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 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.


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

[1] Goffman Erving, in Lemert & Branaman, 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:, 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. 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 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 and Wikipedia as far as control over content is concerned, is that the structure of the wiki created by 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, 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.

PICNIC 08 – “Homophily Can Make You Stupid” by Ethan Zuckerman

In a presentation given yesterday at Picnic for the Bloggers Lab, organized by the European Journalism Centre, Ethan Zuckerman brought up an interesting concept that has quite remotely been discussed over the internet for a while now.

Today we are all enjoying this second step of the web evolution, the web 2.0, a read/write space where we can actively participate and create content by blogging, we can meet individuals that we would otherwise not have access to, by registering in social networks and creating online communities, and where we can use a lot of other interactive tools. The internet thus has the potential to largely expand our informational and relational capacities in a multitude of directions. Nevertheless, humans’ behaviour online seems to disregard the real capacities and potential of the internet. The behaviour of individuals online seems to be following an intrinsically human principle of behaviour that guides our actions in real life, defined by sociologists as homophily. Homophily refers to humans’ tendency to associate and connect with individuals similar to them in certain aspects, people who share their interests, values, culture, who have the same demographical, racial characteristics, etc., which leads to one of the main characteristics of a social network, which is homogeneity. This principle of homophily is the foundation of the most various human relations and networks, from marriage, to friendship, work, information exchange, and others. Homophily, a concept that can be expressed by the saying: birds of a feather flock together, plays an essential role in shaping our individual and collective view of the world. Sociologists acknowledge that “Homophily limits people’s social worlds in a way that has powerful implications for the information they receive, the attitudes they form, and the interactions they experience”.

The same principle is guiding our behaviour online and there are several types of applications that exploit it. One example are online social networks. On Facebook, Hyves, MySpace, etc., individuals connect with other individuals that they know in real life, and with whom they presumably have common interests or other socio-demographical, behavioural, and intrapersonal characteristics, and then with the friends of their friends, and with potential friends that are automatically suggested to them by the application, based on common profile characteristics. Although the web 2.0 does amplify the broadening of our network with people whom it would be unlikely to meet in real life, it is said to also amplify the narrowing of our spectrum of knowledge in other fields, if our actions online are aimed only at reinforcing our own ideas, by, for example, registering in groups that share our interests or subscribing to feeds on a particular subject that we are interested in.

Another type of online application that reflects well homophily, upon which Ethan Zuckerman drew attention in his presentation yesterday, are the media aggregators. Media aggregators are online applications that maintain subscription to feeds of media content coming from various sources: blogs, vlogs, etc. The content of these media aggregators is determined most of the times by user votes. It would not be surprising, if we were to analyze the profile of the users that are involved in the voting systems, that their profile is similar to ours, individuals who subscribe to feeds through these websites. And Zuckerman draws attention on this aspect in one of his interviews by raising a question: “If you look at sites like Digg and Reddit, these are sites that promised the future of journalism, where we would all get together and decide what’s important. …But that begs the question: Who’s ‘we?’”. And the answer to this question would be: people who have similar interests to ours. Zuckerman further develops this idea in another one of his declarations: Cass Sunstein, an amazing legal scholar, says that one of the dangers of the internet is that we’re only hearing like voices, and that makes us more polarized […]. What’s incredible about the net is we have this opportunity to hear more voices than ever. But the tools we tend to build to it have us listening to the same voices again and again.” Zuckerman makes it clear that it is not the internet that is intrinsically wrong, but that individuals tend to use it in limitative ways: searching and selecting information and individuals mainly to reinforce their own ideas: “Encountering new ideas isn’t a supply problem in today’s internet – it’s a demand problem. There’s a near infinity of people unlike you creating content and putting it online for you to encounter. But it’s entirely possible that you’ll never encounter it if you don’t actively look for it… or unless the systems you use to find ideas start forcing you outside your usual orbits into new territories.”

