People with Your Politics are Not Welcome Here

This past week, there was an altercation at a gym. A woman began loudly criticizing a man because of his political views. She recognized him as a public figure, and exercised her free speech rights to let him know what she thinks about his views. I admire that. We have all been called upon to exercise our free speech rights more lately, and that’s a good thing.

But what happened next is weird: the gym revoked the man’s membership. Does that make sense to you? It doesn’t to me. He was just working out, and not causing any fuss. The gym is a private organization, and can deny membership to anyone they want, unless they are shown to be discriminating against protected categories. So they were within their rights. But this doesn’t feel right to me.

OK, I guess I need to tell you now that the man was Richard Spencer, the person who coined the term “alt-right.” The woman was loudly telling him that he was a Nazi, which indeed he is. Does that make you feel any differently about the story?

I’m a card-carrying member of the ACLU. I remember the first time I learned about the ACLU: I was 11, and the Nazi party planned a march through a Jewish neighborhood in Skokie, Illinois. My parents explained what the ACLU was and why they were defending the Nazis’ right to march. I remember being puzzled and having to think quite a while before I concluded that the ACLU was right. The remedy for offensive speech is not censorship but more speech. We need to be there with more people and bigger signs saying this is not OK.

I guess I don’t blame the gym owners—would you want to be known as the Nazi gym? But it’s a slippery slope. Who else has politics that aren’t acceptable? Shall we make a list?

A friend posted an account of all this online saying that it’s a “feel good story.” Wow, this does not make me feel good. It’s sad all around.





Categories: censorship

The Facebook Newsfeed: a PSA and a Challenge

March 12, 2017 1 comment

If your Facebook newsfeed is like mine, you’ve probably seen a bunch of posts that say something like this one I saw this morning:

In honor of someone who means a lot to me…I’m going to say goodbye to some of you…… now I’m watching the ones who will have the time to read this post until the end. This is a little test, just to see who reads and who shares without reading!

These posts are like nails on a blackboard to me. There are a couple reasons. First, they misunderstand how the newsfeed works. Not all your friends see all your posts. So you can’t judge people by whether they respond—you can’t tell if they’ve seen it at all. Second, although the wording of each version of this sort of post varies, in most cases it implies “I read carefully. Some of you, though, are not being careful.” Can’t posters of this meme feel the smugness of the tone? It implies, “If you don’t read my long, wordy Facebook post all the way to the end, then you are a thoughtless and careless person.” Is that what you really meant to say?  Third, the writer is imposing an obligation on his/her readers. Kurt Luther comments, “People’s timeless desire to impose chain letter-like obligations on others has made a smooth transition to the new medium.” Public Service Announcement: Please don’t post this meme.

I think that I understand the better impulse behind the meme. The poster is saying, “I have doubts about whether the connections we are forging on this website are meaningful. I am yearning for a deeper sense of connectedness to people I care about.” I like that impulse. So here’s my challenge: How can we express that desire for more meaningful connections without this obnoxious meme? If you have ideas, leave me a comment! (And thanks for reading to the end….)


Categories: Uncategorized

Pokémon Go and Work/Life Balance

January 2, 2017 Leave a comment

I love casual games, though I’ve written before about how they can sometimes be disruptive. Surprisingly I do not find Pokémon Go particularly disruptive. As promised, it promotes walking (you get credit for hatching Pokémon eggs the further you walk.) And it has other interesting qualities I could not have predicted when I started playing it.

Most importantly and most surprising: It promotes better work/life balance. When I am out for a walk, if I have Pokémon Go open, I get credit for the distance walked. As a result, I tend to leave the app open, which means I don’t check my email. That means I am more truly not at work, for my walk.

The bad news of course is that I’m looking at my phone, rather than at the scenery. But generally speaking I find I still appreciate where I am, and enjoy chatting with people I am walking with. It takes little of my attention.

If I am playing while walking with people who are not playing, I never stop to do a gym battle. A gym battle takes a couple minutes, and that’s too long to ask friends to wait. It’s also important to leave the sound off. Most people always leave the sound off. I leave it on when I’m walking alone, because the audio feedback means I spend less time looking at my phone. After you throw a Pokéball, it takes a few seconds to see if you caught the Pokémon or not. If you listen to the sound effects, you can stop looking at the phone and listen for whether you caught it. But if I’m walking with other people, the sound is annoying, and also misleading—they assume I’m more distracted than I really am.

