Announcing our incoming Postdocs

Once again we faced an embarrassment of riches in selecting postdoctoral researchers. It is exciting to see the diversity and quality of research coming up and gives us great optimism as we think about the future of research about social dimensions of technology.

We are delighted to introduce two new Postdocs who will join us in July 2016.

 

Dan Greene, University of Maryland

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Dan Greene is currently a PhD candidate in American Studies at the University of Maryland, a University Flagship Fellow, and a researcher in the Ethics & Values in Design Lab. A former social worker, Dan’s research focuses on the technologies and institutions that teach us how, why, and where to work in the information economy. His dissertation draws on extensive ethnographic fieldwork to explore the reproduction of the digital divide and how urban institutions like startups, charter schools, and public libraries make the problem of poverty a problem of technology and remake themselves in the process. As a post-doctoral researcher, Dan will be researching the automation of human resources management, particularly the development of technologies for hiring and firing. His work has been published in TripleC, Surveillance & Society, and the International Journal of Communication, and can be found at dmgreene.net

Dylan Mulvin, McGill University
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Dylan Mulvin joins the Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research from McGill University, where he is completing a PhD in Communication Studies. He researches the history of technology and the cultural politics of media. His dissertation considers the media practices of engineers, scientists, and bureaucrats in the crafting of measurement standards. His work on the history of video, television, and standards, has appeared in Television & New Media, The Journal of Visual Culture, and The International Journal of Communication. He is co-editor, with Jonathan Sterne, of a special section of the IJOC on temperature and media studies. At MSRNE Dylan will begin a history of the Year 2000 Problem, better known as the Y2K bug (no, he did not lose a bet). This history attempts to recuperate the Y2K bug as a major repair event, an often overlooked milestone in public computer pedagogy, and one of the greatest recent efforts to train individuals, community groups, and policy makers in the management of precarious technological systems.

 

Announcing our SMC PhD interns for 2016!!

Well, it was another exciting season of reviewing a rich batch of applications for our 2016 PhD Internship Program. We love reading about all the great work out there but really, really, really hate that we have just a few seats for our intern program. Please spread the word about this program and throw your hat into the ring next year! We’ll put the call out for interns again in mid-October, 2016.

For this year, we are pleased to announce that the following emerging scholars will join us as our 2016 Microsoft Research SMC PhD intern cohort:

At Microsoft Research, New England

Update:
Ming Yin

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Ming Yin is a computer science Ph.D. student at Harvard University, supervised by Professor Yiling Chen. Her research interests lie in the emerging area of human computation and crowdsourcing, and her goal is to better understand crowdsourcing as both a new form of production and an exciting opportunity for online experimentation. Her work is published in top venues like AAAI, IJCAI and WWW, and she has received Best Paper Honorable Mention at the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI’16). Before graduate school, Ming obtained a bachelor degree from Tsinghua University, Beijing, China.

 

Stefanie Duguay StephDuguay

Stefanie Duguay is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Digital Media Research Centre at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and holds an M.Sc. in Social Science of the Internet from the Oxford Internet Institute. She has also worked professionally as a Strategic Advisor in Digital Services for the Canadian federal government. Her research focuses on the everyday identity performances and interactions of people with diverse sexual and gender identities on social media. Her doctoral thesis examines the way that same-sex attracted women’s identities are constructed, shaped, and received across platforms, such as Instagram, Vine, and Tinder, with attention to the influence of both user and platform dynamics. Stefanie is the recipient of a QUT Postgraduate Research Award and her work has been published in New Media & Society, the International Journal of Communication, Disability & Society, and the Canadian Review of Sociology. She will be working with Mary L. Gray, Nancy Baym, and Tarleton Gillespie to examine the off label uses and user-led economies of mobile apps.

 

Caroline JackCarolineJack

Caroline Jack is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication at Cornell University and an Exchange Scholar in Comparative Media Studies/Writing at MIT. She also holds an M.B.A. and an M.A. from Saint Louis University. Caroline’s scholarly work focuses on: the public communication of economics and capitalism in the American past and present; social imaginaries of the American economy; and understandings of the economic self in networked culture. Her research on the public communication of science and economics in the United States during the Cold War era has been published in Enterprise & Society and The Appendix. Caroline will be working with Mary L. Gray, investigating social imaginaries of self, market, place and property that emerge in and around peer economy platforms.

