Category Archives: Blogging, Twittering, etc

Promoting research ideas with social media: A nice example

So you’re a researcher and you want to get your cool new idea out there. You want other researchers to adopt it and promote it further for you. What do you do? (Hint: if you’re as cool as your idea, you probably mention The Web, Facebook (or Google+, if you prefer), and Twitter at this point, even if you secretly wonder what they are and what the point of them is.)

In the past…

Traditionally, you would probably publish papers about your idea in peer-reviewed academic journals so that people interested in that area would read about it and think “that’s a cool idea; I must adopt that approach too”. Similarly, you might present about it at conferences where your audience of like-minded people would listen and think “that’s a cool idea; I must adopt that approach too”. If you had teaching responsibilities, you likely also taught your students about your new approach, explaining the weaknesses of the old approach and why this new approach is better so that when they come to doing their own research projects they think “that’s a cool idea; I must adopt that approach too”.

Except (I’m guessing here) it probably doesn’t always work like that. Especially if your cool new research idea is a statistical method. Especially if your new statistical method requires its users to sit down with a calculator and manually work through an equation instead of just opening a data file and pressing some buttons in SPSS, the statistics package popular with psychologists, marketing people, and others.

I work in usability and user experience in my non-student life. But it doesn’t take a usability expert to work out that if your audience is made up of people who most likely have just GCSE-level (high school) Maths (like me) and often (I’ve noticed) The Fear of all things mathematical, you’re not going to get far in convincing them to use your new statistical method, even if it’s what they really need to use and they would actually quite like to use it. I don’t really have The Fear myself but I do glaze over when presented with less-than-simple equations and strange clusters of weird characters because I just don’t know how to read them.

The unfortunate upshot is that your cool new statistical approach just doesn’t really get off the ground, no one else writes about using it (so you don’t get the all-important citations in other people’s publications), and it just slides quietly away into the ether.

In the 21st C…

If you are as cool as your cool new research idea, you might also embrace the wonders of the world of social media and online communications. Obviously, publishing in peer-reviewed journals, presenting at conferences, and teaching your students are all good and necessary things to do. But they’re probably not enough in some cases–and I’d guess that statistical methods is probably one of those cases.

I don’t know whether Hayes & Preacher (or Preacher & Hayes) went through that exact thought process when thinking about how to promote their cool new statistical methods to psychologists and other social scientists, but it seems that usability was one of their aims (for example, Andrew Hayes suggests that people have tended to stick with the older methods, rather than adopt the newer and better methods, because the old ones are “simple and widely understood”; Hayes, 2009, p 411).

Facebook Discussion list of topics
So Hayes & Preacher have done two things:

  • Written macros to extend SPSS
    Users can use the macros to (fairly) easily run the tests using SPSS, an environment they’re already familiar with. Macros are a bit fiddly to work with so, for one of their tests, they’ve even written a custom dialog that you can install in SPSS which adds a new entry to the Analyze menu so that you can just open a standard-looking dialog box to select the appropriate variables names and run the test. All this is available for free download from their website.
  • Created a Facebook group to answer questions
    You can start a new topic (thread) to ask a question or describe a problem, or you can browse the existing 1636 (and rapidly rising) topics (at least, I’ve been able to before but today it seems the back/forward links have gone walkabout). You can also use Google to search for specific topics. Both Preacher and Hayes typically respond to questions and problems within a day. When I was having some technical problems, they asked for a my data file and ran the test on their own machines to check whether it was just my installation of SPSS that was the problem (it was).

Benefits for users

As a student trying to understand the statistical procedures by reading and re-reading their journal papers multiple times, it was invaluable to be able to ask the authors themselves (via Facebook no less) to clarify specific details as they applied to my particular experimental design. Browsing the 1000+ topics of discussion was also very educational as I came across answers to questions that I hadn’t even thought to ask yet.

Benefits for them

The benefits for them are surely great too. Obviously they have to spend time writing, testing, and supporting their macros etc, and they also have to spend time responding to help requests on Facebook. In return, though, they vastly improve the ease of using their statistical procedures, while also giving you (the user) a warm and fuzzy feeling about the procedures (the power of positive affect) and that there are many other people out there trying to use the procedure too (the power of social norms), all in all making you (I would guess) more likely to keep trying and to talk about the procedures to others. Those are the intangible and difficult-to-measure benefits of a good user experience.

In addition, they’re getting loads and loads of feedback from their users on where their procedures or explanations are difficult to understand, or where users commonly have problems, so that when they write a book on it, they’ve got valuable material to respond to and include which should make the book incredibly useful to users. We’ll see if that’s true when their book, and accompanying new macro, comes out next year. And there’s another thing, while they’ve got you in a discussion on Facebook, it’s practical (but also good promotion) for them to refer you to one or other of their papers, or to mention the book coming out next year. And there’s a list of up-coming events at which they’ll be conducting workshops on these statistical procedures. It all helps to boost citations.

