Proponents of collaborative information seeking discuss why supporting people’s innate behavior and the need for working together while seeking and using information are important to software engineering. Featured speakers include Chirag Shah, Rob Capra, Madhu Reddy, Meredith Ringel Morris, Roberto González-Ibáñez, and Michael B. Twidale. From IEEE Computer‘s March 2014 issue.
Recently there has been a lot of talk about social search. Just last week I attended Microsoft Faculty Summit in Seattle, and one of the sessions was dedicated to social search. The panelists talked about social Q&A using Yahoo! Answers and Facebook status messages. It occurred to me during that session that all of the talks were really about social information seeking/retrieval, and not about social search. I raised this question after the panel presentations and Merrie Morris immediately agreed that everything that she was talking about social search was indeed technically social information seeking!
I kept thinking about what really is social search. Fortunately, the next day was the Social Media Day that allowed me to have more focused discussions with more specialized experts in the field. During the “birds of feather” lunch, I was at the social search table and through our discussions, it became clear to me that there are two ways of thinking about social search: a search done on social objects, or search done in a social network.
What is a social object? Two ways of defining it: (1) an information object that has social attributes such as name, age, gender, location, and (2) an information object created through a social construction, such as a Wikipedia article.
How is search done in a social network? It’s usually done by broadcasting information need to one’s social network. Think of people posting questions as their Facebook status updates.
Often social search is defined as a method of searching that takes into account connections among people in addition to connections among information objects. The above explanation/understanding of social search does hold with this definition.
The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of my dissertation: A Framework to Support User-Centered Collaborative Information Seeking. While it was published in 2010, this part (introduction) was written long before (late 2007 or early 2008).
“Since the focus here is on exploring such processes in the information seeking domain, it is important to lay out this understanding of collaborative information seeking (CIS) in the context of collaboration and information seeking. Such a depiction is given in Figure 1.1. As shown in this scheme, for the purpose of this dissertation, information retrieval (IR) is seen as a subset of information seeking (IS). While IR typically assumes that there exists some information that could satisfy the given information need, IS does not have such an assumption.
On the other hand, a typical collaboration includes several parts, some of which may be related to information seeking. Thus, in this dissertation, CIS process is seen as a part of a larger context of collaboration. In addition, this CIS is seen as a user-driven (intentional), interactive, and mutually beneficial process.
Keeping in mind this refined definition of CIS, the next chapter will review related domains, such as collaboration, information seeking, information filtering, user and system interaction, and social networking.”
And here’s something from chapter-2 (p.29-30), once again, written in 2008 while doing my literature review.
“Marchionini (1995) defines information seeking as a process in which humans purposefully engage to change their state of knowledge. This process of information seeking goes beyond simply retrieving information; it is usually associated with higher level cognitive processes such as learning and problem solving (Marchionini, 1989). Dervin and Nilan (1986) presented a view of information seeking that emphasized communication and the needs, characteristics, and actions of the information seeker rather than mere representation, storage, and retrieval of information.”
In summary, I have always (or since late 2007) viewed information seeking as something that’s not just information searching. Exploratory search is often perceived as information seeking, but I see it more as a subarea within the broader “search” field, as in some searches are exploratory and some are not. I can also see it as a connecting concept between “traditional search” (keywords, rank-list, single session), and broader “information seeking”. To me, what makes information seeking special is the state of uncertainty in the seeker (see Belkin or Kuhlthau). Seeking may involve searching. I seek the meaning of life, but I don’t really search for it! I don’t even know how to search or the kind of questions to ask for meaningful answer. Neither do I know if there is an answer for it.
Exploratory search focuses on the process of search that is more complex than just forming a keyword-base query and retrieving results, whereas information seeking focuses on the cognitive states that one goes through in the process, starting with the anomalous state of knowledge (Belkin) or noumenal cloud (Marchionini).
I think it’s about time we stop using “seeking” and “searching” interchangeably. This is especially relevant to those working in information retrieval/seeking/behavior fields, and even to those in HCI. But the main reason I’m posting this topic here is to bring attention to those studying collaboration in search and related processes. Let me be very clear. The following phrases are NOT all same: “collaborative search”, “collaborative information retrieval”, “collaborative information seeking”, “collaborative exploratory search”.
