‘Compromised Data?’ Social media research: methodological challenges, unexamined niches, and the politics of big data
October 28, 2013 § Leave a comment
Today’s presentations on big data research at Compromised Data? raised some important questions about the role that big data is playing in academic research and government policy, as well as about the methodological challenges faced by big data researchers.
Greg Elmer‘s opening remarks positioned the ‘compromised data?’ theme in the broader context of neoliberal policies and the Canadian government’s anti-environmental policies. Joanna Redden‘s work on the increasing incorporation of big data research into Canadian policy-making and government service provision expanded on this theme. Redden pointed out that the turn towards big data is framed in the language of efficiency and money-saving, but that we should be concerned about the quality of the data being used, including the erasure of poverty as those who are not online (or online less) become invisible, and as services which generate oppositional forms of knowledge have their funding cut. We should also remain aware of the ways in which a reliance on big data research can change government processes, changing the role of bureaucrats and changing the relationship between citizens and the government. We need to recognise that neoliberalism is not just a political project, but also one which aims to change how we think: big data is not neutral, but rather is easily incorporated within this system.
Tainer Bucher‘s exploration of shifts in the Twitter APIs complemented this well, inviting us to look more deeply at the role of APIs in shaping how we interact with data. Bucher argues that while there’s a risk of seeing APIs as just another convenient tool to gather data, we need to critically analyse software tools and understand the power relations embedded in their design. Her empirical research in 2010 and 2011 focused on shifts in the Twitter APIs, in which the initial openness which helped Twitter to grow was increasingly shut down.
Jean Burgess and Axel Bruns also touched on the consequences of Twitter’s API as they discussed Twitter research and the politics of data access. To begin with, they point out, there’s a disproportionate focus on Twitter in academic research because it’s the easiest social media data to access. At the same time, much of the work is biased by limitations in the software tools used to study the platform: key tools like TwapperKeeper and DataSift were constrained in important ways by the changes to Twitter APIs. There are also biases that come from a focus on the low-hanging fruit, such as a focus on hashtags rather than on more complex layers of interaction like follower networks and @replies. Burgess and Bruns argue that we need to be reaching beyond the easily-available data in order to build a better picture of how people are using Twitter.
Carolin Gerlitz provided one model for doing this, outlining an approach based on a model of social media as multivalent: producing data that is both standardised and vague, and therefore allows for multiple readings. Gerlitz argued that more research needs to be open to the multiple use practices involved in social media. Frauke Zeller‘s work also provided useful templates for research which is open to the multiple meanings of social media texts, suggesting that there are benefits to an interative approach in which qualitative and quantitative analysis mutually inform each other.
Daniel Pare and Mary Francoli‘s research raised concerns about existing approaches in big data research, particularly focusing on the literature on political engagement and mobilisation. Like others, they pointed out that the data which is most easily available is not necessarily the most accurate; a focus on big data research on social media is problematic when it’s used as a simple measure of broader political trends. There’s also far too little recognition of the ways in which assumptions about what ‘democracy’ means shape research on political mobilisation and engagement online, and of the inherently political nature of social media platforms.
Asta Zelenkauskaite’s work on mainstream media’s approaches to big data also highlighted the contested nature of these platforms, inviting us to consider the difference between social media engagement as a top-down process and what it might look like if it was driven by consumer interests. Sidneyeve Matrix’s presentation served as a useful complement to this, examining the shift towards niche social networks—often paid, gated communities—that support consumers’ use of their geolocative data.
The day’s presentations opened up some vital questions that are being asked far too infrequently in big data research, and in the broader big data community, about the political and methodological issues involved in the push towards big data as a magical cure-all. I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s presentations, as well as to talking about how these concerns relate to the research Tim and I are doing.
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IR13 Saturday highlights: Jedward, Peppa Pig, Occupy, Occupy, more Occupy, Twitter, Twitter, and more Twitter
October 22, 2012 § Leave a comment
On Saturday there were four sessions, each of which had up to four papers in them. Even though I skipped the third session to drink coffee and debrief, it was a lot to digest. Happily there was a good mix of papers relevant to my research and papers not-at-all-relevant but interesting enough to help me push through the exhaustion. (My apologies to any presenters who were unnerved by my glazed appearance in your session. It’s not you, it’s jetlag!)
There were quite a few papers looking at various aspects of Occupy, many of them doing large-scale Twitter analysis. Zizi Papacharissi elaborated on her plenary, talking about the rhythms of Occupy: broadcasting and listening practices on #ows. She spoke briefly about the affect of the Twitter stream, which is an idea that makes sense to me on an intuitive level: if I understand it correctly, this is the idea that the stream itself (rather than individual tweets or accounts) has a certain texture and rhythm. This is something I’ve had a sense of when following or participating in high-volume Twitter streams; analysing it seems tricky, but focusing on the emergence of tagging networks and other emerging structures seems to yield some useful results. For example, the Occupy movement’s openness seems to mean that #ows tags are often associated with those of more right-wing movements, particularly the Tea Party.
