Why I Am Suing the Government

Social Media Collective

(or: I write scripts, bots, and scrapers that collect online data)

I never thought that I would sue the government. The papers went in on Wednesday, but the whole situation still seems unreal. I’m a professor at the University of Michigan and a social scientist who studies the Internet, and I ran afoul of what some have called the most hated law on the Internet.

Others call it the law that killed Aaron Swartz. It’s more formally known as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), the dangerously vague federal anti-hacking law. The CFAA is so broad, you might have broken it. The CFAA has been used to indict a MySpace user for adding false information to her profile, to convict a non-programmer of “hacking,” to convict an IT administrator of deleting files he was authorized to access, and to send a dozen FBI agents to…

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Why Radical Academics Often Find it Hard to Write, and What to Do about It

Anne Bonny Pirate

blank piece of paperJonathan Neale

This post will be of interest to only some of our readers. But we hope it will be very useful for them.

It is not easy to be both an academic and an activist. The values, the audiences and the constraints are different. Sitting down to write, you can feel yourself pulled in two different ways. The result is often muddled thinking and murky prose. There is too much ranting for an academic audience, and too much gobbledygook for the movement. In many cases, there is no prose at all, only silence, and pages crumpled in the wastebasket or erased on the screen.

The first half of this post offers some advice that can make writing easier, faster and more useful. The second half explains why universities make activists feel stupid, how they do it, and how you can cope.

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The OKCupid data release fiasco: It’s time to rethink ethics education

Social Media Collective

In mid 2016, we confront another ethical crisis related to personal data, social media, the public internet, and social research. This time, it’s a release of some 70,0000 OKCupid users’ data, including some very intimate details about individuals. Responses from several communities of practice highlight the complications of using outdated modes of thinking about ethics and human subjects when considering new opportunities for research through publicly accessible or otherwise easily obtained data sets (e.g., Michael Zimmer produced a thoughtful response in Wired and Kate Crawford pointed us to her recent work with Jacob Metcalf on this topic). There are so many things to talk about in this case, but here, I’d like to weigh in on conversations about how we might respond to this issue as university educators.

The OKCupid case is just the most recent of a long list of…

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Sexual harassment at international ICT events: a call for action

Tim Unwin's Blog

I have become increasingly saddened and dismayed in recent years at the level of sexual harassment, and what I see as inappropriate and unacceptable behaviour by a surprising number of men at the ICT conferences and exhibitions convened by some international organisations.  This ranges from generally loutish actions by some groups of young men, to what can only be called predatory behaviour by some older and more senior figures in the sector.  Until the last couple of years, I had thought that such behaviour had largely disappeared, but from what I have witnessed myself, from what I have heard from women in the sector, and from what I have read, it is clear that action needs to be taken urgently by all those in the sector, and particularly those who are organising conferences and events.

ITU maleThe ICT industry has for far too long been dominated by men, much to its…

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Megajournals and the Impact Factor

Summary

If a journal does not hold constant the number of citable items it publishes year after year, then its Impact Factor will always decline if the rate of citable items published in a two year period increases faster than the one year rate of cites to those citable items. Hence:

  1. Using the Impact Factor to compare a journal’s impact year after year may only make sense (if at all) if that journal holds constant the number of citable items it publishes year after year.
  2. Megajournals (potentially) do not hold constant the number of citable items they publish year after year.
  3. Therefore, the Impact Factor does not apply to megajournals.

Background & Explanation

The Impact Factor (IF) is a simple average. It’s the number of cites that accumulated in Year A to citable items (articles, etc.) a journal published in the previous two years, and then divided by the count of those citable items. To illustrate, to arrive at a 2015 IF for some journal, we sum the number of cites in year 2015 to the citable items a journal published in years 2013 and 2014, and then divide that by the count of those citable items.

There are many reasons why the IF is no longer a great (or appropriate) metric for evaluating or ranking journals (a web search will return many sources that criticize the IF). It was a useful metric when it was invented in the 1960s. Academic librarians, and others, even at that time, had to manage an increasing glut of scholarly journals and using the IF, aided with a decent understanding of Bradford’s Law, helped librarians manage print journal collections. It’s no longer necessary to use the IF for that, for a number of reasons that can be discussed at some other time. However, beyond such a scenario, the IF suffers because it is also an artifact of its time: the computational power and data storage capabilities in the 1960s were, obviously, limited and thus some selection process helped reduce the amount of data that needed crunching. Such selection shortcuts are less necessary now.

