Welcome our new SMC postdoc, Elena Maris!

We’re thrilled to announce our newest postdoc in the Social Media Collective, based in the New England lab of Microsoft Research!

Elena Maris, University of Pennsylvania

marisElena received her Ph.D. in Communication from the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research examines the ways media/tech industries and audiences work to influence each other, with a focus on their technological tactics and the roles of gender and sexuality in their interactions. She also studies how identity is represented and experienced in popular culture and online. Her dissertation explored how online audience groups construct media industries and opportunities for influencing media content, a concept she called the “imagined industry.” Elena returns to MSRNE after interning with the SMC in 2017, and will continue working on the project she began then, on industries’ use of metrics to measure fandom. She is also starting a new project about the increased demand for qualitative understandings of technology, big data, metrics and analytics in the tech industries, and the gendering of such ‘soft’ data work. Elena’s work has been published in Critical Studies in Media Communication, the European Journal of Cultural Studies, and Feminist Media Studies.

It’s of course hard to celebrate the choice of one, when we also had to say no to so many superb candidates. We are so honored and humbled by the quality and range of scholars who want to come work with us, and offer our best wishes to those we couldn’t bring in as well.

Congratulations to the incoming SMC interns for summer 2018!

Another stellar crop of applicants poured in for the SMC internships this year, and another three emerged as the best of the best. Thanks to everyone who applied, it was painful not to accept more of you! For summer 2018, we’re thrilled to have these three remarkable students joining us in the Microsoft Research lab in New England, to conduct their own original research and to be part of the SMC community. (Remember that we offer these internships every summer: if you’re an advanced graduate student in the areas of communication, the anthropology or sociology of new media, information science, and related fields, watch this page for the necessary information.)

 

Robyn Caplan is a doctoral candidate at Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information under the supervision of Professor Philip Napoli. For the last three years, she has also been a Researcher at the Data & Society Research Institute, working on projects related to platform accountability, media manipulation, and data and civil rights. Her most recent research explores how platforms and news media associations navigate content moderation decisions regarding trustworthy and credible content, and how current concerns regarding the rise of disinformation across borders are impacting platform governance, and national media and information policy. Previously she was a Fellow at the GovLab at NYU, where she worked on issues related to open data policy and use. She holds an MA from New York University in Media, Culture, and Communication, and a Bachelor of Science from the University of Toronto.

 

Michaelanne Dye is a Ph.D. candidate in Human-Centered Computing in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech. She also holds an M.A. in Cultural Anthropology. Michaelanne uses ethnographic methods to explore human-computer interaction and development (HCID) issues within social computing systems, paying attention to the complex factors that afford and constrain meaningful engagements with the internet in resource-constrained communities. Through fieldwork in Havana, Cuba, Michaelanne’s dissertation work examines how new internet infrastructures interact with cultural values and local constraints. Moreover, her research explores community-led information networks that have evolved in absence of access to the world wide web – in order to explore ways to design more meaningful and sustainable engagements for users in both “developing” and “developed” contexts. Michaelanne’s work has been published in the conference proceedings of Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI) and Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSCW).

 

Penny Trieu is a PhD candidate in the School of Information at the University of Michigan. She is a member of the Social Media Research Lab, where she is primarily advised by Nicole Ellison. Her research concerns how people can use communication technologies, particularly social media, to better support their interpersonal relationships. She also looks at identity processes, notably self-presentation and impression management, on social media. Her research has appeared in venues such as Information, Communication, and Society; Social Media + Society, and at the International Communication Association conference. At the Social Media Collective, she will work on the dynamics of interpersonal feedback and self-presentation around ephemeral sharing via Instagram and Snapchat Stories.

Call for applications! 2018 summer internship, MSR Social Media Collective

APPLICATION DEADLINE: JANUARY 19, 2018

Microsoft Research New England (MSRNE) is looking for advanced PhD students to join the Social Media Collective (SMC) for its 12-week Internship program. The Social Media Collective (in New England, we are Nancy Baym, Tarleton Gillespie, and Mary Gray, with current postdocs Dan Greene and Dylan Mulvin) bring together empirical and critical perspectives to understand the political and cultural dynamics that underpin social media technologies. Learn more about us here.

MSRNE internships are 12-week paid stays in our lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. During their stay, SMC interns are expected to devise and execute their own research project, distinct from the focus of their dissertation (see the project requirements below). The expected outcome is a draft of a publishable scholarly paper for an academic journal or conference of the intern’s choosing. Our goal is to help the intern advance their own career; interns are strongly encouraged to work towards a creative outcome that will help them on the academic job market.

The ideal candidate may be trained in any number of disciplines (including anthropology, communication, information studies, media studies, sociology, science and technology studies, or a related field), but should have a strong social scientific or humanistic methodological, analytical, and theoretical foundation, be interested in questions related to media or communication technologies and society or culture, and be interested in working in a highly interdisciplinary environment that includes computer scientists, mathematicians, and economists.

Primary mentors for this year will be Nancy Baym and Tarleton Gillespie, with additional guidance offered by other members of the SMC. We are looking for applicants working in one or more of the following areas:

  1. Personal relationships and digital media
  2. Audiences and the shifting landscapes of producer/consumer relations
  3. Affective, immaterial, and other frameworks for understanding digital labor
  4. How platforms, through their design and policies, shape public discourse
  5. The politics of algorithms, metrics, and big data for a computational culture
  6. The interactional dynamics, cultural understanding, or public impact of AI chatbots or intelligent agents

Interns are also expected to give short presentations on their project, contribute to the SMC blog, attend the weekly lab colloquia, and contribute to the life of the community through weekly lunches with fellow PhD interns and the broader lab community. There are also natural opportunities for collaboration with SMC researchers and visitors, and with others currently working at MSRNE, including computer scientists, economists, and mathematicians. PhD interns are expected to be on-site for the duration of their internship.

Applicants must have advanced to candidacy in their PhD program by the time they start their internship. (Unfortunately, there are no opportunities for Master’s students or early PhD students at this time). Applicants from historically marginalized communities, underrepresented in higher education, and students from universities outside of the United States are encouraged to apply.

