Play is Not The Opposite of Work: Stanford mediaX 2013 Conference

2013-01-08 08.28.02_edit1mediaX is the industry-affiliate program for Stanford H-STAR, the Human-Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute,

This is a curated archive and discussion of the Twitter social-media “backchannel” surrounding mediaX’s 10th anniversary conference, Jan 7-8 in Palo Alto.

1. Introduction: on mediaX, the event and the Twitter “back channel”
2. Conference program
3. Twitter archive
4. Twitter as privately-owned public space: critical use/making
5. Note on methodology, completeness, and archival stability
6. Final Note: Beyond Twitter, Newswires of the Future

1. Introduction: on mediaX, the event and the Twitter “back channel”

mediaX-X-logomediaX’s mission, as stated in the  conference program, is to

connect businesses with Stanford University’s world-renowned faculty to study new ways for people and technology to intersect. We help our members explore how the thoughtful use of technology can impact a range of fields, from entertainment to learning to commerce.

Conference participants and organizers — both on-site and remote/public — used the social-media service Twitter to make announcements, post notes and photographs, make comments, ask questions, and annotate presentations with links and citations, etc.

This practice, often called an event “backchannel“, is a public, mainly self-organized and ad-hoc practice, achieved simply by participants adding a consistent “hashtag” term to posts so they can be discovered and gathered easily — in this case, “#mediax2013“.


Augmentative space

Twitter backchannels have become common at conferences, particularly in technology, media, and academia. They can achieve various purposes such as coordinating in-person meetings (“where’s lunch?“), allowing discussion and annotation of presentations in realtime, and involving off-site and at-large participants (sometimes called “event amplification”, although I would prefer “event augmentation”).

Among social media, Twitter in particular has become a kind of global public laboratory for such emerging practices in network communication & collaboration, giving it a fair bit in common with mediaX mission and projects. In fact, the activity on the #mediax2013 channel in some ways provided a live demonstration of specific research topics presented on during the day:

  • realtime collaboration and crowdsourcing to tackle complex tasks and extend individual cognition (Michael Bernstein, Ramesh Johari, Byron Reeves)
  • multitasking and the “devaluing of immersion” (Clifford Nass)
    (yes, all the people tweeting notes on Nass’s presentation were illustrating his point, probably some aware of the irony)
  • distributed, diverse, non-hierarchal, possibly ad-hoc work groups (Renate Fruchter, Pamela Hinds, B. Reeves): for example, backchannel participants asked and answered questions, and performed real-time shared note-taking and discovery/linking of materials mentioned by presenters. The Twitter channel extended a type of real-time participation to a far larger group of people than were physically at the event.

The title of this post, “Play is Not The Opposite of Work” is a taken from the tweet message above, which was a quote from the presentation “Solving Business Problems Using the Engagement of Multiplayer Games” by Byron Reeves, Professor of Communication at Stanford.  The quote was first tweeted at 2:13pm by John Alderman (@mrhungry), and seconds later by Paul Franz (@Paul_Franz).

However, the 2:20pm tweet by @StanfordBiz, a much more widely-followed account (around 59,000 followers) managed by Karen Lee, was quickly “retweeted” by a number of other accounts, and began to spread steadily through the Twitter network.

By the time I did the tweet collection on Weds at 10am, the @StanfordBiz tweet had been retweeted 68 times, far more than any other tweet, and it continues to be steadily repeated since then.

The second-most-frequently tweet was by me, containing a quote from Larry Lessig’s keynote address, along with an attached photograph of his accompanying slide:

While I have not performed a “reach” analysis of how many Twitter users potentially saw these tweets, I estimate it was in the low to mid 100,000s for the “Play is not the opposite of work” and 5-700,000 for the Lessig tweet. The latter, while retweeted fewer times, was retweeted by @CreativeCommons, an account with nearly 500,000 followers.

[Potential reach is a measurement of many Twitter accounts "follow" any account which posted or reposted the item. However, since most users "stream-dip" rather than read every post, the actual number of users who actually see a post may be 10-40% of the potential reach, depending on factors such as time of day, the post volume on the account transmitting the post].