I believe information seeking is a part of information behavior, and information retrieval is a part of information seeking. Information retrieval (IR) assumes that there is some information that is out there for the given information need (one may not able to retrieve it, or it may not exist in reality), whereas information seeking doesn’t make that assumption. Personally, I use collaborative information seeking (CIS). See the following publications:
- Shah, C., and Gonzalez-Ibanez, R. (2011). Evaluating the Synergic Effect of Collaboration in Information Seeking. In Proceedings of ACM SIGIR 2011. Beijing, China. July 24-28, 2011. [PDF]
- Gonzalez-Ibanez, R., Shah, C., & Cardova, N. R. (2011). Smile! Studying Expressivity of Happiness as a Synergic Factor in Collaborative Information Seeking. Proceedings of American Society of Information Science & Technology (ASIST) Annual Meeting. New Orleans, Lousiana.
- Shah, C (2010). Collaborative Information Seeking: A Literature Review, in Anne Woodsworth (ed.) Advances in Librarianship (Advances in Librarianship, Volume 32), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp.3-33. [DOI]
- Shah, C, and Marchionini, Gary (2010). Awareness in Collaborative Information Seeking. Journal of American Society of Information Science and Technology (JASIST) 61(10), 1970-1986.
- Shah, C (2010). Working in Collaboration – What, Why, and How? Proceedings of Collaborative Information Retrieval workshop at CSCW 2010. Savannah, GA: February 7, 2010.
- Shah, C. Lessons and Challenges for Collaborative Information Seeking (CIS) Systems Developers. In the Proceedings of Collaborative Information Behavior Workshop at GROUP 2009. May 10, 2009. Sanibel Island, Florida. [PDF]
- Shah, C (2010). Coagmento – A Collaborative Information Seeking, Synthesis and Sense-Making Framework. Integrated demo at CSCW 2010. Savannah, GA: February 6-10, 2010.
- Shah, C, Marchionini, Gary, and Kelly, Diane. Learning Design Principles for a Collaborative Information Seeking System. In the Proceedings of CHI 2009. April 4-9, 2009. Boston, MA. [PDF]
- Shah, C. Understanding System Implementation and User Behavior in a Collaborative Information Seeking Environment. In Bulletin of IEEE Technical Committee on Digital Libraries, 4(2), Fall 2008. [Online]
And, of course, there’s my PhD dissertation – “A Framework to Support User-Centered Collaborative Information Seeking” [PDF].
And so here’s a request to those using CIR, CIS, collaborative search, etc. interchangeably – please reconsider.
While talking to Jaime Teevan during my recent visit to Microsoft Research, I realized that there is a need for investigating ad hoc collaboration much like the way we do “regular” collaboration. See, with the usual collaborative projects, there is some kind of setup process; the collaborators identify the need to work together, they recognize roles and responsibilities, and set rules and guidelines for working together. At least this is what happens quite often. But then there are situations where things are not that thought out.
As Jaime and I discussed, imagine being at a conference in a new town, and at the end of the day having a need to find a place for dinner. Do we actively seek out others who may also be looking for restaurant suggestions? Sometimes yes, but what if someone (or some system) could connect us in an ad hoc fashion for creating an impromptu collaboration? The problem is already identified, the solution is understood, and there is most likely intention to be in a group like this. In other words, we don’t have to explicitly set the rules of engagement; they are already defined or understood via social norms. We are ready to collaborate!
Another example that I thought could be study sessions for students. We often find students gathering in places where they work on their homework problems in the same space such as a library or some other common space. They may not necessarily be thinking about working with others, but given that they are in the same space at the same time, one could give them a “nudge” to see if they would like to collaborate. Once again, the problem and potential solution are already there, and all that is needed is intention.
One way to look at these scenarios is through Fisher’s notion of information grounds. People being in the same space at the same time for some reason (conference, working on homework, etc.) could start interacting with each other – seeking and sharing information.
I believe mobile devices have a large role to play in facilitating such impromptu interactions and creating ad hoc collaborations.
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.
The first keynote at CSCW 2010 was given by Clay Shirky, the author of “Here Comes Everybody”. I really liked his presentation style. He used PowerPoint as everybody else does, but would blank out the screen from time to time and have the audience’s focus on him. Following are some of the interesting points from his talk.