 

Shannon McGregorShannonMcGregor

Shannon McGregor (M.A. University of Florida) is a third-year doctoral student (soon to be doctoral candidate!) in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas – Austin. Her research interests center on political communication, social media, gender, and public opinion. She has presented her work at International Communication Association (ICA), the American Political Science Association (APSA), the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), and the Midwest Association for Public Opinion Research (MAPOR). Her work has been published in the Journal of Communication, International Journal of Communication, Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, and Journal of Media Ethics. Twitter @shannimcg

 

At Microsoft Research, New York City

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Aaron Plasek works at the intersection of the historyof science, new media, and computation, and is writing a history of machine learning that examines the ways in which algorithms have been deployed in (ethical) arguments. He is currently a doctoral student in History at Columbia University and an MA candidate in the Draper Interdisciplinary Masters Program at NYU, and holds an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and undergraduate degrees from Drake University in physics, astronomy, and writing.

 

Reflections on technology and the 2016 elections

PastedGraphic-2Way back in 2008, Off the Bus reporter Mayhill Fowler filed a report on an appearance by Hillary Clinton during that spring’s Democratic primary. The piece opens with a quote: “‘Being here this morning is a gift,’ Hillary Clinton says to the small band of supporters, several hundred strong, gathered under the Saturday morning sun at Good Will Fire Company No. 2, Station 52 in West Chester, Pennsylvania.” Fowler continues,

The Senator is late for her first event of the day; her voice is hoarse. But like the day she is bright and calm. Gone are the faux smiles and waves, the slight brittleness, that have been part of her stage entrance so many times on the campaign trail. Being here this morning is a gift are the first words out of her mouth. It’s clear she means it. This is the perception of an older woman, one who has watched friends and family pass on, who has wondered why they and not she, who has had to settle for answers not on the great philosophies but on the simple things. A new morning as gift–there isn’t a wise woman in the world who doesn’t share Hillary Clinton’s feeling. But that a presidential candidate would choose such an opening remark four days out from a primary that looks to be ‘the one’ is extraordinary. For the remark and its tenor show that Hillary Clinton has been digging deep within herself, asking herself some hard questions.  But it’s too late.

What I love about Fowler’s essay, why I remember it all these years later, is the beautiful rendering of the lived details of the moment, in a way that captures something essential about politics. Fowler leaned towards Obama, but in noting the depth of “Being here this morning is a gift,” she writes as someone who identifies with Hillary – “there isn’t a wise woman in the world who doesn’t share Hillary Clinton’s feeling” –  and uses her identification, her shared experience, to express something key about the moment, about Hillary, about politics. The essay goes on to discuss Hillary’s unique ability to communicate policy issues in plain language to connect with the voters of Pennsylvania, as well as the awkward attempts at mudslinging against her opponent. Read in its entirety, the piece helps me understand why Hillary Clinton won Nevada three weeks ago, and why she lost Michigan last week.

What Fowler accomplished in her essay was not simple or easy. But I think without careful explorations of feelings like hers, we will never understand the role of technology in politics.

I was reminded of Fowler’s piece after reading Clay Shirky’s bravura commentary on the 2016 primaries, in the form of fifty tweets about how “social media has broken the ability of elites to determine the boundaries of acceptable conversation.” As smart as it was, there seemed to me something lacking in Shirky’s treatise. At first I thought of some of the details missed: in the long view, Trump’s rise owes less to social media than to the old tech of talk radio; and the aftereffects of the 2008 economic collapse, the bank bailouts and so on, are at least as important as anything technological in this election cycle. But it’s not just about piling more factors into the analysis. There’s a problem with how Shirky imagines technology.

