Frictions that slow, frictions that spark

January 19, 2016 § Leave a comment

I’m delighted that the latest article from Tim and my Mapping Movements project is out, Harbouring Dissent: Greek Independent and Social Media and the Antifascist Movement. It’s been a long wait, and there are a few sections which I’m sure need updating, but I’m still very glad that it’s finally public:

Abstract: This article examines Greek activists’ use of a range of communication technologies, including social media, blogs, citizen journalism sites, Web radio, and anonymous networks. Drawing on Anna Tsing’s theoretical model, the article examines key frictions around digital technologies that emerged within a case study of the antifascist movement in Athens, focusing on the period around the 2013 shutdown of Athens Indymedia. Drawing on interviews with activists and analysis of online communications, including issue networks and social media activity, we find that the antifascist movement itself is created and recreated through a process of productive friction, as different groups and individuals with varying ideologies and experiences work together.

Keep reading…

Upcoming events: Femhack Montreal, AdaCamp, Theorizing the Web, and Circuits of Struggle

April 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

I’ve got a few (un)conferences coming up, and I’m looking forward to opportunities to connect with academics, activists, and others working at the intersection of politics and technology.

Global Justice and the Politics of InformationMy presentations for Theorizing the Web and the Union of Democratic Communications conference, Circuits of Struggle, are focusing on some of the challenges that geek feminism raises to mainstream digital liberties activism. I’m very proud of my book, and think it makes important arguments about how the struggle for democratic control of digital technologies contributes to broader social justice projects (you should read it! If you can’t afford to buy it, let me know and I can give you a copy in exchange for a review). But at the same time, I think there are some key gaps in it.

I began writing about the digital liberties movement a long time ago, and my analysis has shifted in important ways over the last few years. In my book, and this article, I noted the limitations of the movement’s politics, which tend to be reformist, with a liberal or libertarian (in the US sense of the word) focus. Geek feminism is making interesting and important challenges to that perspective, and I want to do more to highlight those challenges.

FemHackFor the Femhack Montreal workshop on ‘Autonomous Infrastructures as feminist hacker practices’ I’m going to be revisiting some of our Mapping Movements work, in this case looking at how Greek activists are resisting online surveillance and censorship by building their own networks and communication structures.

AdaCamp is an unconference, so I have no idea what I’ll be talking about (if anything), but I loved the last AdaCamp I went to so I’m sure it’ll be thought-provoking. I’m helping out running the lightning talks, so if you’re going please consider giving one!

Upcoming contribution to ‘Compromised Data: From Social Media to Big Data’

December 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

Cover for Compromised DataI’m happy to see that the Compromised Data colloquium that Tim and I presented at in late 2013 has lead to the publication of Compromised Data: from social media to big data:

There has been a data rush in the past decade brought about by online communication and, in particular, social media (Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, among others), which promises a new age of digital enlightenment. But social data is compromised: it is being seized by specific economic interests, it leads to a fundamental shift in the relationship between research and the public good, and it fosters new forms of control and surveillance.

Compromised Data: From Social Media to Big Data explores how we perform critical research within a compromised social data framework. The expert, international lineup of contributors explores the limits and challenges of social data research in order to invent and develop new modes of doing public research. At its core, this collection argues that we are witnessing a fundamental reshaping of the social through social data mining.

Our chapter explores some of the analytical and ethical issues involved in using big data for social media research, drawing on our Mapping Movements work. You can find our presentation from the colloquium here.

#SMSociety14: Greek independent media and the antifascist movement

July 11, 2014 § 1 Comment

I’ll be presenting the first analysis from the next case study of the Mapping Movements project that Tim Highfield and I have been working on at the Social Media & Society conference in September: the abstract is included here and we welcome comments, particularly from those involved in the Greek antifascist and independent media movements.

I must particularly acknowledge the assistance provided to this project by Maria Sidiropoulou, who has provided invaluable research support.

