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We are hiring a Postdoc

October 21, 2017

The Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research New England (MSRNE) is looking for a social media postdoctoral researcher (start date: July, 2018). 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: 1 December 2017. This year, we will also consider applications for a possible candidate slot, based in SMC, bridging SMC and one or more areas of the MSRNE lab, including machine learning, bioinformatics, cryptography, algorithmic game theory, and economics.

Microsoft Research provides a vibrant multidisciplinary research environment, with an open publications policy and close links to top academic institutions around the world. Postdoctoral researcher positions provide emerging scholars (PhDs received late 2017 or to be conferred by July 2018) an opportunity to develop their research career and to interact with some of the top minds in the research community. Postdoctoral researchers define their own research agenda. 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.

While each of the Microsoft Research labs has openings in a variety of different disciplines, this position with the Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research New England specifically seeks 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, Ph.D. interns, and research assistants. Current projects in New England include:

– How does the use of social media affect relationships between artists and audiences in creative industries, and what does that tell us about the future of work? (Nancy Baym)

– How are social media platforms, through algorithmic design and user policies, adopting the role of intermediaries for public discourse? (Tarleton Gillespie)

– What are the cultural, political, and economic implications of on-demand contract work as a new form of semi-automated, globally-distributed digital labor? (Mary L. Gray)

– How do standards, defaults, and infrastructures encode our assumptions about human behavior and perception? (Dylan Mulvin)

– How are public and private institutions training people for the future of work, and deciding who should be included in that future? (Dan Greene)

SMC postdocs may have the opportunity to visit and collaborate with our sister Social Media Collective members in New York City. Related projects in New York City include:

– What are the politics, ethics, and policy implications of big data science? (Kate Crawford, MSR-NYC, AI Now)

– What are the social and cultural issues arising from data-centric technological development? (danah boyd, Data & Society Research Institute)

Postdoctoral researchers receive a competitive salary and benefits package, and are eligible for relocation expenses.  Postdoctoral researchers are hired for a two-year term appointment following the academic calendar, starting in July 2018. Applicants must have completed the requirements for a PhD, including submission of their dissertation, prior to joining Microsoft Research. We encourage those with tenure-track job offers from other institutions to apply, so long as they can defer their start date to accept our position.

Microsoft does not discriminate against any applicant on the basis of age, ancestry, color, gender identity or expression, genetic information, marital status, medical condition, national origin, physical or mental disability, political affiliation, protected veteran status, race, religion, sex (including pregnancy), sexual orientation, or any other characteristic protected by applicable laws, regulations and ordinances.

To apply for a postdoc position at MSRNE:

Submit an online application here.

– On the application website, 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 the pull down menus. IF YOU DO NOT MARK THESE PREFERENCES WE WILL NOT RECEIVE YOUR APPLICATION. 

– In addition to your CV and names of three referees (including your dissertation advisor) that the online application requires, upload the following 3 attachments with your online application:

  1. two journal articles, book chapters, or equivalent writing samples (uploaded as two separate attachments);
  1. a single research statement (four page maximum length) that does the following: outlines the questions and methodologies central to your research agenda (~two page); provides an abstract and chapter outline of your dissertation (~one page); offers a description of how your research agenda relates to research conducted by the Social Media Collective (~one page)

After you submit your application, a request for letters will be sent to your list of referees on your behalf. NOTE: THE APPLICATION SYSTEM WILL NOT REQUEST REFERENCE LETTERS UNTIL AFTER YOU HAVE SUBMITTED YOUR APPLICATION! Please warn your letter writers in advance so that they will be ready to submit them when they receive the prompt. The email they receive will automatically tell them they have two weeks to respond but that an individual call for applicants may have an earlier deadline. Please ensure that they expect this and are prepared to submit your letter by our application deadline of December 1, 2017. Please make sure to check back with your referees if you have any questions about the status of your requested letters of recommendation. You can check the progress on individual reference requests at any time by clicking the status tab within your application page. Note that a complete application must include three submitted letters of reference.

For more information, see here.

Feel free to ask questions about the position in the comments below.

 

 

Heading to the Courthouse for Sandvig v. Sessions

October 19, 2017

E._Barrett_Prettyman_Federal_Courthouse,_DC

(or: Research Online Should Not Be Illegal)

I’m a college professor. But on Friday morning I won’t be in the classroom, I’ll be in courtroom 30 in the US District Courthouse on Constitution Avenue in Washington DC. The occasion? Oral arguments on the first motion in Sandvig v. Sessions.

