Author Archives: naaman

On Media Multitaskers

(sidenote: I find that I now blog thoughts that are too long to fit in a tweet; so feel free to follow my tweets, or Ayman’s).

A recent article in the PNAS was quoted in quite a number of media outlets (Hindustan Times gave the Masters student responsible a PhD as well as professorship). From the article, Cognitive control in media multitaskers, by (the formidable team of) Eyal Ophir (get a Web page!), Cliff Nass and Anthony Wagner:

Results showed that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory.

Heavy multimedia multitaskers (HMMs) are identified by a survey about media use, and compared to low multimedia multitaskers (one standard deviation over vs. under the mean of the index). The paper compared HMMs (not sure they are aware of the other meaning of the term) and LMMs on a number of tasks, finding that:

individuals who frequently use multiple media approach fundamental information processing activities differently than do those who consume multiple media streams much less frequently: their breadth-biased media consumption behavior is indeed mirrored by breadth-biased cognitive control.

In other words, those who multitask are not effective multitaskers – it’s the opposite. Of course, there are still outstanding questions:

  • Causality: what is the direction of influence? Do HMMs (I still find it hard to use this acronym) tend to breadth-biased consumption of media because of their distraction?
  • Index validation: how robust is the survey and metric created to capture the “media multitasking” index? Do survey participants’ self-reports actually attest to their real behavior, and does the survey really capture “multitasking” or something else? The authors note that Media multitasking as measured was correlated with total hours of media use — maybe that’s what was measured?
  • What other factors are in play? As the participants were all Stanford students, I do not expect major age, economic or education gaps; the also authors tested for differences in a number of dimensions (SAT scores, performance on a creativity task, ratings on extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness and others) and found no significant differences between HMMs (grrrr, acronym!) and LMMs. Does this cover it or is there any other factor that will help explain the differences?

In any case, interesting study — I am looking forward to the follow up work. And now, off to another media!

Twitter Evolves #nextstep

The good folks (partial list) at Twitter are doing their best to catch up with the emergent behaviors and ad-hoc constructs that rise from user innovation. These last couple of weeks we had announcement of official support for Retweet (mock from the Twitter blog below) as well as location data for individual posts.

Project retweet (from Twitter Blog)

While both are great, Twitter will only be ready to take over the web when they official adopt the next feature in line: support for adult-material spammers to add everybody as their follower at the same time.

Or, more importantly, hashtags.

A first-class support of hashtags will be the final nail in the coffin of Twitter taking over content everywhere (the Web, the world, the old media, TV, everything). Hashtags support would not only mean that a user can flag the topic of their post (#iran), saving a few characters on the way. Solid support for hashtags would mean that any user would be able to semantically tie their tweets to any type of object, virtual or real. Couple that with the flexibility of the Twitter system, and you have a platform where anyone can “attach a note” to anything, anywhere, anytime.

Examples? But of course. My tweet is about Society Coffee in Harlem. My tweet is about Sony Playstation III. It’s about the first episode of the Mad Men latest season. My tweet is about Rutgers SC&I. My tweet is about the web page of Rutgers SC&I. My tweet is about the New York Times article about Retweets. My tweet is about Ayman Shamma. My tweet is about Calexico.

Wait, how would that be different than just adding the hashtags in the text (e.g., #societycoffee)?. Well, Twitter people are smart. And they are friends of the good folks at Flickr. They will surely support Machine tags a-la Aaron‘s.

Machine tags will allow a much more robust (read: semantic) connection between the hashtag and the object discussed. I will still be saying #AymanShamma, but the system will store #facebook:user=111111 (or #twitter:user=22222). I will be saying “Calexico live in Barbi Tel Aviv” and the system will store #lastfm:event=33333 (Flickr’s machine tag now sports 1.2 million photos with a machine tag). Similarly, whether it’s a product name, a web page, a school name… a strong Twitter and client implementations can help users assign exact semantics (when they so desire) to any post.

Especially with location.

