Augmenting humans with social media

Figure borrowed from http://www.cs.washington.edu
My first job back in the early 90’s was as a systems analyst. I was really excited about automating boring bits of peoples’ tasks so that they could get creative by accessing the extra brainpower of a computer in some wonderful human-computer collaboration.

Inspired by Doug Lenat’s AM (Automated Mathematician), where the computer was discovering mathematical proofs, I wanted to find a way to create some sort of integrated system with the computer discovering things and the human adding information to represent their feel for a given situation.

Of course, in the Accounts Department where I was ‘helping’ accountants, the reality was very different. Computers weren’t the powerful, easy to use machines they are today. So, by introducing technology to various user groups, I was actually telling people to do their jobs differently. I wasn’t making the world a better place, I was hampering everyone with computers. And elsewhere in the company I worked, computers were replacing people altogether. No wonder, computers were not popular. How times have changed.

For me, human-computer interaction was and still remains Gestaltian: The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, by this I mean, that the collaboration of a human and a computer should be more than a human typing numbers into a computer and then waiting for the solution.

When I looked up Gestalt Theory, I learnt that Kurt Koffka’s original phrase was The whole is other than the sum of the parts, which works just as well. And did, when I was captivated by AI research, in particular constraint theory.

I loved the idea that if you had a space of solutions, you could explore it computationally by changing variables which represented specific design objectives such as the limit of the cost of the project, and then create other and varying solutions.

But, how often do we need something other and varying? The majority of users I have worked with love their jobs and have specific end goals for which they use computers.

When I was working alongside engineers my job was to interpret the massive data sets generated by fibre optic sensors on the bridges they monitored. I created GUIs which employed the terminology and symbolic language engineers are trained to use. The GUIs sat onto top of well-known models to interpret data. And to reflect this specific nature of engineer-computer interaction, I actually called it a sub-set of human-computer interaction. The engineers were doing something newish – monitoring bridges- but they were using the way they were trained because of the laws and health and safety when looking after the infrastructure society depends upon.

The engineers would only use something they could trust.

And that got me thinking about the whole creativity computational collaboration. Do we really need super extra powerful computers to have a creative collaboration? Or do we just need something trustworthy?

When I began this blog post – a long time ago – I had a first sentence which said: How to improve the intellectual effectiveness of the individual human being.

Now, I can barely remember what I was going to say. But googling the phrase produces millions of articles and Doug Engelbart, who was a pioneer in computing. He invented the mouse and was very much into harnessing computational power to help humans and augment their capacities. This side steps the issue of trust, because ultimately the augmented human would decide whether the collaboration of computer and human produced the right solution. And humans normally trust themselves.

Steve Mann has been augmenting his capacity for over 20 years with wearables which overlay his world view with lots of information taken from the Internet. Stelarc augmented his reality by having an ear surgically attached to his arm so that he could hear random people’s conversations again via the Internet.

Their solutions don’t involve vast computational power and they are not really solving anything. They are looking differently at augmenting humans. But both use two things:

  1. Connectivity
  2. Other people

And this is what social media does, but in a quick and easy way. Via social media, it is so easy to access a) random conversation like Sterlac, or b) information about a new town you are in like Steve Mann.

But it is not just information we want, which was what clever computers and AI realised. We want intelligence and the expertise of someone else, who is constantly updating and refreshing their world view.

Social media gives us that in a way a clever computer cannot – yet!.

This morning alone, I tapped into three experts to help me do yoga, meditate and feel more at peace:

Those experiences augmented and enriched my life and left me more peaceful and happy. I could not have done without the help of those experts or social media unless I took time off and went off to find these experts.

So, it seems that social media is one amazing way of augmenting humans. And when I think of me back in the accounts department evangelising about how computers could transform our lives, I had no idea how right I was, just not at all in the way I imagined.

We live in amazing times.

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Social media explained

Corey Smith on Social Media

Corey Smith on social media

The above image by Corey Smith is great. It has many variations: doughnuts, wee, or a piss-poor explanation of social media, which have been doing the rounds for years now.

This is because, when humans are presented with anything new or old, they have to categorise, classify it and wrestle it to the ground, in order to understand and manage the world around them. And, then they like to tell others how to do it properly. Sometimes these humans are wise and are leaders, they are the culture carriers of society. Other times they are not, like the two people who told me, this week, that I am doing Twitter wrong.

