Social Media Meets Politics at Wetware Wednesday

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Scott Robertson

Scott Robertson

One of the more interesting research centers at the University of Hawaii, to me, is the Hawaii Computer-Human Interaction Lab.

“We are an interdisciplinary team of researchers interested in understanding how people use information systems and dedicated to informing design based on human performance data,” reads the HICHI (pronounced like “mai tai”) website. “We use a variety of empirical methods including formal experiments, ethnographic analysis, and participatory design.”

Okay, so that sounds a little dry. Here are the titles from a few of the studies published last year:

  • Politics and young adults: the effects of Facebook on candidate evaluation
  • Hybrid media consumption: how tweeting during a televised political debate influences the vote decision
  • Social media supporting political deliberation across multiple public spheres: towards depolarization

If you’re a political wonk who opines and debates online, the folks at HICHI may think your Facebook rants are actually meaningful. We’ve featured HICHI on Hawaii Public Radio several times, notably during election season when online political debate is at its peak. I’m not especially political, but talking about politics in the abstract and how it intersects with technology is definitely a hobby of mine.

On Wednesday, HICHI’s lead researcher Scott Robertson will be the featured speaker at the monthly Wetware Wednesday networking mixer for developers and software engineers. Robertson is wrapping up a four year, $948,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the use of social networks in political deliberation, voter decision-making, and civic participation.

Robertson is definitely someone worth meeting. I interviewed him last summer, when Facebook said it was conducting research on users by manipulating their newsfeeds. He went on to publish his own thoughts in greater detail, and while he is surely a meticulous and conscientious researcher, I was mostly impressed with the strength of his personal convictions when it came to Facebook:

Personally, I utterly deplore the surveillance society that we have built for ourselves, an environment in which Facebook plays but a small part. If I had my way, I would make it illegal to offer discounts to customers in exchange for turning their personal buying habits into a commodity for someone else — which, switched around, is the same thing as making people pay to maintain their privacy. Personally, I think that owning a person’s behavioral data and then buying and selling what you know about the activities of citizens in the marketplace is close to owning, buying and selling people and should be outlawed as a violation of human rights.

But he acknowledges that his views are far from the mainstream, and concludes that what Facebook did was barely a blip on the ethics radar… at least “in the identity-sucking, nonstop-eavesdropping, ego-marketing society that we have built and in which we live.”

The January mixer is being sponsored by the UH Department of Information and Computer Sciences, which will be promoting an upcoming mobile hackathon. The 24-hour app development challenge is cosponsored by the department, Blue Startups, and AT&T, and will take place from Feb. 13 through Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day.

Wetware Wednesday is taking place on the UH Manoa campus (in Hemenway Courtyard outside Manoa Gardens) from 6-8 p.m. on Jan. 28. For more information, visit the HTDC’s Wetware Wednesday web page, or like the Wetware Wednesday page on Facebook.

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