Social Practices and New Media (Mobile)

The cartoon above seems to get straight to the heart of much of Lee Humphrey’s research on social interaction in today’s wireless era. When we interact with others whether face-to-face (as in the case of the man and chicken above), via computer mediated communication (like in Hancock’s study on butler lies in Instant Messaging) or by telephone (as in Humphrey’s study of caller interaction), we are constantly looking for ways to avoid awkward situations, feelings of vulnerability or having our private space violated. This is particularly true when two individuals are dialoguing face to face and are suddenly interrupted because one individual receives a phone call.

The Situation

This past Sunday I was hard at work assisting an entrepreneur I’ve been in touch with for some time now with some basic product development. My two housemates, Tim and Andy, had just returned from a dinner run with subs and chips and were munching away at their sandwiches while having a heated debate over where we should all go for our next break. Suddenly, Tim received a call from his cousin. The phone conversation lasted approximately five minutes during which time Andy increasingly became more and more uncomfortable. At first he simply gnawed away at his sandwich while pretending to ignore the phone conversation. After a few minutes of restlessly rapping his knuckles on a coffee table Andy flipped on the television set in the room and started watching ESPN until Tim finished his phone call.

Analysis

Before Tim’ received the call from his cousin, he and Andy were both withs. As such they had been giving their full attention to each other and the debate at hand: vacation plans. Together they had a common identity or purpose which helped them avoid feeling vulnerable despite the fact that they were in a public place. However, the moment Tim received the call from his cousin on his cell phone, the relationship changed. Andy quickly became a single and Tim became a “with” with his cousin who was on the phone.

As a result, Andy began to feel awkward and vulnerable. Because of these feelings of awkwardness and vulnerability, Andy tried very hard to do several things. First, he tried to pretend that he was not listening to Tim’s conversation. This could be seen by the fact that he oriented his body away from Tim in an effort to give James more privacy. The second thing Andy did was to attempt to appear occupied. He first preoccupied himself by ravenously downing his sub and then moved on to watching television. Both of these actions were attempts to appear occupied and socially adept.

 Applicability of Identified Social Practices

In her work on social interaction in the wireless era, Lee Humphreys identifies a number of social practices—many of which still apply today. Caller hegemony—or the idea that the person making the phone call has power over the call recipient is still prevalent. This is primarily true because the caller has all the information on why the call is being made and what the topic of discussion is going to be. Nevertheless, the rise of caller ID has taken away some of that power as the recipient now at least has an idea of where the incoming call is coming from.

The rise of texting is an even larger break from the social practices identified by Humphrey. It is becoming more of a social norm to carry on a text message conversation while interacting with someone completely different face to face. This is a result of the fact that text message conversations require less time and energy on behalf of the texter relative to a phone-to-phone converser. Thus, an individual can potentially be a “with” with a face-to-face entity and a CMC entity simultaneously. This is especially true if one is good at multitasking.

Facebook Groups: Bringing People Together

Does anyone remember one of facebook’s hallmark features: the facebook group? I know this app is a thing of the past, but it’s worth mentioning for a couple of reasons.

In his publication on groupware and social dynamics in 1994, Jonathan Grudin argues that there are eight major challenges that developers of technology applications seeking to create better virtual spaces for collaboration must overcome. Since 1994 developers have to a large extent overcome many of these challenges. And while there still remain many problems with virtual groupware, technology and groupware development have improved tremendously. No where is this better seen than in Facebook’s old groups feature. Facebook groups addressed the problems of critical mass and the prisoner’s dilemma, disparity in work and benefit and unobtrusive accessibility. However, at the time Facebook still needed to improve on exception handling. I will be using the “No Cornellian in Poverty” group that was formed several years a year ago as a running example to illustrate these concepts.

1)    Critical mass and the Prisoner’s Dilemma: According to Grudin, one of the biggest issues with groupware is that it does not always enlist the critical mass of users required to be useful to the individual user. Facebook groups addressed this problem by creating a social setting online where a user’s existing social network is mapped out online. Currently there are more than 700 million users on facebook using the site on a consistent basis to interact with people who are important to them. Especially in younger generations, many users have accepted a vast majority of their friends as “facebook friends.” So when it comes time to form a group, whether it be for a cause like the group used in this blog, or about anything else the existing critical mass is already there to form the group. “No Cornellian in Poverty” had over 450 members in the group from an admin list of 3 people—and this was well over a year after the group was formed. Clearly facebook groups had tremendous success at acquiring critical mass.

