An Anarchist Ethic for the Treatment of Trolls

This post is in response to hearing Tarleton Gillespie’s AoIR plenary talk on SNS’ responses to trolling.  First, a nod to Lisa Nakamura’s point that when we talk about discriminatory acts as trolling, it potentially deescalates the real harm engendered by racist, sexist and demeaning behaviors. This in fact reminds me of boyd and Marwick’s arguments that teens use the term “drama” over “bullying” because it allows them to acknowledge a behavior without taking sides. At the risk of not doing what Nakamura suggests (usually not a good idea when talking about the Internet) I’ll continue to use the term trolling here, in fact bringing it into an offline context. In listening to Tarleton’s talk, I started thinking about two incidents at last year’s Anarchist Book Fair in NYC.  I want to look at how these two incidents were handled within the anarchist community and then consider how they differ from those of mainstream SNS policies.

I should preface this with the request to take anarchism as a legitimate political ideology – it’s only been in the past year that I’ve recognized my own deligitimizing prejudices against anarchism, having previously accepted the widely-held belief that anarchism represented nihilist, violent anti-politics.  I credit Anarchist Pedagogies as a text that helped me recognize my own failure to learn about anarchism as a belief system, which is pretty embarrassing given that the dismissal of anarchism (like the dismissals of feminism) as a viable set of practices is one of the most effective tools of maintaining hegemonic, capitalist norms.

The ABF provoked two kinds of trolling, one that arose ahead of time and the other during the actual book fair.  I was attending the ABF as a member of Radical Reference, which has often tabled at the fair to promote our activities.  As the bookfair neared, I learned that a number of organizations were threatening to pull out because a provocative figure (I’ll call him Horace) in the local anarchist community had signed up to attend.  As I learned about the stakes of Rad Ref attending or not attending the book fair (ultimately, Horace either wasn’t granted or didn’t apply for a table), I was struck by just how procedural the response to Horace was, involving a series of conversations, documentations and investigations. As a counter-example to assumptions that anarchist ethics are pure chaos, Thadeus had in fact been subject to a number of adjudication and accountability processes, as a result of violence, abuse, disruption and snitching. Anarchist ethics for managing disruptive behaviors are fundamentally centered on collective processes and accountability, holding people to a particular set of group-centered ideals. This process reminds me of the TOS processes in a lot of counter-cultural sites online. Since the early 2000s, I’ve been a member of an online community for people interested in body modification.  The TOS violations process has changed significantly over the site’s history, but for a long time, the procedure involved a TOS forum, where complaints were vetted as to whether someone had violated the site’s clearly articulated ethics of tolerance and diversity. The message board also provided documentation of users’ removal from the site, such that if you logged into the site one day and realized that a user no longer “existed” you could check the TOS forum and see if and why that person had been removed.  

Contrast this to the flag approach of sites like Facebook, YouTube and (more recently) Twitter.  Tarleton and Kate Crawford have a forthcoming paper that points out the incredible range of flagging technologies, and questions whether flags can bear the weight of contesting online content. Perhaps the thing that makes comparison so impossible is the fact that Thaddeus had run up against defined communities bound by shared political ideologies, whereas Facebook, Twitter and Youtube are platforms for an effectively infinite array of beliefs and norms. Yet how interesting that in a community frequently derided for lawless chaos, there are clear mechanisms for managing violations of standards and ethics, whereas sites like Facebook are in fact far more inchoate and chaotic.

A second form of trolling emerged at last year’s ABF, and many ABFs before. The National Anarchist Tribal Alliance attempted to attend the ABF last year, which might sound like an unremarkable thing if you’re not aware that NATA are white supremacists.  Throughout the book fair, tablers and attendees had voiced strong disapproval of the venue’s insistence on hiring a private security force to screen bags and monitor behavior, provoking ire for violations of person and property. Yet this same security force was responsible for keeping NATA folks out of the ABF, heading off a direct confrontation and probably keeping a number of my friends out of jail.  My own thoughts on whether or not the security force should have been there are mixed, but in the context of trolling, I’d like to note two things – first, note the similar Trojan Horse tactics by NATA and, as Mark Dang-Anh pointed out in his AoIR talk, the appropriation of tags to confuse and disrupt counter-protest actions. Second, the conflict in this case cannot be understood on an individual level, and only makes sense in terms of group behavior.

The biggest takeaway for me from this thought experiment – considering how offline approaches to handling trolls within anarchist communities could play out on mainstream social media platforms – is the need for collective rather than individual means of assessing offensive online behaviors. This is important for two key reasons – first, there isn’t just one Internet, there are many, and a single policy cannot hold water in all of them.  I think ABF’s treatment of Thaddeus worked because it reflected local norms and values, and moreover documented the process.  I am in a way reminded of Sara Ahmed’s work on the way that difference produces a physical marker of deviance – there’s something to be said for the production of an artifact (a flyer, a blog, a report) that documents a wrong, especially in contrast to the invisible process of flagging, the disappearance that leaves no trace or explanation of protest.

Second, as Nakamura pointed out during the plenary Q&A, it’s dangerous to assign responsibility for monitoring hateful content at the individual level. Partly, this is because a user-versus system process of adjudication makes no sense if the system lacks community level ideology; although Facebook phrases its policies as “community standards,” it is ludicrous to think of Facebook as as having an identifiable sense of community ethics. Moreover, the notion of community dissolves as soon as it becomes incumbent on the individual user to report behavior. As well, the example of NATA demonstrates the extent to which trolling isn’t always individual, and is instead collective.  Anarchist ethics for managing disruptions of community norms underscore the extent to which these processes need to be collective not only in terms of grassroots procedures for adjudication, but also a conceptualization of disruption that accounts for collective rather than individual violations.

Multilingual Interactions through Machine Translation—Numbers from Socl

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.

Continue reading “Multilingual Interactions through Machine Translation—Numbers from Socl”

Art, Activism and Political Consciousness

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

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!

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.