the culture and values of social media

Social Media Syllabus

Posted: August 22nd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: academia, social media | Tags: , | No Comments »

I’m teaching a new class at Fordham called “Social Media.” I spent a ton of time trying to figure out what was most important to cover, and ultimately I could probably teach a 2-year class on the subject. Here’s what I came up with (with class policies, grading rubics, etc. snipped):

Social Media | COMM 3307

Class blog:

Course Description

This class examines the relationship between society and the current crop of computer-mediated communication technologies known as “social media,” including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and more. These technologies are often regarded with fear or awe; the purpose of this class is to break down the mythologies of social media and develop methods of analysis and critical understanding. To do this, we will draw from a broad range of social theory including science and technology studies (STS), communication theory, linguistics, cultural studies, and media anthropology to critically evaluate the impact of social media on relationships, activism, branding, politics, news media, and identity. We will focus on the “sociotechnical,” or the relationship between the technical affordances of a website/technology and the social norms of a user community, and how to use this to understand emerging technologies (and social media that doesn’t exist yet!). Students will also gain basic practical social media skills: understanding the landscape, learning “best practices,” and using different social media technologies throughout the class to create and propagate content.

Classes are subject to change based on the interests of class and direction in which class proceeds. Please make yourself aware of all changes to the schedule. If you miss a class, it is your responsibility to learn of any changes.
Readings and other assignments are due on the date listed.

Date Topic (reading due by class date)

Friday 8/31 Introductions & Course Overview
Class objectives
What is social media?

Tuesday 9/4 Key Concepts
Nancy Baym “New Forms of Personal Connection” Chapter 1
Terms: interactivity, temporal structure, social cues, storage, replicability, reach, mobility

Blog Assignment: Set up Tumblr account. Post an example for one of the key terms. Include a photo, video or audio file, and a link.

Friday 9/7 Social Media in Context
Tom Standage, “Codes, Hackers and Cheats” and “Love over the Wires” (from The Victorian Internet)
Hafner & Lyon, “Email” (from When Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet)
What’s similar about these previous forms of media? What’s different?

Blog Assignment: Pick a pre-web technology and compare it to one of your favorite websites, apps, or games (e.g. record player vs. Spotify). Hint: What’s the difference between the internet and the web?

Tuesday 9/11 History of Social Media
Baron, “Language Online: The Basics” (from Always On)
Boyd & Ellison, “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship”
Terms: Asynchronous, synchronous, one-to-one, one-to-many, bi-directional, uni-directional. Take note of the different technologies mentioned in these chapters; you will be seeing them again.

Friday 9/14 Introducing Theory
Gillespie, “The Stories Digital Tools Tell”
Baym Chapter 2, “Making New Media Make Sense”
Terms: Technological Determinism, social construction of technology, social Shaping, utopian, dystopian, interface

How are new technologies represented in the media?
Blog assignment: Pick a news story about social media and post it. Analyze whether you think the claims and evidence presented in the story are correct.
Examples: NYT, Washington Post

Tuesday 9/18 Computer-Mediated Communication
Baym, Chapter 3, “Communication in Digital Spaces”
Baron, Chapter 4, “Are Instant Messages Speech?”
Terms: reduced social cues, social presence theory, media richness theory, flaming, immediacy cues, mixed modality, intonation unit, conversational scaffolding, utterance break

Blog Assignment: Pick a politician’s Twitter account. Analyze his or her speech. What features of CMC does he/she show, or not? Compare this with the account of a musician or celebrity like @kimkardashian or @rihanna.

Tip: Find your hometown Senator or Representative:

Friday 9/21 Affordances
Norman “The Psychopathy of Everyday Things”
Latour, “Where are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts”
Terms: Affordance, delegation, anthropomorphism, re-inscription

What is an affordance?
How does this play into social construction or technological determinism?

Blog post: Go back to your politician’s Twitter account. What affordances does Twitter have? How does the politician use them (or not)?

Note: In order to vote in the Presidential election in NYC, you must be registered 25 days before the election. This weekend is a great time to sign up! Register in NY (if you choose to vote in your home state, check to find out how to cast an absentee ballot, and to decide whether to vote there or in NYC. Many states have registration deadlines for the beginning of October).

Tuesday 9/25 Online Communities
Baym, Chapter 4, “Communities and Networks”
Ellison, N. Steinfield, C. & Lampe, C. (2007). The benefits of Facebook ‘friends’: Exploring the relationship between college students’ use of online social networks and social capital.
Terms: community, speech community, norms, social capital, bonding capital, bridging capital, maintained capital, network support, emotional support, esteem support, informational support, networked individualism

Blog Assignment: Pick an online site that you participate in (something smaller than “Facebook” or “Twitter,” e.g. a particular Facebook community, or a fan forum for a sports team). Do you consider it a “community”? Why or why not?

