Making Social Media Activity Analytics Intelligible for Oneself and for Others: A “Boundary Object” Approach to Dashboard Design

Conference paper
Part of the Lecture Notes in Computer Science book series (LNCS, volume 10273)


Created in 2013, our laboratory works on the intelligibility of the activity of social media for others (e.a community animators) and for oneself (e.a member of the community) in a professional context. To bridge the gap between existing measures of activity, visualization of data and intelligibility of activity, we have set up a multidisciplinary team at the crossroads of these various players and knowledge. The goals of this team are to develop intelligible measures of the activity grouped together in a dashboard and to evaluate their contribution to the community’s dynamics. Inspired by the work of Star and Griesemer [16] on boundary objects and standardized methods, this paper aims to explain how we create, adapt and negotiate the current development of our dashboard’s prototype - conceived as a boundary object - sufficiently “robust” to achieve common objectives and “plastic enough” to meet the diverse interests of the different actors involved in the project.


Intelligibility Boundary object Dashboard Social media Analytics 

1 Introduction

Created in 2013, our lab focuses on social media use in professional context. What we consider as professional use of social media includes corporate social networking, knowledge sharing, social TV broadcasting, crowdsourcing platforms and to a certain extent corporate and professional usage of massive social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.). In this applied-research project, we work specifically on the intelligibility of social media activity for community animators (others) and community members (oneself). There are different reasons that push us in this research direction.

The growing use of social media in professional context is generating an exponential amount of data. As Cardon and Marshall [8] research on corporate social networking illustrates: “social networking will become the primary communication tool for teams. Based on our survey results combined with results from industry surveys (i.e., AON Consulting, 2009; Azua, 2010; Bughin et al., 2009; Kiett, 2011), we believe that adoption of enterprise SNPs is in the beginning of the early majority stage according to Rogers’ (1962) model of innovation adoption.” Although it is necessary to understand the activity to assess the added value of the use of social media in the professional context, there is very little or no research on the subject.
  1. 1.

    As pointed out by Cardon [7] and Bowker [6], these data are highly desired by several industrial actors who would dream of predicting users’ behavior (especially as consumers) to create value. By contrast, we seek to empower and educate users by helping them understand their role, place and common interests in the community to which they belong, and assume that this can influence future development of the use of these platforms.

  2. 2.

    Even if studies show a professionalization of their practices, this research also highlights that community managers remain ill-equipped to develop pro-active governance tactics (e.g. editorial policy based on communities of interests, identification of key actors in the community) [20]. Surprisingly, outside the consumer goods realm, the analytics developed about the use of social media in professional context are rather simplistic (i.e., descriptive statistics) [11]. So how can we evaluate the added value of social media use in professional context if we cannot make sense of the activity?

Scientific advances in the understanding of these phenomena depend, in our opinion, on several correlated issues:
  1. 1.

    The first issue is access to data. It is possible to work on these issues through interviews or observations of uses and practices but very quickly the analysis reaches its limits if this access does not include access to the data and metadata produced by the participants. Yet, once the access is obtained, it is still necessary to be able to apprehend the mass of data, their structuring to then choose appropriate analytical treatments etc.

  2. 2.

    More, a quick look at existing research from different fields such as applied mathematics [2, 12] or to studies of natural language processing [13] highlights that several algorithms and statistics can help us to deepen our understanding of social media activity. Yet, researchers in those fields also admit that the intelligibility to the average mortal of «how, what and for what» behind the measure does not appear on their research agenda. The issue is therefore not the absence of relevant measures but their intelligibility for the average user.

  3. 3.

    Finally, data visualization and information visualization research addresses these issues, but these works and results often remain confined to scientific communities [14].

To bridge the gap between existing scientific measures of social media activity, their visualization and their intelligibility by community members and animators, we have created a multidisciplinary team at the crossroads of these different actors and knowledge:
  1. 1.

    Scientists and the measures they develop in the studies of natural language processing, applied mathematics and statistics,

  2. 2.

    Scientists and the principles emerging from the field of data and information visualization,

  3. 3.

    Users and their working environment.


The objectives of the team are to develop a dashboard prototype gathering several “intelligible” measures directed to and to assess their added value to community animators and members.

The challenges of the design process of this dashboard (from the selection of measures, the selection of visualizations to its intelligibility to users) will be the central topic of my paper. Inspired by Star and Griesemer’s work [16] on boundary objects and standardized method, the present communication aims to explain how we are creating, adapting and negotiating the current development of our dashboard prototype – conceived as a boundary object – “robust enough” to reach common goals and “plastic enough” to suit diverse interests of the stakeholders involved in the project. Just as Griesemer emphasizes in his tributes to Leigh Star work [10], I will also explain how we develop our research and development protocol to preserve the emerging and fragile status of boundary object of the dashboard.

