An interesting issue — especially to the library and information science community — that Google’s Max Senges raised at the Berlin Symposium on Internet and Society (#bsis11) was how the impact of the instiute’s research could be measured. HIIG’s mission is not just to produce excellent scholarship, but also to foster a meaningful dialog with a wide range of stakeholders beyond academia in relation to the issues that the institute investigates.

This approach has a number of implications that I want to briefly address. My views are my own, but I consider this an exciting test case for a modern, digital form of science evaluation. I believe three things can serve to make the institute’s research as transparent as possible:

  1. primary research results (i.e. papers) should be Open Access,
  2. journalistic contributions (essays, interviews, public speaking) beyond academic publications should be encouraged,
  3. communication of research via social media (blogs, Twitter) should be encouraged.

Open Access is of key importance

David Drummond emphasized the importance of Open Access in his speech at the Institute’s inauguration. A plausible step to make Open Access part of the institute’s culture could be to sign the Berlin Declaration and set up a dedicated repository of institute publications. HIIG could encourage its researchers to publish in gold road Open Access journals such as those listed in the DOAJ and encourage use of a green road approach par the SHERPA/Romeo list in the remaining cases. It could further encourage the use of Creative Commons or similar licences for scholarly publications.

Journalism and engagement with the general public

The public has a considerable interest in the issues investigated at HIIG and accordingly talking with and through traditional media channels will be of great importance. This should not merely be considered a form of marketing, but rather a form of dialog that will allow HIIG to fulfill its obligation to the public to act as an informed voice in civic debate around issues such as privacy and net neutrality. Engagement with the public via essays, interviews, public speaking and similar activities should be considered part of the institute members’ impact.

Social media’s role for science communication

The institute could consider social media as a central avenue of engaging with a wider public and recognize the willingness to use it accordingly. Scholarly blogging, for example, should be considered as part of a member’s research output instead of being regarded as a chiefly private enterprise. Social media activity cannot supplant traditional scholarly publishing, but it can serve to conduct conversations around research, get the attention of non-academics, and point to formal publications, among other things.

So how could this be implemented? The first and second points — making primary research results available and promoting journalistic contributions — are already standard practice elsewhere. The third is a little more tricky. Should it be important how many friends a researcher has on Facebook, or followers on Twitter (assuming he/she is even on these platforms)? Such an approach would be much too simplistic, but perhaps something a little more nuanced could be tried. How about encouraging the use of the #hiig (hash)tag wherever possible and continuously tracking the results? The institute could run its own blog — this may or may not work well, given that many contributors might already have their own one — or a blog planet, a site that just aggregates material from existing blogs that is #hiig-tagged.

These are just general ideas, but eventually they could coalesce into a framework for evaluating HIIG’s impact beyond purely scholarly (and faulty) forms of measurement such as the impact factor.

I’m heading to Berlin on an early morning train, among other things for next week’s Berlin Symposium on Internet and Society (#hiig2010). The program is available here and should catch your attention if you’re in Internet research. Be sure to give me a shout if you’re coming and want to have drinks some time.

The Symposium kicks off with the formal inauguration of the newly founded Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG). This is the official name of what has so far been referred to by most people in the field as “the Google Institute” since the plan to launch it was publicly announced by Eric Schmidt in February.

I’m involved with the Institute as a project associate, which means that I’ll be working on one specific issue (a platform dubbed Regulation Watch — more on that soon) for the next few months. I’m excited to be part of an inspiring and highly interdisciplinary team of people who are all studying the Internet’s effect on culture and society in one way or another, which is an especially exciting prospect if you’ve been more or less on your own with your research interest in this area for the better part of your career.

As I’ve been meaning to get back to blogging anyway, I’ve decided to post updates on what’s happening at HIIG (or “hig”, rhyming with “twig”, as I’ve decided to call my new employer in spoken English) on a semi-regular basis. Next week’s inuaguration and symposium will be covered here with occasional short updates, news flashs and comments, as well as links to stuff other people have posted.

The institute’s mission is both to conduct research and to engage in an ongoing dialogue with the general public, an idea that is very much in accord with the vision of it’s patron. Alexander von Humboldt was a scientist, explorer, diplomat and, frankly, somewhat of a crazy person for trying things that most of his contemporaries considered both mad and futile. His research resonated with society and frequently stirred controversy. He challenged widely held beliefs about the world and was unwavering in his dedication to shedding light on scientific truth beyond superstition. I’m excited by HIIG’s aim to do something similar for our time’s unchartered continent — the net — and look forward to contributing to this goal.

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Update: Google put up a website for the institute.

I’ve just stumbled across a piece of news via Twitter (hat tip Felix) that I thought was worth a brief post.

Apparently Google plans to step up its investments in Germany and launch a “center for internet and society” in Berlin as part of this initiative. From the guest article by Eric Schmidt in the Berliner Morgenpost:

Wir werden nicht nur unsere Teams in den Bereichen Vertrieb und Engineering in Deutschland massiv erweitern, sondern darüber hinaus mit erheblichem finanziellen Aufwand ein neues wissenschaftliches Institut für Internet und Gesellschaft in Berlin aufbauen. Dabei werden wir mit führenden akademischen Institutionen zusammenarbeiten, um die Zukunft des Internets auf drei Feldern zu untersuchen: internet-basierte Innovationen, politische Rahmenbedingungen sowie die damit verbundenen rechtlichen Aspekte.