Friday 9/28 Norms
Garfinkel, “Studies of the Routine Grounds of Everyday Activities” (warning: This is a difficult piece. Concentrate on the experiments and how Garfinkel’s students responded to them.)
Marwick & Ellison, “There Isn’t Wifi in Heaven!” Negotiating Visibility on Facebook Memorial Pages
Sandvig, “Social Media Breaching Experiments”
Terms: social norms, context collapse, impression management, persistence, scalability, searchability

Blog Assignment: Return to the online site you participate in. What are its norms? Talk about one or two in a short post.

Tuesday 10/2 Online Identity
Baym Chapter 5, “New Relationships, New Selves”
Mendelson and Papacharissi, “Look at Us: Collective Narcissism in College Student Facebook Photo Galleries”
Terms: Disembodied identities, identity cues, self-presentation

Assignment #1 due: Social Media Breaching Experiments

Friday 10/5 Aspects of Identity
Marwick, “Gender, Sexuality and Social Media”
Nakamura, “Race In/For Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet”

Manjoo, “How Black People Use Twitter”
Carter, “A Response to Farheed Manjoo’s “How Black People Use Twitter”
Nakamura, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game: The Racialization of Labor in World of Warcraft”

Terms: disembodiment hypothesis, cyborg feminism, oversharing, otherness, identity tourism, passing

Last day for designating a course Pass/Fail

Blog Assignment: Find a news article on a popular site like or that deals with gender, race, sexuality, class, nationality, religion, or another aspect of identity. Read and analyze the comments—what views are expressed? How do commenters respond to each other? Do you think this is different from face-to-face conversations? Why?

Tuesday 10/9 Relationships
Baym, Chapter 6, “Digital Media in Relational Development and Maintenance”
Gershon, “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” (from Breakup 2.0)
Terms: early idealization, relational development, relational maintenance, “friending,” idioms of practice, media ideologies, second-order information

Find/form midterm study groups (no blog assignment)

Friday 10/12 Midterm

Tuesday 10/16 Creativity and Culture
Shirky, “Gin, Television, and Cognitive Surplus” (from Cognitive Surplus)
Davidson, “The Language of Internet Memes”
Schifman, “Anatomy of a YouTube Meme”

Blog assignment: Peruse’s Meme Database for a half hour or so. Pick a meme (either one you found there or one you were previously familiar with) and write a quick analysis of what the meme involves.

Watch We Live in Public (Ondi Timoner, 2009) 90 mins. This movie is available on Netflix (DVD only, not Instant), Hulu Plus, Amazon Video On-Demand ($3.99) and on reserve at Walsh library. I highly encourage using the blog to coordinate viewing parties. (Fun!!!) Note that having technical difficulties is NOT an excuse for not seeing it, so don’t wait until Sunday night to try accessing the movie.

Blog assignment: Movie review (feel free to give a grade or a star rating). (due Monday 10/22 at 5pm)

Activism, Politics & News

Tuesday 10/23 What was the role of Twitter in the Arab Spring?

Grossman, “Iran Protests: Twitter, the Medium of the Movement”
Morozov, “The Google Doctrine” (from The Net Delusion)
Doctorow, “We Need a Serious Critique of Net Activism”
Stepanova, “The Role of Information Communication Technologies in the Arab Spring”

Blog Assignment: What’s your perspective? How do the theories of technology we discussed earlier in the semester (technological determinism, social shaping of technology, utopian/dystopian, etc.) play into these accounts?

Friday 10/26 How has social media changed online news?

Rosen, J. “The People Formerly Known as the Audience”
Starr, “Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers (Hello to a New Era of Corruption)”
Braun & Gillespie, “Hosting the public discourse, hosting the public: When online news and social media converge.”

Guest Speaker: Joe Weisenthal, Editor,
Peruse and write a list of questions for Joe. Bring them to class. More about Mr. Weisenthal:

Tuesday 10/30 What impact has social media had on civic engagement?

Knight Foundation, “What are the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy?”
Johnson et. al, “United We Stand? Online Social Network Sites & Civic Engagement”
Claire Cain Miller, “How Obama’s Internet Campaign Changed Politics”

Friday 11/2 Branding
Clemons, “The complex problem of monetizing virtual electronic social networks.”
Ivey, “Domino’s Pizza Case Study.”
Dash, “How to Fix Popchips’ Racist Ad Campaign”

How can companies engage well on social media?
Blog assignment: Post an example of a company you think is doing it “right” or “wrong.” Why or why not?

Assignment #2 DUE by 5pm 11/5 over email or Blackboard. How has (candidate of your choice) used social media in this election?

