This article is published in the January 2011 issue.

Promoting a National Initiative for Technology-Mediated Social Participation

Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs, wikis, Flickr, and YouTube have garnered a billion users and their popularity is spreading rapidly, particularly on mobile devices. Technology-mediated social participation (TMSP) is a useful term for describing how these social media tools, user-generated content sites, discussion groups, problem reporting, and volunteer systems can be applied to national priorities. Provocative examples suggest transformative applications for healthcare/wellness, disaster response, energy sustainability, cost-effective education, and economic health. Additional new missions for these sociotechnical infrastructures include cultural heritage, political participation, environment/climate protection, public safety, international development, and local civic involvement.

While community activists and government staffers are dealing with many practical implementation aspects, these social media applications represent an exciting research topic for computer, information, and social scientists. For example, researchers are just beginning to understand how improved designs can more effectively support trust among collaborators so they can rapidly resolve their differences and act effectively when needed; decision-making by responsible leaders (integrating authoritative guidance from respected parties, while building a searchable archive of case studies for future consultation); and entrepreneurial and community projects that depend on reaching relevant local markets and niche audiences.

Recently, the National Science Foundation funded a pair of workshops to explore these very issues about TMSP. The workshops were held in Palo Alto, CA, in December 2009 and Arlington, VA, in April 2010 ( More than 60 leading faculty and graduate students from a variety of disciplines, along with representatives of key corporations, government agencies, and non-government organizations, participated. A key goal of this activity was to encompass civic efforts that would benefit local, regional, national, and international communities.

The breakout groups developed six papers covering scientific foundations, infrastructure for research, design issues, health/wellness, open government, and educational reforms. These papers —along with an introduction summarizing the effort and key conclusions—comprised a special November 2010 issue of IEEE Computer. Among the highlights:

  • The report on “Social media technology and government transparency” indicated how much progress has already been made in data access, but how much more is needed to achieve successful collaboration and participation.
  • The report on “Social participation in Health 2.0” gave a rich set of possibilities for healthcare/wellness projects spanning personal health, public health, and clinical health research.
  •  The innovative ideas for setting educational priorities spanned K-6, Middle School, High School, Undergraduate and Graduate education, and then described lifelong learning and cooperative extension services for business.

A common theme across the articles was to apply social participation strategies to the research efforts by establishing collaboratories to coordinate research, sharing data and results, enabling active communities of practice, and promoting public awareness.

The workshop participants also agreed that, as national initiatives are launched in several countries to dramatically increase research and education on social media, a coordinated approach across the computing, information, and social sciences communities will be helpful. Clearly stated research challenges should have three key elements:

  1. Close linkage to compelling national priorities. A rapidly growing range of websites enable residents to report emergency situations involving storms, fires, earthquakes, highway accidents, and crimes to local, national and international authorities as well as traditional media outlets. For example, recent efforts in the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake have inspired new strategies for coordination among aid agencies, innovative geo-mapping tools, and rapid development of translation software. Similarly, NIH’s Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences has launched two grant programs to apply social media to health/wellness priorities such as smoking cessation, obesity reduction, diabetes care compliance, and improved consumer health information or discussion groups. enables citizens to volunteer for national parks, museums and other institutions. The Encyclopedia of Life (EoL; supports scientists and the public to document species across the world, helping to track the earth’s changing biodiversity.
  2. Deep science questions based on established theories and well-defined research questions that address privacy, reciprocity, trust, motivation, etc. Researchers are making noble attempts to apply a plethora of existing theories from different disciplines with limited success. New frameworks or overarching theories are needed to guide research. Theories will address motivation and incentives for ongoing participation in different types of systems. For example, what motivates citizens to contribute sightings of organisms to the EoL? How is their motivation different from that of the scientists who must validate the entries? How is the motivation of citizens who respond in emergencies, such as the Hurricane Katrina disaster, Haiti earthquake, or California wildfires different from, or similar to, the EoL participants? Addressing these issues is particularly complex because social interaction, whether online or offline, operates on many levels—societal, community, group, peer-to-peer—often crisscrossing these levels in complex and subtle ways. Successful systems such as Wikipedia and Twitter, which were developed without theory to guide them, are the exceptions rather than the norm. More systems fail than succeed. For example, more than half of the Wikis hosted on MediaWiki fail. The successful systems are increasingly becoming online laboratories in which researchers investigate specific questions. Collectively these research studies provide helpful hints about designing and managing social systems, though care is needed in generalizing findings that tend to be strongly influenced by locally developed social norms and other contextual influences.
  3. Technology research challenges such as security, privacy protection, scalability, visualization, end-user development, distributed data handling for massive user-generated content, network analysis of community evolution, cross network comparison, etc. A growing circle of researchers is refining algorithmic approaches to “big data” analysis to derive actionable insights related to genuine social questions. Billions of users send billions of messages each day using social software systems. How can researchers learn from this vast data collection, which currently is accessible to only a small number of computer scientists? Part of the answer lies in the development of easily accessible data analysis tools that are usable by other scientists. Such tools will support social network analysis on scales not yet seen by producing meaningful metrics and flexible visualizations that enable researchers to examine online behavior, study the impact of interventions, and refine guidelines for community managers. Important implementation challenges will include ensuring high levels of privacy and security protection as well as reliability, all on scales never before considered. The database, networking, operating, and mobile systems design challenges are enormous, providing research opportunities for many decades. And beyond the technology platforms, social media systems require continuous monitoring to enable interventions when dangers emerge from scammers, spammers, malicious attackers, and rumormongers. Visual analytics solutions will also help researchers as well as the far more numerous community managers who need to identify problems and be trained to apply powerful tools to limit dangers.

Ultimately, the IEEE Computer special issue serves as a helpful foundation, but much more effort is needed to coordinate interdisciplinary research agendas for each area. Many participants in the TMSP activity believed social media research and applications will have profound societal impacts in the coming decades. For more information, please review the November 2010 issue of IEEE Computer or see a recent presentation about TMSP, including discussion with Sonal Shah (White House Director of Innovation and Civic Participation) and Ginny Hunt (Google) at the New America Foundation.

Ben Shneiderman ( is Professor of Computer Science and Founding Director of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland-College Park; Jenny Preece ( is Professor and Dean of the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies; and Peter Pirolli ( is a Principal Scientist at PARC.


Promoting a National Initiative for Technology-Mediated Social Participation