The Quantified Self; Newsfeed: Created by you?; Holding Crowds Accountable To The Public; EVE Online and World of Darkness
Today at the Berkman Center, our summer PhD Interns gave a series of short talks describing our research and asking for feedback from the Berkman community. This liveblog summarizes the talks and the Q&A (special thanks to Willow Brugh for collaborating on this post).
Mary Gray, senior researcher at Microsoft Research, opened up the conversation by sharing more about the PhD internship. “We need folks who can do bridge work, who can work between university and industry settings.” Each students’ projects is taking a tack that is less common; there’s mostly a social-critical approach. Our group is particularly focused on showing the value of showing the value of methodologies are less familiar in industry settings. It’s a twelve-week program, and it doesn’t always happen in the summer. “We’re always interested in people who want to take a more critical/qualitative approach. We have labs all over the world, and each lab accepts up to 100 PhD students to do this kind of work,” Mary says.
Microsoft research is (sadly) unique in that everything a student does is open for public consumption, says Mary. PhD students are encouraged to do work that feeds academic conversations while also potentially connecting with product groups that could benefit from that insight.
Quantified Self: The Hidden Costs of Knowledge
What are the privacy ramifications of our voracious appetite for data, what are the challenges of interpreting it, and how might data be employed to widen inequality? Ifeoma Ajunwa is a 5th year PhD candidate in Sociology at Columbia University. Recurring themes in her research include inequality, data discrimination and emerging bioethics debates arising from the exploitation of Big Data.
“Almost everything we do generates data,” Ifeoma quotes Gary Wolf’s WIRED Magazine article on quantified self. And yet this kind of data collection can be a form of surveillance; companies can also often crawl this data from the Internet and use it to feed algorithms that influence our lives. In this backdrop, people are also collecting data about themselves through the Quantified Self movement– data that could also be captured by these companies and used for purposes beyond our consent.
How can our data be used against us? Kate Crawford noted in a recent Atlantic article that this data has been used in courtrooms. Ifeoma also expresses worries that this data could be used against people as companies use it to limit their own risk. The “quantified self” has a dual meaning. On one hand, it refers to the self knowledge that comes from that data. On the other, this idea could turn against people as institutions set policies based on that data that widen inequality.
In her summer research with Kate Crawford at MSR, Ifeoma is looking at the quantification of work. Unlike Taylorism, where the focus was on breaking down the job task itself, the focus now is on “the individual worker’s body” and “inducing the worker to master their own body for the benefit for the corporation.” In this “surveillance-innovation complex,” companies try to evade regulation by seeking protections for innovation. They’re looking specifically at workplace health programs that include health, diet, exercise. These programs track weight, spending habits, etc. Ifeoma is looking at what companies track and how the interpretation of this data can impact the workers it’s generated from.
She concludes by asking us, “How can we make technology work for us, rather than against us? Could we harness large and small data without it increasing divides and discrimination?
News Feed: Created By You?
How do people enact privacy? Stacy Blasiola usually asks in her research. When you’re posting something online while at a bar, are you thinking about who sees it? This focus misses out on the role that platforms play in this work, a focus she’s taking on at MSR.
Stacy Blasiola is a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a National Science Foundation IGERT Fellow in Electronic Security and Privacy.
This summer, Stacy will be looking at the Facebook NewsFeed algorithm. She talks about the Facebook Tips page, where Facebook provides information on how to find out who your friends are and how the NewsFeed works. Stacy shows us several videos that they’ve posted under “NewsFeed: created by you”. These videos were promoted by Facebook across their users, and they received millions of video views.
Tim: “I made my News Feed about wellness, nutrition and living my best.” Create a News Feed that inspires you.
Posted by Facebook Tips on Tuesday, December 2, 2014
Stacy has been looking at the relationship between the videos and the comments… “Surrounding myself with… knowledge and expertise. I want to know what you know.” “I look forward to seeing my best self every day.”
According to Facebook, Tim is solely responsible for what he sees in his feed. Stacy has been looking at the discourse used by users and platforms to ask, “how do the platforms matter to the users?” When users commented on these videos, Facebook often posted official comments.
One user said: “This leads me to believe I have control over my own feed. I don’t. FB is constantly making things disappear and rearranging the timeline.”
The company’s response changes depending on the type of questions asked. For example, “Why do I keep getting old posts? Well, people are posting a lot on it, so it resurfaces”… Facebook uses linguistic gymnastics to not say “we’re doing this.”
- Stacy is at the very beginning stages of this project, and hopes to carry out the following kinds of analysis:
- How do users discuss the news feed algorithm?
- How does Facebook position the news feed to these users? Especially, where do they place responsibility?
- How do users talk about the news feed to each other?
What Does It Mean to Hold Crowds Accountable To The Public?
Nathan Matias is a PhD Candidate at the MIT Center for Civic Media/MIT Media Lab, and a Berkman fellow, where he designs and researches civic technologies for cooperation and expression.