Friday 11/9 Legal Aspects of Social Media
Lessig, “Property” (from Free Culture)
Zittrain, “Tethered Appliances, Software as Service, and Perfect Enforcement” (from The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It)

Talk about final paper assignment

Tuesday 11/13 Privacy
Cashmore, Facebook Founder on Privacy: Public Is the New “Social Norm” (watch video too)
Kirkpatrick, “Why Facebook is Wrong About Privacy”
Boyd & Hargittai, Facebook Privacy Settings: Who Cares?

Blog Assignment: Given what we learned about norms and affordances earlier in the semester, do you agree with Zuckerberg, Kirkpatrick, or neither?

Optional: How are your Facebook privacy settings set? Why? Log out and try to view your profile. Were you correct about how you had set your settings?

Friday 11/16 Alice out of town – class cancelled
Thesis statement & outline of paper due over email at 5pm!

Tuesday 11/20 Transgression and Deception
Coleman, “Freaks, Hackers and Trolls: The Politics of Transgression and Spectacle”
Donath, “Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community”

Blog assignment TBD

Alice returns thesis/outlines with comments


Tuesday 11/27 Limiting Internet Speech?
Benkler, “A Free Irresponsible Press: Wikileaks and the Battle over the Soul of the Networked Fourth Estate” (LONG article)
Bosker, “Randi Zuckerberg: Anonymity online has to go away”
boyd, “Real Name Policies are an Abuse of Power”

Blog Assignment: What has the US government’s response been to Wikileaks? Do you think it’s reasonable or not? Should there be limits on internet free speech?

Friday 11/30 Opting Out & Non-Participation
Portwood-Stacer, “Media refusal and conspicuous non-consumption: The performative and political dimensions of Facebook abstention.”
Marwick, “If You Don’t Like It, Don’t Use It. It’s That Simple. ORLY?”

Alice out of town – Dr. Laura Portwood-Stacer (NYU) substitute professor
Very rough draft (not graded) due at 5pm

Tuesday 12/4 Who Benefits from Social Media?
Hargittai, Digital Na(t)ives? Variation in Internet Skills and Uses among Members of the “Net Generation”
Gray, “Online Profiles: Remediating the Coming Out Story.” (from Out in the Country)
Marwick, “Status, Social Media, and the Tech Scene” (from Status Update)

Blog Assignment: Choose a social media technology we’ve never discussed in class. Post a brief analysis of its affordances and norms, and how it may impact social or political issues. (The point of this assignment is to show that you can use the tools developed in this class to discuss technologies that we can’t even imagine yet!)

Friday 12/7 Last Day of Class: Wrap-Up
Baym, Conclusion
Class objectives: achieved?
Paper Q&A

Blog assignment: What worked in this class? What didn’t work? What would you alter and change if YOU were teaching the class?

Alice returns rough drafts w/ comments
Sign up for one on one paper review slot
Student Evaluations


Preview: To See and Be Seen: Celebrity Practice on Twitter

Posted: September 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: internet fame, publications, Twitter | 4 Comments »

I’ve added a draft version of “To See and Be Seen: Celebrity Practice on Twitter,” a paper I wrote with danah boyd last summer which will be published in Convergence sometime next year.

Download draft [pdf file]


Social media technologies let people connect by creating and sharing content. We examine the use of Twitter by famous people to conceptualize celebrity as a practice. On Twitter, celebrity is practiced through the appearance and performance of ‘backstage’ access. Celebrity practitioners reveal what appears to be personal information to create a sense of intimacy between participant and follower, publically acknowledge fans, and use language and cultural references to create affiliations with followers. Interactions with other celebrity practitioners and personalities give the impression of candid, uncensored looks at the people behind the personas. But the indeterminate ‘authenticity’ of these performances appeals to some audiences, who enjoy the game playing intrinsic to gossip consumption. While celebrity practice is theoretically open to all, it is not an equalizer or democratizing discourse. Indeed, in order to successfully practice celebrity, fans must recognize the power differentials intrinsic to the relationship.

Please note that this is not the final version. But it is very close to it– we didn’t have too many edits with our peer reviewers– and hopefully it will be useful for those of you studying celebrity and/or Twitter.

This paper was a lot of fun to work on, and it inspired a great deal of the work on micro-celebrity that appeared in my dissertation. My case studies are Miley Cyrus, Mariah Carey, and Perez Hilton. Miley was an especially hilarious person to study as she often dragged her various Disney starlet friends and family members into her Twitter arguments. I was quite sad when she retired from Twitter via YouTube video.


Marwick, A. and boyd, danah (Forthcoming, in final review). “To See and Be Seen: Celebrity Practice on Twitter.” Convergence.

Fashion Blogging Project Begins!

Posted: September 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: blogs, Research | Tags: , , | No Comments »

So I’ve finished the dissertation, and formally graduated. I am now Dr. Marwick. I immediately changed the prefix on my Entertainment Weekly subscription and my Amtrak frequent rider program. Very heady. The diss will be up very soon: I had to wrangle it into a hideous format to submit it to the graduate school, and I want to make it a bit more readable before I post it.

