research

Please visit my research website, pearl.umd.edu to read more information about specific projects I am working on in the areas of privacy, surveillance, and ethics.

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Broadly speaking, my research interests lie in the social impacts of communication technology. Coming from a communication background, I am always interested in the message being communicated: who is communicating the message, with whom are they communicating, and what is the content of the message. But as a social scientist, my interest runs deeper. I am especially influenced Erving Goffman’s (1959) work on selective self-presentation and Granovetter’s (1973) seminal research on tie strength.

These influences have led me to focus, in my later years of graduate school, on the concept of context collapse as it applies to online sites such as Facebook where users articulate a network of connections and interact with those connections through a variety of public and private channels. Context collapse refers to the process by which an individual’s audiences–family, colleagues, friends, etc.–become flattened out through the technical features of the site. In the case of Facebook, this happens when a user Friends other users; regardless of the type or strength of relationship, all connections are considered “Friends” by the system, and the most visible form of self-presentation on the site, posting status updates are typically sent to one’s entire audience.

Many of these sites have created technical features to help mitigate some of users’ concerns related to context collapse. For example, on Google+, users choose which “Circles” with whom the share individual updates. Facebook has a less well-known feature, Friend Lists, which allows users to group their Friends according to any criteria of their choosing and distribute. Alternatively, users may engage in a form of self-censorship that Hogan (2010) has termed the lowest-common-denominator approach, in which users only share content that is appropriate for all audiences.

Thinking theoretically, this latter approach may have a negative impact on individuals’ ability to accrue social capital benefits because social capital is generated through interactions with one’s network; therefore, a lack of interaction would prevent an individual from making information or support-based requests of his/her network. My prelim research empirically tested many of these questions, and some findings are presented in an article in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media [pdf].

For my dissertation, I chose to take a step back and look at the relationship between these communication technologies and their role in the relationship maintenance process more broadly. Within the communication literature, much energy has been devoted over the last 50 years to exploring how relationships are maintained–but these studies contain some important gaps when considering the processes we enact in 2012. Relationship maintenance research tends to look at physically proximate, romantic relationships rather than the range of relationships individuals maintain, from neighbors to coworkers to high school friends that move away to go to college. New technologies, including email, mobile phones, and social media have removed many of the geographic, financial, and temporal constraints to relationship maintenance with distant (both physically and relationally) connections. While many researchers appear to have dismissed sites like Facebook as having any “meaningful” impact on relationships because of the very qualities that make them appealing to managing relationships that may otherwise disintegrate, the site’s affordances need to be examined at a deeper level to determine what impact–if any–these newer technologies may have on relationship maintenance, especially when considering relationships beyond one’s inner circle of connections. My dissertation can be downloaded here.

In the years since receiving my PhD and beginning my position at the University of Maryland, my research interests have shifted to focus largely on issues at the intersection of communication technologies, privacy, and ethics. For example, I currently have three federal grants covering this intersection in very different ways.

  1. NSF funding in partnership with the Netherlands’ national funding agency for a cross-cultural study of mobile privacy. For more information, click here.
  2. IMLS funding to work with librarians working in economically disadvantaged communities and their patrons to develop resources to minimize risky behavior around sharing personal information on public computers. For more information, click here.
  3. NSF funding for a large project with five other institutions examining cross-cutting questions about pervasive data ethics, which is becoming increasingly problematic as more data about us moves online. For more information, click here.