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Call for applications! MSR Social Media Collective PhD interns, for summer 2017

September 30, 2016

APPLICATION DEADLINE: JANUARY 1, 2017

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 SMC. We are looking for applicants working in one or more of the following areas:

  • Personal relationships and digital media
  • Audiences and the shifting landscapes of producer/consumer relations
  • Affective, immaterial, and other frameworks for understanding digital labor
  • How platforms, through their design and policies, shape public discourse
  • The politics of algorithms, metrics, and big data for a computational culture
  • 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.

 

PEOPLE AT MSRNE SOCIAL MEDIA COLLECTIVE

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 intermediaries for 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: http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/labs/newengland/people/bios.aspx

 

APPLICATION PROCESS

To apply for a PhD internship with the Social Media Collective, fill out the online application form: https://careers.research.microsoft.com/

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. A pointer to your website or other online presence (if available; 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 tarleton@microsoft.com and include “SMC PhD Internship” in the subject line.

 

TIMELINE

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 January to arrange a Skype interview. Applicants chosen for the internship will be informed in February and announced on the socialmediacollective.org blog.

 


 

PREVIOUS INTERN TESTIMONIALS

“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

 


 

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
How much is the salary/stipend? How is it disbursed?
The exact amount changes year to year and depends on a student’s degree status and any past internships with MSR, but it’s somewhere above $2,000/month (after taxes). Interns are paid every 2 weeks. Be aware that the first paycheck doesn’t arrive until about week 3 or 4 (takes awhile for the paperwork to process) so you’d need to make sure you have resources to cover you transition to Cambridge, MA.
Is housing included? Is there assistance finding housing?
The internship comes with funds for travel to/from the area, a small relocation budget, and either a housing stipend or assigned housing.
Are other living expenses included, such as healthcare?
Commuting is covered through either a voucher to get a bike, parking at the building, or a commuter pass. Healthcare is *not* provided, though there is a (pricey) policy that students can purchase while here. The assumption is that interns are covered by their home institution’s healthcare policies, as you would be if you are on summer break.
Are there any provisions for dependents traveling with the intern?
There are, but they can change, so feel free to ask about the specifics that pertain to you. Dependents can be covered with housing (i.e. interns with families receive housing assignments that accommodate their children and partners). Interns with families have definitely been able to make the visit work.
Please note: This internship is *intense* – even for the pretty good pay and the sweet view, it’s not worth applying for this unless you’re ready to work as hard (or harder) than you have in any grad seminar before.

Negotiating Identity in Social Media: Ph.D. course in Aarhus after AoIR

September 13, 2016
by

Registration open for: “Negotiating Identity in Social Media: Relational, emotional, and visual labor” with Nancy Baym, Annette Markham and Katrin Tiidenberg.

REGISTRATION: https://auws.au.dk/negotiationofidentityinsocialmedia

Time: Oct 11-14, 2016 (Just after the AoIR conference in Berlin)
Place: Aarhus University and DOKK 1,  Aarhus, Denmark
Online: We’ll post an online participation option soon. Check back!

Instructors:
Nancy Baym (Microsoft Research New England and MIT);
Annette Markham (Aarhus University);
Katrin Tiidenberg (Aarhus University and Tallinn University).

Description: This course introduces participants to contemporary concepts for studying how self, identity, and contexts are negotiated through interactive processes involving visuality, relationality, and emotionality. The metaphor of labor is used to highlight how these practices are constrained and enabled by economic rationalities, affordances of digital technologies, and contemporary norms around building identity through social media.

1. Emotional Labor was developed as a sociological concept to understand certain workplace practices. This theory usefully addresses how, within an economic framework of producing the self as a ‘brand’ via social media, a labor model of controlled emotionality is invoked. This critical stance toward identity performance is a useful lens for studying how people perform and negotiate identity in social media contexts.