There were also quite a few papers on Occupy from the Washington University Social Media Lab (and, having a quick look around their site, it looks like they’re doing a heap of stuff I want to look into further). A couple of papers used Gnip Powertrack and Radian6 to analyse content from Twitter and/or YouTube, showing that much of the content shared around Occupy is from professional sources (although there’s more movement-produced material than for other movements, like the campaign around Proposition 8 in California). The presenters emphasises the importance of the surrounding environment in shaping media use: the context shaping Prop 8 (in 2008) is very different from that around Occupy. (A number of the talks at IR13 made this point, which I think is an important one: protest ecologies matter.) There was also some useful discussion of the ways in which protesters use hashtags to sort through the vast volume of material associated with #ows.
The final session for the day included another WU SoMe Occupy paper: Kevin Driscoll‘s work on how activists understand and make choices around different platforms. Some of his findings were quite different from what we’ve found (which is not surprising given the diversity of the Occupy movement) so I’m looking forward to looking into this more. And just in case that isn’t enough Occupy, I’m hoping to find some of the Occupy papers that I ended up missing because of clashes, including #Occupy the City (another paper out of the UW SoMe Lab) and The Occupy Movement Online: Same Label, Different Projects, from Tomi Oladepo and Dennis Nguyen. The latter is one of the few papers that looked at the Occupy movement beyond the West.
The next session I went to looked at ‘fans and Twitter’. While it’s great seeing what other researchers who are in my area (more or less) are doing, I like interspersing these with talks where I’m learning something entirely new, or making new connections. I particularly enjoyed Rachel Magee et al’s paper on fans’ Twitter use around The Hunger Games, and #Eurovision: Twitter as a Technology of Fandom, from Axel Bruns, Stephen Harrington, and my colleague Tim Highfield.
There are some useful parallels between studying fan cultures and social movements which I’m beginning to consider. In both cases, there’s a significant difference in the framework of the research between those working inside communities and those looking in from the outside. I’m curious to see whether there’s much writing looking more directly at this connection and the ways in which fan studies and social movement research might interact. There are also issues of ethics and representation: Rachel Magee anonymised all data as part of the university ethics requirement, which meant that she was not able to quote any tweets directly or even mention the characters which participants were acting as on Twitter, which is in sharp contrast to the approach I’ve taken.
The final session included a couple of papers that relate to my work on the digital liberties movement: Mauger‘s on the Pirate Bay in Denmark and Burcu Bakioglu‘s on Anonymous’s war on the anti-piracy campaigners. Tama Leaver also gave a talk on global media distribution and the tyranny of digital distance which expanded on his pre-conference presentation. I learned less about Peppa Pig than I was hoping to, but the argument was interesting enough to overcome this gap in the literature.
One of the benefits/downsides of the very lively #IR13 Twitter backchannel is that the already-difficult choice between sessions is made harder by people tweeting about excellent talks happening at the same time as the excellent talk you’re attending. Among the many other gems that I’m sure future browsing through the program will turn, I missed Joseph Reagle’s Infocide in Open Content Communities, what seems to have been an important roundtable on the politics of algorithms, Holly Kruse’s paper on pneumatic tubes (there seems to be more about this here), and Helen Keegan‘s This is Not a Module: Learning Through an Alternative Reality Game, Running the game seems to have been a nerve-wracking experience (since it involved elaborate pranking), but ultimately awesome. I can only hope to give students such an interesting experience.
October 21, 2012 § Leave a comment
There have been more talks here on activism than it’s been physically possible for me to attend without splitting into two. Friday afternoon’s session on protest and online activism began with a look at ‘Protest and Internet humour memes in UK universities’ from Gordon Fletcher, which was pleasantly LOL-heavy (even if I was missing the appropriate background for many of them). Fletcher argues that while this is politics of a sort (“politics, but not as we know it”), it’s not necessarily particularly effective politics: it’s not going to start any revolutions.
Next Dan Mercea (co-authoring with Paul Nixon) looked at the use of Twitter and Facebook in attempts to recruit participants to the Occupy movement in the Netherlands. Whereas most participants in our research on Occupy Oakland saw Twitter as the primary online platform for communicating about the movement (even if this was often problematic), participants in Netherlands Occupy sites relied far more on Facebook. Mercea and Nixon also found that both Facebook and Twitter played a role in helping participants to initially learn about the Occupy movement, but wasn’t actively used to try to recruit participants. Participants’ use of both Facebook and Twitter also tended to taper off over time, and lost importance as a source of information or engagement with Occupy.
