SMC news: two new articles from Desmond Patton and his SafeLab team

We’re thrilled that Desmond Patton, associate professor in the School of Social Work at Columbia University, is visiting us for the first half of 2020. He’s a rare bird in our field, able both to explain the importance of cultural contexts in data science techniques to technical experts, and to do the important ethnographic work necessary to take account of those contexts. His research “uses qualitative and computational data collection methods to examine the relationship between youth and gang violence and social media; how and why violence, grief, and identity are expressed on social media; and the real-world impact these expressions have on well-being for low-income youth of color.”

By way of getting to know his work, if you’re in the Boston/Cambridge area, you have an excellent opportunity to hear him speak tomorrow (Thurs Feb 20, 5-6:30pm) as pat of the MIT Comparative Media Studies / Writing colloquium series. Beyond that, we wanted to share two new papers from him and his colleagues that may be of interest. The first describes a collaborative, critical methodology for extracting context in social media posts for natural language processing tasks. The second paper describes a new web-based annotation system (VATAS) designed to help social workers and social scientists conduct social media analysis.

Desmond U. Patton, William R. Frey, Kyle A. McGregor, Fei-Tzin Lee, Kathleen McKeown, Emanuel Moss (2020) “Contextual Analysis of Social Media: The Promise and Challenge of Eliciting Context in Social Media Posts with Natural Language Processing” AIES ’20: Proceedings of the AAAI/ACM Conference on AI, Ethics, and Society. 337-342. 

Desmond U. Patton, Philipp Blandfort, William R. Frey, Rossano Schifanella, Kyle A. McGregor, Shih-GFu Chang (2020) “VATAS: An Open-Source Web Platform for Visual and Textual Analysis of Social MediaJournal of the Society of Social Work and Research.

kudos for upcoming SMC visitor Paul Dourish

Now that we have said goodbye to our most recent long-term visitor, Henry Jenkins, we can look ahead to our next, Paul Dourish. It’s a fine time to do so, as he has just been awarded two honors that testify to his important contributions to the study of computation and society. His 1992 paper “Awareness and Coordination in Shared Workspaces,” co-authored with Victorial Bellotti, was awarded the Lasting Impact award at the upcoming CSCW conference. And he was just chosen as a 2015 ACM Fellow, “for contributions in social computing and human-computer interaction.” Paul will be visiting the SMC group and the Microsoft Research New England lab in spring 2016.

my latest syllabus: “Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice”

Several years ago, I introduced a class at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism which was designed to encourage scholars in training to think more deeply about the public-facing dimensions of their work. I wanted to call the class, “How to Be a Public Intellectual,” but this is a university, so we couldn’t be that direct and practical. After some negotiation, the class became “Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice.” Click here for my latest draft of the syllabus.

Students were asked to try their hands about a range of genres (the op ed, the blog post, the digital essay, the interview) that went beyond the university press monograph and the peer-reviewed journal; they heard from faculty at USC and elsewhere who were in the trenches, using their research to make a difference in the world; they underwent media training, including time being interviewed inside a radio studio, so they could reflect upon and refine their skills at public communication; and they were encouraged to explore potential career paths which led them beyond the academy, including some time with researchers working in corporate spaces.

So much for the practice. As I am getting ready to teach the class a second time, I’ve beefed up a bit more on the theory side, using the class as a chance to work through with students a range of professional issues (including those surrounding the current economic and institutional status of universities, diversity and privilege, accessability and the conventions of academic writing, the nature of the public sphere in a networked era, the construction and performance of an academic persona, and scholarly autonomy and collaboration. These are core questions which will shape the environment in which these students will be working in the future and how they situate themselves and their research in relation to the changing world around them. 

I was struck the first time I taught this class by the way focusing on becoming a public intellectual fostered an engagement with larger questions about professional ethics. I often go back to the original meaning of the term, Professor, as in to profess, to share what you know with the world. This is not simply a self-branding strategy; this cuts to the heart of our professional obligations. There are more opportunities now for academics to share what they know with the world than ever before, more chances for us to profess and promote our ideas beyond the control of traditional gatekeepers. But doing so requires personal choices and commitments because these alternative forms of scholarship do not necessarily bring you benefits when you come up for tenure and promotion. Blogging or digital scholarship is often not considered as satisfying the old publish and perish mandate. 

