I enjoy working with all kinds of technology and being online.  I am ‘hyper-connected’ in part because my work demands it – so much of what I do involves a computer and internet technologies (and more recently, social media).  However, when it comes to an online presence, I have always struggled between my high-tech work life and the desire for privacy in my personal life.

When I first started learning how to build pages for the web in 1994, I was using pico (a UNIX-based text editor associated with the mail application pine) or VI to write web pages.  The first graphical browser for the web (Mosiac 1.0, I think it was) had just been released.  There were less than 100,000 pages on the web – unfathomable today!  At the time, I was just not sure about putting myself out there, online, when I wasn’t yet sure where ‘there’ was, and who was looking.  So as part of learning to write HTML, I posted a web page with a picture of my rabbit, Larry.  For many years Larry was my only online presence.  At the time I was working with my friend Solomon, who was even more privacy conscious than I.  He purchased all of his groceries with cash, and he refused to get a discount card because he didn’t want to have all of his purchasing data tracked.  I hadn’t thought that much about privacy at that point.  In retrospect, I think that type of concern (and even the awareness that there are choices to be made) seems generational.  Times have changed as internet technologies have become nearly ubiquitous in the United States.  

During the course of my dissertation research, I went to great lengths to protect the identity of company I was studying.  This was to ensure I could publish my research later.  So when my graduate school posted small web pages with all of the students (including research area, a photo, and brief bio), I panicked.  Fortunately, the department was super-responsive, and I worked with them to reword the page.  That process reminded me of how little we control about what information appears about us online.

With the rise of Google, I have periodically searched on my own name to see what comes up.  I’ve learned that my name is not all that unusual – I think there are at least four other Natalie Hansons out there.  One of them is the wife of singer Taylor Hanson.  That has served to my advantage in terms of hiding out online, because news and photos of her have always appeared first, and any information at all about me was two or three pages down in the Google results.  And that was fine with me!

Recently, however, I am realizing that I would like to have more of a presence online, and that I can take an active role in shaping that.  In fact, I think the work that I’m doing now (in social media) really requires it.  As I built my blog, my Facebook profile, a Twitter account, and so on, I have been forced to think about what I do and don’t want to share, and with whom.  In the past few months, I finally uploaded my web page to my domain, and I’ve reworked my blogs to separate personal and professional.  I have also been doing more publicly online – responding to blog posts, etc.   However, I’ve set up my blog so that it isn’t pushed to the search engines.  That means if people are finding it at present, it is because I’ve either given them the link, or they’ve gotten it from my website.  That, too, is fine with me for the time being.

I searched my name again a couple of weeks ago, not too long after the Michael Krigman podcast was posted.  Suddenly, my website has shot up to second in the list of results (click here to see a screen shot).  That really just blew me away. I am now really even more curious about how the search algorithms work, and what I can do to control what appears in that list.  Or (if I want) to ensure that I remain high in the rankings.

I am going to try an experiment at some point soon, and that will be to enable this WordPress blog to be searchable.  I am very curious to monitor what happens to the Google search results, how quickly, and to see if I can figure out why.  In the meantime, there is a new search engine called Cuil that has just been released this week – it’s been all over the press.  I have been told it’s pronounced like ‘cool’, but it is also the French word for cull, interestingly enough.  When I search for myself on that one, I don’t come up at all on the first few pages.  I stopped looking after that, but I am also going to monitor it as I experiment with getting myself out there online.

We’ve moved!

Hello family & friends,

As it turns out, I have come to enjoy blogging – so much so that I decided to start a professional blog, too! I am hoping that it will help me get back on track with my anthropology writing.

I thought it was best to keep this domain for my work stuff, and move the family news to a new location.  So if you want to see the latest on Auden (including him walking for the first time!), check out the new family blog. Drop me an email if you need the address.

You’re welcome to stay tuned here, too, though you may find the ravings of a corporate anthropologist are less interesting than life at the Zehansons. 🙂

See ya!

Michael Krigsman podcast

This week I had the opportunity to speak with ZDNet blogger Michael Krigsman.  About 30% of all IT projects fail, and his blog is focused on why that is the case, and what can be done about it.   Michael runs his own consulting business that is part of the SAP ecosystem.  He has become interested in how ethnographic methods might complement some of the other methods that he uses in his consulting work today.

We spent about an hour on the phone, and then he asked if I would be interested in recording a podcast with him on the topic.  The blog and podcast (only 6 minutes long) were posted this morning.  Here is the link if you’re interested –

Exploring social media

Before my maternity leave (early summer last year), I met with one of the guys in SAP’s Emerging Solutions development organization.  He told me that they had spoken with some young students and received some use cases for different technologies.  One of the uses cases for email?  Sending a thank-you to parents of a friend.  Note to self: email is for old people!