I am going into the field with danah and while we are interviewing teens about social media and privacy practices– which is going to be fascinating — I am going to piggy-back on this and try to interview some fashion bloggers and blog-readers.

If you are a fashion blogger or reader who lives in one of the following cities, please email me if you’d like to talk! I can promise you a very small stipend, and I also promise I am not scary. I love fashion myself and I’m studying fashion blogs because I find them extremely entertaining.

I want to talk about why you read blogs/blog, what you like, fashion in general, your style.. it’ll just be like being interviewed for Vogue. If it was Vogue Nerd.

Nashville, TN: Sept 22 – Oct 1
Raleigh/Durham, NC: Oct 8 – 15th
Gotenberg, Sweden: Oct 21 – 24
Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Israel: Oct 26 – 30th (not sure exactly when I’ll be in each place)
Washington, DC: November 5 – 12th
Salt Lake City, UT: November 12 – 19

If you don’t live in one of these cities, I’d still like to talk to you over IM, phone, or email! Please email me and I’ll get right back to you.

Some celeb twitter tools

Posted: May 20th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: internet fame, Twitter | Tags: | No Comments »

So I’m working on a project about celebrity use of Twitter. Here are a few recent tools I’ve found to be endlessly entertaining when looking at celebs, status, and social norms on Twitter:

  • Who Celebs Tweet, with the tagline: Have they tweeted you? I find this the most interesting because they have a very clear demarcation between who is a celeb and who isn’t. Like, according to them, Heidi Montag is not a celeb. I don’t necessarily think she should be a celeb, but to deny that she’s famous seems odd. Maybe the proprietors never read the tabloids.
  • – this is sort of like Texts From Last Night minus all the drunk skulduggery and adding a lot of self-aggrandizing obnoxiousness. Tops now is “fan belt light came on in the 911 so now I’m driving the Cayenne Turbo S – the backup, backup car. Trying not to think about the Tesla…” That’s pretty bad.
  • Truth Tweet attempts to verify celebrity Twitter accounts, using all sorts of sources to do so. Extremely useful for my purposes (e.g. nerdily making lists of what signals celebrity “authenticity” on Twitter).

Tumblarity and Quantified Stand-ins for Social Status

Posted: May 12th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Dissertation, social media, Status | Tags: | 7 Comments »

So Tumblr launched its Tumblarity index last week. (Here’s Gawker’s obnoxious take.)

Tumblarity is a metric that measures one’s popularity, or degree of Tumblr-ness, depending on who you ask. It’s displayed on a nifty stats page modeled after The Feltron Report. Tumblr hasn’t revealed exactly what it uses to calculate this number, but it certainly includes number of posts, followers, likes, and reblogs. My Tumblarity is 3 (which is very, very sad, in case you’re wondering), but if it were higher, I could see where I rank in the top 50,000 Tumblogs or in my local area.

I stole this image from download squad so you can see what a slightly better Tumblarity score looks like:

stolen tumblarity

Like number of Twitter followers, Tumblarity is a quantified metric: a number that stands in for more complex social phenomena, like popularity or status. Tumblr helpfully includes leaderboards to make it extra-easy to compare Tumblarity with your friends, rivals, and frenemies, causing tech dorks pundits to complain about the “popularity contest” aspect of the feature.

A few basic things about quantified metrics:

1) They are always stand-ins for more complicated status measures. A single number cannot possibly convey the nuances involved in social status and social hierarchy (e.g. Why do so many people read your Tumblr? What group/subculture/community does it appeal to? What actions do you take to maintain this status? What does your community value that your blog provides?).

2) Techie/geek/engineer types love quantified metrics precisely because they facilitate comparison. Several of my informants talked about how Silicon Valley types love talking about VC funding and valuation because they allow people to attach clear numbers to companies in order to rank them (and convey status on their CEOs, VCs, and employees). (See also those obnoxious “30 under 30,” “100 Most Influential People in SV,” ranking lists.)

Clearly, people in general also like comparative metrics — see the high score lists at arcades, the Fortune 500, the Best Dressed list, etc.– but they’re becoming increasingly prevalent in social software (built by nerds).

3) Quantified status metrics spur competition and therefore increase user action. I’m assuming Tumblr is trying to reward certain types of behavior, which in this case is pretty obvious: Tumble a lot, follow lots of people, reblog a lot = spend more time on the site = benefit to the company.

4) Social status is an under-studied, under-rated aspect of product design and motivation for user action. This is the subject of my dissertation and I’m seeing increasingly explicit aspects of this in social software (which: yay!).