2. Relational labor, a term developed by Nancy Baym to illustrate how performers build ongoing connections with disparate audiences, is an extension of emotional labor. This concept helps us consider the neoliberal frames within which our identity practices are caught, when using social media platforms geared toward audience building, and how the issues raised by emotional labor play out when moved from particular interactions to the unending connectivity social media demand.

3. Visual labor is a concept that, like the previous two, can help researchers consider issues and practices around the digitally saturated self as a product of a visual economy.

Who can attend? Course is appropriate for PhD students, postdocs, and early career researchers in media studies, information studies, anthropology, sociology, political science, and other fields addressing social media practices or negotiation of identity. No prerequisite knowledge is necessary.

Readings:

Emotional labor:

Hochschild, A. R. (1983). The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Tracy, J. S. (2000). Becoming a character for commerce: emotion labor, self-subordination, and discursive construction of identity in a total institution. Management Communication Quarterly, 14(1), 90–128.
Kang, M. (2003). The managed hand: the commercialization of bodies and emotions in Korean immigrant-owned nail salons. Gender and Society, 17(6), 820–839.

Relational labor:

Baym, N. K. (2012). Fans or friends?: seeing social media audiences as musicians do. Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies, 9(2), 286–316.
Baym, N. K. (2014). Connect with your audience! the relational labor of connection. The Communication Review, 18(1), 14-22.

Bounded rationality/bounded emotionality:

Mumby, D. K., & Putnam, L. L. (1992). The politics of emotion: a feminist reading of bounded rationality. The Academy of Management Review, 17(3), 465–486.

Interpersonal relations:

Baxter, L. A., & Montgomery, B. M. (1996). Chapter 1 “Thinking dialectically about communication in personal relationships.” In Relating: dialogues and dialectics. New York: The Guilford Press.

Identity:

Gergen, K. (2000). Chapter “Truth in trouble” and chapter “From self to relationship.“  In The saturated self: dilemmas of identity in contemporary life (pp. 81 –110). New York: Basic Books.
Goffman, E. (1966) Chapter “Interpretations”. In Behavior in public places (pp. 193–242). New York: The Free Press.
Goffman, E. (1981). Footing. In Forms of talk (pp. 124–159). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. (we assume that participants have read Erving Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life).
Markham, A. (2013). The dramaturgy of digital experience. In C. Edgley (Ed.), The drama of social life: a dramaturgical handbook (pp. 279–293). Farnham: Ashgate.

Visuality:

Tiidenberg, K, & Gomez Cruz, E. (2015). Selfies, image and the re-making of the body. Body & Society, 1–26.
Abidin, C. (2016). “Aren’t these just young, rich women doing vain things online?”: influencer selfies as subversive frivolity. Social Media + Society, 2(2), 1–17.

Preliminary schedule:

Tuesday, October 11, 2016:
09:30-12:00: Introduction to the course and discussion
12:00 – 13:00 Lunch
13:00 – 14:30: Public Lecture by Annette Markham on Emotional Labor

Casual (self funded) dinner with the seminar participants, location TBA

Wednesday, October 12, 2016:
09:30 – 12:00: Discuss emotional labor (previous day’s lecture plus texts)
12:00 – 13:00 Lunch
13:00 – 14:30 Public Lecture by Nancy Baym on Relational Labor
15:00-16:30: QTC Wednesdays at the DLRC (Digital Living Research Commons). Informal conversation with Nancy Baym

Dinner with Media Studies and Information Studies faculty: Location TBA

Thursday, October 13, 2016:
9:30- 12:00: Discuss relational labor (previous day’s lecture plus texts)
12:00 – 13:00 Lunch
13:00 – 14:30 Public Lecture by Katrin Tiidenberg on Embodiment and Visual Labor
15:00-16:00 Discussion of issues, ethics, and concerns
16:00-17:00 wrap-up and evaluation

Organized dinner with participants, location TBA

Architecture or Minecraft?

August 31, 2016

(or, “Hopefully 4chan Won’t Hear About This Contest”)

The social-media-ification of everything continues. If you’ve got time for some late-summer procrastination, thanks to the Internet you can choose the design of my house.

