Logistics and/of Communication

radar1A few years ago, I picked up a paper at a conference poster session written Judd Case, from Manchester College. He was making an argument for radar as a branch of communication theory.  One of his observations really resonated with me – the attention to the concept of logistics.  Drawing on the work of earlier social scientists such as Harold Innis, Lewis Mumford, and Marshall McCluhan and the concept of technic as well as Virilio’s observation of the camera ensuring “logistics of perception,” Case argues that radar is a logistic because it first orders and then represents.  Thus, he argues, there is also a politics of logistics.

If logistics is about ordering and coordinating first, then there is a clear connection to what I call configuration, or the ordering of what exists into something new. Such as a mashup. Logistics seems to go beyond just coordinating or configuring.  It implies an ordering, a perception of relations or how thing (should) relate. Therefore, meaning is strategically built into the structure.  Which then itself structures further action.

Logistics may indeed be different than structuring and ordering by offering a stronger connection to materiality.  In the event of logistical failure some part of the system — some material mechanism — literally breaks. Logistics imply terms such as system capacity, throughput, movement. So failure creates a standstill until the part is fixed or a work around is built.

Case argues there is a politics of logistics. And I think, certainly, interesting potential for new ways of theorizing the politics of systems and of technology.

For an abstract of the dissertation that was the source of this paper, see http://ir.uiowa.edu/etd/474/

It’s not easy being an open scholar

It’s not easy being an open scholar. Well, technically, it’s much easier than the traditional route. There are several thousand open access journals, which means a good number are being published in every field. And an increasing number of universities are hosting open repositories for their faculty’s scholarly work.

[Read more…]

Research directions for interorganizational collaboration

As part of a project on collaboration in the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) with my colleague Natalie Nelson-Marsh, I’ve been reviewing the research literature on interorganizational collaborations (IOCs). These organizations occur across sectors and come in various structures and sizes, having in common that they form mostly due to contingencies, such as unexpected events or a complicated or complex situation that can’t be addressed by a single organization.

Most of the early literature in the 1980s and 1990s focused on two major issues. First, identifying the specifications of an IOC in terms of its defining structures and processes. Second, the conditions under which IOCs tended to form. Not surprisingly, research investigated the inputs/conditions and outputs of IOCs, notably research into membership and shared purpose. Later work extended this research by turning to empirical study of IOCs themselves and identifying communication elements or processes that common to different IOCs.  Heath (2007), for example studies the significance of the “dialogic moment”. Hardy, Lawrence and Grant (2005) identify key discursive forms that structure a collaborative.  And Koschmann (2007) explores how an IOC can sustain its membership through collective identity.

As noted by these and every other researcher in this area, IOCs are key to organizing in the 21st century. I think this is absolutely true. I can see the very recent and dramatic rise in crowdfunded, crowdsourced, Just-In-Time business ventures as yet another contribution to this phenomenon (think Kickstarter). And so what I would hate to have happen is that we as researchers sediment or solidify too early what we understand to be IOCs. In other words, to settle on the construct too quickly. There are some assertions made in the early literature that run the risk of being taken now as assumptions, and now is the time to ask some more systematic questions. Here are some of the questions I think would be valuable for research to explore:

  • What is the conceptual relationship between collaborations as organizational forms (I’ll call “collaboratives” for clarity) and collaboration as an interactional process? Must collaboratives be governed collaboratively?
  • What is the role of self-reflection as being part of the organization? Must IOCs be intentional?
  • Is there an element of stewardship in the member role, either stewardship for the outcome or for the organization itself?
  • What are the individual strategic actions needed to maintain the organization as a collaborative?
  • What is the role of power and politics in collaboratives? Current research often holds that collaboratives are nonhierarchical (or at least that power difference is controlled in some way, as by a facilitator). But if we assume power to be an inherent part of organizing, what is the nature of it in in self-governing collaboratives?