I created and have been managing a listserv called anthrodesign for a number of years.  I really enjoy the dialogue and the community that has been formed, and I don’t really mind the administration because I spend so much time in front of a computer anyways.  But partly as a result of this use case, and partly because of the changes at work, I am realizing the the listserv is SO old timey.  I have been asked by one of the members for an RSS feed, but I have been reticent because the listserv has been restricted for so long.  I have always been concerned about spammers, and particularly because I use my personal email account to manage the list.  Anthrodesign is not publicly listed on Yahoo!, so most people find it by word of mouth.  Somehow I fear a feed will unravel that.  Even with organic growth, it’s grown to nearly 1400 members who exchange well over 100 posts a month.

Someone sent me a YouTube video about how (and how much!) students are using Facebook today (you can see the video here).  At the same time, I was feeling the limits of what anthrodesign is / can be because I am the hub of the network, and I am at capacity.  For example, I used to send a personalized note to people who joined, but it’s been ages and ages since I did that.  At one point I had about 250 messages in draft and I finally let it go, and realized it wasn’t going to happen. think that some of the power of the list has been lost as a result of my inattention, and I would like to correct that.   Through a series of posts to the list and discussion with listmembers, I outlined the high level requirements:

  1. facilitate social networking,
  2. provide better access to the knowledge generated by the community, and
  3. enable the community to build on & extend that knowledge if they’re interested.
Right around the time, I also read an article by Jakob Neilsen called Facebook and Metcalfe’s Law:

We are getting close to the bursting of Bubble 2.0, so it’s a good idea to review some of the precursors of Bubble 1.0.  In 1999, I wrote an article “Metcalfe’s Law in Reverse” about the problems of so-called walled gardens, where a service cuts itself off from the Internet and tries to add value by being closed.  Facebook and the current generation of social networks are trying to replicate the walled garden strategy that failed ten years ago. It’ll fail again.”

All these things have really gotten me thinking about what the next steps should be for anthrodesign.  How much social media do we want to introduce into something that works well (however old-fashioned it is)?  Can I retain the integrity of the list through these experiments, and especially if the experiments fail?

On becoming a tweet

I’ve become a tweet.

I am not really sure how it happened, honestly.  I mean, I was not really even a regular blogger before I got hooked.  During my work day I typically run from meeting to meeting, usually eating lunch at my desk or in the hallway on my way to something else.  When I am not working or eating, I am coping with all the life realities of being a new mom and a PhD with no time to write for publication.  When I get home, I want time with the baby, a real dinner on the table, and thirty seconds of quiet before collapsing from exhaustion.  These are not excuses – I was just really not convinced that I had any of the cognitive surplus that Clay Shirky is talking about.

Robert Scoble is a well-known technology blogger, and he commented that if you subscribed to Twitter before the end of April 2008, you are considered an early adopter.  I just made the cutoff! 🙂 I still don’t tweet much between when I leave work and when I crash at night, but I am enjoying participating online in this new way.  Right now I have 42 people following me, and I am following 69.  I have made a modest 216 219 updates as I write this post.  But more importantly, as a real participant-observer I now have a much better sense of who is using twitter and why.

Initial Impressions

At the outset, I was only following people I knew, and because my feed was private, there were only a few people I knew that were following me.  As a result, my initial postings on Twitter simply formed a supplemental communication layer with people I already knew.  And it was fun!  A number of people from my team were posting, and I felt that I was getting to know them better by following what they were doing outside of work.  I liked knowing that Greg had taken his daughter to the zoo over the weekend, or that Jen had an opportunity to watch a local regatta.  I also learned that Jen tweets while riding her bike.  Really!

As I mentioned in an earlier post, it took me awhile to commit to a Blackberry and to IM.  As I got deeper into my use of Twitter, I really started to question when I should use it.  At one point I laughingly said that “If it’s not happening on Twitter, it’s not important.”  I was kidding, of course.  What I was trying to do was to make sense of where this new communication channel should fit in with all the other means of communication I already have at my disposal.  So, for example, as I started to follow more and more people, I found myself interacting with other people from work.  I started to stumble a little, questioning whether I should twitter, IM, or send an email.  Which technology, when?  My current impression is that people don’t tweet because they’re looking for a response – though occasionally people do explicitly ask for feedback.  (In that respect I find the description micro-blogging more appropriate than many-to-many chat.  But that may just be how I’m using it, based on who I’m following, what our level of connectivity is, and the limited time we have available for that type of online dialogue.)  For me, I am pretty cautious about using IM except for really urgent things or things that can be handled quickly and save email clutter.  Typically, I also only use it for work people I know well, because I know it can be disruptive.  And finally email, which may be for old people, but is still a viable means of communication in the work context.  Notice I don’t mention the phone – I don’t do much of that if I can help it!  I think that’s a reaction to too many years of call center work, and the fact that I’m not really auditory.  I’d much rather have the ‘paper trail’ so to speak.  So at work, it’s generally email, unless it’s something quick that I can do via IM.  Right now, Twitter is mostly just for fun with people that I enjoy at work, though we are looking for viable business scenarios where we could use a twitter-like application internally.

