A system designer’s take on the Facebook study – a response to danah boyd’s blog post

Last week I sent an email reply to danah boyd in response to her thoughtful post about the Facebook study. She encouraged me to post it publicly, but I was a bit scared by the viciousness and panic of the reactions. At the same time, I worried that the silence of people who do research in social computing (often relying on designing, building, and releasing systems for people to use) would be counterproductive in the long run.

Along with other colleagues in the social computing community who are writing their own take on this topic [1,2], my hope is that, together, our voices are heard along with the voices of those who have dominated the discussion so far, those whose research is mainly rhetorical.

So here is my (slightly edited) response to danah:

danah, I enjoyed your post. While critical, it didn’t have the panic tone that has bothered me so much from other articles. Also, I liked that it looks beyond the Facebook experiment itself.

I liked this part where you talk about beneficence and maleficence in research: Getting children to talk about these awful experiences can be quite psychologically tolling. Yet, better understanding what they experienced has huge benefits for society. So we make our trade-offs and we do research that can have consequences.

I liked it because it’s important that we do not throw out the baby out with the bath water. I do not want to see the research community completely avoiding  experimental research in online systems.  As a designer and someone who has done this type of work, I do want to engage in ethics discussions that go beyond IRBs and liability. I want to engage in discussions with my peers about the experiments I do. I don’t want to feel scared of proposing studies, or witch hunted like our colleagues in the Facebook Data Science team.  I want to work with colleagues in figuring out if the risks involved in my work are worth the knowledge we could obtain. I also don’t want to feel paralyzed and having to completely avoid risky but valuable research. The way the Facebook experiment has been framed, feels almost like we’re talking about Milgram or Tuskegee. To be honest, this whole experience made me wonder if I want to publish every finding we have in our work to the academic community, or to keep it internally within product teams.

If anything, studies like this one allow us to learn more about the power and limitations of these platforms. For that, I am grateful to the authors. But I am not going to defend the paper, as I have no idea what went through the researchers head when they were doing it. I do feel that it could be defended, and it’s a shame that the main author seems to have been forced to come out and apologize, without engaging in a discussion about the work and the thinking process that it went through.

The other piece of your post that left me thinking is the one about power, which echoes what Zeynep Tufekci had written about too:

This study isn’t really what’s at stake. What’s at stake is the underlying dynamic of how Facebook runs its business, operates its system, and makes decisions that have nothing to do with how its users want Facebook to operate. It’s not about research. It’s a question of power.

I agree, every social computing system gives power to its designers. This power is also a function of scale and openness. It makes me wonder how one might take these two variables into consideration when assessing research in this space. For example, why did the Wikipedia  A/B testing of their fundraising banner did not seem to raise concerns ? Similarly, this experiment on Wikipedia without informed consent did not raise any flags either. Could it be partly because of how open the Wikipedia community is to making decisions about their internal processes? I think the publication of the Facebook emotion study is a step towards this openness, which is why I think the reaction to it is unfortunate.

Facebook “Courage” Page versus the Knights Templar’s Cartel

Organized as self-defense forces, some residents of the Mexican state of Michoácan have been attempting to regain control of their towns from powerful organized criminals. Although these Mexican militias have received a fair amount of media coverage, its fascinating social media presence has not been examined. Saiph Savage, a grad student at UNAM/UCSB, and I have started to collect some data, and wanted to share some initial observations of  one of the militias’ online spaces: Valor por Michoacán, a Facebook page with more than 130,000 followers devoted to documenting the activities of the self-defense militia groups in their fight against the Knights Templar Cartel. We contrast this page with a similar one from a different state: Valor por Tamaulipas,  which has enabled residents of that state cope with the Drug War related violence.

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MSR FUSE Labs 2014 internships in the Seattle area

FUSE Labs at Microsoft Research is seeking interns for 2014. For these positions, we are looking for graduate students from Computer Science, Information Science, Design, Media Studies, Social Science, and other fields with a focus on social computing and social media.

FUSE Labs is a research and development lab at Microsoft Research focused on the design, study, and development of socio-technical systems. We are a uniquely multidisciplinary team where you have the opportunity to work with developers, designers, and other researchers interested in building systems and studying them critically. Our goals are to contribute to the academic community as well as to invent the next generation of social technologies. Some of the topics that are currently of interest for FUSE Labs are civic media, creative collaboration, informal learning, communities of interest, hyperlocal media, information visualization, and machine learning applied to social data. That said, we are open to a diversity of methodologies.

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#YoSoy132, a year later

Last year, Gilad Lotan and I spent some time analyzing the #YoSoy132 protests in Mexico using data from Twitter. Several articles and even books about #YoSoy132 have come out since. For example, De Mauleón wrote an excellent piece for Nexos (in Spanish) that resembled some of our own analysis.  Sadly, Gilad and I got busy and abandoned the project, but after this recent conversation, we decided to dig out our notes and post them here in the event that they might be useful for others.

