Pamela Wisniewski


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Where Humans End and IT Begins, Somewhere around there . . .

While humans have the amazing ability to create new technologies, we often have no clear idea how they will impact the way we live. Not only do we have to interact with new technologies, we also have to adapt how we interact with each other given technology as a medium. As such, my research interests are situated at the juxtaposition of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), Social Computing, and Privacy. An overarching theme across my research has been regulating the boundaries between how individuals manage their relationships with technology and how they manage their social interactions with others through the use of technology. Further, my research examines how individuals cope when these boundaries have been violated. I use an interdisciplinary approach to address these research questions by integrating literature from HCI, information systems, and social psychology in order to apply relevant theories and suggest design practices that support how humans engage with and through technology.

Past Research

Early research areas I have explored include how individuals associate self and other to websites leading to the potential of interviewers-based bias, how individuals interact with virtual, interactive maps, and how organizations leverage technology as a strategy to generate IT value. One major stream of my research dealt with technology overload in the workplace. The basic idea is that more technology is not necessarily better.  More technology use does not always lead to increased productivity and can sometimes, in fact, be counterproductive.  I proposed a new concept called “technology crowding” which occurs when additional technology usage produces diminishing marginal returns and eventually impedes productivity.  Through empirical methods, I validated that information, system feature, and communication overload were three salient dimensions of technology crowding. My research findings concluded that knowledge workers who demonstrated a high level of technology dependence were significantly and negatively impacted by technology overload.  Furthermore, this relationship was even more pronounced for women than for men.

Dissertation Research

My dissertation research examined the privacy challenges associated with Social Networking Sites (SNSs), such as Facebook. Unlike many other SNS privacy researchers, however, my research broadened the conceptualization of privacy from one of control over personal information disclosures to more generally the regulation of social interactions with others. Applying social psychologist Irwin Altman’s theories of interpersonal privacy for physical environments [1], I delved into the interpersonal boundary regulation process as it differed from face-to-face contexts and applied to this new technology-mediated SNS context.

I began by qualitatively examining the different types of interpersonal boundaries SNS users manage when interacting with others and the privacy challenges that arise from doing so [12]. I found that, in addition to self-disclosure boundaries, users negotiate confidant disclosures (personal information disclosed about oneself by one’s friends), relational boundaries (whom to include as part of one’s network), network intersections (managing different social circles), inward-facing territories (managing the consumption of information shared by others) and other types of interactional boundaries [12]. For example, choosing not to accept a friend request or selectively sharing content to only a subset of friends are alternative privacy management strategies to withholding personal information from one’s social network. However, users are often hindered by their lack of awareness regarding the different features available for privacy control, burdened by the complexity associated with other privacy features, and pressured by social norms that encourage openness and sharing over privacy protection, resulting in often unintentional boundary conflicts and privacy violations [12].

By contextualizing these different types of SNS privacy boundaries, I was better able to understand and operationalize users’ desires for certain types of privacy and, thus, their subsequent privacy-related behaviors [11]. Users employ different boundary mechanisms (or SNS interface controls) in unique combinations to manage their social interactions with others, resulting in distinct privacy behavior profiles and strategies [9]. Different privacy management user profiles include Privacy Maximizers, Selective Sharers, Privacy Balancers, Self-Censors, Time Savers/Consumers, and Privacy Minimalists [9]. In addition, users also develop various coping mechanisms that they employ outside of the SNS user interface when they feel that the interface falls short of meeting their privacy needs; these coping strategies include filtering, ignoring, blocking, withdrawal, aggression, compliance, and compromise. With the exception of compromise, these coping behaviors are often maladaptive and lead to less optimal social outcomes [10].

Finally, my research challenged the common assumption that personal privacy has to be a direct trade-off users make in order to connect and share online. I found that regardless of the type of privacy users are interested in achieving or the privacy strategies they adopt, SNS users who generally feel like they have achieved the privacy level they desire actually get more social benefits from their online engagement than those who feel like their privacy needs have not been met [6]. Therefore, helping users meet their privacy needs (whether they desire to be more or less private) can help optimize online social interactions with others. This finding lead to my co-organization of a CSCW workshop on “Reconciling Privacy and Social Media” [4].

Current Research

picMy current post doctoral research continues to examine how individuals manage their social interactions with others online with my focus shifting from adults to teens. For this National Science Foundation funded research, I frame adolescent online safety as a developmental process of adolescent growth where teens and parents must work together so that teens can engage online with others, while learning to protect themselves from negative social interactions [13]. Our early qualitative work compared parenting styles with teen moral development profiles to show that more authoritative (engaged and responsive) parents tend to have teens with more advanced levels of moral judgment, which translates into more responsible and less risky online behaviors [14].

Through a secondary analyses of a large-scale, nationally representative data set collected by Pew Research [2, 8], we proposed and validated a “risk-as-a-learning-process” framework of adolescent social media privacy behaviors, which identified a risk escalation process in which teens first make online disclosures that render them more susceptible to experiences of risky online interactions; in turn, these risky experiences are associated with higher levels of teen privacy concern, advice-seeking, and remedy/corrective risk-coping behaviors [2]. Then, we examined how different parental mediation strategies further influenced adolescent social media privacy behaviors [8]. We found that the use of direct parental intervention by itself may have a suppressive effect on teens, reducing their exposure to online risks but also their ability to engage with others online and to learn how to effectively cope with online risks. Therefore, it may be most beneficial for parents to combine active mediation with direct intervention so that they can protect their teens from severe online risks while empowering teens to engage with others online and learn to make good online privacy choices.

