Doing Digital Methods – Talk at Digital Methods Winter School 2017

Earlier this month I gave a talk at the Digital Methods Winter School at the University of Amsterdam on how it is like to do social and cultural research with digital methods in a data sprint format. The talk happened on the opening day of a data sprint dedicated to exploring different aspects of the 2016 US presidential elections on social media, from fake news to the alt-right to the drama of election night on Twitter (I’ll be writing about the outcomes of this work in a separate post).

The data sprint is a week-long collaborative event where researchers, graphic designers and programmers work together on research projects that repurpose data from digital platforms for social and cultural research. It is a great way to do research in a multidisciplinary environment, to learn from others as well as to test hypotheses and to pilot studies.

I spoke about some of the most interesting projects from last year’s winter and summer schools in order to give participants a sense of what a good digital methods project looks like and what can be achieved in this collaborative format in one week. Highlighted projects included a study of how Tumblr is used for recovery from illness, an analysis of digitised records of collective action against human rights abuses coordinated by Amnesty International, a study of the feminist politics of stock photography, as well as a critical cartography of the Mediterranean refugee crisis in 2015 as seen through the maps embedded in media coverage of this issue.

The slides from the talk are below.

Talk on Doing Social and Political Research with Digital Methods

Earlier this month I gave a two-day workshop at the University of Zurich together with Stefania Milan called “Doing social and political research in the digital age.” The workshop was organised by the National Center of Competence in Research: Challenges to Democracy in the 21st Century for a great group of political science PhD students from all over Switzerland.

Below are the slides from the lecture I gave on the first day of the workshop.

Slides from Talk on Actor-Network Theory, Digital Methods and Data Journalism at Ghent University

Yesterday I gave a talk at the Center for Journalism Studies at Ghent University about how Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and digital methods can be used to study and inform data journalism.

I will be using these approaches to study data journalism in my joint PhD with the University of Groningen and the University of Ghent. I will also be exploring the opportunities that these techniques afford for informing data journalism practices in my fellowship at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. The Tow project is called ‘Controversy Mapping for Journalism’ and aims to convene pioneering Science and Technology Studies and digital methods researchers at Sciences Po and the University of Amsterdam with leading journalism scholars, information designers and computer scientists at Columbia University to explore how emerging digital traces, tools and methods can be utilised to transform the coverage of complex issues.

Below are the slides from this talk.

Slides from Talk on Digital Methods for Journalism at Columbia University

Last month Jonathan Gray and I gave a talk at Columbia University entitled ‘Mapping Issues with the Web: An Introduction to Digital Methods’. We talked about how Bruno Latour’s work on Actor-Network Theory has informed social and cultural research that uses online data and digital methods, with examples from the work of the Digital Methods Initiative at the University of Amsterdam and of the MediaLab at Sciences Po.

We were very pleased to have Professor Bruno Latour act as a respondent to our talk and join us for the discussion.

We will be building on this work in the coming months as part of our fellowship with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University and exploring how these methods, tools and techniques can be made useful to journalists.

Below are the slides from this talk and here is an article on the Tow Center blog that summarises it.

Talk at Columbia University in New York on Issue Mapping for Journalism

Next week I will be giving a talk at Columbia University in New York together with Jonathan Gray, lead editor of the Data Journalism Handbook. This talk will bring together for the first time two activities that I have been doing in parallel for the past couple of years, namely the work with journalists to develop data literacy at the European Journalism Centre, and the digital methods research work done at the University of Amsterdam.

The talk is hosted by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and takes place on the occasion of Bruno Latour‘s visit at Columbia University.

Below is the abstract for the talk:

Mapping Issues with the Web: An Introduction to Digital Methods

How can digital traces be used to understand issues and map controversies? On the occasion of Bruno Latour’s visit to Columbia University, this presentation will show participants how to operationalize his seminal Actor-Network Theory using digital data and methods in the service of social and cultural research.

Participants will be introduced to some of the digital methods and tools developed at the University of Amsterdam and Sciences Po over the past decade and how they have been used to generate insights around a wide variety of topics, from human rights to extremism, global health to climate change.

Please RSVP via Eventbrite.

What Data Journalists Can Learn From New Media Research

Earlier this month I wrote an article for the London School of Economics Impact of Social Sciences blog about how journalists can use the web and social media as a source of data about the state of issues, debates and information flows in different societies. 

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You can read the full post here.

Amazon as a Research Engine: Best Selling Issues in the Climate Change Debate

My colleagues at the Digital Methods Initiative (Erik Borra, Natalia Sanchez-Querubin and Sophie Waterloo) and I just submitted an abstract for a social media theory and methods conference featuring great names in this space: Jean Burgess (Queensland University of Technology), Axel Bruns (Queensland University of Technology), Greg Elmer (Ryerson University) and Ganaele Langlois (U. of Ontario Institute of Technology).

