Social and Information Exchange of Gym E Hoopers Di Zhang University of Washington
SOCIAL AND INFORMATION EXCHANGE OF GYM E HOOPERS 2 AbstractThis paper explores three theoretical frameworks for studying information behavior andapplies their perspectives to a social setting. The theoretical frameworks that will becovered are Chatman’s small worlds, Pettigrew’s information grounds, andHaythornthwaite’s Network Theory, respectively. Chatman’s (2000) work focuses onphysically bound “small worlds” in which “legitimized others” control the flow ofinformation. Pettigrew (1999) introduces the concept of “information grounds”, settingscharacterized by spontaneous and serendipitous information exchange. Haythornthwaite(1996) describes information behavior in terms of networks and clusters of networksformed by relationships between “actors”. In this paper, I suggest that each of these threeperspectives lends important concepts and tools for studying information behavior in asocial setting. I also describe ways in which these perspectives fall short of describing theentire information environment and argue for viewing information behavior from acombination of perspectives. Finally, I suggest avenues and topics for possible furtherresearch.
SOCIAL AND INFORMATION EXCHANGE OF GYM E HOOPERS 3 The social aspect of information behavior is too often under-explored. Researcherssuch as Chatman, Pettigrew, and Haythornthwaite have succeeded in illuminating someimportant concepts of information behavior in social settings and contexts. In this paper, Iwill explore the social setting of Gym E through the theoretical frameworks of theseresearchers. Specifically, I will describe the dynamics of information exchanged between“Gym E Hoopers”, a sub-group that plays basketball in Gym E, and other sub-groups. Ithen evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each aforementioned perspective indescribing the information behavior in Gym E. I also explain considerations of the Gym Eenvironment that are not addressed by these three perspectives, and how further researchmight shed some light on these considerations. A Note on Gym E Hoopers:Gym E Hoopers (GEH) is a group that was formed through Facebook invitation in thesummer of 2010. The creator of the group, BJ, describes the purpose of the GEH page as:“organizing dates to ball [i.e. play basketball, or ‘hoop’]”. The group is comprised ofstudents and former students who play basketball at least occasionally in Gym E at theIMA, the primary exercise facility at the University of Washington. GEH was originallycomprised of twelve members and has since expanded to seventeen members. Membershipis exclusive and is limited to those who receive an invitation from BJ.1 In this paper, GEHwill be distinguished from hoopers in Gym E. The former is a small, exclusive group1 Members of the group have varying degrees of closeness (in terms of Granovetter’s ‘ties’) to othermembers; some members were close friends with other members before the formation of the group whilesome had no close ties with any other members before joining the group. No member, including BJ, has closeties with all of the other members. Some ties between members have strengthened over the last severalmonths while others have remained the same. Several group members communicate on a regular basis,usually for purpose of sharing basketball related information or coordinating times to meet to play basketballin Gym E.
SOCIAL AND INFORMATION EXCHANGE OF GYM E HOOPERS 4whose characteristics I have just described, whereas the latter encompasses all theindividuals who play basketball in Gym E. Small Worlds: Elfreda Chatman’s “small world” concept applies to a “world in which everydayhappenings occur with some predictability” (Chatman, 2000, p. 1). In other words, a smallworld is a world in which most events are seen as normal, reasonable, and fit “within thenatural order of things” (Chatman, 1999, p. 213). This aspect of small worlds is applicableto Gym E. The gym is a space in which sequences of events occur with a high amount ofpredictability. For example, one can expect to see the following sequence on, say, anygiven Friday in Gym E: before 2 pm, a few individuals practicing their shot around thecourt and perhaps 1-2 games being played between small groups of friends; in the mid tolate afternoon, large waves of people coming into Gym E in groups to play pickup gameson both courts; the court beginning to empty at approximately 7-8 pm. Moreover, norms ofsocial and physical interaction, both within and outside of court games, are also acceptedas part of the “natural order of things.” The most important feature of small worlds may be the presence of “legitimizedothers”, that is, “people who share physical and/or conceptual space within a commonlandscape of cultural meaning” (Chatman, 2000, p. 1). Legitimized others are “insiders”who get to define what is normal or acceptable behavior (Chatman, 1999, p. 214). Thisincludes information behavior, i.e. the seeking of information as well as accepted sourcesand types of information. Chatman (1999) also found that information about the outerworld is usually not allowed in unless it is relevant to the concerns of what is going on inthe gym; relevancy is decided upon by legitimized others. Legitimized others can be found
