Meet Coye Cheshire

17 Nov, 2015

Meet Coye Cheshire

Coye Cheshire was in graduate school when he witnessed the revolutionary speed and ease of information sharing made possible by the rise of peer-to-peer online networks. Studying social psychology and sociology at Stanford at the time, he was fascinated by the dynamics of risk, uncertainty, and incentives in emerging peer-to-peer sharing sites such as Napster. He began to explore the social forces at work in these increasingly pervasive information-sharing systems.

When we plug into online social networks, we enter into an exchange economy of information and social dynamics. Through peer-to-peer file sharing networks, social media, and online forums, we trade an incredible amount of information, often with no concrete monetary gain — and even in the face of possible legal repercussions for the sharing of intellectual property. Torrenting, for example, compels users to contribute and share downloaded files, implicitly or complicitly at times pirating copyrighted material. Coye wanted to find out what makes us willing to risk real life consequences in online social communities.

Through social exchange theory, which explains how individuals exchange valuable resources as a fundamental social process, Coye has been investigating at UC Berkeley the structure of online sharing networks and how they are used to derive trust, power, status, and influence.

From formal gift giving traditions to asking small favors, from buying to selling goods, members of human societies have always exchanged resources as a means of establishing connections with others. However, information technology adds another layer to this existing desire to find and create social connections. Technologically-mediated social interactions are often ‘lean’ in comparison to face-to-face interaction, with nuances of human behavior and meaning lost in the medium. For online communities, humans have quickly developed tools to resolve this issue, creating shared symbols, such as shorthand messages, emoticons, and memes, to express humor and other complex ideas. New norms and conventions as a result govern communication in different online systems.

Recently, Coye has considered how these incentives and relationship dynamics involved in online communities collide with reality. In a collaborative study, he examined indebtedness in an online buy/sell/trade student-centered university community. Virtual interaction appeared to make it easier to request a favor, but led participants to a sense of uncomfortable indebtedness upon receiving real life help. This spurred some to actively help others to “make things right;” generating an emerging local sharing economy facilitated by online communication.

Coye is continuing to build a body of research on this subject as he considers not only the link between online and offline interaction, but also how the collection and use of personal data influence behavior and social outcomes such as trust. With increased popularity of sharing economies such as ShareTribe and Airbnb, Coye’s work has never been more relevant. With his ongoing longitudinal analysis of collective information sharing systems such as Wikipedia, Coye makes a strong case for the importance of power, status and influence in online networks. But, as he argues, it’s reciprocity, negotiation, and trust that seem to be at the heart of our exchanges in many online sharing economies.

The social exchange implications of new media continue to intrigue Coye and influence the course of his research. As BCNM’s head graduate advisor for the past two years, he has had the opportunity to engage with the varied goals and perspectives of our interdisciplinary students. These interactions with ambitious grads have encouraged Coye to evolve the scope and reach of his work — and he credits this engagement along with interactions with new media faculty for the risks he’s taken to challenge assumptions and discover new perspectives in his studies. His conversations with faculty like Kimiko Ryokai, Eric Paulos, and Ken Goldberg have inspired new ideas and research directions at the intersection of social science, information technology, and media.

Support research on social networks and citizen science by donating today!