Title: Greek independent media and the antifascist movement

Background:

As social and political movements around the world attempt to deal with complex challenges, social media plays a key role in movement-building, organising events and campaigns, and communicating movement messages. This research focuses on the role of social media in facilitating the restructuring and growth of the antifascist movement in Athens following the 2010 protests in Syntagma Square. As Makrygianni and Tsavdaroglou (2011) note, Greek urban space has played a significant role in shaping protest during and after the junta, with the Exarcheia neighbourhood being a central base for activist organising. After Syntagma, activists moved from Exarcheia into neighbourhoods throughout Athens, establishing communities which form the basis of antifascist organising and which remain connected through both commercial and independent social media platforms.

Objective: This paper aims to demonstrate the complexity of links between social media and offline communities, including the ways in which each are mutually constitutive, and to provide a deep and nuanced analysis of how a particular community uses social media. Using the Greek case study, it addresses broader questions about the limitations and affordances of different social media platforms in building social movements (see also Gerbaudo, 2012; Juris, 2012).

Methods: This work uses a grounded mixed-methods approach to investigate the ways in which the particular histories and geographies of Athens affect activists’ use of social media, and the ways in which activists are reshaping networking technologies in order to build systems which are more supportive of activist interests (as opposed to the interests of corporations or governments). The research combines quantitative analysis of Twitter accounts associated with the Athens antifascist movement; analysis of issue-oriented hyperlink networks of independent media platforms such as the Indymedia forums and neighbourhood anti-fascist blogs (see also Bennett & Segerberg, 2013; Marres & Rogers, 2005); and 34 in-depth semi-structured interviews with activists, carried out in April and May 2013. The combination of quantitative and qualitative methods allows us to avoid some of the biases present in social movement research which focuses purely on online data (see Tufekci, 2014).

Results: This research highlights the interrelationship between social media and the physical configuration of protest, demonstrating how supposedly ‘placeless’ media is built on, and supports, physical communities of resistance. For example, activists’ decisions to use particular social media platforms are strongly influenced by the offline communities which they are a part of, while these platforms also serve a vital role in sustaining and mobilising those communities. This research also shows some of the tensions involved in activists’ choices to eschew the use of commercial social media platforms, including the risk of growing insularity within movements. More generally, this work provides important lessons about the ways in which activists are responding to the crises caused by neoliberalism and building new possibilities for community solidarity.

Conclusions: The combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis allows us to build a nuanced picture of social media use in a particular activist community, demonstrating the value of this research method. It also highlights important trends frequently overlooked in related research, such as strategic non-use or covert use of social media.

References:

Bennett, W. L., & Segerberg, A. (2013). The Logic of Connective Action: Digital media and the personalization of contentious politics. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Gerbaudo, P. (2012). Tweets and the streets: Social media and contemporary activism. London: Pluto Press.

Juris, J. S. (2012). Reflections on #Occupy Everywhere: Social media, public space, and emerging logics of aggregation. American Ethnologist, 39(2), 259–279. doi:10.1111/j.1548-1425.2012.01362.x

Makrygianni, V., & Tsavdaroglou, H. (2011). Urban planning and revolt: a spatial analysis of the December 2008 uprising in Athens. In A. Vradis & D. Dalakoglou (Eds.), Revolt and crisis in Greece: between a present yet to pass and a future still to come (pp. 29 – 57). Oakland, Baltimore, Edinburgh, London & Athens: AK Press and Occupied London.

Marres, N., & Rogers, R. (2005). Recipe for tracing the fate of issues and their publics on the web. In B. Latour & P. Weibel (Eds.), Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (pp. 922–935). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Tufekci, Z. (2014). Big Questions for Social Media Big Data: Representativeness, Validity and Other Methodological Pitfalls. In ICWSM ’14: Proceedings of the 8th International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media. Ann Arbor, MI. http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1403/1403.7400.pdf

Occupy Oakland and #oo: Uses of Twitter within the Occupy movement

March 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

The first paper from Tim Highfield and my Mapping Movements project is now out in First Monday:

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. 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.