The paper is called “Amazon as a Research Engine: Best Selling Issues in the Climate Change Debate” and proposes a protocol for repuposing Amazon.com as tool for debate mapping. Below is our abstract:

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Top 10 Most Tweeted Links from NICAR 2013

The annual US National Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting (NICAR) conference brings together hundreds of some of the most experienced data journalists, mainly US-based, and is packed with sessions where you can learn about the latest developments, tools and techniques in the field. Since I didn’t make it to NICAR last week, I followed the most used conference hashtag, #NICAR13, to stay on top of the discussions. The abundance of sessions and presentations at NICAR makes it impossible for anyone to absorb everything that is being discussed, so here is a list of the most tweeted links from the conference, which might be useful to come back to. (Unfortunately I missed capturing tweets from the first day of the conference.)

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Social Network Sites as Stages of ‘Dramaturgical Performance’ – Interpretation Sketch

A study of the University of Georgia describes as more likely to be narcissist those Facebook users who have a large number of friends and wallposts, narcissism in this case being defined as an emphasis on self-promotion and quantity of friends. The use of Facebook to emphasize self-promotion, that is considered to be narcissism in psychological studies of social network sites, is given another interpretation in a related discipline, sociology, who analyzes the individual’s identity in the context of symbolic social interactions with other individuals, as acts of dramaturgical performance, to use Goffman’s methodology. 

Regularly in everyday life we shape our behaviour and appearance in order to determine and control the way that the others perceive us. This behaviour trend is part of what sociologists analyze as impression management. Much of the understanding of the process is attributed to the sociologist Erving Goffman and his book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), who conducted an innovative observational analysis of the component parts of the human interactional process from the theatrical performance perspective. Goffman focuses on a dramaturgical approach, and defines the individual as an actor, and his social interactions as dramaturgical performances shaped by environment and audience, aimed at creating specific impressions according to the desired purpose of the actor. The result is a “face”, a mask that varies according to the social situations. The face according to Goffman is “the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact” [1]. A face is therefore a successful staging of an identity.

Goffman’s analysis of social interactions as dramaturgical performances can be applied to humans’ social interactions online as part of social network sites (SNSes) as well. According to boyd, a social network site is a “web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system”[2]. Thus, the concept of a SNS, is to create a micro-society centred around the user, offering him the possibility to link with other users, in Goffman’s terms, offering the user, the actor, a stage where he can perform in order to model his identity. The SNS stage, the webpage, is divided in three regions, in Goffman’s terminology: “front”, “back”, and “outside”, according to the relationship of the audience to the performance. The audience has access to the front stage of the performance, to the information that the actors want to display. On Facebook the frontstage is comprised of the profile page, which displays personal information about the user, the wallpostings, the friend network and the photos. The backstage is reserved to the actor only, in Facebook this being the information available only for the actor after login in, such as the inbox, for example. To be “outside” the stage means to have no access to the performance, which is the case of users of the same SNS who are not “friends” of the actor.

The segregation between audience and non-audience ensures optimal results of the performance in impression creation. Specific performances must be given to specific audiences, in order for the actor to be able to deliver the right front (face) to match each audience and preserve proper relationships in interaction.

An optimal segregation would prevent the bringing together of different publics, for example work colleagues, school mates and family for the same performance, which would be sensed as an intrusion and would cause problems to the actor, as boyd also notes, tendency often noticed in humans’ everyday life. The segregation within audience becomes problematic in some of the SNSes. For example, in Facebook there is only one category of public, the so-called “friends”, which does not correspond to the denotation of the term according to boyd[3], and brings together different categories of public for the same audience, which leads to the inconvenience of staging one face, one presentation for all types of audiences: family, friends, colleagues. The non-segregation policy is stated in the website description: Facebook is a social utility that connects people with friends and others who work, study and live around them”. There are SNSes though that are constructed on the principle of audience segregation, as for example LinkedIn, which is a network for professional to establish connections with other professionals.

Another inconvenience as far as crossing the boundaries of typical regions of social interaction, is that the internet blurs the distinction between frontstage and backstage, which leads to concerns about privacy and abuse of personal information online. danah boyd notes as a consequence of these concerns the doubtful quality and truth of profiles, in light of the fact that a personal profile is public.

Another concept of Goffman, the face, develops specific tools within SNSes. An actor within an SNS can make use of different tools to create his face, a mask that changes according to the actor’s role, the audience and the social interaction. Facebook for example offers a series of tools: social network profile (SNP), made up from cultural signs: favourite books, movies, etc., the wall and the friends network. Donath and boyd speak of friends as part of the online performance of self: “a user’s friend connections speak to their identity—the public display of friend connections constitutes a social milieu that contextualizes one’s identity. The act of “friending” others, and choosing the subset of these friends to display in the so-called “Top 8,” constitute identity performances, because they are willful acts of context creation”[4].