Context aware Twitter clients are a step away of being able to provide the users with the power to comment on anything, anywhere. I am pulling my iPhone out in a restaurant. My Twitter clients knows where I am, and gets IDs of nearby restaurants from Yelp. The client lets me select the restaurant I am in (or guesses it automatically based on the text and location). My post is now tied to the semantic object that is that restaurant (identified by Yelp ID, #yelp:biz=society-coffee-new-york-2) instead of just matching the text of the restaurant name (“Society Coffee” would not help much in matching and search tasks).

The Twitter API would surely allow other players to “read” all this content. Companies could show tweets about their products on the product page (or even ask users to tweet with #REI:productid=444444). If you are in a live event, a big screen can show all the content tagged #lastfm:event=555555 (which will be easy for any user to add to their post using their location- or calender-aware client). And more.

“If you liked this painting tweet #moma:paintingid=6666666”. We might see a lot more of these in the future. Twitter will bring on the object web. Just hash it out already!

p.s. Of course, our ZoneTag already did all these things (on Flickr) by 2007.

Teaching “Social Media”: Open for Suggestions!

The Naaman and Boase team are about to teach, for the first time ever (for us and at Rutgers), a “social media” class (informal announcement and silly photo here, Facebook group with some more information here). We are pretty excited about this opportunity (if I may speak for Jeff here) – I am looking forward for a very interesting semester.

But in the open teaching tradition I started last January, I am going to ask the one dear reader of this blog (it’s not Ayman, he just writes it) for input. What do you think a social media class should include? Try to think about it for a minute before looking at our tentative plan for the class, below. What did you hit that we didn’t?

Of course, two questions are immediately raised: 1) what is social media and 2) what is the target audience for the class. Let me start with the second, which is easier to answer. We target PhD and Masters students in various programs including Computer Science, Information Science and Communication (we even have a business school student registered). Letting both PhD and Masters students take the class means we need to balance theory/research and practical learnings that the Masters students can take with them to the workplace. Also, the interdisciplinary approach and audience means we will handle material from the social sciences, HCI and design, as well as computer science and information science topics.  One last thing to know: the students will form interdisciplinary teams to create/design a social media application (e.g. a Facebook app).

So, what is social media? Well, as you can see below it is the topic of the first session, so I am not going to give the full story here. In short, we see social media in a new (an emerging) Information and Communication Technology (ICT) that allows people to communicate in a public or semi-public manner, with emphasis on the personal identity of contributors and social connections. I will keep it short here so just a few positive and negative examples: Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, MySpace are social media. Wikipedia, comments on New York Times articles, Instant Messenger and Newsgroups are NOT social media. Let’s argue about that definition later…

So, what would you teach that’s important to understand this emerging ICT? What are the key readings that are not to be missed? Here’s what we have for now, without the readings. Feel free to suggest your favorite reading on each topic, as well!

  • What is Social Media: introduction, definition and examples.
  • Communities and social networks: Concept of communities, offline and online, how this concept is shifting; what are social networks (i.e. ties between people) and what to they enable.
  • Social network models and structure: online social networks, analysis of social networks, structure of networks, ego-centric network view, etc.
  • Open Platforms: “Web 2.0”, “the Web of data“, APIs – some idea of what can be built on top of existing social media applications.
  • HCI and Design: introduction to the design process with emphasis on Web and social applications.
  • Motivation and adoption: when do people adopt certain social media services, and why do they contribute to them? In other words, what is the motivation of people to join and stay active on social media sites?
  • Social media across cultures: a cross-cultural look at the social media phenomena.
  • Mobile-social and Social Media for Good: with a very special guest speaker!
  • Data Addicts: Data Collection, Analysis, and Visualization (for research or application purposes) of social media data.
  • Study Design and Data Analysis: introduction to research on social media services; how to design studies and analyze the data.
  • Social Information Design: an information-centric approach to social media; what are the different information factors in play (yes, this is where we talk about tagging).
  • Privacy, Legal Issues, Copyright, and IRB.
  • Economics of social media.