SOCIAL AND INFORMATION EXCHANGE OF GYM E HOOPERS 5in Gym E. For example, those who are new to the gym are often intimidated to join in thepick-up games. This appears to have more to do with the fact that they have not yet beenlegitimized than with their skill level in basketball. In fact, there are many inexperiencedplayers who are picked to play games again and again because they have been legitimized.These players share not only a physical but also a conceptual space in the sense that theyare part of the “us” rather than the “them”. Finally, in small worlds, the fear of the negative consequences associated withsharing “private” information leads to behaviors of information hiding and deception(Chatman, 1996, p. 1).2 However, in Chatman’s small worlds, barriers to information existbetween individuals and everyone else, whereas in Gym E the barriers to information existbetween sub-groups and everyone else. For example, individuals belonging to sub-groupswill hide information about their sub-group from others because they fear that releasingsuch information would put them at a disadvantage (in playing the game, in getting theirgroup-mates playing time, etc.). In a team sport such as basketball, a loss of a game canlead to a loss of face and social capital. No individual wants to be responsible forembarrassing his sub-group or putting it at any type of disadvantage.3 In the small worldstudied by Chatman (2000), “insiders” were observed to also be “outsiders”, i.e.individuals within the small worlds did not exhibit an “us” vs. “them” mentality, but ratheran “me” vs. “them” mentality. However, these small worlds represent only a small numberof social settings of information behavior and exchange. Gym E does not quite fit the “me”2 What is considered “private” differs in different contexts. Due to the “me” vs. “them” mentality that iswidespread in Chatman’s small worlds, “private” information refers to person information about anindividual. In the case of Gym E, “private” information refers information about the characteristics of sub-groups, since individuals exhibit the “us” vs “them” mentality observed (see subsequent paragraph).3 This to some extent results in some behaviors associated with information poverty, including a certainamount of secrecy and deception, although not to the extent exhibited by Chatman’s small worlds (Chatman,1996). After all, the livelihood of the hoopers does not depend on the small world of Gym E, so there is notas much at stake compared to Chatman’s small world examples of retirement communities, women’s prisons,and janitors (Chatman, 1996 & 1999).
SOCIAL AND INFORMATION EXCHANGE OF GYM E HOOPERS 6vs. “them” mentality, but rather does show an allegiance to one’s own subgroup.Information is shared between sub-group members, not hoarded.4 Lone players who do not belong to a sub-group are especially informationally poorbecause they face barriers in accessing information about other teams or sub-groups,information that would help fulfill their need to play a game. For example, often a loneplayer will inquire about who is next to play a pickup game. When they find the team onthe end of the line5, they will ask if the team is filled, in hopes of joining it. Often, theinformation seeker will be met with the response “Yes, the team is filled” even when it isnot. This display of deception often happens because the team’s players are waiting to seeif a sub-group mate will arrive. The team will resort to picking the lone player only if theydo not have enough insiders. Sometimes the lone player may wait well over an hour just toget in a game, depending on their persistence. During the process of trying to get in on agame, the lone player may reach a level of frustration that may cause them togive up tryingto play pickup game altogether. In Chatman’s words, “the information seeker is motivatedby a sense that in the end, why bother?” (Chatman, 2000, p. 5). One important feature of Gym E that does not fit within Chatman’s theory is theexistence of even smaller worlds within small worlds. There are numerous sub-groups thatplay basketball in Gym E. These subgroups share key characteristics of small worlds. TheGEH, for example, is a sub-group of players whose members have a stronger allegiance totheir group mates than to Gym E’s legitimized others in general. The possibility ofexpanding, contracting, or creating offspring may be inherent characteristics of at leastsome types of small worlds.4 At times GEH will be referred to as a “group” while at other times it will be referred to as a sub-group. Toavoid confusion, GEH is described as a sub-group when the larger environment of Gym E is also beingdiscussed, since the hoopers of Gym E can also be classified as a “group”.5 Often the gym is so crowded that teams will have to call “double next” or “triple next”.