As you may have read here two weeks ago, I’m crowdsourcing it. The first competition is over and I received 16 entries — above average for arcbazar.com. That means anyone on the Internet can now help pick a winner. I’d say there are some great designs and many awful ones.

My needs attracted designers from Nigeria, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania, Vietnam, Mexico, and Indonesia. But also London, Texas, and my very own town of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Submissions are anonymous, but Arcbazar maps their self-reported locations:
arcbazar map.png

Anyone can submit–no credentials required. So far I don’t think it’s “the worst thing to happen to architecture since the Internet started” but there’s still plenty of time for this to go sideways on me. The next step is voting.

In Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, the young architect Howard Roark says, “I don’t intend to build in order to have clients. I intend to have clients in order to build.” Like Rand’s protagonist, I think some of my designers refused to compromise their unique vision. To give you the flavor, here are some comments my friends made about the low points:

“This house looks like the head of a Minecraft pig”:

BARNSK

 

For reference:

barnpig

 

We asked for a barn-like building with a gambrel roof. That was a requirement. To write this requirement, “gambrel” is a word I had to look up. Google says:

gambrel roof

I think some of the designers really struggled with it! A friend said: “It looks like this building fell down and broke its spine.”

broken roof

 

“This appears to be a car dealership.”:

arcbazar concept

 

You can help choose the winner here: (You need to sign up for a free login.)

There are two separate things to do at this link — voting and commenting. Anyone with an arcbazar login can vote: it’s a numerical rating in five categories.

To vote click “Vote now!” when you are looking at a particular entry. This affects the rankings.

arcbazar vote now link

 

To comment and to read other people’s comments, click the word “Evaluations” when you are looking at a particular entry. You need a Facebook login to add a comment.

arcbazar evaluations link

 

Stay tuned. More updates here as the process unfolds.

 

I crowdsourced the design of my house

August 17, 2016

(or, “The Social-Media-ification of Everything”)

The architecture crowdsourcing Web site Arcbazar has been called “The Worst Thing to Happen To Architecture Since the Internet Started.” The site also got some press recently by running a parallel, unauthorized architecture competition for the “people’s choice” for the design of the Obama Presidential Library.

arcbazar screen shot home page

The arcbazar welcome page. (click to enlarge)

I’ve decided to use arcbazar.com to run two architectural competitions for my house. My competitions started yesterday (links below), in case you want to see this play out in real time.

Most of the attention given to arcbazar has been about labor, safety, and value. Discussion has centered around possible changes to the profession of architecture. Does it lower standards? Will it put architecture jobs and credentials in jeopardy?

Yet as a social media researcher the part of arcbazar that has my attention is what I would call the “social media-ification of everything.”

Anyone with a free arcbazar account can submit a design or act as a juror for submitted designs, and as the Web site has evolved it has added features that evoke popular social media platforms. Non-architects are asked to vote on designs, and the competitions use familiar social media features and metaphors like a competition “wall.”

Here are my competitions. You need a free account to look at them.

This means YOU could design my house, so please choose wisely. (One friend said: “You realize your house is going to be renamed Housey McHouseFace.”) Keep your fingers crossed for me that this works out well. Some of the submitted designs for past competitions are a little… odd…

obama building shaped like obamas name

Who wouldn’t want a house in the shape of their own name? (click to enlarge)

Three flawed assumptions the Daily Beast made about dating apps

August 16, 2016
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Image from @Cernovich

Last week, the Daily Beast published an article by one of its editors who sought to report about how dating apps were facilitating sexual encounters in Rio’s Olympic Village. Instead, his story focused mainly on athletes using Grindr, an app for men seeking men, and included enough personal information about individuals to identify and out them. After the article was criticized as dangerous and unethical across media outlets and social media, the Daily Beast replaced it with an apology. However, decisions to publish articles like this are made based on assumptions about who uses dating apps and how people share information on them. These assumptions are visible not only in how journalists act but also in the approaches that researchers and app companies take when it comes to users’ personal data. Ethical breeches like the one made by the Daily Beast will continue unless we address the following three (erroneous) assumptions:

Assumption 1. Data on dating apps is shareable like a tweet or a Facebook post

 Since dating apps are a hybrid between dating websites of the past and today’s social media, there is an assumption that the information users generate on dating apps should be shared. Zizi Papacharissi and Paige Gibson[1] have written about ‘shareability’ as the built-in way that social network sites encourage sharing and discourage withholding information. This is evident within platforms like Facebook and Twitter, through ‘share’ and ‘retweet’ buttons, as well as across the web as social media posts are formatted to be easily embedded in news articles and blog posts.

Dating apps provide many spaces for generating content, such as user profiles, and some app architectures are increasingly including features geared toward shareability. Tinder, for example, provides users with the option of creating a ‘web profile’ with a distinct URL that anyone can view without even logging into the app. While users determine whether or not to share their web profiles, Tinder also recently experimented with a “share” button allowing users to send a link to another person’s profile by text message or email. This creates a platform-supported means of sharing profiles to individuals who may never have encountered them otherwise.

The problem with dating apps adopting social media’s tendency toward sharing is that dating environments construct particular spaces for the exchange of intimate information. Dating websites have always required a login and password to access their services. Dating apps are no different in this sense – regardless of whether users login through Facebook authentication or create a new account, dating apps require users to be members. This creates a shared understanding of the boundaries of the app and the information shared within it.  Everyone is implicated in the same situation: on a dating app, potentially looking for sexual or romantic encounters. A similar boundary exists for me when I go to the gay bar; everyone I encounter is also in the same space so the information of my whereabouts is equally as implicating for them. However, a user hitting ‘share’ on someone’s Tinder profile and sending it to a colleague, family member, or acquaintance removes that information from the boundaries within which it was consensually provided. A journalist joining a dating app to siphon users’ information for a racy article flat out ignores these boundaries.

Assumption 2. Personal information on dating apps is readily available and therefore can be publicized

 When the Daily Beast’s editor logged into Grindr and saw a grid full of Olympic athletes’ profiles, he likely assumed that if this information was available with a few taps of his screen then it could also be publicized without a problem. Many arguments about data ethics get stuck debating whether information shared on social media and apps is public or private. In actuality, users place their information in a particular context with a specific audience in mind. The violation of privacy occurs when another party re-contextualizes this information by placing it in front of a different audience.

Although scholars have pointed out that re-contextualization of personal information is a violation of privacy, this remains a common occurrence even across academia. We were reminded of this last May when 70,000 OkCupid users’ data was released without permission by researchers in Denmark. Annette Markham’s post on the SMC blog pointed out that “the expectation of privacy about one’s profile information comes into play when certain information is registered and becomes meaningful for others.” This builds on Helen Nissenbaum’s[2] notion of “privacy in context” meaning that people assume the information they share online will be seen by others in a specific context. Despite the growing body of research confirming that this is exactly how users view and manage their personal information, I have come across many instances where researchers have re-published screenshots of user profiles from dating apps without permission. These screenshots are featured in presentations, blog posts, and theses with identifying details that violate individuals’ privacy by re-contextualizing their personal information for an audience outside the app. As an academic community, we need to identify this as an unethical practice that is potentially damaging to research subjects.

Dating app companies also perpetuate the assumption that user information can be shared across contexts through their design choices. Recently, Tinder launched a new feature in the US called Tinder Social, which allows users to join with friends and swipe on others to arrange group hangouts. Since users team up with their Facebook friends, activating this feature lets you see everyone else on your Facebook account who is also on Tinder with this feature turned on. While Tinder Social requires users to ‘unlock’ its functionality from their Settings screen, its test version in Australia automatically opted users in. When Australian users updated their app, this collapsed a boundary between the two platforms that previously kept the range of family, friends, and acquaintances accumulated on Facebook far, far away from users’ dating lives. While Tinder seems to have learned from the public outcry about this privacy violation, the company’s choice to overlap Facebook and Tinder audiences disregards how important solid boundaries between social contexts can be for certain users.