PEOPLE AT MSRNE SOCIAL MEDIA COLLECTIVE

The Social Media Collective is comprised of full-time researchers, postdocs, visiting faculty, Ph.D. interns, and research assistants. Current projects in New England include:

  • How does the use of social media affect relationships between artists and audiences in creative industries, and what does that tell us about the future of work? (Nancy Baym)
  • How are social media platforms, through their algorithmic design and user policies, taking up the role of custodians of public discourse? (Tarleton Gillespie)
  • 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 public institutions like schools and libraries prepare workers for the information economy, and how are they changed in the process? (Dan Greene)
  • How are media standards made, and what do their histories tell us about the kinds of things we can represent? (Dylan Mulvin)

SMC PhD interns may also have the opportunity to connect with our sister Social Media Collective members in New York City. Related projects in New York City include:

  • What are the politics, ethics, and policy implications of artificial intelligence and data science? (Kate Crawford, MSR-NYC)
  • What are the social and cultural issues arising from data-centric technological development? (danah boyd, Data & Society Research Institute)

For more information about the Social Media Collective, and a list of past interns, visit the About page of our blog. For a complete list of all permanent researchers and current postdocs based at the New England lab, see: http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/labs/newengland/people/bios.aspx

 

COMPENSATION, RELOCATION, AND BENEFITS:

  • highly competitive salary
  • travel to/from internship location from your university location (including the intern and all eligible dependents)
  • housing costs: interns can select one of two housing options
    • fully furnished corporate housing covered by Microsoft
    • a lump sum for finding and securing your own housing
  • local transportation allowance for commuting
  • health insurance is not provided; most interns stay covered under their university insurance, but interns are eligible to enroll in a Microsoft sponsored medical plan
  • internship events and activities

 

APPLICATION PROCESS

To apply for a PhD internship with the Social Media Collective, fill out the online application form: https://careers.research.microsoft.com/

On the application website, please 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 the pull down menus. Also enter the name of a mentor (Nancy Baym or Tarleton Gillespie) whose work most directly relates to your own in the “Microsoft Research Contact” field. IF YOU DO NOT MARK THESE PREFERENCES WE WILL NOT RECEIVE YOUR APPLICATION. So, please, make sure to follow these detailed instructions.

Your application needs to include:

  1. A short description (no more than 2 pages, single spaced) of 1 or 2 projects that you propose to do while interning at MSRNE, independently and/or in collaboration with current SMC researchers. The project proposals can be related to, but must be distinct from your dissertation research. Be specific and tell us:
    • What is the research question animating your proposed project?
    • What methods would you use to address your question?
    • How does your research question speak to the interests of the SMC?
    • Who do you hope to reach (who are you engaging) with this proposed research?
  2. A brief description of your dissertation project.
  3. An academic article-length manuscript (~7,000 or more) that you have authored or co-authored (published or unpublished) that demonstrates your writing skills.
  4. A copy of your CV.
  5. The names and contact information for 3 references (one must be your dissertation advisor).
  6. if available, pointers to your website or other online presence (this is not required).

A request for letters will be sent directly to your list of referees, on your behalf. IMPORTANT: THE APPLICATION SYSTEM WILL NOT REQUEST THOSE REFERENCE LETTERS UNTIL AFTER YOU HAVE SUBMITTED YOUR APPLICATION! Please warn your letter writers in advance so that they will be ready to submit them when they receive the prompt. The email they receive will automatically tell them they have two weeks to respond. Please ensure that they expect this email (tell them to check their spam folders, too!) and are prepared to submit your letter by our application deadline.  You can check the progress on individual reference requests at any time by clicking the status tab within your application page. Note that a complete application must include three submitted letters of reference.

If you have any questions about the application process, please contact Tarleton Gillespie at tarleton@microsoft.com and include “SMC PhD Internship” in the subject line.

 

TIMELINE

Due to the volume of applications, late submissions (including submissions with late letters of reference) will not be considered. We will not be able to provide specific feedback on individual applications. Finalists will be contacted in early February to arrange a Skype interview. Applicants chosen for the internship will be informed in March and announced on the socialmediacollective.org blog.

 

 

PREVIOUS INTERN TESTIMONIALS

“The internship at Microsoft Research was all of the things I wanted it to be – personally productive, intellectually rich, quiet enough to focus, noisy enough to avoid complete hermit-like cave dwelling behavior, and full of opportunities to begin ongoing professional relationships with other scholars who I might not have run into elsewhere.”
— Laura Noren, Sociology, New York University

“If I could design my own graduate school experience, it would feel a lot like my summer at Microsoft Research. I had the chance to undertake a project that I’d wanted to do for a long time, surrounded by really supportive and engaging thinkers who could provide guidance on things to read and concepts to consider, but who could also provoke interesting questions on the ethics of ethnographic work or the complexities of building an identity as a social sciences researcher. Overall, it was a terrific experience for me as a researcher as well as a thinker.”
— Jessica Lingel, Library and Information Science, Rutgers University

“My internship experience at MSRNE was eye-opening, mind-expanding and happy-making. If you are looking to level up as a scholar – reach new depth in your focus area, while broadening your scope in directions you would never dream up on your own; and you’d like to do that with the brightest, most inspiring and supportive group of scholars and humans – then you definitely want to apply.”
— Kat Tiidenberg, Sociology, Tallinn University, Estonia

“The Microsoft Internship is a life-changing experience. The program offers structure and space for emerging scholars to find their own voice while also engaging in interdisciplinary conversations. For social scientists especially the exposure to various forms of thinking, measuring, and problem-solving is unparalleled. I continue to call on the relationships I made at MSRE and always make space to talk to a former or current intern. Those kinds of relationships have a long tail.”
— Tressie McMillan Cottom, Sociology, Emory University

“My summer at MSR New England has been an important part of my development as a researcher. Coming right after the exhausting, enriching ordeal of general/qualifying exams, it was exactly what I needed to step back, plunge my hands into a research project, and set the stage for my dissertation… PhD interns are given substantial intellectual freedom to pursue the questions they care about. As a consequence, the onus is mostly on the intern to develop their research project, justify it to their mentors, and do the work. While my mentors asked me good, supportive, and often helpfully hard, critical questions, but my relationship with them was not the relationship of an RA to a PI– instead it was the relationship of a junior colleague to senior ones.”
— J. Nathan Matias, Media Lab, MIT (read more here)