You may recall that the ACLU, academic researchers (including me), and journalists are bringing suit against the government to challenge the constitutionality of “The Worst Law in Technology” — the US law that criminalizes most online research. Our hopes are simple: Researchers and reporters should not fear prosecution or lawsuits when we seek to obtain information that would otherwise be available to anyone, by visiting a Web site, recording the information we see there, and then publishing research results based on what we find.

As things stand, the misguided US anti-hacking law, called the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), makes it a crime if a computer user “exceeds authorized access.” What is authorized access to a Web site? Previous court decisions and the federal government have defined it as violating the site’s own stated “Terms of Service,” (ToS) but that’s ridiculous. The ToS is a wish-list of what corporate lawyers dream about, written by corporate lawyers. (Crazy example, example, example.) ToS sometimes prohibit people from using Web sites for research, they prohibit users from saying bad things about the corporation that runs the Web site, they prohibit users from writing things down. They should not be made into criminal violations of the law.

In the latest developments of our case, the government has argued that Web servers are private property, and that anyone who exceeds authorized access is trespassing “on” them. (“In” them? “With” them? It’s a difficult metaphor.) In other cases the CFAA was used to say that because Web servers are private, users are also wasting capacity on these servers, effectively stealing a server’s processing cycles that the owner would rather use for other things. I visualize a cartoon thief with a bag of electrons.

Are Internet researchers and data journalists “trespassing” and “stealing”? These are the wrong metaphors. Lately I’ve been imagining what would happen in the world of print if the CFAA metaphors were our guide back when the printing press were invented.

If you picked up a printed free newspaper like Express, the Metro, or the Chicago Reader at a street corner and the CFAA applied to it, there would be a lengthy “Terms of Readership” printed on an inside page in very small type. Since these are advertising-supported publications, it would say that people who belong to undesirable demographics are trespassing on the printed page if they attempt to read it. After all, the newspaper makes no money from readers who are not part of a saleable advertising audience. In fact, since the printing presses are private property, unwanted readers are stealing valuable ink and newsprint that should be reserved for the paper’s intended readers. To cover all the bases, readers would be forbidden from writing anything based on what they read in the paper if the paper’s owners wouldn’t like it. And readers could be sued by the newspaper or prosecuted by the federal government if they did any of these things. The scenario sounds foolish and overblown, but it’s the way that Web sites work now under the CFAA.

Another major government argument has been that we researchers and journalists have nothing to be concerned about because prosecutors will use this law with the appropriate discretion. Any vagueness is OK because we can trust them. Concern by researchers and reporters is groundless.

Yet federal prosecutors have a terrible record when it comes to the CFAA. And the idea that online platforms want to silence research and journalism is not speculative. After our lawsuit was filed, the Streaming Heritage research team funded by the Swedish Research Council (similar to the US National Science Foundation) received shocking news: Spotify’s lawyers had contacted the Research Council and asked the council to take “resolute action” against the project, suggesting it had violated “applicable law.” Professors Snickars, Vonderau, and others were studying the Spotify platform. What “law” did Spotify claim was being violated? The site’s own Terms of Service. (Here’s a description of what happened. Note: It’s in Swedish.)

This demand occurred just after a member of the research team appeared in a news story that characterized Spotify in a way that Spotify apparently did not like. Luckily, Sweden does not have the CFAA, and terms of service there do not hold the force of law. The Research Council repudiated Spotify’s claim that research studying private platforms was unethical and illegal if it violated the terms of service. Researchers and journalists in other countries need the same protection.

More Information

The full text of the motions in the case is available on the ACLU Web site. In our most recent filing there is an excellent summary of the case and the issues, starting on p. 6. You do not need to read the earlier filings for this to make sense.

There was a burst of news coverage when our lawsuit was filed. Standout pieces include the New Yorker’sHow an Old Hacking Law Hampers the Fight Against Online Discrimination” and “When Should Hacking Be Legal?” in The Atlantic.

The ACLU’s Rachel Goodman has recently published a short summary of how to do research under the shadow of the CFAA. It is titled as a tipsheet for “Data Journalism” but it applies equally well to academic researchers. A longer version co-authored with Esha Bhandari is also available.