2. Conference program

Location: Mayfield, Restaurant, Palo Alto, CA

6:00pm Cocktails and Special Exhibits
Exhibit: “Graphical Representation of Electric Vehicle Interface Data”
Martin Steinert, Mechanical Engineering

6:30pm Welcome
“Thanks, and Recognition of Founders, Former Executive Directors and Stanford Researchers”
Martha Russell, mediaX at Stanford University

“Free Online Courses – An Instructor’s Perspective”
Keith Devlin, H-STAR Institute

6:50pm Dinner

7:45pm mediaX Member Appreciation

8:00pm Keynote: “Partnering with Stanford for BOLD Innovation”
Shoei Yamana, Konica Minolta Business Technologies

8:30pm Dessert, Networking, and Adjourn

Location: Knight Management Center, Oberndorf and CEMEX auditorium

8:15am Registration and Coffee

8:45am Welcome 
Martha Russell, mediaX at Stanford University

8:50am “Collaborations for Discovery”
Claude Steele, Stanford Graduate School of Education

9:00am Research Briefings

  • “Dancing with Ambiguity: Making Sense of the Media in Design Thinking Research”
    Larry Leifer, Mechanical Engineering Design, Center for Design Research
  • “Draft In, Galley Out (DIGO): Finally, A Completely Automatic Scholarly Article Parsing and Markup Solution”
    John Willinsky, Stanford Graduate School of Education
    (represented by Juan Pablo Alperin, Stanford, & Alex Garnett, Simon Fraser University)
  • “The Engineer as Economist: The Design of Online Market Platforms”
    Ramesh Johari, Management Science and Engineering
  • “Global Teamwork 3.0″
    Renate Fruchter, Civil & Environmental Engineering, Project Based Learning Lab
  • “Brain Patterns and the Mind
    Anthony Wagner, Psychology and Neuroscience

9:45am Break, Exhibits, & Networking

10:10am Introduction
Martha Russell, mediaX at Stanford University

10:15am “Emerging Opportunities in K-12 Learning Analytics for Personalized Learning at Scale”
Roy Pea, Stanford Graduate School of Edudcation, Education & Learning Sciences

10:45am “Creativity and (National) Culture: Understanding Team Creativity and What Fosters It”
Pamela Hinds, Management Science and Engineering

11:15am “Identity, Accuracy, and Apologies – Getting Social Roles Right in Digital Interaction”
Clifford Nass, Communication

11:45am LUNCH
Hiroshi Nakajima, Omron

1:15pm “Filling in the ‘H’ in CHI”
Terry Winograd, Computer Science

1:45pm “Solving Business Problems Using the Engagement of Multiplayer Games”
Byron Reeves, Communication

2:15pm Spinning Out and Scaling Up
Cameron Teitlebaum, StartX
Reid Senescu, CloudLeaps
Relly Brandman, Coursera
Jay de Groot, PersuasionAPI, Science Rockstars
Emilio Lopez, Premonit

2:45pm 3:15pm Break, Exhibits, & Networking

3:25pm “Insight and Innovation from Calm”
Neema Moraveji, Calming Technology Lab

3:25pm “From Technology Development Towards Social Innovation”
Boris De Ruyter, Philips Research
Comments by mediaX Industry Visiting Scholars:
Tracey Wilen-Daugenti, Apollo Research Institute
Haisong Gu, Konica Minolta

3:55pm Crowd-Powered Systems
Michael Bernstein, Computer Science


4:25pm “Digital Footprints – Mine, Yours, and Ours”
Jeremy Bailenson, Communication

4:55pm “Looking Ahead”
Martha Russell, mediaX at Stanford University

5:00pm Reception, Networking

5:30pm Keynote: “Forbidden Problems”
(open to public)
Larry Lessig, Harvard Law School

7:00pm Adjourn

3. Twitter archive

Tweets from 146 unique accounts were found by the TAGS collection tool. It appears that a majority of these tweeters were not in-person conference attendees, but retweeting or commenting on event information.
Top 5 twitter posters, by tweet volume:

  1. @msquihuis (Margarita Quihuis), Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab (61 tweets)
  2. @MediaXStanford (39 tweets)
  3. @tmccormick (Tim McCormick), mediaX / independent (32 tweets)
  4. @MrMeritology (Russell Thomas), George Mason Univ. PhD student & mediaX consultant (29 tweets)
  5. @Paul_Franz (Paul Franz), Stanford Learning Sciences and Technology Design PhD student (28 tweets)


4. Twitter as privately-owned public space: critical use/making

(a critical note)

Twitter archives are typically presented with the implicit suggestion that they’re complete, or at least representative, apart from any deliberate  editing by the presenter (as was done in this case). This is perhaps part of a general tendency to assume that algorithmic tools — e.g. archivers, search engines — operate consistently and do what they say they do, or perhaps just due to social-media archiving being relatively new and poorly understood.