Zuckerman takes a strong position against homophily: “Homophily can make you really, really dumb”. He opposes to the effects of homophily another concept, serendipity: “Search in the future needs to lead us to people, to places, to voices. My hope is that in the future we get over homophily and we start looking for really productive serendipity – the sort of serendipity when you go to that shelf in the library and you think you know the book that you’re looking for, but you actually find the book you’re really looking for within 2-3 shelves of it. You think you’re looking for info on the US elections, but you end up finding info on how the Jamaicans are viewing the US elections. You think you’re looking for info on network security and you end up finding information on why Pakistan is so afraid of YouTube.”

On the other hand, homophily is seen as a good aspect by communication theorists from certain points of view because it facilitates communication. It eliminates communication barriers coming from various types of differences between individuals, that lead to misunderstandings or distortion of messages. It leads to effective communication, effective collaborations between individuals and collaborative development of ideas. The downside of homophily derives from the fact that, although we efficiently and “comfortably” communicate with like minded individuals, we have the tendency to avoid contacts that take us out of our “comfort” zone, which can be a field that we are not in control of, have few information about, or are unaware of: “We know so little about one another, and what we do know is generally so wrong, that our first instinct is to try to shut each other off.” Fighting the homophily instinct is an effort that will lead us to the better or full use of technology: “We can’t just assume that being connected [via the net] solves these problems. If you let us work it out on our own, we tend to reinforce our own prejudices and stereotypes. . .”

The tendency towards homophily in the selection of information is a fundamental aspect that individuals that use new media should be aware of, as a first step towards fighting it. But, although indeed some applications of web 2.0 tend to polarize and reinforce our opinions even more, the discussions about homophilous behavior online tend to take a very critical position and leave aside the fact that some web 2.0 applications specifically encourage divergence of ideas by allowing unrestricted feedback. Placing a posting on your blog or on a forum brings your ideas into the public sphere and automatically attracts opposite reactions by means of comments for example, pushing you towards expanding your comfort zone. 

Ethan Zuckermann is a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society of the Harvard University, co-founder of Global Voices Online magazine. He is involved in several other projects that focus on the impact of technology on the developing world and the encouragement of bridge blogging (including people in developing nations in global dialogues).

More sources:

Why Internet is Making Me Stupid

Homophily, serendipity, xenophilia

Why Everyone You Know Thinks the Same as You





Secondary Orality in Microblogging

Orality versus literacy in the history of human consciousness

In the book “Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the World”, Walter Ong compares orality and literacy, as defining features of oral cultures (cultures which do not have a system of writing), and “chirographic” cultures respectively (the ones who use alphabetic writing systems). He analyzes the implications of these two types of cultures on human consciousness, mentality, and identity.

Although one automatically links humanity with the literacy capacity in this era, the overwhelming majority of time that humans have been in existence (between 30 000 and 50 000 years), was dominated by oral culture. The first signs of literacy date only 6 000 years ago.

While the narrative structure of oral discoursive forms would focus on highlighting and enhancing the memorability of a discourse, according to Ong, through a series of features which will be analyzed later in this article, the shift to literacy changes the functions of discourse and brings new implications on human consciousness. Although in the beginning the sole purpose of script was to support orality, gradually the written discourse distances and weakens communication between author and audience, changes the emphasis of the sensorial world from hearing to sight, resulting in an interiorization of thought and closure of the discoursive form, which allow precision, detail, and extensive development of a topic. Script, further emphasized by printing technology, therefore encouraged individualization, distance, objectivity, abstractization and analytical thought, as both Ong and McLuhan acknowledge.

The shift to literacy also has consequences on human perception of space and time, as “print suggests that words are things”[1], and allows them to be visualized and arranged in indexes, tables of content, lists, etc., and to be preserved across time.