I was onstage at this point, but here’s a basic summary of the talk. After posing the question “How do we hold crowds accountable to the public?” I described common mechanisms that we imagine as forms of accountability: pressure campaigns, boycots, and elections, legislation, etc. I then described three cases where these mechanisms seemed unable to address forms of collective power we see online:
In the case of Peer Production, people sometimes petition Jimmy Wales, somehow believing that he has the power to change things. Other times, op ed writers make public appeals to “Wikipedia” or “Wikipedians” to address some systematic problem. I described my work with Sophie Diehl on Passing On, a system that uses infographics to appeal to public disappointment and then channels that disappointment into productive change on Wikipedia (more in this article).
— Berkman Center (@berkmancenter) June 16, 2015
In the case of Social Networks, we sometimes criticize companies for things that are also partly attributable to who we accept as friends or what we personally choose. This debate is especially strong in discussions over information diversity. I shared an example from Facebook’s recent study on exposure to diverse information, outlining their attempt to differentiate between available media sources, friend recommendations, personal choices, and the NewsFeed algorithm. I also described my work with Sarah Szalavitz on FollowBias, a system for measuring and addressing these more social influences..
Finally, I described work on distributed decisionmaking, whether the decisions of digital laborers who do the work of content moderation online. I described my recent collaboration on a research project describing the process of reviewing, reporting, and responding to harassment online. I also described upcoming work to study the work of moderators on Reddit.
How Do Gaming Communities Make Sense of Their Personal Place and Role in Massive Worlds?
What is it like to be an EVE Online player? Aleena opens up by showing us videos of massive online space battles in this massively online multiplayer game.
Aleena Chia is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication and Culture at Indiana University currently interning at Microsoft Research, where she investigates the affective politics and moral economics of participatory culture, in the context of digital and live-action game worlds.
Aleena’s research on consumer culture tends to focus on gaming activities. How they make sense of their role in these massive worlds? Her argument is that users make sense of their experience through the alignment of spectacle, alcohol, and experience at brand fests and the gameplay experience itself. They feel that they’re truly a part of something larger than themselves.
How do they make sense of their hours spent on this? They spend hours and hours each week building up empires. This experience is made sensible through reward and reputation systems, sometimes designed by the companies, and sometimes by the communities themselves. How do players make sense of the time they’ve invested into their identities as gamers in Eve but also beyond? They make sense of this through conversations about work-life balance, as well as the recognition by others that their work has cultural, economic, and social value.
At the heart of this are <strong>Compensatory drives</strong> – use things to add up and even out. Get what’s coming to them. (Re)compense is connected to an idea of balance, a moral equilibrium. These “compensatory forces” give people a connection to the intangible world, to have a sense of fairness and justice, and a sense of aesthetic, economic, and social legitimacy.
EVE Online is a hypercapitalist world with no governments — warfare, murder, and theft are sanctioned if you can get away with it. But there is also a democratically elected player council, consultants to the game company, who talk to developers and the company. The savage world is managed through civilized processes.
Can player representatives effectively consult with the company? Players have very micro concerns, while developers often have macro-level concerns for all the players. Within these systems, there are some mechanisms of accountability — if they don’t do well, they won’t get elected. Players often complain to them on forums, email, and at meet-ups. But they also don’t have much power.
To understand this, Aleena will be looking at minutes from meetings between the council members and the company, as well as the council members and the player base. She’ll also be looking at town hall meeting logs, election campaigns materials and responses. She’ll be asking, how do they see their roles in relationship to each other? She’ll also look at how players learn to be council members of terms of office by examining meeting minutes. Finally, Aleena will be mapping feedback channels, mechanisms, directions, and ruptures– both formal and informal mechanisms. Feedback doesn’t just run up the chain from players to developers through the consultants; it also runs down. Consultants have a job (either implicit or explicit) to advocate for the company and “spread goodwill to the masses.”
If the election of player councils is one example of a democratic process between audiences and brands (perhaps related to reality tv shows with audience feedback. Now we have tribunals). Is this market populism (neoliberalism at work, a replacement of authentic democratic engagement)? Might it instead be consumer co-creation (customer relations, commoditized into a pleasurable and branded experience) – not just about making the experience better, but your experience as a consumer). Lastly, designers often say that users don’t know what they want — discounts popular will.
Finally Aleena is asking, “how are these democratic mechanisms changing the means and meanings of consumption?”
Questions, Answers, Comments
Ethan : How crowds develop or are simply different from users or patients or…? Wikipedia has a crowd, but how do you distinguish from other groups.
- Nathan: You’ve likely thought of this in your dispute resolution research. We might think of individuals or institutions. Using “crowd” as a placeholder for something we don’t quite know where to apply the lever to change things. Cumulative effect of the social choices and friendships we have in a network. Or it might be more identifiable.
Rebecca : What is your model of genuine civic engagement which neoliberalism has surplanted?
