Microsoft Researcher Nancy Baym offers her new take on communication in the digital age

Kareem Anderson

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Realistically speaking, the devices and systems we use now to communicate, translate, and express ourselves are all part of an evolution. Much like an evolutionary path, there are incremental changes along the way, other times there are outside circumstances that produce leaps in the evolutionary chain. Today’s technological growth spurt feels like it came out of nowhere for some. Experts, casual users, and the technologically illiterate have all mixed as advancements in processors, operating systems, and devices have democratized access to technology. I liken our new technological duality to the Jurassic Park movies (well at least the good one). Like the characters in Jurassic Park, there are many of us frantically searching for ways to understand and live in this new digitally inclusive world, and then there are those who are getting lost in the shuffle or consumed by ‘traditional norms’. As quickly as technology is moving it’s becoming increasingly difficult for some to establish norms and conventional codes of etiquette that make sense.

MIT Comparative Media Studies and Microsoft Researcher Nancy Baym took time out to publish her research on the related phenomenon. Five years ago, Nancy published Personal Connections in the Digital Age. The publication was an investigation into whether technology had the capacity to diminish the interpersonal relationships or in some way negatively impact humanity as a whole. Well, that was five years ago and since then the technology researched by Nancy has changed, as well as the way we use and accept it. Nancy has updated her research publication to include the additional years and has now published a second edition of Personal Connections in the Digital Age, released this week. Nancy’s most recent publishing has garnered some impressive reviews. Tom Standage, digital editor of The Economist, says Baym’s “brilliant book explodes myths and challenges stereotypes,” and Sonia Livingstone of the London School of Economics and Political Science cites Baym’s optimism, “showing how we may yet build new, perhaps better, personal connections in the digital age.”

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During an interview with Inside Microsoft Research, Nancy goes into some detail about the second edition to her research publishing as well as the predictability and unpredictability of technology and how we use it. Nancy also expounds on where 5+ years of researching human behavior and technology are leading her.

When asked about her goal of releasing her second edition to her research publishing, Nancy explained, “In the second edition, in particular, I wanted to show that research done before social networking sites existed still has relevance. We don’t need to invent the conceptual and empirical wheels anew with each new medium.” During the interview, Nancy was also asked about her opinion on whether or not we are on a road to losing intimacy of personal connections? Her short answer was no. In her findings it’s quite the opposite. Nancy has seen that, “the more intimate the relationship the more media people use to communicate.” The idea of a zero-sum game when it comes to digital and in-person communication is an old way of interacting in today’s digital age, according to Nancy. Instead of thinking we need all of one or the other, she suggest that we look at both as complimentary to each other. She’s in agreement, that the norms of engagement during this digital time are still evolving. Perhaps when people find out what works best for them, and settle into a routine, others around can begin to do the same in their own lives.

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Another question Nancy fielded was about the differences or similarities she’s seen in online communities throughout the Internet age thus far. Do the communities of Facebook and LinkedIn differ significantly than from the Usenet groups of years past? Nancy’s short answer, yes. The two biggest differences that Nancy’s observed are the fact that most online communities are either for-profit or backed by for-profit companies. Whereas, internet communities of old were typically public. The incentives for a community to organize on monetize participants presumably affects the community. Earlier communities were also more arranged around topical participation where everyone had the same access to one another. Now, many online communities center around individuals and their curated circle of friends, family or followers. Nancy also notes the use of algorithms to help filter ‘noise’. With algorithms in place, people are handing over the control of information. When it comes to communication barriers and products like Skype Translator, Nancy was asked if products like Skype make it easier to predict what ways they will transform society? “Technologies are always adapted and used in innovative and unexpected ways once they are in the hands of individuals and groups. The history of communication technologies is a history of innovations being used for purposes other than what their inventors and early investors intended,” according to Nancy.

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Possibly at the crux of her research lays the question of whether or not people should fear if technology will have an adverse effect humanity. Nancy didn’t have a yes or no answer to such a complicated question. Instead, she offered a different point of view, “I think the question is whether we will let new technologies adversely affect our humanity. That is a collective choice that comes down to both the things we make and what uses of those things we engage in and accept.” So instead of putting the blame on technology, the burden should lay with the individuals who make up the whole. As Nancy wrapped up the interview she noted that due to her in-depth research on this issue and others like it, she’s looking at how new technologies blur boundaries rather than define them. She uses an example of how some musicians are using social media as a way to build quasi-interpersonal relationships with their audiences, ala Taylor Swift. This is becoming the new model for early adopters to reach beyond social and economic boundaries to reach and establish new relationships that may have been stunted using older norms.

So for those still on the fence about what is appropriate and not appropriate when it comes to technology, Nancy might suggest a look back at history, to what were norms, and how they have changed. Perhaps, establish your standards, and let others follow, rather than the other way around.