Autism and social norms onlineJust submitted the final version of this paper:
Burke, M., Kraut, R., and Williams, D. (to appear). Social use of computer-mediated communication by adults on the autism spectrum. Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) 2010. PDFIt's going to be the foundation of my thesis, and I'm psyched to be applying a combination of ninja data-munging and ethnography on a really meaningful problem. The gist is that a lot of adults on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum are using Facebook, fan forums, online dating sites, and IM to meet new people and support existing relationships in a relatively comfortable medium. CMC removes the need for eye contact, reduces pressure to respond quickly, and is fairly structured and predictable, all properties that mesh with characteristics common to individuals with autism. By removing intonation and nonverbal cues (occasional emoticon ;-) notwithstanding), CMC levels the playing field for interpretation (or misinterpretation).
But CMC isn't ideal. It removes some forms of feedback and is subject to emerging social norms (such as how quickly to reply to an email from a new acquaintance). It's hard to tell who to trust, especially if you don't have a strong network of mutual acquaintances to vouch for someone.
Last spring I interviewed 16 Pittsburgh-area adults on the autism spectrum, and they shared their email inboxes, fan fiction, and MySpace pages with me. We talked about face-to-face social interactions, especially with classmates, co-workers, family, and friends. Then we logged in together and they walked me through any online communities or CMC tools they regularly used, and explained how online interactions differed from face-to-face ones. About half of the adults in the study were actively seeking to build new relationships, so this paper documents their successes and challenges, and proposes technology designs to support their goals.
One of the biggest challenges for several interviewees was figuring out social norms online. What should I say in my online dating profile? How soon should I email a new friend? How many Facebook status updates is too many? This is a problem for everybody to some degree, so interventions focused on one population should generalize well. So, I'm thinking about modeling typical social interactions online (messaging frequency, status updating, txting, tweeting, etc.), plotting distributions of activity, and showing an individual where he or she fits on that distribution. ("You update your status more than 60% of your friends, and more than 71% of all Facebook users your age.") And showing outcomes for following/deviating from the norms ("People who post their Farmville stories *this* often are 3X more likely to get unfriended.") The things that are easiest to measure aren't usually the most important (e.g., good friends won't diss you for tweeting too much, but poor phone or txting manners can stress a fledgling relationship), so if you have ideas for good behaviors to measure (and how to do it), shoot them my way. We're also talking about creating social stories (vignettes about somewhat ambiguous social situations) specific to CMC.