I find the progress of knowledge inherently fascinating in and of itself, from the formal educational model of a student learning algebra, to small farmers learning through experience how to maximize yields. This very well may be what is behind my interest in a variety of fields, because I am interested in the knowledge accrual on its own. This has led me to take a course this semester which is outside of the ‘main thrust’ of my degree program. Though I am pursuing a Master of Communications degree in Public Relations, I am taking a Social Informatics course.
This does not come without interest in data-related sciences, although it does come with a lack of solid understanding. For my own purposes, I am writing the beginning of this post before reading some seminal articles on the field, to track my pre-existing notions against reality. As far as my current understanding goes, Social Informatics is the application of data sciences to society at large. The same rigor and approach which I have used in the past as a Pricing Analyst towards data tables, can be used to understand the way that social systems are structured and interact. The purpose of this would be to take something that seems qualitative and varied (such as opinion throughout a social network) and be able to apply measures and analytics so as to tease out meaningful insights.
Now…on to the literature!
A key attribute to Social Informatics that I missed was the two-way nature of interaction between information and communication technologies (ITCs) and the organization or society in which they exist. This takes into account institutional and cultural nuances, which may help to explain why the same ICT can result in vastly different outcomes.
These contexts are highly important to the approach that one takes when researching social informatics, as it is a field cutting across a wide array of disciplines. Traditional library and information sciences tend to be primarily concerned with the storage and later retrieval of information and data. Social informatics is more interested with how and why data is used. Each discipline, organization, and even individual has their own answer for and approach to these questions.
But it’s not enough simply to look at a cross-section of ICT usage and give a description. Social Informatics is interested in change over time, both how changes in behavior requires changes in ICTs, and how the advent of new ICTs drives behavior change. As a very cod example, think of the behavior changes resulting from the ubiquity of smartphones with data connections. This gives the ability to always have access to train times, weather reports, directions, and bank balances. There is even a scene in the TV show How I Met Your Mother in the ‘History vs Mystery’ episode detailing the evolution of the ‘bar debate’ before and after smartphones. Pre-smart phones, a loud debate raged over the most popular food in America. After smart phones, it ended in 30 seconds with a quick Google search.