The Science of Social Media

An interview with Northwestern Assistant Professor Jeremy Birnholtz


Image courtesy of Jeremy Birnholtz

Jeremy Birnholtz is an assistant professor of communication studies at Northwestern University, where he runs the NU Social Media Lab.

A Northwestern alum, Birnholtz earned a bachelor’s degree in Radio/Television/Film. Following graduation, he worked in the Medill School of Journalism’s D.C. Bureau, before switching gears and taking a position as a web programmer at a friend’s company. Birnholtz became intrigued by the field of human-computer interaction (HCI), and decided to pursue master’s and PhD degrees in Information from the University of Michigan.

He then went on to a complete a postdoc at the University of Toronto before taking a faculty position at Cornell University, where he worked for five years. It was there that his interests expanded beyond collaboration technology in the workplace to how people use social media in their relationships. This would become his main focus once he returned to Northwestern to lead the school’s Social Media Lab.

Science in Society spoke with Birnholtz about his career path, current research and thoughts on the future of social media.

What are the main goals of NU’s Social Media Lab?

At a high level, we’re interested in understanding how people use technology to get stuff done. And, in particular, how they manage their social relationships with others in the process of getting stuff done.

And that could be: We’re writing a document together at work and I need to figure out how we’re going to use Google Docs or Microsoft Word and the sort of features within that to write this paper. But, also thinking about: If I’m going to comment on your version of the document, how do I do that without upsetting our relationship?

We’ve also done a lot of work on what we call “Butler Lies.” This is people basically managing when they’re available to talk and when they’re not, which is increasingly an issue as we have more and more opportunities to communicate. And, that came out of work with a Cornell colleague, Jeff Hancock, who studies deception.

In one fun study, we had people come into the lab with a partner, who they text with a lot. And, we had them retype messages from their phone and tell us whether the message was deceptive or not, and tell us something about why it was deceptive. Then we took those same messages and passed them to the partner and said, tell us whether you think those messages were deceptive.

What we found is that people are really, really bad at telling when they’re being lied to, but they get the rate about right. That is to say, they expect that they’re being lied to some fraction of the time; they’re just not very good at telling when.

One of your other projects involves studying “Face Threats.” Can you tell me more about that?

That work was done in collaboration with Eden Litt; she’s a PhD student working with us. That was an offshoot of the Butler Lies work, because we were talking about how people preserve relationships online, and realized that one case where people have to do this is when content is presented that doesn’t fit with the image you want to portray. And, particularly, when the person who posted it either doesn’t realize or doesn’t understand why you would think that this is a problem.

That can be a relationally sensitive thing. You post content about me and I say, “Take that down,” and you say, “No, it’s no big deal.” And, so, that can be sensitive.

We had 150 people fill out our survey, and we had them list a specific episode where they felt embarrassed or threatened by content someone else had posted on Facebook. One of the most interesting things there is every single one of them had something that they could talk about.

So, we’ve been in some conversations with Facebook about this, in terms of how can they help provide guidelines to people so that they don’t post content that’s likely to hurt or embarrass others.

Research is often a long process that involves many years of collecting data. With something like social media, which changes so quickly, how do you study it effectively?

I think there are number of ways we deal with that. First, technology changes fast, but people don’t. And, so, what we’re really interested in are social phenomena and behavioral phenomena, and how people respond to this environment, and how people interact with each other.

On some level, we don’t really care whether they’re using Facebook or Twitter or Friendster, or whatever they’re using. What we’re interested in is: how are people acting, and how do different aspects of the environment affect how people act? We try to be interested in longer-term questions and not flash-in-the-pan phenomena.

We tend to do a lot of small studies where we’re interested in an overarching phenomenon. But, in the course of thinking about that, we might do five or six studies using specific technology in specific scenarios.

Why do you think it’s important to study social media?

There are a number of reasons.

One is that they’re so pervasive in what we do. We’re in a world where we have more opportunities to interact with more people in more ways than ever before. And, so, this has fundamental effects on the way that we communicate, on when we can interact with people, who we can interact with and what people’s expectations are.

Once upon a time, if I sent you a note and you didn’t respond for three minutes, that was not a big deal. Whereas now there are certainly times where you’re having a conversation with someone by text and think, “They haven’t responded for three minutes! What is going on?”