Therefore, these days the IF is not simply misused, it is also largely obsolete, and this is certainly true for megajournals like PLOS ONE and others. Specifically, because the IF is a simple average, using it to compare a single journal’s IF year after year only makes sense if that journal publishes a fairly constant number of citable items year after year: that is, if the denominator (count of citable items) in the IF stays [fairly] constant year after year while the numerator (citations to citable items) is left to vary. For most journals for most of modern history, this has been the norm. That is, journals generally publish X amount of articles per week, per month, or per quarter, and generally maintain this type of activity across time. Journal publishers do this because for most of modern history (i.e., before the web), they published in a print format and suffered the constraints that the economies of print placed on them (e.g., page constraints due to page costs). Hence, binding articles and disseminating them via an (e.g., weekly, monthly, or quarterly) issue made the best economic sense (limitations of scale in a print only era). Even though most journals have migrated to online formats and an increasing number no longer print physical copies, this remnant from the past, the constraint on pages per year and a set number of issues per year, remains a standard way of doing things, even if such a constraint is not placed on them by a publisher.

It could be that this way of managing a journal and publishing serially benefits certain kinds of work flows, and these benefits may be more pronounced for smaller research communities and journals, but this way of disseminating scholarly articles is not a necessity in digital publishing. Yet, the standard way of doing things is ingrained and many journals that are born online or born digital continue to publish periodically: that is, a fairly constant set of articles per issue and issues per year. Even some early journal software platforms, like Open Journal Systems, were built to accommodate this as a part of the software’s basic framework. What’s interesting, then, are those born digital journals that think past this assumption and have removed themselves from the constraints of printing. Enter the megajournal.

I’m fairly neutral (if not skeptical) about the existence of megajournals like PLOS ONE. I think those of us who study scholarly communication need to continue to flush out the possible implications with this kind of publishing and these kinds of platforms (that’s the job). That is, we don’t know enough yet to say whether these entities are good or bad for science. However, in the last several years, the IF for PLOS ONE has declined and several popular sources have drawn, what I think, are hasty generalizations about what that decline means. The only accurate thing we can say, right now, about the decline is that it is a result of publishing works, over a two year period, at a rate that is faster than the rate of incoming cites that accumulated in a one year period (for the 2-year IF). To illustrate this, below is a table showing the counts of cites, citable items, and 2-year IF scores taken from Thompson Reuters’ Journal Citation Reports for the journal PLOS ONE. I’ve added two additional columns that show the percentage change in the number of cites and the percentage change in the number of citable items. As we can see, the 2 year IF score declines each year simply because the percentage increase for the number of citable items published is larger than the percentage increase in the number of cites to those items:

PLOS ONE
Year Cites Cites Perc Δ Citable Items (CI) CI Perc Δ 2-yr IF CI Perc Δ > Cites Perc Δ
2014 177706 35.07% 54945 47.59% 3.234 T
2013 131563 72.03% 37229 81.58% 3.534 T
2012 76475 68.00% 20503 84.30% 3.730 T
2011 45521 44.95% 11125 56.25% 4.092 T
2010 31404 7120 4.411

(By the way, there’s not enough data in the table above to say anything remotely conclusive about trends, no matter what anyone says.)

I’m looking forward to the 2015 release of the Journal Citation Reports simply because it will be interesting to see the reactions to PLOS ONE‘s score. A couple of summers ago (and the one before that), when the 2014 scores were released, there were a number of blogs that predicted the decline or the fall of PLOS ONE because its IF fell again. Even though some of those posts explain the IF and refer to a decreasing number of submissions to or publications by PLOS ONE, which may be true but may be true for reasons such as the size of the scientific community, funding sources, etc. and not to authors’ reactions to a decline in PLOS ONE‘s IF, no one, as far as I can tell, actually refers to the simple problem with the moving parts of the IF as a fraction, and by entailment, why the rate of cites might be lower than the rate of citable items. That latter issue leads to many more interesting and illuminating questions.

This post originally appeared on my personal blog.

“Please Read the Article”? Please Cite Women Academics.

Meryl Alper

I’m not an expert on cyber warfare, nor do I play one on TV—or on Twitter for that matter.

I have, though, published academic research about the cultural claims to legitimacy that policymakers have historically used when responding to perceived threats of youth hackers—work, I should note, that popular journalists have covered and properly attributed here and here.  And as a Faculty Associate with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, and an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern University, I’m well aware of thoughtful scholarship on how popular culture and technology policy directly and indirectly shape one another.

In doing that historical work on youth hackers, I was thankful for the heavy lifting done by communication scholar Stephanie Ricker Schulte in her 2008 article “‘The WarGames Scenario:’ Regulating Teenagers and Teenaged Technology (1980-1984)” in Television & New Media, as well as her 2013

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The 2013 Protests in Brazil

[Cross-posted to the Civic Media Project]

In October 30th, 2007 Brazil received one of the most anticipated news in years, the land of soccer was selected to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The announcement was celebrated by the Brazilians as if the country had won its 6th title; people were wearing the traditional green and yellow and had their hopes increased that the government would finally solve the country’s fundamental problems with education, health care, infrastructure and crime. Six years later, as Brazil was getting ready to host FIFA Confederations Cup, an official test event for the World Cup, the excitement that enthralled the Brazilian people turned into deep frustration.

