that I’ve discovered is that people with the largest networks were, and I never published this anywhere, I’ll just let this through this once, people who organise their lives around regular meetings ended up having a very large number of weak ties, and it was a much stronger finding than e-mail. But the data is sort of shitty so I didn't. I dug deeper in the data and it did make a lot of sense. If you go to church on Sunday, you’re not just going into a place where there is a priest talking and you sit by yourself as an isolate and then you leave and then you go home. After church – now I remember this from when I went to church –

N: You mingle.

B: Yeah. You mingle.

N: But I’m not talking about either church or social network sites, I’m talking about church and then the added value of social network sites.

B: But what I’m suggesting is that those social network sites end up competing with regular rhythms.

N: But in what way?

B: The way that they…

N: You wouldn’t, you wouldn’t-

B:…strife with our attention.

N: Yeah?

B: So when Adam starts to talk about how people start remobilising and micro-coordinating, the fact that they are micro-coordinating means that “I’m not going to go to church because I’ve got something better to do on Sunday and I might meet with those people here and I might some people later elsewhere.” What we’re doing in the process of adding all this communication media on, is imposing an ideology that it’s better to have this very high risk networking…

N: Mmmm.

B: …scenarios where you find just the right people to engage with at just the right time instead of finding the sufficient group of a very large number of people and mingle with them. And going from place to place to place to place rather than everyone converging at the one place at the one time. And it is the difference between, like, a public space where everybody knows that 11 o’clock in Italy you’d go to the, you know in Udine they all sort of converge in front of this museum and they all just knew to be there. And they didn’t need cell phones to do this. Cell phones did have this added value.

And so I was initially persuaded to focus on the added value of these ICTs, but the more I studied this, the more I realised that what these ICTs were doing was getting rid of the norms of communication and replacing them with interpersonal rapports. I mean rapports, r-a-p-p-o-r-t. A rapport is replacing a norm. So the networks of people which is either very active in communication, they might have very large networks, but they are doing so because they are able to sustain all of these different threads, but most people actually find it very complicated to keep up. You’re just watching Nancy and Jeremy try to constantly be on a Twitter stream, and on e-mail, and on the Etherpad, and..I mean, I tried to do that, but then I forget what’s going on in the lecture. And you know I sort of only partially tune in to what’s happening.

N: Yeah, but that is they way THEY are using the media – that’s not the mode, that’s the extreme. Then you’ve got the regular users…

B: So what the regular users are doing, in this regard, I suspect, is not – exactly! The regular users are not gradually getting more ties but are in fact dealing with some people who are overwhelmingly active. And most people are trying to keep up: should I be on an e-mail list? should I be on Facebook? should I be on Twitter? should I pay any attention to this? leading to a sort of social paralysis, because it used to be, “don’t fuck it, we’re in class, we’re in class now, 5 o’clock we’ll all be in the pub, and we’ll chat and we’ll hang out there” and it was lower coordination costs but also a more normative sense of community.

This goes back to Durkheim's idea of sacred and profane sites. Sacred and profane sites were not just a place, not just a church but a place in time, let’s say locus of activity. And we’ve sort of gotten rid of those…sacred sites. Now, Durkheim talks of it not just in terms of religion but that these reflect community values. And without these sort of sacred place-times, it’s hard to say that we have the same you know shared community. But I know this is not exactly what you were expecting to hear, you know I think that there is…

N: I find it fascinating, but, well, an empirical question.

B: But it is an empirical question. I think that it tells to a decent lane to frame this [?] now, the reason that I framed it this way was also sort of a way to challenge the work of my supervisor and some other people in the area who have a reasonably techno-utopian view that new technology creates more social capital.

N: Mmmm…

B: What I’m thinking about is how – again, I’m drawing back to Adam’s talk is you know, every extension is also an amputation – that’s mean old classic McLuhan. Not a big fan of McLuhan, I’m not really sure he calls himself a social scientist, but I mean he’s an interesting person, an interesting guy and you know.

N: Radio: It’s hot!

