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Multilingual Interactions through Machine Translation—Numbers from Socl

October 4, 2013

For the past two years, social media platforms have been rolling out machine translation in the hopes of enabling multilingual interactions. However, the people interacting in these platforms often know each other already, and have a language in common (i.e., friends). But what happens when machine translation is used to facilitate interactions among strangers, who perhaps have common interests but not a common language?

The earliest social media platform to enable machine translation was probably Facebook, which began autotranslating conversations in Facebook pages (a good place to start given that Pages are more likely to bring together heterogeneous languages). Likewise, Google+ and Twitter later released similar features, enabling, for example, Spanish-speaking Twitter users to read the tweets from the now toppled Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi, translated from Arabic to Spanish:


How often do these types of multilingual interactions occur, though? Ethan Zuckerman posed a similar question when wondering how often people use their browsers’ machine translation to pay attention to content outside their immediate reach.

Read more…

Art, Activism and Political Consciousness

October 4, 2013

Earlier this week, I caught Molly Crabapple’s talk at the Berkman Center, where she gave a determined defense of the value of art, and particularly activist, hand-drawn art, in the midst of participatory media. In particular, I was struck by her comment that camera phones enable protestors to rob authority figures of anonymity, for example, capturing images of police officers using excessive force. At the same time, Crabapple acknowledged that video documentation is no guarantee of justice, as the horrific experiences of Oscar Grant and long before that, Rodney King, have shown. Drawing on her experiences of making art and documentation of Occupy, Gezi Park and Guantanamo, Crabapple echoed a long line of claims about the value of art in providing a distillation (or crystallization) of political consciousness that goes beyond photographic representation. In other words, hand drawn art offers a defense of (or perhaps an insistence on) subjective rather than objective (or claiming to be objective) documentation. During the Q&A, Nathan Matias asked Crabapple about connections to Susan Sontag’s On Photography, a convergence I want to develop further here. It’s perhaps worth stating at the outset that 1) Susan Sontag is one of my intellectual heroes 2) there is an entire field of visual studies in which I am not at all well-versed and probably has much smarter things to say about this. In particular, if anyone feels like sending me blog posts or articles that connect Sontag’s work to participatory media, I’d love to read them.

One of Sontag’s key arguments is that photographs “alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing” (p. 3). The photographic grammar and ethics of seeing takes place cumulatively for Sontag, where photographs become dangerous as a mechanism of gradual desensitization, a point she later underscores in Regarding the Pain of Others. Before bringing this point back to Crabapple, I can’t help pointing out that in re-reading On Photography this week, I was struck by how prescient her comments are in an age of Flickr and Instagram:

  • Anticipating memes: “Photography does not simply reproduce the real, it recycles it” (p. 174).
  • Fragmentation and overload: “Photography reinforces a nominalist view of social reality as consisting of small units of an apparently infinite number – as the number of photographs that could be taken of anything is unlimited. Through photographs, the world becomes a series of unrelated, freestanding particles … the camera makes reality atomic, manageable and opaque” (p. 22-23).
  • And again, when Sontag writes that photography “creates another habit of seeing,” and that this “photographic seeing has to be constantly renewed with new shocks, whether of subject matter or technique, so as to produce the impression of violating ordinary vision” (p. 99), it is (to me) a claim that ages well in the context of social media.

But getting back to photography, politics and violence, Sontag’s emphasis on the intertwining of political consciousness and photographs (where muckrakers instantiated a norm of political change in response to documentation) resonate with Crabapple’s observation of focus on the political efficacy of capturing images of authorities. At the same time, I was reminded of Finn Brunton’s discussion of charivari in Spam. Charivari refers to a symbolic form of collective vigilantism that hinges on public shaming, a “mode of collective surveillance and punishment for the violation of norms and mores” (p. 44). Brunton argued that charivari offered a means of collectively responding to the violation of technological norms, as when early spammers were in turn flooded with revenge spam, fax bombing and in some cases had  their personal information posted publicly.

It’s ultimately the sense of political and judicial efficacy that both exposes the weakness of charivari and demonstrates the need for art. While Sontag argued that “photography, though not an art form in itself, has the peculiar capacity to turn all its subjects into works of art” (p. 149), Crabapple posited that photography has the ability to turn all its subjects into memes. Brunton’s analysis of charivari suggests a form of responding to the violation of socio-technical norms, but frequently fails as a response that provides substantive change or institutionalized justice.  Thus, memes about John Pike can rob him of his anonymity, but they cannot guarantee jail time or monetary retribution. This is what gets us back to the value of hand-drawn art. For Sontag, photography is linked to a desire for distance from hardship, lending a troubling layer of paradox onto claims that participatory media is galvanizing. Personally, I am inclined to think that part of what endures in drawing by hand and part of what is lost in photographing with hand-held devices is precisely the body. Crabapple positioned drawing as a catalyst to interpersonal connectivity as well as psycho-social vulnerability, incidentally the same qualities that Gladwell associates with high-risk activism. If Lefebvre is right and we re-shape spaces through daily practices, it is perhaps practices of drawing rather than photography that stand to reshape space most provocatively.

