The 3 things you can learn about your neighborhood using Whooly

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

Continue reading “The 3 things you can learn about your neighborhood using Whooly”

Legal Portraits of Web Users

This Summer I became very interested in what I think I will be calling “legal portraits of digital subjects” or something similar. I came to this through doing a study on MOOCs with SMC this summer. The title of the project is “Students as End Users in the MOOC Ecology” (the talk is available online).  In the project I am looking at what the Big 3 MOOC companies are saying publicly about the “student” and “learner” role and comparing it to how the same subject is legally constituted to try to understand the cultural implications of turning students into “end users”.

As I was working through this project, and thinking of implications outside of MOOCs and Higher Ed, I realized these legal portraits are constantly being painted in digital environments. As users of the web/internet/digital tools we are constantly in the process of accepting various clickwrap  and browse-wrap agreements without thinking twice about it, because it has become a standard cultural practice.

In writing this post I’ve already entered numerous binding legal agreements. Here are some of the institutions that have terms I am to follow:

  1. Internet Service Provider

  2. Web Browser

  3. Document Hosting Service (I wrote this in the cloud somewhere else first)

  4. Blog Hosting Company

  5. Blog Platform

  6. Various Companies I’ve Accepted Cookies From

  7. Social Media Sites

I’ve gone through and read some of the Terms (some of them I cannot find). I’ve allowed for the licensing and reproduction of this work in multiple places without even thinking twice about it.  We talk a lot about privacy concerns.  We know that by producing things like blog post, or status updates we are agreeing to being surveilled to various degrees.  I’d love to start a broader conversation on the effects of agreeing to a multitude of Terms though, not just privacy, simply by logging on and opening a browser.

Job Opening: MSR PhD Intern/Research Assistant (Bangalore, India)

Job Title: MSR PhD Intern/Research Assistant
Regional Area:  Bangalore/Hyderabad, India
Primary Background: Anthropology
Secondary Background: Journalism, Media, or Communication Studies

Microsoft Research is looking for a junior researcher (students recently graduated from or currently enrolled in a Masters or PhD level program) to collaborate on an ethnographic study of crowdsourcing. Project responsibilities will primarily involve collaborating with MSR Researchers to find and interview crowdworkers living in or near the IT centers of Bangalore and Hyderabad, India.

Applicants must, at minimum, speak fluent Telugu, Urdu, and/or Kannada, be able to navigate Bangalore and/or Hyderabad, and have strong written and spoken English skills.

The successful candidate should have a BA and/or MA in a social science (or at least 1 year relevant experience); excellent organizational skills; and thrive working independently. The ideal candidate will also have experience doing in-person interviews, including the research skills necessary to find potential interviewees. Preference will be given to applicants with formal training in ethnography, qualitative research methods, or journalism.

This Microsoft Research Assistantship will provide a stipend of approximately INR 40,000 per month for up to six months and office space at Microsoft Research India, Bangalore. The stipend varies based on qualification (PhD, Masters and Bachelors) and prior research experience. Research Assistantships also include single occupancy accommodation in Bangalore and economy class airfare as reimbursement if not based in Bangalore.

Please send questions or submit the following materials to Mary L. Gray (, Senior Researcher, to apply for this position:

  • Current CV
  • Names and contact email information for 2 academic references
  • Cover letter outlining your interest in this assistantship, your availability, relevant prior experience and qualifications for this position

ABOUT MICROSOFT RESEARCH: In 1991, Microsoft Corp. became one of the first software companies to create its own computer science research organization. Microsoft Research has developed into a unique entity among corporate research facilities, balancing an open academic model with an effective process for transferring its research to product development teams. Today, Microsoft Research has more than 1,100 world-renowned scientists and engineers, including some of the world’s finest computer scientists, sociologists, psychologists, mathematicians, physicists and engineers, working across more than 55 areas of research. Microsoft Research has expanded globally to ensure that it can attract the richest pool of talent with 13 worldwide labs, including Microsoft Research India, based in Bangalore.

