Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Search Computing and Social Media Workshop

Today, in Torino, Italy, was the day of the Search Computing and Social Media Workshop organized by Chorus+, Glocal and PetaMedia. Being the PetaMedia organizer, I had the honor of opening the workshop with a few words. I tried to set the tone by making the point that information is inherently social, being created by people, for people. Digital media simply extends the reach of information, letting us exchange with others and with ourselves over the constraints of time and space.

The panel at the end of the day looped back around to this idea to discuss the human factor in search computing. We collected points from the workshop participants on pieces of paper to provide the basis for group discussion. I made some notes about how this discussion unrolled. I'm recording them here while they are still fresh in my head.

We started by tackling a big, unsolved issue: Privacy. The point was made that the very reason why social media even exists is that people seem driven in some way to give up their privacy, share things about themselves that no one would know unless they were revealed. Whether or not users do or should compromise their own privacy by sharing personal media was noted to depend on the situation. For some people it's simply, obviously the right thing to do. Concerns were raised about people not knowing the consequences: maybe effectively I am a totally different person five years from now than I am now. But I am still followed by the consequences of today's sharing habits. In the end, the point was made that if the willingness to among users to share stops, we as social media researchers have not much else left to examine.

Next we moved to the question of events in social media: Human's don't agree about what constitutes and event. Wouldn't it just be easier to just adopt as our idea of an event whatever our automatic methods tell us is an event? Effectively we do this anyway. We have no universal definition of an event. There may be some common understanding or conventions within a community that define what an event is. However, these do not necessarily involve widespread consensus: they may be personal and they may evolve with time. For example, the event of "freedom"? Most people agreed that freedom was not an event.

An event is a context. That's it. At the root of things, there are no events. Instead, we use concepts to build from meaning to situational meaning -- to the interpretation of the meaning of the context. Via this interpretation, the impression of event emerges. In the end, meaning is negotiated.

If we say events are nothing, we wouldn't be able to recognize them. Or, does the computer simply play a role in the negotiation game. The systems we build "teach" us their language and we adapt ourselves to their limitations and to the interpretative opportunities that they offer.

Then the question came up about the problems that we choose to tackle as researcher. "Are we hunting turtles because we can't catch hares?" This bothered me a bit, because assuming you can easily catch a turtle, they are quite difficult to kill because of the shell. The hare would be easier. Do our data sets really allow us to tackle "the problem"? The question presupposes that we know what "the problem" is, which may be the same as solving the problem in the first place. Maybe if we can offer the user in a give context enough results that are good enough, they will be able to pick the one that solves "the problem". Perhaps that's all there is to it. Under such an interpretation, the human factor becomes an integral part of the search problem.

In the end, a clear voice with a succinct take home message:
How can we efficiently combine both the human factor and technology approaches?
"The machine can propose and the user can decide."

The discussion ended naturally with a Tim Berners Lee quote, reminding us of the original intent of social effect underlying the Web. We adjourned for some more social networking among ourselves, reassuring ourselves that as long as we were still asking the question we shouldn't expect to find ourselves completely off track.