Electronic (new) media and secondary orality

According to Walter Ong, the development of electronic technologies and electronic media have brought humanity in an age of secondary orality. Secondary orality is the re-emergence of an oral type of discourse within literate cultures; it is a mixture of literate, oral, and electronic cultures in contemporary discourse. Secondary orality resembles primary oral culture through its “participatory mystique, its fostering of a communal sense, its concentration on the present moment, and even its use of formulas”[2], but it is more “prudent” and self-conscious in its expression, due to the use of a less ephemeral medium, the textual one: “Like primary orality, secondary orality has generated a strong group sense, for listening to spoken words forms hearers into a group, a true audience, just as reading written or printed texts turns individuals in on themselves. But secondary orality generates a sense for groups immeasurably larger than those of primary oral culture – McLuhan’s ‘global village.’ Moreover, before writing, oral folk were group-minded because no feasible alternative had presented itself. In our age of secondary orality, we are group-minded self-consciously and programmatically.”[3]

Although what primary and secondary orality share is a strong sense of being part of a group, the difference between them results from the stage of development that human consciousness reached through literacy. With literacy the human evolution has moved towards an accentuated self-consciousness articulated distantly from the community structures. For Ong writing “intensifies the sense of self and fosters more conscious interaction between persons.”[4]. Secondary orality, which “depends on writing and print for its existence”[5], has thus emerged as the deliberate re-integration of humans in groups in a state of self-counsciousness, with the purpose of the re-mediation of the self, phenomana known as re-tribalization.

Microblogging, Twitter and secondary orality

The secondary oral culture today has reached the highest level of development in cyberspace from all electronic media, and went beyond Ong’s description, where the audience plays no role, is absent or unseen, to the audience playing an active role in the definition of the self.

Microblogging is the newest phenomena that develops on features of secondary orality. Accoding to Wikipedia, microblogging is “a form of blogging that allows users to write brief text updates (usually 140 characters) and publish them, either to be viewed by anyone or by a restricted group which can be chosen by the user. These messages can be submitted by a variety of means, including text messaging, instant messaging, email, MP3 or the web.”

The most used microblogging service today is Twitter. The Twitter philosophy is similar to the one of social network sites, playing an important role in the re-mediation and defining of self online, as discussed by danah boyd. The textual norms and behaviours are the ones that set Twitter apart and set it as an relevant example of secondary orality. Twitter allows the posting of short messages (max. 140 characters) with personal informational character by answering the question “What are you doing now?”, in a conversational tone rather than a written exchange, allows real-time writing and rapid communication with large groups of people in a speed that would resemble oral storytelling, without having to share the same physical space with your audience. Unlike postings in a blog, tweets come and go, are ephemeral and only kept in a database for a short period of time.

The main features of oral communication: subjective, grounded in observable and everyday, close to the human life and world, shared knowledge, aggregative, in the sense that it collectively builds consensus through dialogue and debate, situational (valuing direct experience over theory), are technologically enhanced to transform into secondary orality, recognisable through: potential for both subjective and objective, transcending barriers of time and space, grounded in everyday life, collaborative knowledge but possible to archive, “chunked” text but possible to aggregate and link, allowing both situational and abstract, analytical topics. All these features of secondary orality are recognisable in the Twitter world. Although conceived as a simulation of face-to-face communication, Twitter fragments the communication process and keeps focus on transmitter, who integrates his folowers’ input (tweets, profile) as part of his identity, a reminiscence of the written discourse, because Twitter’s interface is a textual one.


In the era of electronic media it is difficult to keep the distinction between oral culture and literate culture, since there are more and more hybrid forms of culture that spread on the internet. The secondary orality character of applications like Twitter is a manifestation, a consequence of humans’ desire to group, not out of a survival instinct but as a deliberate, rational act of re-integration, as statement of self-consciousness and declaration of identity within neo-tribal cultures.

The painting “Twittering machine” (Paul Klee, 1922) can be a good visualization of an online social network like Twitter, since it suggestively depicts a fusion of natural and artificial, which in the case of Twitter can be: primary orality and tribal culture, and deformation of natural through technology, resulting in secondary orality and re-tribalization through online social networking.

[1] Ong, Walter, Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the World, Methuen, London & New York, 1982, p. 118

[2] Ibid., p. 136

[3] Ibidem

[4] Ibid, p. 179

[5] Ibid, p. 3