CIS book preface

We live in a society where information is, without a doubt, a powerful force. This statement may sound like a cliche, but it always amazes me how often we forget. May be that’s the purpose (or should be) of the technology that surrounds such information. The other aspect of information technology that amazes me is the fact that it is so new, considering human history. The clock that tells us the precise time of the day dates back only to the sixteenth century. The base 10 numbering system is only 500 years old, and mechanical devices used to calculate and present information have existed for only a couple of centuries. Of course, today when we say “information technology”, we are probably thinking about computers and other digital devices, and they are merely a few decades old.

What intrigues me the most is how we have been able to integrate such new concepts and technologies with long-standing human behavior. Take for example, working in groups and living as a society. This behavior has proven to be extremely important for the survival and prosperity of our species. Back in the days of hunting together to today’s office work, mankind has understood the need to work and thrive together. It is this behavior – the one of collaborating with each other – that has made it possible to achieve great feats in the history. How else can one man (or woman) build the pyramids or crack the human genetics code.

Of course, not all problems call for people working together. While Einstein had help and drew inspirations from others, he did come up with many significant findings himself. Leonardo de Vinci and Picasso, similarly, worked alone. Claude Shannon, considered to be the father of digital information age, was known to have worked in solitude behind closed doors. But let’s put geniuses aside and talk about the remaining 99.99% of us (which of course, still includes a lot of smart people!). We do, often need to work in collaboration. I’m sure even Einstein needed help placing his furniture in his Princeton house; he was a genius, not a superhuman!

This book is about those times when people work in collaboration – an eternal human behavior, in the light of new and innovative technologies in the information age that we live in. More precisely, it is concerned about situations pertaining to information retrieval/seeking/sense-making where people are collaborating or should be collaborating.

One may ask – Why this book? Why now? There is a simple two-fold answer to both these questions. Using technology to understand and support collaborative behavior has been around for a while – what is known as Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), but it is in the recent years that we have seen more specialized attention given to applying CSCW methods and frameworks for information seeking situations. On the other hand, the field of Information Retrieval (IR, or broadly speaking IS, information seeking) has found (or re-realized) the importance of considering social and collaborative aspects of search, synthesis, and information use.

This has led to a newly developed interest in the field that is still emerging at the intersection of several other well-established fields, including CSCW, IR, HCI, and social media/networking. This book as an attempt to introduce the relatively young domain of collaborative information seeking (CIS) research by discussing how it came to be, what it currently offers, and where it is headed next. The best part is that we all get to define and contribute to this future.

Personally, my journey on this path started during the summer of 2007 when I was an intern at FXPAL, working with Gene Golovchinsky and Jeremy Pickens. Back then, we worked on something called Collaborative Exploratory Search (CES), and argued that IR systems need to have “smart” components that could mediate collaborative activities and produce results that are “better” than any individual IR process. And we succeeded with at least one kind of situation (time-limited, recall-oriented task with two people collaborating under assumed roles). We did continue this work further by identifying more situations and defining other roles, but as I returned to UNC and continued working on my dissertation, I started moving in the direction of user-mediated collaboration. My dissertation provided a framework (among other things) for studying and supporting user-focused CIS. I have continued working on various aspects of CIS (both user and system sides) as a faculty at Rutgers University. In the meantime, I have also participated in a number of professional events around CIS, including half a dozen workshops – two of which I co-organized.

This book is a culmination of all of these experiences, and while they have made me biased on the topic, I have tried my best to incorporate others’ views as well. In the end, my hope is that those working in this domain, and the larger field of IR see this book as a record of modern day CIS research that has tried to incorporate many view-points and contributions to inform those looking for a comprehensive treatment of this topic, along with wonderful opportunities (and challenges) it presents.

Black, white, and gray areas

When it comes to inter-personal interactions, I believe there are three shades of areas – black, white, and gray. The other individual’s personal area is ‘black’; it’s off-limit since he/she owns that space and need to feel safe in that space in order to trust others around him/her.