I’d love to see universities reassess the value of being a public intellectual, but until they do, we need to know the risks and benefits associated with doing this kind of intervention. What we can do is shaped by our own institutional setting and professional status, but I do know that our world is a better place if our students have the skills and dispositions needed to become a public intellectual when the opportunity to make a difference in the world presents itself.

I also know that all of us — whether in academy, government, the press, or the private sector — have a vested interest in insuring that the best contemporary knowledge and thought gets out of the academic enclosure and into a wider, more citizenly discourse. I am hoping that sharing this syllabus may spark more discussions about what we can do to foster and support public intellectuals.

Click here for the draft syllabus.

new essay from SMC visitor Tom Streeter, on the persistent fascination with Steve Jobs

SMC is excited to welcome Tom Streeter, who will be soon making occasional visits to our New England lab, beginning later this month. To mark his arrival, we wanted to highlight the essay he has just published in the International Journal of Communication“Steve Jobs, Romantic Individualism, and the Desire for Good Capitalism.” (Borrowing from the summary provided by IJOC here:)

The essay explains how that story and its repetition tell us more about the culture than the man. Building on previous work about the rise of “romantic individualism” as an organizing mechanism for high-tech capitalism, this essay focuses on the latest outpouring of discourse about Jobs since his death in 2011, analyzing both its continuities with past cultural forms and what it is about the present moment that has intensified the discourse—especially the post-2008 crisis of confidence in financial capitalism. Among other things, the tale offers the appealing, if ultimately unrealistic, hope of a capitalism with integrity, of a one-percenter who deserves it.

Why We Like Pinterest for Fieldwork

(written up with Nikki Usher, GWU)

Anyone tackling fieldwork these days can chose from a wide selection of digital tools to put in their methodological toolkit.  Among the best of these tools are platforms that let you archive, analyze, and disseminate at the same time.  It used to be that these were fairly distinct stages of research, especially for the most positivist among us.  You came up with research questions, chose a field site, entered the field site, left the field site, analyzed your findings, got them published, and shared your research output with friends and colleagues.

But the post-positivist approach that many of us like involves adapting your research questions—reflexively and responsively—while doing fieldwork.  Entering and leaving your field site is not a cool, clean and complete process.  We analyze findings as we go, and involve our research subjects in the analysis.  We publish, but often in journals or books that can’t reproduce the myriad digital artifacts that are meaningful in network ethnography.  Actor network theory, activity theory, science and technology studies and several other modes of social and humanistic inquiry approach research as something that involves both people and devices. (Yes yes we know but these wikipedia entries aren’t bad.) Moreover, the dissemination of work doesn’t have to be something that happens after publication or even at the end of a research plan.

Nikki’s work involves qualitative ethnographic work at field sites where research can last from five months to a brief week visit to a quick drop in day. She learned the hard way from her research for Making News at The New York Times that failing to find a good way to organize and capture images was a missed opportunity post-data collection. Since then, Nikki’s been using Pinterest for fieldwork image gathering quite a bit.  Phil’s work on The Managed Citizen was set back when he lost two weeks of field notes on the chaotic floor of the Republican National Convention in 2000 (security incinerates all the detritus left by convention goers).  He’s been digitizing field observations ever since.

Some people put together personal websites about their research journey.  Some share over Twitter.  And there are plenty of beta tools, open source or otherwise, that people play with.  We’ve both enjoyed using Pinterest for our research projects.  Here are some points on how we use it and why we like it.

How To Use It

  1. When you start, think of this as your research tool and your resource.   If you dedicate yourself to this as your primary archiving system for digital artifacts you are more likely to build it up over time.  If you think of this as a social media publicity gimmick for your research, you’ll eventually lose interest and it is less likely to be useful for anyone else.
  2. Integrate it with your mobile phone because this amps up your capacity for portable, taggable, image data collection.
  3. Link the board posts to Twitter or your other social media feeds.  Pinterest itself isn’t that lively a place for researchers yet.  The people who want to visit your Pinterest page are probably actively following your activities on other platforms so be sure to let content flow across platforms.
  4. Pin lots of things, and lots of different kinds of things.  Include decent captions though be aware that if you are feeding Twitter you need to fit character limits.
  5. Use it to collect images you have found online, images you’ve taken yourself during your fieldwork, and invite the communities you are working with to contribute.
  6. Backup and export things once in a while for safe keeping.  There is no built-in export function, but there are a wide variety of hacks and workarounds for transporting your archive.

