The Senate Talks to Zuck

(or: “I will get back to you on that, Senator.”)

Here is an early response to Zuckerberg’s testimony before the US Senate today. If you want my overall score, as of 3:30 ET I think Zuckerberg is doing quite well, but some of the things being discussed need a lot of unpacking.

Those Poor Fools “whose privacy settings allowed it.”

In the beginning of his testimony, Zuck described what people are so upset about:

Zuckerberg: [The Kogan personality quiz app that shared data with Cambridge Analytica] was installed by around 300,000 people who agreed to share some of their Facebook information as well as some information from their friends whose privacy settings allowed it.

[Emphasis mine.]

Huh — this phrasing is so careful to be technically accurate but it is right up against the limit of truth. Then I think it goes past that. I looked up what the Facebook privacy settings screen looked like in 2015. It looked like this:

facebook privacy settings as of 2015 screenshot

If we follow the research findings in the security area, most users probably never saw this screen at all: people tend not to know about their own security settings.

But if you did find this screen, anyone who clicked “Friends” for any column surely could not have taken this to mean that their “privacy settings allowed” (Zuckerberg’s phrase) the harvesting of their data by an app that they never authorized and were not aware of.

This is presumably why Facebook disallowed this use of third-party data by apps well before this scandal. There is no third-party consent. So Zuckerberg’s claim that the Kogan/Cambridge Analytica app took information from people “whose privacy settings allowed it” seems a bridge too far.

The American Dream

A closing thought:  It is hyperbole, I know, but I was struck by Sen. John Thune’s (R-SD) remark that “Facebook represents the American dream.” Didn’t The Social Network cover this ground? I don’t remember the plot that way. Did Thune just mean that Zuck got rich?

Zuck’s the Scorpion and We Are The Frog?

Zuckerberg: [investments] in security…will significantly impact our profitability going forward. But I want to be clear about what our priority is: protecting our community is more important than maximizing our profits.

This is a nice quote by Zuck because it highlights the key problem with Facebook’s position. The issue isn’t really “security” though. It’s the fact that Facebook is fundamentally in the business of harvesting user data and that negative, polarizing (and even inaccurate) ads and status updates are good for the platform. They promote engagement through outrage.

To crib from Marshall McLuhan, what is in the public interest is not necessarily what the public is interested in. Gory road accidents turn heads. But is that what our media should be showing?

Zuck’s comment is also highlighting that by asking Facebook to fix these problems, we are asking advertising-supported media to behave in a way that makes no sense for them and is opposite to their nature.

Let’s take a look at some of the ads placed by fake accounts controlled by Агентство интернет-исследований  they are extremely polarizing (american.veterans is a beard or sock puppet account):



And it is now very clear from both common sense and the Trump/Clinton Facebook CPM fracas that polarizing ads on Facebook are much more likely to gain clicks.

The Trump campaign’s official ads were quintessentially negative and polarizing ads: they did things like try to associate the phrase “Crooked Hillary” with a winged bag of money.

Political ad spending is also a windfall that old media (radio and television stations) depended on, but there was no “click engagement” dimension with old mediaold media left people with little to do. It seems possible that the new media political ad environment can create feedbacks with negative ads that might be much more significant than the old ways of doing things.


Another thing that struck me in early Q&A is the concern raised about a paid Facebook model. This was floated yesterday in a media interview and now Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) is asking Zuckerberg if it is true users would have to, as he put it, “pay for privacy.”

Nelson seems outraged. On the one hand, this outrage makes no sense. If Facebook were switched completely away from an advertising model, it would be great for users as it would redefine the company’s incentives completely.

However, I think what is being proposed is a half-pay, half-free system (or opt-in payments). If that’s the plan, the outrage is justified. Pay-for-privacy makes social media even more regressive.

Privacy is already regressive in the sense that only those people who have time to learn about risks and fiddle with endless (and endlessly changing) settings pages have any hope of protecting themselves. The current system rewards computer skill and free time. And even with those things users still may not be able to protect themselves, because the options just aren’t available.

But an opt-in payment system makes privacy even worse by taking these intangible regressive dimensions and, in addition, putting a payment step on top of them. It’s not that people in opt-in privacy use either time or money to obtain privacy, rather it will be the case that people who both have time to follow this topic closely enough to know that they need privacy in the first place and can afford to pay for it will have privacy.


Big Social Won’t Be Fixed

I need to sign off because I can’t spend the day watching this. My summary so far: “Big Social” won’t be fixed by anything that was said here. The business models, institutions, and habits are too well-established and have too much inertia for a meaningful reconfiguration to come from the things I’ve heard so far.

Content moderation is not a panacea: Logan Paul, YouTube, and what we should expect from platforms

What do we expect of content moderation? And what do we expect of platforms?

There is an undeniable need, now more than ever, to reconsider the public responsibilities of social media platforms. For too long, platforms have enjoyed generous legal protections and an equally generous cultural allowance, to be “mere conduits” not liable for what users post to them. in the shadow of this protection, they have constructed baroque moderation mechanisms: flagging, review teams, crowdworkers, automatic detection tools, age barriers, suspensions, verification status, external consultants, blocking tools. They all engage in content moderation, but are not obligated to; they do it largely out of sight of public scrutiny, and are held to no official standards as to how they do so. This needs to change, and it is beginning to.

But in this crucial moment, one that affords such a clear opportunity to fundamentally reimagine how platforms work and what we can expect of them, we might want to get our stories straight about what those expectations should be.

The latest controversy involves Logan Paul, a twenty-two year old YouTube star with 15 million plus subscribers. His videos, a relentless barrage of boasts, pranks, and stunts, have garnered him legions of adoring fans. But he faced public backlash this week after posting a video in which he and his buddies ventured into the Aokigahara forest of Japan, only to find the body of a young man who had recently committed suicide. Rather than turning off the camera, Logan continued his antics, pinballing between awe and irreverence, showing the body up close and then turning the attention back to his own reaction. The video lingers of the body, including close ups of his swollen hand, and Paul’s reactions were self-centered and cruel. After a blistering wave of criticism in the video comments and on Twitter, Paul removed the video and issued a written apology, which was itself criticized for not striking the right tone. A somewhat more heartfelt video apology followed. He later announced he would be taking a break from YouTube.

There is no question that Paul’s video was profoundly insensitive, an abject lapse in judgment. But amidst the reaction, I am struck by the press coverage of and commentary about the incident: the willingness both to lump this controversy in with an array of other concerns about what’s online, as somehow all part of the “content moderation” problem; paired with a persistent and unjustified optimism for what content moderation should be able to handle.