“This internship provided me with the opportunity to challenge myself beyond what I thought was possible within three months. With the SMC’s guidance, support, and encouragement, I was able to reflect deeply about my work while also exploring broader research possibilities by learning about the SMC’s diverse projects and exchanging ideas with visiting scholars. This experience will shape my research career and, indeed, my life for years to come.”
— Stefanie Duguay, Communication, Queensland University of Technology

“There are four main reasons why I consider the summer I spent as an intern with the Social Media Collective to be a formative experience in my career. 1. was the opportunity to work one-on-one with the senior scholars on my own project, and the chance to see “behind the scenes” on how they approach their own work. 2. The environment created by the SMC is one of openness and kindness, where scholars encourage and help each other do their best work. 3. hearing from the interdisciplinary members of the larger MSR community, and presenting work to them, required learning how to engage people in other fields. And finally, 4. the lasting effect: Between senior scholars and fellow interns, you become a part of a community of researchers and create friendships that extend well beyond the period of your internship.”
— Stacy Blasiola, Communication, University of Illinois Chicago

“My internship with Microsoft Research was a crash course in what a thriving academic career looks like. The weekly meetings with the research group provided structure and accountability, the stream of interdisciplinary lectures sparked intellectual stimulation, and the social activities built community. I forged relationships with peers and mentors that I would never have met in my graduate training.”
— Kate Zyskowski, Anthropology, University of Washington

“It has been an extraordinary experience for me to be an intern at Social Media Collective. Coming from a computer science background, communicating and collaborating with so many renowned social science and media scholars teaches me, as a researcher and designer of socio-technical systems, to always think of these systems in their cultural, political and economic context and consider the ethical and policy challenges they raise. Being surrounded by these smart, open and insightful people who are always willing to discuss with me when I met problems in the project, provide unique perspectives to think through the problems and share the excitements when I got promising results is simply fascinating. And being able to conduct a mixed-method research that combines qualitative insights with quantitative methodology makes the internship just the kind of research experience that I have dreamed for.”
— Ming Yin, Computer Science, Harvard University

“Spending the summer as an intern at MSR was an extremely rewarding learning experience. Having the opportunity to develop and work on your own projects as well as collaborate and workshop ideas with prestigious and extremely talented researchers was invaluable. It was amazing how all of the members of the Social Media Collective came together to create this motivating environment that was open, supportive, and collaborative. Being able to observe how renowned researchers streamline ideas, develop projects, conduct research, and manage the writing process was a uniquely helpful experience – and not only being able to observe and ask questions, but to contribute to some of these stages was amazing and unexpected.”
— Germaine Halegoua, Communication Arts, University of Wisconsin-Madison

“Not only was I able to work with so many smart people, but the thoughtfulness and care they took when they engaged with my research can’t be stressed enough. The ability to truly listen to someone is so important. You have these researchers doing multiple, fascinating projects, but they still make time to help out interns in whatever way they can. I always felt I had everyone’s attention when I spoke about my project or other issues I had, and everyone was always willing to discuss any questions I had, or even if I just wanted clarification on a comment someone had made at an earlier point. Another favorite aspect of mine was learning about other interns’ projects and connecting with people outside my discipline.”
–Jolie Matthews, Education, Stanford University

Facebook Trending: It’s made of people!! (but we should have already known that)

Gizmodo has released two important articles (1, 2) about the people who were hired to manage Facebook’s “Trending” list. The first reveals not only how Trending topics are selected and packaged on Facebook, but also the peculiar working conditions this team experienced, the lack of guidance or oversight they were provided, and the directives they received to avoid news that addressed Facebook itself. The second makes a more pointed allegation: that along the way, conservative topics were routinely ignored, meaning the trending algorithm had identified user activity around a particular topic, but the team of curators chose not to publish it as a trend.

This is either a boffo revelation, or an unsurprising look at how the sausage always gets made, depending on your perspective. The promise of “trends” is a powerful one. Even as the public gets more and more familiar with the way social media platforms work with data, and even with more pointed scrutiny of trends in particular, it is still easy to think that “trends” means an algorithm is systematically and impartially uncovering genuine patterns of user activity. So, to discover that a handful of j-school graduates were tasked with surveying all the topics the algorithm identified, choosing just a handful of them, and dressing them up with names and summaries, feels like a unwelcome intrusion of human judgment into what we wish were analytic certainty. Who are these people? What incredible power they have to dictate what is and is not displayed, what is and is not presented as important! Wasn’t this  supposed to be just a measure of what users were doing, what the people important! Downplaying conservative news is the most damning charge possible, since it has long been a commonplace accusation leveled at journalists. But the revelation is that there’s people in the algorithm at all.

But the plain fact of information algorithms like the ones used to identify “trends” is that they do not work alone, they cannot work alone — in so many ways that we must simply discard the fantasy that they do, or ever will. In fact, algorithms do surprisingly little, they just do it really quickly and with a whole lot of data. Here’s some of what they can’t do:

Trending algorithms identify patterns in data, but they can’t make sense of it. The raw data is Facebook posts, likes, and hashtags. Looking at this data, there will certainly be surges of activity that can be identified and quantified: words that show up more than other words, posts that get more likes than other posts. But there is so much more to figure out
(1) What is a topic? To decide how popular a topic is, Facebook must decide which posts are about that topic. When do two posts or two hashtags represent the same story, such that they should be counted together? An algorithm can only do so much to say whether a post about Beyonce and a post about Bey and a post about Lemonade and a post about QueenB and the hashtag BeyHive are all the same topic. And that’s an easy one, a superstar with a distinctive name, days after a major public event. Imagine trying to determine algorithmically if people are talking about European tax reform, enough to warrant calling it a trend.
(2) Topics are also composed of smaller topics, endlessly down to infinity. Is the Republican nomination process a trending topic, or the Indiana primary, or Trump’s win in Indiana, or Paul Ryan’s response to Trump’s win in Indiana? According to one algorithmic threshold these would be grouped together, by another would be separate. The problem is not that an algorithm can’t tell. It’s that it can tell both interpretations, all interpretations equally well. So, an algorithm could be programmed to decide,to impose a particular threshold for the granularity of topics. But would that choice make sense to readers, would it map onto their own sense of what’s important, and would it work for the next topic, and the next?
(3) How should a topic be named and described, in a way that Facebook users would appreciate or even understand? Computational attempts to summarize are notoriously clunky, and often produce the kind of phrasing and grammar that scream “a computer wrote this.”
What trending algorithms can identify isn’t always what a platform wants to identify. Facebook, unlike Twitter, chose to display trends that identify topics, rather than single hashtags. This was already a move weighted towards identifying “news” rather than topics. It already strikes an uneasy balance between the kind of information they have — billions and posts and likes surging through their system — and the kind they’d like to display — a list of the most relevant topics. And it already sets up an irreconcilable tension: what should they do when user activity is not a good measure of public importance? It is not surprising the, that they’d try to focus on articles being circulated and commented on, and from the most reputable sources, as a way to lean on their curation and authority to pre-identify topics. Which opens up, as Gizmodo identifies, the tendency to discount some sources as non-reputable, which can have unintentionally partisan implications.
“Trending” is also being asked to do a lot of things for Facebook: capture the most relevant issues being discussed on Facebook, and conveniently map onto the most relevant topics in the worlds of news and entertainment, and keep users on the site longer, and keep up with Twitter, and keep advertisers happy. In many ways, a trending algorithm can be an enormous liability, if allowed to be: it could generate a list of dreadful or depressing topics; it could become a playground for trolls who want to fill it with nonsense and profanity; it could reveal how little people use Facebook to talk about matters of public importance; it could reveal how depressingly little people care about matters of public importance; and it could help amplify a story critical of Facebook itself. It would take a whole lot of bravado to set that loose on a system like Facebook, and let it show what it shows unmanaged. Clearly, Facebook has a lot more at stake in producing a trending list that, while it should look like an unvarnished report of what users are discussing, must also massage it into something that represents Facebook well at the same time.

So: people are in the algorithm because how could they not be? People produce the Facebook activity being measured, people design the algorithms and set their evaluative criteria, people decide what counts as a trend, people name and summarize them, and people look to game the algorithm with their next posts.

The thing is, these human judgments are all part of traditional news gathering as well. Choosing what to report in the news, how to describe it and feature it, and how to honor both the interests of the audience and the sense of importance, has always been a messy, subjective process, full of gaps in which error, bias, self-interest, and myopia can enter. The real concern here is not that there are similar gaps in Facebook’s process as well, or that Facebook hasn’t yet invented an algorithm that can close those gaps. The real worry is that Facebook is being so unbelievably cavalier about it.

Traditional news organizations face analogous problems and must make analogous choices, and can make analogous missteps. And they do. But two countervailing forces work against this, keep them more honest than not, more on target than not: a palpable and institutionalized commitment to news itself, and competition. I have no desire to glorify the current news landscape, which in many ways produces news that is disheartening less than what journalism should be. But there is at least a public, shared, institutionally rehearsed, and historical sense of purpose and mission, or at least there’s one available. Journalism schools teach their students about not just how to determine and deliver the news, but why. They offer up professional guidelines and heroic narratives that position the journalist as a provider of political truths and public insight. They provide journalists with frames that help them identify the way news can suffer when it overlaps with public relations, spin, infotainment, and advertising. There are buffers in place to protect journalists from the pressures that can come from the upper management, advertisers, or newsmakers themselves, because of a belief that independence is an important foundation for newsgathering. Journalists recognize that their choices have consequences, and they discuss those choices. And there are stakeholders for regularly checking these efforts for possible bias and self-interest: public editors and ombudspeople, newswatch organizations and public critics,  all trying to keep the process honest. Most of all, there are competitors who would gleefully point out a news organization’s mistakes and failures, which gives editors and managers real incentive to work against the temptations to produce news that is self-serving, politically slanted, or commercially craven.

Facebook seemed to have thought of absolutely none of these. Based on the revelations in the two Gizmodo articles, it’s clear that they hired a shoestring team, lashed them to the algorithm, offered little guidance for what it meant to make curatorial choices, provided no ongoing oversight as the project progressed, imposed self-interested guidelines to protect the company, and kept the entire process inscrutable to the public, cloaked in the promise of an algorithm doing its algorithm thing.

The other worry here is that Facebook is engaged in a labor practice increasingly common among Silicon Valley: hiring information workers through third parties, under precarious conditions and without access to the institutional support or culture their full-time employees enjoy, and imposing time and output demands on them that can only fail a task that warrants more time, care, expertise, and support. This is the troubling truth about information workers in Silicon Valley and around the world, who find themselves “automated” by the gig economy — not just clickworkers on Mechanical Turk and drivers on Uber, but even “inside” the biggest and most established companies on the plant. It also is a dangerous tendency for the kind and scale of information projects that tech companies are willing to take on, without having the infrastructure and personnel to adequately support them. It is not uncommon now for a company to debut a new feature or service, only weeks in development and supported only by its design team, with the assumption that it can quickly hire and train a team of independent, hourly workers. Not only does this put a huge onus on those workers, but it means that, if the service finds users and begins to scales up quickly, little preparation was in place, and the overworked team must quickly make some ad hoc decisions about what are often tricky cases with real, public ramifications.

Trending algorithms are undeniably becoming part of the cultural landscape, and revelations like Gizmodo’s are helpful steps in helping us shed the easy notions of what they are and how they work, notions the platforms have fostered. Social media platforms must come to fully realize that they are newsmakers and gatekeepers, whether they intend to be or not, whether they want to be or not. And while algorithms can chew on a lot of data, it is still a substantial, significant, and human process to turn that data into claims about importance that get fed back to millions of users. This is not a realization that they will ever reach on their own — which suggests to me that they need the two countervailing forces that journalism has: a structural commitment to the public, imposed if not inherent, and competition to force them to take such obligations seriously.

Addendum: Techcrunch is reporting that Facebook has responded to Gizmodo’s allegations, suggesting that it has “rigorous guidelines in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality.” This makes sense. But consistency and neutrality are fine as concepts, but they’re vague and insufficient in practice. There could have been Trending curators at Facebook who deliberately tanked conservative topics and knew that doing so violated policy. But (and this has long been known in the sociology of news) the greater challenge in producing the news, whether generating it or just curating it, is how to deal with the judgments that happen while being consistent and neutral. Making the news always requires judgments, and judgements always incorporate premises for assessing the relevance, legitimacy, and coherence of a topic. Recognizing bias in our own choices or across an institution is extremely difficult, but knowing whether you have produced a biased representation of reality is nearly impossible, as there’s nothing to compare it to — even setting aside that Facebook is actually trying to do something even harder, produce a representation of the collective representations of reality of their users, and ensure that somehow it also represents reality, as other reality-representers (be they CNN or Twitter users) have represented it. Were social media platforms willing to acknowledge that they constitute public life rather than hosting or reflecting it, they might look to those who produce news, educate journalists, and study news as a sociological phenomenon, for help thinking through these challenges.

