Social Norms and Cyberasociality

Back in the day, it was assumed that people couldn’t form social relationships online because as a medium, text didn’t transmit the nonverbal cues necessary to support relationship development and maintenance. Then, in the mid-1990s, Joe Walther proposed the Social Information Processing (SIP) model of relationship development.

A big piece of SIP was that the rate of social information transmission is lower than other, more cue-rich media (like face-to-face), but over time just as much social information can be transmitted through a text-based channel. It then goes on to suggest that this is possible because users adapt the limited medium of text in ways that enable richer communication using what have come to be called CMC cues (e.g. capitalization, letter repetition, emoticons, chronemics, etc.). I call this the temporal cue density hypothesis, and it’s what I’m working on empirically testing now.

Studies that look for CMC-cue effects on social outcomes such as trust, likability, and rapport (e.g., Byron & Baldridge, 2007, Walther & D’Addario, 2001) generally work like this:

  • show someone a message
  • ask them what they thought of the message sender
  • manipulate the cues
  • show someone else the message
  • ask them what they thought of the message sender
  • do math

Now, the simplicity of this story may be about to be disrupted. Studies like these all have an implicit underlying assumption: all, or at least most, people within a culture interpret social cues in similar ways1. Therefore, interpretation of CMC cues is assumed to be universal.

Cyberasociality is an empirically-backed concept proposed by Zeynep Tufekci which states that one’s inability or unwillingness to feel socially engaged by online media is a fundamental social-psychological, or even perceptual, trait of that person.

She describes it this way: language is a primarily aural construct, with reading and writing added on top as a brain-hack of visual symbolic abstraction, and some people, regardless of other cognitive abilities, have difficulty reading because of dyslexia. In much the same way, sociality evolved as a primarily — and primally — face-to-face ability. Like literacy, being social in text with abstract representations of other people is a brain hack, and one that not everyone’s brain is equally suited to perform.

If this is true, the very conception of online social norms as, well, normative may be broken.

  1. This type of study does often test for interactions with personality traits like extraversion, but in light of Cyberasociality, those traits may not be the real reason for differences between subjects in the same experimental condition.

Fiction suggestions

Thanks to everyone who gave me book suggestions! I put Hunger Games on my iPad last night and am enjoying it.

Aravind Adiga – The White Tiger
Isaac Asimov – The Foundation Trilogy
Bernard Beckett – Genesis
Aimee Bender — The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
Ernest Cline – Ready Player One
Suzanne Collins – The Hunger Games
Susan Cooper – The Dark is Rising Sequence
Bryce Courtenay – The Power of One
Jonathan Franzen – Freedom
Robert A.Heinlein – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Khaled Hosseini – The Kite Runner
Barbara Kingsolver – The Poisonwood Bible
Jhumpa Lahiri – Unaccustomed Earth
Yann Martel – Life of Pi*
Stephenie Meyer – Twilight**
Brandon Sanderson – Mistborn
Gary Shteyngart – Super-Sad True Love Story
Neal Stephenson – Diamond Age
Jonathan Swift – Gulliver’s Travels

* means I’ve already read this
** means I hope this suggestion was in jest ;)

Why I’m still on Facebook

We’ve been hearing a lot of bad stuff about Facebook lately. I’ve been giving Facebook a lot of grief myself, lately, too. I hate that I’m their product not their customer, I hate what it does to my sanity (it’s too easy to become reliant on it for social affirmation), and I hate what it can do to my ability to focus (brb, checking FB…).

In this post, though, I want to address the other side of an internal debate: why I am still on Facebook. The primary reason is that, put simply, I derive utility from the service. Lately, the cost–benefit analysis has been coming down on the side of keeping my account open. (The other reason, of course, is that I need to have access to Facebook professionally.)

Being relatively new to a community, Facebook plays three important roles: phatic, event awareness, and ad-hoc organizational.

Many of the people I’ve been meeting, I’ve met through events in the Jewish community. That means I’m affiliating myself with a community that I’ll only see once a week, and that is at least forty-five minutes away by train. The phatic function of Facebook posts can be a way to establish stronger connections — or at the very least help ensure I exist more than just once a week.

Chicago has a rather dynamic community; there’s almost always some sort of service or dinner or event to attend on Friday nights. The way to find out about these events, though, is almost exclusively through Facebook. Finding out about a group or organization and Liking it is, if not the only way, certainly the most efficient way to stay in the loop about goings-on. Plus, many request RSVPs so they can plan appropriately. Ad-hoc organizing (e.g. “Anyone want to go to…”) happens less often, but it does happen, usually in the realm of finding out about shows to attend.

And of course, as one whose academic interests span the user interfaces, social behavior, and broader implications of systems like Facebook, I do have something of a professional obligation to at least keep tabs on what’s happening in the world of Facebook. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. ;)

Personally, though, I eagerly await the day I feel comfortable enough to close my Facebook account.

Quantify everything?

When I first started using Pro Tools (audio editing/mixing software), it frustrated me that it didn’t afford doing everything by the numbers like Photoshop. Then I stepped back and asked, “Yes, but does it sound good?”