Everyone wins

I think it’s brilliant. Not just because they helped me by answering a question within a day and diagnosing the problems I was having running their macros. But because they’re tapping into resources that are free and much of their target audience already use. And by doing this, they’re making their cool ideas as accessible as possible, which can only really be a good thing for everyone concerned.


Hayes, A. (2009). Beyond Baron and Kenny: Statistical Mediation Analysis in the New Millennium. Communication Monographs, 76(4), 408-420. doi:10.1080/03637750903310360


I work for IBM, who own SPSS.

The End of the Affair

I called Vodafone customer service again. The first time, they’d robotically refused to listen. Some excuse about spoiling their bank holiday; not wanting to hear what I had to say. It nearly worked, I nearly didn’t call back. But I had to get it off my chest; had to say what I had to say.

So I tried again. This time, I wasn’t to be put off. I had to do it.

An Irish man answered. Friendly and welcoming. I felt awkward; he sounded happy; I didn’t want to spoil his day. I asked when my current contract ended.

“No problem, I’ll just check when your commitment ends.” He said it, not me: my commitment. He told me my commitment ended on the 23rd May 2011. There was a slight pause where neither of us knew quite what to say next. “Um…do you want to upgrade?” he ventured.

“I’m leaving. Can I have my PAC number please?” I gabbled. Just to get it out. There was another pause. A slightly taken aback pause. I felt bad. He’d been so sunny and warm until I’d phoned him like a rain cloud across his day.

“We’re…we’re sorry that you’re leaving.” He made an effort to smile again; to put on a brave face. “Okay, so you’d like a PAC number?”

“Yes please”

“I’ll have to check if the department is open. It’s, you know, bank holiday, so not all of the departments are…er…open today. Because of the bank holiday you know.” It was his turn to gabble.

“Yes” I said. “Of course.” Then, suddenly, to reassure him: “I’m sure I’ll be back. At some point.”

I paused, then added: “It’s not you; it’s me.”

As I listened to the ‘hold’ music, I relaxed a bit. I’d done it. it was nearly over. I was going to get a PAC number and then I would be free to move on. Free to discover a new network.

“Hello, Laura?” said another male voice. More efficient, slightly less friendly this time. Yet still polite.

“Yes” I said.

“You’d like a PAC number?”

“Yes, please,” This was it; I was nearly there.

“Can I ask who you’re leaving us for?”

My heart sank slightly. He was going to make this difficult. Why couldn’t he just accept it? I wasn’t trying to play hard-to-get. I just wanted a PAC number so I could move on from this old relationship to a new and vibrant network. He thought I was just trying to get a better deal.

“giffgaff” I mumbled.

Which network?”


He’d never heard of them. I felt a sudden sense of derision towards him. Granted, I’d never heard of giffgaff until last week but then I don’t work in the telecoms industry. I’d just asked on Twitter if anyone had any recommendations about Vodafone vs O2 coverage and SIM-only deals from each of them. I hadn’t even been aware of the quiet dark stranger standing in the corner, waiting to catch my eye.

@oldmanuk had been first to point him out. He’d not known him for long but what he’d seen, he’d liked. @oldmanuk had suggested talking to @maygg or @thomasj; both were with this newcomer, and they might be able to put in a good word for me. If I was interested.

Instantly, I had glimpsed the excitement I’d felt in the first couple of weeks of my current commitment, a long two years ago. Then, it had been less about the relationship and more about the gift of the new handset that had arrived to my home. About removing the box sleeve to reveal, inside, the shiny dark-blue touchscreen phone, its smooth surface unsullied by the bumps and scratches of my old phone. The novelty had faded over the two years but I wasn’t ready to give it up, despite the tempting offers from Android.

giffgaff wasn’t offering me gifts like that. He wasn’t offering them in return for a fixed-term commitment. All he asked is that I check in briefly every 3 months. If I wanted more, more was there. If I didn’t, there was no pressure. I liked that about him. I liked his easy-going nature.

“giffgaff?” asked the Vodafone customer service representative. “Are they a third-party website?” The slight derision I’d felt grew into coldness towards him.

“They’re another provider. Running on the O2 network.” I was annoyed with myself for feeling like I had to explain myself to him. I didn’t owe him anything. Yet I felt guilty, like I was being unreasonable, like I was playing around on a rival network.

“Oh” he said. “Can I ask what they’re offering?”

