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Dr. Shalin Hai-Jew explains electronic hive minds (EHMs) and how they affect our social consciousness in an IGI Global interview.

Are You a Node in an Electronic Hive Mind? Hear From Expert Dr. Shalin Hai-Jew

By Anne Long on Jun 5, 2019
The ways we consume social media and other news increasingly lends itself to a phenomenon called ‘electronic hive mind’ (EHM), many people who share their knowledge or opinions with each other, which then produces collective intelligence and real-world effects. EHMs are ephemeral and exist across platforms. They are utilitarian and apply to a variety of collective human interests. To further explain this phenomenon and how it affects our social consciousness and perception of virtual communication and community, Dr. Shalin Hai-Jew from Kansas State University, USA, shares her latest research on knowledge sharing, swarm intelligence, and social psychology from her publication, Electronic Hive Minds on Social Media, in an IGI Global interview.

How did you arrive at the idea for “electronic hive minds”?

The idea arose when I was working on a chapter on cybersecurity titled, “The Electronic Hive Mind and Cybersecurity: Mass-Scale Human Cognitive Limits to Explain the ‘Weakest Link’ in Cybersecurity,” Chapter 11, in i>Global Cyber Security Labor Shortage and International Business Risk edited by Mr. Bryan Christiansen from Tactical Systems LLC, USA, and Ms. Agnieszka Piekarz, an Independent Researcher from Poland, which came out earlier this year.

I wanted to capture something of a distributed and collective mind enabled by the Web, Internet, and social media. In this “electronic mind,” there would be individuals who are in-the-know about the cybersecurity risks, and their willingness to share their expertise and healthy paranoia may be the difference between semi-safety or high-risk for the general public.

What inspired you to pursue research activities in your research area?

The idea of “electronic hive minds” (EHMs) stuck with me after that initial work. I am attracted to ideas that I cannot shake. I wondered if I could explore further and see what these might be like in the wild. Additionally, I wondered if I could use the human mind analogically and find comparisons with electronic minds. The human mind or consciousness is enabled by the brain (wetware) and society in the same way that the EHM or distributed consciousness is enabled by human brains, robot programs, information and communication technology, social technologies, and other aspects. For example, do EHMs have personalities? What might executive functioning look like in an EHM? Or imagination? Or mental blind spots? (This approach enabled me to create a method for addressing these questions.)

What are “electronic hive minds”? And how can you recognize them when you come across them? Or are a node in one?

I started working on the publication Electronic Hive Minds on Social Media, in only the vaguest sense of whether or not this would work. I did not want to reify something that could not be rationally shown to “exist,” within the limits of human observations, technology tools, and limited available social and other data. Instead, I wanted to see what people co-created in an emergent way in the world.

I was able to formalize an informal definition of “electronic hive minds”, a distributed group of people connected by electronic communications (often across platforms) and focused around a shared topic and / or endeavor, but without needing to arrive at consensus. The “hive” part, in the public sci-fi imagination, might suggest different roles such as the busyness of endeavors, or it might suggest a lack of independent thought among the members. EHMs do instantiate in many forms, though, and how they form, how they evolve, who they attract, what needs they meet, and how they sunset all seem to differ. Right now, there are more questions than answers, and the thinking on this is nascent.

What would you say was the most surprising thing about your research?

The “happiest” surprise was discovering that I could find signs of EHMs using the tools I had, as limited and focused as the respective tools were. A second was finding out that work in social network theory and computational linguistic analysis and image analysis…all have important roles to play in the research.

The “hardest” surprise was finding that many online social interactions are lightweight. There are drive-by shares and questions asked and often ignored…or questions asked and superficially answered…or questions asked and answered in manipulative ways.

The “most” surprising thing is how easily it was to apply human “mind” aspects to the electronic mind ones…and how collective minds are very human-like and social-machine-like albeit at a collective level. There are human “ego” and “personality” aspects, but also a very computational metallic aspect.

What were your main expectations for the outcome of this publication and how were they achieved?