{This entry is cross-posted from my personal site}

Account Sharing in the Context of Networked Hospitality Exchange

October 1, 2013

When it comes to designing web services, an individual user is often taken as the starting point.

In many cases, it’s a good, practical assumption to make. It can, however, prove to be problematic when it comes to the so called ‘sharing economy’ where people share resources, such as physical space and tangible items, with others with the help of networked tools. After all, our homes, possessions, and everyday lives are often shared with others.


Considering these dynamics of sharing from a more focused perspective, I interviewed couples, families, and housemates who accommodate strangers in their homes via The interviews were conducted in metropolitan areas in the US in the summer of 2012, primarily in the interviewees’ homes – the same domestic spaces that the participants offer to open up for visiting couchsurfers. The study is a step towards unraveling practices of account sharing in the context of networked hospitality exchange.

While allows users to set up profiles that explicitly represent  ‘several people’, the site is limited in its support for everyday account sharing. The structure of profiles is not convenient for presenting multiple people, nor is the messaging system set up to encourage multiple profile owners to cooperate in handling requests from potential visitors.

Findings concerning what it means to use a single account as a multi-person household reveal several challenges. These include:

  1. Presenting multiple people with a single profile
  2. Coordinating and negotiating how the household responds to requests it receives
  3. Sharing the benefits of a good reputation in a fair way among household members

Beyond particular details, these challenges are not confined to or even to other similar non-monetary networked hospitality exchange services, such as Bewelcome and Hospitality Club. Further parallels can be found, for instance, from sites like Airbnb and Bizpora that help people monetize their willingness to make domestic spaces available to others. Here, too, the need to negotiate with other household members over access to domestic spaces may arise, with the added question of how the exchange of money between hosts and visitors affects the dynamics among hosts.

Similar issues are important also for ‘collaborative consumption’ systems that facilitate, for instance, local online exchange or ridesharing. Since sharing and exchanging can concern goods that are co-owned by multiple people, such as cars, bikes, or other tangible items, questions of accumulating a reputation and achieving satisfactory coordination of exchange activities are of crucial importance in this context, too.

On, members may face challenges due to the scarce support for account sharing, for example in how to continue participation as a reputed member after a life change. However, consequences could be much more troubling in other systems that use the social and economic value of reputation more systematically as a condition for access to participation and other valued resources.

Adopting a design focus beyond individuals and developing services that support account sharing in practical yet fair ways is no easy task. This is, however, an increasingly critical issue to address as systems that facilitate network hospitality and other forms of collaborative consumption permeate the everyday lives of a growing number of people.

Amidst the rising rhetoric of a ‘reputation economy’, it is necessary to engage the inclusions, exclusions, and inequalities that reputation metrics may renew or create, especially if they fail to acknowledge people’s account sharing practices.

A preprint (pdfof the paper Account Sharing in the Context of Networked Hospitality Exchange is already available. The paper will be presented in February at the CSCW 2014 Conference in Baltimore, USA. Research for this paper was conducted during my internship at Microsoft Research New England in 2012. I am indebted to Mary L. Gray, Nancy Baym, and other members of the Social Media Collective for their invaluable advice and support throughout the project.

Picture credit:

We’re hiring a Postdoc!

October 1, 2013

The Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research New England (MSRNE) is looking for a social media postdoctoral researcher (start date: 1 July, 2014). This position is an ideal opportunity for a scholar whose work draws on anthropology, communication, media studies, sociology, and/or science and technology studies to bring empirical and critical perspectives to complex socio-technical issues.

Application deadline: Monday 4 November, 2013.

Microsoft Research provides a vibrant multidisciplinary research environment with an open publications policy and close links to top academic institutions around the world. Postdoc researcher positions provide emerging scholars (PhDs received in 2013 or to be conferred by July 2014) an opportunity to develop their research career and to interact with some of the top minds in the research community. Postdoc researchers are invited to define their own research agenda and demonstrate their ability to drive forward an effective program of research. Successful candidates will have a well-established research track record as demonstrated by journal publications and conference papers, as well as participation on program committees, editorial boards, and advisory panels. The position offers the potential to have research realized in products and services that will be used world-wide.

Postdoc researchers receive a competitive salary and benefits package, and are eligible for relocation expenses. Postdoc researchers are hired for a two-year term appointment following the academic calendar, starting in July 2014. Applicants must have completed the requirements for a PhD, including submission of their dissertation, prior to joining Microsoft Research. We do accept applicants with tenure-track job offers from other institutions so long as they are able to negotiate deferring their start date to accept our position.

