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Take that, positivists!

I’ve been struggling to articulate my frustrations with social software and community technologies, and I’ve finally found an article that helped me immensely. (Thank you, Sean Munson, for sending me the paper!)

What’s bothered me is how anti-social so many examples of social software seem to be. They seemed to employ, as Paul Dourish said, a “highly positivist interpretation of social phenomena – a sort of social science, perhaps, uniquely attractive to engineers” (Dourish, 2005). Rather than recognize that often people just want to connect to others, social software seemed to assume that individuals were incredibly goal driven and that any software designed for those goals (e.g. organizing meetings) would be readily embraced. The trouble is people like meeting. We don’t all want the internet to replace our face to face lives, but we’d probably like it if the internet could make our lives easier. Some of the things I wish were easier were 1) finding community league sports teams to join, 2) meeting fellow happy hour enthusiasts, and 3) learning about things happening in Ann Arbor that I know nothing about. I want to be a part of things of which I’m currently not. I’m not alone.

These frustrations crop up when I’m thinking about social network analysis and its applications as well. Much of SNA seems to ignore the social aspects of those networks – that they do not exist in a vacuum, that they have most certainly changed by the time you’ve drawn them, that the connections between two people cannot be reduced to a line without losing some important aspect of that connection.

People are messy. I love that we’re messy. I came back to school to study the messiness. Now I’m off to read more about sociality versus society (see Maffesoli in Jones).

Readings mentioned here:

Jones, S. (2005) Grass roots campaigning as elective sociality (or Maffesoli meets ‘social software’): Lessons from the BBC iCan Project. EPIC 2005. (The article that helped me start articluating.)

Dourish, P. (2005) Anti-Social Software. Position paper from Microsoft Social Computing Symposium 2005.


  • srah |

    One of the things I like about Facebook is that it’s about connecting with your real-life friends online, whereas MySpace is full of people trying to collect the most “friends.” I’ve never had a Facebook friend request from someone I didn’t already know from somewhere else, which is how I roll online anyway.

  • libbyh |

    Right on, srah! I find that whole virtual community and virtual friend thing intriguing but not compelling. I’m much more interested in connecting in person and real-life.

  • Rick Wash |

    Take whatever I say here with a grain a salt, remembering that I am by training an engineer who know practices social science.

    I think that you are somewhat confusing positivism (an epistemology) with an attitude that is common among engineers. As anyone who has been to CHI, or WWW, can attest, engineers have a natural tendency to think that their work is the most important and hardest part of building something. It is natural to focus most on what you know best. At CHI, I call this the “if you build it they will come” attitude. They seem to believe that building the software is the hard part, and once you’re past that stage, the users will flock to you.

    This “if you build it” attitude is distinct from, and not necessarily a consequence of, positivism. It is perfectly possible to take a positivist approach to designing software to “make our lives easier” and to help build the internet in a way that assists with your 3 stated wishes. I think it is important to realize that it is not positivism that you take issue with, but the shallow way that positivism is commonly employed in engineering-related research. (At least, that’s what I suspect. You might take issue with positivism as a whole, but your post didn’t seem to indicate that.)

    As an analogue, I think sometimes Paul Dourish comes across as a similarly shallow interpretivist. Sometimes he just barely scratches the surface of interpretivist research and then publishes it as if it were the final work. In particular I’m thinking of his paper on how people think about computer security. He makes the (somewhat obvious) interpretivist finding that people place their trust in others, and usually experts, to deal with most of their security problems. This is a surface-level observation from what people say. Nothing more in-depth was done to try to tease out why, or how these relationships are built and influenced, or what happens when they fail, or anything like that. I think this is the interpretivist analogue of “if you build it they will come.”

    It is possible to do shallow research in both positivist and interpretivist traditions. Striving for more depth can make both epistemologies meaningful. It is unfortunate that such a shallow approach to research has taken hold among a decent number of the researchers who work on the border between engineering and the social sciences. I think we will not fall into that trap. But don’t let examples of shallow research convince you that “positivism” is a bad word, or that there is necessarily a solution in interpretivism.

  • libbyh |

    Thanks for such a thoughtful comment, Rick! I agree with your assessment of Dourish’s work as often somewhat shallow. I do like that he is sometimes inflamatory though – ex. the quote I picked above.

    My stab at positivism was meant to be similarly inflamatory, but, I think you and I are talking about different aspects of positivism. The kind of positivism that troubles me is that which claims a clean, tidy view of science and change. Kuhn and Latour are with me on that one. I do have some interpretivist sympathies, I guess, because that’s a common alternative provided to positivism and allows for much more layering and a lot less tidiness.

    I guess “Take that, Positivists!” – the title – was meant to say, “See, I’m not the only one who thinks social computing underestimates the messiness.”

So, what do you think ?

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