Perhaps one of the more challenging but also enjoyable parts of writing my dissertation has been grappling withe the idea of sociomateriality. There are a number of approaches to defining and researching sociomateriality, but the most obvious take away is that sociomateriality directs the researcher towards examining the role of materiality in the structuring/durability of human action. Some authors dance around the idea while others, through superb rhetoric, unveil this condition with profound clarity. A passage (see below) from Bruno Latour’s 1996 work,“On Interobjectivity”, is particularly illuminating:
We circulate smoothly from the offices of the post office’s architect, where the counter model was sketched and the flux of users modeled. My interaction with the worker was anticipated there, statistically, years before-and the way in which I leaned on the counter, sprayed saliva, filled in forms, was anticipated by ergonomists and inscribed in the agency of the post office.Of course they didn’t see me standing there in the flesh, any more than they saw the worker. But it would be a serious mistake to say that I was not there. I was inscribed there as a category of user, and today I have just carried out this role and have actualized the variable with my own body. Thus I am indeed connected from the post office to the architect by a slender but solid thread that makes me go from being a personal body in interaction with a worker to a type of user represented on a blueprint. Inversely, the framework sketched out years ago remains, through the intervention of Portuguese workers, concrete, carpenters and fiberglass, the framework that holds, limits, channels and authorizes my conversation with the post office worker. As soon as the objects are added in, it will be seen that we must get used to circulating in time, in space, across levels of materialization.
Today I presented research with my advisor, Dr. Carsten Osterlund, on the sociomateriality of newcomer socialization in the citizen science project, Planet Hunters. See the abstract of our talk below:
Crowdsourced initiatives rely on contributions from experienced and non-experienced contributors rather than on permanent workers. Such new organizational forms challenge existing theories of organizational socialization. Theoretically, the present paper merges insights from the socialization literature with notions of multiple spaces and forms of presence drawn from the sociomateriality debate, leading us to conceptualize socialization as emerging out of the mutual co-construction of the technical infrastructure and the volunteers. Combining virtual ethnography, trace ethnography, and survey responses, we study socialization of participants in a large citizen science project involving more than 800,000 participants. Our results depict newcomer socialization as a gradual change in the types of spaces participants perform. They start out performing scientific and communal system features as highly structured regional spaces characterized by authoritative-subject forms of relations. As they become more comfortable with the scientific practices some participants shift to perform system features as a resonance space characterized by a communal form of authority. The research contributes to our understanding of socialization in crowdsourced environments and implications their design and management.
Wikipedia has matured as an open source collaborative project, featuring a robust governance structure that has emerged over the project’s 13 year history. While the policies and guidelines help shape the creation of quality content on Wikipedia, one area of the community structure that is receiving a great deal of attention and thought is the experience of newcomers. Research shows that ,of late, newcomers find themselves in a hostile environment that does not welcome their contributions. With Wikipedia surviving on the goodwill of volunteers, chasing away newcomers has implications for the long term sustainability of the movement. As such, researchers and community members alike are rethinking how to support newcomers so that they will be more inclined to stay with Wikipedia. As someone who thinks a lot about the experience of newcomers in online collaborative communities, I was excited to receive news this week that I along with two other Wikipedians received a grant from the Wikimedia Foundation to develop a new mentorship system that matches newcomers with experienced Wikipedians based on the skills newcomers wish to learn. The aim of the project is to support newcomer socialization and learning with the broader goal of supporting newcomer retention. Over the next six months I will work on this grant as a researcher, examining the newcomer experience in the system we design as well as the outcomes of their participation. This project should shed light on some of the broader issues of expertise sharing and newcomer socialization and will ideally make valuable contributions to the research and design around development and management of online collaborative environments. I look forward to writing here about what I find over the next six months.
After nearly four years of trying to turn this idea into a reality, the pilot of CampusNeighbor finally came to a close on April 4th at 601 Tully: Center for Engaged Art and Practice (see press here and here). CampusNeighbor.org is a website designed to facilitate barters between students and residents in college communities. The goal is to bridge the traditional town and gown divide by encouraging bartering, a form of economic activity that can have a long term impact of creating social capital.
The website acts as a match maker between students and residents by matching skills with needs. The pilot ran from January 2014 to April, with the final event at 601 Tully acting as an opportunity for people who had been matched up on the site or were looking to be matched up to barter with each other.
In the four years that it took to get this project off the ground, CampusNeighbor went through a number of iterations, but it was the push back and input from a number of amazing people that helped take this project from an idea to a reality.
Socialization is a process where newcomers move from a state of uncertainty to a state of fluency in the practice, terminology, and behavior that define an organization. For settings where activities have a high degree of impact on the functionality and continued existence of the organization, socialization processes are particularly important (Van Maanen & Schein, 1979). While formal training models successfully integrate newcomers, crowdsourced projects like Wikipedia are unable to provide formal training due to the ad hoc assemblage of volunteers that participate. Studies on socialization in open online collaborative projects typically focus on information seeking, the impact of feedback, and the construction of social networks as newcomers make sense of their new environment. While such research is important, there is scant consideration for the material components of the online platforms and their role in the socialization process.
Yesterday I presented “Planet hunters and seafloor explorers: legitimate peripheral participation through practice proxies in online citizen science” a paper I wrote with my colleagues at Syracuse University as part of our ongoing research on newcomer learning in the Zooniverse suite of citizen science projects. The paper was presented at the Conference for Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing. A copy can be found in the CSCW 2014 Proceedings. For a quick preview, check out the abstract below.
Making visible the process of user participation in online crowdsourced initiatives has been shown to help new users understand the norms of participation . However, in many settings, participants lack full access to others’ work. Merging the theory of legitimate peripheral participation  with Erickson and Kellogg’s theory of social translucence [10, 11, 16] we introduce the concept of practice proxies: traces of user participation in online environments that act as resources to orient newcomers towards the norms of practice. Through a combination of virtual  and trace ethnography  we explore how new users in two online citizen science projects engage with these traces of practice as a way of compensating for a lack of access to the process of the work itself. Our findings suggest that newcomers seek out practice proxies in the social features of the projects that highlight contextualized and specific characteristics of primary work practice.
There are a number of instantiations of peer-to-peer economic activity in which people leverage their latent skills or loan out latent capacity of tools they own. Each instantiation vary on a scale in terms of how much they tip in either direction of firm or market characteristics. For example, it can be argued that many of the sharing economy websites today like AirBnB or TaskRabbit are more akin to the market logic of prices signaling a relationship between supply and demand. While this is true, I argue that such platforms still fall under the umbrella of the peer-to-peer economy for two reasons: First, because they support disintermediated transactions; transactions where there is no middleman negotiating the terms of the transaction. In such transactions, individuals must come to such terms on their own, therefore, the relevance of social frameworks (shared social norms) is still a prominent and overarching component that mediates and determines the success of the transaction. Where we rely on such frameworks to be embedded and assumed in the relationship we have with resellers, this framework must be renegotiated in each peer-to-peer transaction, thus making such websites part of the peer-to-peer economic phenomenon. The second reason is the characteristic of utilizing latent capacity: Both platforms take assets like unused rooms in a home or the skills not being used during an individuals free time and create a platform that communicates such latent capacity to those who might want them.