SOCIAL AND INFORMATION EXCHANGE OF GYM E HOOPERS 7 Information Grounds: According to Fisher and Naumer (2006), investigations of information behavior ineveryday life and the constructionist paradigm led to the identification of informationgrounds. This approach places more importance on place and setting compared to previousstudies of information behavior. Pettigrew’s research with nurses and the elderly at a footclinic is the classic example of an “information ground”, which is defined as a synergistic“environment[s] temporarily created when people come together for a singular purpose butfrom whose behaviour emerges a social atmosphere that fosters the spontaneous andserendipitous sharing of information” (Pettigrew, 1999, p. 811). Gym E fits the description of an information ground. While the primary concern ofits visitors is to play the game of basketball, Gym E also allows for a social atmospherethat fosters the sharing of information. This information is usually related to basketball, butthe people in Gym E also exchange information about other sports, sporting events, jobs,hangouts, food, and more. In this way, information flow can be seen as a byproduct ofsocial interaction (Fisher & Naumer, 2006). GEH is also an information ground but is separate from Gym E in key ways.Although GEH is connected to the setting of Gym E in terms of where it meets, itsmembers also interact through Facebook, which is a different information groundaltogether. Moreover, even when GEHs meet together in Gym E, they socially interactwith other GEHs more readily and more often than with others. People are more likely toshare information with those with whom they have stronger ties than with strangers orthose with whom they have weaker ties (I discuss the concept of ‘ties’ in subsequentparagraphs). However, once two people have built up a relationship over multiple meetings
SOCIAL AND INFORMATION EXCHANGE OF GYM E HOOPERS 8and bonded through shared activities or interests, information exchange can begin to besocially rewarding. The building of relationships to the point of comfortable and trustingexchange is a topic that is worthy of further investigation. Particularly relevant to GEH is the presence of Granovetter’s “weak ties”.Pettigrew et. al (2001) introduce the new term “strong-weak ties” to describe nurse-seniorrelationship because they exhibit aspects of “dual tie strength”. The strength of weak ties iscertainly an attribute found in the information ground of Gym E. For example, a weak tiethat I had through GEH became a helpful connection for doing my fieldwork for my IBGroup presentation.6 Information grounds are also characterized by the lack of any formal system ofinformation exchange. This is a key reason for their capacity to foster informationexchange in everyday lives. For example, members of immigrant communities will oftenavoid “official information functions” provided by institutions outside their communitiesbecause they feel intimidated by unfamiliar sources and systems of information. Theywould rather share information with people in their own groups (Hill, Module 5- lecture 2,slide 8). Likewise, I would not feel comfortable visiting an engineering conference or acompany to look for potential interviewees. Tapping a weak tie to an engineer I knowthrough GEH would be much less intimidating (see footnote 6). Information grounds allow people to make connections beyond their typical socialcircles and groups (Fisher et. al, 2007), thereby establishing weak ties that they can use toaccess new information. At the same time, information grounds give people the6 My team is studying the information group of engineers. For the fieldwork, I created an online survey onFacebook and sent it to all my Facebook friends. One of the “Gym E Hoopers” who I know through a mutualfriend (also a GEH) approached me about the survey to make sure that he would be a good candidate to takeit. I assured him that he would indeed be a good candidate for the survey. I then asked him if he would minddoing an interview as a follow-up to the survey. He agreed. This shows that Gym E has does fit the mold ofan information ground, because it allows people of weak ties to share information that would not beotherwise available through merely strong ties (I do not have any close friends that are engineers).
SOCIAL AND INFORMATION EXCHANGE OF GYM E HOOPERS 9opportunity to expand their typical circles and groups, that is, their social network.For example, GEHs have formed connections beyond the setting of gym E. Some share afantasy sports leagues, play recreational football together, and have dinner at Applebeesafter basketball sessions on Fridays. This illustrates the potential for forming stronger tiesas a result of being in the same group. Here, social network theory may lend a usefulperspective in describing bonding between individuals and bridging social capital. Social Network Theory: According to social network theory (Haythornthwaite, 1996), because “actors’”roles are rapidly evolving, it would be less useful to take the traditional approach ofstudying information behavior through a priori (theoretical) categories. Instead, socialnetwork theorists want to look at how networks are formed, relationships between actorswithin networks, and how information is actually exchanged in these networks. A key concept in social network theory is “prominence”. Measures of prominenceindicate which actor(s) has influence or power in a network, and “who is more or less indemand” (Haythornthwaite, 1996, p. 334). Certain GEHs are more prominent because oftheir centrality (the number of ties they have to other members) within the sub-group aswell as to other sub-groups in Gym E7. For example, BJ, the creator of GEH, is aprominent actor in GEH as well as in the larger social space of Gym E. Within GEH, he isthe mediator between the other members; he posts information on the Facebook messageboard about when to meet, who will be present at the meeting, etc. In other words, BJ isthe most prominent actor in GEH because he is the collector and disseminator of7 Haythornthwaite uses the term “clusters” to describe groups of individuals that are related by social ties. Iwill use “clusters” and “sub-groups” interchangeably. The term “clique” is also used by Haythornthwaite tomean the same thing.
