Patricia Lange Interview by Paul DiPerna | Blau Exchange


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May 23, 2007

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Patricia Lange Interview by Paul DiPerna | Blau Exchange

  1. 1. Site Search Patricia Lange Interview moderated by Paul DiPerna Paul DiPerna: Patricia... How did you become interested in the anthropological study of online communities?  Were there influential experiences or  home people that led you in this direction? introduction Patricia Lange: themes interviews index I first became aware of online communities called MUDs, or multi-user dimensions, when I was a technology analyst at SRI International. My job was to subscribe to email updates examine technical and business opportunities in advanced computer interfaces like virtual environments. I began RSS for interviews to learn more about different kinds of virtual environments and MUDs and how they might Lange's Bio be used to facilitate a range of remote Paul's bio and projects applications. Later, at graduate school, I learned how to interact with Paul's email other MUDders.  MUDs seemed to be a big part of many technologists' adolescent socialization, and since I was interested in studying technical communities, it seemed like a good fit. I became very interested in one particular MUD that I'll call here "MiningMUD" comments policy privacy policy which had a fascinating dystopic, science fiction theme. The head of the MUD and the community were very welcoming about having an anthropologist hanging out. I first became aware of anthropological studies of technology when I saw a lecture by Bonnie Nardi while I was still at SRI. The talk was sponsored by an organization called BayCHI,  which is a San  Francisco bay area group devoted to exchanging information about computer-human interfaces. Dr. Nardi talked about how she used ethnographic methods and anthropological theory to understand how to design intelligent agents. She had studied how people interacted with librarians at Apple Computer where she worked. I was amazed that this type of research was possible and I went to meet her at a dinner for the speaker. I began to build my case for graduate school by learning as much about anthropology as I could. I also started to do ethnographic research at SRI by learning from Charline Poirier, who was also working at SRI at the time. We studied CyberMind, a virtual environment gaming center in San Francisco. I then decided that I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology to gain additional expertise. Paul DiPerna: Can you describe for us your dissertation experience at the University of Michigan? When I talk to people about their graduate school education, and particularly PhD work, I am fascinated by how a person arrives at his or her thesis topic and charges ahead toward defense and completion.   What was it like for you? Patricia Lange: My dissertation experience at Michigan was wonderful. It was a great time in life that opened me up to a whole new world of theoretical inquiry. I was initially torn about doing a dissertation topic for which I could parlay prior experience at SRI or doing a topic that was entirely new and experimental for me. I decided that given the rigorous demands of a Ph.D. it would be more prudent to study a technical community, since I had observed technologists for years in Silicon
  2. 2. Valley where I worked and lived. One of my former advisors, the late Sharon Stephens, who was a wonderful person, told me to keep in mind that your dissertation topic is going to be with you for a while after you graduate. Even as your career eventually moves in other directions, for several years after graduation you will be doing papers and will be asked to speak about your topic. So her advice was to try and pick something you can live with for a while. Choosing an area in which I had some background did indeed help me to complete my Ph.D. fairly quickly. Dr. Stephens was right, it has been four years since graduation and I am still writing papers and being asked to speak about my dissertation topic. Paul DiPerna: What was it like to work at SRI International? Did you do work there for a while before entering graduate school? Patricia Lange: I worked at SRI International for seven years. It was a terrific experience. It was a vibrant place with a lot of amazing research going on, and I looked forward to going to work and learning about new technologies and how they were being used. My job was to read about them, go see demonstrations, meet technologists and talk to them about their work, and think about how they might be used for different applications. I often met luminaries in different fields such as Douglas Engelbart who invented the mouse and Tom Mandel, who was a key participant in the WELL online community before he passed away. I can't emphasize enough how great it was to have worked for several years before going to graduate school. I saw some of my fellow graduate students who went right from college struggle because they underestimated their self-worth. They perhaps put a little too much emphasis on what their advisors told them about their capabilities because they hadn't seen themselves being evaluated successfully in other contexts that compensate monetarily. There seemed to be a difference between the experience of those of us who had worked before school and those who hadn't. Even if one hasn't worked, graduate students can do internships or take on consulting projects in a variety of fields. I would advise doing this if possible once or twice, so that students' self-evaluation is not tied to one particular issue or group of people, and they can discover more career options. Paul DiPerna: Can you tell us about the Digital Kids and Informal Learning project? What kinds of research questions are you asking? Patricia Lange: The Digital Kids and Informal Learning project is funded by the MacArthur Foundation and is targeted toward