Participation in OCA

So far, this is a very general idea about a pretty specific situation: as part of the On Century Avenue team, I’ve had fairly general conversations with my colleagues about the state of participation on the newspaper’s website. As most people who have taken the time to read through some of our articles will know, the current format of OCA includes comment-sections underneath each article. As most people who take more than a platonic interest in the publication might have noticed, this feature is rarely used. I’d be interested in thinking about alternative avenues to improve participation on the OCA website; in terms of conceptualizing, I’ve only gotten as far as considering other (fairly conventional) forms of reader-participation (the one that’s stuck as a prominent alternative has been some variation on a ‘Letters to the Editor’ page) and thinking about the tradeoffs so involved. I feel that this exercise would be interesting in terms of a M&P paper and possibly (hopefully) implementable or at least relevant in practice.

Largest Human Flag Attempt

On the 23rd of August this year, around 35000 people gathered in Tudikhel, Kathmandu to form the shape of the Nepali flag. The event was an effort to set a Guinness world record for forming the largest human flag (previously set in Pakistan in February with an estimated 29000 people), and the bulk of the organization of it – spearheaded by a heretofore little-known NGO called ‘Human Values for Peace and Prosperity’ (HVPP) – was conducted over social media; primarily Facebook.

The usage of Facebook enabled the sort of ‘viral’ flow of information that made the event possible, with participants choosing to facilitate the spread of information themselves to friends and contacts (in a sense, self-identifying in the production of information in a way similar to the commons-based peer-production of Benkler). However, it also became apparent in the aftermath of the event that the sort of information being propounded was difficult for any institution to control or regulate: the easy connectivity of the platform did allow HVPP to reach out with their intended message of calling people to gather at a certain time and place, but it also enabled the viral spread of pictures and comments regarding the public disruptions and littering that the event caused (things that were quickly called into question and never really settled). It would thus seem that in using online social media for the purpose of reaching out, the organization had to deal with the trade-off between the high levels of connectivity such networks offer and the difficulty of regulating information within those networks (perhaps in a sense the scale-depth trade-off applied to connectivity).

Amazon Customer Reviews

Apologies for the inordinately late post.

For the midterm paper, I intend to examine the customer reviews feature of, and in particular the presentation of reviews/review statistics on the product pages. The scale-depth tradeoff seemed like a good way to approach this to begin with, but the dualistic presentation of the reviews make me wonder if I might want to think of a different one, so I’m on the fence about that as of yet.

Facebook began, to the best of my knowledge, as a network built up of relatively tight circles of friends (or ‘friends’); one feature that set it apart was the way in which it enabled discussion around images, and to begin with especially images of people. The sort of images that get uploaded onto Facebook have of course become much more various, but it seems to me that the structures in place that enable discussion of images – namely the ‘Comments’ function – are still suited to that small-scale circles model. For instance, a picture uploaded onto Facebook oftentimes generates coherent discussion within friend-groups: whether it’s a particularly tight circle of friends playing off of inside jokes (sup Kevin) or a more general group of family and friends commenting on how one looks, there is space for a relatively cogent line of thought through comments on images. When this system is extrapolated onto a much larger scale, however – for example, with celebrity pages or content-generating/rehashing pages such as ‘ifl science’, where content and images and the discussion around them is not restricted to friend circles in the conventional sense – it ceases to work in the same way: with thousands of comments by people, a lot of whom do not know each other at all, it is all but impossible to discern elaborate comments or questions from single-word opinions, tags and spam, let alone maintain a single or even multiple coherent lines of discussion. Indeed, many comments sections on images and content I’ve seen from such pages comprise simply of people tagging their friends (and in this sense, the system has not ‘broken down’ in the sense of becoming disused in such a situation – it has readjusted to become a function that enables these pages to reach out to wide audiences through individuals’ friend circles – but it has broken down in terms of the particular purpose of generating some form of discussion). I would say the modality of the media system in this case has been altered on two levels: (i) the change in scale has caused the ‘Comment’ to shift from a function that facilitates many-to-many networking to one that facilitates a more broadcast-oriented style, and (ii) the increased volume of content generated and subsequent information overload has completely changed the form of content generated (from active and two-way discussion to tags and broadcast-style one-off comments).