The main problem they have with my wrong approach is that I like to read every Tweet. What a weirdo! Consequently, I don’t follow many people because I find it hard to keep up. Also, I don’t like everything I read, so if it happens repeatedly, I unfollow the tweeters who are filling up my feed. And, normally they unfollow me. This seems to me to be a realistic approach. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work? Isn’t that like life?

Apparently not, according to my Twitter advisors, I am supposed to follow zillions of people and dip in and out. And there is lots of software to help me do this including the who unfollowed me app. I tried it out – apparently, @Oprah, @DalaiLama, and @DeathStarPR unfollowed me. What? They never followed me in the first place. There has never been any reciprocation of my fandom and I didn’t expect it either.

But, like all things in life, the more you do, the more you are worth. On Twitter, the more followers you have , the more you are worth, especially if you are influential, because you can turn that into money. And then the more money you have, the more you are worth until you have an epiphany and give back to society and then become truly worthy. It is all about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Jennifer Werner is an influencer and writes brilliantly about having her influence monetised in the New York Times.

I too had an influential moment, when I reviewed the first Iphone on the eve of its launch and had loads of companies contacting me to buy up links on my page. This was 2007 when SEO was the main thing to get seen. Me being influential in that tiny window of the Iphone launch was heady stuff! Not really, the companies weren’t anyone I wanted to dilute my brand for (*guffaws*).

Last summer, I went to a day of Sharing is Caring – social media strategies at Campus London last year. It was a very interesting (and exhausting) day – full of how to advice such as:

  • You have 15 minutes on twitter to build momentum.
  • You have 1 hour on facebook.
  • Speed is imperative.
  • Try to latch onto a world event to get noticed.
  • Peer to peer content is more valuable than anything else.

Everyone was furiously scribbling it down, and tweeting away on the hashtag #campuslondon. Just remembering that day, makes me want to tweet, facebook and generally rush about to get noticed. Even though I figured out a while ago that blogging is what I like to do.

One of the speakers was Malcolm Bell of Zaggora.com whose success is used by Harvard Business School as a case study in, I guess, social media success. He talked a lot about different strategies in particular using influencers like Jennifer Werner. But the thing he said which struck me the most was that:

No one has any idea how social media works.

Nobody. Not the CEOs of Facebook. Not the influencers of Twitter. No one.

And like most things which us poor humans don’t understand, we need an explanation, especially, when there are people who are making money from it. It is fascinating. Which is why there is big business in doing and being a social media strategist.

The twitter hashtags: #contentmarketing #socialmedia are full of:

  • Seven ways to get more ….
  • Use #contentmarketing to grow your…
  • Social media explained, etc.,

But, for me this all leads back to the thing I always say in every blog about social media. Actually in every blog about anything, which is: Whether you are a big business selling a product to make money, or you are an individual wandering around the Internet cocktail party looking for good conversation, it is all the same. We all want to be heard, we all want to feel like someone is listening to our story and we all want to hear a good story.

And for those of us who want to be rich and famous, well that is just a variation of being seen and heard. Money=power, power=people listening to us. Right now, social media seems to be the latest thing to make that possible.

Sociologist Sherry Turkle, has said that there is no proper conversation on Twitter. But, I disagree. I think that there is, it’s just that I haven’t completely found the conversation of my dreams yet.

But when I do, I will let the world know, well 64 of them anyway.

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Travels with my phone

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Recently, I came across some photos of the year my husband and I went travelling. The above is one of many we have of the Route 66 (I-40) when we spent a few months in the USA and did a driveaway.

We picked up a jeep in LA and dropped it off in Toronto driving on the Route 66 for as much of the trip as we could. We had a really nice book which described what was left of Route 66 and the landmarks and the interesting detours. And we had a camera – a predigital one – which you put film in the back and by the time you got your photos developed, you had completely forgotten what they were of and they were a complete surprise.

When we pulled onto Route 66, we stopped to snap the first historic sign by the side of the road. Then, we stopped again to snap the painted sign on the road. And then we took a couple of panaramic ones of the road stretching out ahead. And then, my husband said, ‘Right, no more pictures of the road.’

Yeah right! In Toronto we dropped off the jeep and got our photos developed, and we had so many pictures of Route 66, typically like the one above. Often we are lying on the jeep, or sitting on a rock, but mainly we have one identical picture after another of that unique view.

If we had had a digital camera, would we have spent a lot more time browsing our photos on the camera and then not taking more of the same? How is our photo taking different now?

And that got me thinking: If we went travelling now in this connected world, would our experience be different?

