Session 1

Social computing can be broadly defined as a branch of HCI or social informatics concerned with social behavior and the desire to create systems to support social behavior in Web 2.0 and Web 3.0.  This definition came from the readings 1, 2, 3, and 5.  My own experiences that helped shape this definition came from my involvement of communities under the Offbeat Empire umbrella: Offbeat Families, Offbeat Home and Life, and the open-blog, closed community Offbeat Bride.  The closed-community (the Tribe, in which members call themselves Tribesmaids) is a narrow-focused SNS community with membership concentrated on brides and grooms that don’t see themselves falling into the traditional WIC (Wedding Industry Complex) confines of marriage.  It includes LGBT, BDSM, couples getting weddinged, Offbeat Lite members who want to spice up tradition, gamers, nerdy and geeky Tribesmaids, and many other types of people who feel isolated when confronted with traditional elements of the WIC.  The Tribe is the only traditional SNS site with the features laid out by boyd and Ellison, but that doesn’t mean the other sites do not fall under the definition of social computing.  Offbeat Empire is a blog concerned with creating and maintaining a niche community.  Please feel free to check out these blogs.  If you are engaged and think of yourself as different, please feel free to apply to the Tribe for a welcoming, supportive, and diverse wedding community experience.

The specific community I want to focus on is Offbeat Home and Life.  This niche community does not seek to build and maintain connections, but it is a site for sharing stories and pictures, asking for advice, and other aspects that still build a sense of community and belonging that many may be missing from their real world lives.  Offbeat Empire releases an annual survey for their membership.  There are comment sections and threads for every posting, many of which are reader-contributed.  Offbeat Home and Life encompasses the readership and community of all four sites and seeks user-directed input for improvement of the community aspect as a whole.  Maintaining a niche site is driven by the membership’s feeling of connection to one another, but readers of Offbeat Home felt they didn’t necessarily belong to any community.  In fact, an overwhelming number of readers felt they didn’t belong in any community created by the Offbeat Empire because they had gotten married but don’t own homes or are nowhere near ready to start a family.  This feeling of isolation is the opposite of what Ariel Meadow Stallings- vetted blogger and niche community entrepreneur- had intended.  Hence, the mass-overhaul of site content and the name change to Offbeat Home & Life occurred.

User-generated content and consideration of user feedback drove these changes to create a feeling of community.  The community environment experienced by many Tribesmaids-turned-Homies similar to the Living Room of the MUD Dibbell described.  It seems the reader survey of 2012 could be likened to the Bungle Affair in the sense that there was a fundamental disconnect between what was intended by the environment, what the users felt, and how the leadership were going to deal with it.  This is a community of fully-developed pseudonyms that needed to be taken seriously.  While we don’t come close to having any formal governance and nothing serious occurred that caused the membership to question the blended boundaries of the real and virtual world, we were questioning what it meant to be a community as well as the criteria that defined the type of community to which we felt we belonged.  These elements make Offbeat Home & Life fit the definition of social computing.

I was an active Tribesmaid who moderated the Offbeat Academics group on the Tribe for almost a year.  When the site migrated from Ning, our group did not make the cut.  After our elopement in March, I became less involved with the Tribe.  I still find support there as a bride who is considering getting weddinged, but my interests have taken me to the other Offbeat sites.  I took the 2012 survey for all the sites, and I felt that same isolated feeling of other Homies.  I felt like Offbeat Home was for people who owned their homes.  I enjoyed reading birthing stories and stories of non-traditional families on Offbeat Mama, but my person and I have no aspirations to grow our family any time soon.  I felt like the Tribe had abandoned me 😦  Because I had developed my pseudonym in that community, I felt I could be honest and my opinion would be taken seriously.  Turned out, I wasn’t alone.  I am truly happy with the changes that have occurred across the Empire, and I not contribute more where I felt I had nothing to offer before.  When my guest post goes live on Offbeat Families, I’ll post a link here. 

There are challenges to gathering data from any of the Offbeat sites.  Like any search feature, tagging creates issues.  Clicking on keywords helps pull content, but it is based on how editors classify them.  It might not actually pull what the reader is looking for.  Another challenge with looking at the Offbeat Empire is identifying the structure of the network and interactions readers have with each other because there is no profile or friend feature in three of the four communities.  It would be an interesting project, though, to map out the connections on each of the sites and see how they overlap.  Another challenge is that, upon each login on each post, one can choose a different handle if he or she does not want to use their handle.

