A Tale of Two FAMST248 Articles

It was the best of times and the worst of times for data academia this week, at least in my take on the articles. On the one hand, I found in the Robertson & Travaglia piece a really informative and concise overview of links between our ‘Big Data’ issues today and historical precedent in the 19th Century I hadn’t considered. The ‘Avalanche of Numbers’ fascinates me, and I’m surprised I hadn’t heard it specifically referred to before this point. I also appreciated the straightforward discussion on the perils of ‘deviant’ social categories in objective data, though of course that’s a topic that has haunted us since Week 1.

But what I enjoyed less, and therefore what will subsequently take up more of my attention, was “Understanding Social Media Logic.” Though I’m likely being a bit too hard on the article (polemics make better blog posts), I felt that while the four “grounding principles” might encompass a helpful tautology to serve as a starting point for a social media research project, overall they presented as curious choices to frame a discussion of social media ‘logic’ in relation to mass media logic.

Most simply put, I thought that both ‘programmability’ and ‘popularity’ both boiled down to human agency in a manner non-unique to social media. I don’t even think this was something obscured or manipulated for an unfair point—the article is straightforward that human agency is half of programming, and in the other half (technology) invokes Gillespie’s contention that in technical social media programming practice, human choices “have not vanished…[they] are processed imperceptibly and automatically” (6). Popularity, too, seems an almost-synonym for what’s already being discussed here, and I think the argument that the difference between social/mass media logic is that social media can measure popularity while also trying to influence it falls flat based on the direction of influence. The example here is that large groups of users can band together to influence popularity, but how is that any different from viewers of television programs or non-digital political activists (besides the higher efficiency of the social media platform)? There is a mention of platform owners using popularity to promote causes, but the given citation seems far more a textbook example of programming that could have existed on any broadcast news report from the last fifty years.

The final pillars (‘connectivity’ and ‘datafication’) seemed far more useful to me, but at this point I’m not sure about their framing and it seems the concepts might be mobilized more usefully in a different discussion. Especially considering the opening case study of the ridiculous behavior surrounding a teenager’s birthday party, the unpacking of these concepts as social media fallout could be handled far more specifically in relation to existing mass media logic.


How I’ll be dressed on Monday? 


A Tale of Two FAMST248 Articles

Reflections and Ruminations

The readings this week really hit home with me. As someone invested in the exploring the relationship between media sources and knowledge production regarding war, I found both of these pieces incredibly helpful to re-framing thinking about information politics in the digital era.

Robertson and Travaglia provide us with the thematic gesture of this quarter of trying to find the connections between old and new. In this process, we’re drawn back to thinking about how the “new” builds on the old, the negative side of which is that we obscure the political nature of the structures on which the new has been fashioned. van Dijck and Poell’s piece then gives some depth to this narrative, weaving together dimensions of mass media theory and social media theory to show this exact relationship. Both of these texts point to the flowing, as opposed to ruptured, nature of shifts in information media.

While at times the van Dijck and Poell article seemed like a safari through the various scholarly approaches to mass media theory and social media theory (I found reading it in my head through the voice of Steve Irwin a somewhat rewarding project), I truly did appreciate the insights it gave to studying information media and social media in a more nuanced way. The authors approached the subject from both directions of the discourse surrounding social media (control and freedom) to really try to explore why these apparently oppositional approaches are relevant discussions, wrestling them into conversing with each other. I found this extremely helpful to propelling my own research interests in probing the informational atmosphere regarding war and militarism in the US. The point I got stuck on in moving forward my previous research revolved around this type of translation from “mass media” to new media – what is the relevance of television news today? This article pushed me to think beyond the media platform itself in order to shift the framework around how major news networks interact with social media to navigate discussion. This points towards a more nuanced understanding of how news networks view social media epistemologically, as well as to be able to start building a cross-media understanding of how public debate is framed through information networks. This opens up a number of doors for more nuanced study of the interplay between institutions, media platforms, and audiences/users in shaping the nature of debate regarding issues of war and protest.

This article gives agency to both sides of social media, placing it as an intermediary (which obviously can be more or less even of a playing field given the topic of discussion). This then places the burden of research involving information media on not just understanding one side or the other, but in examining the interplay between institutions and users, between social media and mass media. However, they also caution us about the dangers of framing research this way, citing the dangers in assuming that social media represent an organic and holistic “voice of the people.” This comes in their adherence against falling into the trap of the datafication of “the masses” through social media, stating that (in Louise Amoore’s words) “real-time data flows may say less about us, but more about ‘what can be inferred about who we might be’” (11). Not only does this provide a warning against the current epistemological weight of social media data, but it also connects back to our discussions of algorithmic culture and Robertson and Traviglia’s point that by studying data collection practices it becomes clear that “it is science and not society that we are seeing through such instruments.” Overall, these two articles seemed to pull together many strands of this course, as well as ones happening concurrently in Media Historiographies, surrounding social media, data, and the topic of old and new.

Reflections and Ruminations

Repeating Mistakes and Big Brother

The reading this week had me thinking of a lot of different things coming up in these news these days and some interviews I’ve listened to related to these issues. with the first piece by Robertson and Travaglia I couldn’t help but think of the election process and the enormous number of polls that are taken and what the data, given to us in almost always unreliable ways without much context, are getting mostly wrong.