YouTube has weathered a series of controversies over the course of the last year, many of which had to do with children, both their exploitation and their vulnerability as audiences. There was the controversy about popular vlogger PewDiePie, condemned for including anti-Semitic humor and Nazi imagery in his videos. Then there were the videos that slipped past the stricter standards YouTube has for its Kids app: amateur versions of cartoons featuring well-known characters with weirdly upsetting narrative third acts. That was quickly followed by the revelation of entire YouTube channels of videos in which children were being mistreated, frightened and exploited, that seem designed to skirt YouTube’s rules against violence and child exploitation. And just days later, Buzzfeed also reported that YouTube’s autocomplete displayed results that seemed to point to child sexual exploitation. YouTube representatives have apologized for all of these, promised to increase the number of moderators reviewing their videos, aggressively pursue better artificial intelligence solutions, and remove advertising from some of the questionable channels.

Content moderation, and different kinds of responsibility

But what do these incidents have in common, besides the platform? Journalists and commentators are eager to lump them together: part of a single condemnation of YouTube, its failure to moderate effectively, and its complicity with the profits made by producers of salacious or reprehensible content. But these incidents represent different kinds of problems, they implicate YouTube and content moderation in different ways — and, when lumped together, they suggest a contradictory set of expectations we have for platforms and their public responsibility.

Platforms assert a set of normative standards, guidelines by which users are expected to comport themselves. It is difficult to convince every user to honor these standards, in part because the platforms have spent years promising users an open and unfettered playing field, inviting users to do or say whatever they want. And it is difficult to enforce these standards, in part because the platforms have few of the traditional mechanism of governance: they can’t fire us, we are not salaried producers. All they have are the terms of service and the right to delete content and suspend users. And, there are competing economic incentives for platforms to be more permissive than they claim to be, and to treat high value producers differently than the rest.

Incidents like the exploitative videos of children, or the misleading amateur cartoons, take advantage of this system. They live amidst this enormous range of videos, some subset of which YouTube must remove. Some come from users who don’t know or care about the rules, or find what they’re making perfectly acceptable. Others are deliberately designed to slip past moderators, either by going unnoticed or by walking right up to but not across the community guidelines. They sometimes require hard decisions about speech, community, norms, and the right to intervene.

Logan Paul’s video, or PewDiePie’s racist outbursts, are of a different sort. As was clear in the news coverage and the public outrage, critics were troubled by Logan Paul’s failure to consider his responsibility to his audience, to show more dignity as a videomaker, to choose sensitivity over sensationalism. The fact that he has 15 million subscribers, many of them young, was reason for many to claim that he (and by implication, YouTube) have a greater responsibility. These sound more like traditional media concerns: the effects on audiences, the responsibilities of producers, the liability of providers. This could just as easily be a discussion about Ashton Kutcher and an episode of Punk’d. What would Kutcher’s, his production team’s, and MTV’s responsibility be if he had similarly crossed the line with one of his pranks?

But MTV was in a structurally different position than YouTube. We expect MTV to be accountable for a number of reasons: they had the opportunity to review the episode before broadcasting it; they employed Kutcher and his team, affording them specific power to impose standards; and they chose to hand him the megaphone in the first place. While YouTube also affords Logan Paul a way to reach millions, and he and YouTube share advertising revenue from popular videos, these offers are in principle made to all YouTube users. YouTube is a distribution platform, not a distribution bottleneck — or it is a bottleneck of a very different shape. This does not mean we cannot or should not hold YouTube accountable. We could decide as a society that we want YouTube to meet exactly the same responsibilities as MTV, or more. But we must take into account that these structural differences change not only what YouTube can do, but how and why we can expect it of them.

Moreover, is content moderation the right mechanism to manage this responsibility? Or to put it another way, what would the critics of Logan’s video have wanted YouTube to do? Some argued that YouTube should have removed the video, before Paul did. (It seems the video was reviewed, and was not removed, but Paul received a “strike” on his account, a kind of warning — we know this only based on this evidence. If you want to see the true range of disagreement about what YouTube should have done, just read down the lengthy thread of comments that followed this tweet.) In its PR response to the incident, a YouTube representative said it should have taken the video down, for being “shocking, sensational or disrespectful”. But it is not self-evident that Paul’s video violates YouTube’s policies. And from the comments from critics, it was Paul’s blithe, self-absorbed commentary, the tenor he took about the suicide victim he found, as much as showing the body itself, that was so troubling. Showing the body, lingering on its details, was part of Paul’s casual indifference, but so were his thoughtless jokes and exaggerated reactions. Is it so certain that YouTube should have removed this video on our behalf? I do not mean to imply that the answer is no, or that it is yes. I’m only noting that this is not an easy case to adjudicate — which is precisely why I we shouldn’t expect YouTube to already have a clean and settled policy towards it.

There’s no simple answer as to where such lines should be drawn. Every bright line rule YouTube might draw will be plagued with “what abouts”. Is it that corpses should not be shown in a video? What about news footage from a battlefield? What about public funerals? Should the prohibition be specific to suicide victims, out of respect? It would be reasonable to argue that YouTube should allow a tasteful documentary about the Aokigahara forest, concerned about the high rates of suicide among Japanese men. Such a video might even, for educational or provocative reasons, include images of the body of a suicide victim, or evidence of their deaths. In fact, YouTube already has some, of a variety of qualities (see 1, 2, 3, 4).

So what we critics may be implying is that YouTube should be responsible to distinguish the insensitive versions from the sensitive ones. Again, this sounds more like the kinds of expectations we had for television networks — which is fine if that’s what we want, but we should admit that this would be asking much more from YouTube than we might think.

As a society, we’ve already struggled with this very question, in traditional media: should the news show the coffins of U.S. soldiers as their returned from war? should the news show the grisly details of crime scenes? When is the typically too graphic video acceptable because it is newsworthy, educational, or historically relevant? Not only is the answer far from clear, and differs across cultures and periods. As a society, we need to engage in the debate; it cannot be answered for us by YouTube alone.

These moments of violation serve as the spark for that debate. It may be that all this condemnation of Logan Paul, in the comment threads on YouTube, on Twitter, and in the press coverage, is the closest we get to a real, public consideration of what’s appropriate for public consumption. And maybe the focus among critics on Paul’s irresponsibility, as opposed to YouTube’s, is indicative that this is not a moderation question, or a growing public sense that we cannot rely on YouTube’s moderation, that we need to cultivate a clearer sensibility of what public culture should look like, and teach creators to take their public responsibility more seriously. (Though even if it is, there will always be a new wave of twenty-year-olds waiting in the wings, who will jump at the chance social media offers to show off for a crowd, way before they ever grapple with social norms we may have worked out. This is why we need to keep having this debate.)