When communication is not free

In the wake of so many news stories related to issues of surveillance and privacy, it’s perhaps particularly important to note that tomorrow, the FCC will consider an action that has the potential to reshape access to ICTs for one of the most heavily surveilled populations in the world – those who are incarcerated. While many of us who are economically and legally privileged worry about how to protect (or whether it’s even possible to have) a sense of privacy when we make cell phone calls or write emails or conduct online searches, the FCC’s decision would be welcomed by many for whom basic access to landline calls is the primary concern of communication. 
Although I’ve been interested in issues of information inequality as experienced in prisons for some time, I was mostly thinking about collection development policies of prison libraries, and the politics of telephone communications were new to me (although not to Steven Jackson, who has a terrific article from 2005 on the political economy of the prison telephone industry; it goes without saying that it’s also not news to the 2 million + people currently serving time in U.S. prisons). For some context, the FCC is addressing longstanding initiatives (filed with the FCC in 2003 and 2007) proposing oversight of and guidelines for phone services to prisoners.  Incarcerated people have severely restricted access to forms of communication, which has led to some remarkable workarounds for those facing extreme isolation. Among the general population, for whom phone calls are technically allowed but not necessarily accessible, inmates are typically limited to collect or debit-based calling from payphones (calls that are legally monitored by prison staff).  Collect calls from prisons usually involve a two part charge – a per-call set up charge and a per-minute charge (debit calls are charged to an inmate’s account and typically incurs just the per-minute charge). The amount of per-call charges varies wildly from one institutions (and one state) to another. A 15 minute phone call can cost as much as $20, as opposed to the mere cents that the same call would cost outside prison walls – or indeed from prison staff within the same walls.
In some ways, the story of this particular set of socio-technical inequalities is tied to complexities of monopolies – the 1984 break-up of AT&T meant that a range of fledgling companies could compete for bids to provide phone service. But in the topsy-turvy world of doing business with prisons, this bidding process does not result in driving down prices. Instead, there’s evidence to suggest that companies in fact compete to provide the highest fees, and thus the biggest kickbacks to the state. By some estimates, as much as 60% of what incarcerated folks and their families pay goes to the state government. Eight states (Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Michigan, South Carolina, California and Missouri) have banned kickbacks entirely; New Hampshire, Kansas and Arkansas have reduced their kickback commissions, and Montana recently entered into a limited-commission contract. As a result, prison phone rates in those states have plummeted. The FCC decision could provide exactly the kind of regulation that would make it much more difficult in remaining states for prisons and phone companies to take advantage of a group of people with few legal rights and intensely restricted access to tools of basic communication.
There are a number of reasons that this decision matters.  To deal first with some of the most obvious points: regular telephone contact with family has been linked to reduced recidivism, meaning that even those with the most conservative policies on the purpose of prisons should see reason to support affordable phone calls.  Keep in mind, no one here is arguing to subsidize prison phone calls, only to bring the cost of making those calls in line with what the rest of society pays. Of course, it’s somewhat naïve to think that reducing the amount of money states get in the form of phone company kick backs won’t result in decreased services elsewhere, given that prisons are already operating along an ethic of mercenary frugality. 
The FCC decision stands to intervene in a system in which costs of basic communication are borne disproportionately by people of color and the poor, because that is who goes to prison in the United States.  It is perverse that the country with the highest rate of incarceration and third highest rate of (cell) phone use (rates of landline adoption are a little harder to find) has shown no interest in making sure that the two converge.  Structural inequalities of race and class are fundamental to explaining this gap.
Beyond my hopes that the FCC decides to intervene, as someone who studies information inequality and is interested in forms of information activism, the politics of prison phone calls is moreover useful as a reminder that studying divergent uses of technology is not just about the most sophisticated ICTs but also about technologies that are functionally much simpler, although no less complex in their entanglements with power, legitimacy and legal structures.

Why Digital Inequality Scholarship Needs Ethnography

Digital inequality scholarship is well-intentioned. It debunks myths about digital media’s inherent egalitarianism and draws attention to the digital dimensions of social inequalities. Digital inequality scholars have shown, for example, that people with access to networked media use those technologies in different ways, some of which are thought to be more beneficial than others. They have highlighted how differences in skills and quality of access shape use. And they have rightly attacked the stereotype of the digital generation. These are important contributions for which we should be grateful.

Yet digital inequality scholarship is also limited in some fundamental, and I believe hazardous, ways. To defend these claims, I will draw on an in-depth ethnographic study of an ambitious attempt to combat digital inequality: a new, well-resourced, and highly touted public middle school in Manhattan that fashions itself as, “a school for digital kids.” It is hard to imagine a more concerted attempt to combat digital inequality, and yet the school paradoxically helped perpetuate many of the very social divisions it hoped to mend. In-depth ethnographic studies can help us understand these outcomes, and they can provide us with tools for forming more accurate conceptions of relations between digital media and social inequalities.

Recruitment flier for the Downtown School
Recruitment flier for the Downtown School

I will call this school, which opened in the fall of 2009, the Downtown School for Design, Media and Technology, or the Downtown School for short. Supported by major philanthropic foundations, and designed by leading scholars and practitioners from the learning sciences as well as media technology design, the Downtown School braided digital media practices, and especially media production activities, throughout its curriculum. They had enviable financial, technological, and intellectual resources, and they recruited an atypically diverse student body for a New York City public school. About half the students came from privileged families where at least one parent worked in a professional field and held an advanced degree. And about 40-percent of students came from less-privileged families that qualified for free or reduced-price lunch; these parents and guardians often had some or no college education and worked in comparatively low-paying service work. All students took a required game design course, and the school’s entire suite of after-school programs were devoted to making, hacking, remixing, and designing media technology.

Digital inequality scholarship played a role in the formation the Downtown School and similar interventions. Concepts such as the digital divide, the “participation gap” (Jenkins et al. 2006), the “digital production gap” (Schradie 2011), or the “participation divide” (Hargittai and Walejko 2008) implicitly, if not explicitly, recommend and legitimate interventions such as the Downtown School. Since digital inequality scholars argue that skill differentials play a large role in producing digital inequalities, educational practitioners understandably craft interventions to reduce these differentials.