The rise and fall of the “Mexican Spring” 

Exactly a year ago, in December 2012, the newly elected Mexican President Peña Nieto took office amid violent protests. As early as May 2012, a number of massive student protests against the then candidate Peña gained a lot of attention on social media, both inside and outside Mexico. The Occupy movement and the international press called these protests the Mexican Spring for its similarities with other “hashtagged” protests. In our analysis, we only focused on the first few months of the protests. Today, #YoSoy132 is only a shadow of what it was, but during the election it was able to accomplish several important victories, including the organization of an online presidential debate (broadcast on YouTube), and the introduction of the issue of media monopolies and media bias to the forefront of the political discussion.

We focused on the origin and spread of the #YoSoy132 student protests by lookign at Twitter trending topics, follower connections, and the content of the tweets. We found that despite the common assumption that the movement appeared “out of the blue,” after an incident involving a candidate’s visit to a university, we can actually trace the movement’s gestation to several months before the trigger incident. Additionally, we found that despite the attempts to link the movement to traditional political groups, i.e. a political party, the movement actually activated typically disconnected groups of people across the political and class spectrum.

Poster in support of #YoSoy132 posted on the Occupy website

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Can crowds fill the void left by defunct newspapers? Reflections on our experiments with locative crowdsourcing

Write up by Andrés Monroy-Hernández and Elena Agapie, building on the work of J. Nathan Matias

Motivated by the disappearance of local newspapers, this past summer, we started to explore new ways of supporting community news production through collaborative writing tools. The first incarnation of this is NewsPad, a system for neighborhood communities to collaboratively to report on local events such as festivals and town hall meetings.

One of the first challenges we encountered when testing NewsPad in the wild, was the difficulty of bootstrapping these collective action efforts to produce even lightweight articles in the form of lists, also referred to as listicles.

We decided to explore this challenge using on-demand, location-based labor through TaskRabbit. We were able to produce articles about the events in under an hour, and for less than $100. Here we we share some of initial reflections after running a few experiments.


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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.

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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

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How is the Brazilian Uprising Using Twitter?

By Andrés Monroy-Hernández and Emma Spiro

More than a million Brazilians have joined protests in over 100 cities throughout Brazil in the past few weeks. Since their early beginning as a “Revolta do Busão” (Bus rebellion) to reduce bus fares, the protests now include a much larger set of issues faced by Brazilian society. Protesters are angry about corruption and inequality. They’re also frustrated about the cost of hosting the upcoming World Cup and Olympic Games in light of economic disparity and lack of high quality basic services. Yesterday, as Brazil defeated Spain to win the Confederations Cup final, police clashed with protesters near Maracana stadium for the second time in two weeks.

English translation of “vem pra rua” video, via Global Voices.

People turned to social media to share what they saw on the streets and invite others to join in the protests. For example, some of our most active Brazilian users of So.cl have been posting daily collages with images, links, and descriptions of the protests. According to a well-known polling company, a surprising 72% of Brazilians online supported the demonstrations, and 10% claimed to have joined the protests on the streets. For a while, leftist President Rouseff maintained a high approval rate of 55%, down from 63% the year before and still one of the highest for any leader in the world. By June 29th, however, only only 30% of Brazilians considered her administration “great” or “good.”

One of the collages on So.cl narrating the Brazilian protests

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The main Whoo.ly interface

Whoo.ly: Facilitating Information Seeking For Hyperlocal Communities Using Social Media

You hear sirens blaring in your neighborhood and, naturally, you are curious about the cause of commotion. Your first reaction might be to turn on the local TV news or go online and check the local newspaper. Unfortunately, unless the issue is of significant importance, your initial search of these media will be probably be fruitless. But, if you turn to social media, you are likely to find other neighbors reporting relevant information, giving firsthand accounts, or, at the very least, wondering what is going on as well.

Social media allows people to quickly spread information and, in urban environments, its presence is ubiquitous. However, social media is also noisy, chaotic, and hard to understand for those unfamiliar with, for example, the intricacies of hashtags and social media lingo. It should be no surprise that, regardless of the popularity of social media, people are still using TV and newspapers as their main sources for local information, while social media is just beginning to emerge as a useful information source.  We created Whoo.ly to address this issue.

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The New War Correspondents: The Rise of Civic Media Curation in Urban Warfare

A few weeks ago, while I was visiting a city in northern Mexico, I witnessed some of the drug-related violence people have been experiencing almost every day: several bodies were hung from a bridge and a number of shootouts were reported throughout in the city. As if that was not terrifying enough, I was not able to learn about those events through the news media. Instead, like many people in these cities, I learned about them on Twitter. Perhaps even more interesting was the fact that a handful of Twitter users, many of whom are anonymous, have emerged as civic media curators, individuals who aggregate and disseminate information from and to large numbers of people on social media, effectively crowdsourcing local news. We set to investigate this emergent phenomenon by looking at a large archive of Tweets associated with the Mexican Drug War and interviewing some of these new “war correspondents,” as one of them referred to herself.

Twitter message [edited] alerting citizens of drug-related violence.
Twitter message [edited] alerting citizens of drug-related violence.

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