B: Yeah, sure, that stuff, you could debate about it all day, but you know, McLuhan is like “that’s a bad idea, I don’t really care, I’ll get more ideas”, I mean, he didn’t take himself very seriously, so I don’t know why other people should. But nevertheless…I mean extension-amputation, it’s just good to think about, you know how new technologies, so Barry would say “Oh, people who use e-mail: more social capital!” And I’m thinking well, what are they giving up in the process? What are we losing? And some of the things we are losing are these sort of convergent spaces. These third spaces where everybody knew your name.

N: Do you really think that they are going away? I mean, if you are in party politics, you go to the conventions, and you meet up and then it’s election time and you, it’s the same if you’re in an interest group...

B: Yeah.

N: ...and I mean, if you’re religious, you will still go to church and have a chat afterwards, and it doesn’t go away really.

B: Well, I don’t know. I don’t know. I know that religious attendance is some places up, some places down. Hard to say. So, are these going up or going down?

N: Empirical questions.

B: Again, it’s an empirical question, but the empirical question is not merely “do the ICTs lead to, you know, more successful political participation for some individuals”, but also, do they lead to less successful political participation for others? That’s a…it’s not merely the convention anymore, because some people will realise there’s all this extra stuff going down...

N: Yeah. Yeah.

B: the mean time.

N: That would be my take.

B: Even during the convention.

N: Yeah, some people will communicate and other people will just sort of sit around and...

B: ...figuring that we would just sort of mill around and shake hands and say “Hi!” and that was how we were gonna do this. But the norms have changed.

N: I just got some brilliant ideas. Yeah.

B: Yeah. The norms have changed so that some people could be at the convention completely still-

N: Social network analysis might be not the method for studying that. Maybe some sort of participant observation or interviews or…

B: I think that, you might, because I think you are studying networking, not networks?

N: Yeah.

B: I think that the structure of the networks – what might be interesting, and I do think that social network analysis would do it, the problem with social network analysis in this case is the methodological difficulties in gathering the edges between alters in the personal networks. If you have a group population, if you can find a group, I would definitely, unambiguously do networks. I think you would be at a loss not to.

N: Yeah. Like "liberals". Or "conservatives". Or-

B: But I mean like a smaller group, a manageable group of like, like this, like SDP is a group. Like a set of individuals. And I’m talking about trying to get that complete set. If you can get a complete set of individuals-

N: Local party branch.

B: Exactly. Now, why complete sets? Because missing data in networks skews it really badly. And what you would list with is who do you communicate with and by what media? And then you could draw multi-media networks maps. You know one map that shows the communication ecology by e-mail, one by IM, one by blogs, one by Twitter and then just stack all together and then do that sort of map.

If you can’t do that, if you can’t find a group, if you’re going to the level of personal networks and finding out who’s in their relational structure, don’t waste your time worrying about the edges between people. Don’t say, because we often spend too much time in, you know, do a name generator, do the “Who are the people you talk to?”, list those names, “How do you talk to each of those people”, list those names, but don’t worry about asking the respondents to report on the friends and how those friends link to each other. It’s methodologically a nuisance.

I think the network analysis works here, but I’m not necessarily convinced you will need to, not necessarily convinced you will need to create graph pictures. I think you want to have a sense of the social context, to the relational context and that is a media relational context. So you might look at who are the players, now, or the players from one location and another location and compare their media use, but not their media use in terms of time, their media use in terms of relations, and that means, that is networks, because you will have to get people listing off their ties, and then for each of those ties listing off the media they use.

And that’s why, if you have a group, you can take all that data as one person means to my friends that’s one row, the next person then to them friends is another row and create that matrix that requires the network. But if you don’t have a group, then, you know, you won’t really have a network because you will have you know some people from here, some people from there, one person from here, one person from there, and it’s not necessarily the case that the people I mention are gonna be the people you mention, or that the people we mention are gonna be a complete set. If we’re only mentioning the sum total of all of us, you know, 10-20-30 % of all the political players, then the network you show will be completely biased. And it will look radically different from what it is in “reality”. Ok? So-

N: Thanks for the share. (?)

B: I think I gotta stop for there. And I’ve been doing 20 minutes a time. I think I have to go and get a cigarette.

N: Thank you.

B: No problem.

N: I really enjoyed that.

B: Yeah.

[The conversation took place on July 17th, 2009, at Creative Industries at QUT, Brisbane, Australia.]