 Assumption 3. Sexuality is no big deal these days

 At the crux of the Daily Beast article was the assumption that it was okay to share potentially identifying details about people’s sexuality. As others have pointed out, just because same-sex marriage and other rights have been won by lesbian, bisexual, gay, trans, and queer (LGBTQ) people in some countries, many cultures, religions, and political and social groups remain extremely homophobic. Re-contextualization of intimate and sexual details shared within the boundaries of a dating app not only constitutes a violation of privacy, it could expose people to discrimination, abuse, and violence.

In my research with LGBTQ young people, I’ve learned that a lot of them are very skilled at placing information about their sexuality where they want it to be seen and keeping it absent from spaces where it may cause them harm. For my master’s thesis, I interviewed university students about their choices of whether or not to come out on Facebook. Many of them were out to a certain degree, posting about pro-LGBTQ political views and displaying their relationships in ways that resonated with friendly audiences but eluded potentially homophobic audiences like coworkers or older adults.

In my PhD, I’ve focused on how same-sex attracted women manage their self-representations across social media. Their practices are not clear-cut since different social media spaces mean different things to users. One interviewee talked about posting selfies with her partner to Facebook for friends and family but not to Instagram where she’s trying to build a network of work and church-related acquaintances. Another woman spoke about cross-posting Vines to friendly LGBTQ audiences on Tumblr but keeping them off of Instagram and Facebook where her acquaintances were likely to pick fights over political issues. Many women talked about frequently receiving negative, discriminatory, and even threatening homophobic messages despite these strategies, highlighting just how important it was for them to be able to curate their self-representations. This once again defies the tendency to designate some sites or pieces of information as ‘public’ and others as ‘private.’ We need to follow users’ lead by respecting the context in which they’ve placed personal information based on their informed judgments about audiences.

Journalists, researchers, and app companies frequently make decisions based on assumptions about dating apps. They assume that since the apps structurally resemble other social media then it’s permissible to carry out similar practices tending toward sharing user-generated information. This goes hand-in-hand with the assumption that if user data is readily available, it can be re-contextualized for other purposes. On dating apps, this assumes (at best) that user data about sexuality will be received neutrally across contexts and at its worst, this data is used without regard for the harm it may cause. There is ample evidence that none of these assumptions hold true when we look at how people create bounded spaces for exchanging intimate information, how users manage their personal information in particular contexts, and how LGBTQ people deal with enduring homophobia and discrimination. While the Daily Beast should not have re-contextualized dating app users’ identifying information in its article, this instance provides an opportunity to dispel these assumptions and change how we design, research, and report about dating apps in order to treat users’ information more ethically.

 

 [1] Papacharissi, Z., & Gibson, P. L. (2011). Fifteen minutes of privacy: Privacy, sociality and publicity on social network sites. In S. Trepte & L. Reinecke (Eds.), Privacy Online (pp. 75–89). Berlin: Springer.

[2] Nissenbaum, H. (2009). Privacy in context: Technology, policy, and the integrity of social life. Stanford, CA: Standford University Press.

How machine learning can amplify or remove gender stereotypes

August 6, 2016

TLDR: It’s easier to remove gender biases from machine learning algorithms than from people.

In a recent paper, Saligrama, Bolukbasi, Chang, Zou, and I stumbled across some good and bad news about Word Embeddings. Word Embeddings are a wildly popular tool of the trade among AI researchers. They can be used to solve analogy puzzles. For instance, for man:king :: woman:x, AI researchers celebrate when the computer outputs xqueen (normal people are surprised that such a seemingly trivial puzzle could challenge a computer). Inspired by our social scientist colleagues (esp. Nancy Baym, Tarleton Gillespie and Mary Gray), we dug a little deeper and wrote a short program that found the “best” he:x :: she:y analogies, where best is determined according to the embedding of common words and phrases in the most popular publicly available Word Embedding (trained using word2vec on 100 billion words from Google News articles).