Shirky tells a story in which the steady march of new technologies (cable, the web, social media) exploited by renegade candidates (Ross Perot, Howard Dean, Barack Obama) gradually undermined the American political parties’ capacity to set the boundaries of debate as they had in the days of network television, to the point that now, with the rise of Trump and Sanders, the parties have lost their coherence. It’s wonderfully terse: “Perot adopted non-centrist media, Dean distributed fundraising, Obama non-party voter mobilization.” That’s twenty years of political drama, a compelling, gripping narrative arc, in eleven words.

And of course technology does matter. It has been obvious ever since the Dean campaign that the simple math of internet powered small donations offered a significant alternative to traditional high dollar bundling, and to the political commitments that such bundling entailed. Bernie’s small-donor powered fundraising would have been inconceivable on a national scale before the spread of the internet. The mainstream media’s historical power to exclude non-centrist candidates with self-fulfilling prophecies about electability had repeatedly presented an insurmountable barrier to the likes of Jesse Jackson and Ron Paul, and to Howard Dean in the last month of his campaign. The fact that, in this cycle, both Trump and Sanders have been able push through that barrier cannot be explained without reference to voters’ capacities to find alternate narratives on social media platforms.

But that’s not the whole story. People like to say that nobody predicted this election, but back in 2013, Nicco Mele, who had cut his political teeth as webmaster for Howard Dean’s campaign, said, “The primary lesson of the last four cycles, maybe five cycles, is that the advantages of the establishment are greatly diminished, perhaps completely obliterated . . . The notion that [Hillary] can coast to front runner status on her history and contributions to the Democratic Party certainly didn’t hold true in 2008, so I don’t see any reason it’ll hold true in 2016. . . . In 2008, 6 million people gave $100 to make Barack Obama president. And those 6 million people made him a household name and no one’s going to do that to Hillary Clinton. And I think that kind of power, people feel it online and respond to it. … Online, smaller donors like to think they created you, that they made you, and no one will be able to feel that way about Hillary.”

If you squint you might think Mele’s prescient observations closely tracked Shirky’s: they both say digital technologies have eroded centralized power bases. But there’s a key difference: Mele knows that giving online is also about a feeling, about the sense that you are actively making your candidate a household name, that “online smaller donors like to think they created you.” Knowledge of a widely shared, specific feeling can only be found through experience. If you only look at bullet-pointed timelines of gadgets and campaigns, you can’t see it. In the 2014 mid-term elections, my email inbox exploded with entreaties from Democratic candidates across the country, begging for money in order to keep the Republicans, with their poisonous policies, from controlling the Senate. Liberals like myself all knew what the Democrats were against, we all agreed with them, but there was no sense of actively being part of the creation of something new. And on balance, the Democrats lost that round. They had not learned the lessons of Dean in ’04 and Obama in ’08, not because they didn’t understand the technology, but because they didn’t understand the feeling.

I don’t want to just sing the praises of intellectual caution, of a rich sense of history, or of narrative journalism. (Jill Lepore recently penned an essay that offers all three, yet her analysis is closer to Shirky’s than than Fowler’s or Mele’s.) And I don’t want to get mystical about complexity or the irreducibility of experience. C. Wright Mills was correct that “a mere enumeration of a plurality of causes is . . .  a paste-pot eclecticism which avoids the real task of social analysis” (Power Elite, 243).

The point is that some grasp of shared, lived experience is necessary (if not sufficient) to any useful judgment about the effects of technology. Too often we imagine technology as a kind of shortcut, an easily identifiable “thing” that solves our dilemmas, political and intellectual. Faced with uncertainty and conflict, we point to some tech, in the hopes that it will dispel the fog of our confusion and assuage our anxieties about our future. It’s not that technology doesn’t matter, but that “technology” or “the internet” or “social media” are not things, they are tangles of accumulated practices and experiences that cannot be understood outside of social context; speaking about them as if they are explanatory, as if they might be the solution, just causes more confusion. (There’s a well developed literature that insists on decentering technology, on breaking it down into specific sets of habits, embodied practices, variegated social relations.[i]) As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton for a time bought into the notion that Twitter could provide a fix to the problems of the Middle East.[ii] The tendency to point to technology as the explanation for our confusions, as the solution to our political dilemmas, is a widespread habit, and for the moment, it’s a habit with problems. It’s too clever by half (like so much of Clintonian thinking: don’t ask don’t tell, financial deregulation). It didn’t work for the Democrats in 2014, it won’t work for us now.