We’re the commons

Have any economists modeled the consuming public/workforce as a public good?

It seems to me that corporations are playing a game-theoretic game in which they individually want to pay less money and employ fewer people while simultaneously hoping other corporations will keep employing people and paying them enough to maintain a customer base for their product. In other words, a social contract.

What we’re seeing now is the result of too many corporations defecting over the past 30 years. A tragedy of the commons, where we’re the commons.

The flip side of this chain reaction, of course, is that consumers demand lower and lower prices because they can’t afford what they used to. In order to compete, companies are forced to send manufacturing jobs to countries where labor costs are lower, so even more people can’t afford what they used to.

How do we stop it?

Cyberpunk Apple Consumerism

Interesting perspective, but how is it different from any other infrastructure? Specialization and abstraction are trade-offs for a complex society. Turn on the faucet, water comes out. People don’t want to have to care where it comes from, how it got clean, or how it got to their tap. Same for information: press a button, information comes out. That people don’t want agency in all aspects of their lives is not necessarily bad: remember your grandma.

RT @pjrey: “Apple isn’t selling a product, it’s selling an illusion.”



I ate too much turkey,
I ate too much corn,
I ate too much pudding and pie,
I’m stuffed up with muffins
and much too much stuffin’,
I’m probably going to die.
I piled up my plate
and I ate and I ate,
but I wish I had known when to stop,
for I’m so crammed with yams,
sauces, gravies, and jams
that my buttons are starting to pop.
I’m full of tomatoes
and french fried potatoes,
my stomach is swollen and sore,
but there’s still some dessert,
so I guess it won’t hurt
if I eat just a little bit more.
Jack Prelutsky


Really torn. On the one hand, my phone seems to occasionally decide to drain its battery in ~2 hours. Otherwise, it’s fine. A little slow, maybe. But worth dropping $399 on a new phone? What with all the labor and material sourcing issues, it’s hard to justify. I’m even up in the middle of the night and could pre-order at the 0 hour. But I think my gadget lust is wearing off. It’s a weird feeling.


I spent several hours with iAnnotate tonight. The verdict: lots of capability, lots of weird, non-standard interactions, and lots of weird, non-standard UI elements. In other words, it feels like a Windows app.

The main thing I’d really like to be able to do is use two fingers to scroll and turn pages while in the highlighted or drawing tool. The fact that I can’t stay in toolbar-less full screen and turn pages while highlighting is annoying. Add to that the fact that if I’m in full screen and I hold to get the context menu and choose the highlighter, when I tell it I’m done with the highlighter, it drops me out of full screen. Darn near infuriating.

And Dropbox support is a pretty big deal, although it’d be nice if treated Dropbox like an equal member of the PDF library rather than requiring a separate download process. And I’m not even sure if my annotation data is being synced back to the PDFs in Dropbox. Ideally it would, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t.

But it does support an impressive array of annotation types, and it’s clear they gave some thought to what reading a PDF on the iPad is like (horizontal zoom locking is a really nice touch).

Buddy list begone

Ah, the buddy list. Remember when we actually liked advertising to our friends that we were online, and maybe even wanted to chat? That was high-tech — in 1995. The buddy list (also known as presence) is a kind of social transparency, and while we still need social transparency mechanisms built in to our communications media, presence is no longer the appropriate mechanism. Presence comes from a time when the normal state of affairs was that you were unavailable, usually because in order to be available, you had to be at a desktop computer with a modem, and had to dial in to your ISP. Available meant connected, and connected meant available. When always-on connections were still novel, the away message became all the rage. (Remember when, in undergrad, we would regularly leave our computers on all night as an answering machine?) And presence became more sophisticated, using not just away messages, but idle states and times. But in many cases, just being visible on a buddy list is too much presence.

At the other end of the spectrum, historically speaking, was SMS. Being mobile, it was assumed that one was always connected (and therefore available) via SMS; therefore, presence was unnecessary. Yet people aren’t (or at least don’t want to be) always available.

Now that the nominal assumption is one of connectedness, connectedness and availability can no longer be assumed to be the same. And because connectedness is the assumed state, it doesn’t need to be advertised.

This, it seems to me, sets the historical context for a new (except for BBM) trend displacing presence: notifications of engagement. Rather than explicitly articulated status, action (or inaction) by the receiver signal availability to the sender. They do away with status, but provide the social transparency needed to manage sender expectations. Or, more simply, the sender can see whether their message has been received and read.

While right now this is almost exclusively used in mobile-to-mobile systems (BBM, Kik, Whatsapp, etc.), it has always bothered me that there is no desktop client for any of these systems. Finally, Apple — who pioneered FaceTime’s always-available-no-presence-like-a-telephone availability — is poised to bring such a system to the desktop (as well as iOS) with iMessage1. It’s instant messaging, without presence, with delivery, read, and typing notifications, that works on the desktop and mobile devices.

Personally, I can’t wait.

  1. Fanboy alert.