Applications are due Dec. 1, for the Social Media Collective postdoc. Here’s how to apply!

APPLICATION DEADLINE: December 1, 2019

The Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research New England (MSRNE) is looking for a social media postdoctoral researcher (anticipated start date: July 2020). This position is an ideal opportunity for a scholar whose work draws on communication, media studies, anthropology, sociology, and/or science and technology studies to bring empirical and critical perspectives to complex socio-technical issues. We also consider applications from candidates who might bridge SMC and one or more areas of the MSRNE lab, including machine learning, economics, bioinformatics, cryptography, algorithmic game theory.

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 do social media platforms, digital assistants, and related technologies challenge and reshape our relationships? (Nancy Baym)

– how do social media platforms, through algorithmic design and content policies, serve as 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 media/tech industries and users try to know and influence each other? What are the roles of technology and identity in these interactions? (Elena Maris)

SMC postdocs may have the opportunity to visit and collaborate with our sister Social Media Collective members in New York City.

Microsoft Research provides a vibrant multidisciplinary research environment, with an open publications policy and close links to top academic institutions around the world. Postdoctoral researcher positions offer emerging scholars an opportunity to develop their research career and to interact with some of the top minds in the research community.

Postdoctoral researchers receive a competitive salary and benefits package, and are eligible for relocation expenses. Postdoctoral researchers are hired for a two-year term appointment following the academic calendar, starting in July 2020.

Qualifications

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

Applicants must have completed the requirements for a PhD, including submission of their dissertation, prior to joining Microsoft Research. We encourage those with tenure-track job offers from other institutions to apply, so long as they can defer their start date to accept our position.

Successful candidates will have a well-established research track record as demonstrated by journal publications and conference papers, as well as participation on program committees, editorial boards, and advisory panels.

Responsibilities

Postdoctoral researchers define their own research agenda. In addition to their own research, postdocs are expected to be a contributing participant in the SMC and the MSRNE lab.

Application process

Submit an online application here. Click “Apply now” The site may prompt you to set up an account first; be patient.

The application will ask you to upload your complete CV and the names of three referees (one of you letter writers should be your dissertation advisor).

In addition, you must upload the following 3 attachments with your online application:

1. a single research statement (four page maximum length) that does the following:

  • outlines the questions and methodologies central to your research agenda (~ two pages);
  • offers a description of how your research agenda relates to research conducted by the Social Media Collective (~ one page);
  • provides an abstract and chapter outline of your dissertation (~ one page)

2. two writing samples: journal articles, book chapters, or equivalent (uploaded as two separate attachments);

After you submit your application, a request for a recommendation letter will be automatically sent to your list of referees on your behalf. NOTE: THE APPLICATION SYSTEM WILL NOT REQUEST REFERENCE LETTERS UNTIL AFTER YOU HAVE SUBMITTED YOUR APPLICATION! Please warn your letter writers in advance so they will be ready to submit them as soon as they receive the prompt. The email they receive will tell them they have two weeks to respond, but consideration of application begins very quickly after the December 1 deadline – so submitting early will give them adequate time to get their letters to us. Please make sure to check back with your referees to ensure they received the request for letters of recommendation and that they sent them. You can check the progress on individual reference requests at any time by clicking the “status” tab within your application page.

To be assured of full consideration, all of your materials need to be received by December 1, 2019. If you have any questions about the application process, you can contact Tarleton Gillespie at tarleton@microsoft.com – please include “SMC postdoc” in the subject line.

Microsoft is an equal opportunity employer. All qualified applicants will receive consideration for employment without regard to age, ancestry, color, family or medical care leave, gender identity or expression, genetic information, marital status, medical condition, national origin, physical or mental disability, political affiliation, protected veteran status, race, religion, sex (including pregnancy), sexual orientation, or any other characteristic protected by applicable laws, regulations, and ordinances. We also consider qualified applicants regardless of criminal histories, consistent with legal requirements.

If you need assistance and/or a reasonable accommodation due to a disability during the application or the recruiting process, please send a request via the Accommodation request form.

The incoming 2019 summer interns for the Social Media Collective!

The SMC internship doesn’t just bring us bright students, eager to take on original research projects and be part of the SMC and MSRNE community for the summer. It certainly does that. But it also makes us grow – we get blown open every time we welcome such a startling range of people, of topics, of perspectives. We look, of course, for the kind of students who we want to see succeed in our field. But there are a lot of ways to do that. Check out this year’s interns, below.

Also, we want to express our gratitude to everyone who applied. There were, as always, so many amazing applicants who would have also been fascinating and talented additions to the SMC. We wish we could bring in more of you. (Remember, we offer these internships every summer: if you’re an advanced PhD student in the areas of communication, the anthropology or sociology of new media, information science, and related fields, watch this page for when we open next year’s call.)