(Note that I filed this lawsuit as a private citizen and it does not involve my university.)

IMAGE CREDIT: AgnosticPreachersKid via Wikimedia Commons

We’re Hiring a Research Assistant

September 7, 2017

The Social Media Collective is looking for a Research Assistant to work with us at Microsoft Research New England in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The MSR Social Media Collective currently consists of Nancy Baym, Tarleton Gillespie, Mary L. Gray, Dan Greene, and Dylan Mulvin in Cambridge, 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 take over from current RA Sarah Hamid and will work directly with Nancy Baym, Tarleton Gillespie, and Mary L. Gray.

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. A Masters degree is preferred.

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. It is a 6 month contractor position, which we expect to extend an additional 6-12 months. The position pays hourly with flexible daytime hours. The start date will ideally be January 9, although flexibility may be 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, History, Philosophy, STS and Critical Data Studies, and related fields who want to develop their research skills and area expertise 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 Nancy Baym (baym@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 email addresses of two recommenders

Be sure to include your last name in file names of all documents you attach.

We will begin reviewing applications on October 15. We hope to make a hiring decision in early November.

We regret that because this is a time-limited contract position, we can only consider candidates who are already legally authorized to work in the United States.

Please feel free to ask questions about the position in the blog comments.

Big Data Surveillance: The Case of Policing

September 6, 2017

Former SMC Postdoctoral Researcher, Sarah Brayne (University of Texas at Austin), has recently published a piece in the American Sociological Review about police use of big data.

The article is evidenced off over two and a half years of fieldwork with the Los Angeles Police Department — including observations from ride-alongs in patrol cars and interviews at the Joint Regional Intelligence Center (the “fusion center”) in Southern California.

Abstract: This article examines the intersection of two structural developments: the growth of surveillance and the rise of “big data.” Drawing on observations and interviews conducted within the Los Angeles Police Department, I offer an empirical account of how the adoption of big data analytics does—and does not—transform police surveillance practices. I argue that the adoption of big data analytics facilitates amplifications of prior surveillance practices and fundamental transformations in surveillance activities. First, discretionary assessments of risk are supplemented and quantified using risk scores. Second, data are used for predictive, rather than reactive or explanatory, purposes. Third, the proliferation of automatic alert systems makes it possible to systematically surveil an unprecedentedly large number of people. Fourth, the threshold for inclusion in law enforcement databases is lower, now including individuals who have not had direct police contact. Fifth, previously separate data systems are merged, facilitating the spread of surveillance into a wide range of institutions. Based on these findings, I develop a theoretical model of big data surveillance that can be applied to institutional domains beyond the criminal justice system. Finally, I highlight the social consequences of big data surveillance for law and social inequality.

You can read the full article here.

“Grammar Nazis” and literacy privilege

August 28, 2017

Five years ago, I was MSRNE Social Media Collective’s Ph.D. intern researching the ways in which people use video game engines to create physical comedy. To do so, I went through heaps of fascinating literature on humor, which I have drawn from many times since.  Upon my return to Prague’s Charles University in 2013, I teamed up with Tamah Sherman, my American-born and Prague-based sociolinguist colleague, and we started our shared “side project” – research on “Grammar Nazis”, language management and humor. Our first article on the topic is available here, and the second one, “I see your garbage”: Participatory practices and literacy privilege on “Grammar Nazi” Facebook pages in different sociolinguistic contexts, has just come out in New Media & Society. In this blog post, I will talk a bit about the background and the findings of our research. Read more…

SMC at #4SBoston

August 26, 2017

The 2017 Annual Meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) is being held in our very own Boston, MA this year. The Social Media Collective’s Tarleton Gillespie (Microsoft Research, New England and Department of Communication/Department of Information Science, Cornell University) and Mary L. Gray (Microsoft Research, New England and Berkman Center for Internet and Society) are serving on the local organizing committee.

The conference is thematically organized around ‘STS (In)Sensibilities,’ asking:

“If sensibility is the ability to grasp and to respond, how might we articulate the (in)sensibilities of contemporary technoscience? How, similarly, can we reflect on the extent and limits of our own sensibilities as STS scholars, teachers, and activists? The conference theme invites an open reading and exploration of how the world is made differently sense-able through multiple discourses and practices of knowledge-making, as well as that which evades the sensoria of technoscience and STS. Our aim is that the sense of ‘sense’ be read broadly, from mediating technologies of perception and apprehension to the discursive and material practices that render worlds familiar and strange, real and imagined, actual and possible, politically (in)sensitive and ethically sensible.”