In Carol Tenopir’s article “Online Databases—Web 2.0: Our Cultural Downfall?” The author analyzes and relays concepts in a book by Keen called The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture.  There are some meaningful points about authenticity and believing what you read\see\hear on the internet at face value.  One of the best satirical representations of this idea is the State Farm commercial State of Disbelief in which a girl (total stereotypical blonde girl…) believes everything on the internet is true.  Tenopir argues that, at the core, “buyer beware” is a good message to remember when looking at content on the internet.  While the sites of the Offbeat Empire are mostly comprised of user-generated content, the content is moderated.  It is also vetted by the editors of the sites, who are vetted by WordPress, Ning, MSN, and other major players in the blogosphere and realm of community management.  The Empire employs interns and staff that manage key words.  Members become vetted in the community by their peers.  In many cases, amateurs create or share life hacks or ideas with the community that can enrich members’ real world lives.  We are moving beyond 2.0, in which everyone has a say and believes their voice has merit because they are speaking, to 3.0.  Web 3.0 is a different level of engagement that seems like it will emerge to be community-centered instead of “I”-centered.  This is merely speculation, and nothing will be confirmed until we are moving on to Web 4.0…but I think that the communities of the Offbeat Empire are 3.0. I guess what I’m saying is that we might have learned from Keen’s concerns, and each community is taking vetting and contribution seriously.

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15 thoughts on “Session 1

  1. sakuoka says:

    You brought up a very interesting concept in that although these are social sites, and there are sites for almost everything in life, however I can definitely see how you might sometimes belong to a group, but still not fully have the same beliefs and perspectives as the mass. It almost seems contradictory.

    I also liked your discussion about data collection. In this day and age, data is what drives so much in the workforce, and although many of these sites are for pure social interaction, there may be times when data collection may become valuable and there are downfalls to the data that is retrieved. Very pertinent, thanks for sharing.

    • It’s almost contradictory, but it is also representative of subcultures, generational differences, etc. I think.

      I would like it if some of the larger sites took data collection and user perception into account before making major changes to layouts or policies. Another nice example of a larger site doing this was the mass desire for users to change Pinterest’s policy regarding posting content. The original policy stated that posting non-original, user generated content would result in being banned from the site. Users posted a petition urging for the change in policy to allow pinning others’ content and a refusal to use the site. The policy was changed within a week, and all users were sent an email regarding both the new policy and a letter of understanding. It’s this kind of personalization and recognition that really makes an SNS feel like a community.

  2. carr1e says:

    Offbeat Bride is a blog I browse from time to time, but I haven’t ever explored its other sections. Based on the posts I’ve read there, I have to agree with you that Offbeat Empire appears to be Web 3.0 and community-centered. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the quality of comments – people aren’t afraid to disagree, clarify an issue, or voice an opinion, but it is done with respect and decency. (Unlike other wedding-centered sites where people can get very mean).
    I found this statement very interesting: “Because I had developed my pseudonym in that community, I felt I could be honest and my opinion would be taken seriously.” That reminded me of Dibbell’s discussion of how newbie LambdaMOO users move into “virtual adulthood” by establishing an identity. It’s also interesting to me how the Offbeat Empire evolved and responded to survey results. I’ve always read that successful blogs need to have a focus and stick to it, but in this case it appears that its users and their satisfaction were the focus for Offbeat Empire, with that driving content and the site overhaul.

    • The connection you brought up with Dibbell’s comment is exactly what I thought of when I was writing this!

      I think that being a niche community allows for flexibility more than being a larger SNS would.

  3. jordando says:

    Prior to reading this, I hadn’t heard about Offbeat Empire, or even thought of such things. But it really is interesting to see that they’re focused on an idea rather than a topic. All the blogs or forums I visit tend to be about something like headphones or keyboards. So people never really feel disconnected or left out because all they want to talk about is the topic. But when you have small little subgroups for different parts of life all in the collective, I can see how some people find that what they’re specifically looking for can’t be found. I guess maybe this is part of why they have more advanced feedback and integration? Managing sites and forums by ideas and ideals rather than topics seems pretty different compared to what I normally see and a lot more community based. Sorry if I understood wrong.

    • I agree with you, Jordan. I’d imagine disputes about keyboards are very different than what constitutes a family. On Offbeat Families, for example, there was a post (when it was still Offbeat Mama) about a mother who left her children and her kibbutz in Israel. Discussion got super-heated here about what it meant to be a good mother, is it okay to leave your children with your husband while you find what makes you happy, discrimination against single fathers, etc.

      Right now, Offbeat Families is doing a week-long series on families that are less prominent- families of friends, child-free families, and adoptive families. These are extremely non-traditional in the real world (going so far as to ask couples, “When are you going to start a family?” instead of acknowledging that families- to many- start at marriage or commitment). They are even non-traditional on Offbeat Families.