2)    Disparity in Work and Benefit: Another one of Grudin’s concerns with groupware applications is that they often require additional work from individuals who do not perceive a direct benefit from the work that they put in. The Facebook Groups application overcame this challenge by making it really easy to set up a Facebook group. Utilizing drop down menus, auto-fill features, radio buttons and text boxes, users of the Facebook group application could set up their group in a matter of minutes and then invite all their friends to join. The small amount of work is definitely worth the reward of garnering attention to or facilitating discussion about the Facebook group.

3)    Unobtrusive Accessibility: In his paper, Grudin states that groupware ought to ensure that features that support group processes are used relatively infrequently in comparison to more heavily used features. The beauty of facebook is that it gives individual users control over the quantity and nature of information they receive via email from the group. For example, some users may find the “discussion board” useful whereas others may find the “links” useful. In either case, a user can go into the group’s settings and customize the type and quantity of emails he or she receives from the group. This allows for the application to be less obtrusive.

4)    Exception Handling: Grudin argues that groupware should be able to handle a wide range of exceptions as well as be conducive to improvisation. Herein lies the one flaw with Facebook groups—it simply wasn’t built to handle exceptions. There are a whole range of types of groups and features that facebook groups never had. This includes features like: uploading documents, synchronizing calendars of members, communicating via video chat within the group, sending out mass text messages, etc,. There are definitely a number of exceptions that facebook simply wasn’t ready to handle at the time

Nevertheless Facebook groups made a number of important strides towards overcoming Grudin’s challenges for developers. Despite having difficulty with handling exceptions, it obtained the necessary critical mass, eliminated the disparity between work and benefit and made accessibility far less obtrusive. This progress seems to suggest that slowly groupware will eliminate all the challenges that Grudin presents, making virtual collaboration as efficient and beneficial as face-to-face interaction. Yet we ought to be a little more reserved in our optimism. After all there seems to be an inherent and irreplaceable value to personal interaction. Are we then chasing an illusive goal  or trying to conquer the unconquerable? It seems that only time will tell that tale.

Lessons Learned

Being a young entrepreneur has many advantages. Students generally have fewer financial obligations and are able to take more risks. In addition, students often have more opportunities that stem from being in the university environment. Such opportunities include access to knowledgeable professors and relationships with other intelligent students. But today, I’d like to talk about several of the problems related to being a young entrepreneur.

Let’s turn back the pages of Cornell history to 1994 and examine a case of particular relevance to Cornell. That year two computer science students named Stephan Paternot and Todd Krizelman founded a primitive social networking site that would later be known as theGlobe.com. The company was an instant success and in 1998 it attracted a lot of attention by posting the largest IPO gains of any company in history up to that date. At the age of 23, Paternot and Krizelman were valued at $100 million each.

Yet the fame and success these youths acquired soon attracted a lot of criticism from the media. In 1999, CNN filmed Paternot dancing on a table with model Jennifer Medley in a Manhattan night club saying, “Got the girl. Got the money. Now I’m ready to live a disgusting, frivolous life.” Unfortunately, things did not stay so perfect for Paternot. 1999 was the year of the dot com bust and shares of theGlobe.com dropped from a high of $97 to less than a dime. The two young entrepreneurs lost all of their money and faded out of the spotlight. The following year, Paternot and Krizelman were forced out of the company—a sad ending to a story-book beginning.

Tales like these of young entrepreneurs experiencing massive failures are all too common. And when it happens, the ending is never good. There is just something to be said about age and the experience that comes with it. It’s simply not enough to just have the technical talent or the strong work ethic to make a startup succeed. Often you need the wisdom of those who have already done what you have done. So finding the right mentor—whether it be a faculty advisor or a parent or a close friend—is essential to navigating the unfamiliar territory of entrepreneurship and enterprise.

Interested in hearing more about mentoring? Check out the eClips theme where Entrepreneurs Discuss the Role of Mentors