- Aleena: My utopia is a participatory democracy. But my own is not official political systems, but how can the media open up space for the public to participate? Engagement with the media via certain mechanisms creates real decision making power in the system and the content.
Tarleton: How do people think about their role in relation to community. But the world is meant to be something– Eve is clear about this, as is WIkipedia, and Facebook is sort of getting there. Not just governance problems, but the narrative claim of the institution masking or distorting the style of engagement?
- Stacy: My project stacked against Nathan’s shows two different aspects of the same problem. “Algorithm” as a single thing to be tweaked to fix everything. But that is not something I know. Transparency is seen as something severely lacking. How does Facebook present in order to shape the reality. “We” in publicity, “you” in user interactions. Depends on the audiences they’re speaking to.
- Nathan: I draw inspiration from Hochschild’s research on airline attendants. There was a clear corporate brand identity concern influencing how how airline attendants were trained to respond to tough situations. Training wasn’t just about what to do, but how to be. Like Hochschild’, I’m also looking at the process of learning to be a worker. There are job boards on Reddit where people apply and chat. Reddit has basic rules overall, but each /r also has special rules. I’m looking at how moderators look at their roles in their /r as well as at Reddit.com
- Aleena: The word between corporate and users — classic customer feedback, filter them, see what makes sense, incorporate. But we also want to persuade users that we’re on the same page, no “us vs them.” It’s not just about the bottom line — want there to be engagement. Eve doesn’t just want you to be happy. They want you to strive and have troubles.
- Ifeoma: Are governance of wellness programs actually voluntary? People aren’t voting about the shape the wellness program will take, only that it will exist. It’s about shifting the responsibility onto the individual worker. No real discussion if the work infrastructure can be shaped to achieve the same thing. Corporation abdicating its responsibility for a healthier worker, putting it on the worker. We’re worried about what that means, in the structural constraints inhibiting them. What will the new workplace discrimination be? It’s perfectly ok for your employer to fire you if you’re a smoker outside the workplace. Level of coercion. Up to 30% or 50% of the program covered for smoker cessation.
Mary Gray: Across these talks, there has been an implicit appeal that a social need or desire work outside of market demands. Want to keep players playing, keep newsfeed functioning in a certain way, etc. Market demands the corporations do something external to what the players/users/etc want. Why are we seeking corporate good? What sends us to the corporation to fix these things, seeing them as the path of recourse?
- Stacy: Inherent expectations from users that Facebook be “truthful.” Christian Sandvig did work that shows users feel confused, lied to “I thought that person just didn’t like me.” Users rely on FB to maintain social connections. When those assumptions aren’t met, tehre is anger. Comments of “why are you doing this to me?” Other people say “I have to be friends with someone because of business or whatever, but I don’t want to see their posts.” Gatekeeping is not new — but we don’t know how they’re doing this process.
- Aleena: Players look to Eve for social justice because the company thinks it makes good sense. Difference between votes at face value and adapting to mass player will. Do have to come up with something new, even if it’s not the thing that was asked for.
- Nathan: Wikipedia and Reddit are sorts of counterexamples to Eve or Facebook in that participants and active contributors may feel that it is a public good. Wikimedia, as a nonprofit, is funded by donations, has elected board members, and can be thought of as accountable to its participants. But when people who are not contributors are affected by its power, they may take traditional routes (such as petitioning Jimmy Wales). Reddit is more complex. When Reddit started banning /r for specific behavior they saw instead of its traditional hands-off model, this question of interests started to crack. Advertising and Reddit Gold are perhaps competing income models — when a fundraising goal is met, they buy a new server. But Reddit the company also is starting to take more top-down responsibility for what its users do, which makes them look more like other corporations.
- Ifeoma: Relinquishing the rights of social good to corporations has to do with complex problems and simple solutions. Wellness programs try to address American lifestyles being unhealthy (sitting, eating, smoking, don’t work out) — which is complex both in lifestyle and in infrastructure. Trying to fix with something as simple as a wellness program won’t have the intended results. AND has unintended results (discrimination especially). Laws don’t cover obesity or smoking, which are stigmatized, and encroach on the rights of the worker.
Nick Seaver: What is happening to audiences, citizens, workforces, etc as different publics — are you helping to defining what each of those things means? My own work has been undermined because I didn’t define that.
- Aleena: What is the value of comparing it to things which have come in the past? Something IS different in connected space. Not just how democracy and society are changing, but how are the meanings of consumption changing? Video games even… you can do so many more things — you’re supposed to buy things and make friends and etc. “What kind of player are you?” Identities are tied to this. How does this jigsaw piece connect to the rest of it?
- Ifeoma: Historical context is really important, especially in defining what a worker is. A defining thing is technology being available. Workplace surveillance isn’t new. What is new are the advances in technology, letting us survey and track the worker in a way which wasn’t already available. Collapses the line between work and no work. Woman fired (and sued) for deleting an app on her phone — which couldn’t be turned off, and was tracking her (how fast she was driving, where she was at over the weekend, etc). Unforeseen issues — need to redefine what it means to be a worker.
