Exploring a Sustainable and Public Information Ecology

In September, I published a paper in the Proceedings of the ACM Special Interest Group for Design of Communication (SIGDOC); it has recently been published at the ACM site.

My paper details findings from a qualitative study of a professional conference, drawing from Nardi and O'Day's (1999) Information Ecologies and Activity Theory to explore the public writing activities that I observed and catalogued. I collected a few different kinds of data for the study—observations of planning meetings, observations of activities at the three-day conference, written public artifacts on the organization's blog and in the Twitter streams of conference participants, and interviews with several of the participants (and planners) themselves.

As I was coding data from the study, one of the key activities that I encountered again and again was something called tummeling. Tummeling can be seen as the intentional facilitation of conversation and engagement within online communities—often by someone who curates ideas and content while connecting previously unaffiliated individuals from overlapping social groups.

I am indebted to Kevin Marks for sharing this concept on Twitter and in Google Reader (he is, in fact, an active tummler). I think I would have struggled to characterize some of the key activities that emerged from the data had I not been made aware of this concept and its role in fostering online engagement.

Based upon the data, I argued that tummeling was a key factor in bolstering the sustainability of the online and physical community that I studied. Since I was privy to pre-conference planning meetings, I learned that the digital sustainability and visibility of the organization was a key goal heading into the conference.

Interestingly, I don't think most involved in those planning meetings envisioned phatic communication through an application like Twitter as being a large factor in fostering that sustainability.

The data says otherwise.

Tummeling activity and online phatic interaction clearly extended the organization's reach and visibility while promoting connections that were sustainable beyond the three-day conference. These activities were largely extraorganizational; in other words, they were driven from below—by attendees—rather than from above—by the organization itself.

The organizers, to their credit, realized that blogging and microblogging activities needed to be leveraged in some way. They were intent on trying new ways of extending the organization's reach.

Findings from this small-scale study indicate how organizations might better foster tummeling activities in support of visibility and sustainability efforts. Part of the challenge is met by simply promoting tools like Twitter—embracing and encouraging the tummlers who are in some way connected to (though not necessarily a part of) the organization.

You can get a pre-publication version of the full paper below, or the official version at the ACM Portal.


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