The talks which followed were a little less relevant to my own research (and, sadly, my note-taking seems to drop off significantly towards the end of the day, especially at conferences that involve international travel): Constance Elizabeth Kampf looked at ‘The past, present and future of online activism towards business’, drawing on some great case studies. I particularly liked the Google Will Eat Itself project, which claims it will use revenue generated from Google ads to buy Google shares, and eventually turn Google into a public trust. (GWEI currently owns 819 shares, totalling USD 405.413,19, meaning it will be 202.345.117 years until GWEI fully owns Google.) Zeena Feldman‘s ‘Beyond freedom and oppression’ looked at practices of resistance to the commodification of the Couchsurfing website, as users tried to continue their engagement without fully capitulating to the site’s shift to for-profit status.
October 19, 2012 § 2 Comments
September 13, 2012 § 3 Comments
In October, Dr. Tim Highfield and I will be presenting some of our Occupy Oakland research at the Internet Research 13.0 Conference. We’ve started putting together the paper over the last few weeks (which means that my Tumblr is currently full of useful quotations I’ve found along the way), and have been enjoying the process tremendously. In coming weeks I’ll be sending drafts to interviewees who said they were interested in seeing the project develop to get their feedback, and hopefully within a few months Tim and I will have the full article to share. The abstract for the presentation (co-written with Tim) is here:
#oo activism: Uses of Twitter within the Occupy Oakland movement
Social media have become crucial tools for political activists and protest movements, providing another channel for promoting messages and garnering support. Twitter, in particular, has been identified as a noteworthy medium for protests in countries including Iran and Egypt to receive global attention (Gaffney, 2010; Lotan, Ananny, Gaffney, & boyd, 2011). The Occupy movement, originating with protests in, and the physical occupation of, Wall Street and inspiring similar demonstrations in other U.S. cities and around the world, has been intrinsically linked with social media through location-specific hashtags: #ows for Occupy Wall Street, #occupysf for San Francisco, and so on. While the individual protests have a specific geographical focus – highlighted by the physical occupation of parks, buildings, and other urban areas – Twitter provides a means for these different movements to be linked and promoted through tweets containing multiple hashtags. It also serves as a channel for tactical communications during actions and as a space in which movement debates take place.
In this paper, we undertake a preliminary study of Twitter’s use within the Occupy Oakland movement. We analyse a dataset of public tweets published between 29 January and 15 February 2012 containing the #oo hashtag to identify the ways in which social media are employed within the movement, from promoting events to broadcasting live from marches and meetings. This timeframe is particularly noteworthy because it covers the aftermath of the Move In Day action, an attempt to take over a disused building and turn it into a social centre. The failure of this action in the face of police repression led to intense debate within the movement about strategies and tactics, as well as between participants and observers in Oakland and elsewhere. There were also a number of follow-up actions organised, including solidarity actions for the 409 people arrested at Move In Day. Much of this debate and organising took place on Twitter and was tagged with the #oo hashtag. While this is not the only hashtag used for this specific movement (#occupyoakland is also featured in tweets), #oo’s length makes it a popular choice for protesters faced with only 140 characters with which to write their tweets.
Our analysis of the content of #oo tweets examines how Twitter is used within the movement; as, variably, a means of organisation, communication, broadcasting, or debate, for example. As part of this study, we evaluate how Twitter activity corresponds with events such as rallies, arrests, and meetings, and determine the presence of any sub-groups of Twitter users within the movement focused on particular activities, such as livestreaming and the controversial weekly anti-police rallies. Using methods developed specifically for processing Twitter datasets (Bruns, 2011), we also examine the hashtags, @replies and mentions, and retweets included in the gathered tweets to identify any links with other #occupy movements and movements around the world (including those in Egypt and Syria), and the relationship between Occupy Oakland and local institutions and places. This step allows us to study the connections between a geographically-focused movement such as Occupy Oakland and related, but physically distant, protests taking place concurrently in other cities.
This preliminary study forms part of a wider project exploring the politics of place, investigating how social movements are composed and sustained. In addition to movement-specific data collected from sites such as Twitter, the project also draws on ethnographic research through interviews with activists, and participant observation of the movements’ activities. This research methodology allows us to develop a more accurate and nuanced understanding of how movement activists use Twitter by cross-checking trends in the online data with observations and activists’ own reported use of Twitter.
Bruns, A. (2011). How Long Is a Tweet? Mapping Dynamic Conversation Networks on Twitter Using Gawk and Gephi. Information, Communication & Society, (January 2012), 1-29. doi:10.1080/1369118X.2011.635214
Gaffney, D. (2010). # iranElection : Quantifying Online Activism. Paper presented at WebSci10. 26 April 2010, Raleigh, NC. Retrieved from http://journal.webscience.org/295
Lotan, G., Ananny, M., Gaffney, D., & boyd, d. (2011). The Revolutions Were Tweeted: Information Flows During the 2011 Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions. International Journal of Communication, 5, 1375-1405.