Addendum 2 (May 9): The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation has just filed an inquiry with Facebook, raising concerns about their Trending Topics based on the allegations in the Gizmodo report. The letter of inquiry is available here, and has been reported by Gizmodo and elsewhere. In the letter they ask Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook to respond to a series of questions about how Trending Topics works, what kind of guidelines and oversight they provided, and whether specific topics were sidelined or injected. Gizmodo and other sites are highlighting the fact that this Committee is run by a conservative and has a majority of members who are conservative. But the questions posed are thoughtful ones. What they make so clear is that we simply do not have a vocabulary with which to hold these services accountable. For instance, they ask “Have Facebook news curators in fact manipulated the content of the Trending Topics section, either by targeting news stories related to conservative views for exclusion or by injecting non-trending content?” Look at the verbs. “Manipulated” is tricky, as it’s not exactly clear what the unmanipulated Trending Topics even are. “Targeting” sounds like they excluded stories, when what Gizmodo reports is that some stories were not selected as trending, or not recognized as stories. If trending algorithms can only highlight possible topics surging in popularity, but Facebook and its news curators constitute that data into a list of topics, then language that takes trending to be a natural phenomenon, that Facebook either accurately reveals or manipulates, can’t quite grip how this works and why it is so important. It is worth noting, though, that the inquiry pushes on how (whether) Facebook is keeping records of what is selected: “Does Facebook maintain a record ,of curators’ decisions to inject a story into the Trending Topics section or target a story for removal? If such a record. is not maintained, can such decisions be reconstructed or determined based on an analysis of the Trending Topics product? a. If so, how many stories have curators excluded that represented conservative viewpoints or topics of interest to conservatives? How many stories did curators inject that were not, in fact, trending? b. Please provide a list of all news stories removed from or injected into the Trending Topics section since January 2014.” This approach I think does emphasize to Facebook that these choices are significant, enough so that they should be treated as part of the public record and open to scrutiny by policymakers or the courts. This is a way of demanding Facebook take role in this regard more seriously.

New Report Released: Few Legal Remedies for Victims of Online Harassment

For the last year, I’ve been working with Fordham’s Center on Law and Information Policy to research what legal remedies are available to victims of online harassment. We investigated cyberharassment law, cyberstalking law, defamation law, hate speech, and cyberbullying statutes. We found that although online harassment and hateful speech is a significant problem, there are few legal remedies for victims.

Report Highlights

  • Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provides internet service providers(including social media sites, blog hosting companies, etc.) with broad immunity from liability for user-generated content.
  • Given limited resources, law enforcement personnel prioritize other cases over
    prosecuting internet-related issues.
  • Similarly, there are often state jurisdictional issues which make successful prosecution
    difficult, as victim and perpetrator are often in different states, if not different countries.
  • Internet speech is protected under the First Amendment. Thus, state laws regarding online
    speech are written to comply with First Amendment protections, requiring fighting
    words, true threats, or obscene speech (which are not protected). This generally means
    that most offensive or obnoxious online comments are protected speech.
  • For an online statement to be defamatory, it must be provably false rather than a matter of
    opinion. This means that the specifics of language used in the case are extremely
    important.
  • While there are state laws for harassment and defamation, few cases have resulted in
    successful prosecution. The most successful legal tactic from a practical standpoint has
    been using a defamation or harassment lawsuit to reveal the identities of anonymous
    perpetrators through a subpoena to ISPs then settling. During the course of our research,
    we were unable to find many published opinions in which perpetrators have faced
    criminal penalties, which suggests that the cases are not prosecuted, they are not appealed
    when they are prosecuted, or that the victim settles out of court with the perpetrator and
    stops pressing charges.
  • In offline contexts, hate speech laws seem to only be applied by courts as penalty
    enhancements; we could locate no online-specific hate speech laws.
  • Given this landscape, the problem of online harassment and hateful speech is unlikely to
    be solved solely by victims using existing laws; law should be utilized in combination
    with other practical solutions.

The objective of the project is to provide a resource that may be used by the general public, and in particular, researchers, legal practitioners, Internet community moderators, and victims of harassment and hateful speech online. If you’re working on online harassment, cyberbullying, revenge porn, or a host of related issues, we hope this will be of service to you.

Also, read it to find out the difference between calling someone a “bitch” and a “skank” online, what a “true threat” is, and why students are probably at the most risk of being prosecuted for online speech acts.

Download the report from SSRN

Video: TL Taylor on Pro Gaming, Live Streaming & Spectatorship

 
Current and future visitor TL Taylor spoke last week at the Berkman Luncheon series on “Live Streaming, Computer Games, and the Future of Spectatorship.”

Computer gaming has long been a social activity, complete with forms of spectatorship. With the growth of live-streaming the boundaries of audience are shifting. Professional e-sports players and amateurs alike are broadcasting their play online and in turn growing communities. But interesting issues lurk around notions of audience (and revenue), IP and licensing, and the governance and management of these spaces. T.L. Taylor — Associate Professor in the Center for Computer Games Research and author of the newly released “Raising the Stakes: E-Sports and the Professionalization of Computer Gaming” (MIT Press, 2012) — presents some preliminary inquiries into this emerging intersection of “social media,” gaming, and broadcasting.

TL just accepted a job as Associate Professor at MIT’s Department of Comparative Media Studies. We’re all stoked to have her in the Boston area.

The Curious Case of EBook Sharing Sites

The popularity of ebooks has skyrocketed in the last few years. The Association of American Publishers reports that eBook sales by US publishers were up 300% in 2011:

Total eBook net sales revenue for 2011 was $21.5 million, a gain of 332.6% over 2010; this represents 3.4 million eBook units sold in 2011, up 303.3 %. As comparison, print formats (Hardcover, Paperback and Mass Market Paperback) increased 2.3% to $335.9 million in 2011.

