Book club digest: Networked

At SMC, we regularly meet to discuss interesting books in our field.  These discussions tend to spark conversations about a variety of related topics. In an effort to be more inclusive, we thought we’d share the questions that our conversation sparked in the hopes that the SMC community would share your thoughts about these issues in the comments!

Book: Networked: The New Social Operating System Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman, MIT Press 2012

This book is intended for an audience that includes sociologists, but also interested members of the broader public.  As such, there is an interesting combination of descriptions of different sociological heuristics, particularly the corrective concept of “networked individual,” and more popular concepts such as the “Facebook generation.” Networked brings much data to bear against dystopian ideas that the internet isolates people, or that the online world and offline world are separate spheres of social activity.  Most evidence rallied in the book draws on survey data from the Pew research group run by Rainie, and Wellman’s NetLab research group at University of Toronto.  Wellman’s research from pre-web/pre-Facebook times, and the longitudinal data from Pew researchers describe shifts in early internet social practices to the present.

Here are some discussion questions that generated a great conversation:

  • How can researchers best represent a body of work with multiple authors?
  • What social work do people do to make and keep ties today, and what work did people do in “in the village”? Do networked individuals require networked digital technologies? Emma Rothschild’s book, The Inner Life of Empires, describes the work of maintaining complex social ties in the eighteenth century and raised the following questions for us: When did networked individualism start?
  • In a book intended for a popular audience, how can researchers entice readers to attend to the details of the data and how that data was collected?  How do researchers demonstrate expertise while also describing some of the messiness of data collection?
  • How can class, race and, more generally, identity be brought into discussions of networked individuals?  A point on which we all agreed is that we need to consider and better understand how social identities might constrain people’s ability to expand networks, to move across networks, and to reap the benefits of networked individualism that Rainie and Wellman celebrate. What constraints are there on the kinds of mobility and access to resources expanded and mobile social networks can offer?

Elephants and Murky Waters: Why We Need to Examine Multiple Social Media Sites

Elephants and Murky Waters: Why We Need to Examine Multiple Social Media Sites

In her recent post on the Cyborgology blog, Jenny Davis brought the pervasive use of Facebook as a study site back into conversation. In brief, she argued that “studying Facebook—or any fleeting technological object—is not problematic as long as we theorize said object”. The take away from this statement is important: We can hope to make lasting contributions to research literature through our conceptual work – much more so than through the necessarily ephemeral empirical details that are tied to a time, a place, and particular technologies.

In this post, I want to give a different yet complementary answer to why it may be a problem if our research efforts are focused on a single study site. This is regardless of whether it is the currently most popular social network site or an already obsolete technological object. The post made me think of a tweet (by Nicole Ellison) echoing the discussion at the International Conference of Weblogs and Social Media ICWSM a few weeks ago:

In the story, blind men describing the elephant end up with wildly different accounts depending on which part of the animal each happened to stumble upon. While different accounts may all add accurate and relevant information, it is only in combining them that the men can begin to understand what the elephant looks like as a whole.

Similarly, if we focus only on Facebook –or whatever happens to be the most popular study site at any given moment– we will gain insight only into parts of the proverbial beast of how technologies and people go together. So, how might our conceptualizations of social media sites and social interaction change if we explored a wider range of services and used them as tools for our theorizing?

Let’s first consider, a social media site that helps traveling guests to connect with local hosts for free accommodation and shared experiences. As a study site, it may encourage us to envision privacy in ways we wouldn’t come to think of in considering Facebook. Couchsurfing profiles offer users the option of presenting themselves as “several people”, making room for profiles that are not owned by individuals but small groups of people, such as couples, families, and housemates. Studying Couchsurfing may help us unpack what it means for a group to make itself more or less accessible and open to others. Social psychologist Irwin Altman’s definition of privacy as an interpersonal boundary process by which a person or a group regulates interaction with others [1] is quoted often in research on privacy in networked contexts, such as social media sites. However, the focus tends to be on individuals and their interpersonal negotiations, leaving regulation on the group level with scarce attention. Furthermore, what could we learn from studying couchsurfers’ experiences and considering privacy as hospitality, or privacy as politeness?

As another example, let’s think of changes in privacy settings and defaults on social media sites. Over Facebook’s history, changes to privacy settings have caused a number of heated debates (see boyd & Hargittai’s summary). Changes towards increased openness and decreased obscurity get framed as privacy violations. As such, they capture the attention of researchers and advocates focusing on privacy – for a reason. According to Altman’s theory of privacy, however, people’s efforts to regulate boundaries may fail both towards achieving too little or too much privacy. Pointing a finger at myself as much as at anyone else, I wonder whether our pressing concerns are biasing the focus of our theorizing.

While the trend among social media sites to tempt and push people to share more and more continues, purposely identifying and investigating counter examples could enrich our conceptual work. Consider Scoopinion, a Finnish news service that recently abandoned its original, automated social sharing model in order to focus on delivering personalized, “crowd-curated” recommendations for feature-length stories. In this process, interestingly for our theorizing purposes, Scoopinion users lost access to the behavioral data of others along with the chance to share their own reading data on the site. If we are to adapt Altman’s theory to the networked, augmented world of today, shouldn’t we look at how users conceive of system changes like this that (unexpectedly) decrease access and visibility, too? Is the sudden end of sharing perceived as a privacy violation? If our studies considered also cases that counter the trend of increased openness, we might come to understand reactions to changes in privacy settings and defaults more comprehensively. More importantly, it could help us see more clearly where prior theories can fail or support theoretical understandings that are situated in the networked context of today.

