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Computer Scientists and Google+: Something Interesting is Happening

If a company fails to adapt to change, its competitors put it out of business. In extreme cases, an entire industry sector fails to keep up with the times and is eliminated or radically transformed. For academic research on the other hand, such external pressure is minimal since evaluation is mostly based on peer review. Therefore a culture of soul searching, meta-discussion about research practices and norms, and adaptation to technological change is essential for the health of academic communities.

I can’t speak for other disciplines, but within computer science, I’ve always felt that these meta discussions were inadequate — in terms of volume, vigor, and format. They happened mostly at conferences were largely limited to more senior/well-connected researchers, and lagged behind some of the serious problems that have accumulated such as restrictive publisher copyrights and very low acceptance rates at journals and conferences. In particular, in spite of the occasional blog post and ensuing commentary, I’ve felt that computer scientists have pretty much failed to utilize the Internet for these meta-discussions.

Until now. Google+ has changed all that.

Even though the number of Google+ users is still fairly small, there is a robust discussion going on whose volume already seems to have exceeded that of blogs. Here are some topics being discussed by fellow computer scientists that I saw on my stream in a two-week period (roughly the first two weeks of December, before things went dead for the holidays):

prepublication and distributing papers on arXiv, benefits vs drawbacks of anonymous submissions, the old journals vs. conferences debate, asshole reviewers and bad reviews, reviewers asking you to cite their unrelated paper, acceptance rates at top conferences, submission rates and reviewer load, conference spam and junk conferences, science journalism and blogging, citation managers, LaTeX showing its age, the grant proposal writing process, faculty salary, tips on giving talks, and discussions about which topics are hot and worth investigating.

The obvious question is, why Google+? I think there is a multitude of reasons. Privacy is certainly one. No community likes “airing dirty laundry in public,” and the ability to make limited posts is a huge benefit of Google+ over blogs. But this can’t be the only reason because at least half of the discussions I mentioned are public (but then again, posters might perceive them as 'less public' than blogs). Another problem with blog discussions is that the anonymity frequently led to incivility on the more contentious topics.[1]

A third reason could be the way in which information and ideas percolate through communities on Google+ via the 'share' feature. Finally, part of it could simply be good timing. It’s fairly obvious to anyone who’s used Facebook or Twitter that the design of those sites isn’t suitable for the use-case I'm talking about; on the other hand, if Google had waited a couple of years it’s possible that a dedicated site like academia.edu might have gained traction as a discussion forum.

In my experience, the Internet isn’t anywhere close to replacing face-to-face communication for actual research collaboration, but as for meta-discussion, there is no reason to be dependent on physical gatherings. I will go out on a limb and predict that Google+ will take over as the default medium for these things. While I’m still speaking mainly about computer science, I suspect this is true more broadly. If you’re a researcher who’s not using the site yet, now would be a good time to give it a try.

[1] Proponents of pseudonymity often refuse to acknowledge this and other drawbacks of pseudonymous discussion, which I find disingenuous.
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28 comments
 
Google+ has early adopters in the academic computer science community -- and many of those early adopters, myself included, care about these issues. Unlike Facebook, there isn't the problem of accidentally annoying your non-technical friends by clogging their news feed with these discussions.

Compare Quora and Silicon Valley startups -- the early adopters were and are people immersed in that culture, and to this day Quora is the best place to go if you want to see someone named in a TechCrunch article comment on the events in the article. Among other useful things, of course.
 
+David Molnar Good point. That raises the question of whether academic CS discussions will continue to take place here if and when the site becomes mainstream. Time will tell, I guess.
 
The Linux kernel community also seems to use Google+ a lot. I think the problems they face are similar.
 
Very good post. I am a neuroscientist and think the same trend you are observing in computer science discussion on g+ will occur in other science fields. Thanks again for an interesting post.
 
Blog comments don't work very well not just because of pseudonymity, but also because of (in general) poor comment / notification systems. For most of the blogs I read, I won't see the replies unless I check the site again, creating fragmented communities. (Or worse yet, I may have to create an account to comment.)

I think an important feature of G+ that makes it useful for professional discussions is the asymmetric social linking: I don't have to consider whether my relationship with a person is strong enough before adding them to a circle.
 
Pointer to the LaTeX showing its age? I missed that.
 
Why Google+ will fail: it brings nothing new over competing Facebook. It's an also-ran. It will be abandoned by Google (like all good things they create, or modify until it is no longer the same valuable asset). Google doesn't listen very well, so any change requests will be ignored. People trust Facebook over Google (in my experience). It can't compete with LinkedIn or Facebook for users, in fact it's hard to describe to my non-techie friends why they should even bother. There are so many red flags and issues with Google and Google+ in particular that, I feel, it's just another pet project. They do not seem to have a vision: they are copying others and throwing new stuff out to see what sticks. In other words: a lack of passion is what I think of with "Google+". Also I do not like being referred to as "+Ben"... it's ridiculous, that is not my name. Just my 2 cents. I personally don't bother posting anything on Google+ because I have no faith that they will keep my data online in the future, when Google realizes they are no longer making ad revenue on my freely-produced content.
 