My second surprise: it is a participatory exploration of probability and economics. Probability is fundamental to the game—each time you try to catch a Pokémon, a circle around it shows whether you have a high (green), medium (yellow), or low (red) chance of catching it. A player is constantly calculating: How hard will this be to catch, and is it worth it? It’s a constant reminder of the basic laws or probability: past trials don’t affect the outcome of the next one.

When you try to catch a Pokémon, you have to decide: Am I going to throw a regular Pokéball, a great ball, or an ultra ball? The latter are increasingly rare, but have a higher catch rate. The more powerful the Pokémon, the harder it is to catch, and the higher quality Pokéball you need to use. If I use too cheap a ball, then I have to try again, and again—and might miss catching it entirely, if it runs away. Choosing to use a regular Pokéball might mean I wasted five or more balls, rather than using one or two great balls. It’s like the game is whispering in my ear over and over: don’t be cheap, don’t be cheap….

An economist friend noticed right after the launch of the game that it demonstrates the “sunk cost fallacy”: If it was worth throwing those previous six Pokéballs at that Pidgey, it’s worth throwing one more.

Pokémon Go is good for certain times and places. It’s great for travel, because different places have different Pokémon. It was fun to catch all the Growlithes in San Diego (a Pokémon common there and rare in most other cities). It was particularly fun to use at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, which had a safari-like quality of Pokémon on the day I visited. When you’re visiting a zoo, you do a lot walking, and wander from exhibit to exhibit. Playing Pokémon Go at the zoo made the whole experience more fun. When a rare Pokémon appeared on the radar (a Snorlax), I got to chat with strangers who came to try to catch it from around the zoo. On the other hand, it was also nice to go a number of places (like the lighthouse and beach at Point Loma in San Diego) where there was no cell service, and I put my phone away. The trick of course is knowing when to put your phone away when there still is cellular service.

I won’t lie—I do sometimes play when I shouldn’t. Particularly when I’m somewhere I don’t want to be. A Pokéstop is a place you can get free Pokéballs and other useful items every five minutes. Fortunately or unfortunately, there is Pokéstop accessible in a conference room where I have a number of boring meetings. For a long meeting, I find playing a casual game helps me to pay more attention to the meeting. The distraction is so light that I am still paying attention to the meeting and less likely to zone out entirely. But it’s perceived by others as disrespectful (if they catch me with my phone under the table), and I probably shouldn’t do it. Like any casual game, Pokémon Go requires mindfulness in when you choose to play.

Whether Pokémon Go survives in the long or even medium term depends on whether the developers can keep adding features and special events to keep it interesting. But for now, it’s a casual game that fits into my life better than others.

Naturalistic Inquiry and Silk Purses

September 22, 2016 2 comments

For me as a social computing researcher, some of the most insightful and useful parts of the research literature are qualitative sociology written thirty to fifty years ago. For example, The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg (1989) documents how people need a “third place”—one that is neither work nor home. Within the third places Oldenburg studied, he observed timeless patterns of human behavior like the role of “the regulars” and how people greet a newcomer. Or consider The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman, originally published in 1959. Goffman documents how people are always performing for one another, and the impressions they deliberately give may differ from the impressions given off (what people actually infer from someone’s performance). How could we even begin to understand social behavior on sites like Facebook and Twitter without Goffman as a foundation?

When I think about this style of research, I often think about how it would be reviewed if it were submitted for publication today. No doubt Goffman would be told his work was insufficiently scientific—how do you really know there are “impressions given off”? Can you measure them? I doubt he’d make it through the review process.

How do we know that Goffman’s observations are “true”? Honestly, we don’t. The “proof” is in how useful generations of researchers to follow have found his observations. Goffman took messy qualitative data, and used that as a touchstone for his own powers of inference and synthesis. His observations aren’t in the data, but emerged from a process of his examination of the data. It’s probably impossible to make a firm statement about how valuable this type of work is at the time of writing—the evidence is in the value that others find in building on the work later.

Contemporary researchers are still working in this style. I call writing in this mode “silk purse papers.” They say you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, except sometimes you can. Insights emerge from messy data in an act of interpretation. The first paper of my own that I would put in this category is my paper “Situated Support for Learning: Storm’s Weekend with Rachael,” published in Journal of the Learning Sciences in 2000. In it, I take a case study of a weekend in which one girl taught another to program and draw broader conclusions about the nature of support for learning—support for learning is more effective when it is richly connected to other elements of the learning environment. I can’t prove to you that those observations are valid, but I can say that others have found them useful.

