How values can drive theories to social computing?

The three implications of value based systems

It is well established that technologies embed values (e.g., Nissenbaum, 2005)⁠. Each system is a manifestation of some configuration. There’s always what’s known as a design space: different ways to design the system (e.g., Liste & Sørensen, 2015)⁠. Acknowledging the importance of values, value sensitive design methodologies aim to help the designer to reveal and take into account the values of the system users and in particular, negotiate when differences between values emerge. However, I argue values can do much more for social computing research! They can be used integrate the theories within the research. Sadly, I’m not aware of studies conducted within HCI/CSCW communities on the content of papers, but on social science studies focused on novel communication technologies, 70% of published articles had no theory (Borah, 2015)⁠. I argue that if we want to move forward from descriptive studies — emerging based on the newest and hottest technologies — to more fundamental discovery, we must focus more on theory-oriented research.


But what are theories in the end? Having done my studies in social sciences, for me theories can take several forms: theories can be predictive or explanatory,, allowing a simple estimation or focus on the relationships, descriptive, conceptualizing settings or normative, focused on what ought to be. Normative theories are a somewhat challenging field: for example, how do you validate a normative theory? However, I’ve been drawn towards them as they also allow advocacy type of contributions. The researcher is no longer neutral, but rather we acknowledge the non-positivist nature of social research and can address more clearly questions about the choice of the theory. These normative theories link directly to values and allow addressing them more explicitly.

Our solution: normative theory-driven research

We applied Habermasian public sphere to evaluate and understand collocated computer-mediated communication taking place in a classroom. We showed that compared to face-to-face interaction, collocated computer-mediated communication was more inclusive, in pair related to showing respect and slightly less conversation based on claims-based. However, the work goes beyond to ask what can normative theories (like Habermasian public sphere) give to the field of social computing.

Our first observations related to doing empirical research and how using normative theory had helped our analysis efforts. First, the theory (like any theory, normative or other types) gives both empirical and methodological background to guide our work. In our study, we used several validated instruments to observe the participation. We could also build on the strong body of literature which exists around Habermas’s work and reflects and compare our findings to those. Finally, this approach allowed us to reflect the existing works within collocated computer-mediated communication. The field is rather scattered and focused on various different topics (everything from the impact of the technology on a sense of community to various forms of message classifications and even to learning effects). Furthermore, I hope the future work in this area may pick up the Habermasian ideas we have presented and continue building the solid literature around those concepts.

Our second observation focused on constructive work, a significant part of the human-computer interaction domain. The normative theory guides what is the focus to further develop the participation system and what is the key design challenges. Not only this, but the normative theories can also be used to find design insights of potential solutions by other researchers, assuming they have explicitly said that they use a normative theory to ground their designs.

However, a strong grounding in normative theories reveals the values encoded to any technical systems — the classical example of this is Winner (1985) who suggested that the Moses’ bridges were made low to block the public transportation from entering a city district. The question emerging from value sensitive design methodology is how do researchers and designers choose which normative theory to follow from all the options. In particular, this concerns those who adapt the system to follow particular values; in our case, no extensive modifications towards particular normative values was done. While we don’t yet have a satisfactory answer to the potential conflicts of normative theories between researchers, designers and other stakeholders, this far we just highlight the threat that problems can emerge.

What did we learn?

So, to summarize — based on our experience of rather scattered and atheoretical nature of the collocated computer-mediated research we call for work with a solid background. To move into this direction, we investigated the opportunities to apply normative theories for these purposes. This was successful and gave both empirical and design insights. We foresee further opportunities to extensively apply normative theories with human-computer interaction.

This post was based on Matti Nelimarkka et al.’s work presented at CHI 2017: Nelimarkka, M., Salovaara, A., Semaan, B., & Jacucci, G. (2017). Theory-Driven Collocated CMC. A Finnish version is available in Rajapinta.