+Ben Lindelof I don't agree with your post although some of it has merit. However - it's curiously unrelated to the thread you posted it too. It just seems like a general anti-Google+ rant and you don't address the topic at hand. My personal experiences with Facebook and LinkedIn have been fairly negative and Twitter is too restrictive. So I welcome a new kid on the block even if it just becomes a niche player. (anyway - by responding I'm sidelining this as much as you were. We should take this to a fresh thread. On Facebook? ;-)
 
Any chance folks could share their relevant technical compsci circles?
 
+Barry Kelly You seem to be making some assumptions there. I'm quite aware of the difference between pseudonymity and anonymity. I've also been on Hacker News for many years. I strongly disagree that the moderation mechanisms there will scale to a general purpose social network, but that's a topic for another post.
 
Re: "Proponents of pseudonymity often refuse to acknowledge this and other drawbacks of pseudonymous discussion, which I find disingenuous.": I personally find it disingenuous to deliberately conflate anonymity with persistent pseudonyms, two things proponents of pseudonymity have frequently been careful to distinguish.
 
+Nikita Borisov Disqus and other such plugins were supposed to solve the comment notification problem. Just like RSS... great solutions exist in the blogging world, but have seen minimal adoption.
 
+David Eppstein I'm not confusing the two. I'm claiming that pseudonymous discussion also fundamentally suffers from this problem. Yes, it's a strong claim, and one I don't care to defend here, but it's not disingenuous. (Also, I've been on LJ and HN for as long as anyone; throwing those examples at me isn't going to change my mind.)
 
In my opinion, you weakened your credibility with that pot-shot against pseudonyms, and your insistence on retaining your stance despite strong evidence to the contrary. If you're a scientist, aren't you supposed to account for the evidence? If you're not going to defend your stance here, then please point us to a place where you are.
 
It's not a pot-shot. Anonymity and pseudonymity are part of my research agenda, so it's something I think about a lot. I have a blog post or two written up, but I haven't posted them yet because I don't care for the inevitable flaming that will result. I promise I will do so at some point, however. I should have known that this thread would get hijacked by that one footnote. Sigh.

Clarification: not calling anything on this thread a flame, but I've been flamed in multiple Hacker News threads in the past. Psuedonymity. Ha!
 
The topic I was responding to was "Computer Scientists and Google+: Something Interesting is Happening".
 
+Barry Kelly Fair enough; I apologize for the confusing use of those two terms. Yes, I've heard the arguments about moderation, personas etc. many, many times. For now I just want to state my disagreement as I don't have the time and energy for a detailed discussion.
 
If you want a different example of a successful pseudonym-friendly environment than LJ and HN, how about Wikipedia. There are good reasons not to use one's real name there (as I know from personal experience, it can lead to workplace harassment or legal threats if one makes an edit someone else disagrees with), they have strong policies against outing the real names of pseudonymous editors, but they also have strong rules against abusive sockpuppetry and are quick to block new pseudonymous or anonymous users who don't play nice.

Anyway, this has all been a bit of a sidetrack from your point about the scientific use of G+, but perhaps it's a relevant one: for me, at leasts, the reason I'm no longer posting on G+ (though obviously I still read and participate in discussions) is that I don't want to help prop up a system that contributes to the exclusion of women, political dissidents, corporate employees, and other unprivileged people from our discourse. And, though in scientific communication it's more often advantageous to use one's own real name, I still think we can benefit from as wide a pool of contributors as possible, and G+'s stance on pseudonyms is not helping in that respect.
 
+David Eppstein Yes, I remember seeing your Livejournal post; I respect your decision. Thanks for the Wikipedia example.
 
It's also disappointing that we're apparently ditching email for something that doesn't support threading, doesn't do offline syncing (cf. IMAP), doesn't follow web ways (e.g. no URLs for individual responses: there is an 'id' element, but it contains a hash (e.g. 'z135jnobanzrtna1n22uehpi3pf4sp5iy04#1324999610228223'), and seems to fail as fragment identifier), and which tends to fragment discussions (a "shared" post only links back to the sharing user, not to the shared post).
 
+Jean Jordaan The individual responses are available via a REST API. http://little418.com/2011/12/google-comments-on-your-static-html-blog.html unfortunately only with an API key.
I thought there used to be a way to link directly to a comment, but it is apparently it is undocumented, and may not exist anymore.

I wonder if the problem is that, for the technically competent, USENET and Email lists met the needs well enough, that they were good enough to divert or consume the motivation to come up with a better forum protocol. There is some work on the Salmon Protocol (http://www.salmon-protocol.org/) that might have addressed the same space, but it seems like it is moving too slow.

In the meantime, it is relatively easy for a company like Google to implement something like Google+ without having to get a protocol through a standards body or get everyone to agree on how to implement it.
 
Yes, it's far from perfect. But it's a lot better than the anecdotal information Arvind was trying to rely on in his post.
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