Microsoft Research, Social Media Collective Postdoc Opening

The Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research New England (MSRNE) is looking for a social media postdoctoral researcher (start date: 1 July, 2013). This position is an ideal opportunity for a scholar whose work draws on anthropology, communication, media studies, sociology, and/or science and technology studies to bring empirical and critical perspectives to complex socio-technical issues.

Application deadline: Monday 19 November, 2012.

http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/jobs/fulltime/postdoc.aspx

Microsoft Research provides a vibrant multidisciplinary research environment with an open publications policy and close links to top academic institutions around the world. Postdoc researcher positions provide emerging scholars, (PhDs received in 2012 or to be conferred by July 2013), an opportunity to develop their research career and to interact with some of the top minds in the research community. The position also offers the potential to have research realized in products and services that will be used world-wide. Postdoc researchers are invited to define their own research agenda and demonstrate their ability to drive forward an effective program of research. Successful candidates will have a well-established research track record as demonstrated by journal publications and conference papers, as well as participation on program committees, editorial boards, and advisory panels.

Postdoc researchers receive a competitive salary and benefits package, and are eligible for relocation expenses. Postdoc researchers are hired for a two-year term appointment following the academic calendar, starting in July 2013. Applicants must have completed the requirements for a PhD, including submission of their dissertation, prior to joining Microsoft Research. We do accept applicants with tenure-track job offers from other institutions so long as they are able to negotiate deferring their start date to accept our position.

While each of the seven Microsoft Research labs has openings in a variety of different disciplines, the Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research New England (located in Cambridge, MA) is especially interested in identifying social science candidates with critical humanistic approaches to their topics. Qualifications include a strong academic record in anthropology, communication, media studies, sociology, science and technology studies, or related fields. The ideal candidate may be trained in any number of disciplines, but should have a strong methodological, analytical, and theoretical foundation in humanistic approaches to the social sciences, be interested in questions related to technology or the internet and society or culture, and be interested in working across disciplines and with computer scientists.

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

  • How does social media use affect relationships between artists and audiences in the creative industries? (Nancy Baym)
  • How do youth make sense of networked publics? (danah boyd)
  • How do we listen to each other in networked environments, and what are the implications for intimacy, privacy and social change? (Kate Crawford)
  • How does information infrastructure shape event epistemology? (Megan Finn)
  • How do people with minimal internet access use mobile media to negotiate marginalization and social immobility? (Mary L. Gray)

To apply for a postdoc position at MSRNE:

  1. Submit an online application at: https://research.microsoft.com/apps/tools/jobs/fulltime.aspx

    Indicate that your research area of interest is “Anthropology, Communication, Media Studies, and Sociology” and that your location preference is “New England, U.S.”

    In addition to the CV and names of three referees (including your dissertation advisor) that the online application will require you to include, upload the following 3 attachments with your online application:

    1. two journal articles, book chapters, or equivalent writing samples (uploaded as 2 separate attachments);
    2. a single research statement (four page maximum length) that addresses the following: outlines the questions and methodologies central to your research agenda (~two page maximum length); provides an abstract and chapter outline of your dissertation (~one page maximum length); offers a description of how your research agenda relates to research conducted by the social media collective (~one page maximum length)
  2. After you submit your application, send an email (msrnejob@microsoft.com) alerting us that you have uploaded your application. If an applicant meets the requirements above, a request for letters will be sent to your list of referees on your behalf. ALL LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION MUST BE RECEIVED BY THE DEADLINE IN ORDER FOR AN APPLICATION TO BE CONSIDERED. Please make sure to check back with your referees or us if you have any questions about the status of your requested letters of recommendation.

For more information, see: http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/jobs/fulltime/postdoc.aspx

To learn more about the Social Media Collective, check out our blog: http://www.socialmediacollective.org

Microsoft is an equal opportunity employer

Free Speech, Context, and Visibility: Protesting Racist Ads

On Tuesday, Egyptian-American activist Mona Eltahawy was arrested for “criminal mischief” – or “the willful damaging of property” – when she responded to disturbingly racist ads that were posted in the New York City subway system with spray paint. Her act of political resistance went beyond spray paint however. In some ways, it was intentionally designed to get the attention of the internet. When she encountered resistance from a person defending the ads – who clearly knew Mona and kept responding to her by name – Eltahawy chose to create a challenge over her right to engage in what she called “freedom of expression.” This altercation escalates as the two argue on camera over whether or not Eltahawy is violating free speech or “making an expression on free speech.” (The video can be seen here.) As this encounter unfolds, Eltahawy regularly turns to the video and speaks to “the internet,” indicating that she knew full well that this video would be made available online. In constructing her audience, Eltahawy also switches between talking to Americans (“see this America”) and to a broader international public, presumably of people who are angry at the perceived hypocrisy of how America constructs free speech in light of the video mocking Islam’s prophet that sparked riots around the globe.

