Why do some backcountry hikers joke about how great it is to find a “three-bar forest” - a stretch of wilderness where their cell phones get a strong signal? How do people decide who gets to run the Facebook page of their deceased friend? How do the engineers behind online music-recommendation systems guess that fans of The National might also like Arcade Fire?

These are just a few of the questions being explored by this year’s class of fellows at the Intel Science and Technology Center (ISTC) for Social Computing, one of a network of university-based research centers supported by Intel Corporation. Based at UC Irvine, ISTC-Social is focused particularly on interdisciplinary investigations of the social and cultural aspects of information technology and digital media.

Graduate fellows are expected to participate in all ISTC activities and not only at UCI: Visits to Intel Labs in Portland and the center’s partner campuses (Georgia Tech, NYU, Cornell and Indiana University) are also part of the program.

Informatics professor Paul Dourish of the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences, one of ISTC-Social’s co-directors, says this sort of collaborative thinking has been a great fit at UCI.

“That’s one of the reasons Intel came to us when thinking of developing an ISTC in the area of social computing,” Dourish says. “They were very attracted to the way we put informatics and anthropology together. The question of what technology does is not simply a technical question. You need to understand technology as a social and cultural phenomenon.”

When it first launched, ISTC-Social awarded four yearlong fellowships at UCI for the 2012-13 academic year. This year, all four of those graduate student researchers have received another fellowship, and they have been joined by six more scholars.

“As we’ve ramped up and figured out how to work on different, independent projects at the same time - all of which feed into larger-scale programs - we were more comfortable with more fellows this year,” says Bill Maurer, dean of the School of Social Sciences and the other co-director of ISTC-Social.

Five of the 2013-2014 ISTC-Social Fellows are from the Bren School of ICS, one is from the School of Social Ecology, and four are from Social Sciences. Nick Seaver, a Ph.D. student from the Department of Anthropology, is investigating how online music-streaming companies like Pandora develop the algorithms that determine what kind of music to recommend to users, based upon their existing choices.

“My last project was on the history of the player piano, and this one draws on that: They’re both examples of what happens when technology gets mushed up with music — which is supposed to be an expressive thing, not an automatic thing,” Seaver says. “People say there’s no accounting for taste. Well, these big systems are trying to do exactly that, and they have very complicated ideas about whether or not this is something you can compute.”

Like Seaver, Ellie Harmon from the Department of Informatics is in her second year as an ISTC-Social fellow. Last year, she researched how suburban families use smartphone technology to stay connected; this year she has just returned from traversing the Pacific Crest Trail, the 2,663-mile track that stretches from the U.S.-Mexico border to the U.S.-Canada border, where she examined how hikers experience smartphone connectivity (or the lack of it).

“There’s this idea in popular media that getting rid of this technology lets you be better, more present, which I don’t think is quite right,” Harmon says. “We’re all kind of used to being able to get in touch with anyone at any time, and when we can’t, it’s stressful.”

“One of the things that’s so interesting about smartphones is how personal they are for people,” she says. “I think it becomes an important part of who we are, and how we experience ourselves, and how we experience other people.”

Harmon adds that, coming from a computer-science background, she appreciates the opportunity to kick around ideas with the social scientists at the center. “That’s one of the really nice things about the ISTC,” she says. “It’s one thing to go over to another department and take a bunch of classes. It’s another to have a space where everyone’s just coming together anyway.”

Which is, of course, the whole point of ISTC-Social. “I think we’re on the cutting edge here,” says Maurer. “We’re really blazing a trail for multi-investigator, multidisciplinary work.”


Jed Brubaker, ICS
“Digital Gravetending: Moderating and Mediating Online Identities for the Deceased”
Demonstrates how social media platforms and user practices are changing the conditions under which Americans experience death and mourning.

Mark DuRocher, Social Sciences
“Evaluating Data: The Emerging Economy of Social Media Marketing”
Explores the evolving landscape of the marketing industry and the specific services and technologies that social media agencies offer.

Julia Haines, ICS
“The Seed Accelerator Model and the Development of Global Innovation Ecosystems”
Focuses on three innovation hubs in different stages of growth - Silicon Valley, Singapore and Santiago, Chile - to investigate the effects of startup programs at the micro and macro levels.

Ellie Harmon, ICS
“Experiencing (Dis)Connection: Mobile Technologies in the Wilderness”
A study of the experience of connectivity through a multi-sited ethnographic study of three situations: working professionals, suburban families and long-distance hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Alexander Knoepflmacher. Social Sciences
“Digital Treasure Chests: Ethnographic Approaches to File-Sharing Communities”
An ethnographic portrait of the materialities of file-sharing and hard-drive curation at an online file-sharing community.

Allison Laskey, Social Ecology
“Permaculture and Dynamics of Rootedness and Connectivity”
An investigation into knowledge-making and knowledge-sharing practices among the permaculture community.

Courtney Loder, ICS
“Beyond Non-Use: Cryptographic Practice as Infrastructural Negotiation and Resistance”
An inquiry into the ways people engage with systems, platforms and web services in the presence of ideological difference.

Stephen Rea, Social Sciences
“Garbage People and Model Workers: Bodies, Computers, and Productivity in South Korea”
An examination of macro-level institutional concerns with the embodied micro-practices of computer use in Korea.

Nick Seaver, Social Sciences
“Computing Taste: The Making of Algorithmic Music Recommendations”
A multi-sited ethnographic study of music recommendation researchers at corporate and academic sites in the United States, that will explore the motivations behind design decisions that shape filtering algorithms.

John Seberger, ICS
“We the Author: Synchronous and Deeply Asynchronous Collaboration in Humanities Scholarship”
A yearlong, qualitative study of the role of collaboration in the acquisition of expertise among six newly matriculated Ph.D. students in the humanities.

-Ted B. Kissell
-photo by Robert Farmer, ICS
: Bren School Ph.D. student Ellie Harmon is among 10 ISTC-Social graduate research fellows

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