To understand the emergence of the dashboard as a boundary object, we detail, in the next section, the ecosystem of the project. Then we recount the first stages of the project.

2 The Ecosystem of the Project

2.1 Scholars in Organizational Communication

Researchers in this field are at the initiative of the project. Two researchers (one being the author) have, as explained above, identified an opportunity to position themselves in their field of research on issues related to the use of social media in a professional context. The place of technology in professional and organizational practices is an important dimension of their work. Through the development of these projects, these researchers are seeking access to organizations, professionals and data that will enable them to improve their understanding of online collaborative practices, of the intelligibility of online activity and its impact on members’ behaviors and practices. However, based on the existing literature and exchanges with several colleagues, these researchers found that advances in their own research depended heavily on the involvement of scientists from other research domains.

Beyond research itself, communication researchers are also maneuvering in the setting up of research projects and the raising of funds. As a result, they are responsible for the administrative management of projects and are accountable to funders. They are also the guarantor of the achievement of the objectives included in the various projects funded.

2.2 Human-Computer Interaction Scholars

These researchers also in communication sciences work on users’ media literacy. The intelligibility of data through visualizations and dashboard design are research objects enabling studies focusing on media literacy. These scientists bring a methodological know-how in the development of experimental protocols favoring the participation of the users in the choices of the visualizations and the design of the dashboard. Moreover, these researchers benefit, through this project, from an access to a state-of-the-art infrastructure (a usability lab) to increase the scientific quality of the experimental protocols and the results generated. Finally, working also on the impact of the social and working environments on the appropriation of technological tools, access to users in situ through industrial partners provides an additional reason to get involved in the project.

2.3 Scholars in Applied-Mathematics

They provide the technical and scientific tools (e.g., recommendation algorithms, clustering algorithms, etc.) needed to process data and measure online activity. Access to quality data that are both valid, reliable and representative of the population at the heart of the phenomenon is the first challenge for these researchers. Issues of visualizing the processed data or the measures produced and their intelligibility outside the scientific community are not a research priority; even if they recognize the barrier that this can create in the diffusion of the knowledge produced. Very sought after, these researchers are very selective in their research partnerships.

2.4 Scholars in Natural Language Processing

These researchers, initially trained in linguistics, also have a training in computer science which enables them to develop algorithms optimizing the search for information in large-scale thematic documentary corpuses. Their expertise in the processing and analysis of textual corpuses is very complementary to the analysis based on activity logs. Indeed, they allow the analysis of the activity regarding the contents exchanged, shared and modified, making it possible to consider the organizational and/or sectoral context in the analysis. The challenge, as well as researchers in applied mathematics, for these researchers is access to textual data. The additional difficulty is the confidentiality and sensitivity of the textual data. Activity logs are easily anonymized without affecting the analysis. This is much more complex regarding textual data.

The laboratory grouping these researchers is responsible for developing automatic language processing tools for its internal “clients” (researchers from other disciplines working on textual and oral corpus) and its external clients. The creation of interfaces facilitating access to tools and the intelligibility of the measures developed is an increasingly important topic for this laboratory.

2.5 Scholars Experts in Consumer Behavior Analysis

Digital marketing researchers specialize in behavioral analysis of digital content’s consumers. The interest of these researchers in the project lies in the analysis of the impact of visual stimuli on consumer behavior. Access to an equipped usability laboratory will also enable these researchers to develop high-quality experimental protocols. Access to industrial partners through the project is also a point of convergence. The added value of this research in digital marketing is also to allow the project bearers to achieve the objectives of economic valorization justifying the funding.

2.6 Funding Institutions

Currently the donors are the regional public authorities of two regions. The main fund obtained is a ERDF (European Regional Development Fund) financed by the European Commission but granted by the Walloon Region. These research budgets aim essentially to stimulate the socio-economic development of the region on strategic axes defined by the political authorities of the region in agreement with the European Commission. The primary objective is not the production of scientific knowledge but the production of value for the socio-economic actors of the region. Thus, the project is not evaluated according to the number of doctoral theses defended or published scientific articles but rather according to indicators or deliverables with added value for the region (e.g., patent, spin-off, or any technological bricks creating economic value, etc.). Funding institutions enforce many legal and regulatory constraints on the use of funds, the fulfillment of tasks and the achievement of objectives.

2.7 Industrial Partners

The industrial partners work in collaboration with the research actors either by explaining the needs and stakes of the industry or by giving access to resources (e.g. information, data, research field). The industrial partners have a rhythm of work and needs that are not compatible with those of research. The fact that the project benefits from public funds also leads to caution in relations with industrial partners to prevent relationships from producing benefits considered as state aid for partners.

