Give me your phone!
How would you feel if you were asked to hand over your phone to a complete stranger? Your levels of discomfort would go beyond worries about the value of the item. Phones are more than their material value because they are almost always customised. We add tools to them, we load up our photos, we store the contact details of our friends and colleagues. Our phone is a social enabler.
This is this type of relationship that social informatics is concerned with. It is the interdisciplinary study of the design, uses and consequences of information and communication tools. By exploring real life users, in real life situations, and studying how humans and technology interact, social informatics aims to make our experiences of computers (and other tools) less painful. This was the subject of Hazel Hall's inaugural professorial lecture at Edinburgh Napier University.
The context of technology is important
The context in which technologies are situated determines their use and impact. Religious reformation in Europe occurred not just because of the invention of printing presses. Other factors needed to be in place before new ideas could become 'viral'. In addition to the technological driver of the printing press, Luther had a contact network. The spread of his message relied on literate people sharing his ideas with the illiterate. His words were translated into a German dialect more people could read and understand. In other words you needed the technology and the context. (You can read more about this in Social media in the 16th century: how Luther went viral, published in The Economist).
Social informatics goes beyond the study of technology. It is concerned with relationships between humans and technology and takes into account the context within which they interact. It is interested in the impact that information technologies have on organisations and communities and how they bring about change.
When we use social media tools we add value to the technology. As we share more information, providers learn more about us and can target their advertising messages more accurately. More importantly, they rely on us to share recommendations with our peer group. Increasingly we rely on our contact groups to share information, provide links and make recommendations. Indeed we are much more likely to trust personal recommendations than we are to trust advertising.
Technology changes, human beings don't
Human behaviours endure beyond technology. Blipfoto, a photo journal site, does not describe itself in terms of its technical capabilities or even as a 'social tool'. Instead it appeals to key aspects of human behaviour, offering a respectful, warm and welcoming social place. Its message appeals to users' desire to belong, and contribute to a community. It's "a social network for people who don't do social networks".
These are the same human drivers that brought 100 people together in a lecture theatre in Edinburgh even though Professor Hall's lecture was being filmed and the slides were already available via her website. People want to belong to a community, share questions and ideas and engage with each other and how they use tools to enable this is an infinitely interesting area of research.
You can read more about the research being undertaken by Edinburgh Napier University's Centre for Social Informatics here. You can read more about Hazel Hall here and access the slides from her publications page here.
Image courtesy of masochismtango via Flickr.