How exactly YouTube is complicit in the choices of its stars

This is not to suggest that platforms bear no responsibility for the content that they help circulate. Far from it. YouTube is implicated, in that they afford the opportunity for Logan to broadcast his tasteless video, help him gather millions of viewers who will have it instantly delivered to their feed, design and tune the recommendation algorithms that amplify its circulation, and profit enormously from the advertising revenue it accrues.

Some critics are doing the important work of putting platforms under scrutiny, to better understand the way producers and platforms are intertwined. But it is awfully tempting to draw too simple a line between the phenomenon and the provider, to paint platforms with too broad a brush. The press loves villains, and YouTube is one right now. But we err when we draw these lines of complicity too cleanly. Yes, YouTube benefits financially from Logan Paul’s success. That by itself does not prove complicity; it needs to be a feature of our discussion about complicity. We might want revenue sharing to come with greater obligations on the part of the platform; or, we might want platforms to be shielded from liability or obligation no matter what the financial arrangement; or, we might want equal obligations whether there is revenue shared or not; or we might want obligations to attend to popularity rather than revenue. These are all possible structures of accountability.

It is also easy to say that YouTube drives vloggers like Logan Paul to be more and more outrageous. If video makers are rewarded based on the number of views, whether that reward is financial or just reputational, it stands to reason that some videomakers will look for ways to increase those numbers, including going bigger. But it is not clear that metrics of popularity necessarily or only lead to being over more outrageous, and there’s nothing about this tactic that is unique to social media. Media scholars have long noted that being outrageous is one tactic producers use to cut through the clutter and grab viewers, whether its blaring newspaper headlines, trashy daytime talk shows, or sexualized pop star performances. That is hardly unique to YouTube. And YouTube videomakers are pursuing a number of strategies to seek popularity and the rewards therein, outrageousness being just one. many more seem to depend on repetition, building a sense of community or following, interacting with individual subscribers, and the attempt to be first. While over-caffeinated pranksters like Logan Paul might try to one-up themselves and their fellow bloggers, that is not the primary tactic for unboxing vidders or Minecraft world builders or fashion advisers or lip syncers or television recappers or music remixers. Others see Paul as part of a “toxic YouTube prank culture” that migrated from Vine, which is another way to frame YouTube’s responsibility. But a genre may develop, and a provider profiting from it may look the other way or even encourage it; that does not answer the question of what responsibility they have for it, it only opens it.

To draw too straight a line between YouTube’s financial arrangements and Logan Paul’s increasingly outrageous shenanigans misunderstands both of the economic pressures of media and the complexity of popular culture. It ignores the lessons of media sociology, which makes clear that the relationship between the pressures imposed by industry and the creative choices of producers is much more complex and dynamic. And it does prove that content moderation is the right way to address this complicity.

*   *   *

Let me say again: Paul’s video was in poor, poor taste, and he deserves all of the criticism he received. And I find this genre of boffo, entitled, show-off masculinity morally problematic and just plain tiresome. And while it may sound like I am defending YouTube, I am definitely not. Along with the other major social media platforms, YouTube has a greater responsibility for the content they circulate than they have thus far acknowledged; they have built a content moderation mechanism that is too reactive, too dismissive, and too opaque, and they are due for a public reckoning. In the last few years, the workings of content moderation and its fundamental limitations have come to the light, and this is good news. Content moderation should be more transparent, and platforms should be more accountable, not only for what traverses their system, but the ways in which they are complicit in its production, circulation, and impact. But it also seems we are too eager to blame all things on content moderation, and to expect platforms to maintain a perfectly honed moral outlook every time we are troubled by something we find there. Acknowledging that YouTube is not a mere conduit does not imply that it is exclusively responsible for everything available there.

As Davey Alba at Buzzfeed argued, “YouTube, after a decade of being the pioneer of internet video, is at an inflection point as it struggles to control the vast stream of content flowing across its platform, balancing the need for moderation with an aversion toward censorship.” This is true. But we are also at an inflection point of our own. After a decade of embracing social media platforms as key venues for entertainment, news, and public exchange, and in light of our growing disappointment in their preponderance of harassment, hate, and obscenity, we too are struggling: to modulate exactly what we expect of them and why, to balance how to improve the public sphere with what role intermediaries can reasonably be asked to take.

This essay is cross-posted at Culture Digitally. Many thanks to Dylan Mulvin for helping me think this through.

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


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.


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:



  • 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



To apply for a PhD internship with the Social Media Collective, fill out the online application form:

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 and include “SMC PhD Internship” in the subject line.



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 blog.




“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

We are hiring a Postdoc

The Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research New England (MSRNE) is looking for a social media postdoctoral researcher (start date: July, 2018). 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: 1 December 2017. This year, we will also consider applications for a possible candidate slot, based in SMC, bridging SMC and one or more areas of the MSRNE lab, including machine learning, bioinformatics, cryptography, algorithmic game theory, and economics.

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 provide emerging scholars (PhDs received late 2017 or to be conferred by July 2018) an opportunity to develop their research career and to interact with some of the top minds in the research community. Postdoctoral researchers define their own research agenda. 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.

While each of the Microsoft Research labs has openings in a variety of different disciplines, this position with the Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research New England specifically seeks social science/humanities candidates with critical approaches to their topics. Qualifications include 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 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 includes computer scientists, mathematicians, and economists.

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 algorithmic design and user policies, adopting the role of intermediaries for public discourse? (Tarleton Gillespie)

– What are the cultural, political, and economic implications of on-demand contract work as a new form of semi-automated, globally-distributed digital labor? (Mary L. Gray)

– How do standards, defaults, and infrastructures encode our assumptions about human behavior and perception? (Dylan Mulvin)

– How are public and private institutions training people for the future of work, and deciding who should be included in that future? (Dan Greene)

SMC postdocs may have the opportunity to visit and collaborate 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 big data science? (Kate Crawford, MSR-NYC, AI Now)

– What are the social and cultural issues arising from data-centric technological development? (danah boyd, Data & Society Research Institute)

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 2018. 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.

Microsoft does not discriminate against any applicant on the basis of age, ancestry, color, 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.

To apply for a postdoc position at MSRNE:

Submit an online application here.

– On the application website, 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. IF YOU DO NOT MARK THESE PREFERENCES WE WILL NOT RECEIVE YOUR APPLICATION. 

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

  1. two journal articles, book chapters, or equivalent writing samples (uploaded as two separate attachments);
  1. a single research statement (four page maximum length) that does the following: outlines the questions and methodologies central to your research agenda (~two page); provides an abstract and chapter outline of your dissertation (~one page); offers a description of how your research agenda relates to research conducted by the Social Media Collective (~one page)

After you submit your application, a request for letters will be 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 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 but that an individual call for applicants may have an earlier deadline. Please ensure that they expect this and are prepared to submit your letter by our application deadline of December 1, 2017. Please make sure to check back with your referees if you have any questions about the status of your requested letters of recommendation. 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.