One of the “aha” moments for me about Bernie’s campaign, a moment when I first thought it might really go somewhere, was last July when I heard that Zack Exley signed on as an adviser to Sanders. I knew of Zack because he’d learned some tricks about online fundraising and organizing while working for moveon.org, and brought them to Dean’s campaign. (We can probably blame Zack for the ubiquitous “ask” that structures fundraising emails.) After the Dean campaign ended in the spring of 2004, many young staffers took their experiences with internet-powered grass roots campaigning into various professional lives, working for other campaigns, creating consulting firms, and the like. Zack did some of that, but what impressed me most is he also spent some time touring the U.S. in a pickup truck, visiting evangelical communities around the country. His blog of the trip, full of stories of face-to-face encounters that turned into astute observations, narrated his growing belief that the American left needed to engage in dialog with the evangelical community, that there were communities out there who might have common cause with the left on economic and environmental issues, commonalities that the left was ignoring. Zack gets his ideas about what’s politically possible, not just from polls or the received wisdoms of the punditocracy or various academic salons, but from sympathetic engagements with ordinary folks from all walks of life. Zack can lay claim to being as much of a technology expert as anyone, but that would mean nothing if he was not also someone who loves small “d” democracy, who is open to the unexpected, someone who thinks hard about others’ feelings for change, others’ passions to have a say in making the future. That’s why, as I write this, he’s out there making history.

 


 

[i] Ever since Raymond Williams (The Long Revolution, First Edition edition (S.l.: Chatto & Windus, 1961)). introduced the concept of “structures of feeling,” diverse scholarly literatures have probed the relations of subjectivity, feelings, and affect social structure. Approaches range from Frankfurt school critical theory (Illouz, 2007) to affect theory (e.g., Papacharissi, 2014; Ticineto Clough & Halley, 2007) to questions of authenticity and its ironies (Banet-Weiser, 2012). Eva Illouz, Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism (Polity, 2007). Zizi Papacharissi, Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology, and Politics, 1 edition (Oxford ; New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014). Patricia Ticineto Clough and Jean Halley, eds., The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social (Duke University Press, 2007). Sarah Banet-Weiser, Authentic TM the Politics and Ambivalence in a Brand Culture (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2012).

[ii] Kentaro Toyama, Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology (PublicAffairs, 2015), 35.


 

This was crossposted on Culture Digitally.

Book release: Queering the Countryside-New Frontiers in Rural Queer Studies

I am happy to announce the release of Queering the Countryside, with exciting contributions by great scholars and edited by Brian J. Gilley, Colin R. Johnson and myself. Find it in NYU Press, or order it from Amazon.
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“Rural queer experience is often hidden or ignored, and presumed to be alienating, lacking, and incomplete without connections to a gay culture that exists in an urban elsewhere. Queering the Countryside offers the first comprehensive look at queer desires found in rural America from a genuinely multi-disciplinary perspective. This collection of original essays confronts the assumption that queer desires depend upon urban life for meaning.

queeringBy considering rural queer life, the contributors challenge readers to explore queer experiences in ways that give greater context and texture to modern practices of identity formation. The book’s focus on understudied rural spaces throws into relief the overemphasis of urban locations and structures in the current political and theoretical work on queer sexualities and genders. Queering the Countryside highlights the need to rethink notions of “the closet” and “coming out” and the characterizations of non-urban sexualities and genders as “isolated” and in need of “outreach.”
Contributors focus on a range of topics—some obvious, some delightfully unexpected—from the legacy of Matthew Shepard, to how heterosexuality is reproduced at the 4-H Club, to a look at sexual encounters at a truck stop, to a queer reading of TheWizard of Oz.

A journey into an unexplored slice of life in rural America, Queering the Countryside offers a unique perspective on queer experience in the modern United States and Canada.”