Most central to my interest is in better understanding the communicative processes that constitute IOCs.  To the extent that “collaboration” as a process should be understood to be characterized by possibility, uncertainty, and intentionality, how do the processes in IOCs emerge, how are they sustained, and what role do they play in the ability of the IOC to sustain itself as an organizational form?



Hardy, C., Lawrence, T., & Grant, D. (2005). Discourse and collaboration: The role of conversations and collective identity. Academy of Management Review, 30(1), 58–77. doi:10.2307/20159095

Heath, R. G. (2007). Rethinking community collaboration through a dialogic lens: Creativity, democracy, and diversity in community organizing. Management Communication Quarterly, 21(2), 145–171. doi:10.1177/0893318907306032

Koschmann, M. A. (2012). The Communicative Constitution of Collective Identity in Interorganizational Collaboration. Management Communication Quarterly, 27(1), 61–89. doi:10.1177/0893318912449314

Mobile phones don’t replace telecenters

I would wager that most of us assume that the widespread adoption of mobile phones would have practically replaced the “old school” (i.e., 1990s) view of telecenters.  Sharing a computer in a village or neighborhood (or using a local cybercafé) would provide people, who otherwise couldn’t afford it, with access to the internet.  But, of course, with mobile phones we now have the internet in our pockets.

Turns out this hasn’t happened. What has happened tells us something interesting about communication.

An interesting report comes from Chris Coward, Principal Research Scientist and Director of the Technology & Social Change Group at the University of Washington Information School.  The group conducted surveyed 7,000 people across 5 low- and middle-income countries.  One of the findings of the report is that “public access venue” computer use generally has not declined.  Instead, the particular uses of each type of medium has organized into patterns.

Coward provides a list of the various purposes that a user might have for using either a computer or a mobile phone.  And although he doesn’t comment on the way these different uses cluster, I hope this is something the research group explores further.  What I see when I look at the results is that overwhelmingly, when people use the internet to seek out information–particularly authoritative and reliable information–the computer is part of the mix.  In doing “research for school or work”, for example, the computer is used nearly 100 percent of the time, and solely used over 50% of the time. The results are similar for “research health issues.” In contrast, when the use is relational and ephemeral, the mobile phone is the dominant mode.  For example, for “keep in touch with friends,” the phone is used 80-90% of the time. And nearly as much for “meet new people.”

Perhaps this is due to obvious affordances; for example, information is difficult to read on the small screens of cell phones. But perhaps there is more going on here, that has to do with the functions of differing processes of communication. It will be interesting to see this research unfold in the future.

Coward, Chris. 2014. “Global Computing: Private then Shared?”. Communications of the ACM, 57(8), p29-30

Revisiting Flaming: Blurting

I took a trip down memory lane today, reading studies of flaming.  For those of you who started using the Internet only since about the turn of the millenium, flaming might not be a term you have heard much before (I know many of my students haven’t heard it), but it was a major research concern in the 1990s. Flaming is sort of like trolling. Wikipedia (in an unusually weak entry) disambiguates “flaming” to include Flaming (Internet) as “the act of posting deliberately hostile messages on the Internet used mainly by a troll.”  It’s important to remember that flaming was much more significant than this.

Flaming was part of the “dark side” of online communication, even before the Internet. It was seen as proof that using computer-based technology to communicate dehumanized us. Made us less empathetic. Some researchers said it was because we lost the elements of face-to-face communication.  Others said it was because we could be anonymous — in fact, a quite important stream of research (SIDE) is based on this assumption.

I first taught about flaming back before the commercial internet, and before the modern-day GUI mail client or web browser. Back then, flaming was a topic for teaching net etiquette, aka netiquette  (another term that’s not used much anymore). Some of what we taught can more properly be understood as socialization into the emerging norms of online communication. Things like DON’T TYPE IN ALL CAPS EVEN IF YOU THINK IT IS EASIER TO READ (my father’s personal favorite) BECAUSE PEOPLE WILL THINK YOU’RE YELLING. Or, don’t use a lot of exclamation points, even if you just want to add emphasis, because people think you’re angry!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! We taught about using emoticons to convey emotions that couldn’t be conveyed in text (no kidding, these ubiquitous little beasties didn’t really enter general consciousness before the 1980s 🙂 😉 😛 ).

