So if you’re asking “What’s up with this grad school thing? Why????” this post will hopefully help (If you haven’t read the last post you may want to do that first, I’ll wait for you to finish before going on… ok, now that that’s taken care of). Either that or you may leave thinking I’m completely full of it (not much for me to do if you think that is the case). As part of applying to the program I need to state my research goals. So I though sharing my draft of that statement might better explain my ideas:

“I am writing as a candidate for the Masters of Arts in the Social Sciences (MASS) program at the University of Chicago. My goal in enrolling in the program is to develop the necessary social science skills to study the ongoing evolutionary effects that photographic and video technology are having on geographically dispersed networked communities and visa versa.

For the purposes of this letter, I use the term “networked communities” is used to refer to any group of individuals that use networked communication tools (such as internet chat) as a method of communication within the group. While the application of the term “community” to social networks that develop through the use of these tools is a matter of great debate, it is still the case the prevalence and diversity of these social networks is expanding. Their methods of communication and interaction are constantly evolving based in part on the evolution of their communication tools.

One such tool is digital photography. As the technologies that enable social networks integrate visual media sharing tools (pictures, photography and video), photographs play an increasingly important role in interpersonal networked communication. Traditionally, the home user’s primary used photography to documenting memorable moments. Photographs serve as “memory containers”: visual cues to access the memories of specific events and times. However, members of networked communities have embraced digital photography as a method to bring visual context to traditionally text based communication tools like online discussion boards or instant messaging programs. For example, members of these communities use pictures as avatars, visual representations of themselves in the tools, and as replacements for emoticons (i.e. :-) , ;-P , etc.) adding new visual context to their previously one-dimensional comments.

This use of digital photography as a communication tool has caused a shift in the meaning and intent of a photograph. For members of these communities, the purpose of digital pictures is to convey immediate emotional or factual data. As such the personal attachment of these pictures is typically short-lived. Unlike traditional photos, these pictures are not printed or archived. Their content is an immediate moment that typically has no lasting emotional significance to the picture taker. Unlike those traditional home photographers, who capture moments of personal, lasting significance, members of these communities act more as photojournalists, documenting and communicating ideas to a broad audience with pictures. The behavior of these new picture takers suggests that, due to the proliferation of these new tools, home photography has evolved more in the last seven years than in the previous fifty.

The rate and social scope of this evolution only stands to increase with the continued proliferation of affordable, portable recording and transmission devices. Mobile phones stand ready to supplant the “traditional” tools of networked communities, such as the PC and web browser, offering opportunities for increased participation in existing networked communities as well as the rapid growth of new communities. There are more Internet enabled mobile phones in the world than Internet enabled PCs and monthly worldwide camera mobile phones sales have begun to outpace traditional digital cameras sales. Because these new tools don’t require a hard-wired connection to the network, unlike an pc connecting to the internet via a phone line, they allow members easy access to their communities from any location a cell phone can broadcast from. All signs point towards a continual rapid evolution of these networked communities over the next five to ten years.

This evolution has all ready starting to affect society on a broader scale. For example, when Kennedy was assassinated the Zapruder film was a unique occurrence: amateur footage of a global event. On 9/11, due to the evolution and availability of video technology, almost every network carried footage of the event captured by amateurs using home video cameras. In recent months the BBC issued a call for participants in political rallies to “phone in” live pictures of the events using their mobile phone cameras. The potential uses of these devices are also beginning to raise significant legal and ethical debates. Some Pacific Rim countries have already banned cell phones in numerous public and private locations such as locker rooms due to privacy concerns. All of these factors suggest that this is an area ripe for social study.

My interest in this area of study began with my exposure to fledgling Networked Communities such as Usenet groups and Multi User Dungeons (MUDs), online text based multi-user games, as an undergraduate student at the Rochester Institute of Technology. These experiences led me to work with RIT’s School of Printing Management and Sciences to develop an interdisciplinary concentration in New Media Publishing in order to study emerging computer based publishing, community, and community tools.

This exploration of online communities continued throughout my tenure with Eastman Kodak. During that time I served as a Kodak representative on numerous online digital camera communities, co-hosted a weekly Internet photo based chat, developed a proposal for a “Gen-Y” media sharing community, and served as the implementation and production manager for a short lived collection of photo based networked community tools (chat and discussion boards). My interactions with existing and fledgling networked communities fostered a deep interest in studying the fundamental social building blocks that drive their development and evolution. Additionally, Kodak exposed me to the potential of digital photographs as a communication tool and a form of social currency. These experiences, coupled with a firm belief that the only way to truly understand the social implications of these new technologies is through the social sciences, lead me to the University of Chicago.

The multidisciplinary approach of the MASS program provides a unique opportunity to craft the best selection of courses to study social developments that occur at this intersection of social interaction, photography, and technology. My professional experience allows me to bring a unique perspective to an academic program. It solidified my view that the social sciences have a crucial role to play in both the academic and professional arenas. This experience will be an asset in interactions with other program participants and faculty members. I will be able to present ideas and views that might not normally be represented in the Division of Social Science’s environment. At the same time, I look forward to being exposed to ideas and methods that I could not possibly gain in a professional environment. This is a unique opportunity to “empty my cup”, setting aside lessons learned at Kodak and embrace new challenges and ideas.

I cannot speak to all of the potential academic applications of this research. That is a perspective I would gain as part of the graduate work. However from a professional view, there is no way to develop credible product and service offerings in this rapidly evolving environment without significant guidance from social scientists. Ultimately it is my expectation that the knowledge acquired at the University, supplemented by professional experience, will reveal new avenues of exploration in this area and interesting applications of research.

It is my hope that the university sees the same potential as I, both in this area of study and in me as a student.

Respectfully yours,

Matthew Bernius”

That’s basically it in a nutshell. I think that the social sciences need to take an increased role in product development. And that’s an area that I’m really interested in working on. Of course, any thoughts on this are welcomed.