Your own area is ‘white’. It’s open and available to you, and you don’t want anyone else to overshadow it. This white area gives you a sense of privacy and personal space.

And then there is the ‘gray’ area, which is in-between you and the others that you interact with. In a sense, this area is open to anyone, but we try not to use it unless it is absolutely needed. For instance, you could ask a friend for $100 to borrow. That’s going into that gray area. It’s allowed, you are not invading your friend’s privacy, but in normal circumstances, we refrain from entering into such areas. Every time you step into the gray area, you lose a little bit of your value. Try asking for money to the same friend for too many times!

A good collaboration should have clearly marked white, black, and gray areas, and the collaborators should understand how to avoid stepping on black areas (other people’s personal spaces), and limit their access to the gray areas. This will make everyone comfortable and confident in that collaboration.

Fake awareness

Awareness is one of the most important elements when you are a part of a group. In fact, often it’s the awareness of being a part of a group that makes the whole experience work. In order to cash this idea, promoters often create what I call “fake awareness” of being a part of a group.

Take for instance, the fake group laughter in many sitcoms. It gives you an impression that you are part of a group and the whole group is laughing. So it’s alright to laugh out loud. You are “aware” of the presence of the group that doesn’t really exist. This promotion is based on the concept that people are likely to follow the collective action of a group when they feel they are part of it.

Of course, in many situations, having that awareness is a bad thing, and the promoters try to hide it. For instance, most websites (especially the commercial ones) track their visitors by monitoring their activities on their websites, installing cookies and other traces on visitors’ machines, and sending different data from the client side to their servers. More than often, people are not aware of these details, and the owners of such websites and services try their best not to keep their users aware of such things. After all, the users don’t want to feel like a big brother watching over their shoulders, right?!

The notion of spaces

Yesterday I heard a nice keynote speech by Judith S. Olson from UC Irvine here at CHI 2009 conference in Boston. She talked about four kinds of spaces and their effects on human behavior. These four places are public (beyond 10 feet), social (5-10 feet), personal (1.5 to 5 feet), and intimate (less than 1.5 feet).

Why do we cooperate?

Robert Axelrod Robert Axelrod, a political science professor at University of Michigan, argued in the 1980s that cooperation is the result of repeated interactions with the same people. In simple words, his argument was that people cooperate not because of trust in each other, but the trust in a promise of keeping a durable relationship that could benefit in the future. This he referred to as “the shadow of the future.”

Paying taxes is a kind of cooperation. Why do we do it? Because we believe that (1) most others are doing it, and (2) doing so is benefitial in the long run. Yes, you can say we pay the taxes because it’s the law. But if you think carefully, law is not what makes cooperation work. Yes, it can make it more successful, but the key to cooperation, as Axelrod observed, is the trust that what we are doing due to a law is good for the future. History has seen many revolutions when the people’s trust in such laws have been violated.

Halo effect

iPod first generation When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1996, he knew it would take a lot of efforts to rebuild the image that the company had lost while he was gone. Introduction of iMac helped quite a bit, but it was not until the release of iPod when things started looking up for Apple. iPod, as we now know, changed the entire music industry forever. But more than that, iPod changed the very notion of intractability and usability. The huge success and wide adoption of iTunes and iPod interfaces inspired Apple to incorporate them into their other products too. In fact, iPod became a statement of products coming out of Apple because people thought if this company can make something as great as iPod, they must do other things also that great. This phenomena is often referred to as the Halo Effect.

Wikipedia notes, “The halo effect refers to a cognitive bias whereby the perception of a particular trait is influenced by the perception of the former traits in a sequence of interpretations.”. In the late 1920s a researcher named Edward Thorndike found that when army officers were asked to rate their charges in terms of intelligence, physique, leadership and character, there was a high cross-correlation. This means no good-looking person was rated dumb. People seem not to think of other individuals in mixed terms; instead we seem to see each person as roughly good or roughly bad across all categories of measurement.