(Source) With this increase has come the usual hand-wringing over the end of print, the effects on book stores, access to books for people who can’t afford e-readers, the problems caused by DRM and the demise of the First-sale Doctrine (which says you can sell second-hand books, DVDs, videos, etc.), and so forth.

These are all worth investigation, but I’ve become interested in two specific effects of this shift.

First, the enormous rise in erotica sales and the ability of unknown authors without agents or publishers to publish ebooks cheaply and easily.

Second, the ebook sharing underground: a loose network of sites that let people swap ebooks without DRM. Because the files are so small, they’re much easier to disseminate than movies or television shows. They can be easily emailed, DropBoxed, or placed on a DDL (direct download) file-sharing server like 4Shared or Rapidshare. (There are also ebooks on BitTorrent, but it seems that most ebook sharers bypass the torrent infrastructure entirely, probably due to usability concerns or lack of comfort with the protocol.) The popular freeware program Calibre allows ebook users to convert any format (pdf, epub, mobi) to any other format; there’s a popular Calibre plugin that cracks DRM. Most ebook sharing sites contain a tutorial or two on using Calibre.

While all sorts of books are shared online, many of the ebook sharing sites I’ve come across are largely comprised of romance novels. Romance novels are an enormous industry, comprising 13% of the US market and generating more revenue than any other category:

Romance fiction: $1.358 billion in estimated revenue for 2010
Religion/inspirational: $759 million
Mystery: $682 million
Science fiction/fantasy: $559 million
Classic literary fiction: $455 million
[Source: Romance Writers of America]

From my highly unscientific perusing of ebook sharing websites, the majority of participants are women, and most of them are voracious consumers of particular subgenres, such as paranormal or Western. They’re aware of release dates — romances are published on a strict schedule— and so there’s a constant stream of new content being made available. Romances have become so popular on ebook sharing sites that one disgruntled participant wrote:

“The books board seems flooded by self published chic lit. More and more the forums are flooded by garbage that IMHO nobody would ever want to read. All about women having sex with dead people (vampires) or animals (werewolf). Is there some way we could divide the releases into, written by self publicist women, and normal literature. Seems about a 20:1 ratio in favour of the rubbish at the moment.”

(More on this in a second)

Another genre that’s been intensely impacted by file-sharing and technology is academic books. As most of us know, academic books can be ridiculously expensive, often priced for library acquisitions rather than personal purchasing. And most academic authors can expect limited sales and even more limited royalties. The ebook sites that aren’t flooded with romances are full of textbooks and academic books; specialized archives have sprung up for literary criticism, computer science textbooks, and cultural studies, often maintained and organized by graduate students or, I suspect, faculty members. The files shared therein are less likely to be cracked .mobi or .epub files and more likely to be scanned PDFs without OCR (optical character recognition, which allows you to search or cut and paste in PDFs). Given that many professors disseminate class readings as PDFs, it’s unsurprising that these are turning up online. The academic archives are full of students from countries without robust libraries, independent scholars cut off from academic library access, and broke graduate students who can’t afford to spend $50 on a 200-page monograph.

What sites like these display are needs that are not being met by the market. Digital books can be disseminated anywhere, easily, for free. Imagine a library where you never had to wait for a hold because you could just check out an infinitely-replicable digital version. But the way most ebooks are published now is as damaged goods. Due to DRM and publishing restrictions, you can’t easily trade ebooks (ok, you can trade a Kindle ebook once), buy them from yard sales, take them out from the library (OK, you can, but usually not new titles and usually in very limited numbers), borrow them from friends, or read them most of them for free. By circumventing DRM and circulating ebooks through underground, non-commercial sites, users are taking advantage of the possibilities of digital publishing that the publishers are trying to snuff out.

Beyond the general and obvious disruptive potential of ebooks, I’m fascinated by the wide-reaching, and often unexpected, effects of these changes.

This brings me to the other development: the rise in self-publishing, erotica, and self-published erotica. Obviously, 50 Shades of Grey is the exemplar here. For those of you who don’t keep up with zeitgeisty bestsellers, “Fifty Shades” is a three-volume series of BDSM romance, which started life as Twilight fan fiction. It’s sold 10 million copies, primarily to women, and primarily through ebook sales. It’s been on the New York Times bestseller list for months. And it’s often dismissively referred to as “mommy porn” for “bored Long Island housewives.” The Atlantic called it “terrible” and bemoaned “Can’t America ever like something quality? Are we just heading toward the dumbing down of everything?”

Far from it for me to defend the quality of the writing, but there’s something interesting here. Porn for men isn’t called “daddy porn,” it’s just called “porn.” A friend who got laid off from her job writing SEO articles has turned to writing Kindle Singles; among her erotica writers group, one woman is making $10,00 a month selling self-published erotica. Cutting out the middleman of publishers, even prolific publishers like Harlequin, has opened heretofore ignored markets. And one enormous market is clearly erotica written by and for women. Who are not only buying ebooks, but cracking the DRM on them and sharing them with friends.

Clearly, the impact of ebooks goes beyond the publishing industry. I’m fascinated to see where else in the culture we’ll see changes in reading practices. Beyond “Reading the Romance,” what can these ebook sharing communities teach us about audience and reception? In some ways, these sites, and sites like GoodReads, constitute interpretive communities, where uploaders recommend books and previously-ignored titles can spread like wildfire based on positive reviews. (I haven’t even touched on how social media is changing the relationship between readers and authors. Let’s just say I’ve vowed to be kinder in my GoodReads reviews.) Studies of filesharing are often focused on economics or legal aspects; it’s interesting to imagine the perspectives we might gain by leveraging audience studies and media and cultural studies in our analyses instead.

News and Updates – June 2012

Welcome to a new semi-regular feature where I update what various SMC members have been up to lately (think of this like the class notes in your alumni magazine, without the weddings and with less babies).