“That a census or a social survey is a snapshot of the way our societies are regulated is rarely remarked on and instead emphasis is given to the presumed objectivity of the categories and their data. This is the ideology of the small data era in action – the claim that it is science and not society that we are seeing through such instruments.”

When it comes to the polls about the Republican and Democratic primaries, it seems as though while they are usually fairly reflective of what will happen in a given state’s primary or caucus, they are misleading in the overall understanding of who may or may not be the party’s nominee and how they might do in a general election. I was listening to Nate Silver who started the website 538 (uses data to talk about politics, entertainment, the economy, sports, and pretty much any and everything else) and is well known for his accuracy in predicting nearly all 50 states correctly in the 2008 presidential election, and he mentioned how there is a strange reversal in the state of polls in primaries and generals. One of the main points was about Donald Trump and how his enormous support that makes him the front running candidate in most primaries is far from the case in the general, where you have a much different electorate that doesn’t find his style quite as charming as primary voters.

“We run the risk in the social sciences of perpetuating the ideological victories of the first data revolution as we progress through the second.”

In the other article by van Dijck and Poell, my mind shifted gears a bit to other items in the news— like the whole Apple and FBI dispute. The article provided a number of recent historical events as examples. Like when discussing programmability they mentioned reddit and the Boston Marathon bombing and how Reddit had to change their editorial process because of how many sub-Reddit threads led to the vilification and accusation of innocent people while the search for the suspects was still ongoing. Like they say in the article, platformers and programmers constantly negotiate the terms of social interaction. And so one even leads the social media programmers to change the level of agency on the part of users:

“The second part of the programmability definition, though, relates to human agency: users retain significant agency in the process of steering programmability not only through their own contributions but also because they may resist coded instructions or defy protocols.”

But programmability also made me think of how these platforms “steer” users and how Facebook in particular has been getting a lot of flack for years now about how they use users’ personal data.

“Programmability can hence be defined as the ability of a social media platform to trigger and steer users’ creative or communicative contributions, while users, through their interaction with these coded environments, may in turn influence the flow of communication and information activated by such a platform.”

Ironically, the Apple and FBI case shows another tech company (not directly social media but still) that has had a dubious track record on a number of issues, but here Apple comes out as the champion of privacy and constitutional rights.

Last thought on this week’s readings, this one particular quote really intrigued me:

“The idea that you can tap into people’s unconsciousness or ‘idea formation’ without affecting the processes of opinion making is a basic misconception.”

It seems like in the same mistakes keep happening (like the first article says) in which these companies and the government are so excited about the prospect of datafication of everything, that they end up oversimplifying its use, which is extremely dangerous, and not to sound so intense (and ironically I’ll be oversimplifying a bit here for effect) but isn’t too far off from when oppressive regimes crack down on dissent.

Repeating Mistakes and Big Brother

Less Fun Than the Usual Walk of Shame

Though to be blunt I don’t really believe either article brought anything earth-shattering to the table this week, I at least enjoyed Vaidhyanathan’s piece on “The Googlization of Us.” (Castells’ essay, somewhat oddly written and with the most head-scratching references to date, reminded me more of a tautological text better suited for one of our undergraduate courses.) Vaidhyanathan’s look at Google’s strategic deployment of default choices and the enumeration of five basic privacy interface classifications made for interesting reading, though of course I do need to take one for my team and raise issue with his casual (and in this case quite literal) defamation of reality television as demonstrating “a positive relationship between the number of cameras and observers pointed at a subject and their willingness to act strangely and relinquish all pretensions of dignity” (595). While the last decade has been kind to my fair reality television’s seemingly eternal quest to earn a seat at the table of ‘legitimate’ media scholarship, we don’t need to look any farther than the audience at Dr. Patrice Petro’s talk last Tuesday (unquestionably loaded with academic all-stars) and their titters of laughter as The Bachelor and other reality shows were name-checked during the discussion. I concede that reality television has and continues to be home to ‘ordinary’ citizens behaving extraordinarily and at times almost certainly with an eye for the camera, but its positioning as a concrete example of Vaidhyanathan’s larger point here seems to me highly unfair.

Getting more to the point of the ‘cryptopticon,’ I was reminded of a New York Times article from a year ago about Justine Sacco, a communications director who offhandedly tweeted a stupid joke about Africa and AIDS to her 170 followers and then found herself the top worldwide trend on the site (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/magazine/how-one-stupid-tweet-ruined-justine-saccos-life.html?_r=0). The article, which I highly recommend, goes on to document other people who have becomes targets of public outrage over some controversial post, and describes in detail how they’ve lost their jobs and had their social lives destroyed. Most interesting though is the connection author Jon Ronson draws with America’s history of public shaming in the 18th and 19th centuries, writing that it thankfully fell out of favor because “well-meaning people, in a crowd, often take punishment too far.”

These cases interest me because I think they get to the root of what’s problematic about social media and internet privacy; while the role of institutions like Google and explicitly stated privacy policies are important, in my view the malice of the anonymous masses and their cruel manipulation of what becomes made public is far more sinister than the dispassionate commercial interests of Internet authorities. Whether or not I agree that Google has too much power, I hate the notion that information and opinions will of course be immediately attacked if made public has sadly become an unchallenged given.


pictured: me after most grad seminars

Less Fun Than the Usual Walk of Shame