As I watch this video and try to untangle the dynamics going on, I can’t help but reflect on the cultural collision course underway as the notion of “free speech” gets decontextualized in light of heightened visibility. But before I get there, I need to offer some more context.

Free Speech in the United States

In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This is the foundation of the “free speech” clause that is one of the most unique aspects of American political life. It means that people have the right to speak their mind, even if their speech is unpopular, blasphemous, or critical.

Over the last 200+ years, there have been interesting cases that pit free speech against other issues that result in what may be perceived to be special carve-outs. For example, “hate speech” is not protected under civil rights clauses when it constitutes a form of harassment. Child pornography is not considered free speech but, rather, photographic evidence of a crime against a child. And speech that incites violence is not considered free speech if it serves to create an imminent threat of violence. (Of course, the edge cases on this are often dicey.) But content that depicts many things that are deemed offensive – including grotesque imagery, obscene pornography, and extreme violence – is often protected by free speech, even if public display of it is limited.

Of course, what taketh also giveth. Many European countries have begun banning women from wearing the hijab, seeing it as an oppressive dress. In the United States, the same first amendment that permits racist and blasphemous content also protects Muslim women in their choice of clothing. Even when people are racist shits, Muslims have a tremendous amount of freedom afforded to them because of US laws that forbid discrimination on the basis of religion. Does that make it easy to be Muslim in the US? No. But being Muslim in the US is a hell of a lot more protected than being Jewish in any Arab state.

As offensive (and, frankly, dreadfully awful) as the pseudo-pornographic film “Innocence of Muslims” is, it’s protected under free speech in the United States. This is not the first film to depict religious figures in problematic ways, nor will it be the last. As The Onion satirically reminds us, there are plenty of sexualized images out there depicting religious figures in all sorts of upsetting ways.

Yet, this video spread far beyond the walls of the United States, into other regions where the very notion of “free speech” is absent. Many Muslims were outraged at the idea that their prophet might be depicted in such an offensive manner and some took to the streets in anger. Some interpreted the video as hateful and couldn’t understand why such content would ever be allowed. Meanwhile, many Americans failed to understand why such a video would be uniquely provocative in Muslim communities. On more than one occasion, I heard Americans ask questions like: Why should it be illegal to represent a religious figure in a negative light when it’s so common in Muslim societies to be so hateful to people of other religions? Or to be hateful towards women or LGBT people? Or to depict women in negative ways? Needless to say, all of this rests on a fundamental moral disconnect around what values can and should shape a society.

Meanwhile, in the United States, a lawsuit was moving through the courts concerning a deeply racist advertisement that “The American Freedom Defense Initiative” wanted to pay to have displayed by New York City’s subway system (MTA). The MTA went to the courts in an effort to block the advertisement which implicitly linked Muslims to savages. The MTA lost their court battle when a judge argued that this racist ad was protected speech, thereby forcing the MTA to accept and post the advertisements. Begrudgingly, they did. And this is where we get to Mona.

While posting racist images is covered under free speech law, not just any act is covered under the freedom of expression. When Eltahawy chose to express her dissent by spray painting the ads, she did commit a crime, just as anyone who graffitis any public property is committing a crime. Freedom of speech does not permit anyone to damage property and, as horrid as those ads are, they were the property of the MTA. Unfortunately for Eltahawy, her act is also not non-violent protest because she committed a crime. [Update: Eltahawy uses non-violent protest as her justification to the police officers for why she should not be arrested. I’m not suggesting that her act was violent, but rather, that she can’t claim that she’s simply engaged in non-violent protest and assume that this overrides the illegal nature of her actions. If she knows her actions are illegal, she can claim she’s engaged in civil disobedience, but civil disobedience and non-violent protest are not synonymous.] Had she chosen to stand in front of the ad and said whatever was on her mind, she would’ve been fully within her rights (provided that it did not escalate to “disturbing the peace”). Now, we might not like that vandalism is a crime – and we might recognize that most graffiti these days goes unpunished – but the fact is that spray painting public property is unquestionably illegal.