- Nathan: Kevin Driscoll and I have this debate about BBSs. We talk about them with a set goal and solid definitions. People do the same for Twitter and Reddit etc. And yet, in moderation work, there are common experiences, expectations, and tools. These moderators have to figure out how to work at that intersection between what a company with <100 employees are defining as the space of their work. Postigo explored this somewhat in his research on AOL community leaders — the more AOL did to control, track, standardize community leaders’ work, the more those folk thought of themselves as a collective and like unpaid workers. So I’m still looking for the language and theories to describe this.
- Stacy: I’m interested in the idea of When Technologies Were New — how people interacted with tech when things were new. The more we do with research, the more we realize nothing is new. In that sense, my dissertation isn’t just about Facebook, about algorithms at large. Society from a larger view — how do we understand the mediations happening?
What does it take to keep online communities going? With over 550,000 public subreddits, many of which are active, the communities on the site rely on ongoing effort by a large number of volunteer moderators. In my research, I’ve made the case that caring for the communities we’re part of is an important kind of digital citizenship. For that reason, I’m excited to learn more from redditors about how they see the work of moderation, why they do it, and what is/isn’t their job.
- About this Research Project
- Ethics: Who’s This For, What am I Recording, and What am I Sharing?
- Why Do Research With Redditors?
- How Am I Going About This Research?
This spring, I’ve been reading extensively about digital labor and citizenship online, including the story of over 30,000 AOL community leaders who facilitated online communities in the 90s. With Reddit pushing for profitability and promising new policies on online harassment, I thought that potential tensions arising this summer might offer an important lens into the work of moderators, at a time when listening to mods and recognizing their work would be especially important. “The summer is likely to include substantial discussion and introspection on the nature and boundaries of moderation work on Reddit,” I wrote in my proposal mid-May.
Although I expected something, I didn’t expect that Reddit would ban a set of subreddits and mods in their attempt to carry out their new policies, or that some redditors would vigorously oppose this move. (Update July 6: I also didn’t anticipate that reddit moderators would take their subs private to advocate for changes in how they are treated). These controversies have convinced me that this research could be especially valuable right now. Press coverage is likely to focus primarily on the controversy, while I can carry out a summer-long project, in conversation with a wider sample of redditors than just those associated with this controversy.
In this post (which I will be sharing with redditors when I ask permission to speak with them) I outline my research to understand how Reddit’s moderators see and define what they do. This blog post includes details of the research, the promises I make to redditors, and the wider reasons for this project.
About This Research Project
I’m a PhD student at the MIT Media Lab / Center for Civic Media and a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society where I research civic life online. As a PhD intern at Microsoft Research, I get to be supported this summer by amazing researchers including Tarleton Gillespie, Mary Gray, and Nancy Baym, who are advising this project.To learn more about my work you can read my MIT blog or check out my portfolio.
- Hanging out in moderator subreddits like needamod, modhelp, and others to learn more about how mods find opportunities, learn the ropes, and discuss their work
- Posting questions to some subreddits, after seeking permission from the mods, asking questions or getting feedback on my working understandings
- Collecting basic summary statistics across Reddit, from public information, to understand, on average, how many mods there are (like the above chart) and what kinds of rules different subreddits have.
- (potentially) interviewing reddit mods
- (potentially) trying my hand as a moderator
Ethics: Who’s This For, What am I Recording, and What am I Sharing?
My summer project is being done at Microsoft Research’s Social Media Collective, where I am a PhD intern. At MSR, I have the intellectual freedom to ask questions that are widely important to society and scholarship. I also expect to make my research widely accessible. Microsoft open-sourced my code when I was an intern in 2013, and Microsoft Research has an open access policy for its research.
Although I am a fellow at the DERP Institute and can, in theory, start a conversation with Reddit employees, I have not discussed this project with Reddit at all, have never received compensation from Reddit, nor am I working for them in any way. While it is possible that I may be asked in the future to share my results with the company, I will not share any of my notes or data with Reddit beyond the findings that I publish in research papers, public talks, blog posts, or open source materials.
This isn’t the first time I’ve done research about the work of moderation from the outside a powerful company. Last month, my colleagues and I published a report on Reporting, Reviewing, and Responding to Harassment on Twitter, including a section on the work of moderating alleged harassment. In that study, we treated everyone in our study with respect, including alleged harassers. Our research team did not share data with the company, we were writing independently of Twitter, and we had full editorial control over our report, even from the commissioning organization WAM!. Likewise, in my 2013 summer research at Microsoft on local community blogging, we either summarized or anonymized/modified all quotes and photos before publishing our results.
- Anyone can opt out of this research at any time by contacting me at /user/natematias. If you opt out, I will avoid quoting or mentioning you in any way in the published results.
- By default, I will anonymize any information I collect before publishing
- If a user requests that I use their username to give them appropriate credit for their work, I’ll weigh the risk/benefits and try to do right by the user
- I will keep all my notes and data secured, with secure backups that I access through encrypted connections.