Students in the Downtown School’s required game design course.
Students in the Downtown School’s required game design course.

According to such a framework, the Downtown School was successful in many ways. Both boy and girl students from diverse economic and ethnic backgrounds learned to use digital media in new ways. In particular, students learned to use digital tools to be producers, rather than just consumers, of digital media. Through the lens of concepts like the “participation gap,” the school appears successful and should be quickly replicated.

The problem though – and here is why we need ethnography – is that while the Downtown School arguably helped close the participation gap, it also helped perpetuate historical social divisions, especially those rooted in gender and racialized social class. When the Downtown School opened, it attracted three boys for every two girls; three years after opening, the ratio rose to two-to-one. Only one girl student regularly participated in the school’s after-school programs focused on media production; most regular participants were boys from privileged families. By the end of the first year, all of the economically less-privileged boys in one of the school’s main cliques had left the school for larger, less-resourced schools that had a greater diversity of curricular and extra-curricular offerings as well as more of a dating scene. By the end of the second year, many of the less-privileged girls from another of the main cliques had also left the school. While their reasons for leaving were complex, they and their families suggested in interviews with me that the Downtown School was not a ‘good fit.’ By contrast, nearly all of the privileged students remained enrolled, and many of their parents were enthusiast boosters for the school.

Why were many students, and especially many of the less-privileged students, not able or unwilling to take advantage of the purportedly beneficial opportunities afforded by the Downtown School? Digital inequality frameworks do not provide a satisfying way to answer this question. They do not see many of the factors that matter to people in different situations, nor the nexus of conditions and forces that shape what people do, and do not do, with and without digital media. Ethnography, in contrast, casts a much wider net that can help account for these conditions and processes. A few more examples will help clarify this point.

On the ground, I observed and documented what students were doing when they were not taking advantage of the school’s purportedly beneficial activities. It turned out that most of the students spent their afternoon hours in familiar activities that predate the digital age: basketball practices, music lessons, swimming classes, learning a foreign language, dance classes, taking care of siblings and cousins, chores, and so forth. These activities meant a lot to students and their families, and many expressed a desire for the school to offer more diverse curricular and extra-curricular offerings. These activities were also integral to how students navigated and negotiated identity and difference with their peers at school (Sims 2014). This wider ecology of practices, as well as what participation and non-participation meant for those involved, would be invisible if one were to study the Downtown School using the digital inequality framework. And what a digital inequality approach would have captured and championed would have mostly reflected the interests and practices of those who were most privileged.

One can still argue that social scientists, policy makers, and educational practitioners should do all that they can to close digital inequalities such as the participation gap. One can argue that doing so is in the best interest of those currently on the wrong side of the chasm. One can argue that treating digital inequalities is akin to dealing with a public health concern, or, more aptly, that it should be folded into broader efforts to mandate STEM education amongst all contemporary school children. In short, digital inequality scholars can admit that there is a prescriptive character to their efforts and that treatment is justified because it is in the best interest of the public as well as those being treated.

This is a debate that can be had but it is not the debate that digital inequality scholars are currently having. In its current form, the digital inequality debate escapes these issues because it assumes that certain decontextualized “uses” will be universally appealing to people once barriers to participation – lack of quality access, skills, etc. – are removed. There is a sort of technology-focused ethnocentrism to these assumptions that prevents this potentially uncomfortable debate from ever taking place. If digital inequality scholars were to acknowledge the prescriptive character of their scholarship, a host of thorny ethical dilemmas would quickly surface: To what degree should social scientists, policy-makers, and educational practitioners force people to partake in participatory culture? To what extent do the ends justify the means? What exercises of power are legitimate? What liberties should be granted to those identified for treatment? And so on.

These are difficult questions, and my guess is that most digital inequality scholars do not want to address them. My own feeling is that scholars should be extremely cautious in pushing for such treatments, whether domestically or abroad, even if they feel that their medicine would be in the best interest of the treated. The histories of various missionary and colonial endeavors – to name just a few charged examples – make the ethical and political hazards of such an enterprise all too clear.

Note: This was originally posted at Ethnography Matters.


Hargittai, E. & Walejko, G., 2008. The Participation Divide: Content Creation and Sharing in the Digital Age. Information, Communication & Society, 11(2), pp.239–256.

Jenkins, H. et al., 2006. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, Chicago, IL: The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Schradie, J., 2011. The Digital Production Gap: The Digital Divide and Web 2.0 Collide. Poetics, 39(2), pp.145–168.

Sims, C., 2012. The Cutting Edge of Fun: Making Work Play at the New American School. University of California, Berkeley.

Sims, C., 2014 (forthcoming). From Differentiated Use to Differentiating Practices: Negotiating Legitimate Participation and the Production of Privileged Identities. Information, Communication & Society.