My (rough) translation:

In addition to significantly increasing our German presence in sales and engineering we will also launch a new institute for internet and society in Berlin, with considerable financial investment. We will do this working with leading academic institutions in order to study three areas: internet-based innovation, (internet-related) policy and related legal issues.

More reports (in German) are available from golem.de, t3n and Netzwelt. I’m assuming more could be revealed at a talk Schmidt will give at Humboldt University in a few minutes. I’ll update this accordingly.

The other (and undoubtedly more relevant) piece of news in Schmidt’s talk is likely to be Google OnePass.

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(Edit 9/7/2009: lexicographer, digital humanist and webdev wizard Toma Tasovac has taken the time to translate this post into Serbian. Thank you, Toma!)

In the course of the last half year or so, I’ve had the chance to get a much broader impression of the research being done by colleagues from other disciplines in Internet Studies/Internet Research. I consider myself an online researcher head to toe, but my background in linguistics means that I approach my object of study from a slightly different direction than a sociologist, a social psychologist or a mass communications scholar would. These differences are minor and much of the time they fade into the background, but there are situations when they do become visible. I want to outline how I think these nuances of difference can benefit and enrich the study of online communication, because they allow us – scholars with various backgrounds, or, more precisely, different disciplinary origins – to learn from one another. Specifically, I want to make the argument that analyzing how people communicate online can provide us with insights not only about the social and cultural dynamics of the Internet, but also with valuable data on how online communication is conceptualized, in other words, of how we think the Internet and what we are doing when we use it to express ourselves. An aspect I want to address in passing with this argument is an artificial dichotomy that I feel has proven itself to be counterproductive: the split between the cognitive and the social and cultural dimensions of communication.

A sociologist is likely to be particularly interested in the Internet’s potential for social interaction and in where, how and why this potential is realized. Of course this is also likely to be relevant (for example) to the (socio)linguist, but inevitably her focus is on language first and on community second, the latter seen as a key factor shaping the former. The implicit argument that many linguists follow is that language is shaped by cognition as well as social convention, and while it would be futile to untangle the two from one another, it is possible to point out their individual influences.

Internet communication happens through a variety of channels. It can be spoken or take place via video, but a significant percentage is typed via keyboards and touchscreens. A linguistically-oriented approach to computer-mediated communication is akin to an archeology of Internet Studies in that it starts with the smallest units of typed communication and works its way up incrementally: from words to sentences to documents, to pieces of discourse to genres of communication and beyond that to their form and function. Obviously doing this is not an activity restricted to linguistics – researchers from countless disciplines do it and bring their own methods and approaches to the table. In some instances the narrow focus of linguistics on language in CMC research can be a limitation when it fails to contextualize observations about a genre with the social context that shapes said genre and the role it plays for its community of users. But it is worth pointing out which aspects of language use online are shaped by universal communicative principles, and not the conventions of individual communities or users, not because this lessens the importance of said conventions in any way, but because it allows us to understand online communication in its entirety better.

The question at the heart of the cognitive dimension of Internet Studies is: When we communicate on the Internet, what exactly is it we think we are doing and where and with whom do we think we are doing it?

The question may seem strange at first – one could argue that we are having conversations or chatting on Twitter, that we are writing a diary or publishing an opinion piece or rant in our blog. But the words we use to describe these activities reveal our association of new concepts with familiar ones. The blueprint of a conversation is a face-to-face exchange via sound waves between people who are in proximity to one another, so that these sound waves can travel from one participant to the other and trigger inferential processes in their heads. Publishing traditionally describes the production and dissemination of printed documents, such as books, magazines etc. In other words, almost all of the terms we use to describe what we do online are metaphorical extensions of pre-existing concepts (surf, chat, browse, search). Interestingly, those forms of online communication that go beyond pre-digital metaphors have given rise to their own vocabulary (e.g. blog, tweet) and as natively digital communication evolves (e.g. Google Wave) we take up more and more practices that cannot be described in terms of what is already familiar from pre-digital contexts.

In other words, a wide variety of seemingly mundane practices of online communication are shaped by complex and increasingly unstable metaphors. Many of these metaphors are dependent on cultural convention, but some are also cognitively salient and universal. For example, people talk about websites as if they were places (using words like “here”, “there”, “on that site”) not because they are taught to do so, but because space and spatial orientation apparently lends itself well to thinking the Internet (as well as many other abstract concepts).

The Internet gives us access to language data on an unprecedented scale, but it would be a shame if all with did with it was to study words and sentences in articifical isolation. We would be ignoring the process in its entirity and missing the larger picture, a picture that only multidisciplinary teams with a variety of methods can accurately draw. At the same time, there are dimensions of Internet Studies where the focus on social aspects alone misses important things. Why do so many people blog and tweet in relative insolation, reporting thoughts and states that others do not respond to and are perhaps not meant to respond to? Can the creation of (social) media be accounted for by notions such as social capital alone, or is there an inherent psychological salience of digital media as a mirror, a permanent diachronic record of the self? What about the non-social dimension of social media?

Let me know what you think.