I held the impatience out of my voice as I replied: “Um…they do…um…kindof goodybags – they call them goodybags – that last a month. For £10 I get 250 minutes, and txts, …um…unlimited txts and data. And cheaper prices outside of that. And they…um…have…um…an interesting business model.”

I was gabbling again. In silent anguish I added: “why won’t you just let me go?”

He paused. I wished I were still talking to the first man. I’d felt bad for hurting him but at least I’d been able to talk to him. This man was colder, more experienced, more distant. I just wanted to get away. At the same time I understood that he was doing all he knew just to keep me. But I didn’t want him any more.

“I can give you 300 minutes for £9 a month,” he offered. My stomach tightened. I shook my head even though he couldn’t see me.

“No, it’s okay. I just want to go,” I said. Firmer this time. I had to make myself clear. I wasn’t just angling for a better deal. I wanted a complete break. I wanted to be able to to see giffgaff, without the ties, without the costs. Without the guilt.

“So you just like the look of this company?” He was trying to be calm and polite and rational. But, to me, he seemed to be suggesting that I was flighty, that I was falling for appearances, that I was being irrational.

“No, I like their business model. They’re community-focused.” I knew I probably wasn’t making a lot of sense to him. I was being defensive. I just wanted to get this over with. I wanted to move on.

“Okay, so you need a PAC number.” Relief slid down my tummy. Finally, he seemed to understand. My hand shook slightly as I wrote “PAC:” on the front of my giffgaff origami envelope and then waited for him to speak again.

He slowly read out the letters and numbers as I wrote them down.

“Thank you very much,” I said, as I hung up.

I looked down at the PAC number written before me, among the bright decoration of the giffgaff origami envelope that contained my SIM for the future. I was free.

My future was bright; my future was giffgaff.

A book in the Human Library at WOMAD2010: A tale in tweets…

One Sunday morning in June, while I was lazing in bed, I received this tweet:

how about it @lauracowen? would be good to have a female geek @ #WOMAD

I spent the next hour absorbed in reading the Human Library website and the WOMAD website on my mobile phone. Then:

@littlecough oo sounds cool. To be a book you mean?


@lauracowen yep...need to challenge preconceptions about IT geeks! I need a couple of 2hr shifts from each book


laura agreement

And that was that. I was committed. In public.

The Human Library is a fascinating idea that originated at Roskilde Festival 2000 in Denmark:

Borrow a person you normally would think you would not like. We have a wide selection of unpopular stereotypes. Everything from gays to hip hoppers to immigrants. Take a walk, have a talk or dont. Just remember to give back the person within two hours.

As a book, I had to have a blurb to be printed on my metaphorical back (in practice, it was to go into a printed catalogue of the available books for visitors to browse). The idea of the blurb is to be controversial and encompass some of the popular stereotypes about the subject. At which point, I started to struggle. So, I turned to Twitter again:

Tweeps, what stereotypes of female geeks have you come across, or you believe are true? Much appreciate any responses. Thanks :)

Initially I got self-consciously positive comments about women in IT such as:

actually the best IT Manager I ever worked for was female

Whilst a nice sentiment, it wasn’t quite what I was looking for. So I tried again:

Okay, I'll rephrase...what stereotypes have you heard of female geeks? I promise not to believe it's your beliefs unless you say otherwise!

I figured an example or two might be helpful to get the ball rolling:

laura second crowd sourcing request 2

Um...or...'weird'...or...pls help...I'm struggling here!

That seemed to do the trick:

  • glasses
  • bad hair
  • love pink
  • like to be hit on by male geeks
  • all lesbians
  • the movies portray glamorous sexy chic
  • no fashion sense
  • most assume you have to be tougher and not at all girlie to be a female geek also
  • butch short hair
  • glasses
  • Glasses
  • pigtails
  • glasses and very girly
  • there aren’t enough/many of them
  • not as technical as male geeks

As you can see, there were quite a few responses, once unleashed. You can probably also see that some of them contradict others (eg ‘love pink’ and ‘not at all girlie’). I think that just goes to show that whatever you think about girl geeks, you’re probably wrong. 🙂

Anyway, thank you to everyone who helped crowd-source my blurb. You can read my published blurb on the Human Library at WOMAD website.

My next task was to un-earth my 15+-year-old tent, and put it up in the back garden:

Me and my tent

And I bought some purple festival wellies on ebay.

On the weekend itself, I pootled up to Charlton Park, the venue for WOMAD 2010. After some difficulties with the lack of signage and not being able to find the right entrance, I was presented with not only a free weekend ticket but a CREW pass and backstage privileges:

WOMAD pass

Which, once I’d found Katy (@littlecough), I discovered meant that I could pitch my tent in the crew’s campsite. Basically it just meant I had to walk further but I could go pretty much anywhere and there seemed to be a higher ratio of toilets and showers to campers. I appreciated that a lot throughout the weekend.