The program output a mixture of x-y pairs ranging from definitional, like brother-sister (i.e. he is to brother as she is to sister), to stereotypical, like blue-pink or guitarist-vocalist, to blatantly sexist, like surgeon-nurse, computer programmer-homemaker, and brilliant-lovely. There were also some humorous ones like he is to kidney stone as she is to pregnancysausages-buns, and WTF-OMG. For more analogies and an explanation of the geometry behind them, read more below or see our paper, Man is to Computer Programmer as Woman is to Homemaker? Debiasing Word Embeddings.

Bad news: the straightforward application of Word Embeddings can inadvertently *amplify* biases. These Word Embeddings are being used in increasingly many applications. Among the countless papers that discuss Word Embeddings for use in searching the web, processing resumes, chatbots, etc., etc., hundreds of articles mention the king-queen analogy while none of them notice the blatant sexism present.

Say someone searches for computer programmer. A nice paper has shown how to improve search results using the knowledge in Word Embeddings that the term computer programmer is related to terms like javascript. Using this, search results containing these related terms can bubble up and it was shown that the average results of such a system are statistically more relevant to the query.  However, it also happens that the name John has a stronger association with programmer than the name Mary. This means that, between two identical results that differed only in the names John/Mary, John’s would be ranked first. This would *amplify* the statistical bias that most programmers are male by moving the few female programmers even lower in the search results.

Now you might think that we could solve this problem by simply removing names from embeddings – but there are still subtle indirect biases: the term computer programmer is also closer to baseball than to gymnastics, and as you can imagine, removing names wouldn’t entirely solve the problem.

Good news: biases can easily be reduced/removed from word embeddings. With a touch of a button, we can remove all gender associations between professions, names, and sports in a word embedding. In fact, the word embedding itself captures these concepts so you only have to give a few examples of the kinds of associations you want to keep and the kind you want to remove, and the machine learning algorithms do the rest. Think about how much easier this is for a computer than a human. Men and women have all been shown to have implicit gender associations. And the Word Embeddings also surface shocking gender associations implicit in the text on which they were trained.

People can try to ignore these associations when doing things like evaluating candidates for hiring, but it is a constant uphill battle. A computer, on the other hand, can be programmed to remove associations between different sets of words once, and with ease it will continue along with its work. Of course, we machine learning researchers still need to be careful — depending on the application, biases can creep in other ways. Also, I mention that we are providing tools that others can use to define, remove, negate, but also possibly even amplify biases as they choose for their applications.

As machine learning and AI become ever more ubiquitous, there have been growing pubic discussions about the social benefits and possible dangers of AI. Our research gives insight into a concrete example where a popular, unsupervised machine learning algorithm, when trained over a large corpus of text, reflects and crystallizes the stereotypes in the data and in our society. Wide-spread adoptions of such algorithms can greatly amplify such stereotypes with damaging consequences. Our work highlights the importance to quantify and understand such biases in machine learning and also how machine learning algorithms may be used to reduce bias.

Future work: This work focused on gender biases, specifically male-female biases, but we are now working on techniques for identifying and removing all sorts of biases such as racial biases from Word Embeddings.

Why I Am Suing the Government — Update

August 3, 2016

Last month I joined other social media researchers and the ACLU to file a lawsuit against the US Government to protect the legal right to conduct online research. This is newly relevant today because a community of devs interested in public policy started a petition in support of our court case. It is very nice of them to make this petition. Please consider signing it and sharing this link.

PETITION: Curiosity is (not) a crime
http://slashpolicy.com/petition/curiosity-is-not-a-crime/


For more context, see last month’s post: Why I Am Suing the Government.