I’m always vaguely embarrassed when I’m in the middle of writing a silk purse paper. A tiny little voice in my head nags, “You’re making stuff up. You could use this data to tell a dozen different stories. You’re saying what you want to say and pretending it’s science.” But then I remember Goffman, and try to cheer up. It may not be “science,” but it’s certainly a valid mode of naturalistic inquiry. Take a second and think about foundational writings in your area of expertise. How many of those papers are silk purses?

In fact I wonder if we are all always making silk purses. Just because a paper is quantitative does not make it any less interpretive. My colleagues and I just finished a complicated analysis of content people post on Facebook publicly versus post to friends only (to appear in CSCW 2017). It’s totally quantitative work. But what we chose to measure and not measure and how we explain what it means strike me as much acts of interpretation (to be evaluated by the passage of time) as the complicated stories we tell with qualitative data.

Where we as a field get into trouble is when people with naïve ideas about “science” start reviewing qualitative work, and get it wrong. Sociology of science and technology should be featured in more graduate programs in human-computer interaction and human-centered computing. And as a field we need to have a more nuanced conversation about interpretive work, and how to review it.

Online Misbehavior: Blocking Mechanisms and Understanding Mechanisms

August 9, 2016 6 comments

Some time in the 1990s, I had terrible algae in my fish tank. I posted a question about it on USENET on the group alt.aquaria, and got a helpful answer from a guy I’ll call Oscar. Oscar really knows his fish, and spent a tremendous amount of time answering people’s questions on the group.

Later that day, I wandered into a crazy USENET flame war. Someone had created a group called alt.good-news. The group’s description said it was a place to share happy news—kind of like Upworthy in the days before the web. However, the phrase “the good news” has significant meaning to some Christians—it’s the good news that Christ is here to save us. Within hours, alt.good-news ironically deteriorated into a nasty flame fest with people arguing about whether it was a Christian group. I saw Oscar posting on the group, and sent him a private email: “Isn’t this flame war crazy? This group was supposed to be happy!” And he mailed me back:

“Don’t assume people always behave the way they behave when they talk about fish.”

It took only a moment’s exploration for me to learn that Oscar was actually a legendary USENET troll. Who just happened to also be an expert fish keeper who took pride in politely helping others with fish questions.

I think about Oscar a lot when I contemplate the mess that is Twitter. Social norms tend to be local, but on Twitter there is no local. People with radically different ideas of appropriate behavior run directly into one another. Or as one wise Redditor commented, “Twitter is like everyone shitposting on the same subreddit with no moderation.” Unfortunately, the blocking mechanisms we have at our disposal are crude. There’s no easy way to say, “I want to read what Oscar has to say about fish, but only about fish.” You either block Oscar or you don’t. And if you do decide to block him, there’s no easy way to say, “And please block him on the three other sites that we both use.” Our existing blocking mechanisms are too coarse grained and too weak.

The design of blocking mechanisms is in its infancy. Even farther behind is the design of understanding mechanisms. What if we could somehow scaffold people coming to a more nuanced understanding of the other person’s point of view, instead of just dismissing them entirely?

Got an idea for how to support more nuanced blocking or understanding? Leave me a comment!

Categories: Uncategorized

It’s about Underpayment in (Game) Journalism

June 4, 2016 13 comments


A Twitter acquaintance shared this video with me last night: Buzzfeed’s Color Cabal Conspiracy – Harmful News. In it, the narrator critiques a Buzzfeed article where a naïve writer takes the words of trolls as truth, and Buzzfeed publishes it (with an added footnote later that it might not be true).

I’ve been studying members of the #GamerGate movement, and I’ve seen some awful stuff posted online: misogyny, rape threats, racism, and more. But at the same time, I also see that a subset of GamerGate supporters are reasonable people, and the movement has some valid points. One point is that journalism is in crisis.

The tag line for GamerGate is “It’s about ethics in game journalism.” I object to the use of the word “ethics.” Using that word implies that people are deliberately writing incorrect things. I think that’s giving the writers too much credit, assuming they know the truth and are deliberately subverting it. I’m sure there are cases where that is true, but I will argue that in the overwhelming majority of cases, Hanlon’s Razor comes into play: never attribute to malice to what can be explained by simple incompetence.