But I haven’t thought about flaming too much in the past decade, as online communication has been more deeply integrated into everyday communication, and the since the distinction between the online and offline self has faded. It came back to mind lately due to an article recently published in Communication Monographs, by Dale Hample, Adam S. Richards, and Christine Skubisz. The topic of the article is blurting.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Not typically a word you seen in scholarly research, but it is a very good onomatopoeia.  Blurting is the act of saying something without thinking and that, as soon as it leaves our lips, we wish we could take back.

The researchers asked what sorts of people were most prone to blurt, and this is what they found (yes, it’s from the abstract, but I swear I read the whole thing):

Blurters endorsed more messages overall [as appropriate] and rejected fewer because of harm to other or relationship; they saw interpersonal arguments in a less sophisticated way, and as less cooperative or civil, but more pointedly emphasized the utility, identity display, dominance, and play goals for arguing; blurters were higher in verbal aggressiveness, indirect interpersonal aggression, psychological reactance, sensation seeking, psychoticism, extraversion, and neuroticism; and they were lower in perspective-taking and lying. People were most likely to blurt when they believed they had high rights to speak in a situation, and were less likely when personal benefits and relational consequences were at issue, or when the situation made them apprehensive.

The worry that the internet would bring on hoardes of flamers never panned out. In fact, researchers had a hard time finding flames.  O’Sullivan and Flanigan  found less than 1% of all emails or discussion posts had objective characteristics we could identify as flaming. This led them to develop a contextual definition that identifies flames based on the perception of the communicators involved.  And though I generally agree with contextual approaches, this solution in this case left me unsatisfied.

So here’s what occurred to me as I read this article: what if flaming had less to do with the technology (or even context), and more to do with all of the psychological and cognitive traits identified by Hample and colleauges? What if flames were the online equivalent of blurting?  Writing or posting something that, in hindsight, we wished we wouldn’t’ve. Some of us do it because we read faster than we think, and our fingers are flying before our internal editing kicks in.  But what if the regular flamers–what we now call trolls–are simply blurters in a text based communication environment?

All of the consequences of blurting/flaming — flurting? — remain significant: relationships harmed, confidences broken, embarrassment, and so on. But we can look to the relationship between cognitive and communicative processes for understanding, rather than pinning it on the technology.

An important takeaway from this possibility: reinforcing that research should not be asking the Difference Question.  The DQ begins with a soft form of technological determinism — an assumption that the explanatory mechanisms for any observed difference is the technology.  In fact, such research sets up the study so that the point of contrast is online v. offline.

Flaming may have had little to nothing to do with the technology after all.  OMG WTF !!!  😀

References and for more information:

Hample, D., Richards, A. S., & Skubisz, C. (2013). Blurting. Communication Monographs, 80(4), 503-532. doi:10.1080/03637751.2013.830316

O’Sullivan, P. B., & Flanagin, A. J. (2003). Reconceptualizing “flaming” and other problematic messages. New Media and Society, 5(1), 69–94. doi:10.1177/1461444803005001908

Turnage, A. K. (2008). Email Flaming Behaviors and Organizational Conflict. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1), 43–59. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1083-6101.2007.00385.x

Tanis, M., & Postmes, T. (2003). Social Cues and Impression Formation in CMC. Journal of Communication, 53(4), 676–693. doi:10.1111/j.1460-2466.2003.tb02917.x

What Makes a Study Interesting?

Every once in a while, I go through my file cabinets (yes, I still have file cabinets), looking for things to purge or—if I’m lucky–for lost treasures.  I found a few today, and here is one of them.  It is a handout from a course on quantitative reasoning that I took in graduate school from M. Scott Poole in the early 1990s at the University of Minnesota. The title is “What makes a study interesting”.   As with most of Scott’s ideas, I think this remains relevant and good advice to new scholars (heck, to established scholars as well).  I’ve recreated it here exactly as given to me and my coursemates, with the exception of correcting a typo and the numbering of one list. [Read more…]

Getting Big Data is no longer the issue. What is guiding our use of it?

