Big Data Thoughts

MIT Firehose
MIT Firehose, via wallg on flickr

401 Access Denied , 403 Forbidden , 404 Not Found , 500 Internal Server Error & the Firehose

There is this thing called the firehose. I’ve witnessed mathematicians, game theorists, computer scientist and engineers (apparently there is a distinction), economists, business scholars, and social scientist salivate over it (myself included). The Firehouse, though technically reserved for the twitter API, is all encompassing in the realm of social science for the streams of data that come from social networking sites that are so large that they cannot be processed as they come in. The data are so large, in fact, that coding requires multiple levels of computer aided refinement, as though when we take data from these sources we are drinking from a firehose. While I cannot find the etymology of where the term came from, it seems it either came from twitter terminology bleed, or a water fountain at MIT.

I am blessed with an advisor who has become the little voice that I always have at the back of my head when I am thinking about something. Every meeting he asks the same question, one that should be easy to answer but almost never is, especially when we are invested in a topic, “why does this matter?” To date, outside of business uses or artistic exploration we’ve not made a good case for why big data matters. I think we all want it because we think some hidden truth might be within it. We fetishize big data, and the Firehouse that exists behind locked doors, as though it will be the answer to some bigger question. The problem with this is, there is no question. We, from our own unique, biased, and disciplinary homes, have to come up with the bigger questions. We also have to accept that while data might provide us with some answers, perhaps we should be asking questions that go deeper than that in a research practice that requires more reflexivity than we are seeing right now. I would love to see more nuanced readings that acknowledge the biases, gaps, and holes at all levels of big data curation.

Predictive Power of Patterns

One of my favorite anecdotes that shows the power of big data is the Target incident from February 2012. Target predicted a teenage girl was pregnant and acted as such before she told her family. They sent baby centric coupons to her. Her father called Target very angry then called back later to apologize because there were some things his daughter hadn’t told him. The media storm following the event painted a world both in awe and creeped out by Targets predictive power. How could a seemingly random bit of shopping history point to a pattern that showed that a customer was pregnant? How come I hadn’t noticed that they were doing this to me too? Since the incident went public, and Target shared how they learned how to hide the targeted ads and coupons to minimize the creepy factor I’ve enjoyed receiving the Target coupon books that always come in pairs to my home, one for me and one for my husband, that look the same on the surface but have slight variations on the inside. Apparently target has learned that it the coupons for me go to him they will be used. This is because every time I get my coupon books I complain to him about my crappy coupon for something I need. He laughs at me and shows me his coupon, usually worth twice as much as mine if I just spend a little bit more. It almost always works.

In 2004 Lou Agosta wrote a piece titled “The Future of Data Mining- Predictive Analytics”. With the proliferation of social media, API data access, and the beloved yet mysterious firehose, I think we can say the future is now. Our belief and cyclical relationship with progress as a universal future inevitability turns big data into a universal good. While I am not denying the usefulness of finding predictive patterns, clearly Target knew the girl was pregnant and was able to capitalize on that knowledge, for the social scientist, this pattern identification for outcome prediction followed by verification should not be enough.  Part of our fetishization of big data seems to be in the idea that somehow it will allow us to not just anticipate, but to know, the future. Researchers across fields and industries are working on ways to extract meaningful, predictive data from these nearly indigestible datastreams. We have to remember that even in big data there are gaps, holes, and disturbances. Rather than looking at what big data can tell us, we should be looking towards it as an exploratory method that can help us define different problem sets and related questions.

Big Data as Method?

Recently I went to a talk by a pair of computer scientists. There were people speaking who had access to the entire database of Wikipedia. Because they could, they decided to visualize Wikipedia. After going through slide after slide of pretty colors, they said “who knew there were rainbows in Wikipedia!?”, and then announced that they had moved on from that research. Rainbows can only get me so far. I was stuck asking why this pattern kept repeating itself and wanting to know how people who were creating the data that turned into a rainbow imagined what they were producing. The visualizations didn’t answer anything. If anything, they allowed me to ask clearer, more directed questions. This isn’t to say the work that they did wasn’t beautiful. It is and was. But there is so much more work to do. I hope that as big data continues to become something of a social norm that more people begin to speak across the lines so that we learn how to use this data in meaningful ways everywhere. Right now I think that visualization is still central, but that is one of my biases. The reason I think this is the case because it allows for simple identification of patterns. It also allows us to take in petabytes of data at once, compare different datasets (if similar visualization methods are used) and, to experiment in a way that other forms of data representation do not. When people share visualizations they either show their understandable failure or the final polished product meant for mass consumption. I’ve not heard a lot of conversation about using big data, its curation, and visualization generation as/and method, but maybe I’m not in the right circles? Still, I think until we are willing to share the various steps along the way to turning big data into meaningful bits, or we create an easy to use toolkit for the next generation of big data visualizations, we will continue to all be hacking at the same problem, ending and stopping at different points, without coming to a meaningful point other than “isn’t big data beautiful?”

