My friend and colleague Clement Chau invited me to attend a Ben Shniederman talk Understanding Social Media, Accelerating Social Participation at Bentley University, present by Boston CHI. We were eager to hear about issues relevant to our civic engagement research with Henry Jenkins from the perspective of Human Computer Interaction. If you’re interested, check out his slides for this talk.

Shneiderman turned out to be a great speaker, very passionate about how the potentials of social media might be harnessed for the good of society, and a pretty funny guy.

Apparently, his paper, which explores how effective disaster response systems might benefit from emergency citizen reporting, was more widely read than anything he’d previously written. And this was before the shootings at Virginia Tech. Once universities did implement emergency communication systems using SMS, only a small percentage of students signed up. Shneiderman was very clear on this point – technical solutions had been offered, but social solutions were still missing. If people were not opting in, even for something this important, how can we motivate people to participate?

Shneiderman took us through a survey of citizen reporting efforts which had experienced varying degrees of success, including the US Geological Survey’s Did You Feel It? earthquake reporting site, the well-known Amber Alert system, which grew from a small non-profit to a US Department of Justice program, the Sahana free and open source disaster management system created during the 2004 Asian tsunami, Katrina’s Angels, and Nation of Neighbors, which emerged from one local neighborhood watch site.

These systems all rely heavily on voluntary citizen reporting. Why do some work, while others fail? What motivates participation? Shneiderman quickly took us through a few theoretical models – people are scared enough to act (Rogers, 1975), people act of out revenge (Hanson, 2008), out of some public service motivation (Perry, 2000), or from varying levels of egoism, altruism, collectivism, or principlism (Batson, Arhamad, 2002).

Of course this led into a discussion of stages of participation. One nice model he offered was the Reader to Leader framework he developed with Jennifer Preece, which I especially like because it allows for the nonlinear movements people may make between and among stages of participation:

At the end, his talk became almost giddy, and truly expansive. Turning to embrace a global scope, Shniederman looked beyond harnessing social networking for national priorities, to how we might use social media optimization to help world leaders achieve the UN millennial development goals. Later, he claimed that “the impact of social media will be as powerful as the impact of atomic energy”. He admitted (several times) to being an optimist, and I found his buoyancy so refreshing.

Of course, nearly all the audience questions were rebukes for ideas he had missed in his talk, but he took the opportunity to put social participation into action: When asked (sharply) how user generated content and individual authorship concerns fit into larger structures of policy, Shniederman opened up his power point presentation and added “authorship / ownership” to his list of “Long Range Goals”. It was a great moment – collaboration in action. We all laughed, although I caught a glimpse of the questioner, and he did not appear to be amused.