understanding how kids and youth aged 10-18 use digital technologies in daily life. The project is being carried out by two teams of researchers, one at the University of Southern California, where I work, and one at the University of California, Berkeley. The goal behind the project is to study children and youth not as passive consumers of information and education but rather as active and innovative producers who capture a vibrancy of experience through digital learning that many of them may or may not achieve through formal education programs. We are studying a wide array of youth experiences and sites including YouTube, the "vlogsophere" of the video blogging community, anime music videos, Wikipedia, Neopets, MySpace, Facebook, games, music production, and many other topics. We also have researchers studying technology use in the home and schools. It is a comprehensive research project designed to understand why and how youth use these tools and what they learn by using them. The idea is to eventually design education programs, software, and online
  3. 3. environments that may be more beneficial for learning. My project involves studying the semiotics of video creation, sharing, and reception on YouTube and among video bloggers. At a basic level I want to find out why video creation and sharing is so important in the lives of youth. What does it mean for youth to lead essentially mediated lives where they bring a camera with them wherever they go and post videos of public and intimate moments on sites such as YouTube or on video blogs? How do these mediated experiences change our perception of Internet participation, and what are the skills that are needed to participate in this type of Internet environment? Since I am interested in semiotics, or the study of signs and sign systems, I analyze videos and the culture of YouTube and the vlogosphere to understand how signs and social messages are put together in video, and how participants learn to interpret and manipulate these signs for various social purposes. A key area of interest for me concerns how these experiences are problematizing one of the grand dichotomies in the social sciences which is that of the assumed binary split between the public and private. I don't believe these video mediated experiences collapse the public and the private completely. My research indicates that the relationship becomes more complicated as youth use different kinds of signs within video to participate in different types of social networking through video sharing. For instance, just because people put a video on YouTube does not mean that everyone has access to its symbolic meanings in the same way. It is "public" in that it is on YouTube but it may be privately interpretable to a small social network of friends. Paul DiPerna: What is it like to work at the University of Southern California's Annenberg Center? Patricia Lange: The Annenberg Center for Communication is a great place to work. It is a think tank type of institution that enables interaction with scholars in a range of exciting disciplines. We have talks every week in which we learn about a number of topics, some of which pertain directly to our research. Other speakers provide stimulating material that we might not ordinarily encounter in our daily scholarly lives. We've had talks from luminaries such as Mimi Ito, Howard Rheingold, Manuel Castells, Jay Harris, and Henry Jenkins, just to name a few. Paul DiPerna: Second Life is all the rage right now.  However New York University  professor Clay Shirky and some others have taken issue with a lot of the hype surrounding Second Life's reach and potential social impact. Seems to me that there is definitely a market for such a service, and possibly some educational value in it. (a supplement for in- classroom instruction and distance education, maybe?)  But I can't  see how it will fundamentally change the way we use the Web or how people interact with each other. Patricia Lange: I have not researched Second Life. But one person I know who has is Tom Boellstorff, at the University of California, Irvine. He is finishing a manuscript entitled, Virtually Human: An Anthropologist in Second Life. I have read some of the material and it promises to be a very interesting and thought-provoking book. Paul DiPerna:
  4. 4. Last year you published an article for First Monday called "What's Your Claim to Flame?"  My understanding is that you felt people were  asking the wrong kinds of questions about the subject of "flaming". You felt that studying flame claims was equally as important as studying flames. Is that correct? How did you do your research for that project?  What were your main conclusions? Patricia Lange: My main concern in writing this article was to prod scholars studying ICTs (information and communications technologies) to think about what "flaming" actually means and to consider whether it is still useful in social science research assuming it ever was. Of course there is online agonism, but is "flaming" the best way to characterize what researchers think they are seeing? This is a native term used by online participants that was originally encoded as social science terminology by scholars studying computer-based communication decades ago. But it is not wise to unreflectively use the terms that the native participants use when researching particular phenomena. Scholars are noticing that researchers call many things flames, even things that participants themselves do not see as flames. As O'Sullivan and Flanagin (2003) point out, these include curse words, criticism, and so-called hostility. People often claim that another person is "flaming" them, but does everyone see it that way? It turns out that what constitutes a flame is determined through an interactional process between participants that involve levying flame claims and defenses. For this research, I examined micro-dynamics of conversation using conversation analysis and analyzed cultural aspects