I argue that we are much better off in theorizing social media and the ways in which they relate to people if we choose to explore varied sites of study. These choices affect what seems illustrative of the phenomena under study. If our theoretical thinking builds on empirical research in only a few dominant study sites (or just one), we risk sailing into the murky waters where what is popular and typical comes to dominate our thinking – even when we know fully well that it’s not all there is.

Cross posted at Cyborgology.

ps. I’m Airi Lampinen, one of this summer’s PhD interns here at the Social Media Collective. I’m a graduate student in social psychology at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and a researcher at Helsinki Institute for Information Technology HIIT.

[1] Altman, I. 1975. The Environment and Social Behavior. Privacy – Personal Space – Territory – Crowding. Brooks-Cole Publishing Company, Monterey, CA, USA.

Elephant image from

Big Data, Big Questions, or, Accounting for Big Data

In exciting news, Mary L. Gray and I are kicking off a special section for IJoC that takes a critical look at big data: from the disciplinary perspectives and methods, to issues of access and epistemology. Please pass on to your networks, or even better, send us an abstract.

Call for Papers
“Big Data, Big Questions, or, Accounting for Big Data” 

International Journal of Communication

Guest Editors:

Kate Crawford
Microsoft Research
University of New South Wales

Mary L. Gray
Microsoft Research
Indiana University

Larry Gross
University of Southern California

Previously isolated data sets, from social media and demographic surveys to city maps and urban planning documents, are now routinely interlinked. Combining separate, often disparate, multi-terabyte sets of information reframes our capacity to see into the behaviors of — and relationships between — people, institutions and things. Researchers in fields as varied as computer science, geography, sociology, marketing, biology, economics, among many others, use the term “big data” to capture a wide range of activities revolving around accessing and analyzing these vast quantities of information. What are the implications of big data as a cultural, technological and analytic phenomenon? What are the practices of big data, the underlying assumptions, and ways of modeling the world? Who gets access to it, and what effects does this produce?

This special section will offer a range of critical engagements with the issues surrounding big data and its related models of knowledge. We seek scholarly articles from diverse fields, and a wide range of theoretical and methodological approaches: including media studies, communication, anthropology, digital humanities, computational and social sciences, cultural geography, history, and critical cultural studies.

Possible topics include, but are not limited to:

  • What is the history (or histories) of big data and its related practices?
  • What are the epistemological ramifications of big data?
  • How can computational and social sciences use big data in cross-disciplinary work? What are the strengths and pitfalls of new hybrids?
  • What are the ethics of big data use, be it in city management, social media research, or political campaigning?
  • Who gets access to big data? What are the issues of class, race, gender, sexuality, religion and geography?
  • What are the labour politics of big data research?

The International Journal of Communication is an open access journal ( All accepted articles will be published online. The anticipated publication date for this Special Section is August 2013.

Manuscripts should conform to the IJoC author guidelines. See

Send your abstract, title of your paper and a list of five potential reviewers with their titles and e-mail addresses by October 1, 2012 to Your suggested reviewers will help streamline the peer-review process.


October 1: Abstracts due 

November 1: Acceptance of abstracts

January 28: Articles due 

If you have any questions, please contact Kate Crawford at or Mary Gray at

Participatory Culture: What questions do you have?

Question Mark GraffitiHenry Jenkins, Mimi Ito, and I have embarked on an interesting project for Polity. Through a series of dialogues, we’re hoping to produce a book that interrogates our different thoughts regarding participatory culture. The goal is to unpack our differences and agreements and identify some of the challenges that we see going forward. We began our dialogue this week and had a serious brain jam where we interrogated our own assumptions, values, and stakes in doing the research that we each do and thinking about the project of participatory culture more generally. For the next three weeks, we’re going to individually reflect before coming back to begin another wave of deep dialoguing in the hopes that the output might be something that others (?you?) might be interested in reading.

And here’s where we’re hoping that some of our fans and critics might be willing to provoke us to think more deeply.

  • What questions do you have regarding participatory culture that you would hope that we would address?
  • What criticisms of our work would you like to offer for us to reflect on?
  • What do you think that we fail to address in our work that you wish we would consider?

For those who are less familiar with this concept, Henry and his colleagues describe a “participatory culture” as one:

  1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
  2. With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others
  3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices
  4. Where members believe that their contributions matter
  5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).

This often gets understood through the lens of “Web2.0” or “user-generated content,” but this is broadly about the ways in which a networked society rich with media enables new forms of interaction and engagement. Some of the topics that we are considering covering include “new media literacies,” “participation gap” and the digital divide, the privatization of culture, and networked political engagement. And, needless to say, a lot of our discussion will center on young people’s activities and the kinds of learning and social practices that take place. So what do *you* want us to talk about?