Back then in our backpacks, we had:

  • One camera between us and each time we got some photos developed we would post them back to the UK for safe keeping.
  • No phones. Neither one of us had a mobile phone, so we drove miles and miles without any way of contacting anyone. I don’t remember thinking about what we would have done had we broken down.
  • Several books, which were reading including the Route 66 Guide. They were heavy but reading materials back then and now are essential
  • A notebook or two to write in about our experiences and who knows what else.
  • Huge fold out maps to manage where we were.
  • A cash book to keep track of what we spent.
  • A calculator.
  • A watch.
  • Our RTW airline tickets which we needed to keep dry and safe.

I am sure we had a lot of other stuff which I can’t remember that we dragged around along with a ridiculous ukulele (Waikiki beach) and an umbrella from Kyoto. Today, souvenirs aside, much of my backpack would be replaced by my smartphone and a charger.

On our phones, we would google local landmarks and use google maps to plan our route. We would download books to read on our phones – although the husband prefers his tablet to read on. We would have a copy of that Route 66 book we so liked. And, we would be able to read it at the same time. We would share a spreadsheet across our devices so we could calculate and keep track of spending. Our airline tickets would be in an app. I would be able to check my bank balance too!

And keeping in touch? What would I do?

Back then, whilst staying in the outskirts of Bangkok I got up early one morning to walk to a phone box to phone my parents as it had been a while and they worried a lot. I had a phone card which we had tracked down the night before. Wow! Nowadays, I’d probably text. Quick and easy without the need to calculate time differences without getting out of bed, unless I was running around looking for a signal.

And what about postcards? Each new country we went to, I sent my parents a postcard, which I found in a drawer at their place a couple of years ago. When I looked at them, they didn’t seem at all representative of all the experiences we had. Would I still send postcards now? Or, would I have a blog with loads of photos and text anyone could read?

Would I go to an Internet cafe to write? Would I do it on my phone? I am guessing I would just be snapping pictures and writing/speaking text into my phone ready to upload at the next hotspot. I imagine I would be constantly looking for somewhere to recharge my phone.

And that makes me wonder, would I be having the same experience? If I was so busy documenting it and presenting it ‘in real time’, as it were, would I be present? I blogged last week about how I disagree with Sherry Turkle who believes we are all addicted to technology to take us out of our our lives and to put our attention elsewhere. I believe that we use technology to change the conversation, because it is people we are using technology to connect to. But, I don’t believe the consequences of being permanently connected is making us shallow and unable to connect with others, ourselves and the present moment in the real world.

But, back to pondering technology in a round-the-world trip,: Would I be present in that experience if I was busy putting it online? Was I present then? Or, did I have my nose in a book? Nowadays, would I have my nose in a phone? Like people who look at landmarks via their tablet or smartphone instead of at the landmark itself.

I remember towards the end of the trip, my husband and I were a bit weary – we had done a lot of seeing and doing and were feeling that we were on the home stretch. For too long, we had been in some crazy limbo and we were looking forward to getting back to our lives. What a curious idea? Like we weren’t living our life, right there and then. No, our real lives were elsewhere, we had just borrowed these ones.

And where were we that night? We were on a roof terrace of a swanky hotel overlooking Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro, with a great view of the Corcovado, drinking Prosecco on a hot balmy evening and chatting.

Throughout that year we were together 24/7 and we chatted. So many words, a lot of which I don’t remember. But that night I remember the conversation clearly, because we both admitted as fantastic as that evening was- the place, the view, the hotel, the people – and how lucky we were, we wished we were back in rainy England with a nice a plate of fish and chips.

And today, as I type this, in sunny but cold England, I would love to be back there on that terrace with my husband. And if time could grant me that gift would I pay more attention and be more mindful of that moment? I don’t think so. For with or without technology, we are always looking for the next thing. It’s human nature. Which is why mindfulness is so good. It gives us a break from all that yearning.

The downside of being present though, is that you end up with a million identical photos of that unique moment.

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Alone together: Is social media changing us?

technology-disconnect-s from vortaloptics.com

The Information Superhighway is just a f***ing metaphor! Give me a break!
-Randy Waterhouse, Cryptonomicon (1999)

During a 2012 Ted talk based on her book Alone Together, Social Studies of Technology Professor, Sherry Turkle said: ‘Technology is taking us to places we don’t want to go.’

Turkle admits that this is a contradiction to what she has said before, especially circa 1996 in another Ted talk, when she celebrated life on the Internet. As a psychologist, she went online to learn about herself in the virtual worlds of chat rooms and online communities, so that she could unplug and use this knowledge in the real world. Nowadays, she regretfully admits that she sleeps with her phone.