Of course, the whole thing reaches a new level of disgusting today when Pamela Hall – the anti-Islam activist behind “Stop the Islamization of America” – sues Eltahawy for damage to _her_ property. While I don’t believe that Eltahawy was in the right when she vandalized MTA property, the video makes it very clear that Hall actively provokes Eltahawy and because of Hall’s aggressions, Hall’s property is damaged. I hope that the courts throw this one out entirely.

Making Protests Visible

By circulating the video of Eltahawy getting arrested, activists are asking viewers to have sympathy with Eltahawy. In some ways, this isn’t hard. That poster is disgusting and I’m embarrassed by it. But her choice to consistently exclaim that she’s engaged in freedom of expression and non-violent protest is misleading and inaccurate. What she did, whether she knew it or not, was illegal and not within the dominion of either free speech or non-violent protest. Interestingly, her aggressive interlocutor accepts her frame and just keeps trying to negate it by saying that she’s “violating free speech.” This too is inaccurate. Free speech is not the issue at play in the altercation between Eltahawy and Hall or when Eltahawy vandalizes the poster. Free speech only matters in that that stupid poster was posted in the first place.

The legal details of this will get worked out in the court, but I’m bothered by the way in which the circulation of this video and the discussion around it polarizes the conversation without shedding light on the murky realities of how free speech operates of what is and is not free speech and of what is and is not illegal in the United States when it comes to protesting. Let me be clear: I think that we should all be protesting those racist ads. And I’m fully aware that some acts of protest can and must blur the lines between what is legal and illegal because law enforcement regularly suppresses protester’s rights and arrests people in oppressive ways that undermine important acts of resistance. And I also realize that one of the reasons that activists engage in acts that get them arrested because, when they do, news media covers it and bringing attention to an issue is often a desired end-goal by many activists. But what concerns me is that there’s a huge international disconnect brewing over American free speech and our failure to publicly untangle these issues undermines any effort to promote its value.

I’m deeply committed to the value of free speech. I understand its costs and I despise when it’s used as a tool to degrade and demean people or groups. I hate when it’s used to justify unhealthy behavior or reinforce norms that disgust me. But I tolerate these things because I believe that it’s one of the most critical tools of freedom. I firmly believe that censoring speech erodes a society more than allowing icky speech does. I also firmly believe that efforts to hamper free speech do a greater disservice to oppressed people than permitting disgusting speech. It’s a trade-off and it’s a trade-off that I accept. Yet, it’s also a trade-off that cannot be taken for granted, especially in a global society.

Through the internet, content spreads across boundaries and cultural contexts. It’s sooo easy to take things out of context or not understand the context in which they are produced or disseminated. Or why they are tolerated. Contexts collapse and people get upset because their local norms and rules don’t seem to apply when things slip over the borders and can’t be controlled. Thus, we see a serious battle brewing over who controls the internet. What norms? What laws? What cultural contexts? Settling this is really bloody hard because many of the issues at stake are so deeply conflicting as to appear to be irresolvable.

I genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen to freedom of speech as we enter into a networked world, but I suspect it’s going to spark many more ugly confrontations. Rather, it’s not the freedom of speech itself that will, but the visibility of the resultant expressions, good, bad, and ugly. For this reason, I think that we need to start having a serious conversation about what freedom of speech means in a networked world where jurisdictions blur, norms collide, and contexts collapse. This isn’t going to be worked out by enacting global laws nor is it going to be easily solved through technology. This is, above all else, a social issue that has scaled to new levels, creating serious socio-cultural governance questions. How do we understand the boundaries and freedoms of expression in a networked world?

“Socially Mediated Publicness”: an open-access issue of JOBEM

I love being a scholar, but one thing that really depresses me about research is that so much of what scholars produce is rendered inaccessible to so many people who might find it valuable, inspiring, or thought-provoking. This is at the root of what drives my commitment to open-access. When Zizi Papacharissi asked Nancy Baym and I if we’d be willing to guest edit the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media (JOBEM), we agreed under one condition: the issue had to be open-access (OA). Much to our surprise and delight, Taylor and Francis agreed to “test” that strange and peculiar OA phenomenon by allowing us to make this issue OA.