Actors can develop two types of faces: a positive face shows the desire to be appreciated, approved, etc., and a negative face is the desire to preserve autonomy of self, not to be imposed upon or intruded. Researchers that examined the patterns of gendered identity, discovered that “females tend to turn to others for validation in contrast to males, who are more apt to maintain their individuality and whose relationships are more of an extension of their already-complete selves”. In the light of this finding, it can be stated that females are more likely to develop a positive face on SNSes as well, and males a negative one.

The performance is the process of social interaction that has as a result the creation of a face. Any performance tends towards idealization, either positive or negative. The positive idealization can be interpreted as narcissism in psychology, by emphasis on self-promotion. Performance on SNSes like Facebook is focused on the demonstration of the actor’s social competence in presentation of self, and establishing interactions online, in which association with popular or attractive users is an important tool of identity definition.

A more in-depth analysis of SNSes using Goffman’s methodology may lead to a better understanding of online social interactions and the ways they differ from everyday interactions, due to the mediation of the technological platform. From this brief interpretation, one can conclude that SNSes are online stages which allow actors to emphasize their social network of relations, using their audience for self-promotion purposes. The limitations of an SNS like Facebook, following Goffman’s description of dramaturgical performance, come from the fact that the user is compelled to display only one face to a variety of audiences simultaneously, which results in a “cynical” performance in Goffman’s terms, or an untruthful profile in boyd’s terms, due to the incapacity to more accurately define and segregate the audience. A cynical performance is also the result of privacy concerns and abuse of personal information online.

Bibliography:

Goffman, Erving, Viata cotidiana ca spectacol, translation of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Comunicare.ro, Bucharest, 2003


[1] Goffman Erving, in Lemert & Branaman, The Goffman Reader, www.googlebooks.co.uk/the_goffman_reader,

[2] danah boyd and Nicole Ellison (2007, October). “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13 (1), article 11

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

Control Rates in User Generated Content: PoliticalBase.com, the Moderated Political Wikipedia

Technological developments, resulting in free user-friendly interface applications, led to the second step in the evolution of the World Wide Web, the Web 2.0. The Web 2.0 reflects a paradigm shift, from the “read web”, another platform of mass communication, whose advantages over the traditional media were in terms of functionality: better storage of large amounts of data, better manipulation and selection by means of hypertext and linkage, towards the “read/ write web”. The Web 2.0 is a typical manifestation of a  new paradigm, convergence culture, a space where the concepts of author and audience/user cannot be distinguished,  a space of horizontal co-authoring, augmented by the use of technology as platform of communication exchange.  

Although the main purpose of the Web 2.0 is to empower the users who group themselves in online social networks, the degree of control of the user generated content in the Web 2.0 space depends on the application. PoliticalBase.com is a comprehensive application that defines itself as an “user-powered online community providing bi-partisan commentary, information and conversation about US Politics”. It is thus an online community of interest, gathering collective knowledge by means of user contributions, centered around the topic of political news in the US.

The application offers various tools. The front page of PoliticalBase.com highlights news submitted by Political Base users. The most innovative tool is the Money Track, which allows you to see how much money U.S. political candidates have raised, from what states, counties and even persons they have raised it from, by building diagrams based on data collected from the Federal Election Commission. This is however not a Web 2.0 feature, as only the administrators can introduce data. The other tools offered are topic centered wikis, focusing on several categories: political people, political issues and political groups, that are edited by users and evaluated by moderators. The application also has a forum section. The difference between PoliticalBase.com and Wikipedia as far as control over content is concerned, is that the structure of the wiki created by PoliticalBase.com compels users to enter specific types of content in fixed categories, the content being afterwards review by staff moderators. For example, on the page for Democratic candidate Barack Obama, you can vote on your perception of this politician in different areas, see his political affiliations, and find out where he stands on the issues, as a result of the data introduced in the wiki categories.

In spite of the good ranking as far as data and functionality are concerned, PoliticalBase.com is a quite hierarchical and undemocratical online community, since the moderators have veto power: “For brand new users Political Base moderates all new content submitted into the system. The content is either added or deleted within 24 hours after the submission is made. As users submit quality content, they earn points which rank them in the community and open up more editing options in a less strict environment, often earning live edit access to the majority of the site. Submissions made are moderated by an internal staff and by high scoring users from within our user base. At any time you can view your point score at the top-right of your “my base” section.”

The application distinguishes thus between two categories of contributors: moderators and users, and places the evaluation of the moderators above the evaluation of the readers, which may lead to biased information, especially if we take into account the political nature of the website. From this point of view the application disregards the aspect of socialization of the web 2.0 applications and maintains the traditional hierarchical structure of collaboration, aspect that may push away potential users. On the other hand, the meritory system of gaining editorial liberties by means of votes, can be seen as a method to make users responsible of the content placed online.