But let’s not fool ourselves that an algorithmically-generated number “is” social status. I’m sure there are tons of sub-groupings and communities on Tumblr that value different things. I’m sure the top 100 Tumblr users are popular for different reasons. I’m sure there are Tumblr conventions and social mores that mark someone as an insider or outsider, a newbie or a jaded user. There are many good business reasons for the company to boil this down to a single number, but it only tells us a little bit of the overall story. Tumblrites: ideas?

Loopt, Locative Media, and Prescriptive Social Software – Part Three

Posted: April 28th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: social media | Tags: , , | 54 Comments »

This is the third part in a series of articles looking at how mobile social software prescribes certain types of social behavior. Part One discusses foursquare; Part Two discusses Brightkite. This part looks at Loopt.


Loopt is a website and mobile app that, in the words of their website, “transforms your phone into a mobile compass. Connect with friends and get alerted when they are nearby. Share your location, photos and comments with friends and social networks. Explore places and events recommended by friends and Yelp.”

Loopt is a lot like Google Latitude: rather than voluntarily checking in to a particular venue, and broadcasting that information to a social network (the foursquare/Brightkite model), Loopt automatically tracks your location and shows that to your friends. But while Google Latitude is building a platform, Loopt is a standalone application.

My experience signing up for Loopt immediately made me uncomfortable. When you add someone on Loopt, it sends them a text message, which is much more intrusive than an easily ignorable email (the reason for this is that you don’t provide Loopt your email address right away; more on this in a bit).
While many social software applications use the term “friends” in a very generous sense (Facebook: everyone you’ve ever met), “friends” on Loopt should presumably be people you really trust rather than people you’d be comfortable with hanging out in a bar. The software doesn’t indicate this, though; it goes through your phone book/contacts list to find potential friends and suggests that you add all of them. Two people friended me back– both very close friends. And both of them, within minutes, had IMed and texted me to say that it was sort of “creepy” to see exactly where I was on a map. If all three of the people involved in this transaction found it creepy, then it’s likely to be violating some sort of social norm. (And, several days later, only one additional person has responded to my friends request.)

Friend: wait, did it check me in when I started the app?
me: i guess it must have
it says you checked in like 1 minute ago
did it send you a text ?
Friend: heh, ok. didn’t realize that would happen
me: that’s kind of annoying

While you can configure Loopt not to check you in automatically, it does so by default. Additionally, if you turn this feature off, the next time you open the application, it asks you to turn it on again (I suppose that without this auto-tracking, the app is fairly useless, but it makes it clear that the preferred behavior is auto-checkin).

There are fairly intense implications of always knowing precisely where your friends are, which is not information I would always want to have. This is particularly true when you’re talking about someone you’re dating. You wouldn’t necessarily ask your girlfriend where she is all the time, but once that information becomes available, there’s a temptation to use it. Of course, you can turn off Loopt (or Google Latitude) whenever you want, but if you usually use it, turning it off implies that you have something to hide.

Loopt also has an intriguing feature called “Loopt Mix” which connects you with people you don’t know in your neighborhood. To use it, you provide Loopt with an email address. The email address you provide will be used by random Loopt Mixers to send you messages, so Loopt says, “Make sure to remove any contact info that may have been added in your email signature!” This is an annoying user experience which signals something about possible privacy/safety violations.

The next screen gives you various options for filling out your profile: name, picture, “About Me,” age, gender, interested in networking, friendship, dating women, dating men, tags, and “featured communities” – TechCrunch, Imeem, Rock the Vote, and the National Resource Defense Council. Once you’ve filled this all out, you can view people in your area. Here’s what this looks like in practice:

Loopt Mix Profile other Mix users

In other words, this is a great example of people using social media to hook up. Loopt Mix displays your picture and info to people near you, who can then anonymously email you using the tool. The vast majority of people using this app in my area, as you can see from the second picture, are gay men (I live in San Francisco — this may differ in other cities). I’m not surprised about this; the safety issues involved in people putting their locations and pictures of themselves online are gendered, and other hook-up sites like Craigslist Casual Encounters, Adult Friend Finder, and Manhunt are overwhelmingly used by men. One Loopt Mix user’s profile recommended Grindr, which is an iPhone app specifically designed for M4M hookups — a clear sign of the audience Loopt Mix is appealing to in SF.

On the website, there’s a “journal” feature which lets you view where your friends have been over time. There is also some recommendation component, although none of my friends have shared any information yet, so I can’t evaluate this feature. If it’s entirely dependent on information provided solely by my friends– people who I’m close enough to feel comfortable with them knowing my location all the time– it won’t have comprehensiveness like Yelp or any other venue-based review database.

So what does Loopt value?

