SIGIR 2009: Day 3, Industry Track: danah boyd

After I secured Matt Cutts as a speaker for the SIGIR 2009 Industry Track, I suppose I became a bit cocky. I decided that I wanted another speaker who would not only be interesting, but also would have the star power to put the event on the map. One of my topics on my list was social media. So I decided, why not, I’ll try to get danah boyd.

This turned out to be no easy task. At the time, danah was on an email sabbatical (she was just wrapping up her dissertation at Berkeley). I’d actually been in touch with her several years ago, when Friendster was the only social network in town, and danah and Jeff Heer (whom I recently met at SIGMOD 2009) were working on visualizing it. I have my own history in network visualization, and I’d hoped to get access to their data. But no such luck. Still, discovering danah led me to read her master’s thesis (at the MIT Media Lab) on “Faceted Id/entity: Managing representation in a digital world“.

I actually given up on reaching her after a few weeks–reluctantly, I fell back to plan B. Fortuitously, however,  my plan B fell through, and I decided to try again. At long last I did reach her, only to discover I had to accomplish what I worried would be an even harder job: convincing her that her ethnographic research would be a good fit for an information retrieval audience. So I sent her this pitch:

I’d love to hear you talk about how the evolution of social media has changed the context of search. Going back to your master’s thesis, the collapsing of situational context in searchable archives has not only wreaked havoc on personal identity, but also made it difficult for searchers to meaningfully navigation those archives. And, since publication and search are flip sides of the same coin, we need to understand this dynamic better, especially as there is an increasing trend towards conducting public conversation.

It worked! The next thing I knew, she was on board to give a talk about “The Searchable Nature of Acts in Networked Publics”. As I expected, she was a fantastic speaker, and she had no problem engaging the audience. Rather than try to summarize her talk in detail, I refer you to a recent blog post of hers that covers very similar material. You can also read summaries of the actual talk by Mary McKenna at SemanticHacker and Daniele Quercia at MobBlog.

I saw the most salient theme of her talk as the need to intepret people’s behavior on online social networks (which, as she points out, come in many different flavors) in terms of their intentions. For example, teens on MySpace lie about their age, but they don’t see this behavior as deceptive behavior–after all, their online friends (who are the people for whom they publish their profiles) all know how old they are. In general, all of the information we provide online needs to be viewed through an appropriate contextual lens. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for those who still are clinging to hopes of privacy), our data mining practices are a bit behind the curve.

The proliferation of user-generated content and public conversation–both of which amount to a democratization of publishing–is changing the ways we need to approach information retrieval in practice. danah’s talk left me with more questions than answers, but I appreciate her insightful snapshot of how people are using social networks today. And that snapshot only reinforced my certainty that I want to devote my life (or at least the next several years) to understanding and improving how people interact with information.

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

4 replies on “SIGIR 2009: Day 3, Industry Track: danah boyd”

In addition to the content, I found the form of her presentation interesting. It was very much along the style favored by conferences such as eTech, and in books like Slideology (

It makes me wonder.. should the rest of the academic community be moving in this direction as well? Would we be better off giving more” slideological” presentations? Or is it more of an eTech-ian cultural norm or fad, rather than a more universal aspiration?


I felt–and heard from others–that the Industry Track presentations were, on the whole, more polished than research talks. That’s not entirely surprising, given the different selection processes for both (invited talks vs. blind peer-reviewed submission).

I don’t expect graduate students or even faculty to be superstar presenters. But presenting is a skill, and there were a number of presenters whom I wanted to send to Toastmasters for basic training. That strikes me as a bigger issue than the choice of presentation format.

Specifically with regard to danah’s “slideological” presentation format, it does have the unfortunate side effect that the slides aren’t useful as a stand-alone artifact (which is why she isn’t sharing them online). Of course, you can turn that around as a positive: she made it worth being there live. My personal style is somewhere in between.

Of course, there’s the hope that future SIGIR conferences will be videoed, or even live-streamed. That would be nice.


It’s not the polish that I’m worried about; I’m sure that an industry speaker, doing a lecture circuit, is going to automatically be orders of magnitude more polished than even the best SIGIR presenter. And that’s simply because the industry person will have done it dozens of times more.

So that aside, there is still a qualitative difference in how danah chose to represent her material, and how almost, if not all, other SIGIR academic and industry researchers presented themselves. Not just a difference in quantitative skill and polish, but in qualitative approach.

True, slideological slides can’t be shared as usefully. But I’m still wondering: In terms of giving a conference presentation, the purpose of which is to invite people to read your paper in more details, should academic presenters move more in that direction?

No right or wrong answer. Am just interested in your (and your readers’) opinions, and reasons for those opinion.


Fair enough, though I don’t think that all of the industry track participants were lecture circuit types. I do think there’s a cultural difference between industry and academia, and that the former places a higher value on presentation skills.

In any case, I do agree that conference presentations should make the most of the live, visual, and interactive medium. One of the best conference presentations outside the industry track was Paul Bennett’s talk on “Refined Experts“, in no small part because he made the presentation very interactive, as well as emphasizing visual materials over formulas.

I find that senior researchers take this approach more often than junior ones, and my speculation is that the senior ones are less concerned with proving themselves–and thus focus more on communicating with the audience.


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