Norms Breaching Experiment

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Thanks to St. Joe’s student Jen Tierney who allowed us to share images from her project and professor Tim Lockridge for making it available.

So far this semester we have begun to set up a framework from within which we can evaluate networked digital media impact on our lives and institutions – making what’s sometimes invisible about technology visible. That’s what this assignment is about.

This is an assignment in which you, as a researcher, will try to discover and analyze unspoken norms related to communication technologies. You will conduct an experiment, take detailed notes on the results, and compose an essay (print, web, video, audio—the format is up to you) that examines the structures of digital social norms.

In preparation for this assignment, we will read and discuss Harold Garfinkel’s (1964) “Studies of the routine grounds of everyday activities,” and you might think of this assignment as a social media update to his project.

Step 1: Choose a Norm to Breach

FACEBOOK PICTURE CREEPER. On Facebook, go through an acquaintance’s photo albums and comment on at least 25-30 photos older than six months over a period of 3 days. Write only positive comments (e.g. “cute photo!”). Check back and see if anyone else has commented on the photos after you have. Describe the responses and how you feel about doing this. Also, document any contact between an intermediator – a mutual friend who acts as a go-between.

FACEBOOK WALL INQUISITOR. On Facebook, friend five strangers — people you don’t know (maybe friends of friends). Once they accept your friend request, post a public comment to their wall introducing yourself and  Screen Shot 2014-01-28 at 1.34.44 PMasking them about themselves. In your posts, do not refer to any friends that you have in common; just talk about yourself and ask them about themselves. Try to get information from them about themselves.

THE OVERSHARER. Pick two individuals (acquaintances you don’t know that well or family members… don’t choose a very close friend). In a 24 hour period dramatically increase the amount of information you send this person using a text-based mobile communication technology that you know they can receive (like IM on your phone, text/SMS, or e-mail on your phone/PDA). For example, you could communicate with them every time you do anything (“hi I am getting on the bus”, “arrived in class,” “class is boring,” “having lunch,” “talking with friend.”) Do this for each of the two individuals (the total research period will actually be 48 hours).

WAY OFF TOPIC. On Facebook or a similar site that has threaded conversation (e.g., status updates with replies), over a period of three days leave a large number of comments that are all completely and obviously off-topic and not relevant to the thread. For this to work, there can be no relation between the reply and the topic at all; just start talking about something else. If you like, address some of them to the wrong person as well.

ONLY ONE MEDIUM. Choose one popular communication technology. Only use that technology for 3 days. (e.g. Use Facebook direct messages for ALL communication even when it is obviously inappropriate or impractical.)

ALWAYS MIX MEDIA. For 3 days, always “mix” media–always respond to a communication using a different medium of communication than the one that was used to contact you. (example: if you get a phone call, let it go to voicemail then SMS them. If you get an email, send a picture to their phone, etc. Respond to your twitter @’s in person.)

DAZED AND CONFUSED. For this one you need to go onto a platform that is used for a fairly specific – perhaps unstated – purpose , and misuse it. For example, go on Tinder and pretend that you think it is an app for meeting new friends. Or use Yik Yak to say really nice, sweet, vanilla things about people. Choose one platform and have a meaningful engagement – more than just an exchange of hellos – with at least 5 people.


Go to Tinder, start swiping right, but engage in friendly banal banner and at some point in the conversation mention off the cuff your significant other (either real or imaginary). Proceed to talk about your significant other and see what happens.



Step 2: Conduct the Experiment

Perform the experiment as described above and pay special attention to the reactions of the others. Keep good notes: Log events in a notebook (or document), take screen shots, record observations. To successfully complete the assignment, you may not explain that you are conducting an experiment for a class until after the experiment has been completed. You may not let anyone else in on the secret. Do not perform this assignment with other people from this class. If you are challenged during the experiment, act as if the way you are behaving is normal. Do not explain yourself.

Step 3: Write a Report
After, conducting the experiment, you will compose an essay describing your task, your methods, the results, and your observations. Be sure to describe the reactions to your efforts, keeping your witnesses anonymous. (If you have screenshots or other data, blur out the names and photos of any other users.) If someone spoke Screen Shot 2014-01-28 at 1.32.46 PMto you, write as accurate a transcript of what they said as you can. If body language or facial expressions were important, describe them. If portions of text messages or emails are part of a reaction, include them. Describe any norms that you think your results may illustrate. Use the reactions you described to discuss the strength of the norms and how they might work.

Specifically, your report should include the following:

Introduction: An introduction to your experiment and a brief description of what you discovered.

Methods: An overview of the task you chose and how you decided to approach it. How long did it last? How did you take notes? Think of this section as a close description of process. Describe your process as closely as possible so that another researcher could duplicate your efforts.

Results: A rich description of what happened during the experiment. Include as much data as possible: Observations, notes, transcripts, screenshots, etc.

Analysis & Discussion: Using specific examples from your results, document some norms that function in this social media space. Explain how the design of communication technologies and this norm are related. A key word here is “affordances:” What does this social media platform allow you to do and how does what you did break the norms around that affordance. For example, an affordance of Facebook is to signal my attention or interest in something by liking it or commenting on it. It also allows me to anonymously go through someone’s old photos. But it is breaking a norm to combine these two affordances. Why? (“It’s just creepy” is not sufficient.)

Explain why you think this norm exists and what it says about social behavior on social media?


Think carefully about the style you want to use in your writing. You could do it in first-person essay form, making it more of a story. Or you could write in more of an analytic research paper style. Just pick a style and your work will be assessed within that style.

No information that could personally identify one of your witnesses can appear in your report. (No names, no non-blurred photos, no 1-do-cZe5PYg4QvjcbtPBATwrecordings! Make it clear you are using pseudonyms so that you don’t have a problem with this requirement. Example: you could write “Person A” or “I will call the first witness ‘Jane Doe’.”) You must write about your witnesses in a manner and tone that is respectful. For instance, your description of a reaction must not sound like you are making fun of the witness. You are a researcher; you should approach the project and the people involved with respect and professionalism.


• Your choice of experiments will likely require concentrated effort over a period of several days.
• Plan ahead!
• Conduct yourself in a professional manner at all times.
• Be polite and treat others respectfully.
• Although some of these experiments might be embarrassing, you should not scare anyone and you should not place anyone at risk.
• The final report must be 1,000-1,250 words in length. Both the minimum and maximum word count are enforced. Be sure to save plenty of space for your analysis and discussion.

Assignment Introduced: Feb. 11
Complete Experiment by: Feb. 25
First Draft: March 1
Final Report Due: March 4 by 5 p.m.

Here are a couple of examples from last semester:

Molly Grab

Ryan Dobbins


Write this on the online publishing platform Medium (with names blurred) and include the images you collected. Then paste the link into you reading notes under the heading “Norms Breaching Experiment.”

Credits: This assignment is adapted from assignments originally developed by Christian Sandvig and Alice Marwick and shared by Tim Lockridge.


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