Why Do Research with Redditors?
Reddit is one of the few major public platforms on the English-language web that allows/expects its users to establish and maintain their own communities, without thousands of paid content moderators and algorithms behind the scenes deciding what to keep or delete. In contrast, the Huffington Post pre-moderates 450,000 comments per day, paying between $0.005 and $0.25 for every comment that comes in. Yet Reddit mods do so much more than just delete spam. They do a huge amount of important work to create new communities, recruit participants, post content, manage subreddit settings & style, recruit new moderators, set rules for their subreddit, and monitor/manage submissions and comments. Moderators also tend to play a large role in debating and establishing wider community norms like Rediquette.
Last week, I used the Reddit API to collect data on the number of moderators who keep subreddit’s conversations going. A random sample of 100,615 subreddits (roughly 1/6 of all public subreddits) had 91,563 user accounts as moderators. While not all of these subreddits are active, each of them represents a moment of interest to try on the role. Among the 46% of subreddits with more than one subscriber, 30% of these subreddits have two or more moderators.
Communities of redditors and mods shaped some of my earliest impressions of the site six years ago, when a work colleague in invited me to join Reddit London meetups, telling me stories about their weekend and after-work gatherings. It was clear that participation meant more to many redditors than just links and comments. Later on, when I took two years to facilitate @1book140, The Atlantic’s Twitter book club, with around 140,000 subscribers, I came to learn how challenging and rewarding it can be to support a large discussion group online.
How Am I Going to Go About This Research?
Computer scientists, economists, and designers often want to ask if offering the right upvoting system or the right set of badges will filter content effectively or motivate people to contribute the greatest amount of appropriate effort to a web platform. This focus on productivity often interprets the activity of users in the language of company priorities rather than community ones. Stuart Geiger and I discussed this idea of productivity last fall at HCOMP Citizen-X, arguing that we need to understand user’s values beyond just the “productivity” of a group.
Although I often explore questions through design and data analysis, I’m taking a different approach this summer, to better understand how redditors see their own participation. My first semester at MIT taught me how important it can be to participate and observe a community rather than just measure it. Rather than spend the whole summer data-mining the Reddit API, I’m participating in subreddits and speaking to redditors. In “The Logic and Aims of Qualitative Research,” a chapter in a larger collection on communications research methods, Christians and Carey say that when researchers ask questions about human life, “we are examining a creative process whereby people produce and maintain forms of life and society and and systems of meaning and value.” They argue that qualitative research sets out to “better understand the meanings that people use to guide their activities” (358-9).
As a student in MIT’s Technologies for Creative Learning class, I was curious about how young people learning to code thought about “bugs” in the stories, art, and games they made with Scratch. In a corporate environment, where there’s a goal for everyone’s work, it’s possible to define software errors. But does the same language apply to a ten-year-old child who’s creating a story after school? Most scholarly discussion of “bugs” applied this corporate term to young people, defining strict goals for students and measuring “errors” when they diverged from pre-defined projects. When I visited schools, observed student projects, and talked to students, I saw that diverging from the teacher’s plan could be a highly creative act. Far from an error, a “glitch” could prompt new creative directions, and an “unexpected surprise” often opened learners to new understandings about code.
Code and artwork from one of my first projects on Scratch.
If I had relied entirely on the definitions and data coming from teachers or the Scratch platform, I might have been able to test statistical hypotheses about “bugs,” and I might even have developed ways to limit the number of errors per student. I would never have noticed how important these unexpected surprises were to young people’s creativity, and at worst, I might even have reduced the chances of students to experience them. By participating with students and spending time in their learning environment, I was able find new language, like “glitch,” that might move conversations beyond “errors” or “bugs.”
For my Reddit study this summer, I want to hear directly from mods about how they see their work; questions that go well beyond what can be measured. Many thanks in advance to those who welcome me into your subreddits this summer and take time to talk with me.
Update July 6, 2015. I ran into a Reddit employee at a conference last week and sent them this link, so the company is now aware of this project. I am still not working directly with Reddit in any way.
A very similar version of this blog post originally appeared in Culture Digitally on June 5, 2015.
Words Matter. As I write this in June 2015, a United Nations committee in Bonn is occupied in the massive task of editing a document overviewing global climate change. The effort to reduce 90 pages into a short(er), sensible, and readable set of facts and positions is not just a matter of editing but a battle among thousands of stakeholders and political interests, dozens of languages, and competing ideas about what is real and therefore, what should or should not be done in response to this reality.
I think about this as I complete a visiting fellowship at Microsoft Research, where over a thousand researchers worldwide study complex world problems and focus on advancing state of the art computing. In such research environments the distance between one’s work and the design of the future can feel quite small. Here, I feel like our everyday conversations and playful interactions on whiteboards has the potential to actually impact what counts as the cutting edge and what might get designed at some future point.