For more information, see here.

Feel free to ask questions about the position in the comments below.



Big Data Surveillance: The Case of Policing

Former SMC Postdoctoral Researcher, Sarah Brayne (University of Texas at Austin), has recently published a piece in the American Sociological Review about police use of big data.

The article is evidenced off over two and a half years of fieldwork with the Los Angeles Police Department — including observations from ride-alongs in patrol cars and interviews at the Joint Regional Intelligence Center (the “fusion center”) in Southern California.

Abstract: This article examines the intersection of two structural developments: the growth of surveillance and the rise of “big data.” Drawing on observations and interviews conducted within the Los Angeles Police Department, I offer an empirical account of how the adoption of big data analytics does—and does not—transform police surveillance practices. I argue that the adoption of big data analytics facilitates amplifications of prior surveillance practices and fundamental transformations in surveillance activities. First, discretionary assessments of risk are supplemented and quantified using risk scores. Second, data are used for predictive, rather than reactive or explanatory, purposes. Third, the proliferation of automatic alert systems makes it possible to systematically surveil an unprecedentedly large number of people. Fourth, the threshold for inclusion in law enforcement databases is lower, now including individuals who have not had direct police contact. Fifth, previously separate data systems are merged, facilitating the spread of surveillance into a wide range of institutions. Based on these findings, I develop a theoretical model of big data surveillance that can be applied to institutional domains beyond the criminal justice system. Finally, I highlight the social consequences of big data surveillance for law and social inequality.

You can read the full article here.

“Grammar Nazis” and literacy privilege

Five years ago, I was MSRNE Social Media Collective’s Ph.D. intern researching the ways in which people use video game engines to create physical comedy. To do so, I went through heaps of fascinating literature on humor, which I have drawn from many times since.  Upon my return to Prague’s Charles University in 2013, I teamed up with Tamah Sherman, my American-born and Prague-based sociolinguist colleague, and we started our shared “side project” – research on “Grammar Nazis”, language management and humor. Our first article on the topic is available here, and the second one, “I see your garbage”: Participatory practices and literacy privilege on “Grammar Nazi” Facebook pages in different sociolinguistic contexts, has just come out in New Media & Society. In this blog post, I will talk a bit about the background and the findings of our research. Continue reading ““Grammar Nazis” and literacy privilege”

SMC at #4SBoston

The 2017 Annual Meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) is being held in our very own Boston, MA this year. The Social Media Collective’s Tarleton Gillespie (Microsoft Research, New England and Department of Communication/Department of Information Science, Cornell University) and Mary L. Gray (Microsoft Research, New England and Berkman Center for Internet and Society) are serving on the local organizing committee.

The conference is thematically organized around ‘STS (In)Sensibilities,’ asking:

“If sensibility is the ability to grasp and to respond, how might we articulate the (in)sensibilities of contemporary technoscience? How, similarly, can we reflect on the extent and limits of our own sensibilities as STS scholars, teachers, and activists? The conference theme invites an open reading and exploration of how the world is made differently sense-able through multiple discourses and practices of knowledge-making, as well as that which evades the sensoria of technoscience and STS. Our aim is that the sense of ‘sense’ be read broadly, from mediating technologies of perception and apprehension to the discursive and material practices that render worlds familiar and strange, real and imagined, actual and possible, politically (in)sensitive and ethically sensible.”

For more information on logistics & the full program, visit the 4sonline Annual Meeting Homepage. You can find a list of scheduled appearances by the Social Media Collective family, past and present, here: By Name/By Time.

The platform metaphor, revisited

This is cross-posted from the HIIG Science Blog, and is part of a series on metaphors and digital society hosted by Christian Katzenbach and Stefan Larsson. I recommend the other essays as well: Nik John on sharing, Noam Tirosh on revolution, and Christian Djeffal on artificial intelligence

Sometimes a metaphor settles into everyday use so comfortably, it can be picked back up to extend its meaning away from what it now describes, a metaphor doing metaphorical service. Platform has certainly done that. When I first wrote about the term in 2010, social media companies like YouTube and Facebook were beginning to use the term to describe their web 2.0 services, to their users, to advertisers and investors, and to themselves. Now social media companies have embraced the term fully, and have extended it to services that broker the exchange not just of content or sociality but rides (Uber), apartments (AirBnB), and labor (Taskrabbit). The term so comfortably describes these services that critics and commentators can draw on the word to extend out for the purposes of argument. The past few years have witnessed a “platform revolution”, (Parker, van Alstyne, and Choudary) the rise of “platform capitalism” (Srnicek) driven by “platform strategy” (Reillier and Reillier), with the possibility of “platform cooperativism” (Scholz) all part of “the platform society” (van Dijck, Poell, and DeWaal) These books need not even be referring to the same platforms (they all have their favorite examples, somewhat overlapping), their readers know what they’re referring to.

From programmability to opportunity

As platform first took root in the lexicography of social media, it was both leaning on and jettisoning a more specific computational meaning: a programmable infrastructure upon which other software can be built and run, like the operating systems in our computers and gaming consoles, or information services that provide APIs so developers can design additional layers of functionality. The new use shed the sense of programmability, instead drawing on older meanings of the word (which the computational definition itself had drawn on): an architecture from which to speak or act, like a train platform or a political stage. Now Twitter or Instagram could be a platform simply by providing an opportunity from which to speak, socialize, and participate.

At the time, some suggested that the term should be constrained to its computational meaning, but it’s too late, platform has been widely accepted in this new sense – by users, by the press, by regulators, and by the platform providers themselves. I argued then that the term was particularly useful because it helped social media companies appeal to several different stakeholders of interest to them. Calling themselves platforms promised users an open playing field for free and unencumbered participation, promised advertisers a wide space in which to link their products to popular content, and promised regulators that they were a fair and impartial conduit for user activity, needing further regulation.

This is what metaphors do. They propose a way of understanding something in the terms of another; the analogy distorts the phenomenon being described, by highlighting those features most aligned with what it is being compared to. Platform lent social media services a particular form, highlighted certain features, naturalized certain presumed relations, and set expectations for their use, impact, and responsibility. Figuratively, a platform is flat, open, sturdy. In its connotations, a platform offers the opportunity to act, connect, or speak in ways that are powerful and effective: catching the train, drilling for oil, proclaiming one’s beliefs. And a platform lifts that person above everything else, gives them a vantage point from which to act powerfully, a raised place to stand.

What metaphors hide

Metaphors don’t only highlight; they also downplay aspects that are not captured by the metaphor. “A metaphorical concept can keep us from focusing on other aspects of the concept that are inconsistent with that metaphor.” (Lakoff and Johnson, 10) We might think of this as incidental or unavoidable, in that any comparison highlights some aspects and thereby leaves others aside. Or we could think of it as strategic, in that those deploying a metaphor have something to gain in the comparison it makes, presumably over other comparisons that might highlight different aspects.

By highlighting similarities – social media services are like platforms – metaphors can have a structural impact on the way we think about and act upon the world. At the same time, metaphor cannot be only about similarity – otherwise the ideal metaphor would be tautological, “X is like X.” Metaphor also depends on the difference between the two phenomena; the construction of similarity is powerful only if it bridges a significant semantic gap. Steven Johnson points out that “the crucial element in this formula is the difference that exists between ‘the thing’ and the ‘something else.’ What makes a metaphor powerful is the gap between the two poles of the equation.” (58-59) Phil Agre goes further, suggesting that “metaphors operate as a ‘medium of exchange’” (37) between distinct semantic fields, negotiating a tension between elements that are, at least in some ways, incompatible. This structural bridge constructed by metaphor depends on choosing aspects of comparison that will be salient and rendering others insignificant. The platform metaphor does a great deal of work, not only in what it emphasizes, but in what it hides:

  1. Platform downplays the fact that these services are not flat. Their central service is to organize, structure, and channel information, according both to arrangements established by the platform (news feed algorithms, featured partner arrangements, front pages, categories) and arrangements built by the user, though structured or measured by the platform (friend or follower networks, trending lists). Platforms are not flat, open spaces where people speak or exchange, they are intricate and multi-layered landscapes, with complex features above and dense warrens below. Information moves in and around them, shaped both by the contours provided by the platform and by the accretions of users and their activity – all of which can change at the whim of the designers. The metaphor of platform captures none of this, implying that all activity is equally and meritocratically available, visible, public, and potentially viral. It does not prepare us, for example, for the ability of trolls to organize in private spaces and then swoop together as a brigade to harass users in a coordinated way, in places where the suddenness and publicness of the attack is a further form of harm.
  2. The platform metaphor also obscures the fact that platforms are populated by many, diverse, sometimes overlapping, and sometimes contentious communities. It is absurd to talk about Facebook users, as if two billion people can be a single group of anything; talk about the Twitter community only papers over the tension and conflict that has been fundamental, and sometimes destructive to how Twitter is actually used. As Jessa Lingel argues, social media platforms are in fact full of communities that turn to social media for specific purposes, often with ambivalent or competing needs around visibility, pseudonymity, and collectivity; then they struggle with how the platforms actually work and their sometimes ill fit with the aims of that community. When we think not of ‘Facebook users’ but a group of Brooklyn drag queens, the relationship between users and platform is not an abstract one of opportunity, but a contentious one about identity and purpose.
  3. Platform also helps elide questions about platforms’ responsibility for their public footprint. Train platforms are not responsible for the passengers. Like other metaphors like conduit and media and network, platform suggests an impartial between-ness that policymakers in the U.S. are eager to preserve – unlike European policymakers, where there is more political will to push responsibility onto platforms, though in a variety of untested ways. When, as Napoli and Caplan point out, Facebook refuses to call itself a media company, they are disavowing the kind of public and policy expectations imposed on media. They’re merely a platform. In the meantime, they have each built up a complex apparatus of content moderation and user governance to enforce their own guidelines, yet these interventions are opaque and overlooked.
  4. Finally, platform hides all of the labor necessary to produce and maintain these services. The audience is not supposed to see the director or the set decorators or the stagehands, only the actors in the spotlight. Underneath a platform is an empty, dusty space – it’s just there. Social media platforms are in fact the product of an immense amount of human labor, whether it be designing the algorithms or policing away prohibited content. When we do get a glimpse of the work and the workers involved, it is culturally unexpected and contentious: the revelation, for example, that Facebook’s Trending Topics might have been curated by a team of journalism school grads, working like machines. (1, 2) What if they make mistakes? What if they are politically biased? How are humans involved, and why does that matter? Platform discourages us from asking these questions, by leaving the labor out of the picture.

We need not discard the term, just to swap in another metaphor in its place. It is not as if it’s impossible to think about these obscured aspects of platforms; the metaphor can downplay them, but cannot erase them. But we have to either struggle upstream against the discursive power of the term, or playful subvert it. A platform may hide the labor it requires, but in a different framework it could be asked to shelter that labor, protect it. If a platform lifts up its users, then there may be some manner of responsibility for lifting some people up over others. We might also play with other metaphors: are platforms also shopping malls, or bazaars? amusement parks, or vending machines? nests, or hives? pyramids, or human pyramids? But mostly, we can scrutinize the metaphor in order to identify what it fails to highlight, how that may serve the interest of the metaphor’s practitioners, and what design interventions and obligations might best attend to these gaps and obscurities. And, as Kuhn notes about scientific paradigms, any frame of understanding works to coalesce the phenomenon by leaving off aspects that do not fit – and these discarded aspects can return to challenge to that frame, and sometimes tear it down. Platforms downplay these aspects at their own peril.

Author Interview: Meryl Alper on”Giving Voice”

Meryl Alper, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern University, recently published Giving Voice: Mobile Communication, Disability and Inequality with MIT Press. Giving Voice critically explores the idea that technology “gives voice to the voiceless” through the lens of disability. It does so through a rich, qualitative study of how parents and assistive technology professionals understand technology use by children with complex communication needs. She focuses on how the iPad and a synthetic speech app called Proloquo2Go are taken up by children living with disabilities that include cerebral palsy and autism, and how contemporary families navigate the political, economic, and cultural terrain of the technology and the institutions tied to it.

We’re both interested in qualitative research that explores the value of technological access and the cultural scripts for ‘proper’ use, so I thought it would be good idea to dig into some of these issues with Meryl as a way of introducing more people to her excellent book.  This interview has been cross-posted with the good folks at Culture Digitally.

Daniel Greene: So what motivated you to write a book about the everyday politics of speech, technology, and disability?

Meryl Alper: I was seeking answers to a personally long-unanswered question. Coming out of the School of Communication at Northwestern University for my undergraduate studies, I was perplexed by why the clinically-oriented Communication Sciences and Disorders department existed within the same school as the social science-inclined Communication Studies department (in addition to more humanities-leaning departments like Theatre and Radio/TV/Film). It’s something that I didn’t think much more about though until the first year of my Ph.D. program at USC Annenberg in 2010. At that time, I had started analyzing the emergence of the iPad as a cultural object through YouTube videos that upper- and middle-class parents had been posting of their young children using the tablet. I ended up with a sample of videos including ones that parents of children with disabilities had posted, and I was unsure how to proceed with the analysis. I felt that I didn’t know enough about disability, let alone technologies used by people with disabilities, to evaluate the claims being made therein about children, technology, and the relationship between them.

I started reading scholarship bridging disability, communication, and science and technology studies from folks like Gerard Goggin, Graham Pullin, Mara Mills, and Jonathan Sterne. I also ended up taking a graduate course on assistive technology in USC’s occupational therapy department. While I came for the ‘computer stuff,’ I stayed for the exposure to a wider array of topics that I might not have necessarily thought of as “technological” (like how to prevent pressure sores from wheelchair seating, and the latest in adaptive sports equipment). The class was also taught by a professor with a hearing impairment, and centered the lived experiences of people with disabilities.

I took this different way of thinking about technology, adaptation, and assistance, and applied it to my growing parallel interest in mobile communication. My exposure to the assistive technology subfield of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices during the course allowed me to start drawing further critical connections between “communication sciences” and “communication studies.” AAC—which positions embodied oral speech as “communication,” and all else as augmentation or alternative—was a natural site to interrogate the interwoven politics and sociocultural dynamics of disability, media, and communication technology in everyday life.

DG: And could you tell us a little bit about how you conducted your research and some of the major themes that emerged from it?

MA: I began fieldwork in 2012 during a year-long qualitative methods course in USC’s sociology department, and continued field research through spring 2014. The book focuses on the time I spent with twenty kids ages 3-13 with developmental disabilities and their families in the greater Los Angeles area. It was a time in which the iPad became quite a lightning rod for local debates about the kinds of problems that technology could (or should) solve. I was interested in how special education fit into discussions around the value of technology in education more broadly. The kids I studied use the iPad and Proloquo2Go to turn words and icons they select on screen into synthetic speech for nearby conversation partners to hear. Some families could afford to buy both the hardware and software out of pocket, while others received it through their child’s school or from a charitable grant. From the outset, it was clear that even the process by which the technology was procured was putting kids on very different trajectories in terms of their control over the device and its role in their daily lives.

My fieldwork spanned several ethnographic practices: participant observations, semi-structured depth interviews, and informational interviews. After gaining permission from a local disability resource center under contract with California’s Department of Developmental Services, I observed families being trained at home by two speech-language pathologists named Rachel and Caren on how to use these technologies, interviewed parents, and conducted additional fieldwork such as attending parent workshops, sitting in on user groups for child AAC device users, and interviewing nearby school district staff and special education administrators about their protocols for administering assistive technology and speech therapy services.

Each chapter in the book poses a basic question about how participants interpreted one aspect of the iPad, including what made it “mobile” or “for communication.” My research addressed how children, parents, siblings, and extended families made sense of the new routines that the iPad and Proloquo2Go introduced into their lives, the meanings that they ascribed to these devices, and to the culture around them. Overall, what I found is that despite widespread claims that such technologies miraculously “give voice to the voiceless,” communication tools intended to universally empower are still subject to disempowering structural inequalities, especially for people with disabilities (whom society tends to position as natural beneficiaries of charitable able-bodied technologists).

How these kids and their families experienced connection and disconnection on a societal as well as interpersonal level couldn’t be reduced to the technology, or their disabilities, alone. My work offers a rather different account of relationships and technology use from those of cultural critics like Sherry Turkle, who argue that handheld mobile devices are single-handedly disabling people’s empathy and capacity for face-to-face communication. This binary between face-to-face and mediated communication is patently false and further complicated by individuals who primarily “talk” using mobile media and employ communication technologies that both augment and provide alternatives to their oral speech production. It’s not just that their voices need to be heard, but their varied perspectives on voice need to be accounted for as well.

DG: Much of the book is dedicated to deconstructing the idea that revolutionary technologies and technologists ‘give voice to the voiceless.’ The value of any assistive technology is of course contextual, and marginalized communities are unable to make use of these technologies in the same way as more privileged communities. Nevertheless, the trope persists. What accounts for the power of this technological vision, and who or what is responsible for keeping it in circulation?

MA: In the book, I break down “giving voice to the voiceless” as a powerful trope, in part by considering the separate meanings of “giving,” “voice,” and “the voiceless.” The notion of “the voiceless” suggests a static and clearly defined group. Discourses about “giving” them voice reinforce and naturalize “having” voice. This is done without questioning the complex dynamics between having and giving. “Giving voice” does not challenge the means and methods by which voice may have been obtained, taken, or even stolen in the first place.

We’re collectively responsible for keeping these tropes in circulation, particularly as social media platforms monetize and incentivize clicks and retweets of inspirational stories about the use of technology by people with disabilities. These kinds of news stories and media portrayals are derided among many in the disability community as “inspiration porn.” In economically, politically, and socially uncertain times, the certainty of technology of a fix and the certainty of disability as something in need of fixing, is, well, something to fixate on without having to interrogate the pernicious and widespread effects of ableism.

DG: But you’re not just concerned about popular representations of assistive technology and the ‘giving voice’ trope. Throughout the book there is a nuanced critique—sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit—of scholarship that uses disability metaphors for human-machine relations, erasing the very real violence people with disabilities face. I was reminded of Vivian Sobchack’s critique of prosthesis metaphors in her essay “A Leg to Stand On”, which draws on her experience with her own prosthetic leg. Instead of metaphors (where the prosthesis stands in for another, unconnected experience) or metonyms (where the prosthesis is figuratively separated from the disabled body it represents), Sobchack focuses on synecdoches: The intimate connections between her legs, her psyche, and her environment, and the new sorts of agency that emerge in the interplay between them. It seems like you’re doing a similar thing here, pushing us to realign figurative concerns about human-machine relations with very particular human bodies and very particular machines.

MA: Sobchack’s work is central to my thoughts about disability metaphors such as the “prosthesis,” as is Alison Kafer’s thoughtful critique of the “cyborg” as a depoliticized concept. Following their lead, I focus on the visible and invisible ways in which institutions and governmental bodies figure into humans, machines, and embodiment. I do not so much offer an alternative to “giving voice to the voiceless” as I call for “keeping voices attached to people.” I’m referring explicitly here to the work of Smithsonian historian Katherine Ott, who writes in Artificial Parts, Practical Lives: Modern Histories of Prosthetics, “Focus on the materiality of the body, not only or exclusively its abstract and metaphoric meanings. Keeping prostheses attached to people limits the kinds of claims and interpretive leaps a writer can make” (p. 4).

The detachment of voices from bodies is itself a form of violence. I keep thinking, for example, about how “voice” has been employed by Donald Trump in his campaign and the initial months of his presidency. In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in July 2016, he proclaimed to all listening, “I am your voice.” The use of voice throughout his address was a direct appeal to white voters who perceive themselves as silenced, an explicit reference to the “Silent Majority” rhetoric popularized by President Nixon in 1969 to silence his progressive opposition and black activists.