Participatory Culture: What questions do you have?

Question Mark GraffitiHenry Jenkins, Mimi Ito, and I have embarked on an interesting project for Polity. Through a series of dialogues, we’re hoping to produce a book that interrogates our different thoughts regarding participatory culture. The goal is to unpack our differences and agreements and identify some of the challenges that we see going forward. We began our dialogue this week and had a serious brain jam where we interrogated our own assumptions, values, and stakes in doing the research that we each do and thinking about the project of participatory culture more generally. For the next three weeks, we’re going to individually reflect before coming back to begin another wave of deep dialoguing in the hopes that the output might be something that others (?you?) might be interested in reading.

And here’s where we’re hoping that some of our fans and critics might be willing to provoke us to think more deeply.

  • What questions do you have regarding participatory culture that you would hope that we would address?
  • What criticisms of our work would you like to offer for us to reflect on?
  • What do you think that we fail to address in our work that you wish we would consider?

For those who are less familiar with this concept, Henry and his colleagues describe a “participatory culture” as one:

  1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
  2. With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others
  3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices
  4. Where members believe that their contributions matter
  5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).

This often gets understood through the lens of “Web2.0” or “user-generated content,” but this is broadly about the ways in which a networked society rich with media enables new forms of interaction and engagement. Some of the topics that we are considering covering include “new media literacies,” “participation gap” and the digital divide, the privatization of culture, and networked political engagement. And, needless to say, a lot of our discussion will center on young people’s activities and the kinds of learning and social practices that take place. So what do *you* want us to talk about?

Four Difficult Questions Regarding Bullying and Youth Suicide

Over the last couple of years, I’ve laid awake at night asking myself uncomfortable questions about bullying and teen suicide. I don’t have answers to most of the questions that I have, but I’m choosing to voice my questions, fears, and doubts because I’m not confident that our war on bullying is taking us down the right path. I’m worried about the unintended consequences of our public discourse and I’m worried about the implications that our decisions have on youth, particularly in this high-stakes arena. So I’m asking these four tough questions in the hopes that we can collectively step back and think critically about how we’re addressing bullying as a public issue.

1. What if the stranger danger / sexual predator moral panic increased LGBT suicide?

When I was growing up online, talking to strangers allowed me to getting different perspectives on the world. As a queer teen, the internet allowed me to connect with people who helped me grapple with hard questions around sexuality. I very much thank the internet for playing a crucial role in helping me survive high school. In 2001/2, I visited the online forums that I grew up in, only to find that they were filled with hateful messages directed at LGBT youth by religious ideologues who, quite simply, told these kids they were going to hell. I learned that LGBT networks had gone underground.

As the sexual predator moral panic kicked in in 2005, youth started telling me about how all internet strangers were dangerous. They swallowed the message they’d been told, hook, line, and sinker. What really startled me were all of the LGBT youth I met who told me that they had no one to talk with… I’d ask them if they connected with other LGBT folks online and they’d look at me with horror before talking about how scary/sketchy/bad strangers were.

By many accounts, the early internet seems to be correlated with a decline in suicide among LGBT youth, perhaps because of its ability to connect LGBT to information and support structures. What if the stranger danger rhetoric undermines that? Who do LGBT youth turn to when they’re feeling isolated? Is it possible that the culture of fear we’ve created has increased suicide rates? If so, who’s responsible?

2. What if “It Gets Better” increases emotional devastation for some LGBT youth?

Most LGBT-identified teens who have committed suicide since the “It Gets Better” campaign have been involved in the campaign in some way. Jamey Rodemeyer notoriously made a video before he killed himself. Countless adults (and youth) have celebrated “It Gets Better” as a powerful message filled with hope. But “It Gets Better” isn’t the same as “I can make it better.” Abstraction and patience don’t help when you’re in pain Right Now.

When you’re 14 and coming to terms with your sexuality, six months feels like a decade and 4 years feels like eternity. Along comes a message of hope and it’s really exciting and you get pumped up, like the way you feel when a new song comes on the radio that you feel really speaks to you. You dive in, you create your story, you make your own video. And then what? The humdrums at school continue on and you continue to get teased, only worse this time because you publicly pronounced your story. You felt like you were part of a movement but no one reached out to you, no one helped you make it better. No community was made, no support group was developed. You’re still alone. No one seems to care. You crash and burn.