Nancy and I decided to organize the special issue around “socially mediated publicness,” both because we find that topic to be of great interest and because we felt like there was something fun about talking about publicness in truly public form. We weren’t sure what the response to our call would be, but were overwhelmed with phenomenal submissions and had to reject many interesting articles.

But we are completely delighted to publish a collection of articles that we think are timely, interesting, insightful, and downright awesome. If you would like to get a sense of the arguments made in these articles, make sure to check out our introduction. The seven pieces in this guest-edited issue of JOBEM are:

We hope that you’ll find them fun to read and that you’ll share them with others that might enjoy them too!

Participatory Culture: What questions do you have?

Question Mark GraffitiHenry Jenkins, Mimi Ito, and I have embarked on an interesting project for Polity. Through a series of dialogues, we’re hoping to produce a book that interrogates our different thoughts regarding participatory culture. The goal is to unpack our differences and agreements and identify some of the challenges that we see going forward. We began our dialogue this week and had a serious brain jam where we interrogated our own assumptions, values, and stakes in doing the research that we each do and thinking about the project of participatory culture more generally. For the next three weeks, we’re going to individually reflect before coming back to begin another wave of deep dialoguing in the hopes that the output might be something that others (?you?) might be interested in reading.

And here’s where we’re hoping that some of our fans and critics might be willing to provoke us to think more deeply.

  • What questions do you have regarding participatory culture that you would hope that we would address?
  • What criticisms of our work would you like to offer for us to reflect on?
  • What do you think that we fail to address in our work that you wish we would consider?

For those who are less familiar with this concept, Henry and his colleagues describe a “participatory culture” as one:

  1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
  2. With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others
  3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices
  4. Where members believe that their contributions matter
  5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).

This often gets understood through the lens of “Web2.0” or “user-generated content,” but this is broadly about the ways in which a networked society rich with media enables new forms of interaction and engagement. Some of the topics that we are considering covering include “new media literacies,” “participation gap” and the digital divide, the privatization of culture, and networked political engagement. And, needless to say, a lot of our discussion will center on young people’s activities and the kinds of learning and social practices that take place. So what do *you* want us to talk about?

Bringing Research to Bear on the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Minors (a.k.a. “child sex trafficking”)

I believe that technology can be leveraged to empower people in amazing ways, but I also recognize that it can also be used in deeply disturbing ways. All too often, when we as a society see technology being used in horrible ways, we want to blame and ban the technology. As a researcher invested in leveraging the visibility of ugliness to make serious cultural change, my role is to step back and see if we can understand better what’s going on in order to more significantly impact the issue at hand.

I know that technology is being used in the commercial sexual exploitation of minors. I also know that many people have responded to the visibility of “child sex trafficking” on commercial websites by wanting to shut down those commercial websites. Seeing horrible things makes people want to act, which is fantastic. Unfortunately, without focus, those actions can be counterproductive. As a researcher dedicated to ending crimes against children, my goal is to make sure that we understand what we’re doing so that we actually address the core of the problem, not just the most visible symptoms of it. Unfortunately, we know very little about how children are advertised, bought, sold, and exploited through the use of technology. There are plenty of anecdotes, but rigorous data is limited. This I realized was something that I could help with. As a researcher, my goal has been to try to untangle the complex ecosystem and obtain data that can help us actually go after the root of the problem.

I worked with Heather Casteel and Mitali Thakor to construct a framing document to ask challenging questions about how technology is being used in human trafficking and, specifically, the commercial sexual exploitation of minors. Microsoft Research Connections (Rane Johnson-Stempson), the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit (Samantha Doerr, Bill Harmon, and Sue Hotelling), and I put together an RFP last December asking for researchers to submit proposals about how they would research and address some of the hard puzzles in this ecosystem. We were surprised – and delighted – to get far more viable, thought-provoking, and important proposals than we could fund. After a difficult decision process, we decided to fund six projects that are intended to bring important research to bear on this important issue. The grant recipients we funded are as follows:

  • Dr. Nicole Bryan, Dr. Ross Malaga, and Dr. Sasha Poucki of Montclair State University and Dr. Rachel Swaner of the Center for Court Innovation, for research on how networked technologies, including the Internet, mobile phones, and social media, are used by “johns” to procure children for sexual purposes.
  • Dr. Susan McIntyre of Calgary, Alberta, Dr. Dawne Clark of Mount Royal University, and Norm Lewis research assistant at Mount Royal University, for research on the role of technology in the recruiting, buying, and selling of victims in the sex trafficking industry.
  • Professor Mary G. Leary of the Catholic University of America, for a comprehensive assessment of judicial opinions on child sex trafficking issued over the last ten years.
  • Dr. Kimberly Mitchell of the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center, for research on technology’s role in facilitating child sex trafficking and understanding the benefits and obstacles for law enforcement.
  • Dr. Jennifer Musto of Rice University, for research on how law enforcement leverages the benefits and overcomes the obstacles of using technology in combating the trafficking of children for commercial sexual exploitation.
  • Dr. Anna W. Shavers, Dr. Dwayne Ball, Professor Matt Waite, Professor Sriyani Tidball, and Dr. David Keck of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, for research into identifying the clandestine language used in web advertising of child sex trafficking and conceptualizing intelligent software to identify such online advertisements.

My hope is that these amazing scholars will investigate these challenging issues and provide new data and analysis so that we can develop sound socio-technical interventions that really work to address the core issue: the commercial sexual exploitation of minors. Through this process, I also hope that we can begin to develop a meaningful research community to really tackle these challenging intellectual and analytic puzzles from multidisciplinary perspectives.

It’s been awe-inspiring to watch so many different organizations and institutions work on combating human trafficking – government agencies, NGOs, advocacy organizations, and corporations. My hope is that this research will provide insight into these discussions so that we can develop new tactics and strategies for helping those who are marginalized and victimized. Additionally, I hope that the development of a research community in this area will help provide a locus to which practitioners and advocacy groups can turn to develop viable interventions.

I look forward to working with these scholars and going deeper into these issues in my own research.

Microsoft Research opens New York City lab

I am giddy with pleasure to share Jennifer Chayes’ announcement that Microsoft Research is opening a new lab in New York City that will be filled with computational social science types. The New England lab that I call home combines qualitative social science, empirical economics, machine learning, and mathematics. We’ve long noted the need for data science types who can bridge between us. And now, to my utter delight, a new lab is emerging to complement our lab. The folks who are going to serve as the founding members of the new NYC lab are computer scientists, physicists, experimental economists, and data scientists. Many of them are interested in social network analysis and big data problems but – or shall I say crucially – they all see the value in collaborating with ethnographers. In other words, we’re building a cross-lab team that’ll create new possible interdisciplinary collaborations that make my heart go pitter patter.

The new team will include Duncan Watts, David Pennock, John Langford, Jake Hofman, Dan Goldstein, Sid Suri, David Rothschild, and Sharad Goel. For the social scientists out there who were oohing and awing when we announced that MSR hired Nancy Baym, Kate Crawford, and Mary Gray, just imagine the amazing connections that can occur when you mix these computational social scientists and the great group of researchers we have at the Social Media Collective. ::giggle::bounce:: <evil grin>

Here’s to new relationships connected through Amtrak!

Reflections on Fear in a Networked Society

I’ve been trying to work through some ideas on how fear operates in a networked society. At Webstock in New Zealand, I gave a talk called “Culture of Fear + Attention Economy = ?!?!” Building on this, I gave a talk at SXSW called “The Power of Fear in Networked Publics.” While my thinking in this arena is still relatively nascent, I wanted to make available what I’ve thought through so far in the hopes that you have feedback and critique.

Enjoy!

Reflecting on Dharun Ravi’s conviction

On Friday, Dharun Ravi – the Rutgers student whose roommate Tyler Clementi killed himself – was found guilty of privacy invasion, tampering with evidence, and bias intimidation (a hate crime). When John Palfrey and I wrote about this case three weeks ago, I was really hopeful that the court proceedings would give clarity and relieve my uncertainty. Instead, I am left more conflicted and deeply saddened. I believe that the jury did their job, but I am not convinced that justice was served. More disturbingly, I think that the symbolic component of this case is deeply troubling.

In New Jersey, someone can be convicted of bias intimidation for committing an act…

  1. with the express purpose of intimidating an individual or group…
  2. knowing that the offense would cause an individual or group to feel intimidated…
  3. with which the individual or group on the receiving end believes that they were targeted…

… because of their race, color, religion, gender, handicap, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.

In Ravi’s trial, the jury concluded that Ravi neither intended to intimidate Clementi nor believed that his acts would make Clementi feel intimidated because of his sexuality. Yet, the jury did conclude that, based on computer evidence, Clementi probably felt intimidated because of his sexuality.

