Dominic DiFranzo, assistant professor in the department of computer science and engineering, presents the final talk, “Empathy by Design: Encouraging Positive Interactions on Social Media.” The talk series features professors from both Lehigh and other universities discussing research on topics relating to human-computer interaction. (Courtesy of Dominic DiFranzo)

Professors discuss intersection of technology and human dynamics

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Each year, the cognitive science program organizes a talk series featuring guest speakers from other universities, who present their research on topics surrounding human-computer interaction. 

Cognitive science, the study of machine intelligence, is an interdisciplinary major at Lehigh, drawing from multiple departments.The versatility of the subject can be seen throughout the talk series, highlighting faculty from multiple areas of study.

This year, the program decided to shift directions and highlight research areas within the Lehigh community that relate to technology and human dynamics. 

The talk series featured four-parts, highlighting a different Lehigh speaker each time. Eric Baumer of the computer science and engineering department on March 6, Rebecca Wang of the marketing department on March 30 and Haiyan Jia of the journalism and communication department on April 17 all spoke in the first three talks, respectively. 

The fourth and final talk was presented by Dominic DiFranzo of the computer science and engineering department on April 27 and focused on the relationships between the design of social media platforms, their features and the levels of empathy users experience while using the platform.  

DiFranzo began his research in Cornell University’s Social Media Lab before coming to Lehigh in fall 2019. 

DiFranzo said his research interests delves into how the design of social media can be used to encourage prosocial behavior and disincentivize antisocial behaviors. His early research in this subject showed that it is possible. 

“My research pushes human-computer interaction to new areas, so we aren’t just thinking about a single person and a single machine, but how does the design impact the social relationships that people have with each other,” DiFranzo said. 

DiFranzo said he’s always been interested in computer systems and how things work. 

Computer scientists tend to focus on technology, but the success of platforms like Facebook or Wikipedia are more than just the software itself, he said. 

“You could have a perfect piece of software platform, but if no people use it, it’s a complete failure,” DiFranzo said. 

His interest in prosocial behavior piqued during the 2016 presidential election and the social media behavior that surrounded it. 

“There was a lot of toxic behavior and a lot of terrible things going through social media,” DiFranzo said. “These issues were having a real impact in national politics and international politics in our world, and they’re not just silly memes online — they have far reaching consequences to our world, our economy and our policies.” 

His goal is to promote prosocial behavior and look into how social media can be designed in the future. This goal will be accomplished by examining questions around radicalization online, community change over time and the acceptance of things once seen as unacceptable. He will then examine if there are ways design could handle these issues. 

On top of examining things from a technical lens, DiFranzo said he will continue to explore these research questions through the lenses of psychology, economics and sociology — in line with the true interdisciplinary intent of the cognitive science field. 

Barbara Malt, who is the director of the cognitive science program, said she enjoys the interdisciplinary aspect of the subject. 

“It lets us look at that basic area (of machine intelligence) from so many different angles,” Malt said. “Cognitive science connects different components so we can look at human thought and behavior and we can connect that with the technology.”

Emma Stein, ‘20, a cognitive science major who attended the talk, said her favorite part of the subject is its broad reach into many disciplines. 

“Cognitive science is an interdisciplinary major that allowed me to take various courses in philosophy, psychology, neuroscience and computer science,” Stein said. “While I was unsure of the path I wanted to take, I knew I could pivot into different fields with backgrounds in these different areas.” 

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