So, the Human Library. Well, I had two 2hr sessions on the Saturday. The Human Library was based in a couple of pretty yurts on the edge of the festival.

The Human Library

It was a slightly odd experience being a book. It felt a wee bit like we were being pimped out – 8 of us books sitting out of sight on The Shelf (a row of chairs by the door with a label around our necks). The customers signed up at the desk outside the yurt and were then led inside to meet their book who would then take them to a free table and cushions somewhere in the yurt, or outside on a bench to chat for 30 minutes.

Some books were instantly popular, like the Tsunami Survivor and the Psychiatrist, who both seemed to be booked out in advance for every half-hour slot. On paper, it was less obvious what a Girl IT Geek was so I tended to be the pot-luck book; people who were interested in the Human Library and wanted to try it out would often just pick one of the books not currently out on loan.

Inside the Human Library yurt

I don’t think I got any advance bookings at all but I was borrowed for most of the slots. I found that I was every so slightly nervous at the start of each of my ‘readings’ because I don’t usually find it very easy to just start a conversation with someone, even though I’m usually happy to talk to random strangers who strike up conversations on trains. My first borrower was an academic who was, himself, slightly apprehensive, I think, and very serious. We had an interesting discussion about energy use and flying. He pointed out that academics typically made their careers from becoming experts in very very specific areas, and then it’s a career highlight to arrange a conference in that area in an exotic location that you have to fly to. We discussed how video-conferencing could be improved and the problems we’d each experienced with it.

After that it becomes something of a blur. I talked to a primary school teacher about energy monitoring and how it can be hard to reduce household energy usage when you share with friends. I talked to a musician about Open Source Software (he’d tried Ubuntu but didn’t think it had the software he needed for his music) and the software we use to produce the UUPC podcast. I talked to a single mum from New York and her young daughter about using computers and how awkward it is to get photos off a camera, on to your laptop, edit them, upload them. And I did a joint booking with the Vegetarian Ecologist for a group of teenage boys with whom we discussed Second Life, Open Source Software, home automation, and agreed that my Christmas tree lights project really was very geeky. (You can see me as a book in one of the photos on the Human Library at WOMAD website.)


It actually went really well, though it was exhausting. In all but one of my bookings, we were still happily chatting away when the 30 minute bell rang to say the session was over. In the one that finished slightly early it just came to a natural end of conversation, which was fine. Over all my bookings, I think I probably ticked all the boxes of things I’m interested in and have blogged or tweeted about at some point…usability, climate change, energy monitoring, Open Source Software, Ubuntu, my Christmas lights project…

In the odd session when I stayed on the shelf, I chatted to some of the other books, including the Dyslexic Egyptology Student book, who was inspiring in what she does, and it was fascinating to listen to her talk about her life as the daughter of the Council Tenant Mum of 7 book. The Dyslexic Egyptology Student also had a great story to tell about some ace young girls who borrowed her and shyly asked her about her dyslexia and whether she’d got bullied about it and whether she thought they could go to university as they too had dyslexia.

The librarians

The sessions all ran really smoothly and the yurts were lovely and shady from the hot sun outside. I really enjoyed being a book and would recommend it as an experience to anyone. I think it would also be a brilliant way for a company to do diversity training. A few weeks later, I read a profile by a guy at work who has multiple sclerosis; the insight I got into his life just from reading that article had a similar effect on me as listening to some of the books talking at the Human Library.

As for the rest of the festival, I ate breakfast at the frightfully middle-class Riverford organic cafe (as in the delivery people), and learnt how to plait garlic (a fine skill, I feel), though I didn’t win the Riverford garlic-plaiting competition. I ate loads of vegetarian food from the various vans and stalls, discovered the lovely hot apple and cinnamon at the Tiny Tea Tent:

Hot apple and cinnamon at the Tiny Tea Tent

And watched the bubble experts (as seen on Blue Peter many many years ago making massive bubbles around small children):


As I left Charlton Park on the Sunday afternoon, leaving the WOMAD 2010 music festival, I realised it was the first time since Friday lunchtime that there was no soundtrack. Since I arrived on Friday, there’d been a constant music bed of drums, singing, guitars, or PAs. WOMAD wasn’t somewhere I would’ve gone had it not been for taking part in the Human Library but it was a fun experience, and I saw both Cerys from Catatonia and Chumba-wumba live (she sang Mulder and Scully; they refused to sing Tub-thumping). Sadly I missed the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.