Position Paper – ACM-GROUP Workshop
Position: Two factors that influence the trajectory of online social research
An interesting area of social science research is the study of how people interact in a relatively unmediated way in environments mediated by networked information and communication technology. In other words, there are new forms of interaction happening in environments known as “online communities” or “Web 2.0”. Sites like Facebook, Slashdot, YouTube, and Wikipedia allow users to interact with each other, and from those interactions come social processes worthy of attention by social scientists.
Since the beginning of computer-mediated communication, these social interactions have proven fruitful for research, leading to a long history of valuable scholarship. Two things have changed in the past 10 years that affects the trajectory of that scholarship: number of participants and ownership of the spaces.
First, as more of the population of the world moves online, there are opportunities for both more numerous online interaction spaces, and for larger online interactions. Many of the sites listed above depend on the interactions of large numbers of people, from hundreds of thousands, to millions. The ability of electronically mediated environments to store and manipulate information may allow for new types of interactions that were not possible previously. How this is analogous to offline interactions is still poorly understood. For example, a national election is a form of interaction, but without some of the peer-to-peer elements of a site like Facebook. Social science research on humans has focused on different scales of human interaction, from the dyad to the small group to the organization to the society. However, the trend in studies of large offline group interactions is to see them as collections of small groups. This may be because the limits of physical spaces make it so that one is unable to receive and process information from more than a small group.
While online interactions have famously constrained information channels (i.e. no sight, sound or co-presence information) they also are enabled by databases and computation that allow for new forms of interaction. The ability to maintain databases, process information, and distribute output at relatively low costs allows for interactions not possible in physical environments. Recommender systems are an example of a technology that capitalizes on the affordances of computer mediation to enhance social information sharing, allowing users to both provide feedback to each other in online communities, as well as help decide which products and services to buy.
The second factor that influences the development of social computing research is the increasing occurrence of private ownership of interesting online environments. Many of the most compelling sites, where people are innovatively using online technologies to