There is a big difference between publishing in the past century and this present one. In the 20th century, people would ask “why publish?” and now, the question is “why not?”. This is primarily due to the significant reduction in cost for publishing. Today, almost anyone can create a blog, post a Twitter update, and update their status on social networking sites with very little cost and effort.
Motivation is highly valuable aspect to study in communities. Why does/should someone contribute/create? Clay gave an example of people using Lego blocks to create structures. Two teams were given the same blocks and tasks. None were paid for the first week. The second week, one of the teams was paid. They took longer to finish as they were trying to build some more blocks to get paid more. Interestingly, when nobody was given any compensation the third week, the team that was paid in the second week did worse than even the first week! They had lost their “motivation”. This motivation was extrinsic, as opposed to the other team that did what they did based on their intrinsic motivation. Clay gave a couple of other examples showing how intrinsic motivation can make people create and contribute significantly more than when they are extrinsically motivated.
Clay then talked about cultures. He argued that culture can take the role of coordinating people and events. Once people’s coordination behavior is changed, you can essentially change their culture. In other words, to influence people to change their culture, change their coordinating environment. This can be done by providing extrinsic motivations.
I attended the second workshop on collaborative information retrieval/seeking at the CSCW 2010 conference in Savannah, GA. The first one was held with JCDL 2008 conference in Pittsburgh. In fact, this is my third workshop on this topic as I also attended the collaborative information behavior workshop the past summer at GROUP 2009 conference. All of these workshops had several similar themes, with some overlapping participants (I realized that I’m the only one who has been to all of them!).
The second CIR/CIS workshop was different than the first one in the sense that we didn’t spent too much time arguing over the definitions. I think that’s a big improvement and shows the maturity of the community. We stayed focus on users, systems, models, and transitions. Some of the interesting themes that emerged as we went through several panels and discussions are as following.
- The issue of control is really important. If a CIS system is bringing many features to the user because of their potential usefulness, it needs to do it seamlessly. People may like the system doing something “smart” for them, but this should be done with transparency. More than those benefits the system could offer, it’s important that the user trusts the system; he needs to feel in control.
- Awareness is another core issue that kept coming up. In one of the spun off groups, we discussed what we need for a shared awareness and how to implement it. We proposed to do it (1) actively, or (2) passively. In the former case, a user pushes certain artifacts (webpages, searches, etc.) actively in the awareness space. In the latter case, the system records pretty much everything without explicit knowledge of the user. A combination of these two can help us dial up/down the amount of awareness and privacy.
- A good way to encourage and begin collaborations is by converting social ties to collaborative ties. The social ties are light-weighted, and many already have such ties due to their involvements in social networks and online communities. We can facilitate such social agents to connect with each other in collaborations when appropriate.
Prof. Malone started with his definition of collective intelligence: “groups of individuals doing things collectively that seem intelligent.” He then went on describing and addressing a core research question, which is at the foundation of his Center for Collective Intelligence lab at MIT: “How can people and computers be connected so that—collectively—they act more intelligently than any individuals, groups, or computers have ever done before?”
He made a very compelling argument that the reason behind tighter communities from early days of bands to kingdoms and democracies is the advancement of communication. As communication became easier and less expensive, the power and value of connecting individuals and communities grew. The same trend of human organizations is followed in business – from small local businesses to large centralized corporations and networked organizations.
What are the motiviations for a crowd to contribute? Money, love, and glory. And this may tell why some crowd organizations fail – because the crowd did not get one of these motivations.
This is a classical question in the field of collaboration. How is collaboration different than cooperation? In the past I have presented my detailed view with models and examples to distinguish collaboration from coordination and cooperation. Of course, there are no complete agreement among the researchers and practitioners.
Recently I was talking with Dr. Gerry Stahl of Drexel and he presented a view that collaboration can only happen when the participants are able to do equal and/or similar amount of work. His example was students doing a group assignment together. That’s collaboration. I argued that the difference between cooperation and collaboration is more a function of the roles of the participants than the nature of the task. For instance, a student collecting a list of references for his advisor’s article is an act of coordination. The student doesn’t have the same stake as the advisor in the final product (the article). However, when the advisor and the student write that article together as co-authors, they are in the same/similar roles, and thus, doing collaboration. Such a collaboration may involve some parts of cooperation (see my earlier posts on this topic).