To Be Virtual or Not to Be: That is Not the Question

Today’s newspapers have wonderfully conflicting stories. One story is about Ministers of Parliament (MPs) in the UK being angry over their ‘virtual parliament’ coming to an end.* The other story is the opposite, about the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, facing criticism from his Cabinet because they are continuing to meet via online video conferencing rather than getting together for face-to-face cabinet meetings.** These are fascinating debates to follow, especially in the added context of US debates over the US Supreme Court, and Congress, particularly some committees, meeting online and in hybrid forms. They are complex, multi-layered debates that will have consequences not only for judicial and legislative processes but also their outcomes. And we all have opinions about it. 

Photo from FT article by George Parker

Before mentioning the role of the coronavirus pandemic, I would like to make one simple point. It is generally supported from decades of research on electronic meetings focused on the costs and benefits of meeting via such options as text-only online, voice-only (phone calls or conferencing), video conferencing, or face-to-face. Obviously, if an information task involves only the transfer of information, then simply using text-based online media, like an email, is the most efficient approach and may have no consequence on the outcome. However, if the task involves negotiation, bargaining, or other interpersonal judgements, then it would be better to use media with more ‘social presence’.*** Face-to-face, in-person meetings have the highest level of social presence, other things equal, followed by video conferencing, followed by only text-based telecommunications. Arguably, any transfer of information is in some part a negotiation, such as ‘please listen’, and some in person meetings, such as a teacher speaking in a large lecture hall can have little social presence. That said, some information tasks are relatively more focused on negotiation, such as arriving at a group decision or judgement. If you are simply giving or receiving information, it is more efficient to use online media. If negotiating or making a judgement, particularly as a group, it is better to meet face to face. 

However, this last call depends on your status in the group. If you are the leader or most influential in the group, it is better (for you) to meet face-to-face, as this will enable you to best assert your authority. If you are less influential in the group meeting, it might well be better for you to meet online, as text- or voice-only such as a phone call can have a leveling effect, making it more difficult for those at a higher status to dominate the discussion. The choice of medium is complicated as it could have redistributive versus pareto-optimal implications. Whatever you decide, some might be better off and others worse off. 

With these issues in mind, the best resolution I’ve found came out of a study of that organizations that concluded it was geography that still mattered the most.**** It was most efficient to be where you need to be for face-to-face communication. For example, back office operations at a bank do not need to be in a central city because it is only important to enable those in the back office to communicate well with one another. They can be located outside of a high-rent district in the city to a more remote back office. In contrast, the top management of a bank would need to have good communication with executives at different businesses, law firms, accounting firms, and so forth, creating an argument for them to be located in the city – where face to face communication will be enabled with other executives. You should try to locate where you most need to have face-to-face communication and rely more on online media for remote communication for less critical information and communication tasks. 

Therefore, the key question is not whether to use online or face-to-face communication, but where you should be in order to facilitate face-to-face communication with the most critical people you are meeting with. Here is where the problems arise for politicians, legislators, and (possibly) judges. Should they be closer to their constituents, their colleagues, the leaders of their party, the defendant, the media, or their staff. 

The coronavirus pandemic simplified this calculus, as they were required to stay at home and use online media. As the lock downs ease, the experience with working online might lead some to wish to remain online, but the interests of most politicians, including parliamentarians and members of congress will be to be many places at once in order to work with many different kinds of actors critical to their role in politics and government. In this situation, online media will help people to be where they most need to be at any given time to meet face-to-face with the most critical groups. 

Sounds simple, but it is not. Ideally, this understanding should lead legislatures and parliaments and executives to enable their colleagues to have options. Tell them: “Be where you should to have the most important conversations you can have today – to be present in the most critical meetings.” Use online media to follow, contribute to, and otherwise participate in activities that are less critical. You might well need to be left alone to write, of example. In some respects, these issues might lie in part behind moves to ‘hybrid’ virtual legislatures, and ‘hybrid’ online teaching options, so that some activities can be moved online, and some remain face-to-face. But choices need to be more fine-grained and flexible than most hybrid models appear to be. 

I’ve glossed over many issues but hope to have moved some people away from wondering which is better: virtual or real face-to-face communication. That is not the right question. 

