Looking at human impact of Net
Stefanone examines intersection of people, information and technology
By KEVIN FRYLING
Reporter Staff Writer
In 1998, Michael Stefanone was an undeclared junior taking his first communication class at UB. Eight years laterafter earning a master's degree and doctorate from Cornell University and spending a year as an assistant professor at the University of Texas-Arlingtonhe returned to the Department of Communication, joining the faculty as an assistant professor.
"It just seems very natural," Stefanone says of the transition from student to departmental colleague. The move has been seamless, he says, because of the warm welcome he has received upon his return, as well as the overall respect traditionally shown to new faculty.
"We have incredibly stimulating intellectual conversation and debates about a wide range of issues," says Stefanone, who began working at UB last semester. "It's been a very positive experience."
Some of those conversations are sure to center on Stefanone's cutting-edge interests in human-computer interaction, "ubiquitous computing" and the social implications of such online phenomenon as blogs and MySpace in the midst of a worldwide explosion of high-speed wireless access and mobile technology.
"I'm looking at the intersection of people, information and technology," Stefanone says, "which is becoming more important as technology becomes more ubiquitous. I'm trying to get at the cultural shift in how people are defining their boundaries in terms of private, personal information and the potential cost of broadcasting it."
People rarely pause to perform a "cost-benefit analysis" before posting information once considered intimate or private on the World Wide Web, he notes. "I think a lot of people don't have an appreciation for the permanence of things posted online," he says. "Never send an email that you wouldn't want to be seen on the front page of The New York Times. All these things are logged and saved."
Communication conducted face-to-face is ephemeral compared to online posts searchable via Google, says Stefanone, since the popular search engine caches all the information it encounters once a month.
Moreover, he points out that a wealth of information is generated through common electronic transactions, such as credit card purchases and toll-booth scans, which contribute to the store of personal data others can mine for their own purposes. "What people are faced with now in terms of privacy and information is very subtle," says Stefanone, who notes that the potential implications of corporate information collection on consumer habits might not be limited to the shopping mall. He asks: Could health-care providers decide to increase insurance premiums on individuals whose credit transactions reveal a large number of fast-food purchases?
"There's little debate and coverage of these issues," he says. "I suspect over time the trend will continue and there will be more attention and energy."
Yet, Stefanone also points out that Web 2.0in which the contribution of content through interaction and participation has eclipsed the old model in which people accessed static stores of informationopens up opportunities to incorporate social tools into all sorts of technologies to broaden their function and improve user experiences.
One such project on which Stefanone worked at Cornell involved handheld mobile devices that are used to enhance museum tours. These wireless devices employed infrared scanners to detect artwork as patrons walked by and provide instant historical background. Personalized recommendations also were given based on the artwork that visitors had tagged as their favorites and further information was sent to them at home via email.
Stefanone also participated in a three-year, multi-million-dollar project at Cornell in which he evaluated communication tools used to coordinate collaboration on complex projects between engineers at NASA and Cornell and Syracuse universities.
"Things get progressively less rich from an experience perspective...when you can't meet people face to face," he says. "How does that affect collaboration and teamwork? We looked at how networks evolved and how structures emerged. People with certain traits ended up being very central in terms of their position in the network."
A significant force behind the rise of high-tech communication methods, adds Stefanone, is the emergence of a decentralized global marketplace that needs tools to bridge the space between different nations and time zones. He has integrated online elements into his courses as an important means to prepare students for the realities of the future beyond graduation, he says.
"My experience...makes me keenly aware of the difficulties, but also the benefits, of communicating with groups through technology," says Stefanone, who last semester taught hundreds of students in an intro course on organizational communication. "Someone who might not stand up in a group of 250 students and ask a question might feel much more comfortable posting a question to a discussion board," he says.
This semester, Stefanone is teaching a graduate seminar on "Privacy in the Information Age" and aims to involve students in a more in-depth follow-up to his most recent paper on the effect of social networks and blogs on human interaction.
A native of South Buffalo, Stefanone has settled in an apartment in downtown Buffalo "in the middle of all the action." It is a "thrill," he says, to return to an alma mater where other members of his family also have roots. His father completed a degree in civil engineering at UB in 2001 after Stefanone's graduation two years earlier inspired him to return to school. In addition, his brother, Gregory, currently is a student in the Graduate School of Education.
There is another reason Stefanone is enjoying his return to Buffalo. "I grew up sailing on Lake Erie," he says, adding that while at Cornell he found time to teach students to sail on Cayuga Lake.
Today, Stefanone and his father are constructing a wooden sailboat. He says they used to operate a small business that conducted historical tours of the Buffalo waterfront.
"There's something about Buffalo," says Stefanone. "I'm thrilled to be back, truly."