But in less overtly “future making” contexts, our everyday talk still matters, in that words construct meanings, which over time and usage become taken for granted ways of thinking about the way the world works. These habits of thought, writ large, shape and delimit social action, organizations, and institutional structures.
In an era of web 2.0, networked sociality, constant connectivity, smart devices, and the internet of things (IoT), how does everyday talk shape our relationship to technology, or our relationships to each other? If the theory of social construction is really a thing, are we constructing the world we really want? Who gets to decide the shape of our future? More importantly, how does everyday talk construct, feed, or resist larger discourses?
rhetoric as world-making
From a discourse-centered perspective, rhetoric is not a label for politically loaded or bombastic communication practices, but rather, a consideration of how persuasion works. Reaching back to the most classic notions of rhetoric from ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, persuasion involves a mix of logical, emotional, and ethical appeals, which have no necessary connection to anything that might be sensible, desirable, or good to anyone, much less a majority. Persuasion works whether or not we pay attention. Rhetoric can be a product of deliberation or effort, but it can also function without either.
When we represent the techno-human or socio-technical relation through words, images, these representations function rhetorically. World making is inherently discursive at some level. And if making is about changing, this process inevitably involves some effort to influence how people describe, define, respond to, or interact with/in actual contexts of lived experience.
I have three sisters, each involved as I am in world-making, if such a descriptive phrase can be applied to the everyday acts of inquiry that prompt change in socio-technical contexts. Cathy is an organic gardener who spends considerable time improving techniques for increasing her yield each year. Louise is a project manager who designs new employee orientation programs for a large IT company. Julie is a biochemist who studies fish in high elevation waterways.
Perhaps they would not describe themselves as researchers, designers, or even makers. They’re busy carrying out their job or avocation. But if I think about what they’re doing from the perspective of world-making, they are all three, plus more. They are researchers, analyzing current phenomena. They are designers, building and testing prototypes for altering future behaviors. They are activists, putting time and energy into making changes that will influence future practices.
Their work is alternately physical and cognitive, applied for distinct purposes, targeted to very different types of stakeholders. As they go about their everyday work and lives, they are engaged in larger conversations about what matters, what is real, or what should be changed.
Everyday talk is powerful not just because it has remarkable potential to persuade others to think and act differently, but also because it operates in such unremarkable ways. Most of us don’t recognize that we’re shaping social structures when we go about the business of everyday life. Sure, a single person’s actions can become globally notable, but most of the time, any small action such as a butterfly flapping its wings in Michigan is difficult to link to a tsunami halfway around the world. But whether or not direct causality can be identified, there is a tipping point where individual choices become generalized categories. Where a playful word choice becomes a standard term in the OED. Where habitual ways of talking become structured ways of thinking.
The power of discourse: Two examples
I mention two examples that illustrate the power of discourse to shape how we think about social media, our relationship to data, and our role in the larger political economies of internet related activities. These cases are selected because they cut across different domains of digital technological design and development. I develop these cases in more depth here and here.
‘Sharing’ versus ‘surfing’
The case of ‘sharing’ illustrates how a term for describing our use of technology (using, surfing, or sharing) can influence the way we think about the relationship between humans and their data, or the rights and responsibilities of various stakeholders involved in these activities. In this case, regulatory and policy frameworks have shifted the burden of responsibility from governmental or corporate entities to individuals. This may not be directly caused by the rise in the use of the term ‘sharing’ as the primary description of what happens in social media contexts, but this term certainly reinforces a particular framework that defines what happens online. When this term is adopted on a broad scale and taken for granted, it functions invisibly, at deep structures of meaning. It can seem natural to believe that when we decide to share information, we should accept responsibility for our action of sharing it in the first place.
It is easy to accept the burden for protecting our own privacy when we accept the idea that we are ‘sharing’ rather than doing something else. The following comment seems sensible within this structure of meaning: “If you didn’t want your information to be public, you shouldn’t have shared it in the first place.” This explanation is naturalized, but is not the only way of seeing and describing this event. We could alternately say we place our personal information online like we might place our wallet on the table. When someone else steals it, we’d likely accuse the thief of wrongdoing rather than the innocent victim who trusted that their personal belongings would be safe.
A still different frame might characterize personal information as an extension of the body or even a body part, rather than an object or possession. Within this definition, disconnecting information from the person would be tantamount to cutting off an arm. As with the definition of the wallet above, accountability for the action would likely be placed on the shoulders of the ‘attacker’ rather than the individual who lost a finger or ear.
‘Data’ and quantification of human experience
With the rise of big data, we have entered (or some would say returned to) an era of quantification. Here, the trend is to describe and conceptualize all human activity as data—discrete units of information that can be collected and analyzed. Such discourse collapses and reduces human experience. Dreams are equalized with body weight; personality is something that can be categorized with a similar statistical clarity as diabetes.
The trouble of using data as the baseline unit of information is that it presents an imaginary of experience that is both impoverished and oversimplified. This conceptualization is coincidental, of course, in that it coincides with the focus on computation as the preferred mode of analysis, which is predicated on the ability to collect massive quantities of digital information from multiple sources, which can only be measured through certain tools.