  • Persistent knowledge of location of friends (always-on location tracking)
  • Persistent self-disclosure of location
  • Meeting people based on location (for whatever, although in practice seems to be for sex)

The overwhelming value here is that location is a useful piece of personal information that should be revealed. I suppose this an obvious feature of locative social media, but whereas Brightkite and foursquare voluntarily ask for this information, and tie it to a specific location, Loopt’s ideal seems to be seamless location tracking. While this is certainly valuable, as with Brightkite, it’s not necessary actionable. The automatic nature of the app means that you never know whether someone wants to be “found” or not. Generally, while Loopt doesn’t prescribe social behavior, it seems likely to give rise to all sorts of etiquette/social problems if widely used. The potentially negative social implications of the technology seem to outweigh the (non-obvious) advantages of using it.

BrightKite, Locative Media and Prescriptive Social Software – Part Two

Posted: April 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: social media | Tags: , , , | 6 Comments »

Last week, I posted my analysis of how foursquare prescribes certain types of social behavior. Next, I’m looking at two other locative media products, or “mobile social software”: Brightkite and Loopt. To simplify this comparison, I’m focusing on the iPhone applications rather than websites or applications for other platforms. (These apps are primarily made for mobile phones with GPS anyway.) I’ll also disclaim that I don’t really use these apps, so my understanding of them is based on the signup process rather than habitual use. This part discusses Brightkite; Loopt will follow in Part Three.

To recap, I’m looking at how mobile social software prescribes certain types of behavior. This isn’t to say that it causes specific behavior or that users don’t have agency. Instead, I’m interested in how locative social media has certain assumptions about social life built into the software.


According to their website, “Brightkite is a location-based social network. In real time you can see where your friends are and what they’re up to. Depending on your privacy settings you can also meet others nearby.” The Brightkite interface is really clean, well-designed, and sleek, with great integration with the rest of the iPhone. It’s clear they’ve spent a lot of time on the product, and they claim something like two million users. (Active users or user accounts?)

Like foursquare, Brightkite users “check in” to specific venues, but can also add notes and photos. In practice, Brightkite is a combination of foursquare, Twitter, and the Flickr photostream. Here’s what this looks like on the iPhone app:

Brightkite checkin screen

Unlike foursquare, Brightkite gives you two viewing options: friends (wherever they happen to be), or people near you (who may or may not be your friends):

  Brightkite Friends stream Brightkite nearby stream

The Friends stream doesn’t filter by location, so it’s more “keep up with what your friends are doing” than “go meet your friends.” The purpose of the Nearby tab seems to meet people near you, or people who frequent venues that you do, but in practice, this is difficult. Location data is most useful when a relationship has already been established; establishing a relationship based on shared location (as opposed to shared interests, or friends-of-friends) is sort of like becoming friends with the people on your hall freshman year of college. They’re fine to go to the dining hall with, but you’ll eventually want to meet people you have something in common with besides living space.

Brightkite says on one of their help pages that users can “Message, browse, and see what people are up to around your current location. View visitors at your favorite places.” So presumably Brightkite should help you find cool stuff going on around you – if Harry posts a picture of a lightsaber battle going on in Washington Square Park, and you’re two blocks away, you can hustle over and join in the wacky fun. Or, if you see that Angelina J. is always checking in at your favorite coffee shop, maybe you can offer to split a blueberry muffin with her (“I saw you on Brightkite.”).

The problem with this latter scenario is that it’s creepy. It’s non-normative social behavior. Even using Dodgeball (foursquare’s pregenitor), there were plenty of times when I went to meet a friend who had checked in to a nearby venue, only to find that they were on a date, out to brunch with their girlfriend, or otherwise engaged in a pursuit where a random additional person was uncomfortable. Smoothly navigating these scenarios with strangers seems close to impossible, let alone leading to new friendships. And location information itself is not enough; how could I use the information that “cman checked in at Williams-Sonoma 15 minutes ago”?

Because Brightkite doesn’t have a points system or a leaderboard like foursquare, it’s not as cut-and-dried to describe it as “prescriptive.” So what does Brightkite value?

  • Documentation (encourages users to create a persistent record of where you’ve been, with photos and notes)
  • Connectedness among friends (encourages frequent check ins)
  • Ambient awareness (being able to see what everyone on your friends list is up to)
  • Meeting new people based on location (through providing a “nearby” stream)

Because Brightkite is more open-ended than foursquare, it’s less prescriptive. If your interest is in self-documentation, BrightKite works very well– the addition of photos and notes allows you to put together a diary-like stream of actions. But in some ways it’s just a weaker, lesser-used Twitter/Flickr stream; the lack of local specificity for “friends” makes it harder to use for socializing, and there’s no clear use case for meeting new people. Foursquare is more prescriptive, but ultimately more useful: it’s obvious how you’re supposed to use the software. The argument amongst foursquare users that people shouldn’t check in to “home” or “work” makes this clear. Brightkite would encourage users to check in at home or work; that way, they create a persistent record of their life, and broadcast that information to friends. Foursquare, on the other hand, is based on a particular kind of action– meeting up with friends for nightlife socializing– which arguably doesn’t include “home” and “work.”