  4. anoppls says:

    It’s an interesting idea, proposing Web 3.0 as being focused around a community as opposed to some other idea or technology… while I’m not too sure I can agree with that being Web 3.0 as opposed to Web 2.5, it is certainly a direction lots of people seem to be headed in. For example, Google Wave – while it’s a “failed” project now in terms of adoption, it provided a way for real time collaboration within a community, I think. We have Dropbox that can function as free online hosting for Twine games (itself an interesting form of social computing by allowing people that have never imagined themselves as making games an easy way to create Choose Your Own Adventures), we have Pastebin and its ilk that can fork documents millions of ways in any which way a community wants, we have what feels like dozens more technologies that could go in any different direction.

    Still, I think/hope that Web 3.0 will be something bigger than the jump from I-centered to community-centered… but maybe that’s the sci-fi fan in me.

  5. Proposing Web 3.0 expands into the idea of community constructs over the singular person is an interesting idea, though one very hard to specifically define. With the broadness of the internet and the potential for so many different topics, I imagine that moving into a virtual community would be very difficult without having the singular starting point.

    To contrast this, I think the fact that the internet or the virtual community can be seen as a vast world with many different houses will make forming a kind of community-centric environment fairly difficult. The expansiveness can be disorienting and as it stands many of our communities in the 2.0 world are actually constructed based on a singular idea that has grown (facebook starting as a school community, forums focused on a particular game/show/idea, etc.) shows that it is easier for a community to form off of an existing topic than for a community to be born of itself (like anoppls example of Google Wave). The single concepts become the focus or the jumping off point because it relates to a person in some way personally. So, unless the way people view the world changes, which I admit is entirely possible, I feel like people will always be attached to something based on attaching to a concept of person relation first, with the community forming after.

    • So, I’m just learning about Web 3.0 now. It seems to not be community-based, but the idea is that content can be shared across applications and platforms. I imagine that to be what some communities are like.

      You wrote, “So, unless the way people view the world changes, which I admit is entirely possible, I feel like people will always be attached to something based on attaching to a concept of person relation first, with the community forming after.” I agree, but I wonder how this idea will change the ways we structure, store, and retrieve information.

  6. richgazan says:

    Outstanding post, and particular kudos for choosing a community and gorup of sites not many others were familiar with. I clicked through to the Offbeat Home and Life page, and was greeted with a blizzard of terms like Tribesmaids, Homies and Empire–understanding how these terms are used and adopting them for oneself is part of the process of becoming a member of an online community, which is something we’ll tackle thoughout the course. To someone who’s coming in to the site cold, it looks like a group of people speaking a language of their own, and helps create an insider/outsider boundary that’s an element of any community–as you discovered with the “weddinged” and homeowner subgroups. You can simultaneously belong, and not belong.

    • Yes, I think the boundaries established in a community encouraging lurking, and this is a good thing. People get to poke around, glimpse at the virtual lives of members of the community, and decide if they want to engage or not. It’s part activity theory and part personal choice: do I want to be a part of this community, and if so, what can I bring to it? Hopefully, the answer to the second is some perspective that will enrich and grow the membership instead of degrade it (like Greg points out about some hackers force people off the site, shrinking the membership and their audience simultaneously).

      The delicate balance of one feeling like he or she doesn’t belong once he or she is already a member of the community is detrimental to the existence of the community itself. I think this is the coolest thing about the Empire. When the Tribe migrated from Ning to BuddyPress, a slew of changes occurred as a result of unilateral decision-making. The Tribe is currently not as active, engaged with the site, or involved with the personal development of others’ journeys as it once was. That’s what makes the evolution of Home and Life as well as Families so great: we all had a part in shaping it. We have redefined the boundaries. It’s really empowering and helps shape the collective identity, even if we don’t have profiles.

  7. gregics669 says:

    I find it interesting how you describe the Empire as not being intended as a community in the long-term connection sense. But at the same time, you felt a connection to the community that was built for information purposes and were affected by the demise of a subsect of it.

    I suppose this shows just how easily we can build connections to people we may never meet and why users such as Bungle can create such chaos with a few lines of text. No matter how disconnected we may feel at times people seem to be building connections in all social situations, face-to-face or computer-to-computer.

    • The Tribe is a haven for people who know they’re different. It’s a supportive community of people going through something together (wedding planning) who know they won’t get criticized for their choices when they don’t necessarily conform to the traditional picture and conventions of getting married. We could gush about black dresses, handfasting, receptions before ceremonies, etc. and not be judged about it.

      The rest of the Empire is like that too. We’re people who live life differently, and that’s okay. We can gush about things other people in our lives might not understand or want to hear. It’s refreshing. It’s hard to not view that as a community.

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