“Data” is a word choice, not an inevitable nomenclature. This choice has consequence from the micro to macro, from the cultural to the ontological. This is the case because we’ve transformed life into arbitrarily defined pieces, which replace the flow of lived experience with information bits. Computational analytics makes calculations based on these information bits. This matters, in that such datafication focuses attention on that which exists as data and ignores what is outside this configuration. Indeed, data has become a frame for that which is beyond argument because it always exists, no matter how it might be interpreted (a point well developed by many including Daniel Rosenberg in his essay Data before the fact).
We can see a possible outcome of such framing in the emerging science and practice of “predictive policing.” This rapidly growing strategy in large metropolitan cities is a powerful example of how computation of tiny variables in huge datasets can link individuals to illegal behaviors. The example grows somewhat terrifying when we realize these algorithms are used to predict what is likely to occur, rather than to simply calculate what has occurred. Such predictions are based on data compiled from local and national databases, focusing attention on only those elements of human behavior that have been captured in these data sets (for more on this, see the work of Sarah Brayne)
We could alternately conceptualize human experience as a river that we can only step in once, because it continually changes as it flows through time-space. In such a Heraclitian characterization, we might then focus more attention on the larger shape and ecology of the river rather than trying to capture the specificities of the moment when we stepped into it.
Likewise, describing behavior in terms of the chemical processes in the brain, or in terms of the encompassing political situation within which it occurs will focus our attention on different aspects of an individual’s behavior or the larger situation to which or within which this behavior responds. Each alternative discourse provokes different ways of seeing and making sense of a situation.
When we stop to think about it, we know these symbolic interactions matter. Gareth Morgan’s classic work about metaphors of organization emphasizes how the frames we use will generate distinctive perspectives and more importantly, distinctive structures for organizing social and workplace activities. We might reverse engineer these structures to find a clash of rivaling symbols, only some of which survive to define the moment and create future history. Rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke would talk about these symbolic frames as myths. In a 1935 speech to the American Writer’s Congress he notes that:
“myth” is the social tool for welding the sense of interrelationship by which [we] can work together for common social ends. In this sense, a myth that works well is as real as food, tools, and shelter are.
These myths do not just function ideologically in the present tense. As they are embedded in our everyday ways of thinking, they can become naturalized principles upon which we base models, prototypes, designs, and interfaces.
Designing better discourses
How might we design discourse to try to intervene in the shape of our future worlds? Of course, we can address this question as critical and engaged citizens. We are all researchers and designers involved in the everyday processes of world-making. Each, in our own way, are produsing the ethics that will shape our future.
This is a critical question for interaction and platform designers, software developers, and data scientists. In our academic endeavors, the impact of our efforts may or may not seem consequential on any grand scale. The outcome of our actions may have nothing to do with what we thought or desired from the outset. Surely, the butterfly neither intends nor desires to cause a tsunami.
Still, it’s worth thinking about. What impact do we have on the larger world? And should we be paying closer attention to how we’re ‘world-making’ as we engage in the mundane, the banal, the playful? When we consider the long future impact of our knowledge producing practices, or the way that technological experimentation is actualized, the answer is an obvious yes. As Laura Watts notes in her work on future archeology:
futures are made and fixed in mundane social and material practice: in timetables, in corporate roadmaps, in designers’ drawings, in standards, in advertising, in conversations, in hope and despair, in imaginaries made flesh.
It is one step to notice these social construction processes. The challenge then shifts to one of considering how we might intervene in our own and others’ processes, anticipate future causality, turn a tide that is not yet apparent, and try to impact what we might become.
Acknowledgments and references
Notably, the position I articulate here is not new or unique, but another variation on a long running theme of critical scholarship, which is well represented by members of the Social Media Collective. I am also indebted to a long list of feminist and critical scholarship. This position statement is based on my recent interests and concerns about social media platform design, the role of self-learning algorithmic logics in digital culture infrastructures, and the ethical gaps emerging from rapid technological development. It derives from my previous work in digital identity, ethnographic inquiry of user interfaces and user perceptions, and recent work training participants to use auto-ethnographic and phenomenology techniques to build reflexive critiques of their lived experience in digital culture. There are, truly, too many sources and references to list here, but as a short list of what I directly mentioned:
Kenneth L. Burke. 1935. Revolutionary symbolism in America. Speech to the American Writer’s Congress, February 1935. Reprinted in The Legacy of Kenneth Burke. Herbert W. Simons and Trevor Melia (eds). Madison: U of Wisconsin Press, 1989. Retrieved 2 June 2015 from: http://parlormultimedia.com/burke/sites/default/files/Burke-Revolutionary.pdf
Annette N. Markham. Forthcoming. From using to sharing: A story of shifting fault lines in privacy and data protection narratives. In Digital Ethics (2nd ed). Baastian Vanaker, Donald Heider (eds). Peter Lang Press, New York. Final draft available in PDF here
Annette N. Markham. 2014. Undermining data: A critical examination of a core term in scientific inquiry. First Monday, 18(10).