We recently submitted our first paper based on data we collected through a two-month longitudinal, web-based diary study of 65 parent-teen dyads in order to understand teen online experiences in regard to four types of online risks: 1) information breaches 2) online harassment 3) sexual solicitations and 4) exposure to explicit content. We found that resilience plays a significant role in protecting teens from the negative effects of Internet addiction (reducing exposure to subsequent online risks) and online risk exposure (neutralizing the relationship between risk exposure and negative affect) [7]. A key implication from our findings is that taking an “abstinence only” approach to adolescent online safety is not a viable solution. We cannot shield teens from experiencing any and all online risks; however, as adults and designers, we can help teach teens how to effectively protect themselves from online risk exposure and subsequent harm.

Research Trajectory

The majority of my research has been grounded in relevant and validated theories from psychology; I immerse myself in these theories and find ways to apply them to new and unique technology contexts. For example, my dissertation work was largely framed using Altman’s theories regarding interpersonal boundary regulation and privacy [1], and my post doctoral research has been shaped heavily by developmental psychology and adolescent resilience theory [5]. I recently received a best paper honorable mention for a paper that I wrote on how SNS users adapted to the launch of Facebook Timeline. I framed the analysis using coping theory, or how individuals cope with stress induced by environmental change [3], as our qualitative lens. By doing this, we were able to show that SNS users gave more positive assessments about the environmental change and adopted more effective coping strategies, when they perceived that they had higher levels of control over the transition. From this finding, we were able to suggest design strategies for facilitating user adaptation to future major interface changes within SNS contexts.

In addition to grounding my work in theory, I frequently merge qualitative and quantitative methodologies to gain deeper understanding and to triangulate research findings. I often begin with qualitative techniques in order to gain rich, nuanced insights; then, I employ quantitative techniques to validate these insights through statistical rigor. I plan to continue along this research trajectory and apply these research principles to new socio-technical contexts as they emerge. However, I am also interested in learning new methodological approaches in order to best answer my future research questions and effectively collaborate with my new colleagues.

Works Cited

  1. Altman, I. The environment and social behavior. Brooks/Cole Monterey, CA, 1975.
  2. Jia, H., Wisniewski, P., Xu, H., Rosson, M. B. and Carroll, J. M. Risk-taking as a Learning Process for Shaping Teen’s Online Information Privacy Behaviors. In Proc. Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (2015).
  3. Lazarus, R. S. and Folkman, S. Stress, Appraisal, and Coping. Springer Publishing Company, New York, 1984.
  4. Lipford, H. R., Wisniewski, P., Lampe, C., Kisselburgh, L. and Caine, K. Reconciling Privacy with Social Media. In Proc. Workshop at CSCW 2012 (2012).
  5. Stevenson, F. and Zimmerman, M. A. Adolescent Resilience: A Framework for Understanding Healthy Development in the Face of Risk. Annual Review of Public Health, 26 (2005), 399-419.
  6. Wisniewski, P., Islam, N., Knijnenburg, B. and Patil, S. Give Social Network Users the Privacy They Want. In Proc. the 2015 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW 2015) (2015).
  7. Wisniewski, P., Jia, H., Wang, N., Xu, H., Rosson, M. B. and Carroll, J. M. Resilience Mitigates the Negative Effects of Adolescent Internet Addiction and Online Risk Exposure. In Proc. ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2015) (2015).
  8. Wisniewski, P., Jia, H., Xu, H., Rosson, M. B. and Carroll, J. M. “Preventative” vs. “Reactive:” How Parental Mediation Influences Teens’ Social Media Privacy Behaviors. In Proc. Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (2015).
  9. Wisniewski, P., Knijnenburg, B. P. and Lipford, H. R. Profiling Facebook Users’ Privacy Behaviors. In Proc. the Workshop on Privacy Personas and Segmentation at the Symposium On Usable Privacy and Security (SOUPS 2014) (2014).
  10. Wisniewski, P., Lipford, H. and Wilson, D. Fighting for My Space: Coping Mechanisms for SNS Boundary Regulation. In Proc. ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (2012).
  11. Wisniewski, P. and Lipford, H. R. Between Nuance and Rigor: Contextualizing and Measuring SNS Desired Privacy Level. In Proc. 2013 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (2013).
  12. Wisniewski, P., Lipford, H. R. and Wilson, D. C. A New Social Order: Mechanisms for Social Network Site Boundary Regulation. In Proc. Americas Conference on Information Systems (2011).
  13. Wisniewski, P., Xu, H., Carroll, J. M. and Rosson, M. B. Grand Challenges of Researching Adolescent Online Safety: A Family Systems Approach. In Proc. the Nineteenth Americas Conference on Information Systems (2013).
  14. Wisniewski, P., Xu, H., Rosson, M. B. and Carroll, J. M. Adolescent Online Safety: The Moral of the Story. In Proc. ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (2014).


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