If anyone reading this is a huge Brightkite fan, I’d love to hear your experiences with it in the comments.

Tomorrow: Loopt.

Foursquare, Locative Media, and Prescriptive Social Software – Part One

Posted: April 22nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: social media, social networking | Tags: , , | 45 Comments »

This is the first in a three-part series. Part Two discusses Brightkite; Part Three discusses Loopt.

Today I went to a local coffee shop to eat soup and read my 40+ pages of notes (so far) on what is supposed to be a 10 page chapter of my dissertation. I’m a frequent user of the iPhone app created by foursquare, location-based social software that lets you check in to venues (restaurants, bars, clubs) and broadcast your whereabouts to a network of friends.

4sq screenshot

Foursquare is not the only software out there that does this; similar applications include BrightKite, Google Latitude, Whrrl, and Loopt. What interests me about foursquare is that it’s a terrific example of prescriptive social software: applications that encourage particular social behaviors and provide very clear rewards for behaving in the “right” way.

Let’s start with foursquare. When I “checked in” at The Grind, here’s the feedback I got:

foursquare screenshot of checkin points

Foursquare gives you points depending on when, where, and with who you check in, and keeps a weekly leaderboard of high scorers in each city. In this instance, I get 5 points for checking in at a new venue (don’t ask where the 22 points comes from; I didn’t check in anywhere last night after midnight [Edit: apparently this is a bug that’s since been fixed]), and I’m told that Jay A. is the Mayor of The Grind, which means he’s checked in there more times than anyone else in the last 60 days.

So I go check my place in the Leaderboard:

4sq screenshot

Social butterfly Charles G. has checked in 18 times since Sunday (it’s Wednesday), with a grand total of 114 points. Naomi M. has checked in more times (20) but gotten fewer points, so she trails Mr. Charles for second place. (Don’t give up, Naomi, you’ve still got four more days!)

After a month of using foursquare, I’ve found that it rewards the following:

  • Going to new places : you get a 5 point bonus every time you check in somewhere new.
  • Going to multiple places in one day/night: 3 point “travel bonus”
  • Going out after staying home for a few days: “First night out in a while” bonus
  • Going out many nights in a row

There are also badges, which reward particular things, such as checking in at 10, 25, and 50 new venues; checking in X number of days in a row (”Bender”); checking in at X number of venues in one night (”Crunked”); checking in at the same place three times in one week (”Local”); and checking in with multiple members of the opposite sex (”Playa Please,” which I got at the Austin airport). You get fewer points for checking in somewhere you go frequently.

Given that the application presumes moving one’s way up the leaderboard is a good thing, the model of social life valued/rewarded by foursquare involves going out a lot, in urban areas, to many different venues (bars/clubs/restaurants), many days of the week (”exploring” the city, presumably with a group of suitably soused friends). This is a very urban, American, and youthful model of socialization. If you’re the kind of person who likes to stay home and play board games with your two best friends, or go to the same bar every night, or if you live in the suburbs, or if you’re done with the phase of your life when bars and clubs seemed exciting, you’re not going to find foursquare very useful, and foursquare isn’t going to encourage your type of socializing. Foursquare values going out a lot; it doesn’t place value on catching up with your reading. But then again, if you don’t like to socialize or don’t like going to bars, clubs, and restaurants, foursquare wouldn’t have much utility for you, either.

[Edit: apparently you don’t get points for checking in during the day on weekdays, which obviously, prioritizes socializing at night.]

So does this prescriptive social behavior actually change people’s social behavior? While I have zero empirical evidence to believe this is true, I have plenty of anecdotal evidence, like any good blogger. A quick search on Twitter for foursquare found the following in the first page of results:

@rogersmithhotel I’ll be there, going for the local badge on @foursquare by tomorrow. Oh, and I’m mayor too :D

GushueIS: Wow i just realized I.m 1 in sf on @foursquare now i feel all this pressure to go to new places!

creasian: HAHAH I’m the new Mayor of the San Jose International Airport on !!! Sweet! #foursquare

There’s something here worth examining. What assumptions about “good” and “bad” socializing are built into social media? Locative social media is especially interesting because it directly affects how people move through the city. It can be terrifically fun and useful for people who fit its prescribed social model. Here in San Francisco, where I’m doing ethnographic work on social media users, foursquare has positively affected my social life. For example, on Monday night, I went to dinner with a friend. After dinner, I saw that two of my closest friends were at a local bar. We met them there, and over the course of the next four hours, about 10 other people showed up, all of whom found us through foursquare. Whether or not it’s wise to have a party in a bar on Monday night is arguable, but it was really fun. Likewise, last night, on my way to meet my friends at Cafe Du Nord, I detoured through Dolores Park to say hi to two friends who’d checked in there. We watched the sunset together and I went on my way.