What You Get

  1. Pinterest makes it easy to track the progress of the image data you gather.  You may find yourself taking more photos in the field because they can be easily arranged, saved and categorized.
  2. Using it regularly adds another level of data as photos and documents captured on phone and then added on Pinterest can be quickly field captioned and then re-catalogued, giving you a chance to review the visual and built environment of your field site and interrogate your observations afresh.
  3. Visually-enhanced constant comparative methods: post-data collection, you can go beyond notes to images and captions that are easily scanned for patterns and points of divergence. This may be  going far beyond what Glaser and Strauss had imagined, of course.
  4. Perhaps most important, when you forget what something looks like when you’re writing up your results, you’ve got an instant, easily searchable database of images and clues to refresh your memory.

Why We Like It

  1. It’s great for spontaneous presentations.  Images are such an important part of presenting any research.  Having a quick publically accessible archive of content allows you to speak, on the fly, about what you are up to.  You can’t give a tour of your Pinterest page for a job talk.  But having the resource there means you can call on images quickly during a Q&A period, or quickly load something relevant on a phone or browser during a casual conversation about your work.
  2. It gives you a way to interact with subjects.  Having the Pinterest link allows you to show a potential research subject what you are up to and what you are interested in.  During interviews it allows you to engage people on their interpretation of things.  Having visual prompts handy can enrich and enliven any focus group or single subject interview.  These don’t only prompt further conversation, they can prompt subjects to give you even more links, images, videos and other digital artifacts.
  3. It makes your research interests transparent. Having the images, videos and artifacts for anyone to see is a way for us to show what we are doing.  Anyone with interest in the project and the board link is privy to our research goals. Our Pinterest page may be far less complicated than many of our other efforts to explain our work to a general audience.
  4. You can disseminate as you go.  If you get the content flow right, you can tell people about your research as you are doing it.  Letting people know about what you are working on is always a good career strategy.  Giving people images rather than article abstracts and draft chapters gives them something to visualize and improves the ambient contact with your research community
  5. It makes digital artifacts more permanent. As long as you keep your Pinterest, what you have gathered can become a stable resource for anyone interested in your subjects. As sites and material artifacts change, what you have gathered offers a permanent and easily accessible snapshot of a particular moment of inquiry for posterity.

Pinterest Wish-list

One of us is a Windows Phone user (yes really) and it would be great if there was a real Pinterest app for the Windows Phone. One touch integration from the iPhone, much like Twitter, Facebook, and Flicker from the camera roll would be great (though there is an easy hack).

We wish it would be easier to have open, collaborative boards. Right now, the only person who can add to a board is you, at least at first.  You can invite other people to join a “group board” via email, but Pinterest does not have open boards that allow anyone with a board link to add content.

Here’s a look at our Pinboards: Phil Howard’s Tech + Politics board, and Nikki Usher’s boards on U.S. Newspapers.  We welcome your thoughts…and send us images!


Why Digital Inequality Scholarship Needs Ethnography

Digital inequality scholarship is well-intentioned. It debunks myths about digital media’s inherent egalitarianism and draws attention to the digital dimensions of social inequalities. Digital inequality scholars have shown, for example, that people with access to networked media use those technologies in different ways, some of which are thought to be more beneficial than others. They have highlighted how differences in skills and quality of access shape use. And they have rightly attacked the stereotype of the digital generation. These are important contributions for which we should be grateful.

Yet digital inequality scholarship is also limited in some fundamental, and I believe hazardous, ways. To defend these claims, I will draw on an in-depth ethnographic study of an ambitious attempt to combat digital inequality: a new, well-resourced, and highly touted public middle school in Manhattan that fashions itself as, “a school for digital kids.” It is hard to imagine a more concerted attempt to combat digital inequality, and yet the school paradoxically helped perpetuate many of the very social divisions it hoped to mend. In-depth ethnographic studies can help us understand these outcomes, and they can provide us with tools for forming more accurate conceptions of relations between digital media and social inequalities.