2.8 Final Users of the Dashboard

The end users of the dashboard are the online community managers. Their interest is to be better equipped to make sense of the activity of their community and then to act on it more pertinently (even if the pertinence of an action is debatable). We solicited them in the first phase of intéressement of Callon and Latour [1] to access their data. In exchange, they have access to the prototype of dashboard to analyze their communities. The challenge is to find a balance between solicitations (sometimes considered too time-consuming) and the development of tools that best meet their needs.

3 Our Iterative Research and Development Protocol: The Story so Far…

From the beginning of the project, we have worked with a partner whose core business is the development and the sale of instances of its online social knowledge sharing platform. Sold to companies of varying sizes, this system aims to support the activities of archiving, monitoring and collaboration between the employees of the organization using this service. Activity measures made available to community coordinators are poorly developed. However, they navigate blindly and lack objective benchmarks to more effectively engage their communities. It is also necessary to think about ways to make activity intelligible to the members of the community itself. Thus, we have identified three possible levels of analysis: the basic level where activity measures are very descriptive (e.g., numbers of likes or publications per month, activity growth rate on the platform, etc.). The meta level of analyzes are based on social graphs algorithms and allow the identification of communities of interest, collaborative and information sharing practices across the network. The micro level aims to better understand the typical users’ profiles in this type of community.

Thanks to this first analysis of the needs, we then began the development of the first dashboard prototype, which included metrics at the basic and meta levels. We were aware that it was incomplete but it was impossible to move forward without having access to larger volumes of data that would allow us to develop new scientifically valid and potentially relevant measures for community managers. The rapid realization of this first, although incomplete, prototype materialized the contribution of our research to the companies that are our potential data providers.

The reception by the industrial partner and its customers was rather positive. It allowed access to richer data allowing the continuation of research on the relevance of certain measures to be added to the dashboard. Subsequently, we must continue the work by the tests of intelligibility of the visualizations retained for each measure. Next, we will analyze the appropriation of the dashboard integrating these visualizations. Finally, if the project allows us, we will evaluate the effect of these visualizations on the dynamics of the online community.

The diagram below summarizes the main stages of the protocol implemented. It includes eight steps that function as iterative loops. The iteration of these stages between the versions of the prototype makes it possible to keep the dynamic centered on the prototype and its evolution with the idea that “innovation is born of a market demand (Demand pull), as much as from an imagination coming from research (Technology push)” [22, p. 262]. Each colored circle corresponds to an actor of the ecosystem.
Fig. 1.

Iterative research protocol

In view of this complex ecosystem, we believe that innovations will be produced at the crossroads of these heterogeneous players and their resources. This leads to several questions that we will try to answer in the next sections. How to interest these heterogeneous actors? How to convince them to bring their resources into the project while avoiding stifling the heterogeneities at the source of innovations? How then can we allow these heterogeneities to express themselves freely while not forgetting the finality constrained by the financing of the project? How can the innovation be beneficial to all partners and not just to the project initiator? The progressive emergence of the dashboard as a boundary object offers new theoretical perspectives which, in our view, open avenues for discussion and answers to the questions enumerated.

4 Is the Dashboard Designed a Boundary Object?

According to Star and Griesemer [16], the concept of boundary object is an “analytical concept of those scientific objects which both inhabit several intersecting social worlds and satisfy the informational requirements of each of them…Boundary objects are objects which are both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and the constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites. They are weakly structured in common use, and become strongly structured in individual-site use. These objects may be abstract or concrete. They have different meanings in different social worlds but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable, a means of translation. The creation and management of boundary objects is a key process in developing and maintaining coherence across social worlds” (p. 393).

As Boland [3, p. 232] argues: “By naming boundary object, Star named a place in which actors with heterogeneous knowledge succeed in cooperating to do the work of science without having any prior agreement on the nature of the objects, actions, measures, or goals that they working on…” Key to Boland’s reflection about Leigh Star’s contribution is that boundary objects help different groups to work together without consensus [18] on the symbolic meaning of the boundary object: “when presented with a boundary object in an inquiry dialogue, we are not led to believe we know what each person involved will name it or how they will make it meaningful, but with a named symbol, we believe we do”.

The prototype of the dashboard can be considered at this stage as a boundary object in the sense that it is simultaneously concrete and abstract, specific and general, standardized and customized:
  1. 1.

    Its purpose is clear for all actors, namely to offer intelligible measures of activities for members of online communities.

  2. 2.

    For the industrial partners this purpose is sufficient. Moreover, even if the dashboard is far from being finalized, the regular discussions around the project and the measures envisaged allow them to feed their own reflections on the needs of their customers. For example, we helped them validate the descriptive measures and their potential visualizations without waiting for the dashboard to be completed.