of the two MUD communities I studied. In these groups, participants played games and chatted informally about in-game and out-of-game topics such as preferred operating systems. Interestingly, sometimes things I initially thought were flames were not considered flames by most of the participants involved in the conversation. Also sometimes people believed that others accused them of "flaming" so that the accuser could accomplish political ends. For example, one Windows advocate felt that he was accused of "flaming" supporters of Linux so that he would stop promoting Windows on a Linux-friendly chat channel. Yet many Linux supporters in the conversation disagreed that the Windows user actually "flamed" anyone. Another important finding is that according to scholars of "The term conversational morality, most 'flaming'.. every day, in-person brackets off online conversation is rife with moral phenomena positionings and accusations as different from (Bergman 1998). We can all offline interaction recognize accusations such patterns..." as, "Hey you never take out the garbage!" to which the defendant snaps back, "Well you never wash the dishes!" Why are these not called "flames" in linguistic text books? Because "flaming" is usually associated with online interaction. Using a term like "flaming" can prevent scholars from seeing similarities between online and offline talk. The term "flaming" automatically brackets off online phenomena as different from offline interaction patterns, when there may be similarities in many cases. Avoiding a loaded term such as "flaming" enables a more open-ended investigation and comparison of both the similarities and differences between online and offline talk. Paul DiPerna: YouTube is a major focus of your current research.  I understand that you study YouTube videos and interview the video-makers as a way to gain insight into youth and teen struggles with "identity".  Is that
  5. 5. accurate? How is this research going for you? What patterns of behavior do we see in these young video- makers? Patricia Lange: My area of interest does not focus on a static and one-way view of self-presentation to the world, but rather on the intersection between identity and online interaction. You don't just perform identity; an audience must ratify it if you wish to gain acceptance into certain groups. As I mention below, I am interested in how people perform technical identities of affiliation in online groups. I am studying how people present and negotiate signs of identity through the creation and circulation of videos. About a decade ago when many people first began creating Web pages, I noticed certain patterns in how people expressed themselves in order to find acceptance in a wider Internet community. In some cases, people changed or qualified what they wished to say. They even censored themselves in order to avoid anticipated criticism from peers and experts. I am seeing some of the same dynamics happening in the video sites and communities I am exploring. People withhold certain unique forms of self-expression because they do not wish to be criticized by members of technical groups. What is unfortunate is that people may be self-censoring to show they espouse ideas and affiliations that no one may actually value. I wish to explore these ideas further and see if these patterns from Web-page creation a decade ago and today on video sharing sites are similar, or whether there are differences. Paul DiPerna: Should parents be very concerned about the online behavior trends of teenagers? Patricia Lange: I think each one of us should be concerned with how we interact both online and off in terms of what type of information we share and with whom we share it with. At the same time, it is unfortunate for people to panic about using the Internet. A better approach is to understand appropriate safety measures and keep lines of communication open with children. For many adults and children, computers and Internet networks are playing a major role in life in a way that is increasingly difficult to avoid. Ignoring the importance of children's online activities or demonizing certain online sites may alienate children in ways that may complicate parents' ability to teach them about safety and guide them toward a more positive experience. For many of the people I have interviewed, Internet participation has brought great benefits and they continue to pursue online activities even when they have had negative experiences. Some of the video blogging parents I have spoken with believe that Internet skills are changing to require more visual presentation of the self in a wider array of contexts including social, political, and economic arenas. Some video blogging parents encourage their children to participate in video blogs as a way of developing self-presentation skills in order to interact more fully across the world stage as facilitated through the Internet. Paul DiPerna: Maybe the Web and related research are still too young to answer the following questions, but I would be very interested to get your thoughts... I suspect that youths and teens have a particular way of expressing identity (online and offline), say compared to twenty-somethings, thirty- somethings, and so on. Have we been able to observe longitudinal change in online