Recruitment flier for the Downtown School
Recruitment flier for the Downtown School

I will call this school, which opened in the fall of 2009, the Downtown School for Design, Media and Technology, or the Downtown School for short. Supported by major philanthropic foundations, and designed by leading scholars and practitioners from the learning sciences as well as media technology design, the Downtown School braided digital media practices, and especially media production activities, throughout its curriculum. They had enviable financial, technological, and intellectual resources, and they recruited an atypically diverse student body for a New York City public school. About half the students came from privileged families where at least one parent worked in a professional field and held an advanced degree. And about 40-percent of students came from less-privileged families that qualified for free or reduced-price lunch; these parents and guardians often had some or no college education and worked in comparatively low-paying service work. All students took a required game design course, and the school’s entire suite of after-school programs were devoted to making, hacking, remixing, and designing media technology.

Digital inequality scholarship played a role in the formation the Downtown School and similar interventions. Concepts such as the digital divide, the “participation gap” (Jenkins et al. 2006), the “digital production gap” (Schradie 2011), or the “participation divide” (Hargittai and Walejko 2008) implicitly, if not explicitly, recommend and legitimate interventions such as the Downtown School. Since digital inequality scholars argue that skill differentials play a large role in producing digital inequalities, educational practitioners understandably craft interventions to reduce these differentials.

Students in the Downtown School’s required game design course.
Students in the Downtown School’s required game design course.

According to such a framework, the Downtown School was successful in many ways. Both boy and girl students from diverse economic and ethnic backgrounds learned to use digital media in new ways. In particular, students learned to use digital tools to be producers, rather than just consumers, of digital media. Through the lens of concepts like the “participation gap,” the school appears successful and should be quickly replicated.

The problem though – and here is why we need ethnography – is that while the Downtown School arguably helped close the participation gap, it also helped perpetuate historical social divisions, especially those rooted in gender and racialized social class. When the Downtown School opened, it attracted three boys for every two girls; three years after opening, the ratio rose to two-to-one. Only one girl student regularly participated in the school’s after-school programs focused on media production; most regular participants were boys from privileged families. By the end of the first year, all of the economically less-privileged boys in one of the school’s main cliques had left the school for larger, less-resourced schools that had a greater diversity of curricular and extra-curricular offerings as well as more of a dating scene. By the end of the second year, many of the less-privileged girls from another of the main cliques had also left the school. While their reasons for leaving were complex, they and their families suggested in interviews with me that the Downtown School was not a ‘good fit.’ By contrast, nearly all of the privileged students remained enrolled, and many of their parents were enthusiast boosters for the school.

Why were many students, and especially many of the less-privileged students, not able or unwilling to take advantage of the purportedly beneficial opportunities afforded by the Downtown School? Digital inequality frameworks do not provide a satisfying way to answer this question. They do not see many of the factors that matter to people in different situations, nor the nexus of conditions and forces that shape what people do, and do not do, with and without digital media. Ethnography, in contrast, casts a much wider net that can help account for these conditions and processes. A few more examples will help clarify this point.

On the ground, I observed and documented what students were doing when they were not taking advantage of the school’s purportedly beneficial activities. It turned out that most of the students spent their afternoon hours in familiar activities that predate the digital age: basketball practices, music lessons, swimming classes, learning a foreign language, dance classes, taking care of siblings and cousins, chores, and so forth. These activities meant a lot to students and their families, and many expressed a desire for the school to offer more diverse curricular and extra-curricular offerings. These activities were also integral to how students navigated and negotiated identity and difference with their peers at school (Sims 2014). This wider ecology of practices, as well as what participation and non-participation meant for those involved, would be invisible if one were to study the Downtown School using the digital inequality framework. And what a digital inequality approach would have captured and championed would have mostly reflected the interests and practices of those who were most privileged.