Kate Crawford joined SMC as a Principal Researcher in February. She has a number of new papers out:

  • danah boyd and Kate Crawford (2012) “Critical Questions for Big Data”, Information, Communication & Society, 15:5, pp 662 – 679.
    Revised version of the Big Data article Kate & danah wrote at MSR last year and delivered at the OII conference. This is a must-read for those of you working with big datasets.
    [Free access]
  • Kate Crawford (2012) “Four ways of Listening to an iPhone: From Sound and Network Listening to Biometric Data and Geolocative Tracking”, in Studying Mobile Media: Cultural Technologies, Mobile Communication and the iPhone, edited by Larissa Hjorth, Ingrid Richardson and Jean Burgess. London and New York: Routledge, pp 213 – 239.
    While we don’t have a download available, ABC national radio in Australia recently broadcast a special feature story & interview on Kate’s essay. You can hear it here.
  • Kath Albury and Kate Crawford (2012) “Sexting, Consent and Young People’s Ethics: Beyond ‘Megan’s Story'”, Continuum, 26: 3, pp 463 – 473.
    Kate says: “Article on sexting and consent that we first wrote in 2010 – a giant relief to see it finally appear in print!”
    [paywall access]

Woot!

Continuing the big data theme, Helen Nissenbaum has a new article as well as a new pamphlet out co-written with Kazys Varnelis that sounds awesome and is FREE!

  • Helen Nissenbaum and Kazys Varnelis, Modulated Cities: Networked Spaces, Reconstituted Subjects, Situated Technologies Book Series. [Free PDF download]

    In Situated Technologies Pamphlets 9, Helen Nissenbaum and Kazys Varnelis initiate a redefinition of privacy in the age of big data and networked, geo-spatial environments. Digital technologies permeate our lives and make the walls of the built environment increasingly porous, no longer the hard boundary they once were when it comes to decisions about privacy. Data profiling, aggregation, analysis, and sharing are broad and hidden, making it harder than ever to constrain the flow of data about us. Cautioning that suffocating surveillance could lead to paralyzed dullness, Nissenbaum and Varnelis do not ask us to retreat from digital media but advance interventions like protest, policy changes, and re-design as possible counter-strategies.

  • H. Nissenbaum, “From Preemption to Circumvention: If Technology Regulates Why Do We Need Regulation (and Vice Versa)?” Berkeley Technology Law Journal, 26:3
    “My attention will mostly be drawn to the role of law and regulation in circumstances where regulation by technology seems already to be in place, or, put another way, where regulation is already encoded in architecture.”
    [Free PDF]

danah boyd has a ton of talks coming up, published the Big Data paper with Kate, and has this upcoming paper:

  • Ybarra, Michele, danah boyd, Josephine Korchmaros, and Jay Koby Oppenheim. (In press; Available online) “Defining and Measuring Cyberbullying Within the Larger Context of Bullying Victimization,” Journal of Adolescent Health.
    [paywall access]

    Measures of bullying among English-speaking individuals in the United States should include the word “bully” when possible. The definition may be a useful tool for researchers, but results suggest that it does not necessarily yield a more rigorous measure of bullying victimization. Directly measuring aspects of bullying (i.e., differential power, repetition, over time) reduces misclassification. To prevent double counting across domains, we suggest the following distinctions: mode (e.g., online, in-person), type (e.g., verbal, relational), and environment (e.g., school, home). We conceptualize cyberbullying as bullying communicated through the online mode.

Our friend and frequent visitor Tarleton Gillespie of Cornell has a full-length piece about the Twitter Trends argument he developed here on SMC and at Culture Digitally:

  • Gillespie, Tarleton. “Can an Algorithm Be Wrong?” Limn (v2, 2012). [free access]

You should really check out the new issue of Limn, a academic-ish art-ish journal. This issue is on Clouds and Crowds and features great work from a variety of social media scholars including Biella Coleman (McGill) on Anonymous and Lilly Irani (UC Irvine) on Mechanical Turk.

My fellow outgoing postdoc Mike Ananny published a piece with Dan Kreiss (UNC) called “Journalism For and By the Public: Creating a Free Press” for the National Communication Association’s “Communication Currents” site. Mike also appeared at the Berkman Center, where he gave a lunchtime talk called A Public Right to Hear and Press Freedom in an Age of Networked Journalism. Full video is up on the Berkman site.

Nancy Baym is joining us soon (we’re very excited). She also has a new article out (we’re so productive!):

  • Jeff Hall & Nancy Baym (2012) Calling and Texting (too much): Mobile maintenance expectations, (over)dependence, entrapment, and friendship satisfaction. New Media & Society, 14(2), 316-331.
    [paywall link]
  • This article uses dialectical theory to examine how mobile phone use in close friendships affects relational expectations, the experiences of dependence, overdependence, and entrapment, and how those experiences affect relational satisfaction. Results suggest that increased mobile phone use for the purpose of relational maintenance has contradictory consequences for close friendships. Using mobile phones in close relationships increased expectations of relationship maintenance through mobile phones. Increased mobile maintenance expectations positively predicted dependence, which increased satisfaction, and positively predicted overdependence, which decreased satisfaction. Additionally, entrapment, the guilt and pressure to respond to mobile phone contact, uniquely predicted dissatisfaction. The results are interpreted in relation to the interdependent dialectical tensions of friendship, media entrapment, and the logic of perpetual contact.

Nancy also did a Berkman Center podcast in April, where she interviewed three musicians- Kristin Hersh, Zöe Keating, and Erin McKeown- about using community supported agriculture as a metaphor for rethinking music. [free access]

Finally, I (Alice Marwick) have a piece in Surveillance and Society about to drop (tell all your friends!) and wrote a essay for the Daily Beast with danah about teen social media use (spoiler: it’s not that weird).

Check the Events page for upcoming talks, and the new Video page for multimedia from past events.

Teens Text More than Adults, But They’re Still Just Teens

danah and I have a new piece in the Daily Beast. Summary: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In the last decade, we’ve studied how technology affects how teens socialize, how they present themselves, and how they think about issues like gender and privacy. While it’s true that teens incorporate social media into many facets of their lives, and that they face new pressures their parents didn’t—from cyber-bullying to fearmongering over “online predators”—the core elements of high-school life are fundamentally the same today as they were two decades ago: friends, relationships, grades, family, and the future.

Read the full piece here.

A lot of the research that we do involving teenagers seems obvious to teenagers themselves. “Duh.” “Why would anyone study that?” “Who cares?”

Unfortunately, teenagers aren’t the ones writing news stories about how Facebook is making us lonely, Facebook is full of creepers, or teens are pressured to reveal intimate details on Facebook (note: those last two studies sponsored by a company that creates parental blocking and monitoring software). They aren’t the ones passing anti-bullying legislation, appearing on television to tell parents that teens study less and are more narcissistic than a generation ago, or implementing 3-strikes laws in public schools.