Getting “high” on a movement can be devastating for youth if there’s no support structure there when they fall. The Trevor Project did a great job of providing some of the needed support infrastructure, but communities themselves often aren’t prepared to support youth. Social services are underfunded. Schools are strapped for cash and getting rid of guidance structures. Parents are stressed out. Community groups are not always tolerant of questioning youth. Is it possible that hopeful messages like “It Gets Better” result in more devastating crashes, particularly for youth in not-so-supportive communities? Does the positive narrative outweigh the possible existential break that can come with being disappointed that things don’t get better?

3. What if the media spotlight around bullying causes harm to youth?

In January 2010, a Massachusetts-based girl named Phoebe Prince killed herself. The highly publicized story suggested that she was an innocent victim who was cruelly tormented by her peers. The story was told in such a cut-and-dry manner that it should’ve raised suspicions in anyone’s mind, but people glommed onto the narrative. Shortly later, the local District Attorney charged six students with various crimes in the case. But did they do what they were accused of doing or was this a witchhunt cloaked as justice? Those kids’ lives have been wrecked by the investigation, publicity, and charges. If they are the devils incarnate that the press want them to be, arguable they deserve it. But what if they didn’t? (If you want to read phenomenal coverage of this, check out Emily Bazelon’s 2010 feature series.)

In the summer of 1999, I was at a rave in a field in Colorado. I was in my tent, writing in my journal, when a group of kids asked me if they could come in. We got to talking and I learned that they had all been students at Columbine on that fateful day when the sanctity of their school was destroyed. I asked them about what it was like to be there and they said that it sucked, but nothing sucked more than the aftermath. They started telling me about how the press hounded them, how they couldn’t hang out with friends, how they had no place to go anymore because the press would sit on their lawns and beg them for more details. Paparazzi at its worst. The kids in my tent had all dropped out of school because of the press. WTF?

On one hand, it’s great that there’s public attention being given to bullying, suicide, and the hardships that youth face. On the other, I can’t help but wonder if the spotlight does additional damage. Does the spotlight help us find effective interventions or just force people to create bandaids? Does it increase justice or result in more kids’ lives being destroyed? Does it showcase the challenges that youth face or obscure them in caricatured forms that lose their nuance? In an effort to tell the story, do we create angels and demons that destroy any hope of creating change?

4. What if us adults are part of the problem?

I spend countless hours talking to youth, thinking about youth, and speaking out on behalf of youth. Nothing makes my heart ache more than seeing youth suffer. I can also still vividly remember my own experiences as a “weird” teen growing up in Pennsylvania who was regularly ostracized and teased. I remember what it was like to feel powerless and to reach that precarious state of anomie. I don’t want anyone to have to go through that which is why I’m so deeply committed to this struggle.

That said, I think that it’s outright dangerous to get so lost in our mission to combat bullying that we stop looking into the mirror. What are the norms that we set for young people when we talk poorly about our friends, family, neighbors, or colleagues at the dinner table? When we engage in road rage while driving? Why is it that we accept – if not encourage – meanness in our political sparring? Or on our TV talk shows? Why do marketers put their money behind reality TV shows that propagate the value of relationship drama as entertainment? Look around at the society we’ve created and it’s filled with harshness. To top it off, look at how much we pressure our youth, particularly middle class youth. Hyper-competition starts early and is non-stop. And look at how increased economic pressure in this country creates new tensions, particularly for working class youth. Then add in the fact that puberty is where all sorts of mental health issues start to appear. Where are the support structures for youth that go beyond the family? We’ve defunded social services left right and center.

In short, we’re creating a societal recipe for disaster even while we publicly pronounce our crusades to end bullying. We don’t need more pundits and journalists and politicians telling us we need to end bullying. We know that. We need to start building out the infrastructure to make it happen. And to realize that it’s a systems-level problem that is not easy to solve. There’s no silver bullet, no magical solution. It can’t be instantly stopped at the school door. It requires collective action, with an eye towards making the world a better place. It requires all-hands-on and a commitment from everyone – and I do mean everyone – to take responsibility for their own actions, values, and attitudes within society. Bullying doesn’t stop by blaming others. It doesn’t stop by creating new regulations. Or inventing new demons. Or scaring people shitless. It stops by collectively agreeing to engage in acts of tolerance, love, bravery, and respect. And that’s far harder to do than passing laws, prosecuting teens, or writing fear-mongering stories.

Image Credit: Ashley Rose