One can still argue that social scientists, policy makers, and educational practitioners should do all that they can to close digital inequalities such as the participation gap. One can argue that doing so is in the best interest of those currently on the wrong side of the chasm. One can argue that treating digital inequalities is akin to dealing with a public health concern, or, more aptly, that it should be folded into broader efforts to mandate STEM education amongst all contemporary school children. In short, digital inequality scholars can admit that there is a prescriptive character to their efforts and that treatment is justified because it is in the best interest of the public as well as those being treated.

This is a debate that can be had but it is not the debate that digital inequality scholars are currently having. In its current form, the digital inequality debate escapes these issues because it assumes that certain decontextualized “uses” will be universally appealing to people once barriers to participation – lack of quality access, skills, etc. – are removed. There is a sort of technology-focused ethnocentrism to these assumptions that prevents this potentially uncomfortable debate from ever taking place. If digital inequality scholars were to acknowledge the prescriptive character of their scholarship, a host of thorny ethical dilemmas would quickly surface: To what degree should social scientists, policy-makers, and educational practitioners force people to partake in participatory culture? To what extent do the ends justify the means? What exercises of power are legitimate? What liberties should be granted to those identified for treatment? And so on.

These are difficult questions, and my guess is that most digital inequality scholars do not want to address them. My own feeling is that scholars should be extremely cautious in pushing for such treatments, whether domestically or abroad, even if they feel that their medicine would be in the best interest of the treated. The histories of various missionary and colonial endeavors – to name just a few charged examples – make the ethical and political hazards of such an enterprise all too clear.

Note: This was originally posted at Ethnography Matters.


Hargittai, E. & Walejko, G., 2008. The Participation Divide: Content Creation and Sharing in the Digital Age. Information, Communication & Society, 11(2), pp.239–256.

Jenkins, H. et al., 2006. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, Chicago, IL: The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Schradie, J., 2011. The Digital Production Gap: The Digital Divide and Web 2.0 Collide. Poetics, 39(2), pp.145–168.

Sims, C., 2012. The Cutting Edge of Fun: Making Work Play at the New American School. University of California, Berkeley.

Sims, C., 2014 (forthcoming). From Differentiated Use to Differentiating Practices: Negotiating Legitimate Participation and the Production of Privileged Identities. Information, Communication & Society.

Look Who Stopped By: Jason Mittell

We get a lot of wonderful and interesting visitors here at SMC. Today, we had the pleasure of spending time with Jason Mittell, Chair of the Department of  Film and Media Culture at Middlebury College. 


SMC: So what brings you to MSR today?

JM: Visiting with Nancy Baym, and chatting to just see how things work here.

SMC: What’s the most fun thing that you learned during your visit today?

JM: You have a wide assortment of coffee-related products.

SMC: Ah, yes, our famous beverage bar!  So, out of our many options, what was your drink of choice today?

JM: I had a double espresso, which was quite excellent.

Look Who Stopped By: Siva Vaidhyanathan

We get a lot of wonderful and interesting visitors here at SMC. Today, we had the pleasure of spending time with Siva Vaidhyanathan, Robertson Professor and the Chair of the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. 


SMC: So what brings you to MSR today?

SV: For years I’ve wanted to visit MSR and talk to the folks who are working on the social science questions. Ever since danah boyd came here 4 years ago, maybe 5 years ago, I knew that something really interesting was happening here, and that someone here was smart enough to hire danah. That said a lot. But then once  Kate and Nancy and Mary all announced their willingness to join this team, I knew that the absolute best work was going to come out of this group. So, you know, I’ve been itching to hang out with these folks. They’re not only doing the best work on internet culture, but they’re also really fun, nice people. And they attract other fun, nice people! So I was not disappointed.

SMC: What’s the most fun thing that you learned during your visit today?

SV: That Neal Stephenson goes to church. (laughs) Cambridge is a tremendous salon of thought and research about the most interesting questions about digital technology and culture. I don’t know that there’s a better town in the US for these sorts of conversations, and MSR is a big part of that. Between MSR and Berkman, you have critical mass of really smart people who are asking all the right questions and generating sophisticated answers.

SMC: SMC has quite an extensive beverage bar.  Out of our many options, what was your drink of choice today?

SV: (laughs) I had chai.