That’s it for now. As you can see, we plan jump from the theoretic, to the practical, to the research-y topics, hopefully making for a good mix. What did we leave out? What should we leave out? Your input is welcome, or as Dr. Boase would say, “we will try our darnedest to include suggestions, but may not be able to include all of them”.

Proposals and Innovation (Kudos to Google)

I think it was my colleague Michael Lesk that mentioned someone (I forget whom) performing a “back-of-an-envelope” (or was it “side-of-a-napkin”?) calculation, showing that the NSF proposal process results in negative gains to the research community (logic: number of hours writing proposals by researchers everywhere vs. the number of hours of work eventually funded).

I am sure Michael, a former NSF director, doesn’t completely believe in that, but I also believe that this calculation overlooked a very important value-generating factor: idea diffusion from the academic to the private sector.

You know how sometimes you have a great idea or insight, only to discover that somebody else already had that idea? Even worse, you know how this happens and you realize that you actually read that paper where the idea was described but forgot all about it? (yes, Ayman, this happens to people my age, you’ll see when you get there).

My thesis is that while not all NSF proposals get funded, all of them are reviewed and evaluated by panels that include many researchers in  companies. The ideas in these proposals stick in the minds of the readers, and could very well be unconsciously adapted or used later (I am not saying anyone is out to steal the academics’ ideas!).

This is why I find Google’s Faculty Research Awards an entirely good idea, both for the faculty and for Google. In particular, the open nature of the awards program (not specifically tied to current Google products or data, for one) is a key feature. Yes, G will get a lot of submissions and will spend valuable time reviewing each and every one of them. Obviously, the funded proposals will benefit Google as they create a direct link between the researcher and a Google person that will learn about the findings. But even the mere act of having all the world’s researchers sending Google their ideas and suggestions is bound to leave some trace in Googler’s minds. Google thus increases the funnel of innovation and ideation (I hate that word) to collect input way beyond its own engineers and employees.

Now, if they end up supporting my proposal, that would prove that they are even more brilliant!


I am not sure I have a lot to say about this presentation, delivered as a keynote at the Symposium on Spatial and Temporal Databases (SSTD ’09) and embedded below, except that I think the visual design of my slides is somewhat improved.

Oh, and also that I tried to introduce the opportunity of social media data to the smart people in the SSTD community. Especially as Twitter is rumored to add location data, we are about to witness a significant new information system with social, spatial and temporal data all at the same time and in a never-before-seen scale. The opportunities are, as you might guess, endless.

Everybody’s Twitter Now (plus: Hummus!)

It seems like everybody is trying to be Twitter these days. After the Facebook re-design, popularly believed to be Twitter-driven, I have just noticed this from Gmail/Gtalk: a new call-for-action when you update your status in Gmail. Looks at Gmail’s caption under the text entry box (I marked it dotted-red):

Gmail status CFA

Notice the highlighted box:

Let people know what you’re up to, or share links to photos, videos, and web pages.

I think that’s new. Has anyone notice this before? That’s Google saying: we want to be your Twitter. Don’t be surprised when Gmail starts to offer a feed of friends’ status messages, any day now. You heard it here first.

[On an unrelated note, hey Ayman, check out that hummus video and The Hummus Blog to learn about some real hummus.]

Class Edits Wikipedia: How Not to Win New Editors

This semester I find myself enjoying teaching an undergraduate class (who would have known). The class I am teaching is called “Retrieving and Evaluating Electronic Information” (I’d probably scratch “electronic” from the class name sometime soon). I had mentioned the class before as I was planning it. It’s about teaching undergrads about information retrieval, e.g. Web search and how it works, using other sources of information, and how to evaluate information found on the Web.

For the last topic, Wikipedia of course is an important special case. By now, they have heard countless instructors tell them to be careful when using Wikipedia, but I am not sure they have a good idea why. That’s why I performed a live Wikipedia edit in class, right in front of their astonished eyes. In addition, I had all of them perform a Wikipedia edit, and monitor their edit for a week to see if it is altered or removed:

Become a Wikipedia editor and contribute by creating a new topic or modifying an existing article. Your edit does not need to be extensive, but it must be substantive and non-trivial.

