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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

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

Social Media Insults and Donald Trump’s Hair

March 22, 2016 Leave a comment

Mocking someone’s appearance on social media is admitting rhetorical defeat. In a non-fashion context. If we’re at a fashion show in Milan, that’s another story. But if we’re talking about any other topic, I propose that if someone says you look like a donkey, then you should reply: “I win!” Because you have. Because making such an irrelevant remark means, “I have hostile feelings towards you, but I don’t have any substantive arguments.”

I was thinking about this last week when an acquaintance posted on Facebook a picture of Hilary Clinton next to one of Captain Kangaroo (in a similar outfit), with the caption “Who wore it better?” This from a democrat. One of the most accomplished and experienced women in the world is a candidate for president, and this is what you post?

Which brings me to Donald Trump’s hair. Dear fellow democrats: Please stop mocking Donald Trump’s hair. It’s not funny, and it’s not enlightening. And every time you do it, you are screaming to the world: “I give up. I have nothing of substance to say. But hey, here’s a hair insult.”

Someone did indeed call me a donkey on Twitter last week. I am honored—I actually earned being trolled! Actually, my great uncle wrote Francis the Talking Mule, so I think the troll is confused—I have more mule in my background than donkey.

I have been researching GamerGate lately, and finding that both sides have valid points to make. And both sides have a mix of nice, principled people and angry people who are spewing bitter nonsense in public. I’ll have a lot more to say about this in the future. But for now, my advice for both sides is to calm TF down, and keep your sense of humor. And remember that if someone throws an irrelevant insult at you (like your outfit looks like Captain Kangaroo), then just laugh and say, “I win!”

Categories: Uncategorized

Everyday Racism and Social Networks

March 9, 2016 2 comments

Everyone is a little bit racist, a little bit sexist. Mahzarin Benaji can prove it. When she asks people, “Do these two words go together?”, most people will click “yes” slightly quicker if shown “man” and “scientist” than “woman” and “scientist.” Even women scientists. You can do the same experiment for racism. It’s not that a few evil people are sexist or racist—we all are, to some degree.

Despite my awareness that everyone is a little bit racist, I am still astonished by the regular demonstration of that racism on the website Nextdoor.com. Nextdoor is a discussion site for people in a local neighborhood. Members share recommendations for plumbers, discuss traffic problems, and offer items for sale. It’s a nice site. A key topic of discussion is always about security. There have been a series of burglaries in my neighborhood recently, so residents are on the alert for “suspicious” people. And evidently any African American in our neighborhood may possibly be “suspicious,” according to my neighbors. Here’s yesterday’s example:

This morning was dog was ill. so I took her outside around 5:15 AM. I saw a car driving slowly … and stopping. The car stopped twice, a tall African American man wearing a dark sweatshirt dark pants and got out, kept his head lights on and walked up towards a house with his cell phone out. Then, walked back down to his car, got in, and continued driving slowly down the street. He kept his headlights on the entire time, even when the car was parked in the street. The car looked to be a beige/gold Mitsubishi. I was half asleep when I saw all of this and realized later I should have called 9-1-1. Just wanted folks to be aware.

Does that sound suspicious to you? Fortunately, another Nextdoor member pointed out:

Pretty sure he delivers the paper- i see him out several times a week- better safe than sorry though

I would laugh if I didn’t feel like crying. Because this happens all the time. Would people have worried that a man delivering papers was suspicious if he were white? I can’t prove that race was a factor here. But most of these incidents are about people of color. And it keeps happening.

In an incident last year, a mother posted an urgent alert that there was an attempted abduction of her seven-year-old daughter, who had been out walking the dog. There was a white van, following a white pickup truck. Right as her daughter was walking by, an African American man opened the door of the van and came towards her! Her daughter ran all the way home! The urgent alert received dozens of concerned replies. The police were called. And later that morning, I saw construction workers at a site three blocks away, with their white van and white pickup truck parked on the street.

It might help if people were simply more aware of this as a problem, but alerting people is hard. A couple weeks ago, a Nextdoor member in our neighborhood tried to draw attention to the problem of racism on the site, and got attacked by other participants. I waded in to merely say I think she might have a point, and I got attacked. The moderator shut down the discussion thread citing “policy violations on both sides.” So much for civil discourse.