On December 12, I had the pleasure of moderating and serving as a respondent on the panel, “Social Media Analytics: Making Sense and Businesses from Big Data” at Linnaeus University in Sweden. The panel was part of the LU Media Technology department’s “Social Media Week.” Panelists were Peter Bjellerup (Social Business Consultant, Global Centre of Competence, IBM), Ian Dunne (Expound Social Media), and Marc Jansen (Hochschule Ruhr West and Linnaeus University).

Listening to each speaker, there was no doubt in my mind that big data has arrived. Production or creation of data is no longer an issue. And even taking into consideration the real challenges laid out for us by Jansen (such as needing to develop new approaches to memory management and structuring multiple data formats), I don’t really think that technical issues are any more an insurmountable task. What I saw in these presentations was a clear turn in the tide, from data qua data, to the uses of that data. And particularly fascinating were the recurring references to “conversations” and “meanings.” Bjellerup’s central argument was for the importance of thinking about big data as a tool for creating conversations — for listening to and engaging with customers. The challenge that organizations now face is how to translate data into action: how to use it to make decisions, to create relationships. Dunne took this a step further in a way I think is important for communication scholars: to devise means to bring data to specific and particular embodied situations in order to shape and alter the conversation in the moment. In other words, to push the data to users in real-time according to context specific demands. I have talked about this elsewhere as a vision of using technology to augment communication – to remove constraints or create possibilities, but without fundamentally altering the nature of the relationship.

The overall theme brought home by the speakers is how do we move from data to action? I also heard a troubling assumption underlying each of the speakers’ comments–though I suspect they would take issue with me here. What I heard was an odd acceptance that data collection is so ubiquitous (and that we are so frequently complicitous in that collection) that the data can know us, can reveal us in quite intimate ways. Ways that we might not even be conscious of ourselves. In that way, the data are transparent–there is no interpretation or rationalization of what action is more important than another. The system just collects our actions. So, then, the question of decision making — of what to do with this data and how to make sense of it — becomes a critical social issue. The panelists argue their enterprises seek to “measure, process, explain the success of social media”. My question is: what are our criteria for success? Research questions of 20 years ago no longer are as relevant: devices are now highly diffused, data is collected across multiple contexts, most users provide data freely, and social media is an accepted forum for interaction and exchange. So now the questions are about content. Yesterday’s data was planned, principled, and structured. Today’s is both unstructured (unprincipled, “ambient” data) and decontextualized (data is captured but we don’t need to know how it will be used).

We are in a sea of data. If the current issue is how to create conversations from that data, to build relationships, then this is no longer properly a technical issue or even a business issue. This is a social and ethical issue. I am not referring to the standard concerns based on individual privacy. Although there are concerns about how the data will be used, surveillance is more relevant to decisions about gathering and storing information. I am talking about something different. The emerging connections of multiple sources flatten our experiences into a single data stream which can then be appropriated to alter the nature of our interactions with one another, our relationships, and our communication. The data about us in the system makes us familiar to others, sometimes in deeply personal ways (in a story that is quickly becoming famous, marketers can analyze data to find out your family planning strategies). We are immediately and intimately familiar to those we haven’t even met. We will need to discuss as a society and in our communities new questions: should there be requirements for creating a “relationship” with someone? Should users of data be required (or expected) to follow norms relating to social rules and roles? And for communication scholars: what will be the emerging patterns of interaction in these situations? What are the communication ethics of “personal information differentials”?

Humans have always had information about one another. And, as a result, we have developed expectations for how to use that information, for what is acceptable and what is not. Now we are entering into a new information era. Our traditional guidelines may no longer hold. We need new conversations.

