Processing social information and Social processing of information

I just spent two days at the Social Computing Symposium sponsored by Microsoft Research. It brought together a terrific mix of well known researchers, pundits, and “edge people” who are developing social software and integrating it into their lives in interesting ways. The pundits and edge people were referred to as “the cool people” or sometimes as “the digerati” at this conference.

The intellectual highlight for me was Tom Erickson offering a crisp (but not short) definition of social computing that helped make some useful distinctions among categories. My much shorter version is:

  • processing of social information that is distributed in social collectivities

Processing should be taken as a shorthand for collecting, distributing, aggregating, etc.
To say that the information is social is a shorthand for saying that it describes people or their relationships.
To say that it is distributed in social collectivities highlights the fact that there may be information assymmetries among the participants in the collectivity.

One reason that this definition is useful is that it distinguishes processing of social information from systems that permit collaborative processing of any old information. For example, Slashdot’s threaded commenting systems would not count, but its moderation and karma systems would. Wikis would not count. LiveJournal’s generic blogging and commenting features would not count, but its features that build on people specifying “friends” whose journals they want to follow would count.

It’s not clear whether “social computing” is the term that ought to go with the category that Tom has articulated. It seems just as natural to apply it so social processing of information rather than processing of social information. But in any case, the distinction seems useful.

There was an IRC backchannel throughout the conference, populated by the pundits, edge people, and some researchers, mostly the younger ones. It was interesting to watch it for the first morning, but then I tuned it out– too many in jokes from a crowd not really in with. The best line I noticed on the IRC channel came from David Weinberger who said there were two groups of people in the room, each envying the other but for the wrong reasons. I wonder what the right reasons would be. One of the most interesting things for me to observe was some grad students who are living as edge people but training to become researchers. Danah Boyd, for example, has already been profiled in the New York Times, even though she’s still relatively early in her Ph.D. program at Berkeley SIMS, I think. She did a nice presentation that suggested she is well on her way to understanding academic norms. I hope she can hold onto her enthusiasm and charisma during the dissertation process.

The most interesting new additions to my social network were Clay Shirky and Michael Cornfield. Both have an amazing mental quickness, and the ability to present ideas clearly and persuasively.

I had one bone to pick with Clay, however. He had good comments on lots of things throughout the event, but his main theme (along with David Weinberger) was the dangers of explicit representations of social information. But he was fighting a straw man at times, because the explicit representations of social information and the computations performed on them need not be models of how people process social information in their heads. eBay’s reputation score for a seller need not accurately reflect what really happened in the transactions or how an individual would aggregate that information in informal, everyday life. It just needs to be informative and create the right incentives.


About Paul Resnick

Professor, University of Michigan School of Information Personal home page
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