Tweaking the broadcast-interaction dichotomy, some forms of media systems stand out as being functionally reliant on the larger scale of their participants; a example of this would be polling systems used to conduct surveys and acquire information, and one easy and relevant instance of this could be the polling function on OrgSync. All student clubs at NYUSH have OrgSync pages and a number of them use the platform to glean information about their member base – for example, to gauge interest in participating in a certain event or people’s availability to meet on a certain day. This system seems to me to be based on (i) the relative ease of getting the message out to a relatively large group of people, but even more importantly, (ii) the notion that the only really useable form of information given the size of member bases would be in the form of preempted binaries (Yes/No, Attending/Not Attending(/Maybe)) and multiple choice options (a list of books to choose from for book club readings); more elaborate discussion would likely be much harder to regulate unless either the student groups were much better staffed (the executive boards of clubs, who maintain these pages, are typically comprised of four to six or seven members) or had access to a much more sophisticated regulatory system. If the scale of operations were much smaller, however, the second central assumption would no longer hold and likely be a frustrating limitation on interaction. If the discussion were, for instance, only amongst members of an executive board, having a poll would seriously limit the form of discussion and lead to the possibility of largely meaningless data. For example, if the question of when to meet were tackled for six members with the help of a poll with three options, a result of [A.3 B.2 C.1] would theoretically produce an answer, but it might not be a good one: there would be no way of knowing whether or not the members who voted B and C would be able to show up for timeslot A, or whether or not there would be an alternative timeslot D that would be more suitable for all involved. The smaller scale of operations in this case would thus mean that it would probably be much more productive for the group to have a more fluid discussion amongst themselves; for (a mediated) example, in a Facebook groupchat five or six member would easily be able to discuss their schedules or preferences in relative detail to find an optimal (or just acceptable) option for all. I think what stands out as interesting, then, is how the difference in scale network can alter the form of content, or determine what forms are (more) useable.

The Student Room (TSR), or (to differentiate it from the sister websites that are also run by the same company), is a UK-based online student community whose services range from academic support and university applications help to providing a platform for general debate and discussion on a variety of topics. With over 1.35 million members as of January 2014, TSR claims to be the largest student community in the world. TSR has been operational under different names since 2001 and now has its head office in Brighton.

I first came across and joined TSR in late 2007, not too long after I had first begun to get properly acquainted with the internet. At the time, it was exactly what I was looking for: a student community with a platform for discussions both general and topical. The participatory structure of the site also seemed straightforward to me: after I signed up and logged in as a member, I could browse the forums and sub-forums to find the topical area of my choice and make posts in a thread – these were sometimes threads geared at specific questions and points of discussion (for example, a thread titled ‘”America needs a black president”: is this racist?’ would generate several pages worth of opinions as well as back-and-forth discussion on the quote and general topic), but also often general threads or ‘megathreads’ encompassing a lot of material under a general banner (for instance, the ‘society thread’ of any particular football club would run with discussion about the team, other teams, tactics and formations, match discussion and hype, transfer gossip and outrage, and general banter and trivia until it reached the forum limit of until it reached the forum limit of 10000 posts, at which point a new edition of the thread would be made). Later, I also grew more acquainted with the regulatory system of TSR which, through a mixture of employed staff and volunteering members, served to moderate the content and make sure that rules and decorum were being adhered to.

Essentially, TSR represented an easily accessible online space for discussion amongst a peer-group of people of a similar age (there is a section for mature students but it was scantly used) and employment (certain members would hang around even after graduating from university, of course). In that regard, I would consider it substantially different from networks like Facebook (which of course limits participatory circles to people who know each other) and Twitter (which does not, as far as I am aware, organize content in any categorical or topical way). The presence of TSR meant that I never really need to go out of my way to look for alternative forums of the same ilk, but to my knowledge, one other popular website that is built around a somewhat similar premise is Reddit (although as a non-user, I don’t feel qualified to comment in detail).