For more information on logistics & the full program, visit the 4sonline Annual Meeting Homepage. You can find a list of scheduled appearances by the Social Media Collective family, past and present, here: By Name/By Time.

The platform metaphor, revisited

August 24, 2017

This is cross-posted from the HIIG Science Blog, and is part of a series on metaphors and digital society hosted by Christian Katzenbach and Stefan Larsson. I recommend the other essays as well: Nik John on sharing, Noam Tirosh on revolution, and Christian Djeffal on artificial intelligence

Sometimes a metaphor settles into everyday use so comfortably, it can be picked back up to extend its meaning away from what it now describes, a metaphor doing metaphorical service. Platform has certainly done that. When I first wrote about the term in 2010, social media companies like YouTube and Facebook were beginning to use the term to describe their web 2.0 services, to their users, to advertisers and investors, and to themselves. Now social media companies have embraced the term fully, and have extended it to services that broker the exchange not just of content or sociality but rides (Uber), apartments (AirBnB), and labor (Taskrabbit). The term so comfortably describes these services that critics and commentators can draw on the word to extend out for the purposes of argument. The past few years have witnessed a “platform revolution”, (Parker, van Alstyne, and Choudary) the rise of “platform capitalism” (Srnicek) driven by “platform strategy” (Reillier and Reillier), with the possibility of “platform cooperativism” (Scholz) all part of “the platform society” (van Dijck, Poell, and DeWaal) These books need not even be referring to the same platforms (they all have their favorite examples, somewhat overlapping), their readers know what they’re referring to.

From programmability to opportunity

As platform first took root in the lexicography of social media, it was both leaning on and jettisoning a more specific computational meaning: a programmable infrastructure upon which other software can be built and run, like the operating systems in our computers and gaming consoles, or information services that provide APIs so developers can design additional layers of functionality. The new use shed the sense of programmability, instead drawing on older meanings of the word (which the computational definition itself had drawn on): an architecture from which to speak or act, like a train platform or a political stage. Now Twitter or Instagram could be a platform simply by providing an opportunity from which to speak, socialize, and participate.

At the time, some suggested that the term should be constrained to its computational meaning, but it’s too late, platform has been widely accepted in this new sense – by users, by the press, by regulators, and by the platform providers themselves. I argued then that the term was particularly useful because it helped social media companies appeal to several different stakeholders of interest to them. Calling themselves platforms promised users an open playing field for free and unencumbered participation, promised advertisers a wide space in which to link their products to popular content, and promised regulators that they were a fair and impartial conduit for user activity, needing further regulation.

This is what metaphors do. They propose a way of understanding something in the terms of another; the analogy distorts the phenomenon being described, by highlighting those features most aligned with what it is being compared to. Platform lent social media services a particular form, highlighted certain features, naturalized certain presumed relations, and set expectations for their use, impact, and responsibility. Figuratively, a platform is flat, open, sturdy. In its connotations, a platform offers the opportunity to act, connect, or speak in ways that are powerful and effective: catching the train, drilling for oil, proclaiming one’s beliefs. And a platform lifts that person above everything else, gives them a vantage point from which to act powerfully, a raised place to stand.

What metaphors hide

Metaphors don’t only highlight; they also downplay aspects that are not captured by the metaphor. “A metaphorical concept can keep us from focusing on other aspects of the concept that are inconsistent with that metaphor.” (Lakoff and Johnson, 10) We might think of this as incidental or unavoidable, in that any comparison highlights some aspects and thereby leaves others aside. Or we could think of it as strategic, in that those deploying a metaphor have something to gain in the comparison it makes, presumably over other comparisons that might highlight different aspects.