Gareth Morgan. 1986. Images of Organization. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA.
Laura Watts. 2015. Future archeology: Re-animating innovation in the mobile telecoms industry. In Theories of the mobile internet: Materialities and imaginaries. Andrew Herman, Jan Hadlaw, Thom Swiss (Eds). Routledge Press,
What should people who are interested in accountability and algorithms be thinking about? Here is one answer: My eleven-minute remarks are now online from a recent event at NYU. I’ve edited them to intersperse my slides.
This talk was partly motivated by the ethics work being done in the machine learning community. That is very exciting and interesting work and I love, love, love it. My remarks are an attempt to think through the other things we might also need to do. Let me know how to replace the “??” in my slides with something more meaningful!
Preview: My remarks contain a minor attempt at a Michael Jackson joke.
A number of fantastic Social Media Collective people were at this conference — you can hear Kate Crawford in the opening remarks. For more videos from the conference, see:
Algorithms and Accountability
Thanks to Joris van Hoboken, Helen Nissenbaum and Elana Zeide for organizing such a fab event.
If you bought this 11-minute presentation you might also buy: Auditing Algorithms, a forthcoming workshop at Oxford.
(This was cross-posted to multicast.)
Microsoft Research (MSR) is looking for a Research Assistant to work with the Social Media Collective in the New England lab, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The MSR Social Media Collective consists of Nancy Baym, Sarah Brayne, Kevin Driscoll, Tarleton Gillespie, Mary L. Gray, and Lana Schwartz in Cambridge, and Kate Crawford and danah boyd in New York City, as well as faculty visitors and Ph.D. interns affiliated with the MSR New England. The RA will work directly with Nancy Baym, Kate Crawford, Tarleton Gillespie, and Mary L. Gray. Unfortunately because this is a time-limited contract position, we can only consider candidates who are already legally eligible to work in the United States.
An appropriate candidate will be a self-starter who is passionate and knowledgeable about the social and cultural implications of technology. Strong skills in writing, organization and academic research are essential, as are time-management and multi-tasking. Minimal qualifications are a BA or equivalent degree in a humanities or social science discipline and some qualitative research training.
Job responsibilities will include:
– Sourcing and curating relevant literature and research materials
– Developing literature reviews and/or annotated bibliographies
– Coding ethnographic and interview data
– Copyediting manuscripts
– Working with academic journals on themed sections
– Assisting with research project data management and event organization
The RA will also have opportunities to collaborate on ongoing projects. While publication is not a guarantee, the RA will be encouraged to co-author papers while at MSR. The RAship will require 40 hours per week on site in Cambridge, MA, and remote coordination with New York City-based researchers. It is a 12 month contractor position, with the opportunity to extend the contract an additional 6 months. The position pays hourly with flexible daytime hours. The start date will ideally be July 15, although flexibility is possible for the right candidate.
This position is perfect for emerging scholars planning to apply to PhD programs in Communication, Media Studies, Sociology, Anthropology, Information Studies, and related fields who want to develop their research skills before entering a graduate program. Current New England-based MA/PhD students are welcome to apply provided they can commit to 40 hours of on-site work per week.
To apply, please send an email to Mary Gray (mLg@microsoft.com) with the subject “RA Application” and include the following attachments:
– One-page (single-spaced) personal statement, including a description of research experience and training, interests, and professional goals
– CV or resume
– Writing sample (preferably a literature review or a scholarly-styled article)
– Links to online presence (e.g., blog, homepage, Twitter, journalistic endeavors, etc.)
– The names and emails of two recommenders
We will begin reviewing applications on May 15 and will continue to do so until we find an appropriate candidate. We will post to the blog when the position is filled.
Please feel free to ask quesions about the position in the blog comments!
The Social Media Collective is thrilled to announce that Tarleton Gillespie has joined Microsoft Research New England as a Principal Researcher. He joins Nancy Baym and Mary Gray in New England and danah boyd and Kate Crawford in New York City in forming the permanent core of the SMC. Tarleton is known for his influential work on the cultural politics of algorithms and platforms. His most recent book is the co-edited collection Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society (2014). He has also written about copyright in his book Wired Shut: Copyright and the Shape of Digital Culture (2007). He’s been at the forefront of bringing researchers together to think through issues of digital culture through the scholarly blog he co-founded, culturedigitally.org, which any regular reader of this site should be reading as well.
Prior to joining MSR, Tarleton was an Associate Professor in both Communication and Information Science at Cornell. He remains affiliated with Cornell as an Adjunct Associate Professor.
Those lucky enough to work with Tarleton know that in addition to being wicked smart (or, as they would say here in Boston, wicked smaht), he is a remarkably generous scholar and thinker who always makes the work of those around him better. Also, he’s an incredibly nice guy.