Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Theory Tuesdays -- What do Wikipedia, car-pooling, couch surfing, and social bookmarking have in common?

Last fall, I worked for four months in Google, Zürich. It was a fun and enriching experience, indeed. The opportunity to learn and contribute to the technology that is used by millions of people daily is quite exciting.

Besides enjoying the Google-life, during my days in Zürich, I was invited by two artist friends, Silvan Käelin [1,2,3] and Philip Matesic [4,5,6]), to give a talk about my PhD thesis research at Perla Mode -- as part of the Theory Tuesdays project.

Philip organizes a weekly event at Perla Mode named Theory Tuesdays. The goal is to bring together artists, researchers (of multiple disciplines), and the public to discuss a variety of topics such as art, technology, society, and their intersection.

I received the invitation with surprise and interest. It was a new experience to talk to an audience completely outside my field of research. Also, it was a chance to receive feedback (from such non-technical group) about what I think it is a relevant topic of study.

The idea was to have a middle ground between what I have been investigating (i.e., techniques to assess the value of contributions in peer production systems [pdf]) and a the broader topic that could interest the attendance.

Therefore, it seemed appropriate to introduce the notion of peer production systems [7], hint the questions I am interested in answering in this context, and asking the participants related questions such as: how do they perceive the value of information they consume online? do they often perceive themselves contributing to others by producing information online? what is the main incentive to do so? What are the aspects they take into account to decided whether an information provider produces value to them?

I am glad that the "talk" turned into a lively conversation about about all these questions and other aspects related to online peer production. We covered topics from the basic notion of social production (and why it works so well in certain scenarios), passed through specifics about the utility of tagging (e.g., classification languages may emerge through collaboration), and talked about the intuition behind the techniques I am designing to assess the value of contributions in social tagging systems.

Although anecdotal, it was possible to observe from the discussion two explicit trends on the perception of value of online peer-produced information: novelty and trust on the information producer. These aspects came up in the discussions as crucial to the users to assess the value of peer-produced information. It is important to note that the information consumer's interest is an implicitly aspect considered in the value assessment.

The observations are somehow intuitive, but for me it was quite important and helpful to have a first-hand discussion with the real users of the systems I study. It does help one to tune the questions to ask and where the relevancy of one's research. I hope to have more opportunities like this. Thanks to Silvan and Philip for the first one.


[1] One Man
[2] Lagoa do Ouro
[3] Temps de Poussiére (Time of Dust)
[4] An Bonus
[5] Mau Series
[6] To Don Pedro with Mr. Gonzalez
[7] Y. Benkler. "The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom"