Hi SMC friends! Just a quick post to announce a new book, out this month from UC Press. In researching craigslist for an earlier project, I started thinking about changing digital culture as a form of gentrification. With this book, I wanted to think in more depth about how the internet is gentrifying, with the hope of writing for a general readership. Here’s a quick video (courtesy of the awesome comms team at Annenberg) and here’s an excerpt from the intro (courtesy of UC Press). I’m grateful to the support I’ve had from many SMC folx on the way to writing this book!
The potential well-being costs of the pandemic are many and harsh. Financial well-being is said to be at risk due to shrinking employment opportunities; physical well-being due to stay-at-home orders; social well-being due to limited interactions with loved ones; digital well-being due to increased reliance on remote communication. The list goes on. Dividing up the various layers of well-being in this way is useful for analytical purposes. Chiefly, it grants a specificity crucial for the study of flourishing and for the treatment of suffering. Yet well-being is more than the sum of its parts.
Well-being is a normative concept. Determining what counts as living well, and for whom, positions individuals within a matrix of cultural evaluation tied to a particular time and place. Well-being is also fundamentally relational, situated, and unevenly experienced. It involves complex bio-psychological mechanisms interacting with the lived environment. The process of atomising well-being into discrete categories thus obscures as well as reveals.
Historian Klaus Bergoldt shows how Western visions of well-being as good personal hygiene, routine, and self-control can be traced back to the Greco-Roman idea of dietetics – the art of balanced living. Enjoy exercise, but not to the point of exhaustion; thought – but not to idleness; and sexual pleasure – but in moderation. For the Greeks and Romans, such doctrines of living well were the reserve of the intellectual and political elite – the suggestion being that those with labour intensive workloads did not have the time to worry about, or, indeed, capacity to control their passions.
While current accounts of living well purport to be for all, well-being inescapably remains value-laden and locally interpretable. What, then, of the contemporary fragmentation of well-being? What worldviews are revealed by splitting well-being into separate categories? Let us consider one of the more recent shards – digital well-being.
We are frequently faced with the need to manage our screen time, control our interactions with social media, and take technological time-outs for the sake of our own health. “Too much” technology, we are warned, leads to several negative psychological consequences. Unproductive distraction sits at on one end of the scale, serious mental health issues, such as increased propensities toward anxiety, depression, and self-harm, at the other.
After widespread public criticisms, and after many years of inaction, technology companies now provide digital well-being ‘tools’ built into their products as standard. Activity trackers can measure time spent on smartphones, social media users can mute push notifications, and technical controls can disable applications for set periods of time. NGOs and charities offer practical guidelines for parents and children to live well in digital spaces, governmental advisors offer digital well-being practices for citizens, and a burgeoning self-help literature promises readers the chance to wrest back control of their digital health through subtle changes in lifestyle.
Collectively, the advice surrounding digital well-being, whether expressed in corporate PR materials, community guidelines, governmental white papers, or on user dashboards, functions as part of a technically embedded discourse of self-control. Despite harbouring different motivations for cultivating “healthier” engagements with technology (some more critical than others), what users can and should do to protect personal digital well-being is clearly spelled out. Rather than engage passively with technology, users should be conscious, productive, and involved. Be more mindful, be less reactive.
However, in positioning individual user habits as the key target of change, current discourses surrounding digital well-being position individual users as the key target of critique. Accordingly, relative experiences of well-being in digital contexts become explicable in terms of personal success or failure. The “healthy” user understands these normative well-being guidelines and acts appropriately. The “unhealthy” one does not.
Well-being as a political pressure point
The burdening of individual users functions as part of an apparatus of neoliberal responsibilization. Here, individuals (as opposed to families, communities, or the state) assume full responsibility for self-care. Well-being, the argument goes, is an outcome of individual agents making good choices in an equal field of social opportunity.
Yet this is an empty promise. Feelings of well-being are not solely attributable to “good” decision-making. For example, scholars have linked the rising and disparate rates of mental health issues in the West to rising economic inequalities, entrenched racial discrimination, and issues surrounding gender and class. Furthermore, researchers working with the social determinants of health framework have highlighted how structural factors, such as access to public services, employment, and housing, impact subjective experiences of well-being.
What is important to recognize here is that compartmentalizing well-being as an individual accomplishment, or failure, makes it very difficult to consider these social, political, and economic inequalities as part of a holistic set of health relations. As a consequence of adopting an individualized view of well-being, the imperative to ameliorate such inequalities in our proposed treatments of human anguish is lost.
Although useful for analytical specificity, atomising well-being in this way is therefore also a missed political opportunity. In the case of digital well-being in particular, it becomes increasingly hard to link the uneven well-being costs of digital (dis)connection to the uneven psychic costs of the so-called attention economy and the related systemic failures of neoliberal capitalism. Who is it serving to distinguish between health “online” and health “offline” so rigidly? What becomes visible? What goes unchecked?
Ultimately, where one locates the correlates of well-being determines appropriate modes of intervention. If we are to better understand how technological mediation implicates diverse experiences of human flourishing and suffering, it could be worth situating the “digital” aspects of well-being more concretely within its relational, deeply political, historical whole.
 Atkinson, S., Bagnall, A.-M., Corcoran, R., South, J., & Curtis, S. (2020). Being Well Together: Individual Subjective and Community Wellbeing. Journal of Happiness Studies, 21, 1903–1921; Rose, N., Birk, R., & Manning, N. (2021). Towards Neuroecosociality: Mental Health in Adversity. Theory, Culture & Society. https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276420981614
 Bergoldt, K. (2008). Well-being: A Cultural History of Healthy Living. Cambridge: Polity
 What one does with this interpretation is a critical (political) decision. I like Foucault’s commitment to “effective history” and the “cutting” of knowledge: “Effective history deprives the self of the reassuring stability of life and nature, and it will not permit itself to be transported by a voiceless obstinacy toward a millennial ending. It will uproot its traditional foundations and relentlessly disrupt its pretended continuity. This is because knowledge is not made for understanding; it is made for cutting’. Foucault, M. (1984). ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’, in: Language, Counter-memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. p. 154.
 Eyal, N. (2020). Indistractable. London: Bloomsbury.
 Brown, W. (2005). Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press; Sointu, E. (2005). The Rise of an Ideal: Tracing Changing Discourses of Wellbeing. The Sociological Review, 53(2), 255–274.
 Brown, B. J. & Baker, S. (2013). Responsible Citizens: Individuals, Health and Policy under Neoliberalism. London: Anthem Press; Fisher, M. (2019). A theory of public well-being. BMC Public Health, 19(1283); Yearby, R. (2020). Structural Racism and Health Disparities: Reconfiguring the Social Determinants of Health Framework to Include the Root Cause. The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 48(3),518-526.
Join panelists Taina Bucher (University of Oslo), Brian Jefferson (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign), and Niall Docherty (Microsoft Research) to discuss digital temporalities as they intersect with apparatuses of power and knowledge.
Monday April 12th — 9am CDT/3pm BST/4pm CEST — Online
Hosted by the Social Media Collective
Each speaker will give a ten-minute presentation, followed by interactive break-out rooms and a participatory discussion. The event will be held virtually and is scheduled to last 90 minutes. The event is free and open to the public. Please visit the Eventbrite page to register to attend, and receive a Teams link:
This is an interactive event, with discussions in the breakout rooms providing the grounds for a collective conversation surrounding digital time/power to emerge. The talks will invite dialogue amongst participants by questioning the way temporality is targeted, discursively produced, and materially managed in distinct sociotechnical environments.
Taina Bucher will examine the specific temporal regime of algorithmic media as characterized by a logic of right-time, or kairos. Bucher is an associate professor in media and communication at the University of Oslo.
How do media platforms determine when the time is right, with what implications? Where does right-time materialize in digital media and could we address the empirical realities of this fabrication?
Brian Jefferson will discuss how the digital revolution has both accelerated geographic development and underdevelopment. Brian is an associate professor of geography and geographic information systems at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign.
In what ways has the digital revolution upended and reproduced established inequalities? What does this tell us of technological progress?
Niall Docherty will explore how tools of digital well-being promise a certain future of human flourishing inflected by neoliberal discourses of responsibilization and self-control. Niall is a postdoctoral researcher at Microsoft Research New England, within the Social Media Collective.
What are the political, economic, and social futures promised to users through adopting “healthy” digital habits? How do narratives of the good life condition action online?
In collectively examining these types of questions and more, the symposium will cultivate an interdisciplinary discussion able to explore varied experiences of digital temporality and power. This will be a great chance to meet with other critical digital theorists and share ideas with the broader research community.
We look forward to your participation!
That’s a wrap! The 2021 application process is NOW CLOSED. Contact Mary (details below) if you have any problems.
On letters of reference: Requests for letters have been sent (automatically, from the submissions portal). Applicants: Your application is considered complete, as long as we have the 6 items listed in the call (the things that you can control). No need to pester your letter writers (let us do that for you)!!! We will reach out to them if we do not have their letters for our reviews.
On location, location, location: Participation in the MSR Research Internship Program requires that students are physically located in the United States or Canada for the duration of the internship. PLEASE check out the Microsoft Careers Site for all updates!
The Social Media Collective in the New England Lab has multiple internships for PhD students. See here for more information. This call relates to a NYC Lab internship opportunity so it is separate, but related. This opportunity is more narrowed in scope. Candidates are welcome to apply to both opportunities.
Deadline: December 23, 2020
Microsoft Research NYC is looking for an advanced PhD student to conduct an original research project on a topic under the rubric of “(dis)trust in public-sector data infrastructures.” MSR internships provide PhD students with an opportunity to work on an independent research project that advances their intellectual development while collaborating with a multi-disciplinary group of scholars. Interns typically relish the networks that they build through this program. This internship will be mentored by danah boyd; the intern will be part of both the NYC lab’s cohort and a member of the Social Media Collective. Applicants for this internship should be interested in conducting original research related to how trust in public-sector data infrastructures is formed and/or destroyed.
Substantive Context: In the United States, federal data infrastructures are under attack. Political interference has threatened the legitimacy of federal agencies and the data infrastructures they protect. Climate science relies on data collected by NOAA, the Department of Energy, NASA, and the Department of Agriculture. Yet, anti-science political rhetoric has restricted funding, undermined hiring, and pushed for the erasure of critical sources of data. And then there was Sharpie-gate. In the midst of a pandemic, policymakers in government and leaders in industry need to trust public health data to make informed decisions. Yet, the CDC has faced such severe attacks on its data infrastructure and organization that non-governmental groups have formed to create shadow sources of data. The census is democracy’s data infrastructure, yet it too has been plagued by political interference.
Data has long been a source of political power and state legitimacy, as well as a tool to argue for specific policies and defend core values. Yet, the history of public-sector data infrastructures is fraught, in no small part because state data has long been used to oppress, colonize, and control. Numbers have politics and politics has numbers. Anti-colonial and anti-racist movements have long challenged what data the state collects, about whom, and for what purposes. Decades of public policy debates about privacy and power have shaped public-sector data infrastructures. Amidst these efforts to ensure that data is used to ensure equity — and not abuse — there have been a range of adversarial forces who have invested in polluting data for political, financial, or ideological purposes.
The legitimacy of public-sector data infrastructures is socially constructed. It is not driven by either the quality or quantity of data, but how the data — and the institution that uses its credibility to guarantee the data — is perceived. When data are manipulated or political interests contort the appearance of data, data infrastructures are at risk. As with any type of infrastructure, data infrastructures must be maintained as sociotechnical systems. Data infrastructures are rendered visible when they break, but the cracks in the system should be negotiated long before the system has collapsed.
This internship is designed for someone whose project interfaces with these conversations, someone who wants to examine what “trust in numbers” looks like in the contemporary American context. The project might focus on a particular government agency, or compare across agencies. The project might look at how policymakers seek to make sense of and repair our crumbling data infrastructure — or how politicians seek to use the tools at their disposal to aid and abet the dismantlement of data infrastructures. Or perhaps the project is a historical examination of how data infrastructures came to be structured the way they are. Most likely, the project is something that the MSR team has not yet considered.
A successful internship project will shed new light on (dis)trust in public-sector data infrastructures, offering both an empirical and theoretical intervention. Preference will be given to projects that involve new data collection, projects that recognize that race and inequity are intertwined with state data infrastructures, and projects that go beyond critique to grapple with normative challenges about upholding public-sector data infrastructures.
The application for this PhD internship opportunity can be found here: https://careers.microsoft.com/us/en/job/940484/Research-Intern-Dis-Trust-in-Public-Sector-Data-Infrastructures
- Be currently enrolled in a PhD program in a social scientific field (including, but not limited to: Sociology, Communications, Media Studies, Political Science, Anthropology, History, American Studies, etc.)
- Have completed, or on target to complete coursework by June 2021
Preference will be given to candidates who:
- Have experience conducting independent research using qualitative methods (e.g., interviews, archival research, ethnographic fieldwork, etc.)
- Have written publication-ready research papers
- Can demonstrate a track record of research collaboration
- Can articulate a project proposal that accounts for / centers equity and justice in their proposed analysis
Applicants from historically marginalized communities, underrepresented in higher education, and
students from universities outside of the United States are encouraged to apply. (**)
When applying for this job, you will have the opportunity to upload information. Your application should include:
- Your CV
- A brief (no more than 1 page) description of your dissertation project.
- A short (2-3 pages) project proposal.
- A cover sheet that describes your interest in this internship and your relevant experience.
- Names of three references who, upon contact, will be able to return reference letters in a timely manner.
- An academic article-length manuscript (~7,000 or more) that you have authored or co-authored (published or unpublished) that demonstrates your writing skills.
Your project proposal should describe a potential project that you would like to conduct that fits the scope of this call. The purpose of this project proposal is to articulate how you would think about investigating (dis)trust in public-sector data infrastructures, what questions might drive your inquiry, how you would methodologically pursue your questions, what fieldsite and/or data might be most fruitful for such an analysis. Your proposal should account for method and theory, and be attentive to the realistic challenges of accessing relevant data. Your proposal should also reveal why you are qualified to do this work by highlighting your experience. Please note: The purpose of the proposal is to demonstrate your theoretical and analytical interests, ability to scope a project, and understanding of the data needed to do the work. The successful intern will work with their mentor during the internship to finalize a proposal before beginning data collection or analysis.
If you have any questions about the application process, please contact danah boyd at email@example.com and include “MSR Internship” in the subject line.
We will begin reviewing applications for this position on December 23, 2020. (Note: SMC Internship applications are due in January.)
The standard MSR internship takes place during the summer, but internships may begin any time from February-June 2021. In your cover letter, please indicate your ideal start date.
** UPDATE (11/20):
On November 20, we were informed that 2021 internships will be conducted remotely, not in-person. Furthermore, to our chagrin, we were told that “international internships cannot be supported due to the many complexities around tax/payroll, export licensing, work authorization, etc.” Unfortunately, this means that 2021 interns must be both physically located in the United States and eligible to work in the US. Unfortunately, we (the hiring managers) have no power to alter these rules. 😦
The SMC loves good books. And we especially love books that tackle vital societal problems in a way that’s timely but also deeply researched, that ask biting questions of institutions without turning them into straw men, that investigate technology in its real use contexts, and that complicate things that may at first appear simple. And we REALLY like books from our excellent SMC postdocs, especially when we were there to see these books become books. Latest in this illustrious group is Sarah Brayne, now an assistant professor in Sociology at UT Austin, and her book Predict and Surveil: Data, Discretion, and the Future of Policing, from Oxford UP. The book offers an ethnographic “account of how a massive law enforcement agency leverages big data technologies to expand surveillance in the name of objective, predictive policing.”
Sarah is having a virtual book launch, in conversation with Bruce Western of Columbia University, that we highly recommend. November 20, 2pm CST. You can RSVP here, and in the process, receive a 30% discount code for the book.
APPLICATION DEADLINE: December 1, 2020
The Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research New England (MSRNE) is looking for a two-year social media postdoctoral researcher. This position is an ideal opportunity for a scholar whose work draws on communication, media studies, anthropology, sociology, and/or science & technology studies to bring empirical and critical perspectives to bear on complex socio-technical issues. We also consider applications from candidates that might bridge SMC with one or more areas of the MSRNE lab, including machine learning and statistics, economics and computational economics, theoretical mathematics, and computational biology.
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 2021. The position is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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 people build social capital with each other in remote and hybrid work, and how do those processes facilitate or harm inclusion? (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 ethical implications of on-demand platform economies as new forms and sites of semi-automated, globally-distributed digital labor? (Mary L. Gray)
– how do discourses and designs of ideal social media habits function within apparatuses of platform capitalism? (Niall Docherty)
SMC postdocs may also have the opportunity to visit and collaborate with researchers in our sister labs in New York City and Montreal.
Microsoft Research provides a vibrant multidisciplinary research environment, with an open publication policy and close links to top academic institutions around the world. The postdoctoral research positions offer emerging scholars an opportunity to develop their research career and to interact with some of the top minds in the research community.
- PhD in anthropology, communications, media studies, sociology, science & technology studies, or a related field.
- A research program demonstrated by journal and conference publications.
- A strong social scientific or humanistic methodological, analytical, and theoretical foundation.
- Strong communication skills.
- The ability to work in a highly collaborative and interdisciplinary environment.
- Demonstrated leadership potential in research.
Postdoctoral researchers define their own research agenda. Postdocs are expected to be lively contributors to discussions in the SMC research group, and the MSR New England lab.
The ideal candidate may be trained in any number of disciplines, but should have a strong social scientific or humanistic methodological, analytical, and theoretical foundation, 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 also includes computer scientists, mathematicians, and economists.
Submit an online application here. [11/18/20 – updated link]
To get started with your application, press the “Apply now” button. When prompted, upload your CV and provide names and contact information of three referees; one of your letter writers must be your dissertation advisor.
In addition, you must upload the following 3 documents, as attachments, to your online application:
1. a single research statement (4 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+3. two writing samples: journal articles, book chapters, or equivalent (uploaded as two separate attachments).
Remember to press the “Submit” button at the last screen.
Requests for recommendation letters 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! We recommend that you warn your letter writers in advance, so they will have their letters ready to submit 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 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 also 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 submitted by December 1, 2020. For more information, see here.If you have any questions about the application process, you can contact Tarleton Gillespie at firstname.lastname@example.org and 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 Social Dilemma has been causing a stir, somewhat ironically, on social media lately. While the film’s topic is timely, and explored with applaudable intentions, its subject matter is mishandled. For all of its values, and all of its flaws, the film’s diagnosis of social media is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of technology. Its recommended path to recovery, as a result, leads to a dead-end. Until we think of technology not as a tool but as a set of relations, we will never truly grasp the problems with which The Social Dilemma is concerned.
This feature length documentary turns primarily to tech industry insiders, as well as a few computer scientists, economists, and social psychologists, to spell out the dangers, which appear to be many, of our current entwinement with social media platforms today.
Glitzy infographics correlate the advent of social media with increased anxiety, depression, and self-harm in US teenagers – supposedly because platforms so easily allow us to compare ourselves to one another online. Sliding scales represent how the algorithmic filtering of information on social media increases political polarization – by only presenting self-reinforcing information to users, so it goes, social media are damaging to rational deliberation. And, in a rather confusing turn, human actors personify the technological nudges of the social media user interfaces – showing how our actions, and our very thoughts, are shaped by persuasive computer design.
The Social Dilemma argues that social media platforms are designed to manipulate us, capturing our attention for their economic gain. The longer we interact with platforms, the more data we produce, the more accurate a prediction of our behaviours can be established. These user profiles can then be sold individually or as part of demographics to marketers and advertisers wishing to reach specific audiences online.
To guard against such dangers, the documentary implores viewers to “take back control” of their lives online. A little self-discipline in how we use social media can help – limit your time spent scrolling? Turn off your push-notifications? Perhaps don’t stalk your ex’s new life, zombie-like, right before bed? However, while such actions are a start, the film’s experts argue, full control can only be achieved through complete disconnection from social media altogether.
Notwithstanding the validity of the “evidence” the documentary mobilises to justify its claims, or its tendency to trust those in the tech industry to know how to mend what they themselves have wrought, The Social Dilemma actually reveals a bigger issue at the core of our relationship with social media – one that individual, behavioural changes alone won’t fix. In our debates surrounding the impacts, potentials and perceivable “dangers” of social media today, we continue to rely upon an out-dated and redundant “tool-view” of technology.
To anyone who has paid even the scantest notice of the news in recent years, the negative effects of social media and the attention economy– in personal, political, and social spheres, are easily grasped. But the way The Social Dilemma makes its case for “manipulation” is flawed, obscuring the real, and much more profound, stakes of our deal with social media today.
To be “manipulated” suggests that users are being diverted from a course of action they would otherwise have taken. This implies a pre-existing individual, already happily furnished with their own desires, and with full capacity to enact them as they please. Social media, in this framework, is the diverting, deceiving technology that takes individuals away from their “true” interests. By falling prey to the nudges of social media, and giving in completely to what they are predicted to want, users are stopped from acting wilfully, as they otherwise would.
Yet when have human beings ever been fully and perfectly in control of the technologies around them? Is it not rather the case that technologies, far from being separate from human will, are intrinsically involved in its activation?
French philosopher Bruno Latour famously uses the example of the gun to advance this idea, which he calls mediation. We are all aware of the platitude, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. In its logic, the gun is simply a tool that allows the person, as the primary agent, to kill another. The gun exists only as an object, through which the person’s desire of killing flows. For Latour, this view is deeply misleading.
Instead, Latour draws our attention to the way the gun, in translating a human desire for killing into action, materializes that desire in the world: “you are a different person with the gun in your hand”, and the gun, by being in your hand, is different than if it were left snuggly in its rack. Only when the human intention and the capacities of the gun are brought together can a shooting, as an observably autonomous action, actually take place. It is impossible to neatly distinguish the primary agents of the scene. Responsibility of the shooting, which can only occur through the combination of human and gun, and by proxy, those who produced and provided it, is thus shared.
With this in mind, we must question how useful it is to think about social media in terms of manipulation and control. Social media, far from being a malicious yet inanimate object (like a weapon) is something more profound and complex: a generator of human will. Our interactions on social media platforms, our likes, our shares, our comments, are not raw resources to be mined – they simply could not have occurred without their technical mediation. Neither are they mere expressions of our autonomy, or, conversely, manipulation: the user does not, and cannot, act alone.
Instead, with this idea of mediation, neither human individuals, nor the manipulative design of platforms, seductive they may be, can be the sole causes of the psychological and political harm of social media. Rather, it is the coming together of human users and user-interfaces, in specific historical settings, that co-produce the activity that occurs upon them. We, as users, as much as the technology itself, therefore, share responsibility for the issues that rage online today.
However, we are not responsible in the terms of control that the talking heads of The Social Dilemma argue for. This is certainly not to side-step the culpability of those (overwhelmingly white, male Californians) who own, design, and release social media technologies. Understanding who profits from social media, and the normative cultural worldviews they peddle, is crucial. Rather, in recognising the complexity of this “socio-technical” relationship – between designers, users, interfaces, and algorithms – we can move beyond the unhelpful binary of cause and effect. A move away from deterministic thinking would widen our view, to consider the problems raised in The Social Dilemma in a more nuanced way.
For example, rather than seeing the ostensible crisis in mental health faced by teenagers as caused by social media self-comparison, we can investigate how other socio-political factors – gender, race, and class inequities for instance, material conditions, as well as actual governmental policy decisions, entangle with social media to contribute to our feelings of individual and collective wellbeing. As opposed to considering social media filter bubbles and echo chambers as causing political polarization (as if it were merely a matter of access to the right information), we can instead ask in what ways our fractured political climate actually reflects the systemic failures of neoliberal ideology, lasting institutional racism, and patriarchal nation-statehood.
If we are to pursue these more complex, more progressive, discussions, it is necessary to re-frame social media as something more than a mere “tool”. Rather than simply leave it to former tech industry insiders to spell out the ills of social media in documentaries like The Social Dilemma, we must engage with thinkers from a diverse range of backgrounds to look to the historical conditions of social media’s origins, while always questioning the economics and cultural politics of its global dissemination. We must personally examine how our own thoughts and actions are subtly shaped by social media’s design, while taking time to listen to marginalized individuals and communities who are impacted the most by the violence produced through social media today. And by seeing technology as a relation, by sharing responsibility in this way, we lift the burden of fixing the problem from the individual user alone, and discard the moralizing discourses such a burden brings.
 Latour, B. (1994) On Technical Mediation Common Knowledge Fall Vol.3, no 2. Pp. 32-33
In the confusion of our current times, we were not as quick about announcing the newest members of the Social Media Collective as we usually are. Like everyone, we find ourselves out of step with the timelessness of pandemic time. But as these new faces are showing up and settling in with us – on our video screens, if not in the lab – we wanted to share the good news, tell you all about them and their work.
Below you’ll meet three SMC interns, the newest postdoc to join the Social Media Collective, and a summer/fall 2020 visitor whose (virtual) arrival is just days away. And as a sign of how late this post is, the first intern you’ll meet has already finished their internship!
Tristan Gohring is a PhD student in Informatics at Indiana University. Their research intersects the fields of science and technology studies, social informatics, and gender studies. Their primary research is about gender as a classification system, and how gender classification gets used and embedded in technologies such as identification documents and online forms and profile pages. (Tristan was part of the joint MSR / E+D JEM Project PhD internship program; they were interning with us when we all had to start working from home, and they bravely completed their internship under these unexpected circumstances. Tristan really helped us think through how to move the SMC internship online. Many thanks!)
Amber Hamilton is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities interested in questions concerning race, technology, and digital media. Her dissertation, titled “Contestation and Articulations of Digital Blackness,” explores the embodiment of digital Blackness in the online lives of Black Twitter users and the multiple forms of cultural conversations that occur within the community to understand how race is articulated and maintained online. At the Social Media Collective, Amber is exploring the responses of social media and tech platforms to protests for racial justice in response to the murder of George Floyd. Amber holds an MA in Sociology from the University of Minnesota and a BA in Sociology from The Ohio State University.
Anna Gibson is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication at Stanford University working under the direction of Dr. Angèle Christin. She is interested in present and historical online communities, and her doctoral research focuses on the friction between these communities and the governance structures and organizations that make them possible. She was awarded a graduate fellowship at Stanford’s McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, and her work on the application of theories of democratic governance to social media platform content moderation practices has been published in Social Media + Society. This summer she is researching how platform companies talk about punishment with regards to content moderation.
Our newest postdoc, Niall Docherty recently completed his PhD at the Centre for Critical Theory, University of Nottingham. His thesis examines the material and discursive construction of Facebook’s ideal users, linking normative designations of “healthy” usership to neoliberal histories of governance through habit. Niall has a BA in Politics and an MA in Cultural Studies from Goldsmiths, University of London, specialising in political theory, Modern philosophy and governmentality studies. His future projects include developing a conceptually rigorous rubric of habit to study the quality, possibility and limitations of everyday social media usage; empirically investigating how discourses of well-being are articulated in different social media environments; and further exploring how expressions of ‘living well’ on social media sites are enacted by users to function within apparatus of platform capitalism.
And finally, our faculty visitor from July-December, Angèle Christin is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication and affiliated faculty in the Sociology Department and Program in Science, Technology, and Society at Stanford University. Drawing on ethnographic methods, she studies how algorithms and analytics transform professional values, expertise, and work practices. Her book, Metrics at Work: Journalism and the Contested Meaning of Algorithms (Princeton University Press, 2020) focuses on the case of web journalism, analyzing the growing importance of audience analytics in web newsrooms in the U.S. and France. With the Social Media Collective, Angèle will work on a new research project on the paradoxes of algorithmic labor through an ethnographic study of influencers and influencer marketing firms on YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok.
Our best wishes to our most recent faculty visitor Desmond Patton, who has returned to Columbia University’s School of Social Work, and Elena Maris, who just completed her SMC postdoc and is now an assistant faculty in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois Chicago!
In a new op-ed, published yesterday in The Hill, Mary L. Gray and her co-authors argue for the importance of human labor behind contact tracing and argue for a more human-centered approach in current tech strategies.
As the Center for Disease Control (CDC) plans to massively scale up testing and contact-tracing for COVID-19, Gray argues cell phone location data for digital contact tracing is only a partial solution. “Successful contact tracing involves patiently helping people recall with whom they have interacted in the preceding weeks and assessing the risk associated with each of these interactions,” they argue. “Irrelevant contact data will needlessly consume precious human contact tracer time.”
Successful contact tracing programs rely on deeply human exchanges. It requires trust between the human contact tracers and those who have been exposed to life-threatening diseases. Technology can help in important ways—dynamic reference tools, secure databases, and centralized data storage— but ultimately, the best technological interventions to fight COVID-19 will be those designed with collaboration and equity in mind. Technological solutions must help the human contact tracers with the difficult work of building human connection and trust in our public health systems.
Mary Gray’s co-authors include Barbara Grosz, Higgins Research Professor of Natural Sciences in the Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University and external faculty at the Santa Fe Institute, and Margaret Bourdeaux, MD, MPH, the policy liaison for Partners in Health COVID-19 Contact Tracing Program. She holds appointments at Harvard Medical School, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School of Government.