As someone who wants to rid the world of homophobia, this conviction leaves me devastated. I recognize the symbolic move that this is supposed to make. This is supposed to signal that homophobia will not be tolerated. But Ravi wasn’t convicted of being homophobic, but, rather, creating the “circumstances” in which Clementi would probably feel intimidated. In other words, Ravi is being punished for living in a culture of homophobia even though there’s little evidence to suggest that he perpetuated it intentionally. As Mary Gray has argued, we are all to blame for the culture of homophobia that has resulted in this tragedy.

I can’t help but think of Clementi’s parents in light of this. By all accounts, their reaction to their son’s confession that he was gay did more to intimidate Clementi based on his sexuality than Ravi’s stupid act. Yet, I can’t even begin to imagine that the court would charge, let alone convict, Clementi’s distraught parents of a hate crime. ::shudder::

I can’t justify Ravi’s decision to invade his roommate’s privacy, especially not at a moment in which he would be extremely vulnerable. I also cannot justify Ravi’s decision to mess with evidence, even though I suspect he did so out of fear. But I also don’t think that either of these actions deserve 10 years of jail time or deportation (two of the options given to the judge). I don’t think that’s justice.

This case is being hailed for its symbolism, but what is the message that it conveys? It says that a brown kid who never intended to hurt anyone because of their sexuality will do jail time, while politicians and pundits who espouse hatred on TV and radio and in stump speeches continue to be celebrated. It says that a teen who invades the privacy of his peer will be condemned, even while companies and media moguls continue to profit off of more invasive invasions.

I’m also sick and tired of people saying that this will teach kids an important lesson. Simply put, it won’t. No teen that I know identifies their punking and pranking of their friends and classmates as bullying, let alone bias intimidation. Sending Ravi to jail will do nothing to end bullying. Yet, it lets people feel like it will and that makes me really sad. There’s a lot to be done in this realm and this does nothing to help those who are suffering every day.

The jury did its job. The law was followed. I have little doubt that Ravi did the things that he was convicted of doing. But I am not celebrating because I don’t think that this case made the world a better place. I think that it simply destroyed another life.

The Power of Youth: How Invisible Children Orchestrated Kony 2012

To many people unfamiliar with Invisible Children, the Kony 2012 campaign looked like a brilliant example of “viral” media spread. The center of the campaign is a compelling 30-minute film where a father talks to his son about the evil practices of the Ugandan war lord Joseph Kony. The father makes it clear that his number one goal is to make Kony a household name in order to “raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.” In the days that followed, critics stepped up and critiqued the simplistic narrative (and colonial rhetoric) put forward by Invisible Children. (If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend Ethan Zuckerman’s “Unpacking Kony 2012.”) Yet, what about the media campaign itself? Activists (and brand marketers) everywhere are in awe of what appears to be a magical campaign that came out of nowhere. But there’s more than meets the eye here.

Over at the SocialFlow blog, Gilad Lotan (my partner) analyzed two aspects of the Invisible Children campaign:

  1. how pre-existing networks helped create the viral spread;
  2. how people targeted celebrities to garner attention philanthropy. There are many important aspects of this blog post, but I want to focus on the role of youth in this process.

Invisible Children is not a new organization. They have spent tremendous effort over the last decade reaching out to youth. They have widespread reach in high schools, colleges, and churches throughout the United States. Many youth are (uncritically) committed to helping stop bad things from happening to other children in Africa. Invisible Children has focused for years on the value of attention philanthropy. They work diligently to do whatever it takes to get people to pay attention to bad things happening in the world. They raise money to raise attention. They leverage celebrities and Hollywood film tactics to reach wide audiences in a hope to activate them to create more attention (and, thus, both funding and political pressure). They engage directly with churches, where word-of-mouth networks in the U.S. are strongest. For the last decade, they have worked on creating films and bringing in celebrities to raise attention to what is happening in Africa, first in Sudan (Darfur) and then in Uganda.

Much to the horror of many human rights activists, Invisible Children is not known for spreading accurate information as much as it’s known for spreading information widely.

Most of how they’ve gotten the message out is by engaging youth. Earlier films have been shown directly to youth (in schools and churches) and youth are actively encouraged to join the organization and participate in their campaigns. They provide toolkits for participation with the primary goal being to amplify attention to a particular issue.

