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?”

How do mobile devs make privacy work?

I recently published a pair of articles with Katie Shilton exploring how mobile app developers help each other learn what privacy means and how to build that abstract value into their software. Katie and I analyzed hundreds of forum conversations about privacy among iOS and Android developers, and compared the different development cultures and privacy values that arose around each platform.

Our first piece, in the Journal of Business Ethics, explores the work practices that trigger privacy conversations in different development ecosystems. We found that

The rules, regulations, and cultural norms that govern each ecosystem impact day-to-day work practices for mobile developers. These differing work practices in turn shape the ethical deliberations engaged in by forum participants, addressing the question of why privacy is debated—and ultimately designed for—so differently between the two ecosystems.

Ultimately, even though the prompts for ethical debates among developers differed widely between iOS and Android, the tactics they used to convince each other that privacy was an important problem for design were remarkably similar. This means that Apple and Google are important privacy regulators, because the way they structure their development environments influences when and how app developers think about privacy.

Our second piece, in New Media & Society, is more interested in exactly that question: how Google and Apple regulate the thousands of app developers who do not work for them, how platform values become developer values. Platforms need apps to attract users, but developers have to play by platforms’ rules and learn their values in order to get to market. Our close study of developer cultures helped answer an important questionin privacy research, namely: Why do Android apps leak so much more consumer data than iOS apps?  We show that Apple’s close, but, to developers, somewhat capricious, regulation of submitted apps leads to an ‘invisible fence’ effect where developers are constantly working together to figure out what Apple means by ‘privacy’ so that they can get their apps approved and into the market. In contrast, Android’s relatively open and lax development environment leads to a Wild West atmosphere where anything goes and where developers work together with highly-skilled users to build defensive measures against perceived threats—including Google. While average users might be left out of this digital arms race, that’s more of a feature than a bug for Android app developers:

For devs and skilled hobbyists, Android enabled access to privacy-enhancing applications, limited only by skill and literacy. The charms—but also the underlying inaccessibility—of Android privacy were summed up by mavenz in a 2013 thread about privacy problems in the Facebook app: “Whatevs. This is why i < 3 android. I can just hack something better.”

As researchers interested in ethical challenges in new media environments, we also reflected on the ethics of researching public forums. And we hope we can help move that important methodological conversation forward as well.

FATE postdoctoral position opens at MSR NYC

Exciting news! The FATE group (Fairness, Accountability, Transparency, and Ethics) at Microsoft Research New York City (MSR NYC) is looking for a postdoctoral researcher to start in July, 2017. This one-year position is an ideal opportunity for an emerging scholar whose work focuses on the social impacts of machine learning and AI. Application deadline: April 3, 2017.

Postdoctoral researchers receive a competitive salary and benefits package, and are
eligible for relocation expenses. Candidates must have completed their PhD, including submission of their dissertation, prior to joining MSR NYC (i.e., PhD submitted and preferably conferred by July 2017). We encourage candidates with tenure-track job offers from other institutions to apply, provided they are able to defer their start date to accept our position.

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 with 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, evidenced by top-tier journal or conference publications, as well as a strong service record (e.g. 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 FATE group at MSR NYC is specifically intended for researchers who are interested in challenges related to fairness, transparency, accountability, and ethics in machine learning and AI. The FATE group includes Kate Crawford, Hanna Wallach, and Solon Barocas, among others. For a sampling of recent publications see their respective websites.

We will consider candidates with a background in a technical field (such as machine learning, AI, or NLP) as well as candidates who study socio-technical questions in the fields of anthropology, media studies, sociology, science and technology studies, and related fields.

The ideal candidate should have a demonstrated interest in the social impacts of machine learning and AI, and be interested in working in a highly interdisciplinary environment that includes computer scientists, social scientists, critical humanists, and economists.

To apply, please submit an online application on the Microsoft Research Careers website:

In addition to your CV and names of three or more referees (including your dissertation advisor), please upload the following materials:

* Two journal/conference publications, articles, thesis chapters, or
   equivalent work samples (uploaded as two separate attachments).

* A research statement (maximum length three pages) that 1) outlines
your research agenda (~one page); 2) provides a description and,
if appropriate, a chapter outline of your dissertation (~one page);
3) offers an explanation of how your research agenda relates to
fairness, accountability, transparency, and ethics (~one page).

Please indicate that your location preference is “New York” and include “Kate Crawford” as the name of your Microsoft Research contact (you may include additional contacts as well). Note: if you do not do this, it is *very unlikely* that we will receive your application.

After you submit your application, a request for letters will be sent to your referees on your behalf. You may wish to alert your referees in advance so that they are ready to submit your letter by April 3, 2017. You can check the progress on individual letter requests by clicking the “status” tab within your application page.

Microsoft is committed to building a culturally diverse workforce and strongly encourages applications from women and minorities.


Introducing our SMC interns for summer 2017!

We get the sharpest, most impressive crop of applicants for ourSocial Media Collective internship, it is no easy task to turn away so many extremely promising PhD students. But it is a pleasure to introduce those we did select. (Keep in mind that we offer these internships every summer; if you will be an advanced graduate student in our field in the summer of 2018, keep an eye on this blog or for updates to this page for the next deadline.) For 2017, we are proud to have the following young scholars joining us:

At Microsoft Research New England

  Ysabel Gerrard is a PhD Candidate in the School of Media and Communication, University of Leeds. Her doctoral thesis examines teen drama fans’ negotiations of their (guilty) pleasures in an age of social media. In addition to her research and teaching, Ysabel is the Young Scholars’ Representative for ECREA’s Digital Culture and Communication section, and is currently co-organising the Data Power Conference 2017 (along with two others). She has published in the Journal of Communication Inquiry and has presented her work at numerous international conferences, such as ECREA (European Communication Research and Education Association) and Console-ing Passions. Ysabel will be investigating Instagram and Tumblr’s responses to public discourses about eating disorders.


Elena Maris is a PhD Candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research examines the ways media industries and audiences work to influence one another, with a focus on technological strategies and the roles of gender and sexuality. She also studies the ways identity is represented and experienced in popular culture, often writing about race, gender and sexuality in television, fandom and Hip-Hop. Her work has been published in Critical Studies in Media Communication and the European Journal of Cultural Studies.


At Microsoft Research New York City:

Aaron Shapiro is a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. He also holds an M.A. in Anthropology and a Graduate Certificate in Urban Studies. Aaron previously worked as a field researcher and supervisor at NO/AIDS Task Force in New Orleans, conducting social research with communities at high risk for HIV. His current research addresses the cultural politics of urban data infrastructures, focusing on issues of surveillance and control, labor subjectivities, and design imaginaries. His work has been published in Nature, Space & CultureMedia, Culture & Society, and New Media & Society. He will be working on a study about bias in machine learning.

What’s queer about the internet now?

This past month, I organized the Queer Internet Studies Workshop with my longtime friend and collaborator, Jack Gieseking, and Anne Esacove at the Alice Paul Center at UPenn.  This was the second QIS (the first was in 2014 at Columbia), and our plan was to organize a day long series of conversations, brainstorming sessions, panels, and chats dedicated to broaden thinking about the internet.  Rather than a formal conference of people presenting their research, QIS is intended (1) to identify what a queer internet might look like (2) to give a sense of research that’s being done in this area, and (3) to collaborate on artistic, activist and academic projects.We’ve been lucky to have folks post some terrific blog posts about the event, but here’s a quick recap.  After opening the day with group discussions about what queer internet studies might be and how (or whether) we could study it, a carefully curated group of researchers and activists shared their expertise in a facet of queerness and media.

  • Mia Fischer talked about intersections between trans people and surveillance studies.
  • Oliver Haimson described his work on trans identity and social media.
  • Carmen Rios spoke about online communities and feminist politics.
  • Adrienne Shaw  shared her work about building an LGBT games archive.
  • Mitali Thakor shared her work on digital vigilante-ism against sex trafficking.

Artist and academic TL Cowan led a participatory workshop called “Internet of Bodies/Internet of Bawdies.” Part theoretical inquiry, part brainstorming session, and rapid prototyping exercise, the workshop offered an embodied means of working through sexuality, performativity, and technological change.

Rather than a traditional keynote dialogue, we asked Katherine Sender to act as an interlocutor for Shaka McGlotten. Their dialogue ranged from racism and desire to sped up and slowed down experiences of intimacy, from surveillance and performativity to social media platform politics. As a freeform conversation, Sender and McGlotten both addressed and reworked themes that had surfaced throughout the day around queerness, technology, and desire.

We closed the day with breaking into groups to talk about outcomes, which included pooling resources to develop syllabuses and course materials, collaborating on a special issue, and developing best practices around respecting privacy and ownership of online content.  I’m excited to see where these plans and provocations end up in the coming months.  A huge thanks to my co-organizers, the attendees and speakers, and our sponsors.  In 2017, it’s clear that we need spaces for queerness and media provocation more than ever, it’s my hope that QIS can continue to be a space for those connections and creativity, both as a physical meetup and as a chance to build enduring social ties.