Our public-facing work aims to explain teenage practice in clear language that isn’t sensationalistic or fear-mongering. Obviously, not all scholarship lends itself to this type of writing. But given that social media is often discussed in utopian or dystopian terms in the press, research can provide a rational, sensible perspective that’s badly needed. Like, duh.

Is blocking pro-ED content the right way to solve eating disorders?

Warning: This post deals with eating disorder and self-harm content and is potentially triggering.

Following up on Tarleton’s terrific post on moderating Facebook comes Tumblr’s announcement that it will no longer allow pro-eating disorder (pro-ED) or pro-self-harm blogs on the site.

Active Promotion of Self-Harm. Don’t post content that actively promotes or glorifies self-injury or self-harm. This includes content that urges or encourages readers to cut or mutilate themselves; embrace anorexia, bulimia, or other eating disorders; or commit suicide rather than, e.g., seek counseling or treatment for depression or other disorders. Online dialogue about these acts and conditions is incredibly important; this prohibition is intended to reach only those blogs that cross the line into active promotion or glorification. For example, joking that you need to starve yourself after Thanksgiving or that you wanted to kill yourself after a humiliating date is fine, but recommending techniques for self-starvation or self-mutilation is not.

(The remainder of this post focuses on eating disorder content, because it’s what I know the most about. I’d love to hear more from people familiar with self-harm communities.)

Pro-ED content has existed on the internet for many years, and it has been studied by many researchers. It is primarily created and consumed by girls and young women, ages 13-25. There is evidence that the viewing of pro-ED websites (pro-ana, anorexia, and pro-mia, bulimia) produces negative effects in college-age women — lower self-esteem and perception of oneself as “heavier” (Bardone-Cone & Cass, 2007). But pro-ED websites have been sensationalized in the media as cults that encourage young women to kill themselves, even ending up as the case-of-the-week on Boston Legal.

At the same time, the cultural pressure on young women to conform to normative body types is intense. In Am I Thin Enough Yet? The Cult of Thinness and the Commercialization of Identity, feminist sociologist Sharlene Hess Biber looks at the complex interactions between media, schools, peers, family, and the health and fitness industry that systemically undermine young women’s self confidence, send the message that appearance is more important than intelligence or personality, and emphasize the importance of thinness overall. Often, the messages found on pro-ana or pro-mia sites– such as “nothing tastes as good as thin feels”, attributed to Kate Moss but actually a Weight Watchers slogan that has been around for decades– are extraordinarily similar to those found in magazines like Self and Women’s Health, or on websites like My Fitness Pal or Sparkpeople that promote weight loss in a “healthy” way. These media emphasize different weight loss techniques, but the message is the same: it is very important to be thin and conform to an attractive, normative body ideal.

Pro-ED websites are a female subculture, with their own vocabulary, customs, and norms. Moreover, the women who frequent these sites are well aware that their practices are stigmatized. In general, women with eating disorders go to great lengths to hide them from friends and families. This is primarily for two reasons: one, they want to keep losing weight and are worried that they may be forced into treatment, and two, they are afraid of being ridiculed or called out by others. The anonymous or pseudonymous nature of pro-ED sites allows these participants an outlet for their social isolation, and (to a certain extent) emotional support from others going through the same experiences that they are.

Jeannine Gailey, a sociologist of deviance, wrote a paper on pro-ED websites using ethnographic methods. She concludes:

They need a place where they can share their stories and fears with others who are similarly minded and have had comparable experiences. They, as Dias put it [another ethnographic researcher of pro-ana sites, paper here], are seeking a sanctuary. The internet provides the women with both a sanctuary and a medium in which to express the sensations and intense emotions they experience as they struggle to maintain control over their bodies and lives…. The women’s narratives I explored indicate that they participate in the central features of edgework, namely pushing oneself to the edge, testing the limits of both their bodies and minds, exercising particular skills that require ‘innate talent’ and mental toughness, and feelings of self-actualization or omnipotence.

Gailey frames EDs as “edgework,” a concept from criminology/deviance that describes practices of voluntary risk-taking, like skydiving, rock climbing, ‘extreme sports’, stock-trading, unprotected sex, and illegal graffiti. The skills Gailey describes as part of edgework are similar to those emphasized by other body-related extreme communities, such as those devoted to bodybuilding, crossfit, veganism, and paleo dieting. On such communities, members swap tips, ask for support, show progress, share information and share vocabularies and normative practices.

Obviously, Tumblr isn’t focusing on any of these communities. I’m not arguing that eating disorders aren’t dangerous, or even that they’re potentially empowering. They are not. But the focus on young women’s online practice as deviant, pathological, and quasi-illegal is in line with a long history. Young women and their bodies are often the locus of control of social panics, from teen pregnancies to virginity to obesity to dressing “slutty”.

More importantly, Tumblr banning this content won’t do anything to make it go away. It does take Tumblr off the hook, but even the quickest search for self-harm or thinspo (serious trigger warning) finds thousands of posts, many heartbreaking in their raw honesty. One Tumblr writes:

if tumblr blocks all our blogs then things will be worse. off than they were before, we’ll feel alone again, outcasts! Who can we share our problems with if our blogs have been taken off us? We share our deepest and most darkest secrets on here and if our blogs are taken where are we supposed to put our feelings? They will build up inside of us and things will get worse and worse. Well done tumblr you bunch of arseholes, you’re going to make things worse.

Pragmatically, many of the thinspo content has simply migrated to Pinterest. Others have password-protected their blogs and spread the password to people in the community.

Eating disorder prevention needs to be structural as well as medical. Realistically, eating disorders aren’t going anywhere as long as we have a complex set of mediated images and discursive tropes that pin the importance of young women on their bodies. These issues exist on a continuum that includes everything from Shape magazine and The Biggest Loser to well-meaning anti-childhood obesity initiatives. Young women participating in pro-ED communities are acting upon messages they get from many other places in their lives. While there is no agreed-upon way of dealing with pro-ED communities– and it’s great that Tumblr is going to implement PSA-type ads that appear on searches for these terms– there are more productive interventions that can be made. We must understand the reasons these young women are in such pain and, more importantly, be willing to engage with these communities, rather than painting them as horrific or abhorrent.