As a human-computer interaction researcher, I have watched users anthropomorphise computers and sociologists theorise about metaphors about the Internet instead of the Internet itself. Listening to Turkle, she seems to be doing both – which makes me ask:

  • What sort of information was she looking to learn about herself online?
  • Why did she think she would/could only learn this online?
  • And why does she feel the need to sleep with her phone? (What does she even mean by that anyway? Is it on her pillow?)

Prior to the Information Superhighway of online communities, computers sat on your desk and as a human you interacted with them in order to achieve an end result e.g., an answer to a calculated problem, a neatly typed document, or a graph to explain some figures. As technology evolved, we shared this information over The Net as this documentary shows: The Internet in 1995 for work and for fun.

With our smart phones we now have the ability to interact with people on the other end of communicating technologies, as Turkle refers to them, aka social media, in real time – wherever and whenever we want. And particularly with social media, often, we are not interacting with a computer to solve a problem, we are just interacting with groups of people to share different types of information, for a number of reasons.

Turkle has found people using mobile technology during board meetings, lectures, meals, and funerals. She says this is bad because not only are people removing themselves from a situation e.g, a parent texting instead of listening to a child during dinner, but also from our feelings such as grief during a funeral.

The last funeral I went to was my Dad’s funeral. I didn’t grieve the whole time. Some of the time I laughed and chatted to people as we remembered my Dad and his great gift of being able to make you laugh no matter what. And since then, even on the saddest day when grief has felt unbearable, I had found that it is impossible to grieve non-stop. You don’t do full-on, full-time. Grief is exhausting.

Researchers are still trying to understand how many emotions we feel in one day, and where one emotion ends and another starts. When you are deep in grief and hit by an intense wave of it, on average it lasts 90 seconds and you have to hang on in there until it passes. You don’t get a choice.

So for me, people go into their phones not because they are escaping their emotions, but because they are choosing to stop one interaction and start a new one, like finding someone different to talk to at a cocktail party, or turning to the other side when seated at dinner. And Turkle in some way concurs with this by saying that people want to feel that they have control over their attention. But that is not because of technology. A few years ago, I was invited to attend a one hour meeting which went on for SEVEN HOURS. All, I can say is that I wish I had had a distraction that day. As it was, I was grateful for my zoning out abilities.

Turkle obviously has never had to suck it up, otherwise she would not believe that by tolerating the boring bits, of friendship and of meetings we help ourselves. She says that when we are in communication with others we are in communication with ourselves. I am not so sure. We are not psychologists and we don’t always want to examine ourselves like Turkle did in her 1996 brave new world. Often we just want a break like I did from the guy who really had no respect for himself or anyone in the room as he droned on incessantly. The only thing I was learnt that day was that I wasn’t ever going to work with that guy again.

Turkle goes on to say that if we don’t have to reflect on ourselves, we don’t learn or know how to be alone. Again, I disagree, people have long found ways to avoid solitude and other people with work, alcohol, food, TV, radio, overeating, smoking, the list goes on… People have also engaged in meaningless interactions with many vs. quality time with few and inattentive parents and friends are nothing new. Technology has not made us like this, we have always been seekers of distraction and stimulation.

One of the main disappointments of this talk is that Turkle doesn’t believe that people on
Twitter have meaningful conversations or that they are learning and knowing about each other. Instead she thinks that we use online others as spare parts of ourselves, which makes me believe that she hasn’t really engaged with people on Twitter in a normal way in conversation. Especially, when she says that we believe that technology will listen when others don’t. Argh! It is not technology which is listening. It is a person at the end of a phone who is listening and responding. Which begs the question: Who are all these people Turkle has interviewed who are desperate to escape their lives? Why are they seeking an audience? Are they surrounded by people who are not listening and not giving them what they need?

The world is changing and technology is making us able to connect with people regardless of time and space, which does change how we behave to a certain extent, i.e, many people have learnt to text on their phones whilst maintaining eye contact and a conversation with the person in front of them. However, I do not believe it is changing us to become incapable of connecting in a meaningful way. All the people in Turkle’s study demonstrated that. If they found the connections they had in meetings and at dinner so stimulating, they would put down the technology makes it easy for them to connect elsewhere.

Turkle began the talk by saying that she got a text from her daughter and it felt like a hug! I was a bit surprised by this assertion. Perhaps hugs and texts do feel the same to her. Although, I would want to see her brain scanned during both events to see if it lights up in the same way. Personally, a text from one of my daughters – symbols on a digital screen – could never feel like their arms around my neck and their beautiful faces next to mine, never.