As communication scholars such as Nick Couldry and John Durham Peters have noted, abuses of the term “voice” challenge the strength of democracies. This includes Trump’s use of VOICE as an acronym for Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement, a program introduced during his first address to Congress in March as a xenophobic fear-mongering tactic. Demagogues rise to power by insisting they are the larger-than-life embodiment of voice, stifling free speech, and scapegoating marginalized groups. We need to work harder than ever to keep voices attached to citizens in our democracy.

It should be noted that the primary way in which Trump has been the “voice” of people with disabilities is through mimicry, as when he ridiculed the words and mocked the physical mannerisms of award-winning New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski in November 2015. Disabled individuals are talking back, be it on Twitter, or on stage at the Democratic National Convention. Three days after Trump’s RNC appearance, disability rights advocate Anastasia Somoza gave a speech at the DNC, during which she responded directly to his invocation of voice. Somoza pronounced, “Donald Trump doesn’t see me, he doesn’t hear me, and he definitely doesn’t speak for me.”

But beyond these iconic moments, we need to stay vigilant about protecting rights and improving disability policy, as well as the policies that acutely impact people with disabilities, such as education, healthcare, and internet access. Having a voice, and the role of technology in exploiting that voice, must be understood in relation to other forms of exploitation. People with disabilities are not passively given voices by the able-bodied; disabled individuals, rather, are actively taking and making them. Our media ecology and political environment is rapidly changing, and at stake is not only which voices get to speak, but who is thought to have a voice to speak with in the first place.

DG: I want to turn to questions of method. My own research about youth and digital surveillance mainly takes place at schools. This is pretty standard—so much of the scholarship about children in general, and children and technology in particular, focuses on their lives at school. The institution shapes the questions we ask and what we think we should know about kids’ lives. You took a different approach, interviewing parents of children with disabilities at home. Why was it important that this research move outside the school?

MA: As with school, home (and the family as an institution) shapes the questions that I ask and what I think I should know about kids’ lives. I was interested in how school was imagined and talked about at home, how families acted on these ideas and perceptions, and how artifacts did or did not move back and forth between home and school.

I think most people working in schools would be interested in seeing a glimpse of how students live their lives outside of the classroom, if only to provide more context and make their jobs easier. But getting paid for the time and labor in visiting with students and families outside of school is a different story. Going to individual homes, and doing so for multiple visits, is a laborious process involving a lot of travel time, but there isn’t a way out of it to answer my research questions. People sometimes need to be met where they are, both physically and psychologically.

There’s also somewhat of a practical reason for moving outside the school. Within the first few weeks of the semester of my qualitative methods course, we had to have a field site selected. School districts, especially very large ones in urban areas, often have their own institutional review board processes separate from the university. When those IRBs convene, it’s infrequent, sometimes quarterly. That wasn’t going to work with my timeline for entering the field.

DG: Chapter 3, about iPad cases, was far and away my favorite. What led you to spend so much time on what seems like a technological afterthought? Why do cases matter for you and for the families with whom you spoke?

MA: I found, quite unexpectedly, that mobile device cases mattered a great deal to my research participants as material and symbolic artifacts. In fact, it became difficult to fully understand what the iPad meant to participants without also asking them to share what they thought about tablet cases, as they evoked multilayered and sometimes conflicting meanings. These meanings mapped onto three dimensions: the political, technical, and sociocultural. I’ll focus on the first of these for brevity’s sake. Mobile cases could not be understood outside institutional politics, particularly the political economy of educational technology. For example, if a child broke a school-issued iPad while on school grounds, then the school or school district (depending on the funding source) was generally responsible for paying for a replacement. If the child broke the iPad or lost it outside school, it was unclear if the school district or parents would ultimately be held financially responsible.

Some parents felt like school districts took concerns about breakage too far, leading to a default characterization of their child as inherently reckless with technology, and this is one way in which cases mattered. One father I interviewed, Nelson, commented, “[The school district was] very hesitant giving us this device in particular because they thought [Stephanie, his daughter] was going to drop [the iPad], or she wouldn’t be able to hold on to it.” Nelson vehemently disagreed with the school district’s depiction of Stephanie. He and his wife ended up purchasing a separate iPad and iPad case on their own because the school district took three years to get her one. He said that “[Stephanie has] dropped it a couple of times, but as you can see, the way [the case is] designed (a Griffin Survivor), it’s really easy for her to take it, and walk around with it, and set it down.” A poorly protected iPad might lead to breakage, putting Stephanie in a vulnerable position to be deemed incompetent by the school district, giving it further leverage to deny her expensive services and violate her educational rights.

This example illustrates how cases have their own complex social meanings, both in relation to and independent from the devices themselves. One way in which these findings matter to me, as a communication scholar, pertains to the notion of technology as materially and symbolically durable. Bruno Latour memorably wrote that “technology is society made durable,” meaning that technologies reflect some fleeting moment of social stability in which they are initially constructed. Leah Lievrouw extends this formulation from the field of science and technology studies to communication studies, describing technology as communication made durable. The ways in which iPad cases are incorporated into families’ lives reflects these various conceptions of durability and the friction between them. The extent to which a communication technology is durable depends on the economic, political, and social infrastructures in which the technology is entrenched. This work on cases reminds us that we need to think “outside the box” to study mobile devices once they are removed from their initial physical cardboard boxes.

DG: I see a widespread tendency, among scholars and readers, to cordon off qualitative and quantitative descriptions of structural inequality: Qualitative research is supposed to tell us how inequality is lived, but quantitative work is there to tell us how inequality works. The priority for explanations and solutions is thus given to big-N stories mapping quantitative changes over time. But your research, much like recent work from ethnographers like Karen Ho, Carla Shedd, and Matthew Desmond, disrupts this binary, showing how inequality is reproduced in the daily lives of these families. For example, I was really struck by your description of working-class parents inspired by their child’s skilled use of media and technology but “exhausted by having to constantly convince experts that their non-speaking child could relate to others, feel and think” (p. 121). They struggled to make technological engagement institutionally legible, and their child’s future in those institutions depended on their success. Could you say a little more about what ‘inequality’ means in Giving Voice and how you see it being reproduced?

MA: While the singular “inequality” is in the title of the book, I think it’s more appropriate to speak of “inequalities” in the plural, particularly as this book forefronts intersectional analyses of inequality. What I mean by inequality, drawing at least initially on the work of Bourdieu, are distinctions between individuals and groups that are both subjective and objective, with “distinction” being the capital that certain differences generate. Inequality cannot be understood apart from “privilege,” or advantages that are only available to certain individuals and groups. The descriptive categories under which privilege and inequality operate are themselves fluid and in perpetual motion. The reproduction of inequality might not be through action, but also institutional inaction (like a school district refusing to deliver a free and appropriate public education to a child with a disability). One need not have earned the power that flows from privilege, or even be aware of it, to accumulate privilege over time and benefit from it.

