Beki Grinter

Substituting the Online for the Real

In empirical, HCI, research, social media on September 28, 2010 at 9:59 am

I just finished reading Elizabeth Churchill’s article in interactions magazine. interactions is the professional magazine associated with the ACM’s special interest group for Human-Computer Interaction (HCI).

Her article was a piece about social networks, and in particular about making design decisions grounded not just in the online social network, but in the real-world that contextualizes the social network itself. She offers some considerations, based on Jonathan Grudin’s eight lessons for CSCW, that could inform a more human-centered design. She also has a short, but interesting history of how social networking terms and research got started.

I agree with Elizabeth and want to offer a somewhat different take. In addition to design decisions, there’s another crucial reason to not substitute the online for the real-world, and that’s in inferences about the human condition. I have left some social networking talks where I find myself thinking that the seduction of a vast dataset, and I can understand the temptations of that, may triumph the scoping applied to the results. It can be tempting to draw inferences out of the online and into the real world, and yet, the online is just one facet of that real world.

Nothing more clearly sums this up to me than Miller and Slater’s book: The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach. In the first chapter, the Conclusions, they argue, compellingly to me, that to study the Internet online without studying the real-world contexts that lead to its use is to make a serious analytic mistake. Their work pre-dates the rise of social networking sites, but foreshadows them quite clearly in its descriptions of the reasons why people get online, and what they do once there, and whom with.

On a lighter, but related note, this week, a film about Facebook and in particular its founder will be released. And in quite a different context, that of development, I find myself thinking that the real-world contexts that surrounding the development of Facebook will be just another reminder of how the real-world so much a part of the online world.

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  1. Hi, thank you for your post. I would like to briefly address the ‘on a lighter, but related note’ part of the article concerning the upcoming Facebook film. There is also a new movie called Catfish that has just come out in theatres. It is a documentary about Facebook and romance. It is a movie that is extremely relevant to our times and I expect more movies surrounding the use of social media to pop-up in the future. In a real-life context, it reveals one reason people in the real-world might get online, but, it’s likely not the reason you think. Beyond that, my lips are sealed. Enjoy!

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