Assignment Thoughts – the current (draft plan)

After much faffing and thinking here is what I’m thinking about for my assignment (the title is especially preliminary) – comments very very welcome!

Possible Title: Post Human or Post Relationship?: Uncanny Machine Interventions in Online Social Spaces

What I want to look at (in my relatively wee word limit):

I want to explore how automatic prompts, scripts and bots intervene in relationships in online social spaces. In doing so I want to touch on the themes of current utopian ideals of web communities (specifically Social Media/Web 2 communities) and the invasive nature of the machine in these spaces. I am not set on that invasion always being dystopian but I think that the uncanny tracking and manipulation in such spaces certainly has to refer to dystopian notions of man and machine.

Although this has been inspired by the types of prompts which Facebook generates (”X has no friends – suggest some!) this work has obvious implications for learning – particularly the creation and curation of peer learning communities – in social spaces and, indeed, for the way in which the academic data services I work on/with might conduct their relationships with user communities. I think that a much longer study could look at how these automatic interventions and the community culture around a site interacted in the context of Human-Computer Interaction but, for the scale of this assignment, I will be looking at the cultural impact and effects of mechanical intervention in a more contained context. In particular I am keen to see how the machine interactions cause a community to behave post humanly and to look at how conciously individuals respond to such prompts and whether they consider such manipulation useful, invasive.

What will be in this?

I am thinking of starting by analysing the types of manipulation I am personally subject to and using this as a jumping off point to find participants from one or several social spaces who are willing to share their own experience. I hope to explore the topic with a very deliberate and invasive presentation structure that will cause the reader to question their experience of the space. I’m still thinking through the details but I hope to include some comments and analysis of ways in which social spaces model their participants’ behaviour and looking at how this impacts on communication/social culture of those participants outside the social spaces. Because of the scale of this assignment I will be talking to a few willing volunteers that might represent the issues of a wider whole rather than trying to take any statistically significant sample of participants.

So… What do you think?


  1. Posted December 3, 2009 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    Hi N

    Nice to have some excuse to feed the brain on a miserable Thursday morning!

    I notice some people get quite irate about explicit machine interventions (”people with this book/friend/paper also did x”) while conveniently overlooking the fact that the whole environment is an intervention that enables them to do with ease something impossible only a few years ago. So there seems to be an issue around perception of control and choice, and the explicit role of the machine: when it is seamless and unobtrusive, we like it, when it isn’t we don’t.

    Amazon/Facebook automated interventions clearly don’t pass the Turing test: when they pop up we /know/ they are machine events pretending to be human and chatty and tend to react adversely. If you/I/Hamish say to each other ‘check out this other book or person’ we’ll probably do it with good grace rather than ill. And yet interesting that so much JISC IE type work is focused on bringing the same ’suggestive’ features to bear on academic researchers and resources.

    I haven’t delved into the unheimlich for a long time, but the osmotic/subconscious aspect of online social interaction with Twitter/FB/VLEs seems rich for exploration (perhaps you’ve been doing that on the course?) – all this background knowledge we pick up about the lives of our online contacts. This seems to be something that non-users, notably older generations and commentators on Twitter ;) find particularly difficult to comprehend.

    One other thought is that there seem to be interesting overlaps between what I understand of post-human thinking and some distributed-cognition concepts, eg. “cognitive technology [extends] the scope and power of cognition” (Dror & Harnad –

    Look forward to seeing your assignment in the MsCEL gallery :)

  2. Peter Harris
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    my observation of interventions of computers in social space I use:

    - playing 4-handed card games on line, when someone quits a computer takes their seat. This usually results in all the humans leaving; seems they prefer to play 4-on-4 human than with a bot

    - continual paranoia in online poker circles that “bots” will infest the game and make them unprofitable

    - on a personal note I’m hassled by Facebook telling me to connect with people who i meet frequently in the flesh. The fact they have no way to quantify your non-electronic contact is heartening at least…

    - a fun one might be human-computer interaction on support chat logs where the company side is a bot reacting to the user’s error issues.

  3. sibyller
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    Nicola, I think this is a very interesting topic. People do react very differently to these “prompts”. I was discussing recently how people felt about amazon offering books like “If you liked this book, you might also like…”. While I always ignore these remarks and they don’t particularly bother me, other people felt annoyed, but some also felt quite happy about having other books recommended.
    I think problems arise when the prompts aren’t explicitly recognised as marketing strategies, as in Lesley’s ethnography about the coffee website.
    So I think the more subtle aspects are definitely worth investigating.
    Good luck with the essay!

  4. Posted December 6, 2009 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for all your comments so far – all really interesting and positive so I’m now excited to go exploring and pulling together ideas and experiences into a fun assignment. Will post more here as things progress…

  5. Posted December 9, 2009 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting choice of subject. Will be very curious to read this!

  6. Posted January 11, 2010 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    This is a rather belated announcement but my assignment is now live (it has been for over a week in fact!):

    Please do have a look and let me know what you think. I am fairly happy with it even if it’s not exactly what I envisioned at the outset.

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