Code_and_Other_Laws_of_Cyberspace_(book)_cover_artHowever, the tools used to monitor and archive Twitter activity, for example, are often opaque, and may yield results that are incomplete, inconsistent, or difficult to verify. This is of growing importance because social media archives/records are becoming used as “official” records of events, even public/government events, to evaluate the impact of scholarly communications via “altmetrics,” for types of online group deliberation, etc.

Possibly the most influential articulation of such concerns is the landmark 1st book by mediax2013  keynote speaker Lawrence Lessig, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (1999). Lessig expressed the book’s key point as “Code is law”:  meaning, decisions made in implementing electronic tools may regulate conduct as or even more powerfully than legal “code,” while possibly being harder to examine or affect.

From a user’s perspective, the view of one’s social network you get from systems  such as Twitter or Facebook is often highly mediated, due to the systems’ use of features variously described as filtering, reach management, or engagement management.

Reach” refers to how many views a content posting receives, either in total impressions or as a percentage of the poster’s “followers” (i.e. the people/pages you “Friend”, Like, or Follow). Marketers and analysts continually try to assess these reach patterns/percentages, and the algorithms, design, & user behaviors driving them. The social networks tend to give only generalized guidance on these points, but the reach for Facebook and Twitter they are believed to range from from 5% to 30%.


Facebook founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. He runs your show.

The networks have many plausible motivations to actively tune “reach” and filtering, and to keep the details non-public:

  1. to help sell “paid reach,” e.g. Twitter ads & Facebook promoted posts
  2. to prioritize/attenuate information for users: so for example if you’ve been away for many days, you may want to see only important posts, not all of them.
  3. possibly, to manage user experience towards certain desired behavior states. For example, Facebook shapes user behavior towards expressing “Like” and “friend”, not “thumbs-down” or “poorly reasoned.”  As discussed in Clifford Nass’ presentation at #mediax2013, there is evidence that Facebook may use content evaluation tools such as sentiment analysis to foreground content considered more “positive.”

    In a more sinister vein, Facebook might hypothetically design to encourage patterns of variable / intermittent reinforcement, because they tend to have an engaging or addicting effect. Facebook’s business is primarily to sell advertising, which depends heavily upon increasing your time spent on site.

Illich_Tools-For-ConvivialitySo, while services such as Twitter may be radically open in some respects — letting any member of the public participate in the mediaX conference, for example, or what Twitter CEO calls the new global “agora” – they also tend to be opaque, even indeterminate in behavior, from a users standpoint.

The broader point is that as our lives and work are increasingly mediated by electronic “privately owned public space” — such as Twitter – we can’t adequately understand ourselves, each other, or society if we don’t understand these tools. Opaque and unaccountable tools, platforms, and environments reduce our agency, taking us in the opposite direction from the “Tools for conviviality” which Ivan Illich’s 1973 book argued we must find or build to have humane lives and societies. (Illich’s book was an important inspiration to the Homebrew Computers Club which counted many personal-computer pioneers among its members).

5. Note on methodology, completeness, and archival stability

Critical_PacMan_SmallA) Critical Making
In producing this report on the #mediax2013 backchannel, I decided to examine the Twitter data considering the critical issues above, both as an effort to produce a considered report, and as an exercise in what you might call “critical making.” Without getting especially rigorous, as that would require a larger and separate project, I took the opportunity to explore some ways that social-media measurement/archiving might be done skeptically and responsibly.

My main source was the Twitter posts which were tagged with the conference hashtag “#mediax2013“, plus the conference program and notes from my event attendance on January 8.

searchable-twitter-archiveB) TAGS tool
The primary archiving tool used was TAGS (Twitter Archiving Google Spreadsheet) v3.2, created by Martin Hawksey, Learning Technology Advisor at Jisc, CETIS, UK. (Thanks Martin for this great tool). TAGS gathers a more complete record per tweet than most tools, including URLS to the individual “status”/post pages on Twitter, and metadata on activity surrounding each tweet.

Like most Twitter archiving tools, TAGS uses the Twitter Search API, which is not assured to return a complete record of tweets matching a query. In a widely-unknown but not-hidden guidance, Twitter’s documentation notes,

Twitter’s search is optimized to serve relevant tweets to end-users….The Search API (which also powers Twitter’s search widget) is an interface to this search engine. Our search service is not meant to be an exhaustive archive of public tweets and not all tweets are indexed or returned.

(see Twitter developer FAQs, section “Why are the Tweets I’m looking for not in Twitter Search”). Twitter recommends using the alternate Streaming API instead for better completeness, but they do not assert it is actually complete.