One of the reasons we’re interested in relational aspects of it is because these behaviors have important relational consequences. The fact that we’re interacting via text, so what? But the fact that you have a particular set of expectations, and I have a particular set of expectations, and we’re having a particular type of conversation has implications for our relationship moving forward and the way that we’re going to interact with each other going forward.

Also, we’re sharing content so much – not just interpersonal communication, but also sharing photos and posting profiles on dating sites. There are lots of things that affect our self-presentation.

How do you think the role of social media is going to evolve? Will it continue to grow, or will we get tired and unplug?

I think that there are two questions there. One is about specific tools. Will we continue using Facebook forever? I don’t know - probably not. Facebook has actually lasted a lot longer than I thought it would. But, then, more broadly, I think we complain a lot about these things taking over but people are not very good at unplugging.

So, my guess is that the norms around interaction are going to change a bit, in that the pendulum has probably swung a little bit far in terms of do we really want to be always on all the time? And people, I think, are getting a little bit better at breaking away, particularly when on vacation and so forth. So, I think we may see a little more of that. But, some people seem to want to connect all the time, and that’s kind of fun.

So, I think we’re going to see a spread of norms around these things, but I don’t think it’s going to go away entirely. And I don’t think it’s possible for it to grow at the rate that it has, but I think it will become more pervasive in the rest of the world. And, I think that we’re going to figure out how to live with this.

People were shocked by the telephone when it first came out. People get shocked by lots of technologies that we just sort of consider part of infrastructure. And, so, the things we have now will fade into infrastructure, and we’ll sort of figure out what the world is going to look like with all these things.

As someone who studies social media all the time, do you feel like it’s a positive thing to have in society?

That’s sort of like saying: As someone who talks to other people face-to-face, do you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing?

Does it have good effects or bad effects? It’s a way of communicating. It’s a channel. I don’t think it is, or can be, inherently good or bad. Just like it’s possible to be mean face-to-face, it’s possible to be mean on Facebook. But it’s also possible to be really nice and to connect with people in new ways.

A professor in grad school of mine used to say that, “technology creates options, and actions create outcomes.” And I think this a really nice case where the technology gives us options to use it in a large number of ways, but it’s what we do with it that actually matters and is good or bad. So, hopefully, we will use it in mostly positive ways. But, are people going to be mean, and are people occasionally going to feel bad? Yeah, but that’s true via every channel. So I don’t think there is a net positive or net negative, it’s what we do with it.

Your website is very accessible to the lay audience. Why is it important to make research understandable?

One reason is that we do stuff that people use. It’s easier for us to do that than people who do nanotechology, because the stuff that we use you can see and you’re doing it all the time.

So, one reason is just because it’s stuff that people can relate to and so we want to get it out there, and we want to let them see it and react to it and engage with it. And the other reason is that the work that we do has been hugely influenced by the undergrads, who have come to the lab and worked with us. They’re sort of the lifeblood of the lab. And, so, anything we can do to draw new students both at the undergrad and at the grad level, I think is really important.

When we post something that has our URL on it, we want people to be able to go there and see a place that’s dynamic, and see the type of work that we’re doing and immediately say, “Oh, yeah, that’s something that I do. It would be fun to study that.” And those are the kids that we tend to get, who come and work for us. And, that to me is one of the most fun things about being in an academic environment as opposed to industry.

What advice do you have for anyone who is interested in entering your field?

Like I said earlier, we’re talking about phenomena that aren’t new. They’re just happening in a new form. You need to understand how people work before you can understand how they’re interacting with technology. So, having some base in the behavioral sciences, and developing an understanding of how people work is important.

And, I think there are a lot of interesting interdisciplinary ways to combine that with the study of technology. I don’t think it’s useful, particularly in this field, to be exclusively a computer science major, or an engineer, because you’re not going to get exposure to the behavioral stuff. And, by the same token, being purely a behavioral person, who doesn’t understand how to talk to programmers, is not very useful. You don’t have to be a super coder, but having an understanding of how computers work and how they’re programmed, is really important.

So, I think it’s having that mix, which on this campus can be achieved in a number of ways. There are increasingly schools of information, computer interaction and design that allow for those kinds of mixes. But, I think that combination is really powerful.

What do you enjoy most about your research?

Working with students, by far. Like I said, they are the lifeblood of the lab. They can, much better than me, keep track of what technology people are using. I like nothing more than a student coming into the lab saying, “Hey there’s this cool new technology; we should study it.” Our best ideas come from students, by far. 



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