Anna Banchik is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin interested in digital media cultures, knowledge production, public archives, and social movements. Based on a year-long study of the Human Rights Investigations Lab at UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center, her dissertation examines the rise of online open source investigations in human rights fact-finding and advocacy, and assesses its implications for participation, pluralism, and power in the human rights field. Her research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the Fulbright Commission, and P.E.O. International among other institutions, and has been published in Law & Social Inquiry and Gender & Society. At the Social Media Collective, she will research how content removals from social media platforms impact the work of human rights organizations dedicated to collecting, using, and preserving user-generated content depicting conflicts and atrocities.

Jabari Evans is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Media, Technology, and Society program at Northwestern University and works under the direction of Dr. Ellen Wartella in the Center on Media and Human Development. He received his B.A. in Communication and Culture with a minor in Sociology from the University of Pennsylvania and then went on to earn his MSW from the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work. Prior to Northwestern, Jabari enjoyed a decorated career as a hip hop songwriter and producer performing under the moniker of “Naledge” in the Chicago rap group Kidz in the Hall. Jabari’s research focuses on the music sub-cultures that urban adolescents of color develop and inhabit, collectively and individually, to learn about and understand their social environments, emotional development and professional aspirations. His dissertation focuses on Hip-Hop as pedagogy of practice in the music classroom and how youth digital media programs can increase civic engagement.  Most recently, Jabari has founded his nonprofit organization (The Brainiac Project Inc.) to leverage the combination of social media and a burgeoning local hip-hop scene as a means for violence prevention in Chicago’s South Side communities.  

Nina Medvedeva is a PhD candidate in the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota and is co-advised by Dr. Aren Aizura and Dr. Miranda Joseph. Her research seeks to understand how different instances of home become normalized while others unravel as contested sites. Using an ethnographic research design consisting of participant observation, interviews, media analysis, GIS spatial analysis, and archival research, her work investigates how the practice of short-term renting on Airbnb affects the labor done in the home, the nature of gentrification in major cities, and grassroots mobilizations around urban governance. She holds a Master of Arts in American Studies from the University of Maryland: College Park.

Gili Vidan is a PhD candidate at the Department of the History of Science at Harvard and a research fellow at the Science, Technology, and Society Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is interested in the stabilization of digital technologies and media, changing notions of public trust and democratic governance, and narratives of crisis and future-making in the US. Her dissertation traces technical attempts to solve the problems of trust and transparency, with a focus on the development of electronic payment systems and public-key cryptography in late 20th- and early 21st-century US. At the Social Media Collective, she will explore how certain media, like paper money, were made irreproducible, in an age of digital visual editing and publishing software. Gili holds a MSc from the Oxford Internet Institute and a BA from Harvard College. She is a graduate fellow at the EJ Safra Center for Ethics and an affiliate of the Berkman Klein Center.

Now hiring: Research Assistant position at Microsoft Research Cambridge (UK)

Check out this great opportunity to work with our colleague Sean Rintel in the MSR UK lab!

The Human Experience & Design group is seeking a Research Assistant to support work on communication technology projects, with a focus on video-mediated communication. This is a 12-month full-time position on-site in Cambridge, UK.

This is an exciting opportunity to develop experience in corporate research and the intersection of academic, company, and customer impact. You should be a self-starter with a passion for exploring the social aspects of communication technology design and use. You will contribute to background, data collection, and management of ongoing cross-organisational projects and potentially the development of new projects. While publication is not guaranteed, co-authorship may be possible.

Responsibilities

·       Sourcing and curating relevant research materials

·       Developing annotated bibliographies, literature reviews, and background briefings

·       Assisting with research project management

·       Assisting with field, lab, and/or survey data collection and coding

·       Assisting with demo development and recording

·       Assisting with event organization

·       Participating in Hackathons and other internal events

Qualifications

· Bachelors, Masters (preferred), or PhD in HCI, Communication, Information Studies or a related social science or humanities field (e.g. Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology, Media Studies). Applicants who are PhD graduates should note that the RA position is primarily aimed at existing research support rather than developing a personal trajectory of research

· Experience or interest working on the social aspects of communication technology, especially video-mediated communication

· Strong skills in academic research

· Strong skills in organisation, time-management, and collaborative work

· Strong spoken and written English

· Work authorization is required

This position would suit applicants with varying goals. It might suit emerging scholars planning to apply to technology-oriented PhD programs who want to develop their research skills and area expertise before entering a graduate program. It might also suit graduates at any level who are considering a career in user experience and technology development.

Applications must include the following:

· Curriculum Vitae

· One-page personal statement, including a description of research experience and training, interests, and professional goals

· Writing sample (preferably a literature review or a scholarly-styled article)

· Links to online presence (e.g. blog, homepage, Twitter, journalistic endeavours, etc.)

· The names and email addresses of two recommenders

Please ensure that all attachment file names include your surname e.g. CV-surname.

We will begin reviewing applications immediately and the position will remain open until filled.

To ask any questions about this position, please email to Sean Rintel (serintel@microsoft.com).

MSRNE is seeking postdocs… social media scholars are encouraged to apply!