Alison Pugh’s work on dignity was important for my research on inequality, distinction, and privilege as it relates to the inclusion of young people with disabilities and their families in the US. She describes dignity as the right not only to be but also to belong. She argues that children acquire and use knowledge about consumer culture through an “economy of dignity,” or a system of social meaning in which children actively navigate the terms of their belonging among peers through material goods and practices. While children and their family members have agency within this system, the subtle gradations of racialized class structure and inequality cannot be fully erased across all social contexts. Belonging is not absolute; it is contingent upon the processes by which indignities are perpetuated.

The processual contingency of inequality also held true in my study. For instance, mobile technologies did not guarantee upward mobility, not even a luxury good like the iPad. Such tablet devices used for assistive speech tended to be personally owned among more economically privileged families, and owned by school districts for those less economically privileged (with exception for those who obtained the device through a charitable grant). Because the technology ended up in the hands of children through various means, the cost of that access was differentiated when it came to control over what could and could not be done with the machine (like also watch YouTube videos or even sync the Proloquo2Go app to a Dropbox account). It’s important to focused on population-wide narratives, but big-N studies can also miss stories like these that identify patterns and explain processes.

DG: Empirically, you draw on interviews with parents and assistive technology professionals, as well as some participant observation at families’ homes and at events focused on disability and assistive technology, both for people with disabilities and technologists. This is where your political and ethical concerns around ‘giving voice’ become methodological concerns too. How do you go about incorporating the voices of children with complex communication needs into your study?

MA: Drawing on literature from the sociology of childhood, I wanted to trouble the idea of a pure child voice that is entirely separate and independent from adult intervention. For example, I observed meet-up groups for adolescents who use assistive speech devices to practice use of the technology in conversation with one another, but these meetings were facilitated by a speech-language pathologist and attended by parents. I also observed children expressing themselves in countless ways besides embodied oral speech. For example, I discuss in the book how the mother of an adolescent non-speaking autistic girl interpreted her mood by the music she played loudly from her bedroom. Is “voice” something that can only appear within quotation marks? What about a song sung by another person? Certainly, the research output of a printed book prioritizes direct quotes as evidence of voice.

I was especially captivated by anthropologist Joshua Reno’s notion of linguistic competency as inherently distributed through “linguistic equipment” (p. 407): platforms, relationships, and habits that enable mutual understanding. He draws attention to “boundary anxieties, about where speaking subjects end and begin” (p. 414). It is these “attempts to establish the distinctiveness of human beings [that lead] to fresh separations between them not only in terms of whether or not they can speak but also whether they have the wherewithal—and can face the risk—of ‘giving voice’ to others” (p. 415). In my study, was concerned with dependencies and independencies of voice, and ecological models of human development that position the child as both actor and acted upon in nested systems of social influence.

DG: Finally, could you tell us a little bit about what you’re up to now? What’s your next project and how does it build on Giving Voice?

MA: Your last question leads directly into my answer for this one, and how I might incorporate what I’ve learned about “voice” into a new project. I ended up with a bunch of material that never made it into my book (or dissertation, for that matter) on what else the kids in my study were doing with technology (besides the Proloquo2Go app), and specifically autistic kids, who composed the majority of my participants.

The next project is an ethnographic study of growing up autistic in the digital age. This including young people who are speaking, minimally speaking, and non-speaking (which inherently challenges any uniform understanding of “voice”). I’m focused across three “spectrums”—autism, media, and socioeconomic status—while also being critical of “spectrum” as the best metaphor for any of these categories. As with the earlier book, I’m less focused on formal learning environments like school or therapy settings and more focused on how informal learning takes place privately at home, on-the-go, and in mediated public spaces with “autism-friendly” offerings. This includes traditionally culturally “high-brow” spaces like libraries and museums, and more “low-brow” ones like movie theaters and arcades.

More broadly, as it relates to the field of communication studies, I want to better understand how the social is enacted, lived, made, and done within the sociotechnical. Anthropologists Elinor Ochs and Olga Solomon define “human sociality as consisting of a range of possibilities for social coordination with others that is influenced by the dynamics of both individuals and social groups” (p. 69). They position “autistic sociality” as one such possible coordination. This contrasts with the medical diagnostic criteria for autism in the DSM-V, which defines it as a condition manifesting in social impairments and deficits. For now, I’m breaking down fieldwork in three waves: autistic kids ages 3-8 (for whom family members are generally the most present social partners), ages 9-13 (when peers gain more prominence in their social spheres), and then revisiting members of my original 3-8 age cohort a few years later. From December 2016-May 2017, I’ve been working on the first wave in the form of home interviews and observations.

Methodologically, I’ve tried to standardize while being flexible. The interviews have been blended, in that they’ve taken place with parents and kids in different combinations (solo parent, parent/s with kids moving in and out of the interview space, and toggling between directly interviewing the kid and the parent/s in a visit). I’ve also done home observations, focused on being present for a media/technology activity that the kid likes to “do with” another family member/s. I’ve left “do with” open to participant interpretation, and because of this, “do with” has looked incredibly different across participants. At this moment, I’m thinking through methods for ethnographic work with the slightly older age group, particularly as they start to develop identities with varying degrees of independence and dependence from family and peers. It’s my hope that this work, at the very least, reminds us that nearly everyone craves companionship, but no one wants it in the exact same way.


Daniel Greene is a postdoctoral researcher with the Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research New England. He studies the organizations and technologies that teach us how, where, and why to work in the information economy. He lives online at

Meryl Alper is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern University, and a Faculty Associate with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. She is the author of Giving Voice: Mobile Communication, Disability, and Inequality (2017) and Digital Youth with Disabilities (2014), both published with The MIT Press.


Information wants to be free (maybe) – but do we want it to be leaky?

Of the many reactions to Trump’s election in 2016, one was an embrace of online tools for increased privacy.  Interest in encryption soared, from email clients like Protonmail to messaging apps like SignalCrypto parties – workshops where tech experts teach interested rookies how to use privacy tools – popped up across the United States.

At the same time that regular people are stepping up tools for information control, Trump’s presidency has seen an incredible wave of leaks from the White House and other government agencies.  Leakiness is itself a fluid, unmanageable concept, straddling individuals, institutions, mediated communication and information control. It’s up to political theorists, journalists and activists to figure out what leaks mean for politics.  As an internet studies researcher, I find myself trying to think through the politics of leakiness in terms of digital media.

Continue reading “Information wants to be free (maybe) – but do we want it to be leaky?”