  6. 6. interaction styles? Is there an age effect for online identity? Patricia Lange: This is a very interesting question that will hopefully be answered in a broader way by comparing studies such as ours and those of scholars who focus on age-related identity work for twenty- somethings and thirty-somethings. Although finding differences is often a headline-making topic, I have always personally been interested in certain similarities rather than differences between children and adults in their twenties or thirties. People may be surprised to learn that, according to Shantz (1987), children and adults tend to argue about similar things, including: "valued resources, controlling others' behavior, rule violations, facts, and truth." Focusing on the differences between children and adults risks minimizing the importance of children's experiences and potentially reifies a category of "children" that smuggles in a host of assumptions that may or may not be true. Such assumptions require empirical investigation to ascertain their truth value. For instance, people blame the "thirteen-year old crowd" for being irresponsible and contentious online. Although questions of maturity certainly play a role in how people approach interaction, I have been cured of assuming that unfortunate, agonistic behavior is limited to children or to online interaction. Living and working in Silicon Valley and attending academic conferences have provided plenty of examples in which interaction becomes quite confrontational with adults who are not anonymous to each other. They are mature adults who know each other professionally and sometimes, quite well. Why do scholars and others systematically forget these patterns when writing about children's behavior online? My dissertation offers a theoretical construct called performing technical affiliation, in which people perform alliances to particular technologies, beliefs. A performance can be something as simple as calling another person's preferred operating system "evil" while calling their own morally right. When participants get caught up in a cycle of performing technical affiliation, it may become more difficult for interlocutors in the conversation to get access to speaking rights and privileges, access to new information about technologies, and access to non-normative modes of self-expression. People can get enmeshed in such identity performances without realizing it, and without intending necessarily to do damage. They just wish to be perceived as "in the know" about the right kinds of technologies to use and values to espouse so they can gain the respect of others. The dissertation provides a lens with which other scholars and participants can be alert to these dynamics and decide whether particular micro-interactional interventions may be necessary. An intervention may be as simple as pointing out that it is happening, and there may be other ways to approach a conversational topic rather than unreflectively performing technical affiliation to portray oneself has having a favorable identity. When people assume that children are not serious about Internet use, unfortunate conclusions may follow. For instance, some adults may assume that although exchanging information for business networking on the Internet is important for adults, the same behavior is just "playing" when children engage in it. Such an assumption denies the way that adults network to "play" and the ways in which children network for "work." For youth, work may include school. One college student I spoke with talked about how pressured she was by orientation assistants at her University to join Facebook in order to receive important messages from her school, teachers, and class groups. What is perhaps more fruitful is to take seriously children's activities online and try to understand the importance of online participation from their point of view.  
  7. 7. Paul DiPerna: Do you think the Internet should be taught as a "subject" in elementary and high school? (here's a neat, somewhat related video) Should we approach teaching the Internet the same way we go about teaching math, reading, social studies, science, language arts, and other subjects? Or should the Internet be embedded in the pedagogy and learning process rather than a formal subject area? It seems to me that we may be exposing children and teens to new social technologies without really addressing the long-term effects of those technologies, either at the individual level or societal level. Are we adequately addressing the Internet's personal and social effects for children and teenagers? Patricia Lange: Determining the best course of action with regard to education is a question to be solved using a community perspective. Our role in the Digital Youth project is to study how kids and youth are using technologies in their everyday lives. We hope that the information we provide will be used to design effective online environments and educational programs that take into account the needs and goals of educators and children. Paul DiPerna: Are you looking forward to attending any particular conferences this year? Patricia Lange: I am currently scheduled to present papers this year at several conferences including: International Communication Association Conference in San Francisco (May 24-27) International Pragmatics Association Conference in Goteborg Sweden (July 9-14) Association for Internet Research Conference in Vancouver, Canada (October 17-20) "How Tubers teach themselves: Narratives of self-teaching as technical identity performance on YouTube" to be presented at the Society for the Social Studies of Science Conference, October 11-13, 2007, in Montreal, Canada. I am also an invited curator for the upcoming Pixelodeon Video Blogging Festival, June 9-10 at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, California. My session is entitled, "Making the Familiar Unfamiliar: The Importance of Physical Place in the Vlogosphere." The session will explore how video bloggers make every day familiar places seem strange and unfamiliar by investigating their personal relationships to certain places in their lives. The session will explore how people experience place and why physical places still seem so vital to human experience, even for those who spend a great deal of time interacting online. Also, here is my YouTube paper from the Society for Applied
  8. 8. Anthropology conference. The podcast and paper is also available here. May 25, 2007 home | interviews index | Join the email list | RSS for interviews | Paul's email Blau Exchange, est. 2006 | Blau Exchange, All Rights Reserved 2006-2008 site design by gralmy