The stories that Invisible Children create in their media put children at the front and center of them. And, indeed, as Neta Kliger-Vilenchik and Henry Jenkins explain, youth are drawn to this type of storytelling. Watch Kony 2012 from the perspective of a teenager or college student. Here is a father explaining to a small child what’s happening in Africa. If you’re a teen, you see this and realize that you too can explain to others what’s going on. The film is powerful, but it also models how to spread information. The most important thing that the audience gets from the film is that they are encouraged to spread the gospel. And then they are given tools for doing that. Invisible Children makes it very easy to share their videos, republish their messages on Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr, and “like” them everywhere. But they go beyond that; they also provide infrastructure to increase others’ attention.

Invisible Children knew that it was targeting culture makers and youth. And Twitter users no less. Indeed, check out the list of “culture makers” that they encouraged youth to target. It’s an interesting mix of liberals (George Clooney, Ellen Degeneres, Bono), conservatives (Rick Warren, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly), geeks (Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg), big philanthropy names (Oprah, Angelina Jolie, Warren Buffett), and pop stars (Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Jay-Z, Justin Bieber). Plus others. They also recommended contacting political figures. (Interestingly, they start with G.W. Bush and Condoleeza Rice and don’t list Obama at all.) As Lotan points out, these celebrities got pummeled with thousands upon thousands of messages from fans, predominantly young fans. And many of them responded.

When celebrities receive this kind of onslaught from their fans – and, especially their younger fans – they pay attention. And so they post out about this. This is exactly where the fuzzy feelings towards attention philanthropy kick in. Young people feel like they did something by getting a celebrity to pay attention to a cause. A celebrity feels like they’ve done some by talking about the cause to a wide audience. And, voila, Invisible Children taps into the attention economy to get their message out.

Yet, there’s more to this. It’s not just anyone who’s paying attention or a small cluster of people that are paying attention from which things radiate. This tag cloud from the SocialFlow blog represents the words that were in the bios of the accounts of those who posted about #stopkony or #kony2012.

Now, check out this network graph of the tweets:

The initial tweets that came out came from seemingly disconnected youth living in Midwestern and Southern towns who frequently refer to Christian values in their bios. In other words, these tweets appear to be coming from communities that Invisible Children had already activated prior to launching Kony 2012. Not only did they then each turn on, but they spread the messages to their friends. This allowed the conversation to “pop” and then spread. The one profile that does have a lot of cluster is the Invisible Children profile, highlighting how their audience was indeed ready to respond to them. But you also see tight clusters that geographically disparate who bridged from the organization and then spread in their local community with a level of intense density. With this kind of graph structure, it’s not surprising that it quickly became a trending topic on Twitter. And then, it could easily spread. Attention begets attention.

I’m especially intrigued by Gilad’s note on the role of religious youth in all of this. Gilad has only begun looking at the data so he doesn’t have a good scope on all of what’s happening, but I’m not surprised by the presence of religious language in the accounts of those who tweeted this message. I very much suspect that a lot of what made this pop has to do with strong pre-existing Christian networks. I’m always surprised at how often people in the tech community regularly underestimate the power of religious networks.

Architecturally, this is a brilliant campaign. It’s really too bad that the message is so deeply flawed. (Again, if you haven’t read Ethan’s post, read it now.)

The fact that privileged folks – including white American youth – can spread messages like this is wonderful, but my hunch is that they’re structurally positioned to spread information farther and wider than those who are socially marginalized. What happens when they try to speak out on behalf of marginalized voices instead of helping marginalized voices be heard? I’m really bothered by how Kony 2012 is all about white people – and primarily white Americans – talking about what should be done in a foreign country to help “poor black people.” I’m glad that NPR and a few other news organizations have sought out Ugandan/African perspectives, but none of those perspectives have broken through the tornado of chaos that has followed this event. So I can’t help but wonder… with the rise of attention philanthropy, are we going to see a new type of attention colonialism?

Stop the Cycle of Bullying

[John Palfrey and I originally wrote this as an op-ed for the Huffington Post. See HuffPo for more comments.]

On 22 September 2010, the wallet of Tyler Clementi – a gay freshman at Rutgers University – was found on the George Washington Bridge; his body was found in the Hudson River the following week. His roommate, Dharun Ravi, was charged with 15 criminal counts, including invasion of privacy, bias intimidation, and tampering with witnesses and evidence tampering. Ravi pleaded not guilty.

Ravi’s trial officially begins this week, but in the court of public opinion, he has already been convicted. This is a terrible irony, since the case itself is about bullying.