The problem is not unique to Nextdoor—it’s just particularly easy to observe there. The site Hollaback takes an unusual approach to this problem—they discourage mentions of race. The purpose of Hollaback is to support discussion of street harassment. If someone cat calls you on the street or gropes you on the subway, you can go to Hollaback to share your experience—both to express your feelings, get support, and alert the community. But they discourage posters from mentioning the race of their harasser:

Due in part to prevalent stereotypes of men of color as sexual predators or predisposed to violence, HollaBackNYC asks that contributors do not discuss the race of harassers or include other racialized commentary

The more I see the everday racism of my neighbors on Nextdoor, the more I see the reasons for this policy. But it still feels like an extreme solution. (Someone groped me, and I can’t say what they looked like? I can hear the cries of political correctness gone mad.)

There really are (occasional) burglars in our neighborhood, and Nextdoor serves an important function by helping people alert one another. But is it possible to be a black man in our neighborhood and not be reported as suspicious?

The long-term solution is to all work to be less racist. To confront the tacit stereotypes we all hold,. In the short term, how do we stop social networks from making the problem worse? Leave me a comment.

Categories: Uncategorized

More on TOS: Maybe Documenting Intent Is Not So Smart

February 29, 2016 1 comment

In my last post, I wrote that “Reviewers should reject research done by violating Terms of Service (TOS), unless the paper contains a clear ethical justification for why the importance of the work justifies breaking the law.”  My friend Mako Hill (University of Washington) pointed out to me (quite sensibly) that that would get people in more trouble–it  asks people to document their intent to break the TOS.  He’s right.  If we believe that under some circumstances breaking TOS is ethical, then requiring researchers to document their intent is not strategic.

This leaves us in an untenable situation.  We can’t engage in a formal review of whether something breaking TOS is justified, because that would make potential legal problems worse. Of course we can encourage individuals to be mindful and not break TOS without good reason. But is that good enough?

Sometimes TOS prohibit research for good reason. For example, YikYak is trying to abide by user’s expectations of ephemerality and privacy. People participate in online activity with a reasonable expectation that the TOS are rules that will be followed, and they can rely on that in deciding what they choose to share. Is it fair to me if my content suddenly shows up in your research study, when it’s clearly prohibited by the TOS?  Do we really trust individual researchers to decide when breaking TOS is justified with no outside review?  When I have a tricky research protocol, I want review. Just letting each researcher decide for themselves makes no sense. The situation is a mess.

Legal change is the real remedy here–such as passing Aaron’s Law, and also possibly an exemption from TOS for researchers (in cases where user rights are scrupulously protected).

Do you have a better solution?  I hope so. Leave me a comment!

Do Researchers Need to Abide by Terms of Service (TOS)? An Answer.

February 26, 2016 8 comments

The TL;DR: Reviewers should reject research done by violating Terms of Service (TOS), unless the paper contains a clear ethical justification for why the importance of the work justifies breaking the law. No one should deliberately break the law without being aware of potential consequences.

Do social computing researchers need to follow Terms of Service (TOS)? Confusion on this issue has created an ethical mess. Some researchers choose not to do a particular piece of work because they believe they can’t violate TOS, and then another researcher goes and does that same study and gets it published with no objections from reviewers. Does this make sense?

It happened to me recently. The social app YikYak is based in Atlanta, so I’m pretty sure my students and I started exploring it before anyone else in the field. But we quickly realized that the Terms of Service prohibit scraping the site, so we didn’t do it. We talked with YikYak and started negotiations about getting permission to scrape, and we might’ve gotten permission if we had been more persistent. But I felt like I was bothering extremely busy startup employees with something not on their critical path. So we quietly dropped our inquiries. Two years later, someone from another university published a paper about YikYak like what we wanted to write, using scraped data. This kind of thing happens all the time, and isn’t fair.

There are sometimes good reasons why companies prohibit scraping. For example, YikYak users have a reasonable expectation that their postings are ephemeral. Having them show up in a research paper is not what they expect. Sometimes a company puts up research prohibitions because they’re trying to protect their users. Can a University IRB ever allow research that is prohibited in a site’s TOS?

Asking permission of a company to collect data is sometimes successful.  Some companies have shared huge datasets with researchers, and learned great things from the results. It can be a win-win situation. If it’s possible to request and obtain permission, that’s a great option—if the corporation doesn’t request control over what is said about their site in return. The tricky question is whether researchers will be less than honest in publishing findings in these situations, because they fear not getting more data access.

Members of the research community right now are confused about whether they need to abide by TOS. Reviewers are confused about whether this issue is in their purview—should they consider whether a paper abides by TOS in the review process? Beyond these confusions lurks an arguably more important issue: What happens when a risk-averse company prohibits reasonable research? This is of critical importance because scholars cannot cede control of how we understand our world to corporate interests.