This year our Microsoft Research, New England lab is seeking to fill an open postdoctoral line – for which social media candidates are eligible. We strongly encourage applicants with expertise that complements those of the Social Media Collective, and that bridges between our interests and other areas of our lab (economics, ICT4D, machine learning and statistics, cryptography, algorithmic game theory, bioinfomatics). We would be extremely happy to see a stellar junior SMC scholar rise to the top of this candidate pool! This is a particularly exciting position, as it is designed to recognize applicants who can demonstrate interdisciplinary connections to other areas of the MSRNE lab. So, please forward this to students and colleagues who you think might be interested, and of interest.

The deadline is fast approaching, December 11, so please share/forward call this now – and if you’re thinking of applying, please bear that deadline in mind! To apply, and to find more detail about the MSR postdoc and the criteria for eligibility: https://careers.microsoft.com/us/en/job/547348/Postdoctoral-Researcher-%22General%22

An application must include (a) your CV, (b) research statement (4pg max, including a 1pg outline of your dissertation), (c) names of three people willing to provide letters of recommendation, and (d) two publications / writing samples. If you have questions about this position or about the application process, please feel free to email Nancy Baym and include “SMC / General Postdoc call” in the subject heading.

You can find out more about us here: https://socialmediacollective.org/about/

The call! 2019 summer internships with the MSR Social Media Collective

APPLICATION DEADLINE: JANUARY 18, 2019

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 postdoc Elena Maris) bring together empirical and critical perspectives to understand the political and cultural dynamics that underpin social media technologies. Learn more about us here.

The Social Media Collective (SMC) is a network of social science and humanistic researchers, part of the Microsoft Research labs in New England and New York. It includes full-time researchers, postdocs, interns, and visitors. Our primary purpose is to provide rich contextual understanding into the social and cultural dynamics that underpin social media technologies. Our work spans several disciplines: anthropology, communication, economics, information, law, media studies, women’s studies, science & technology studies, and sociology.

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 and why do industries seek out qualitative understandings of users, technology, big data, metrics and analytics, and who does this kind of ‘soft data’ work? (Elena Maris)

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

 

RESPONSIBILITIES

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, Mary L. Gray, 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 political economies of on-demand labor
  7. The difference between traditional cooperatively-managed markets and Commons and online platform cooperatives
  8. The ethics of dataset creation and uses of large-scale social data for qualitative research

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.

Some of the compensation and benefits of this position include:

  • 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, or
    • 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

 

QUALIFICATIONS

Be sure to read the detailed instructions below. But to apply for a PhD internship with the Social Media Collective, fill out the online application form here: https://careers.microsoft.com/i/us/en/job/542746/Research-Intern-Social-Media-Collective (may prompt you to set up an account first; be patient.)

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.

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(no more than 1 page, single spaced).
  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. if available, pointers to your website or other online presence (this is not required).
  6. In addition to those qualifications, you’ll need submit the names of three reference letter for this position (one must be your dissertation advisor). After you submit your application, a request for letters may be sent to your list of references on your behalf. Note that reference letters cannot be requested until after you have submitted your application, and furthermore, that they might not be automatically requested for all candidates. You may wish to alert your letter writers in advance, so they will be ready to submit your letter.

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 February to arrange a Skype interview. Applicants chosen for the internship will be informed in March and announced on the socialmediacollective.org blog.

 

smc_print

 

PREVIOUS INTERN TESTIMONIALS

“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, Virginia Commonwealth 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, Communication and Culture, Aarhus University, Denmark

“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, Psychology, Princeton University (read more here)

“My summer at Microsoft Research with the Social Media Collective was nothing short of transformative. My theoretical and methodological horizons broadened, and the relationships I forged continue to shape my development as a scholar.” — Shannon MacGregor, Communication, University of Utah

“It might be hard to believe that a twelve-week internship could be so integral to your professional and personal growth, but that’s exactly how I felt at that end of my time at MSRNE. I learned more about writing, critical thinking, public speaking, collegiality, and self-belief than I thought possible within such a short space of time, and I gained a group of forever friends and mentors in the process. The internship also provides you with a rare opportunity to work in a truly interdisciplinary environment and allows you to take your research proposal in a direction you might not have planned for. MSRNE was, and will continue to be, the perfect intellectual home for me.” — Ysabel Gerrard, Digital Media and Society, University of Sheffield, UK

“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, Center for Data Science, 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, Communication, University of Pennsylvania

“The Social Media Collective was instrumental throughout the process in giving me timely, sharp, and helpful feedback for my research project. These conversations further inspired new thinking that has shaped for my overall research agenda. I also felt supported by the process at Microsoft Research, to take on what may seem intimidating, especially for social science and humanities students: tackling a research project in 12 short weeks. Socially, the Social Media Collective and other interns at Microsoft Research New England were all amazingly nice and fun people, with whom I made great memories. Overall, the internship was an invaluable experience for my intellectual and professional development.”— Penny Trieu, Information, University of Michigan

“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, Facebook UX Research

“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 Studies, Concordia University, Canada

“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, Facebook UX Research

“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, Purdue 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, Film & Media Studies, University of Kansas

“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, Learning Sciences, Northwestern University

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