References

*Sebastian Payne, (2020), ‘Anger among MPs over end of ‘virtual parliament’’, Financial Times, Wednesday 3 June: 2. 

**George Parker, (2020), ‘Unrest as Johnson’s ‘Potemkin cabinet no longer takes decisions’’, Financial Times, 3 June: 

*** Social presence, and its relationship to different communication media, emerged from some terrific experiments conducted and reported by Short, J., Williams, E., and Christie, B. (1976), The Social Psychology of Telecommunications (London: John Wiley and Sons). 

****Goddard, J., and Richardson, R., (1996), ‘Why Geography Will Still Matter: What Jobs Go Where?’, pp. 197-214 in Dutton, W. H. (ed.), Information and Communication Technologies – Visions and Realities. (Oxford: Oxford University Press). 

The Fragile Beauty of Democracy: The Iowa Caucuses

I watched the Iowa caucuses on Monday, February 3, 2020, from the UK. Good coverage came from a remote caucus in Florida – one of Iowa’s 87 satellite caucuses – in addition to 1,678 precinct caucuses. In that particular satellite caucus, Iowa voters, sunbirds residing during the winter months in Florida, seemed to be in a gymnasium. Each individual participant moved to a particular corner or location depending on the candidate they wished to support. If their candidate did not have a sufficient percentage of supporters, then they could move to one of the groups that did. Those in the more populated groups could not move, but there was obviously much discussion and toing and froing among the voters as they were urged to join with others. 

npr.org

Journalists were singing praises for the Iowa caucuses as nothing less that democracy in action. Watching volunteers and citizens debating and sorting themselves by their preferred candidate was inspiring. It was beautiful. Citizens were not simply rolling over on their couch to vote for a candidate but committing themselves in public and debating about the choice before them. Of course, not everyone can come to a caucus, but more caucuses were held and some after working hours to maximize access. Likewise, the satellites enabled citizens to vote even if not currently in Iowa. 

But suddenly, just as the preliminary tallies were expected to be shown, and with media pundits anxious to discuss the meaning of the early returns, it was not to happen. Unexplained delays, followed by notification of problems reconciling the numbers across the different methods used to tally all the caucuses, and problems with the new ap being used to support these tallies, and finally partial returns. 

Days later, the votes were counted and despite a close race between Bernie Sanders, the popular vote winner, and Pete Buttigieg, who edged out as the delegate winner (13-12), criticism focused on the delays and not on the overall shape of the final results. 

But a torrent of criticism focused on early discrepancies, errors, and discrepanies in the tallies, which led to delay in reporting, and the process, which was slammed as unacceptable. Nathan Robinson in The Guardian called it a mess, a debacle, and a ‘blow to American faith in democracy.’[1] These problems have been the focus of much good journalism, but did they forget the major story? Instantly, a beautiful display of democratic practice was turned into an American debacle. 

Commentators — as soon as on the very night of the caucuses — were posing sanctions on Iowa’s Democratic Party, saying that they should not be allowed to hold caucuses again, and that Iowa should no longer be the first primary in the election season. Iowa was going to pay for this screw-up for the candidates and the media. 

Personally, I have not seen many if any candidate or media pundit go to the defense of Iowa. This is a shame. Discussion focused on whom to blame for the problems. Should it be the state party, the national party apparatus, the ap developer, the ap, the volunteers who couldn’t use it effectively, or some conspiracy. I did find a wonderful letter from Julie Riggs, a contributor to Iowa View in the Des Moines Register, days after the crisis, which claimed that the ‘Iowa caucuses are an American treasure’.[2] She exclaimed:  ‘Don’t take our caucus away!’. I completely agree. 

Somehow, the media lost the plot when their expectations were not met, and they were left stammering in front of the camera with nothing to report. Flipping the story to the cause of the delays could have real damage to the democratic process. Democracy should be more important than efficiency, and real democrats should not surrender control to the media. As Julie Riggs said in her piece, through participating in the cut and thrust of debate in the caucus, she had a ‘palpable feeling’ that ‘the people hold the power’. You do. So don’t give that up. The media and the candidates can just wait a few hours or days on the volunteers and citizens making sure they get this right. Democracy is inefficient. The media need to get over it. 