Corporations are highly motivated to control what is said about them in public. When I was co-chair of CSCW in 2013, USB sticks of the proceedings were in production when I received an email from BigCompany asking that a publication by one of their summer interns be removed. I replied, “It’s been accepted for publication, and we’re already producing them.” They said, “We’ll pay to have them remade.” I said, “I need to get this request from the author of the paper, not company staff.” They agreed, and a few hours later a very sheepish former summer intern at BigCompany emailed me requesting that his paper be withdrawn. He had submitted it without internal approval. ACM was eager to make BigCompany happy, so it was removed. BigCompany says it was withdrawn because it didn’t meet their standards for quality research—and that’s probably true. But it’s also true that the paper was critical of BigCompany, and they want to control messaging about them. Companies do have a right to control publication by their employees, and the intern was out of line. Of course companies want to control what their employees say about them in public—that makes sense. But what are the broader implications if they also prohibit outside analysis?

If online sites both control what their employees say and prohibit independent analysis, how do we study their impact on the world? Can anyone criticize them? Can anyone help them to see how their design choices reshape our culture, and reshape people’s lives?

From this perspective, one might argue that it can be ethical to violate Terms of Service. But it’s still not legal. TOS can be legally binding, and simply clicking through them is typically interpreted as assent. They are rarely enforced, but when they are, the consequences can be devastating, as the sad death of Internet pioneer Aaron Swartz shows. Swartz was accused of little more than violating TOS, and charged with multiple felonies under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). The stress of his prosecution led to his suicide.

For another example, my colleague Brian Larson pointed me to the case Palmer v. Kleargear. John Palmer and Jennifer Kulas left a negative review of Kleargear on the site Ripoff Report after the item they ordered was never sent. Kleargear tried to enforce an anti-disparagement clause in their TOS, and demanded the review be taken down. Since you can’t delete reviews on Ripoff Report without paying a $2000 fee, they declined. Which set in motion a multi-year legal battle. Pending legislation in California may make such clauses illegal. However, the consequences for individuals of violating terms—even absurd terms—remain potentially high.

TOS are contracts. Larry Lessig points out that “Contracts are important. Their breach must be remedied. But American law does not typically make the breach of a contract a felony.” Proposed legal changes, “Aaron’s Law,” would limit the scope of the CFAA so that breaches of contract are treated more like breaches of contract rather than felonies. Breaches of contract often have limited penalties if there is no real harm done. Researchers should keep on eye on this issue—unless Aaron’s Law passes, ridiculous penalties are still the law.

We’re in a quandary. We have compelling reasons why violating TOS is sometimes ethical, but it’s still not legal. So what are we as a field supposed to do? Here’s my answer:

If an individual chooses to take on the legal risk of violating TOS, they need to justify why. This is not something you can do lightly. In publishing work that comes from data obtained by violating TOS, this must be clearly acknowledged and justified. Work that breaks TOS with no justification should be rejected by reviewers. Reviewers should pro-actively review a site’s TOS, if it’s not explicitly discussed in the paper.

However, you should think carefully about doing work that violates TOS collaboratively with subordinates. Can you as faculty  take this risk yourself? Sure. But faculty are in a position of power over students, who may have difficulty saying no. Senior faculty also have power over junior faculty. If a group of researchers of differing seniority wants to do this kind of work, the more senior members need to be careful that there is no implicit coercion to participate caused by the unavoidable power relations among members of the research team.

I believe we need legal change to remedy this state of affairs. Until that happens, I would encourage friends to be cautious. Someone is going to get in hot water for this—don’t let it be you.

Do I like the fact that corporations have such control over what is said about them? I do not—not at all. But legal consequences are real, and people should take on that risk only when they have good reason and know what they are doing, without any implicit coercion.

In summary, I am proposing:

Reviewers should reject research done by violating Terms of Service (TOS), unless the paper contains a clear ethical justification for why the importance of the work justifies breaking the law. Reviewers’ should pro-actively check a site’s TOS if it is not discussed in the paper.

If a team of researchers who choose to violate TOS are of different academic ranks (i.e. tenured, pre-tenure, students), then the more senior authors should seriously consider whether more junior participants are truly consenting and not implicitly pressured.

Professionals societies like ACM and IEEE should advocate for legal reform to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) such as the proposed Aaron’s Law.

Do you agree? Leave me a comment!

Thanks to Casey Fiesler and Brian Larson for helpful comments on this post.

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