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Future Social Science On and With Digital Media

April 17th, 2010 by Christian

(or: Now I’m a video blogger [sort of])

Here are my notes from our session at HASTAC 2010.  It was a pleasure to convene a virtual panel “there” this weekend with Alison Powell, Richard Rogers, Bodó Balázs, and David Phillips.  The whole thing is online (as a set of linked YouTube shorts, organized here).  These notes include notes on what I said and what everyone else said.

Future Social Science On and With Digital Media

Saturday, April 17, 2010 — 6:15 – 6:45 p.m. — location: cyberspace? (heh.)


What it means to study society is profoundly changing as we are increasingly surrounded by and incorporated into a pervasive network of digital media (Lazer et al, 2009).  In this panel, five scholars will comment for five minutes each on emerging research problems, opportunities, and methods in social science both with and about digital media.  Topics will include computational (or e-) social science, new forms and genres of social media, new methods and tactics, legal obstacles to transformative research, and challenges for future graduate education in the social sciences.

Here are the notes…

Christian Sandvig:

The Internet is on the verge of blowing up all of our methods courses

[Note to blog readers:  This is a slightly modified version of my earlier blog post with this title.]

Our methods courses are basically organized around procedure. You could say that’s what research methods are — procedure – a set of steps that everyone follows. We need to have a more wide ranging discussion about research design – our methods education at this moment needs to produce students who are capable of inventing their own procedure.

Favorite books on research methods is by Webb Campbell Schwartz and Sechrest, and it is called Unobtrusive Measures. It is a social science classic from 1966.

Webb et al make the point that what we call research is done at the outcroppings where theory matches instrumentation. You could say the match between theory and instrumentation is the small slice of overlap in a venn diagram.

We have some set of questions interests and problems yet only a little bit of information is susceptible to research at any given time. Even though instrumentation keeps expanding our reach, still we are looking at the top of an island and guessing at the mountain range that is under the sea.

But now the venn diagram has exploded. The sea has been drained. All of my metaphors have failed. Thanks to ubiquitous digital media we have stores of data we never dreamed of and entirely new modes of research have opened up for us.

Inspiration for this HASTAC panel was an editorial in the journal Science titled “Life in the Network” (Lazer et al, 2009).  The editorial makes the case for a new kind of social science to emerge as the result of advances in information and communication technology.

One of them is that this future social science is already occurring —

“computational social science is occurring, and on a large scale, in places like Google, Yahoo, and the National Security Agency…Computational social science could easily become the almost exclusive domain of private companies and government agencies”

One way to attack this is to start doing new social science ourselves.

BUT fallacies and assumptions fill our methods courses now.

  • Social science is slow.
  • Samples are small.
  • Data is scarce and expensive.
  • Fieldwork requires travel.
  • The most difficult part of research is gathering the data.
  • Research methods means executing the same procedure as everyone else.

Not clear what the new social science will look like or who will be allowed to do it. But a first step would be courses designed with the assumptions that:

  • Social science is fast and responsive.
  • Data is plentiful.
  • Theory is scarce.
  • Methods means designing a new kind of research.

Alison Powell:

Legal Challenges to Social Science: The Digital Economy Bill

Powell is a researcher who works on innovation, digital activism, and new technology. She’s based in the UK and she’s mad because they’ve passed a new law called The Digital Economy Bill (#debill).

The law is “like putting a gigantic lock” on internet users and innovation.

As one example, public Wi-Fi could cease to exist in the UK because the law is written so strictly.

There was a controversy about the law, but (mostly) only online. 25000 tweets about a law = no measureable effect on parliament

As a result, the bill that locks up the Internet was debated for less than two hours, and passed. Mediated politics and parliamentary politics in this case have no intersection.

Problem: Digital activism is perceived as a “niche interest” but these issues touch every aspect of the economy.

Social science needs to engage law and policy to address the conditions for access to the primary media channel of our age – an open and uncensored Internet.

Twitter users are young people who use the service to talk to others like themselves. A key challenge for digital media / social media and its researchers is that we ensure we are not producing echo chambers / systems of disengagement.

Richard Rogers:

#iranelection RT (for the ppl of Iran)

Most tweets are banal, but some small portion (about 8%) are interesting enough to RT. The iran election was called the twitter revolution.

Question: Is it possible to turn twitter into a storytelling machine… that is, a machine that can tell us what is happening on the ground as well as what is happening in social media?

Let’s capture the top 3 RTs with the hashtag #iranelection and visualize them chronologically, then sort. It works.

“You see the heat of the moment. You see, in some sense, the ground.”

Bodó Balázs:

Toward a social science of piracy

Only studies from developing countries see intellectual property piracy as a cultural practice. What about the rest? Studies of the non-legal, non-economic aspects of participating in illegal file-sharing networks simply aren’t done.

The piracy of intellectual property merits attention not only because of its illegality or ubiquity… it deserves attention because it shapes the ideas and attitudes of millions of people and teaches them what sharing and cooperation means.

Illegal file sharing networks are about how to form and negotiate online identity or anonymity — although they aren’t normally thought of in that way. (paraphrase)

Piracy is a powerful productive force whose legacy in social relations will stay with us long after the economic conditions that called it into being (and the power vacuum that enabled it) have passed

Far from anarchy, piratical activity is well-organized by (for instance) norms and server enforced share ratios. In short: honor among thieves. (paraphrase)

Even as intellectual property protections are strengthened, the ability to enforce these protections has declined.

Among pirates, we find a resilient common pool resource that defends itself against attacks from the outside and from tragedies of the commons that might arise from within.

Subtle differences between pirates – or not so subtle differences – are commonly ignored, despite the fact that there each might have a totally different motivation and process for piracy, with different consequences.

David Phillips:

Public Space, Surveillance Practice, and Identity Play

“How do we understand our street and our place there when we are simultaneously walkind

down it and reading about it on Google Earth?”

We are now producing a new kind of space. There are three points of entry into this mess — or “tactics” for understanding — the new space that might lead to a cohesive understanding.

#1 Unexpected border crossings

  • “Your boss read facebook!” (cf. Erving Goffman)
  • “That video of yourself performing those grotesqueries on chat roulette — it’s on chat maps now with a pinpoint to your street.”
  • “You are honor bound to ignore anything behind me that might be inappropriate to display

in this now public setting.”

#2 Simultaneous but Differential Occupation of the Same Space

  • The “user” or “player” on Webkinz vs. the “operator”

The same performances are subject to wildly different interpretations

#3 The Co-Structuring of Physical and Data Spaces

  • Physical spaces built to optimize surveillance camera angles

We are building a new kind of space.

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