[1] See: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/feb/07/the-iowa-caucuses-only-reinforced-the-idea-that-democracy-is-a-joke

[2] https://eu.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/iowa-view/2020/02/16/iowa-caucuses-american-treasure-republican-first-time-experience/4754985002/

Society and the Internet, 2nd Edition

It is such a pleasure to see the publication today of the second edition of Society and the Internet by Oxford University Press. My co-editor, Mark Graham, and I worked long and hard to assemble a wonderful set of authors to build on the first edition. The success of the original volume led to this new edition. The pace and scale of changes in the issues surrounding the Internet led to almost a completely new set of chapters. Information about the 2nd edition is available on the OUP web site for the paperback edition here, and the hardback here.

Society and the Internet, 2nd Edition

Our thanks to OUP and the many professional staff who helped us produce this new 2nd edition, and particularly to my friend Steve Russell for the brilliant art work on the cover. Thanks as well to the OII, which inspired our lecture series that led to these volumes, and OII colleagues who launched much of the research that informs them. I hope you can read the acknowledgements in full as we owe thanks to so many individuals and institutions, such as MSU’s Quello Center, which together with the Global Cyber Security Capacity Centre, supported my own contributions to this second edition.

We owe incredible thanks to our colleague Manuel Castells for his insightful foreword and all the authors of the book’s 24 chapters. These colleagues endured our many requests and most importantly accepted our call to contribute to what we hope will be a perfect reader for courses on Internet studies, digital technology and society, new media, and many other courses dealing with society and the Internet. The authors include junior and senior researchers from around the world. To all, we send our appreciation. No more deadlines, we promise. The authors are:

Maria Bada, Cambridge Cybercrime Centre
Grant Blank, University of Oxford
Samantha Bradshaw, University of Oxford
David A. Bray, People-Centered Internet
Antonio A. Casilli, Paris Institute of Technology
Manuel Castells, University of Southern California
Vint Cerf, Google
Sadie Creese, University of Oxford
Matthew David, Durham University
Laura DeNardis, American University, Washington, DC
Martin Dittus, University of Oxford
Elizabeth Dubois, University of Ottawa
Sandra González-Bailón, University of Pennsylvania 
Scott A. Hale, University of Oxford
Eszter Hargittai, University of Zurich
Philip N. Howard, University of Oxford
Peter John, King’s College London 
Sílvia Majó-Vázquez, University of Oxford
Helen Margetts, University of Oxford
Marina Micheli, European Commission
Christopher Millard, Queen Mary University of London
Lisa Nakamura, University of Michigan
Victoria Nash, University of Oxford
Gina Neff, University of Oxford
Eli Noam, Columbia Business School 
Sanna Ojanperä, University of Oxford
Julian Posada, University of Toronto
Anabel Quan-Haase, University of Western Ontario
Jack Linchuan Qiu, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Lee Rainie, Pew Research Center
Bianca C. Reisdorf, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Ralph Schroeder, University of Oxford
Limor Shifman, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Ruth Shillair, Michigan State University 
Greg Taylor, University of Oxford
Hua Wang, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York
Barry Wellman, NetLab
Renwen Zhang, Northwestern University

So, if you are seriously interested in the societal implications of the Internet and related social media and the mobile Internet, please consider this reader. You will see a variety of methods, data, and theoretical perspectives in play to address important issues in ways that challenge conventional wisdom and punditry about the Internet. You can get a paperback edition from OUP here or from your favourite bookstore.

Society and the Internet’s 2nd Edition

The 2nd Edition of Society and the Internet should be out in July 2019. You can access information about the book from OUP here: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/society-and-the-internet-9780198843504?lang=en&cc=de

With the academic year fast approaching, we are hoping that the book will be useful for many courses around Internet studies, new media, and media and society. If you are teaching in this area, Mark and I hope you might consider this reader for your courses, and let your colleagues know about its availability. Authors of our chapters range from senior luminaries in our field, such as Professor Manuel Castels, who has written a brilliant foreword, to some promising graduate students.

Society and the Internet
2nd Edition.