Wading through the news reports, it’s hard to tell exactly what happened in the hours leading up to Clementi’s suicide. Some facts are unknown. What seems apparent is that Clementi asked Ravi to have his dormroom to himself on two occasions – September 19 and 21 – so that he could have alone time with an older gay man. On the first occasion, Ravi appears to have jiggered his computer so that he could watch the encounter from a remote computer. Ravi announced that he did so on Twitter. When Clementi asked Ravi for a second night in the room, Ravi invited others to watch via Twitter. It appears as though Clementi read this and unplugged Ravi’s computer, thereby preventing Ravi from watching. What happened after this incident on September 21 is unclear. A day later, Clementi’s body was discovered.

The media-driven narrative quickly blamed Ravi and his friend Molly Wei, from whose room Ravi watched Clementi. Amidst a series of other highly publicized LGBT suicides, Clementi’s suicide was labeled as a tragic product of homophobic bullying. Ravi has been portrayed as a malicious young man, hellbent on making his roommate miserable. Technology was blamed for providing a new mechanism by which Ravi could spy on and torment his roommate. The overwhelming presumption: Ravi’s guilty for causing Clementi’s death. Ravi may well be guilty of these crimes, but we have trials for a reason.

As information has emerged from the legal discovery process, the story became more complicated. It appears as though Clementi turned to online forums and friends to get advice; his messages conveyed a desire for getting support, but they didn’t suggest a pending suicide attempt. In one document submitted to the court, Clementi appears to have written to a friend that he was not particularly upset by Ravi’s invasion. Older digital traces left by Clementi – specifically those produced after he came out to and was rejected by those close to him – exhibited terrible emotional pain. At Rutgers, Clementi appears to have been handling his frustrations with his roommate reasonably well. After the events of September 20 and 21, Clementi appears to have notified both his resident assistant and university officials and asked for a new room; the school appears to have responded properly and Clementi appeared pleased.

The process of discovery in a lawsuit is an essential fact-finding exercise. The presumption of innocence is an essential American legal principle. Unfortunately, in highly publicized cases, this doesn’t stop people from jumping to conclusions based on snippets of information. Media speculation and hype surrounding Clementi’s suicide has been damning for Ravi, but the incident has also prompted all sorts of other outcomes. Public policy wheels have turned, prompting calls for new state and federal cyberbullying prevention laws. Well-meaning advocates have called for bullying to be declared a hate crime.

As researchers, we know that bullying is a serious, urgent issue. We favor aggressive and meaningful intervention programs to address it and to prevent young people from taking their lives. These programs should especially support LGBT youth, themselves more likely to be the targets of bullying. Yet, it’s also critical that we pay attention to the messages that researchers have been trying to communicate for years. “Bullies” are often themselves victims of other forms of cruelty and pressure. Zero-tolerance approaches to bullying don’t work; they often increase bullying. Focusing on punishment alone does little to address the underlying issues. Addressing bullying requires a serious social, economic, and time-based commitment to educating both young people and adults. Research shows that curricula and outreach programs can work. We are badly underfunding youth empowerment programs that could help enormously. Legislative moves that focus on punishment instead of education only make the situation worse.

Not only are most young people often ill-equipped to recognize how their meanness, cruelty, and pranking might cause pain, but most adults are themselves are ill-equipped to help young people in a productive way. Worse, many adults are themselves perpetuating the idea that being cruel is socially acceptable. Not only has cruelty and deception become status quo on TV talk shows; it plays a central role in televised entertainment and political debates. In contemporary culture, it has become acceptable to be outright cruel to any public figure, whether they’re a celebrity, reality TV contestant, or teenager awaiting trial.

Tyler Clementi’s suicide is a tragedy. We should all be horrified that a teenager felt the need to take his life in our society. But in our frustration, we must not prosecute Dharun Ravi before he has had his day in court. We must not be bullies ourselves. Ravi’s life has already been destroyed by what he may or may not have done. The way we, the public, have treated him, even before his trial, has only made things worse.

To combat bullying, we need to stop the cycle of violence. We need to take the high road; we must refrain from acting like a mob, in Clementi’s name or otherwise. Every day, there are young people who are being tormented by their peers and by adults in their lives. If we want to make this stop, we need to get to the root of the problem. We should start by looking to ourselves.

danah boyd is a senior researcher at Microsoft Research and a research assistant professor at New York University. John Palfrey is a professor of law at Harvard Law School.