My initial aims were simple: Do EHMs exist, and if they do, what do they look like, and what can we learn from them? And how can we learn about them in a mix of subjective and objective approaches? I used human mind functions as ways to get at EHMs and then identified a topic that would enable me to explore such online spaces and “communities.” (The book has focuses on topics like frugal living, cryptocurrencies, trolling, forgetting, coordinated activities, and others). I looked for meta-messaging in each group. I also read for subtext. I explored some features of leadership and followership. I also did bottom-up coding and went with wherever the information took me.

I used dozens of technologies and tech tools and data analytics methods throughout for different purposes, but I still felt somewhat dissatisfied at the end. I could have done more. However, the main comfort is that writing a “Research Insights book is like being part of a relay race. At the start, I received the relay baton, and at the end, I pass it off to others. (This is not to say that the grip of “electronic hive minds” has fully let go, but it may be a while before I will have time to give this concept some further attention.)

Ultimately, in the nine chapters, I made some initial observations beyond the formal definition of EHMs, and I offered some “future research” guide paths (in the Conclusion) with several potential research questions.

What are some of the benefits of your research to its community of users?

As with most things, others must catch the same fever for a work to advance, or they must at least see the possibilities. Understanding how various EHMs form, engage, share, behave, and collaborate seems very useful to me, particularly since so many are so open and susceptible to others’ ideas, lifestyles, values, opinions, and actions…through screen reputations alone (in many cases). As with all messaging, some are reinforcing, and some are cathartic. The messaging does not have to be sophisticated per se to affect people and to spark some to actions. The sense of online groupness can sometimes encourage some to suspend their disbelief and to act with unthinking and false courage sometimes. Regardless, many duly take on behavioral roles. Moving outside of EHM party-lines and meta-messaging is important for the human well-being. Myths are so pervasive and so sticky over time. After all, so much messaging online is with ulterior motives. And yet, social media is the zeitgeist of the current age, at least through the next little while.

EHMs, in their various instantiations, do shape the world and have incredible potentials to have complex interaction effects. This initial work touches on some possible effects, but this is only a beginning.

Why are your respective areas of research important to the field at large?

My professional work is focused around instructional design, teaching, learning, learning analytics, data analytics, information technologies, editing and publishing, and others. I have long been interested in different ways of conducting research, and that has been with me for many decades, too. I think my work is generally practical and applied. While I am comfortable with theory and theorizing, I am much more about applying ideas to work in practical ways. In terms of how this work might contribute [to the field at large], it provides a framework around which to discuss people sharing information online, socializing, collaborating, co-creating, co-endeavoring, and just being together/not-together online.

What has your experience been like publishing with IGI Global?

It has been a constructive relationship for over a decade. I have been able to work on ideas and research areas of interest to me. The staff of IGI Global are professional and supportive. IGI Global’s book system is impressive and makes the double-blind peer review process so much easier. I like that IGI Global takes responsibility for their part and works to lighten the load on contributors.
IGI Global would like to thank Dr. Hai-Jew for sharing her research on electronic hive minds and communication technology.
About Dr. Shalin Hai-Jew: Dr. Shalin Hai-Jew works as an instructional designer at Kansas State University (K-State) and taught for WashingtonOnline for a number of years through 2014. She has taught at the university and college levels for many years (including four years in the People’s Republic of China) and was tenured at Shoreline Community College but left tenure to pursue instructional design work. She has Bachelor’s degrees in English and psychology, a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from the University of Washington (Hugh Paradise Scholar), and an Ed.D in Educational Leadership with a focus on public administration from Seattle University (where she was a Morford Scholar). She is currently editing a book titled Maintaining Social Well-Being and Meaningful Work in a Highly Automated Job Market.
Dr. Hai-Jew’s publication, Electronic Hive Minds on Social Media, is available through IGI Global’s Online Bookstore and world-renowned InfoSci®-Books, a database of 5,300+ reference books with over 100,000 full-text chapters focusing on emerging research.

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