(a)social computing conference


I've just spent three rewarding and exhausting days at the IEEE Social Computing Conference in Vancouver.

It was an odd experience for me as by far the majority of papers and presentations seemed to have a lot to do with computing (most predominantly various forms of network analysis and visualisation, plus a fair bit on technologies of privacy and security) and very little to do with 'social'. One of the more spectacularly glaring omissions was any notable use of social technologies before, during or after the conference, apart from a few bottom-up initiatives. In fact, given that this was a computing conference, use of computers was altogether pretty dire, with the most appallingly designed registration process I have ever encountered, that suggest its designers had never considered users let alone followed anything like a user-centred design process. The conference website is something out of the 1990s. At least the network was fine, but that was provided by the hotel.

A few speakers asked people in the audience about their use of various social systems and it was more than slightly bizarre to be among the minority of delegates using big players like Facebook, Digg, Flickr and Twitter, let alone less popular social apps. I find it almost incomprehensible that some social software programmers can be so utterly divorced from the use of the things that they are studying and developing. Except that, as a breed, computer scientists are not known to be the most sociable of people.

Despite this gaping hole, there were some great people and there was some good stuff to be found there including fine sessions from Ben Shneiderman, Bebo White, Barry Smyth, a big contingent of creative folk from MIT MediaLab, and many more. There was some fascinating research relating to the use of sensors and wearable devices and even the mainstream of network analysis and visualisation papers, as well as those considering privacy, security and access control, held some great potential insights and discoveries. Again, however, it was depressing to see how few had performed any follow-ups or studies with real people to find out what social factors might be lurking behind the effects they were seeing in the abstracted data or how their designs might be used by real people. A panel hosted by Jenny Preece followed up Ben Schneiderman's talk in considering the big ethical and related issues that social software engenders, which was refreshing and a necessary counterpoint to all this abstraction of humans into nodes and edges, but it stood out from the mainstream themes as a distinct oddity.

The conference certainly helped to inspire me with some ideas, refinements of ideas and issues I'd not thought about well enough before, so it was well worthwhile, but if that was 'social computing' I hate to imagine what it might be like without the 'social'!

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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