In June of 2013, an avalanche of protests led more than one million people to the streets in over a hundred cities in Brazil. The wave of protests began in early June in the city of São Paulo and spread throughout the country motivated by the increase of R$ 0.20 in the public transportation fare. The protests grew to include a much larger set of issues faced by the Brazilian society. The protesters were dissatisfied with the government due to the increase of corruption and impunity. They were also frustrated since the government was spending billions dollars on stadiums for the World Cup, and the people were not seeing the same, or even a close investment, geared towards solving the nation’s problems.

In Vitória, where I was conducting his 6 month ethnographic research in the marginalized areas of Gurigica, Itararé and São Benedito, the first protest took place in June 17th, 2013. It was organized by university students, who belonged to the Brazilian middle class, on Facebook in two popular groups: “Utilidade Publica – ES” (Public Utility – ES) and “Não é por 20 centavos” (It’s not just 20 cents). The protest gathered 20.000 people, started from the Federal University of Espírito Santo (UFES) and toured eleven kilometers, passing through the most important avenues in the city until reaching the official residence of the Espírito Santo’s governor, Renato Casagrande. Interestingly, the protesters had hashtags written on their cardboard signs as a way to link their demands to what they were discussing on Facebook.

Sign with the message: “#SayNo to PEC37 (in reference to the bill 37 that was about to be voted in the congress).”

Sign with the message: “#SayNo to PEC37 (in reference to the bill 37 that was about to be voted in the congress).”

While making observations during the protest, I wasn’t able to identify anyone from such marginalized areas. The protesters were mostly white and had manners and garments typical of upper class citizens. The following day, going back to the favelas and questioning my informants about the protests, 26 out 30 did not know anything about it. As mentioned by Thais, 17 years old:

“I heard about the protests in Rio and São Paulo on TV, but heard nothing about the one that happened here… Even if I had, why would I go there? To get beat up by the cops? We already get enough of that here in the community.”

I analyzed the list of members in the Facebook’s groups responsible for organizing the protests, yet could not recognize anyone from Gurigica, São Benedito or Itararé. Even, after posting a message on the groups asking if anyone was from those communities, there was not a single positive answer. Since the group members were mostly students and belonged to the upper classes, the information about the protests never reached Facebook users from marginalized classes. The social divide that took place in Vitória, defined by geographical places and income, was also mapped online as the rich and poor social networks did not overlap.

Due to the success of the protest of June 17th, the protest organizers gained the interest and attention from the mainstream media, such as local TV channels and newspapers, and announced a new protest for June 20th, 2013. Since the information about the new protest was available through less exclusive channels, the favela dwellers became interested in the protests and organized their own group on Facebook to come up with a list of demands. To encourage people to join the protesters Rony, 23 years old, was using the hashtag “#VemPraRua” (in English, come out to the streets):

“We can’t be afraid of getting beat up… That’s already happening. If we don’t do anything then things won’t change and my people from the favela will still have no access to education and health care… I don’t want this life… We already have 107 people in the Facebook group and they all said they are going to the next protest.”

Sign with the message: “In June 20th #ComeOutToTheStreets , wake up Brazil ; no violence.”

Sign with the message: “In June 20th #ComeOutToTheStreets , wake up Brazil ; no violence.”

The protests of June 20th made history by gathering more than 100.000 protesters in the streets of Vitória and forming the largest public demonstration ever registered in the state of Espírito Santo. 19 out 30 of my informants and favela dwellers were present in the protest. They were demanding better living conditions in the favelas, more respect as citizens, and the end of the drug war. Rony considered the participation an important beginning for the dwellers:

“It is just the start… we still have a lot to fight for. I wonder if our voices will ever be heard by the politicians… Facebook turned out to be a good way to reach out for people spread all over the communities… The group gave the privacy we needed to discuss sensitive and critical issues, such as the drug cartel activities, without getting people in trouble.”

Sign with the message “We got out of Facebook” (in reference that protesters were serious about their plans made online).

Sign with the message “We got out of Facebook” (in reference that protesters were serious about their plans made online).

Even though the people facing digital inequalities in the marginalized areas came late to the protest, Facebook still provided a platform so the residents of Gurigica, São Benedito and Itararé could organize and manifest their demands in the street protest. But the social divide that takes place in Vitória affected the way information flowed, impacting the civic engagement of the poor. The organizers of the first protests belonged to an upper class that did not overlap with lower classes, online and offline, the marginalized came in late to the streets and their voices and requests were not privileged as the ones shouted by the rich.