We have seen the end of society predicted many times with the advent of rock n’ roll and with television. With hindsight, we realise that the bad thing in question is not an agent of change but an agent of reflection. So, perhaps the question is not: is social media is changing us? But: How is social media reflecting us?

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Maslow’s hierarchy of social media

Maslow's Social Media Hierarchy

The above image has been doing the rounds for a while, because it is an interesting premise to consider: Does social media fulfill a human need? If so, what better way is there to ponder this question than with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?

When we look at why the most popular social media apps were invented, it was because they were answering specific needs. Needs which had arisen and were fulfilled because the Internet compresses time and space to create an environment of sharing:

  • Flickr was invented to share photographs online.
  • Instagram was invented to create polaroid style pictures for sharing.
  • Facebook’s originated because people wanted an online Harvard student network and some say because Mark Zuckenburg wanted to invade peoples’ privacy.
  • LinkedIn got started as an online business networking tool.
  • Twitter came about as a way of sharing SMSs to lots of people simultaneously.
  • YouTube was invented, so the story goes, so that a group of people could share videos of a wedding they had all attended.
  • Pinterest was created so people could save and bookmark all the lovely pictures they found surfing the Internet.
  • WordPress was invented so that people could easily blog online and have lovely pages without having to learn html/css.

Each one of these solved a need, which is why google+ did not become the next big thing in social media. Former Google employee Chris Messina says that whilst it was a good idea to stop Facebook’s major marketshare, google+’s only goal was to replace Facebook, and without a specific need to address, google+ tried too hard (and failed) to be everything to everyone.

What everything is to everyone is impossible to define, as we are constantly changing and adapting, which is why social media does not fit into Maslow’s Hierarchy in the way the image portrays.

Maslow said that humans begin at the bottom of the pyramid and then work their way up. So, once the need for food and water is satisfied, shelter is next, and so on. But, this is not how social media works. So, once I have created my identity on facebook, I don’t move up to the level of twitter for self-esteem. We use multiple social media channels simultaneously, so today when I finish this blog I will publicise its existence on facebook, twitter, google+, etc.

Instead, I believe that we have a fundamental human need to be seen and heard, valued and accepted, and our greatest need when it comes to social media is to share our human experiences good and bad, happy and sad, in order to make sense of them, and to feel connected. This is demonstrated by why the channels were invented in the first place. So, it is not the social media channel, the how we share, which should be fitted into Maslow’s hierarchy, it is what we share that fits into this pyramid.

Last summer, I went to the London Content marketing show which was packed full of great talks, which the audience tweeted throughout the day #contentmarketingshow. I listened to many talks about what types of information people share and what is the most popular type of information. As I took notes, I realised that you can categorise the information which gets shared most into the various levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

  • Physiological: Information that make users fearful or angry is shared more often than information which makes them happy, because we all need to feel physically safe and we have that neanderthal fight or flight thing still going on.
  • Safety: Information that helps others and is useful is shared informally or in a formal context such as online educating and learning for the workplace or the classroom, because we all like to feel safe and education is one way of ensuring our safety.
  • Social: People share information about their identity – likes and dislikes, in groups or individually, because we all want to be seen and heard, and to belong and feel loved.
  • Esteem: People share information as social currency: they look cool, they have the latest yoga pants or they have a skill, they blog about something they are knowledgeable, and can influence others, or they wish to be perceived as an influencer, because we need in society to respect ourselves and we like to respect and follow others.
  • Self-actualization:People like to share compelling narratives – anecdotes, stories, pictures, quotation which have helped them grow or to they share to encourage others grow.

And, there is another category of information, which is one of surprise. The type of information which is shared more than anything else on social media is surprising information – in the form of stories, short videos, images, apparently, we all seek that twist in the tale.

Maslow added a similar category after he had completed his pyramid. He called it the self-transcendance or spirituality category. He put it at the top of the pyramid but stressed that it could go hand in hand with the lowest of needs such as food and water. Surprise does help us to transcend/forget ourselves or to see things in a different way.

Life coach Tony Robbins in his research refers to this as variety and say that although humans need certainty (Maslow’s physiological and safety needs), they also like variety and surprise. We crave new stimulus, to take us out of ourselves, to be lifted up and make our day.

And for me, this is the best bit of social media. Social media can make our day and lift us up. I believe that the person who drew this image thought that too, and gave social media the authority of Maslow’s hierarchy. Used correctly, social media can be a fast way for us to transcend ourselves and feel part of something bigger as we climb up our pyramid of needs.

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