Sunday, August 16, 2009

Backchannel Communication & Homophily

As I am bored to death in the flight back to Tempe from New York City (happens to be a five and half hour long cross-country journey), I thought I might just use this opportunity to write. Today, sitting at JFK I was amused to read this blog post by Danah Boyd on how the sense of being "connected" at every moment is changing our ways of interaction in the real world. She talks about the perception of "backchannel communication" in public environments and how the acts of tweeting, blogging, wiki-ing makes a one-sided conversation more engaging. The article clearly can be controvertial, but as a person born in the early eighties and a person who actually saw the entire "Internet" buzz bloom since teen age, would certainly be able to connect with her thoughts!

As Danah says while she is in a lecture / talk, she would carry along her laptop and pick up the points which are not-so-clear from the presenter and / or gather more intensive information related to the topic, or even tweet about it to understand the opinions of her social network, I am at a point where I think I can justify similar acts I have indulged in, in the past.

Since I was in high school, I always hated taking notes in classes. My idea was that, if there are something I really didn't know, or I thought I should keep in mind, I ought to be able to remember it anyways. It was kind of arrogant / crude / bad information management you might say, but that's how things have been working out for me. However, once I came to grad school, I felt obliged to change my principle a little bit! I still wouldn't take notes, instead carry my laptop, and as with Danah, would look up / read relevant or useful information that was being dispensed in the course lectures. It worked out pretty okay.

Today, with no courses left to deal with (!), I often route my inquisitveness / doubts / questions / brain-storming ideas over one of these social media sites. Two of the most useful and successful backchannel modes of communication that I have come across with are the Facebook status updates, and IM (Google Talk) status updates. And fortunately, I have often received very immediate flurry of responses about those questions from my social network!

My point here is however, not to reinforce the culture of backchannel communication. Rather the point that sort of intrigues me is that the ways we consume information has radically changed over the years - from the high school taking-notes-lecture days to today's way of asking a question to your network via your Facebook status. There seems to be a lot of hue and cry about the propagation / diffusion of information in all these social networks, but the point I am trying to make here is that even our modes of consuming that diffused information has changed drastically.

Nevertheless, the more sort of research question that still remains unanswered is that why do some of these forms of backchannel communication create a chatter, while some just faze away? Of course, the simplest answer is that for certain topics there exists homophily between you and a significant segment of your network. However when I conducted a simple experiment to validate this by posting a very "research-specific" question as my Facebook status, I was surprised to see that many of the comments were actually not at all from people who seems to experts in the topic! Do what role does homophily play in promoting effective backchannel communication that Danah talks about? More fundamentally, does homophily (or the idea that your friends are "like" you) actually make sense in today's social-media-rich culture? I don't quite know the answer yet - but I am inclined to believing that multiple modes of interaction are likely to promote backchannel communication in different manner and possibly for different subsets of your social network. Some of which might actually not have any homophily with you at all!

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