How is society being reshaped by the continued diffusion and increasing centrality of the Internet in everyday life and work? Society and the Internet provides key readings for students, scholars, and those interested in understanding the interactions of the Internet and society. This multidisciplinary collection of theoretically and empirically anchored chapters addresses the big questions about one of the most significant technological transformations of this century, through a diversity of data, methods, theories, and approaches. 

Drawing from a range of disciplinary perspectives, Internet research can address core questions about equality, voice, knowledge, participation, and power. By learning from the past and continuing to look toward the future, it can provide a better understanding of what the ever-changing configurations of technology and society mean, both for the everyday life of individuals and for the continued development of society at large. 

This second edition presents new and original contributions examining the escalating concerns around social media, disinformation, big data, and privacy. Following a foreword by Manual Castells, the editors introduce some of the key issues in Internet Studies. The chapters then offer the latest research in five focused sections: The Internet in Everyday Life; Digital Rights and Human Rights; Networked Ideas, Politics, and Governance; Networked Businesses, Industries, and Economics; and Technological and Regulatory Histories and Futures. This book will be a valuable resource not only for students and researchers, but for anyone seeking a critical examination of the economic, social, and political factors shaping the Internet and its impact on society.

Available for Courses in 2019

The New News Strategy? How the Panic Over Fake News Could Undermine the News

There seems to be a pattern evolving around concerns over fake news – one that runs counter to more conventional expectations. Most people expect that raising concerns over fake news might actually lead to improvements in search, platforms, regulation, or consumer behavior that improves the quality and diversity of news. However, the opposite might be unfolding.

The story begins with the panic over fake news. It is a panic since most research on the actual use of online news suggests that people see multiple sources and most often check news that they see as questionable but important, such as by using search. This panic over fake news has been fueled by a focus on the production of fake news. It is indeed produced albeit this phenomenon is not new – that is one reason why search engines were invented. But far less attention has been directed at its consumption. When you look systematically at how Internet users consume news, such as information about politics, it is clear that the impacts of fake news are largely mitigated.*

How Panic is Undermining News

However, the mainstream media continue to promote the idea of fake news, with mainstream news being the source of truth and fact, to the degree that politicians, regulators, and the public have become increasingly concerned, pressing online platforms to ‘do something’ about it. Internet platforms have done so by raising quite dramatically the prominence of mainstream news sources when people search for news online.

As a consequence, when you go online for news about what is going on in the world, you are increasingly likely to be steered to the headline news of the mainstream news media. If you wish to go beyond the headline news, you find yourself asked to pay for a subscription to go behind their paywall. This has already proven so effective that even academics are beginning to think that subscription services are seeing a renaissance of sorts. However, this increase is being driven by the platforms and news aggregators prioritizing mainstream news headlines, to avoid the charge of promoting fake news. Thus, the concern over fake news is essentially creating advertising for subscription news services, with more providers moving to pay walls, and existing subscription services raising their rates, doubling them in some cases.

So the Internet is becoming less of a source for diverse news as stories in the long tail are pushed behind the headlines, and more of a source for the most popular headline news – the same news you hear on radio and TV. Will this undermine online first news outlets? I believe it already has done so.

Therefore, I am worried that panic over fake news is leading us to no news beyond the major headline stories that leave so much news uncovered. The thrust of actual research on the use of online news should undermine the panic over fake news, filter bubbles, and echo chambers, but journalists don’t read social science, and the story of fake news serves their interests.

Of course, I am simplifying a complex set of developments, but I believe this captures a pattern that is not being identified in the current fake news narrative. I am a news fan, subscribing to multiple print newspapers and an avid consumer of online news, which has been so complementary to the print news. If we recognize this tendency, we can hack through the headlines, and search for specific topics and information, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself walled off from more information by pay services.

Let me know if you think this is wrong, fake, or exaggerated, let me know. I fear I am right about this, but am open to be proven wrong, and think systematic research on this trend would be of value.

 

*Here is a blog about this panic: https://theconversation.com/fake-news-echo-chambers-and-filter-bubbles-underresearched-and-overhyped-76688 and here is an article about how few users are susceptible to fake news, echo chambers, and filter bubbles, and why: Dutton, W. H., and Fernandez, L. (2018/19), ‘How Susceptible Are Internet Users?’, InterMEDIA, December/January 2018/19 46(4): 36-40. Online at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3316768