Science-Based Approach to Online Participation

Researchers may disagree on the best social media or “crowdsourcing” approach. However, existing online communities that explore new social participation ideas provide a “vast laboratory” for testing theories about technology-mediated social interaction. Wikipedia, Twitter, Patients Like Me, Open Innovation Pavillion, Watch Jefferson County and Innocentive – today a great amount of data is becoming available, as stated in the recent article “Computational Social Science”. Now is the time to use these data and perform experiments at massive scale, wrote a team of researchers led by Ben Shneiderman, professor for computer science at the University of Maryland. They authored a white paper called “National Initiative for Social Participation” which suggests a “scientific foundation for thinking about technology-mediated social interaction”.

A core assumption is that there are “better and worse forms of social participation and social connectedness”. But what makes them better or worse? We have been thinking about this for a while, as we work towards the launch of UCSF’s research networking site mentioned in the recent post OpenSocial & Best Practices for Social Networking Websites.  Ben Shneiderman’s team argues that an organized research program could help to accelerate promising social action networks and answer fundamental questions about functionality, usability and sociability. For example: What motivates participants to come to a site, read, contribute and collaborate? What are best practices for moderation facilities? How do successful online communities handle the start-up paradox, recruit and socialize newcomers, encourage commitment and contribution from members? And how important are cooperation, competition, and trust for an individual’s participation? Not to mention legitimate dangers;  the white paper states to the point: “In the social networking ideal universe, anyone can connect with anyone else. In the ideal secure universe, there is insurance against that.”

Finding answers to these questions would offer the chance to “redesign and repurpose” social media technologies, improving “usability and sociability to better engage people with diverse motivations, experiences, perspectives, skills and knowledge”. Ben Shneiderman’s team envisions using the knowledge to “produce profound transformations in healthcare, community safety, disaster response, life-long learning, business innovation, energy sustainability, environmental protection, and other important national priorities.”

In this spirit, the National Science Foundation announced a $15-million Social-Computational Systems grant program to support research around social networking – a good opportunity to establish a stronger basis for evidence-driven discussions about online participation.