This paper examines Twitter’s use within the Occupy Oakland movement. We use a mixture of ethnographic research through interviews with activists and participant observation of the movements’ activities, and a dataset of public tweets containing the #oo hashtag from early 2012. 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. We also 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 study forms part of a wider research project, Mapping Movements, exploring the politics of place, investigating how social movements are composed and sustained, and the uses of online communication within these movements.

[Read the full paper.]

Compromised Data? The social life of data, new tools, audience engagement, and social movements

October 31, 2013 § Leave a comment

The second day of the Compromised Data colloquium was fascinating, and I’m looking forward to chasing down further work from many of the presenters.

The opening session started with Lisa Blackman discussing experiments with repurposing commercial software tools to explore contagion in complex environments, drawing on controversies around psychic research of the nineteenth century (including work on automatic writing). I liked the idea of ‘haunted data’: the ways in which research takes on a new life after publication, and may begin to be circulated by non-academic networks in ways that the original researchers never intended.

Ingrid M. Hoofd raised some interesting questions about the ways in which academic institutions, researchers, media, and activists may be becoming implicated in problematic representational regimes in their use of social media. She discussed The Guardian’s Reading the Riots project, which she argued simultaneously made claims to build an empirically-based analysis of the reasons behind the riots while also being based in, and reinforcing, existing stereotypes around class and race.

Yuk Hui‘s work on self-archiving the massive amounts of digital objects which we generated notes the difference between merely storing, and archiving, this material: archiving requires the additional of contextual framing. The theoretical framework of Hui’s work is accompanied by attempts to design self-archiving tools which will allow them to create physical objects through which to share their archives.

Netlytic visualization for the #compdata13 network

Netlytic visualization for the #compdata13 network

The following session explored other attempts to combine analyse with software design. Fenwick McKelvey discussed network diagnostic tools, some of which may be helpful in better understanding NSA surveillance. He also raised questions about the structure of crowdsourced research: often, he notes, researchers set their aims and create the infrastructure for crowd participation, rather than allowing the ‘crowd’ (however that might be defined) to do more in setting research goals and processes.

Robert W. Gehl‘s presentation focused critical reverse engineering approaches, including making suggestions about how these may be applied to the humanities. He argued that critical reverse engineering allows us to understand they ways in which new technologies and systems are not radical breaks with the past, but rather come from a particular history and series of struggles, looking in detail at how this applied to attempts to create an alternative to Twitter, TalkOpen.

Anatoliy Gruzd talked about some of the work currently happening at the Dalhousie University Social Media Lab, including the creation of the Netlytic tool, which may be useful for visualizing networks and is currently being used to explore a number of different online communities and discussions.

In the session on audience engagement, Gavin Adamson looked at some of the ways in which social media is affecting mental health coverage (noting that audiences much prefer to share positive news stories, rather than those framed through the lens of violence/risk); Mariluz Sanchez discussed the use of social media in transmedia storytelling, and Kamilla Pietrzyk gave a thought-provoking presentation on the research she’s beginning on the effects of read receipts on online communication.

Alessandra Renzi and Ganaele Langlois kicked off the final session with a conversation about some of the issues involved in data/activism, exploring the ways in which militant research methods might be combined with critical software studies. They argued that much of the discussion around participatory culture takes celebratory approach to understanding political participation, and that we need to think about the ways in which being ‘active’ differs from resisting existing systems and building alternatives. They also raised many of the questions around the relationship between researchers and activists that Tim and I covered in our talk, including some we hadn’t considered.

David Karpf‘s challenged the idea that online activism, particularly petitions, are spontaneous examples of ‘organising without organisations’. Instead, he argues, a closer look at online petition sites demonstrates that we are seeing organising with different organisations. The organisations involved in MoveOn.org and Change.org both make choices about their platforms which shape the kinds of petitions created (those on MoveOn tend to be more political). MoveOn’s prompts guiding members’ creation of petitions also serve as an educational tool, drawing in part on (Saul Alinsky’s?) ideas about political organising.

Tim and I finished up the day by discussing some of the ethical and methodological challenges of social movement research drawing on big data. Our slides and audio are available here:

‘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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