There are some odd things about keeping up with people online rather than in person.  In reading people’s postings, sometimes you feel like you know what’s going on with them; I have found occasions where I didn’t think to ask about someone’s weekend, because it was touched on in Twitter.  But there is still a value in further exchange!  For example, Kirsten posted about her attending the Little Feat concert “Concert was GREAT! Seventh row! Had fun with the aging bikers and hippies (these are my people!) in suits. And, I can still hear”, and because she posted, I didn’t think to ask more about it.  But when Jen R asked more about it in front of me, I realized there was more to learn (of course).  So now I have to remember that Twitter provides me with that visibility, but in the end I still have to DO something with the new information if I hope for it to transform the relationship in any way.  The other thing that is so critical for me (especially as an anthropologist) is to remain cognizant of what’s not being said.  I have post in draft about that, so I’ll come back to i another time!

For me what is interesting is the blurring of personal and professional.  I really do like getting to know my team in these new ways.  I am very curious to further explore the ways that people construct their identity online, and how they decide what to present to whom.

Overall, I am enjoying the multi-layered, multi-threaded conversations with my work friends, some new online friends, and some friends that are recent converts.  I find that the lines between our different forms of communication are more and more blurred.  Though overall there is nothing really fantasically new about it – our exchanges are not all that different than what happens in person, for example, when people go out for happy hour and then tell / extend jokes at work the next day.  There is also that delicious moment of being bad by participating in online conversations during business hours.  At it’s worst it’s a vehicle for gossip and distraction, but at it’s best it becomes a new and viable way to interact online with people you enjoy.  And, in my day job I am enjoying the challenge of finding the right business scenarios so we can bring this technology to bear on solving business problems.

Ambient Intimacy and the Twitter Curve

I’d like to thank Jen R for her comments on my earlier post, and for pointing me to many of the materials I’m referencing below.  They really resonated with me, and helped me get up to speed on what has already been said in this arena.

In the popular press, I am finding that there are two major opposing points of view about Twitter (no big surprise).  On one hand, there are individuals who believe that Twitter has the potential to foster a closeness between individuals who use it.  On the other hand, there are individuals who think Twitter represents the world moving at an ever-increasing pace, a world full of interruptions and no real thinking.  Twitter is therefore vilified as perpetuating or even exacerbating the problem.  Of course, both things are true, since it’s the people and not the technology that determine that!  Below is a summary of some of the more articulate writing that’s been done to date on these topics.

In a blog post written last year, Leisa Reichelt coined the phrase Ambient Intimacy.  She said that

There are a lot of us, though, who find great value in this ongoing noise. It helps us get to know people who would otherwise be just acquaintances. It makes us feel closer to people we care for but in whose lives we’re not able to participate as closely as we’d like. … Knowing these details creates intimacy.

This point of view is consistent with what I’ve experienced to date as a relatively casual user of Twitter, which is generally positive and connective in nature.  But my exposure has also been relatively limited, over a short period of time so far, and I have been cautious to keep my following and follower numbers low.

On the other hand, some of the individuals using Twitter have found it addictive, or have found that the background noise distracts them from more important work.  In his blog entry entitled Why I Deleted My Twitter Account, cartoonist Hugh MacLeod ( describes a period where he stopped using Twitter, because it was interfering with his ability to stay focused on his real job.  The cartoon below is from his post on that topic.

On her (now defunct) blog Creating Passionate Users, Kathy Sierra drew The Twitter Curve (copied here), and talked about the challenge of getting anything done due to all the interruptions.

In the same vein, blogger Linda Stone coined the term continuous partial attention, again calling attention to the fact that productivity declines in the face of constant interruptions.

As I mentioned at the top of this section, I think the dialogue has been fairly split into these two camps.  And while the perspectives are engaging, well-written, and often funny, I think a social sciences perspective could enable a more holistic view of the discourse around this emerging technology.  So that’s where I’m headed next.

So what – especially for Anthropology?

Well, I didn’t realize how long this post was going to be – it’s waaaay too long already!  I think bringing an anthropological perspective into this is very exciting, but too much for now.  So please watch for a subsequent post, in which I will endeavor to answer that very question.