(the full text of the assignment can be found here; with credit to Nina Wacholder for co-developing it).

Here are a few things that I learned from the reports submitted, where they described the edits they performed and their thoughts about the process.

  • Most of the students had taken the assignment very seriously. They took time to select a topic they cared about, and add some substantial, serious edit to that entry. Some of them had meant to start a new Wikipedia topic.
  • The assignment clearly made all of the students understand both the danger and the power of Wikipedia. They saw, at once, how easy it is for anyone to put information on Wikipedia pages; and how the policies and practices of Wikipedia at least partially protect against vandalism, unreliable data, or unverified information.
  • The WIKI formatting was a complicating factor, but all the students were persistent enough to figure it out. Especially important was the reference format, which they were encourage to use. Most have handled the formatting issues by adapting examples from other pages. Others have scaled back their edits, choosing to go with plain text. Some have noted the difficulty of inserting images and tables.
  • Some students will definitely edit Wikipedia again, but for some, that was it.

Indeed, as part of the assignment, some students commented on whether or not they are likely to contribute to Wikipedia again. There was an even split, more or less. Two common themes emerge for a student predicting they will make no more edits. First, some simply felt they are not specifically experts on anything and therefore are not likely to contribute any substantial knowledge (despite the fact that the exercise they have just been through shows exactly the opposite).

Second, and more disturbingly, the students that had their work deleted for various reasons indicated the least likelihood to contribute again. I imagine the Students’ edits were deleted for various reasons, including lack of citations. However, in almost no case of deletions had the students gotten a good idea of why their contribution was removed — at best there was a short note in the edit history of the page. Unfortunately, students found that lack of feedback and arbitrary nature of deletion not only confounding, but also somewhat inappropriate: why was their content removed without comment?

I can definitely see how such a first experience could dishearten anyone. A better approach might be for experienced editors to notice the fact that edits were made by first-timers (or beginners), and send them a personal note explaining what they did wrong and how they can improve their contribution. Yes, time consuming – but a personalized explanation might do wonders in having the new editors come back for more.

The reverse experience was also lacking. The students whose edits stayed on the page were not clear whether their edits were reviewed by anyone or just left there because of neglect. Of course, they had no way to learn about the impact of their edit (e.g., how many people looked at the article since they added their information). Both these factors can serve as positive reinforcements for new editors – I am hypothesizing here…

Now go edit the Wikipedia page for Ayman!

Ayman and Naaman Going to Boston

Sounds like a bad movie title or a beginning of a great joke (you are welcome to suggest the joke in the comments, winner gets a reply comment recognizing their achievement). But we really are both going to be in Boston next week for CHI2009. Look us up! Those of you who know me realize I am easy to find. As for Ayman, well… he’s easy to pick out: his reputation marches ahead of him. If you can’t recognize him by reputation, you can find him at the DIY for CHI workshop, where he’ll be showing off his Mac OS Foot Switch from a Guitar Amp Pedal.

No Homophily on Facebook? Yeah, right.

The New York Times attends to Facebook. The article makes a fun read, and is not a very deep one (not that I expect deep analysis – they’re writing pieces against deadlines there – oh wait, so do we). But at least one incredible claim is made that is not even backed up with their usual “random quote from researcher”, and seems to stem right from Facebook’s PR book:

Uniting disparate groups on a single Internet service runs counter to 50 years of research by sociologists into what is known as “homophily” — the tendency of individuals to associate only with like-minded people of similar age and ethnicity.

Beh! Wait a minute here. Facebook does indeed allow one to at least attempt to connect to people not similar to them — like any electronic network since Email. Is there any evidence that these connections are attempted? whether they are successful? whether this happens in any scale beyond Facebook’s “model stories for journalists”? (key quote: “Discussing Facebook’s connective tissue, Mr. Zuckerberg recalls the story…”). I’d be surprised.

On the other hand, Ayman is my friend on Facebook, so anything is possible!

I’m Feeling Undying Obedience to Our Fearless Leader

Speaking of Google and bias, can I show this clip in class or is the search query a bit much?

(The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, January 30, 2006)