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Nicole Ellison on social media, self-perception and her love of Ann Arbor

Nicole Ellison in front of a tree on a hiking trail, wearing a blue and pink dress and smiling.

Thursday, 11/02/2023

University of Michigan School of Information professor Nicole Ellison is fascinated with how people use technology to create community, represent themselves, and access information. For more than two decades, she has been analyzing online dating practices, the use of social media platforms for exchanging social support and information, and the impact of algorithms on human behavior. As a faculty affiliate at the U-M College of Literature, Science and the Arts, and has taught numerous courses on new media, e-communities and theories of social media.  

Tell us about yourself and your path to UMSI. 

My training is in communication theory and research with a focus on technology. I did my graduate work in the late nineties, after a few years working in CD-ROM and video game development. At this time, the world wide web was just being popularized and massive social changes were starting to happen. At that point I decided that I wanted to understand the changes that these technologies were introducing, not just help build the software. My degree is in Communication from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication, with an emphasis on technology.

Since the early days, I was focused on questions of technology and how online communication could help people initiate and maintain social relationships with one another. There are different components of this. One theme has been studying how people give and receive support from those in their network. I’ve done a whole stream of work with Cliff Lampe and our graduate students focusing on social capital and Facebook examining how individuals use the affordances of the platform to solicit information from their network and maintain relationships with both weak and strong ties. 

I’ve also looked at self presentation in online contexts with a focus on online dating profiles and how individuals choose to share information about themselves to strangers who they’re hoping to build a relationship with. An interesting facet of online dating is that participants can, in theory, use the affordances of computer-mediated communication to engage in deception (for instance, using a very old photo or even a photo of another person), but if they want the possibility of a romantic or physical relationship, they should restrict their self-presentational edits to just embellishment, not outright deception.

I started out at California State University-Stanislaus in a communication department, then spent a few years at MSU in the department of Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media, then moved to UMSI in 2013. Although I love the interdisciplinary nature of UMSI, I consider communication studies to be my primary intellectual community. I’ve been very involved in the International Communication Conference as Chair of the Communication and Technology division, and I’m currently serving as editor in chief of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, an ICA journal.

What brought you to the field of information? What fascinates you most about information? 

I don’t typically talk about the  one “field” of information - when I teach the PhD theory class, I am always careful to say “fields” of information in order to emphasize the multiple, different disciplinary traditions that are roughly housed under this rubric of information studies. For me, the benefit of being in an information school versus a traditional communication department is the focus on the technology itself, but from many different perspectives. And being around and collaborating with folks who have a wider range of connections to the technology itself, whether it is building online communities or other tools,  or thinking more explicitly about design, or working with industry folks. All of these ways of interacting with technology can enhance our scholarship in important ways. 

You mentioned earlier working in the technology industry and studying online communication in the late nineties and early 2000s, as technology was rapidly progressing.  How have conversations about technology shifted since then? Were we having those conversations in the 90s? 

In the 90s, there was definitely more excitement and hope about the potential for newer technologies to connect people in ways that were fundamentally not possible before the introduction of more broadly available computer-mediated communication tools. Looking back, there was definitely some naivete about how these technologies would reshape our social and political interactions. For instance, some people predicted that once we all started communicating via email or text-based messaging, racism would cease to exist because people would be judged purely on the merits of their argument and nothing else. They believed that because there wasn’t visual information about speakers’ identities available to trigger biases, they would magically disappear. Obviously that didn’t happen. 

But it was fascinating to see how people took advantage of the new tools available to engage in creative ways of thinking about and representing the self online. There was so much excitement about the potential for interacting with people you maybe would never cross paths with in what people like to call ‘the real world’ and the potential to create online communities based on interests and shared concerns, not just accidents of geography. Many of us felt these tools had the potential to fundamentally reshape organizations and society. 

Does the current shift around artificial intelligence and ChatGPT feel similar? 

In some ways - I think people are looking at AI as having the possibility of really revolutionizing some aspects of our work and social practices. 

Is there a research project you’re particularly excited about right now? 

Serving as editor in chief of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication has taken a lot of my time, but one project I’m excited about work with my student Zoe Cullen and Stanford researchers Jeff Hancock and Angela Lee where we are studying the TikTok algorithm. This project is examining how we understand our own identity and how it’s shaped by what this algorithm is telling us we should be interested in. There’s been many people who express surprise at how well the algorithm knows them or gets them, even when its doing so in ways that aren’t predicted from our clicking behaviors. We proposed a model for understanding this dynamic which we called the Algorythmic Crystal and now are testing this model in future work. The model describes how different facets of your identity are reflected back at you via the content on your feed.

We want to understand what happens when you believe that the algorithm knows you well and deeply -- how does this change how you understand yourself, for instance? If it shows you content that doesn’t align with your current self-concept, does this change how you use the platform or how you think about your interests or identity? What does it mean when the algorithm knows more about you than you? We all have blindspots about ourselves, so how we see ourselves and how it’s reflected back at us by our technologies is important to understand.  

How is editing the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication going for you? 

I really value the opportunity to spend time reading papers, thinking about their contributions and shaping the process. To see a paper when it first comes in and then follow it through the process of refinement based on peer review and then eventual publication is very gratifying. When I first thought about this opportunity and whether I should throw my name in the hat, I promised myself that I would only do it if I gave myself permission to take the time to learn from the process, not to see it as another set of tasks, but to see it as a chance to think about larger ideas and grow as a scholar. I am trying to keep things moving but also to retain as much joy, growth, and curiosity in the process as possible - for me but also for our authors and reviewers. It’s definitely a very challenging role.  

Is there a project you wish you had more time to pursue right now? 

I wouldn’t say just one. I’ve had less time for my research, but I think that’s okay. It’s the life cycle of being a researcher. At this stage of my career I’m enjoying playing a generative role in helping other scholars. Reaching back and helping others is satisfying. 

What do you love most about teaching? 

Teaching social media, which I’ve had the privilege of doing several times at both the undergraduate and PhD level, is challenging because typically many of the topics students are talking about in their peer groups are the same topics we are discussing in the classroom. We’re analyzing communication and the role of social media in shaping how we form relationships, how we think about ourselves, how we manage our self-presentation. So we might analyze a  Tinder photo, for example, to better understand how users are taking advantage of online tools to craft a desirable persona. Or we might talk about what it means when someone has added a period at the end of their text message, or how individuals might explore a peer’s social media history to learn more about them. These are questions students are talking about with their friends at the bar or at a coffee shop, but they are also topics that we would discuss in the classroom, only through the lens of theory, scholarship and empirical evidence. In the best conversations, we are able to incorporate theory and connect it to students’ own lived experiences and perceptions resulting in an added level of insight. Seeing that shift throughout the course of the semester is very gratifying. 

Do you live in Ann Arbor, and if so, what do you love most about it? 

I love how accessible nature is. Driving along Huron River Drive to take my kid to school every morning is such a privilege. I love the access to the water and woods here. I also appreciate that I’m generally aligned in my values with the people I live around. And the cultural opportunities that come with living close to a university. 

What I don’t love is the winters. When I moved here from California it was a transition, but having a dog really helped because she forces me to go outside every day for significant periods of time. And to do that, I had to invest in the right clothes to be outside in the cold and not be uncomfortable. But once I did that, I learned to love aspects of the winter, especially the quiet after a big snowfall.  


Learn more about Nicole Ellison’s research by visiting her UMSI faculty profile

Read Nicole Ellison’s research by visiting her personal website