Friday, January 30, 2009

Typology of Online User Participation

One of my main research interests and certainly a topic much discussed due to the flowering of social media and Web 2.0, is user participation. But I've been thinking what exactly are all the forms of online user participation? How does participation differ from interaction?

I would define user participation as an act on the part of a user to actively add or share their thoughts, opinion, or experience via online features or tools in an open manner. Interaction to me is an active engagement or customization an online feature or tool, but not leaving any of your own self with it. Participation doesn't have to be public or individual (one's efforts can be rolled into a collective result), but to me it's not something that is done entirely for yourself, so adding a news feed or uploading photos to a site but not sharing them with anyone would not be participation.

Based on my definition (and feel free to disagree with it), here are some forms of online user participation:
  1. Blogging
  2. Microblogging
  3. Status updates and "Wall" posts
  4. Commenting (on a blog, video, review, photograph, etc.)
  5. Discussing via message boards (a.k.a forums)
  6. Reviewing or recommending (eg. a book, movie, travel destination, etc.)
  7. Making lists to share (eg. playlists, favourites, books on Amazon)
  8. Voting (e.g. Digg, site polls, or via "Was this helpful" feature)
  9. Adding name to online petition
  10. Rating (eg. assigning a score to a film, book or review, etc.)
  11. Social bookmarking
  12. Tagging/folksonomies
  13. Creating & uploading videos
  14. Creating & uploading podcasts or online audio
  15. Creating & uploading photographs, stories, artwork, etc.
  16. Sharing (via email, posting to profile, or site forwarding feature, etc.)
  17. Creating or contributing to a website
  18. Contributing to a wiki
  19. Contributing to an online open source project (thanks Mouly)
  20. Friending
  21. Reporting abuse (i.e. self-policing features on sites)
Participate now by letting me know if you can think of any forms I missed...

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

10 Years Working in the e-Biz

In honour of this month marking my tenth anniversary of my Internet career, I’m blogging about my experience working in the Internet in Canada for the past ten years. The preceding blog post covered my Internet-related education, which began my Internet career ten years ago when I began the Internet Management at Humber College.

Technically, my Internet career began the preceding December as I was hired by a temp agency for a week to help Macromedia with their Dreamweaver 2 Toronto launch. Back then the name Dream Weaver only conjured up a scene from "Wayne’s World" – now I can't imagine life without it.

While most of the Internet education programs I took have completely ceased to exist, about half of the companies I worked still exist. One company promised me “deferred pay” and years later I still haven’t got it. But considering the ups and downs of the industry, I’m not holding a grudge.

The first company I worked for is still doing well. In March 1999,I started writing online travelogues on Ontario for It was my first attempt at regular web writing. The Internet has opened up possibilities for writing to move beyond stifling rules or stuffy conventions of old media. With a clean slate, I was able to have a lot of fun and find an effective web style. The website has grown to be a main destination for off-the-beaten path and independent travelers.

I also wrote travelogues for Canadian Geographic Online. I started with Canadian Geographic for my internship at the end of 1999 to maintain and write for their site. The site hasn’t grown much since I worked there, which is a shame as there is so much potential. Canada is such a small market that I guess it's not viable to expand online properties like they do in the U.S. (e.g National Geographic is an amazing website with a wealth of information).

Internet years are like dog years, so I feel like an old-timer when I recall the good ol’ days of the boom. My first full-time Internet job was as a website developer with a start-up, Infopreneur. All the stereotypes were true – obligatory fussball table, staff meetings at Playdium, free food, parties, very casual hours and dress. This is where I began my habit at starting my day at 11am – a habit that I was only ever able to reduce to 10-10:30am). My supervisor was a wiz kid programmer who dropped out of highschool. I am proud of my work with, one of Canada’s first cooking websites. I introduced a classification and retrieval method for a recipe database that at the time was very innovative. It was through this project that I learned that enabling users to find information was as important as the information itself. This realization has resulted in my continued interest in the field of usability. Infopreneur did not survive but the animated web series they produced became as a successful enterprise; the show, Chilly Beach even made the move from web to TV as it is on CBC.

I spent the remainder of the dot comb irrational exuberance period and the resulting dot bomb crash at Rogers. I was only there two years but the names changes of the division (New Media, iMedia, Media) and website (, are indicative of the turbulence of this period. I was in charge of developing the personal finance channels and particularly enjoyed taking stuffy content and making it interactive (think I managed with my tools RRIF vs. Annuity, University Costs Planner, etc.). After my departure from Rogers, was folded into Canadian Business’ website – and essentially all vestiges were pretty much completely eradicated. It's sad to see that all the cost and effort to develop a lot of good evergreen tools and content was abandoned. But the most lasting memory of working there was the weekly occasions to celebrate, at one of the downstairs bars naturally.

