a long december

check that, 2003 has been a long year in a lot of ways. Like any it’s been filled with ups and downs. 2004 stands prepared to match it.

The paper work is offically in to University of Chicago. The next few months will be spent waiting to learn whether or not I’m accepted. I’m both excited and scared at the thought of going back to school.

For those who might be interested, here’s my final statement:

My goal in enrolling in the Masters of Arts in the Social Sciences (MASS) program at the University of Chicago is to develop the skills necessary to study the ongoing evolution in the methods used by networked communities to communicate and the impact those changes have on the broader social landscape. By “networked communities”, I refer to groups of individuals who share common interests and use networked communication tools such as Internet chat as a method of communication within the group. Since members of networked communities are often physically dispersed over large distances, they tend to rely on a mix of these tools as the primary enablers of participation. Thus, a group’s methods of communication and interaction are constantly evolving based, in part, on the evolution of their communication tools.

One manifestation of this symbiotic evolution is the way that networked communities are altering personal photography. As networked communication tools incorporate visual media sharing functions, photographs play an increasingly important role in interpersonal networked communication. Traditionally, individuals used photography primarily to document memorable moments. Photographs served as “memory containers” – visual cues to access the memories of specific events and times. Now, however, one sees members of networked communities embracing digital photography as a method to bring visual context to traditionally text-based communication tools such as online discussion boards and 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” (e.g. :-) , ;-P , etc.), adding new visual context to their previously one-dimensional comments.

Beyond providing context, digital photographs also serve as a form of “social currency” in networked communities. The worth of a member is primarily based on two factors: the level of participation and the quality of that participation. Of the two, the quality of the participation is typically more valued. Members are therefore encouraged to take steps to enrich their postings and messages in order to further their position within the community. One method commonly used is to include supporting photography in their postings. When relevant, pictures are capable of conveying information more efficiently and compellingly than text. Thus, the old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” has proved true again: these communities place greater value on contributions that integrate pertinent pictures. In turn, the member who has relevant photographs to share wields more prestige and power within the community than those who do not.

The above-described uses of digital photography are causing a shift in the meaning and intent of a personal photograph; members of networked communities use digital pictures to convey immediate emotional or factual data to help support their positions in communities. As such, their personal attachment to these pictures is typically short-lived; these pictures are neither printed nor archived. These pictures’ contents represent fleeting moments that usually have no lasting emotional significance to the picture taker. In contrast with 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. This in turn affects how individual members of these communities perceive and document their lives.

The rate and scope of this social evolution only stands to increase with the continued proliferation of affordable, portable networked communication tools. For instance, mobile phones and other wireless communication devices stand ready to supplant Internet-connected PCs as the primary tool for networked communities. Across the globe, there are more Internet-enabled mobile phones in use than Internet-enabled PCs. Unlike a PC connecting to the Internet via a phone line, these new tools do not require a hard-wired connection to the network. As a result they allow members access to their communities from any location where a cell phone can broadcast. This mobility will enable people who previously have not had Internet access to jump-start their participation in networked communities. As all of this leads towards broader participation in these types of communities, changes in behavior, like those described above, will begin to affect a greater portion of the population.

My interest in the evolution of networked communities began as an undergraduate student at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) where I participated in primitive networked communities such as Usenet groups and Multi User Dungeons (online text-based multi-user games). As a result of these experiences, I worked with RIT’s School of Printing Management and Sciences to craft an interdisciplinary concentration in New Media Publishing in order to study the emerging areas of computer-based publishing and networked communities.

I have continued this exploration throughout my tenure with Eastman Kodak Company (Kodak). During this time, I represented Kodak in online digital camera communities and co-hosted a weekly Internet photo-based chat. In addition, I served as the implementation and production manager for a networked community enabled through a collection of photo-based networked community tools (chat and discussion boards).

Most relevantly, I helped to facilitate the creation of a networked community dedicated to following the progress of a clutch of peregrine falcons nesting on top of Kodak’s Headquarters. For the past three years I have studied this close-knit community as it developed on a photo enabled discussion board. In particular, I have observed how the member’s uses of photography have evolved and how in turn it affected communications and interactions within the community.

My interactions with networked communities have fostered a deep interest in studying the fundamental social building blocks that drive their development and evolution. Additionally, my work at Kodak has exposed me to the vast potential of photographs as a communication tool and a form of social currency. These experiences, coupled with a firm belief that the only way to fully understand the social implications of these new technologies is through the social sciences, have led me to the University of Chicago.

I believe that the multidisciplinary approach of the MASS program is uniquely suited to help me design the best curriculum for studying these ongoing social developments. In turn, my professional experiences enable me to present ideas and views that might not normally be represented in the Division of Social Sciences. I believe this will be an asset in interactions with other program participants and faculty members. At the same time, I look forward to being exposed to concepts and methods that I would not gain in a professional environment. I view this as an invaluable opportunity to “empty my cup”, to set aside any preconceived notions and embrace new lessons and challenges.

I cannot speak to all of the potential academic applications of my intended research. That is a perspective I would gain as part of my graduate work. From a professional view, however, there is no way to develop credible product and service offerings in this rapidly evolving environment without significant guidance from social scientists. Traditionally, new products are developed by taking an existing product and enhancing one aspect of it. For example, Kodak essentially has been evolving the personal camera based on concepts set at the beginning of the twentieth century. However, when faced with major behavioral changes in the networked communications, the only way to effectively develop products is first to use the social sciences to understand a community’s needs and values.

Ultimately, I believe that the insights gained through my studies at the University, in conjunction with my professional experience, will reveal valuable avenues of exploration and research applications. I also look forward to gaining the experience to study the ongoing development of networked communities and the implications that holds for society at large. I hope that the University sees the same potential that I do, both in this area of study and in me as a student.

Respectfully yours,

Matthew Bernius