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Ryan Compton: Graduate Student

Computer Science and Engineering
Degree Program: 
Ph.D., Computer Science
Undergraduate Institution: 
University of Arizona
Graduate Institution: 
UC Santa Cruz
Steve Whittaker, Marilyn Walker

Tell us about your research

Right now, my research is centered on online communities and the differences in how social roles exist inside of them. For example, how leadership develops inside online communities compared to other non-leadership roles. Online communities can stretch across many realms, but just being a part of Facebook doesn’t constitute an online community—a Facebook group could though. For me, I’m looking at online enterprise communities with companies such as Github that have people coming together to accomplish a specific set of goals.

How did you first get interested in this?

I actually began as a psychology and sociology major in my undergraduate studies, and then I started doing a lot more computer science when I realized I needed to be more involved in the technical aspects too. So, I’ve been looking to make a nice blend of these two, using a sociological lens for my research to do so. My bachelor’s was in psychology and computer science which helped make this possible as well. Now, I can go to psychologists and understand what they’re saying and do the same with computer scientists, but there is often a divide between them because there is a barrier between the theoretical and the technical. UC Santa Cruz, though, is really open to interdisciplinary work. The field of human-computer interaction involves a huge intersection of departments, bringing together a variety of people from fields like art, computer science, electrical engineering, psychology, linguistics—it’s something that really motivated me to go to UC Santa Cruz.

What is necessary to know for your research?

Well, one of the most important things to notice is the context of interactions and who you’re talking to. Say you’re going on a question-and-answer forum, you’re naturally going to expect a more factual content with set answers to set questions, and we use that to evaluate motivations for joining these different online communities. You could also go on to a support group forum for a condition, and there will be spaces for asking questions about procedures and treatment in order to receive concrete answers like a question-and-answer forum. But it’s not only that; others will likely seek out emotional support for the struggles they are facing in this same community. I’m exploring how these emotional expressions may be successful based on these differing community contexts.

How do you hope to apply this research?

We’re hoping to find out what kind of technologies we can build in order to help foster these successful behaviors. Say you have a newcomer to an online community; we’re trying to connect them instantly with the parts of the community they need in order to help them accomplish what they came to do. This is what I really like about human-computer interaction, because it is actively seeking technological solutions to human goals.

Have your advisors helped you?

Definitely, they’re the ones giving you direction. You’re actively trying to seek out your own interests, and they help point you in the right direction. They’ve done this before, so they know a lot about the process and what it requires. That’s one thing I’ve discovered—that having a community of people who have gone through or are going through what you are helps a lot. Maybe you need to vent about something that’s happening or need questions answered on a new device or method you’re using. When this happens, it’s nice to know someone’s there.

How do you have fun away from school?

I really like cooking! I actually competed in the chili-cooking competition at the Boardwalk recently. My friends and I have even played our own version of Iron Chef. That passion mostly grew out of being an undergraduate and realizing that it was cheaper to cook my own food versus going out all of the time. After doing that for a few years, I just began to realize I genuinely enjoyed doing it. There’s other stuff like beach bonfires I enjoy, and also PowerPoint karaoke—it can be on anything, one was on extreme ironing and so they had to make a presentation on that.