Humans as Mashups or, The Crowdsourced Human

I have written before about the importance of mash-ups to the future of communication processes. A key to mash-ups is the use of data produced by various otherwise unconnected sources. At the time, I was thinking of how these various data would be used to create media products, like dynamically rendered websites or video mashups. But an article by J. Verini in Dec 2012 issue of Wired introduced me to Hatsune Miku, who I see as a human mashup.

Miku is an image, an animation, and a pop star in Japan. It is not unusual for companies to create personas to sell products, and that is why Miku exists. She was created in 2007 to sell a virtual voice program created by a company called Crypton. But timing and context were critical. Miku was created in Japan where, according to Verini, fan culture is a popular phenomenon and fan created content is ubiquitous. The content poured into a technological environment capable of monitoring, analyzing, filtering, and extracting themes to constitute and sustain a new human identity: Hatsune Miku.

Verini writes,

“Miku…is just unreal enough, it seems, to be relatable. At a fan convention, Condry [from MIT] told me, he asked some kids why this was. “They said, ‘We know she’s not a person. We like that she’s a machine. Those of us who are into this like dealing with machines more than with people.'”

This is one example of why constitution and configuration should be a new focus for communication studies. Traditional conceptions of communication (as connection or information) miss the point of what is happening here: design and dynamic organization. Miku is an open-source person. What might result if these same processes where used to create other identities?

Reference: Verini, J. (2012, Immaterial girl. Wired, 20, 146.

Conversation to Information and Back Again: The Mobile Web

Information and conversation are two distinct modes of communication. Conversation is ephemeral, in the moment, rich in meaning not only only from what is said but also from the context of what is around us. We easily recognize how the exact same content of an ordinary exchange of greetings is different if it occurs between co-workers on a Monday morning, or two strangers on a dark street on a weekend night. Information, on the other hand, has no similar specificity of space and time. By definition, in reducing experience to explication, it strips out messiness and imposes a more ordered–or at least conscripted–meaning. In return for this loss, this remaining meaning can be sustained across time and space. In other words, the only things that remain from our actual experiences are the things that make it into our documentation of those experiences–whether in stories, reports, recordings, or memories.

Now enter the mobile web. Darin Stewart, in a Burton IT report in 2012, argues that most businesses — and most people, I think — regard websites as sources of information. And most businesses have a separate strategy for connecting with customers on mobile devices. He says, though, that this is no longer a good approach. Instead, businesses should be thinking about a mobile strategy that encompasses all online information–whether internet, intranet, or extranet. He proposes a strategy with three elements: optimization, contextualization, and personalization.

Generally, Stewart’s position is practical and functional. Lots of good talk about capturing consumers, targeting individuals, and segmenting markets. A fine guide for business. But here’s why I think there is potential for something even more interesting here for understanding communication and technology. “Contextualization” is not just delivering information at the right time and place. It is akin to reconstituting information back into conversation. Contextualization takes information and adds back in the ephemeral; it adds in time and place. The extensive diffusion of mobile devices allows this to be done on a grand scale.

Of course, it is possible that “contextualization” will end up in practice as little more than a focused delivery of information, where the receiver is only that: a receiver. Like getting direct mail catalogs, or email spam, the result will be a quick drop into the recycle bin. But it’s possible that something else could happen. If contextualization can enrich the experience of the moment, adding to meaning or shared understanding, then we return back to conversation. This loop has always existed between information and conversation, but the mobile web could bring it close enough so that the loop feels near instantaneous. That is an interesting prospect.

Reference: Stewart, D. (2012). Three steps to maximize content mobility for total online engagement. Retrieved from http://www.gartner.com/id=2026415 December 28, 2012.

Cell phones and social avoidance

Bottom line: sometimes, it’s OK.   A recent story in the Denver Post features my comments on the subject, “New study finds more people using cellphones to avoid in-person contact”.

Basically, a good response to technology-enabled behaviors that seem alarming is to chill out. Human communication is not so fragile as to be destroyed by any particular technology. But it does remind us that we should not be complacent. We need to be active in cultivating the social world we want to live in.

For more on this theme, see my essay “The Visual Life: Sexting and Rethinking Communication”