Foursquare also contributes to ambient awareness. Like Twitter, you feel part of a group of people, but whereas you can follow anyone on Twitter, foursquare restricts the displayed information to people in your city, and friendships are bidirectional – nobody can friend you if you don’t friend them. People tend to be fairly picky about their foursquare friends, precisely because of the type of specific locative information that it provides. This creates a social map of the city – my friend Jane is at work, John is at the park, Josh is climbing, Jen is having brunch – which can be comforting and helps to provide a sense of social context.

But it’s important to remember that the social models built into social software are not value-neutral. In the second part of this post, I will look at the types of social behavior that other locative media services prescribe.

Disclaimer: I’m friends with the guys behind foursquare.


Posted: March 5th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: blogs, internet culture | Tags: | 1 Comment »

I finally signed up for tumblr, and I’m trying really hard to understand what all the fuss is about.

I often find that I have a very strong negative reaction to new trendy technologies. This is strange as I often end up using and liking them (Facebook and Twitter being prime examples, although I never took to MySpace as much as I used it). I think the best way to describe it is as a form of jealousy: I feel left out by customs I don’t understand.

Tumblr is a lot like LiveJournal, less robust but easier to use. The barrier to entry is pretty much zilch for anyone familiar with social media: sign up, drag a bookmarklet, start Tumbling things. It’s basically a blog without commentary, or a LJ without real comments. I find that I tend to post lots of pictures and quick links to Tumblr, whereas on this blog I try to post substantive entries (or at least I will now that my links aren’t it’s primary content), and I feel like I have to stick pretty strictly to technology. Whereas on Tumblr I feel totally comfortable posting pictures of dresses I’d like to buy or completely personal, superficial viewpoints on pop culture.

The culture of “reblogging” on Tumblr (which substitutes for commenting, although you can hack together comments with a third-party product like disqus) seems to incite a lot of drama. Basically, you can copy anything anyone else writes and add your own commentary on your own Tumblr. Then a link to that commentary shows up on the original post. This is basically exactly the same as comments on a blog or LJ. However, recently Tumblr CEO David Karp deleted a bunch of Tumblr blogs that mocked Julia Allison, justifying this as “anti-harassment,” but in reality just annoying a lot of his users (he overturned the decision two days later). Apparently Allison was annoyed that links mocking her showed up on her own blog. Finally, Tumblr introduced a “blocking” feature, which allows users to block links to reblogs. I think.

Tumblr’s culture is very young. LJ has a culture leftover from the late 90s; it’s sort of mired in netiquette and FAQs, and attracts nerdy fandom nerds and 30 somethings. Tumblr seems, from my limited perspective, to have a culture more akin to the American Apparel, no-politics-more-irony, everything is ripe for mockery hipster viewpoints of the late 00s. It’s also firmly embedded in early 20something New York and San Francisco social life (and much, much more popular in the former city).

I’m sure social status on Tumblr would make an excellent case study for the dissertation, but I still find it all a bit distasteful. I’m Tumbling away, hoping that one of these days I’ll fall in love with it like I have Twitter. So far, not so much.

LiveJournal Users: Passionate, Prolific, and Private

Posted: January 4th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: business, social media | 24 Comments »

Hi all,

I am very happy to announce the release of a major research report I wrote for LiveJournal based on an analysis of previous academic research, interviews with long-term LJ users and observation of communities and individual journals.

You can download it from the LiveJournal Inc. site at

I was asked to answer the question “What makes LJ different?” I identified the depth of engagement between users and the substantive nature of entries and comments as the two major differences between LiveJournal and other forms of social media.

From the introduction:

LiveJournal’s present success can be attributed to what sets it apart rather than what it has in common with typical social media sites. Unlike Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter, LiveJournal’s features encourage a long-term, deep engagement between users that is comparable to a real-life (usually abbreviated as “RL” on LiveJournal) conversation.

While a Twitter message (140 characters) or a Facebook status update (160 characters) is designed to be extremely brief, LiveJournal users frequently write lengthy entries that encourage and solicit substantial comments from friends. These comment threads can include dozens of people and multithreaded conversations on both personal journals and community journals. LiveJournal also has full integration with a network of friends that encourages more meaningful relationships.

Note that this was a report that LJ paid for me to do. I’m still figuring out the ethics of paid research. Some of the comments in the LJ_Research blog call me out for not mentioning events that were highly critical of the company, or heavily-populated communities that aren’t as “family friendly” as the ones I included. And I fully admit that I went through several rounds of edits with LJ to get to a point where we were all comfortable with the work. It’s an interesting conundrum. But overall, I stand behind my work and there’s nothing in the report I don’t believe in fully.

You can comment at this LJ_Research thread until I get my comments on this blog working again (re-installing the blog software and generally modernizing this from 2005’s hottest technology is on my 2009 to-do list).