The concept of halo effect complements the idea of social proof. As I noted earlier, social proof says that if a group of people doing something similar, there is a good reason that’s a good idea. Halo effect, on the other hand, states that if one person possesses a good quality, he may also have other good qualities.

Holism vs. Reductionism

The great philosopher Aristotle famously put “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” With this, he proposed an idea of holism. The term itself did not appear until 1926 when South African statesman Jan Smuts defined it as “The tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of the parts through creative evolution.” in his book Holism and Evolution. Nonetheless, it is important to note that more than two thousand years back, Aristotle had this fascinating idea that instead of parts of a substance defining the substance, it is the substance that defines its parts.

Reductionism, on the other had, takes the apposite approach to explaining anything. It says that a complex system is nothing but the sum of all of its parts and understanding those parts can tell us everything about the complex system that they belong to. This idea was supported by philosophers that came out of Miletus. This includes Thales, arguably the first known philosopher of the western civilization.


According to Robert Cialdini, there are six ways of influencing people to comply with you.

  1. Reciprocation. People tend to return a favor.
  2. Commitment and Consistency. If people make a commitment in a perceivable or tangible form, they are likely to honor that commitment.
  3. Social Proof. People will do things that they see other people are doing.
  4. Authority. People will tend to obey authority figures, even if they are asked to perform objectionable acts.
  5. Liking/Friendship. People are easily persuaded by other people that they like or are friends with.
  6. Scarcity. Perceived scarcity will generate demand

Social proof

We are social creatures. A lot that we do and think is influenced by what the society, or the people around us do. A common realization of this can be found in the concept of conformity; we often seek to get a confirmation of some decision that we have already made. Doing so gives us an assurance that our decision is actually good. Think about all those time when you took your friend shopping with you just so that you can get her seal of approval on that new dress you were going to buy.

There is another form in which before-mentioned social behavior is exhibited. To understand this, let’s talk about a study that Stanley Milgram, Leonard Bickman, and Lawrence Berkowit did in 1968 in New York City. They put a man at the corner of a busy street looking up. A few of the passersby stopped to look up what he was looking at, and most kept moving. Then Milgram et al. put 2 people looking up, and then 3, 5 10, and 15. As they increased the number of “crowd” people looking up, more and more passersby stopped and looked up. These “subjects” were not looking for a confirmation; they were merely following the collective decision of a crowd.

Joshua Bell A more recent example can be found in a story published in Washington Post, who convinced Joshua Bell, a famous violin virtuoso to play in the Washington DC subway during the morning rush hour. So he took his $3.5 million Stradivarius violin and played. Almost no one noticed or stopped to listen. He collected a total of $32 for an hour of playing (not counting a $20 bill that was given by a person who recognized him). The commuters judged the famous violinist not by his performance, but how the rest of the crowd was reacting to him.

If lots of people are doing something or believe in something, there must be a good reason why. This idea is called social proof or informational social influence, or bandwagon effect.

Wikipedia defines social proof as a psychological phenomenon that occurs in ambiguous social situations when people are unable to determine the appropriate mode of behavior. Making the assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the situation, they will deem the behavior of others as appropriate or better informed.

If we look around carefully, we can find the realization of social proof almost everywhere. Why do companies distribute free stuff (also called SWAG) at job fair? Why do some items are over-priced? Why does a man take a picture with a group of attractive women and upload it show it to everyone? The answers to all of these and many more questions can be provided with explanations involving social proof.

Collaboration – essential for philosophy

Crucial elements for philosophy are discussion, argument, and debate. It makes sense since if anything that’s said is not open to question and criticism, there would simply be individual opinions and beliefs, and not a shared view or vision. Indeed, one might say it takes two to philosophize, and philosophy happens because of their shared search for truth.