While each of the thirteen Microsoft Research labs has openings in a variety of different disciplines, the Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research New England (located in Cambridge, MA) is especially interested in identifying social science/humanities candidates with critical approaches to their topics. Qualifications include a strong academic record in anthropology, communication, media studies, sociology, science and technology studies, or a related field. The ideal candidate may be trained in any number of disciplines, but should have a strong social scientific or humanistic methodological, analytical, and theoretical foundation, be interested in questions related to technology or the internet and society or culture, and be interested in working in a highly interdisciplinary environment that includes computer scientists, mathematicians, and economists.

The Social Media Collective is comprised of full-time researchers, postdocs, visiting faculty, PhD interns, and research assistants. Current projects include:

- How does the use of social media affect relationships between artists and audiences in creative industries? (Nancy Baym)
- What are the implications of regulating algorithms? (danah boyd)
- What are the politics, ethics and policy implications of big data science? (Kate Crawford)
- How does information infrastructure shape event epistemology? (Megan Finn)
- What are the cultural, political, and economic implications of crowdsourcing as a new form of semi-automated, globally-distributed digital labor? (Mary L. Gray)
- How do online technologies shape subcultures and communities of alterity? (Jessa Lingel)

To apply for a postdoc position at MSRNE:

Submit an online application here.

- Indicate that your research area of interest is “Anthropology, Communication, Media Studies, and Sociology” and that your location preference is “New England, MA, U.S.”

- In addition to the CV and names of three referees (including your dissertation advisor) that the online application will require you to include, upload the following 3 attachments with your online application:

a) two journal articles, book chapters, or equivalent writing samples (uploaded as 2 separate attachments);

b) a single research statement (four page maximum length) that addresses the following: outlines the questions and methodologies central to your research agenda (~two page maximum length); provides an abstract and chapter outline of your dissertation (~one page maximum length); offers a description of how your research agenda relates to research conducted by the social media collective (~one page maximum length)

After you submit your application, a request for letters will be sent to your list of referees on your behalf. You can check the status of progress on individual reference requests at any time by clicking the status tab within your application page. Note that a complete application includes three submitted letters of reference.


Please make sure to check back with your referees if you have any questions about the status of your requested letters of recommendation.

For more information, see here.

eyes on the street or creepy surveillance?

September 24, 2013

This summer, with NSA scandal after NSA scandal, the public has (thankfully) started to wake up to issues of privacy, surveillance, and monitoring. We are living in a data world and there are serious questions to ask and contend with. But part of what makes this data world messy is that it’s not so easy as to say that all monitoring is always bad. Over the last week, I’ve been asked by a bunch of folks to comment on the report that a California school district hired an online monitoring firm to watch its students. This is a great example of a situation that is complicated.

The media coverage focuses on how the posts that they are monitoring are public, suggesting that this excuses their actions because “no privacy is violated.” We should all know by now that this is a terrible justification. Just because teens’ content is publicly accessible does not mean that it is intended for universal audiences nor does it mean that the onlooker understands what they see. (Alice Marwick and I discuss youth privacy dynamics in detail in “Social Privacy in Networked Publics”.) But I want to caution against jumping to the opposite conclusion because these cases aren’t as simple as they might seem.

Consider Tess’ story. In 2007, she and her friend killed her mother. The media reported it as “girl with MySpace kills mother” so I decided to investigate the case. For 1.5 years, she documented on a public MySpace her struggles with her mother’s alcoholism and abuse, her attempts to run away, her efforts to seek help. When I reached out to her friends after she was arrested, I learned that they had reported their concerns to the school but no one did anything. Later, I learned that the school didn’t investigate because MySpace was blocked on campus so they couldn’t see what she had posted. And although the school had notified social services out of concern, they didn’t have enough evidence to move forward. What became clear in this incident – and many others that I tracked – is that there are plenty of youth crying out for help online on a daily basis. Youth who could really benefit from the fact that their material is visible and someone is paying attention.

Many youth cry out for help through social media. Publicly, often very publicly. Sometimes for an intended audience. Sometimes as a call to the wind for anyone who might be paying attention. I’ve read far too many suicide notes and abuse stories to believe that privacy is the only frame viable here. One of the most heartbreaking was from a girl who was commercially sexually exploited by her middle class father. She had gone to her school who had helped her go to the police; the police refused to help. She published every detail on Twitter about exactly what he had done to her and all of the people who failed to help her. The next day she died by suicide.  In my research, I’ve run across too many troubled youth to count. I’ve spent many a long night trying to help teens I encounter connect with services that can help them.

So here’s the question that underlies any discussion of monitoring: how do we leverage the visibility of online content to see and hear youth in a healthy way? How do we use the technologies that we have to protect them rather than focusing on punishing them?  We shouldn’t ignore youth who are using social media to voice their pain in the hopes that someone who cares might stumble across their pleas.