SOCIAL AND INFORMATION EXCHANGE OF GYM E HOOPERS 10information for the group. BJ has also been active in gym E for several years and has builtrelationships with prominent actors from various sub-groups. Because of this, he often actsas the carrier of information between GEH and other individuals or subgroups in gym E. According to Haythornthwaite, “[c]liques form composed of people similar to eachother who then establish norms that promote inclusion of others similar to themselves”(Haythornthwaite, 1996, p. 336). Actors are likely to encounter the same informationwithin their cliques. Thus, in order for new information to come in, a “network ofnetworks” has to happen; this requires ties between cliques. Haythornthwaite alsohypothesizes that certain people that are situated outside of individual clusters may act as“brokers” between the clusters. In the case of Gym E, however, the most direct andeffective information sharing between clusters happens when prominent actors from onecluster tap into their ties with prominent actors from another cluster. For example, BJ doesnot quite fit the role of “broker” that Haythornthwaite assigns to such a carrier ofinformation; it is not the case that BJ “sits between the peripheral groups and thus occupiesa more central position in the whole network and maintains an intermediary role between B[GEH] and C [another cluster]” (Haythornthwaite, 1996, p. 335). Rather, it is moreaccurate to view BJ as a representative of B that can reach out to representatives of clusterC. Therefore, in order to facilitate information exchange between clusters, additionalresearch could focus on how ties between prominent actors within different clusters can beformed or strengthened, rather than just how intermediaries (i.e. “brokers”) can be situatedbetween unconnected clusters. Conclusions: One common thread between all the theories discussed is that of legitimization.Both Haythornthwaite and Fisher rely upon Granovetter’s notion of “strength of weakness
SOCIAL AND INFORMATION EXCHANGE OF GYM E HOOPERS 11ties” (SWT). According to SWT, “close ties carry legitimacy” while weak ties tend to carrynew information but no legitimacy (Haythornthwaite, 1996, p. 336). While individualshave strategies to seek out useful information from sources outside of their group, theytend to consult their group members in validating that information. Thus, strong ties act as“information validators” even when weak ties are consulted first. (Pettigrew, 2000, p. 50).This helps to shed light on the information behavior of GEH, i.e. why GEHs have strongerallegiance to and cohesion with each other than outsiders and why GEHs rely on prominentmember(s) as gatekeepers to new information. Chatman also recognizes the concept oflegitimization in her research, although she finds that network theory “failed to shed light”on the small worlds she studied (Chatman, 2000, p. 4). As noted earlier, Chatman observeslegitimization as a process that is controlled by “legitimized others”, which potentiallyincludes all inhabitants of the small world, rather than prominent individuals within thesmall world. Although this may be the case within the isolated groups that Chatmanstudies, less isolated groups appear to have different processes of legitimization. The roleof prominent network members as gatekeepers should be further studied. As gatekeepers,prominent members are in a unique position to affect the process of legitimization.Because of their centrality, prominent members can control what kinds of information arepassed on and whom that information reaches. Moreover, there also needs to be recognition of the flexible dynamics of smallworlds. This includes testing the hypothesis that there may be smaller worlds within smallworlds. For instance, GEH can be considered a small world within the small world of GymE. However, GEH is not limited to the confines of the small world of Gym E; the groupcan easily change its meeting location to another gym. Because of the Internet, GEHenjoys a conceptual existence even outside of any physical space. In such situations,
SOCIAL AND INFORMATION EXCHANGE OF GYM E HOOPERS 12Chatman’s small worlds concepts begin to break down. The idea of small worlds as aphysically (not just conceptually) enclosed space needs to be reexamined. Another aspect found in GEH and Gym E that is not mentioned in the theoriesdiscussed is the effect that intentional group creation has on how information is exchangebetween individuals. GEH was specifically created by BJ as a means to share informationabout basketball related activities. This automatically placed BJ in a position ofprominence in the network (GEH) that he formed. The question of how Internet basednetworking tools such as Facebook can empower everyday people into positions ofprominence, positions that enable to them to control information flow, with respect to thenetworks they form needs to be explored. In particular, the creation of events, groups,information grounds, and small worlds by individuals is prime for further research. All three theories discussed provide valuable tools for investigating settings ofinformation behavior and interaction such as GEH and Gym E. However, each also has itsown setbacks. The small worlds perspective should be open to investigating the flexibilityand dynamism of small worlds. The information grounds perspective may be enriched by aconsideration of online information grounds interact with and transform physical enclosedinformation grounds. Finally, social network theory may be improved by the considerationof how prominent actors can and do bridge the information barriers between clusters. Thatsaid, no single theory can tell it all. We must consider what combination of perspectivesand their corresponding methods of investigation can shed the greatest light on a givensituation, process, or environment. ReferencesChatman, E.A. (1996). The Impoverished Life-World of Outsiders. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 47, 193-206.
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