Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Putting Visitors and Residents on the rack

The Bacon-Popper Cycle
At #heanpl last week we sat around talking about Visitors and Residents all day. This was fun, but by mid-afternoon I'd decided that there were questions that needed to be asked...

Karl Popper argued that the central problem in the philosophy of science is that of demarcation, i.e. of distinguishing between science and non-science such as logic, metaphysics, psychoanalysis, and religion. Popper's major insight into the philosophy of science was empirical falsification. Put simply, a true scientific hypothesis is falsifiable and can be tested by experiment, whereas any statement which is non-falsifiable by experimentation is a mere belief. In addition, Popper also stated that a good scientific theory:
  • is wide-ranging and open to examination.
  • is clear and precise.

Confused? You have my sympathy, so here are a few examples:

  • All swans are white: falsifiable through testing (look for non-white swans).
  • The Earth orbits around the sun: falsifiable through testing (astronomical observation).
  • The acceleration due to gravity on the surface of the Earth is 9.8 m s-2: falsifiable through testing (measure it).

  • God is good.
  • Gluttony is a sin.
  • The English are better than the French.

In order to progress, first we need to define Visitors and Residents as a testable hypothesis. From the First Mondays paper, I suggest:
The behavior of Web users can be mapped onto a continuum between Visitors, who see the Web as a tool, and Residents, who see the Web as a space.
Is this hypothesis falsifiable, wide-ranging and open to examination, clear and precise?

  • Wide-ranging and open to examination? √
  • Clear and precise? The non-binary continuum nature of the framework makes falsification difficult. Any observations which seem to fit the theory are fine, but observations which clearly do not fit into this framework are required for falsification and thus acceptance as a valid hypothesis. Is such data obtainable or can the framework be stretched to meet all eventualities ?

Clearly, I'm way out of my depth here, so your input is required :-)



  1. I doubt if I'm going to write anything you don't already know, but here goes anyway... it's an attempt to suggest a framework for responding to your troublesome 'Clear and precise' question.

    Definitions can be expressed through necessary and sufficient conditions. So, being unmarried is necessary condition of being a bachelor; but not everyone who is unmarried - who has 'being unmarried' as a sufficient condition - is a bachelor (i.e., women). (I might have got this a bit wrong but I hope you get my point.)

    This is just a (basic) way in philosophical logic to ask: can everyone who considers the internet a 'space' be called a 'resident'. If you think he or she can, then that's a good definition.

    You might also want to use the useful Wittgenstein's 'family resemblances'. I won't explain this in detail but in short a series of people might share similar features (the same nose, eyes and so on) but in a non-continuous way (Person A might have the same eyes as Person B, whilst Person C might have the same nose as Person B but not the same eyes as Person A or B).

    Is there a series of criteria which link visitors to other visitors, residents to other residents? Can they be said to be part of a family that, whilst are not identical in their behaviour, beliefs, and so on, share a non-continuous, overlapping set of criteria?

  2. I don't think you have a spectrum, unless you can show that "seeing the web as a tool" and "seeing the web as a space" are in fact contrary or contradictory. I don't think they are.

    What the residents/visitors "duality" is trying to express is the extent to which people project their personality into their online activities, and you'd need to talk to a sociologist or cultural theorist about how you would better conceptualise that (it's a phenomenological topic, really - about how people experience something).

    If we assume that the visitor/resident spectrum is real, then to disprove the theory that everyone is somewhere on that spectrum, you'd have to define the properties of "visiting" and "residing", and then look for examples of web use which don't have properties of either.

    But I think what's actually being expressed in those two terms is "involvement with the web which includes projection of the actor's personality", and "involvement with the web which does not include projection of the actor's personality", in which case it's trivially true that everyone is somewhere on the scale (but then how do you measure where on the scale someone is?).

  3. E.g.

    "Every living creature on earth is somewhere on the spectrum between carnivore and herbivore". You can disprove that by citing plants, which (in most cases) neither consume other plants, nor animals.

    "Every living creature on earth is somewhere on the spectrum between eating meat, and not eating meat". Duh.

  4. I am working with V and R not as a hypothesis, but as a metaphor. I prefer it because I think it allows for a more accurate description of actual behavior. I also think it's a better fit for what people describe themselves as doing. I don't think its utility is tied very firmly to whether or not it's a hypothesis. And as a metaphor, V and R gives us ways of describing behaviors, not individuals. That is to say, someone isn't essentially a visitor or a resident, but rather is acting LIKE a visitor or a resident in a given context.

  5. I with Donna on this one but I applaud Alan's approach, especially his methods of data gathering and analysis.

    In partial answer to Phil and Andrew: The current Visitors and Residents project is gathering qualitative data which will illustrate the behaviours Donna mentions. I like to think of V&R as Genres of Participation.

  6. Some great comments, please keep them coming.
    Good discussion on twitter too which I will summarize using Storify.

    @Andrew - What of carnivorous plants such as the venus flytrap?

  7. @Donna: My intention with this post is to explore exactly what category of ideas the V&R concept fits into. If we wind up deciding that it is a metaphor rather than a hypothesis, then I'm happy.
    But as I asked last week - is it still a metaphor if I have data which seems to confirm the hypothesis?

  8. The venus flytrap doesn't change the proof, though - all that you need to show is that there are some things which are C, and neither A nor B. The fact that some further things are A and C or B and C doesn't alter the fact that "A or B" is a false dichotomy in the example I gave.

    This is assuming that there is A and B are distinct qualities, though - rather than, as I think, B being "not A". "A or not A" is (if we think of it as a continuum where things can be partially A, rather than the law of the excluded middle) just a tautology, trivially true.