  3. 3.

    For others, such as researchers in applied mathematics or automatic language processing, this purpose is not binding and allows them to have access to data that would otherwise be impossible to access. These data, themselves, allow them to progress in their research on issues that can in return feed the dashboard with new measures of activity. For example, categorizing users according to their activity patterns is debated within the scientific community [9]. The data collected allow us to deepen this question and to validate or invalidate existing typologies. These typologies can then be exploited in the dashboard.


The dashboard being progressively constructed corresponds in our opinion to the type of boundary object named “repositories” by Leigh Star [17]. “Repositories are ordered piles of objects (visual representations of measures) that are indexed in a standardized fashion (following norms of visualization and interface design). Repositories are built to deal with problems of heterogeneity caused by differences in unit of analysis.” [19, p. 253]. Thus, the dashboard in this vaguer design allows everyone to add a brick that he wishes to develop and/or consolidate. Its modularity, both in its development and in its use, enables the various actors in the ecosystem to tailor the object “to local use within a social world and therefore to make it useful for work that is not interdisciplinary” [18, p. 605). This construction takes place at the border between several actors. It makes it possible to redraw the boundaries between the actors of the project and allows them to work and share information [18].

4.1 From the Notion of Boundary Object to that of Intermediate Object or How to Maintain the Status of Boundary Object for the Dashboard?

Objects do not necessarily remain boundary objects. This status is not stable over time (Star 2010). It is the dynamic of “tacking” (Star 2010) between the two forms of the object, namely specific and general, which allows each of the actors to continue their cooperation without consensus. Verchère and Anjembe [21] point out that it is difficult to engineer and maintain such objects which “in reality take diversified forms and are part of complex trajectories”. Take note that the protocol described above as well as the prototype seen as a boundary object that emerges from it have not been preconceived as such. It was through a meeting with Geoff Bowker that we made the connection between the interdisciplinary stakes experienced within the project and the notion of boundary object.

In their 1999 book, Bowker and Star invite us to pay attention to the power of membership to a community of practices (i.e. those of linguists, management mathematicians, community leaders). The ambiguous or unclear status, on one side, and the specific meanings that the boundary object takes in function of these memberships, on the other, is not envisaged as something temporary but rather as durable arrangements among communities of practices. Consequently, they warn us of the potential slippage of the boundary object towards another status where one symbolic meaning (Boland 2015) would take precedence over others.

Based on this warning, Verchère and Anjembe [21] analyze an interdisciplinary project whose objectives and ecosystem are very similar to our project. Their analysis highlights several factors or dynamics that have been obstacles to the emergence and maintenance of boundary objects and which fairly illustrate Bowker’s and Star’s warning. To synthesize, they identified three types of organizational and communication practices that could lead to shifts: sub-project organization, strengthening the sense of membership to a community of practice within the project, and the sequencing of project’s phases. Organizing by subcategory or sub-project by discipline (e.g., communication, linguistics, mathematics) would increase the sense of membership to a community of practice and reduce the interest in working with other communities. The sequencing of the deliverables over time between the actors can potentially create time lags between the different deliverables and decrease their complementarities. These two dynamics have the effect of reinforcing the boundaries and of transforming the status of the boundary object towards an object called intermediate.
Fig. 2.

Sequenced research and development protocol

“The intermediate objects represent those who conceived them. It expresses their intentions, their habits of work or thought, their relationships and their interactions, their perspectives and the compromises they have established” [23]. Both boundary and intermediate objects intervene in the temporal and social division between the actors [23, p. 56]. However, as pointed out by Peters and his colleagues [15], intermediate objects, as opposed to boundary objects, “reflect the translation of a main actor (the innovator) who seeks to enroll other actors and stabilize the process around the object, which becomes the witness of the process of connection between the various actors” (p. 67).

Adapting our initial schema (see Fig. 2), these dynamics would cause a fragmentation of the boundary object in favor of the technological bricks which in sequenced and staggered way would feed the construction of the dashboard. Ultimately, this would recreate the boundaries between the actors whose contribution within the project would be limited to a precise stage of the protocol, would reduce the benefit of all actors to the benefit of a single innovator (here communication scholars).

4.2 Implications and Discussion

Multiple iterations as illustrated in Fig. 1 should allow us to keep the different actors involved in the project and avoid a shift towards a sequenced operation. Similarly, the creation of places and times for systematic meetings (co-working days, study days) between researchers from different disciplines and industrial partners, in a open and flexible format, should promote the dynamics of exchanges between the actors of the ecosystem. More, bilateral meetings with each of the actors make it possible to monitor the specificities and interests of the various actors. Through these elements, one stimulates the movement of “tacking” between the two forms of the border object.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Université Catholique de LouvainMonsBelgium

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