My day in Oxford at ‘Connected Life 2015: Our Digital Society’

Last week I visited the Oxford Internet Institute and attended the Connected Life 2015 conference.

It was a great day and we experienced the sunny side of Oxford and Balliol College thanks to the lovely weather. I’ve not been to many academic social media and Web conferences before, the whole thing was new to me and I had that ‘first timer’ feeling of excitement.

Oxford Balliol College

Oxford Balliol College

My first observation as a ‘social media geek’ is that my social media reality and the academic social media reality feel like two different worlds.

Where I come from people are mostly concerned about:
1) their online communication issues and multi-channel approach
2) the humongous amount of big data and connections and
3) how to integrate social media into their marketing strategy.

The academics shared research about the Web on a much deeper level and sometimes it all felt a bit dreamlike to me.

The insights I got during the day were both inspiring and enlightening, and some of my observations even scared me. One example is how easy it is to draw conclusions too quickly when analysing big data, something that some presenters pointed out.

The multi-faceted approach to the Web

Research about the Internet is done in a plethora of academic disciplines all over the world. During the day I met people studying life online in a multi-institutional way, cross pollinating all kinds of themes: sociology, psychology, economics, politics, medicine, linguistics, anthropology, computer science, law, international relations, geography, leadership, infrastructure, architecture, mathematics and journalism. There was a great mix of subjects and refreshing approaches to how to use the Web.

In 2008 Chris Anderson, the editor of magazine Wired, published an article which ended: ‘It’s time to ask: What can science learn from Google?’

The answer to this question is: a lot. Numerous academic studies use data from Google and Twitter in their research and it will be interesting to see if we can learn more about trends in the world by using these tools better.

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Let me share some of the insights I gained during the day.

Happy maps

Daniele Quercia was the morning keynote speaker. He shared his research data about ‘happy maps’ and why people like some buildings and streets and not others. The project has turned into a game testing people’s knowledge about cities, play it here.

You can watch Quercia TED talk here for more background information about happy maps.

Using Google Trends for research

One session I went to presented research in eHealth and how to use the Web to improve health in different ways.

One study was about tracking mental illness and suicide searches online in the United Kingdom with the help of Google Trends.

I’m sure that people working with health policies in the UK will find this study helpful. People who are searching these topics in their darkest moments are probably not talking about their problems with their friends and family. Maybe this research can lead to better suicide prevention in the future?

[Tracking Suicide-related Search Engine Queries in the United Kingdom, 2004-2013 Vishal Arora, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine]

Creating active activists

Another interesting talk was about environmental NGOs and activism and how people today are engaged online and offline. Social media without engagement is pretty meaningless if you’re an activist, isn’t it?

There are hundreds of examples where social media has helped people to connect in real life, and Anna Hushlak told us more about the ingredients that the most impactful campaigns have to get people to meet up and work together for a cause.

Technology is changing the way we see the world, it opens up new perspectives and people will be drawn to certain campaigns because of the clarity of the message. I think it’s clarity that many NGOs are struggling to find.

[Survival of the Fittest? The Changing Roles of Non-Governmental Organisations, Citizens, and Engagement in a Climate of Digital Activism. Anna Hushlak, University of Oxford]

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Social media in Russia

There was also a very interesting study shared about social media memes in Russia. Russian politicians don’t understand funny political cartoons. Imagine if that were the case in the UK where it’s everyday business to share jokes about politicians.

Anastasia Denisova said that memes serve a very important function in Russia and often hold deeper messages. You can’t trace who created a meme, so it feels safe to share them and people do so in large numbers.

Memes in Online Social Protest Movement in Contemporary Russia

russia social media meme[Russian Digital Protest: Online Memes as the Means of Carnivalesque Resistance in Social Networks, Anastasia Denisova, University of Westminster]

Wine communities online

The final talk of the day was about the online wine community CellarTracker and how quality and hype are affecting buyers’ decisions.

If a wine gets hyped up in our community we are more likely to buy it, something that makes sense from my experience. Consumer dynamics and reviews are important for anyone selling products and services. Many factors play a part: quality perception, reputation and prices are some of them.

In a world where people don’t trust big institutions such as government any longer reviews by peers will have more power to influence decision-making.

One interesting fact that researcher Alex Albright shared was there are no online trolls commenting on threads in wine communities.

Here you can read a blog post about the study.

[Using an Online Wine Community to Investigate the Roles of Quality and Hype in the Market for Wine Alex Albright, Stanford University]

The founder of Oxford internet institute

At the end of the day the founder of the Oxford Internet Institute Andrew Graham told the story about how he set up the OII in 1995, a brave decision.

Back in 1995 nobody could guess how big the effect of the Internet would be in the future. I would like to say thank you to Andrew and all the people who were involved for being brave and planting a seed for what is now a flourishing place for research about our digital world.

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I wrote a blog post about the Web in 1995 a few weeks ago, check it out to see how things have changed.

***

The Internet is like water and electricity in our society. We wouldn’t want to live without it for too long.

The Connected Life 2015 conference was a brilliant experience, I got a deeper understanding of the impact that digital technology and social media have on our society. The history of the Web and all its applications should never be forgotten and we need to understand the past to be able to predict the future.

Sofie Sandell at the Oxford Internet Institute

Sofie Sandell, Alex Albright and a delegate at the conference.


I love the Internet because of its many positive inventions and its facilitation of knowledge sharing. But there are many areas that worry me: privacy and trolling to name two. You can read my post ‘The Web I Want’  for more ideas on how to make the Internet a better place.

Ethical development of the Web

As information- and online consumers we are in the hands of the developers and their ethical decisions. Without understanding the impact of privacy and security issues we might end up being totally exposed.

Researcher Bendert Zevenbergen said that most engineers, developers, and programmers really do want to do good with their work, but there are some who don’t care about ethical issues and some who want to abuse their power.

The ‘tick, click and hope for the best’ strategy is not ideal in a complex world where we share our private information with new networks all the time.

There are many issues surrounding the Internet to explore and learn about, and these will keep the world busy for many years to come.

_______________________

I hope you enjoyed my summary of the event.

Thank you, Sofie