Changing business models have created problems for the current state of journalism—all the incentives are out of whack. If a freelance writer is paid a couple hundred dollars for a story, how much time can they afford to spend on it? I used to write short articles for Wired when I was a graduate student, and made enough for a bit of extra spending money—like going out to dinner or on a weekend trip. But for an adult with rent to pay, it can’t even scratch the surface. And payment has dropped dramatically over the last several years.

If you pay people pocket money, you get amateurs. Even worse, if you pay per click, you get writers pandering to prurient interests. Jack Murtha writes in the Columbia Journalism Review:

[Pay-per-click] was once the crown jewel of content-heavy startups like Gawker, where young writers typed dozens of articles each week, aggregating and snarking their way to a digital-media empire. Now it’s something of a financial loophole used by content mills that prey on desperate young journalists, who scrape together clickbait in exchange for pennies.

Contrast the situation of a pay-per-click writer to a salaried journalist. The person on salary is rewarded for careful work, and is assigned to cover topics based on their importance, rather than self selecting what they think will earn clicks. In his foundational work on the nature of peer production, Harvard law professor Yokai Benkler notes that a strength of peer production is that individuals self identify for tasks they are qualified for. That works pretty well for things like open-source software and Wikipedia. And it even works pretty well for unpaid writing—expert bloggers often self-identify to write pieces on topics they care about and are knowledgeable about. But where it doesn’t work is when in journalism the peer production economy overlaps with the micropayment economy, and we get, as Murtha notes, clickbait in exchange for pennies.

Instead of saying “It’s about ethics in game journalism,” I suggest that GamerGate folks say, “It’s about underpayment in game journalism.” And we might as well remove the word “game”: It’s about underpayment in journalism. I will argue that the gaming press is a bellwether for the rest of the industry. Because game journalism is arguably less important than political or business journalism, it is leading the way in de-professionalization.

Fortunately, the solution to all this is pretty easy: Be willing to pay for quality news. If you care about game journalism or journalism more generally, find a venue that pays a living wage to talented professionals, and be willing to pay for it.


Addendum: Since a few people were confused, I am not a journalist. I teach and do research at Georgia Tech.

Activity Balance: An Alternative Approach to Manage Kids’ Screen Time

May 11, 2016 3 comments

Our boys (ages 10 and 12) love video games. And following the truism that every generation has media choices that baffle their parents, they also love watching videos of other people playing video games. They would play and watch all day, if we let them. On weekdays, by the time they get home from school and finish their homework, we don’t mind if they spend the free time that remains playing games. On weekends, we have always limited their screen time.

This policy has always chafed. A few months ago, our twelve-year-old protested, exasperated, “Do you have any evidence that too much video games is bad for you?” I patiently explained, “It’s not that video games are bad for you. It’s that we want you to have a balanced life—read a little, get some exercise, play some video games, practice your saxophone. If you did any one of those activities to the exclusion of others, we’d ask you to balance more: ‘Put down that book and go play a video game! You can’t read all day!’”

Five months ago, it occurred to me: Why not make the policy better match the rationale? Instead of limiting our kids’ screen time, we started requiring them to do a variety of activities each weekend day: read, exercise, and practice their musical instrument. As long as those things are done at some point during the day, they can have as much screen time as they like.

So far, the policy is a huge improvement. There is much less grumbling, and better balance in their weekend days. When asked how the policy is going so far, our twelve-year-old explained that he agrees that reading and exercise are important. (He’s less sure about music practice!) He also finds the new policy makes for a more relaxing weekend day. Our ten-year-old comments, “I like it better. The point is so that I do other things with my day, and I think it’s fair.”

The day-to-day implementation is not without challenges. We still need to remind them, “Did you exercise yet today?” And if the reminder comes too late in the day, it’s just not going to happen. If we forget to remind them and monitor, the new system deteriorates to a full day of screen time. But then again, the old system did too (“Did you forget to turn the timer on? How long have you been playing?”)

It’s encouraging to me that our kids have embraced the values that underlie this system—that you must make choices about how you spend your time, certain activities are important, and balance is important.

What approach does your family use? Leave me a comment!

Categories: balance, games, kids
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