When the regular layoffs at Rogers were too much, I moved to the security of the pension world to manage a website. This was the first job where I was acted pretty much solo in running a website. I’ve blogged about the pros and cons of running a website for small companies. It's great to be the master of a site's fate, but I missed the camaraderie of the incredible team I worked with at Rogers. The website launched some cool stuff while I was there, including being one of the first (if not the first) company to publish its annual report online only. I also managed to oversee a relaunch that completely changed almost everything (design, code, content, architecture) about the website to make it as user-centered and accessible as possible. I left the week we delivered a fully-transactional website for clients – the last great applicable online offering for the company.

Other Internet jobs include volunteer work for maintaining Heritage Toronto’s website, blogging for Backbone and my current project of trying to start an Ontario chapter of the Internet Society.

I really enjoyed being a part of the Web in its rather early days. It’s cool to actually have had a tiny role in helping create the conventions and properties of the medium – these opportunities so rarely happen (I think the only recent comparisons would be the birth of film and tv). One of the reasons why I decided to pursue grad studies was so that I could move away from doing the grunt work of developing and maintaining a website, email newsletters, etc. But while it’s rewarding to research developments in the industry that I would not feasibly be able to implement in my professional career, I will miss those glory days.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

My Ten Year Internet Anniversary

This month marks my tenth anniversary of my career in the Internet. It was ten Januarys ago that I went back to school for Humber’s Internet Management program. Shortly, thereafter I began writing monthly travelogues for The rest is mystory. After ten years’ of working and studying in the Internet almost few of the companies or programs remain. I don’t think this is attributable to my kiss-of-death presence, but the still rapidly evolving nature of the Internet.

In this blog posting I’ll look at my educational experience for the Internet. Subsequent posts will talk about Internet companies and organizations.

It is a shame that Humber’s Internet Management program shut down. It was rolled into the multimedia program, but seems to have lost the management component. The program, as far as I can tell, is unique in Ontario for teaching how to manage all aspects of managing a company’s Internet business and communications efforts. Too many programs teach web design or programming distinct and isolated from the overarching business requirements or overall environment. For example, web design has to work well with web writing, but I don’t see too many programs teaching both. Humber’s postgraduate (open only to university or college graduates) program was ideal for laying the groundwork for Internet management career by teaching programming, server management, graphic and site design, web writing, online marketing and promotion, and multimedia and interactive content production. One didn’t become an expert in all these areas, but they are crucial aspects to know if one is running Internet efforts. Still, to this day I met a lot of Internet professional that lack sufficient knowledge in these areas. The only reason why this program shut down is that I presume that management positions are developed through people’s work experience now. Back in 1999, there weren’t a lot of people with years of experience, so the program was particularly valuable and certainly helped me get my first producer position within a few months of graduating.

Another good Internet program that I took that has shut down and has not been replaced or merged is University of Toronto’s Strategic e-Business program. The program required students to learn some business fundamentals (marketing and accounting) and e-Business foundational concepts such as Internet business models and underlying technologies. There were also courses on moving business processes online and issues in cyberlaw. It was a useful program for those managing or implementing e-Business. It definitely helped me when I was a business lead for implementing a client-direct online transactional site.

Again, I'm not sure why this program shut down. I've heard that we are now at the point where the "e" no longer applies to fields as online components are so mainstream now – so e-Health is just Health, e-Learning is just Learning, and e-Business is just Business. The problem with this is that there Internet technologies, models and user behaviour is not so standardized as to not merit special attention. Again, I have met people working in these areas lacking sufficient exposure to key areas, so I do think there is still a need for these types of programs.

When I decided to do my master's there wasn't any options to study the Internet directly and few to study it indirectly. In the end, I decided on Royal Roads University's Communication program as not only was the field broad enough to encompasses a lot of what's happening on the Net, but also it was delivered in part through e-Learning and I thought it would be a good opportunity to be learn first hand about this huge aspect of the Net. There was one class at Royal Roads on human computer interaction that encompassed a lot of Internet issues. However, in all my classes professors were open to allowing me to tailor almost all my coursework to Internet topics (most of which were posted here). I did some research on folksonomies, social media, usability, website accessibility, intranets, and online music legal issues.

As for doing a doctorate, there really isn't anywhere in Canada that specializes in the Internet, the closest would be Simon Fraser’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology or various communication or information studies programs. In general, I find Canada is not keeping developing adequate programs in this area at a graduate or undergraduate level.

I'd love to hear any feedback on the state or needs of education for Internet professionals and scholars.