By highlighting similarities – social media services are like platforms – metaphors can have a structural impact on the way we think about and act upon the world. At the same time, metaphor cannot be only about similarity – otherwise the ideal metaphor would be tautological, “X is like X.” Metaphor also depends on the difference between the two phenomena; the construction of similarity is powerful only if it bridges a significant semantic gap. Steven Johnson points out that “the crucial element in this formula is the difference that exists between ‘the thing’ and the ‘something else.’ What makes a metaphor powerful is the gap between the two poles of the equation.” (58-59) Phil Agre goes further, suggesting that “metaphors operate as a ‘medium of exchange’” (37) between distinct semantic fields, negotiating a tension between elements that are, at least in some ways, incompatible. This structural bridge constructed by metaphor depends on choosing aspects of comparison that will be salient and rendering others insignificant. The platform metaphor does a great deal of work, not only in what it emphasizes, but in what it hides:

  1. Platform downplays the fact that these services are not flat. Their central service is to organize, structure, and channel information, according both to arrangements established by the platform (news feed algorithms, featured partner arrangements, front pages, categories) and arrangements built by the user, though structured or measured by the platform (friend or follower networks, trending lists). Platforms are not flat, open spaces where people speak or exchange, they are intricate and multi-layered landscapes, with complex features above and dense warrens below. Information moves in and around them, shaped both by the contours provided by the platform and by the accretions of users and their activity – all of which can change at the whim of the designers. The metaphor of platform captures none of this, implying that all activity is equally and meritocratically available, visible, public, and potentially viral. It does not prepare us, for example, for the ability of trolls to organize in private spaces and then swoop together as a brigade to harass users in a coordinated way, in places where the suddenness and publicness of the attack is a further form of harm.
  2. The platform metaphor also obscures the fact that platforms are populated by many, diverse, sometimes overlapping, and sometimes contentious communities. It is absurd to talk about Facebook users, as if two billion people can be a single group of anything; talk about the Twitter community only papers over the tension and conflict that has been fundamental, and sometimes destructive to how Twitter is actually used. As Jessa Lingel argues, social media platforms are in fact full of communities that turn to social media for specific purposes, often with ambivalent or competing needs around visibility, pseudonymity, and collectivity; then they struggle with how the platforms actually work and their sometimes ill fit with the aims of that community. When we think not of ‘Facebook users’ but a group of Brooklyn drag queens, the relationship between users and platform is not an abstract one of opportunity, but a contentious one about identity and purpose.
  3. Platform also helps elide questions about platforms’ responsibility for their public footprint. Train platforms are not responsible for the passengers. Like other metaphors like conduit and media and network, platform suggests an impartial between-ness that policymakers in the U.S. are eager to preserve – unlike European policymakers, where there is more political will to push responsibility onto platforms, though in a variety of untested ways. When, as Napoli and Caplan point out, Facebook refuses to call itself a media company, they are disavowing the kind of public and policy expectations imposed on media. They’re merely a platform. In the meantime, they have each built up a complex apparatus of content moderation and user governance to enforce their own guidelines, yet these interventions are opaque and overlooked.
  4. Finally, platform hides all of the labor necessary to produce and maintain these services. The audience is not supposed to see the director or the set decorators or the stagehands, only the actors in the spotlight. Underneath a platform is an empty, dusty space – it’s just there. Social media platforms are in fact the product of an immense amount of human labor, whether it be designing the algorithms or policing away prohibited content. When we do get a glimpse of the work and the workers involved, it is culturally unexpected and contentious: the revelation, for example, that Facebook’s Trending Topics might have been curated by a team of journalism school grads, working like machines. (1, 2) What if they make mistakes? What if they are politically biased? How are humans involved, and why does that matter? Platform discourages us from asking these questions, by leaving the labor out of the picture.

We need not discard the term, just to swap in another metaphor in its place. It is not as if it’s impossible to think about these obscured aspects of platforms; the metaphor can downplay them, but cannot erase them. But we have to either struggle upstream against the discursive power of the term, or playful subvert it. A platform may hide the labor it requires, but in a different framework it could be asked to shelter that labor, protect it. If a platform lifts up its users, then there may be some manner of responsibility for lifting some people up over others. We might also play with other metaphors: are platforms also shopping malls, or bazaars? amusement parks, or vending machines? nests, or hives? pyramids, or human pyramids? But mostly, we can scrutinize the metaphor in order to identify what it fails to highlight, how that may serve the interest of the metaphor’s practitioners, and what design interventions and obligations might best attend to these gaps and obscurities. And, as Kuhn notes about scientific paradigms, any frame of understanding works to coalesce the phenomenon by leaving off aspects that do not fit – and these discarded aspects can return to challenge to that frame, and sometimes tear it down. Platforms downplay these aspects at their own peril.