C) Comparison of archiving tool results:
Three tools were compared, collecting all tweets with the conference hashtag. The timespan considered was Mon 07 Jan 5pm to Weds 09 Jan 10:00am (PST).

  1. TAGS
    The full archive can be downloaded here: mediax2013-twitter-archive.xls
    =>494 tweets
  2. TweetDeck Twitter client, left running thoughout the event.
    509 tweets in a timespan for which TAGS collected 481 -
    =>509 tweets:  28, or 7% more than TAGS
  3. Eventifier Web-based archiving service
    I excluded those tweets outside timespan or without hashtag.
    Eventifier archive for #mediax2013.
    => 581 tweets = 87, or ~16% more than TAGS

Due to time, I chose to only spot-check rather than fully examine the different results from TAGS, TweetDeck, and Eventifier.

TweetDeck uses the realtime Twitter Streaming API, and Eventifier may use either the Streaming API or possibly a higher-level “firehose” data feed arranged with Twitter, which could be more complete. However, in my spot checks, the tweets I found in Eventifier or Tweetdeck but not in TAGS were retweets (a user resending another user’s prior tweet) and thus of less value.

D) Editing and Web Presentation
Next, the TAGS-generated tweet archive was edited to a) remove most retweets, and b) remove tweets judged duplicative or extraneous for the nature and scope of this report). This reduced the total number shown in this doc to 208 tweets.


Archives: they hold it

FInally, the presentation of tweets was converted from the normal HTML representation, which references tweet/user data and scripts live from Twitter’s site, into a self-contained HTML + media store. This avoids potential loss of tweet or formatting data due to user deletion of data, or Twitter service changes.

A presentation that relies on Twitter-hosted data, as event twitter archives typically do, is, in a sense, not a true archive, but a finding guide to a different archive (Twitter’s) which is relatively unstable and inaccessible.

(note: this didn’t quite work — some aspect of the style sheets didn’t get preserved. You can see how they should look, and also compare the performance of non self-contained (Twitter-hosted) tweet presentation, at

E) Usability
The conversion into self-contained HTML also can substantially improve the representation efficiency and page-load-time of the resulting document, particularly for mobile / low-bandwidth / high-latency use. The normal presentations of Twitter archives tend be broken into many sub-pages (13 on the Eventify archive), but this makes them harder to use, search across, print etc.

LivingArchivesThe self-contained HTML + media-store approach used here can represent many more tweets on one page, while achieving good page load performance.

However, it retains direct links to each tweet and user online, so one can look up or follow users, see more recent activity around specific tweets, etc. This helps the archived version remain embedded in the ongoing network activity.

F) Publishing
The resulting Tweet presentation, with accompanying materials, was  posted on my WordPress-based site with Disqus commenting plugin installed. Disqus allow users to comment using logins from Twitter, Facebook, Google, etc.; it also gathers and displays any mentions of the article URL it subsequently finds on Twitter. (this provides an additional, and automatic way for the stored archive to remain a living connection to ongoing activity).

The hosted Web version was also converted into a downloadable PDF file, for portability and (relative) permanence:
Play-is-Not-The-Opposite-of-Work_Stanford-mediaX-2013-Conference_Tim-McCormick.pdf (7MB).

Final Note: Beyond Twitter, Newswires of the Future

While the archiving exercise described above turned out somewhat laborious due to working out issues along the way, most of the steps are basically simple and automatable. (except for the curating of which tweet subset to present, and analyzing why tools got different results).

In fact, you could imagine these various gathering and publishing processes running automatically, for one or many channels/events. (attention Eventify: let’s talk). Extrapolating from this recklessly, as one does, you can picture a type of mass distributed pro-am (professional-amateur) reporting/archiving system. operating around a “message bus” or open “newswire” provided by Twitter or other social-media service.


reach out and touch a number of people

This model/system, let’s call it Synapsys – because I did, and I’ve already registered the domain-name, as we do (kidding!.. Kleiner Perkins, let’s talk) – might provide alternate interfaces, assemblages, or publishing forms — e.g. an hourly or daily or weekly summary email / Web page, or an automatic printed summary, or highlights stories produced for local print/TV media — reaching out to many audiences beyond the comparatively early-adopter population that’s “on” Twitter.

Such innovations would be, however, constrained by Twitter’s increasing efforts to control all end-user reading interfaces — in contrast to the flourishing ecosytem of 3rd-party tools that developed in earlier years. While Twitter is the undisputed leader in global user base now, there are various organizations developing alternative platforms which are more open in various ways — e.g, Diaspora,, and In this latest phase of evolving the new public nervous system, or “global brain”, or universal newswire, it’s still early days.

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