Urban theorist Jane Jacobs used to argue that the safest societies are those where there are “eyes on the street.” What she meant by this was that healthy communities looked out for each other, were attentive to when others were hurting, and were generally present when things went haywire. How do we create eyes on the digital street? How do we do so in a way that’s not creepy?  When is proactive monitoring valuable for making a difference in teens’ lives?  How do we make sure that these same tools aren’t abused for more malicious purposes?

What matters is who is doing the looking and for what purposes. When the looking is done by police, the frame is punitive. But when the looking is done by caring, concerned, compassionate people – even authority figures like social workers – the outcome can be quite different. However well-intended, law enforcement’s role is to uphold the law and people perceive their presence as oppressive even when they’re trying to help. And, sadly, when law enforcement is involved, it’s all too likely that someone will find something wrong. And then we end up with the kinds of surveillance that punishes.

If there’s infrastructure put into place for people to look out for youth who are in deep trouble, I’m all for it. But the intention behind the looking matters the most. When you’re looking for kids who are in trouble in order to help them, you look for cries for help that are public. If you’re looking to punish, you’ll misinterpret content, take what’s intended to be private and publicly punish, and otherwise abuse youth in a new way.

Unfortunately, what worries me is that systems that are put into place to help often get used to punish. There is often a slippery slope where the designers and implementers never intended for it to be used that way. But once it’s there….

So here’s my question to you. How can we leverage technology to provide an additional safety net for youth who are struggling without causing undue harm? We need to create a society where people are willing to check in on each other without abusing the power of visibility. We need more eyes on the street in the Jacbos-ian sense, not in the surveillance state sense. Finding this balance won’t be easy but I think that it behooves us to not jump to extremes. So what’s the path forward?

(I discuss this issue in more detail in my upcoming book “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.”  You can pre-order the book now!)

Today’s Technological Middle School

September 13, 2013

Last night, I went to parent-teacher night at my daughter’s school. Here is a list of things I wrote down that differ from when I went to middle school. Since I’m a social media researcher, many of them have to do with technology and social media. I thought someone else might find them of interest.

Things in middle school today that differ from my childhood:

  • The “loaner Kindles.”
  • Everyone gets a “certificate of participation” for everything.
  • Cyber-bullying prevention assembly is held once each year.*
  • Giant flatscreen TV looks weird on a rolling cart.
  • No recess.
  • Less unstructured time.
  • 20 minute lunch.
  • School day is shorter.
  • Along with Kleenex and colored pencils, the “teacher wish list” has software licenses.
  • “No cut” athletics.
  • All of the good teachers have a Weebly.
  • Video lectures sent home on thumb drives “in case your broadband is slow.”
  • Physical Education (Phys Ed) is optional.
  • Shop classes replaced by computer classes, called “Technical Education” (Tech Ed).
  • The Concussion Awareness Campaign.
  • Most common use of Internet in school: YouTube.
  • Most FAQ from parents: “How often do you post grades on Powerschool?” (Powerschool is proprietary courseware.)
  • Many textbooks are PDFs.
  • As part of a “back strain prevention program” there are two copies of the heaviest textbooks — one for school and one for home.
  • When I was a kid: “school resource officer.” Today: “police-free schools.” (Yes Ann Arbor is liberal and affluent.)
  • Can’t make a move without a contract that the parent and the child has to sign.
  • “For safety,” students not allowed in school building before or after school.
  • Student art projects come home via the equivalent of Cafe Press. We got a mug.
  • Whole school smells strongly of Axe.

* — An actual quote from a handout: “Facebook, cellphone cameras and texting, My Space [sic], FormSpring, X-box live, etc. are just some of the ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ that are in your children’s hands.”  

Me: “FormSpring?!”

Me: “Also, ‘My Space’ doesn’t have a space.”

Me: “Also, also, I think ‘My Space’ is over now.”


(This is a cross-post from multicast.)

The 3 things you can learn about your neighborhood using Whooly

August 29, 2013

Along with my colleagues Shelly Farnham, and Michal Lahav—and our interns Yuheng HuEmma Spiro, and Nate Matias—we have been exploring ways of discovering and fostering latent neighborhood information to help people understand what’s happening in their local communities.

As part of this research, we have created Whooly an experimental mobile website that discovers and highlights neighborhood-specific information on Twitter in real-time. The system is focused, for now, on various neighborhoods of the Seattle metro area (King County to be specific). Whooly automatically discovers, extracts and summarizes hyperlocal Twitter content from these communities based on mentions of local neighborhoods and relevant keywords from tweets and profiles. One can think of Whooly as a neighborhood Twitter client.

Screenshot of Whooly

Read more…


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