Why economics matters to ICTD

Last fall, I did something that, in retrospect, feels like it was height of masochism: I enrolled in a standard, first-term grad level microeconomics course. My colleagues in the iSchool program probably thought I was crazy. Heck, I thought I was crazy. You might imagine that, looking back, I would say that I’m glad I took it. I will say that, but not for the reasons you might think.

But perhaps I should introduce myself. I’m a second-year PhD student interested in studying ICT and development. Although I studied econ as an undergrad, multiple decades ago (eek!), it really wasn’t my intent to study it at the grad level. But I now find myself gravitating back in that direction in my work

Why pedagogy matters

So, let’s return to this entry-level econ course. Frankly, pedagogy in econ seems to be stuck in about 1950. The idea of students co-creating a learning environment would be laughed at. Come in, the instructor writes some stuff on the board, you take notes, later on you take an exam. Questions are rare. Feedback as to whether anyone is learning anything is non-existent. (The TA, not the instructor, gave me the understanding I needed to pass that course.) Colleagues at other institutions tell me that it’s really a specific phenomenon to any one place. Some econ professors are better teachers than others, but in general the standard seems quite low.

This is a real shame, because sometimes the discipline of economics feels more like a fortress than a silo. Another reason for this — actually closely related — is a historical emphasis on a certain kind of mathematics, generating airtight proofs of theoretical propositions, but historically marginalizing empirical findings. I tend to think of this as characterizing a new science trying to prove itself, indeed trying to prove all of social science, in the gung-ho positivistic mid-1800s.Alas, econ seems to still live in that world where credibility is established by being mathy and theoretical.

It’s fine to value this sort of analysis, but it tends to shut out valuable contributions from those who don’t think as abstractly. That’s also too bad, because there’s is a lot of really valuable cross-disciplinary work that could benefit from incorporating economic models; this work could not only be improved, but could also give back to economics by enhancing those models. But it doesn’t happen.

Why economics matters

So what? At its root, economics is the study of how humans respond (usually rationally) to incentives. ICTD frankly makes no sense without a consideration of incentives. Will some new policy intervention have the desired effect, or won’t it? Will technology improve people’s lives, or will it hurt them? These aren’t easy questions, but they’re impossible questions if we have no basis to predict how individuals will respond to changes in their capabilities. (And really, isn’t the promise of ICT supposed to be about broadening capabilities? Or if you prefer the contrarian view, to argue ICT on balance has a negative effect, don’t you still need to address changing capabilities?)

To be sure, economics also involves a particular toolkit, oriented around models tested through quantitative analysis. It’s not always the best toolkit for this job of predicting behavior, and it might never be the only relevant toolkit. Anthropology, sociology, political science, psychology — all of these have an immense role to play in ICTD, and we need interdisciplinary ICTD scholars who can speak the different languages of their own respective disciplines and of the interdisciplinary field of ICTD. (The same need is no doubt there for fluency in more interdisciplinary fields like communications, international studies, education, women’s studies, and indigenous studies.)

I don’t really know all that much about econ, relative to, you know, actual economists. Frankly, I err on the side of being too brash in my criticisms of it. In giving my outsider’s impressions of the field, I’ve probably made assertions that are highly debatable. If any economists are reading, I’d like to have that debate.

The good news is, I do see a lot of change in the field from my undergrad days. Development econ seems to be much more about generating smaller theoretical models that help us understand empirically observable reality, rather than fitting everything into canonical theories come hell or high water. This quarter, our iSchool has started cosponsoring (with the econ department and the public policy school) a series of seminars on development econ that’s attracted interdisciplinary involvement. So I’m really optimistic that different fields are starting to talk to each other.

Was I a masochist to press on with my micro class? Probably. Will I use those specific theories discussed, or be called upon to derive proofs? Maybe, maybe not. But you can’t enter the conversation if you don’t speak the language. ICTD needs more folks learning the language.

The use of social media in Syria

In this entry, I will write about the use of social media by Syrians, and mainly the use of Facebook [1]. Why is this interesting? I find it so because Syria and the Middle East are largely importers of digital technology, and still remain relatively under-studied by those who design and make technology. The other obvious reason is that due to the conditions and the events that Syrians are going through, looking at their use of social media for personal and public matters is one way to talk about the different motivations, actions, and circumstances that frame their lives, and a way to think about what that means for designing technology. Finally, in social informatics, and especially in community- related research, we are interested in “localities” where technology is used [Taylor 2004]. After all, as Howard Becker argues, every particular case has general implications [Becker 1998].

To write this post, I spent a couple of days looking at how people I could reach from my Facebook account use the platform. This includes Friends and personal connections, pages I follow or those I could reach because one of my connections referred to them, and activists who are usually individuals with extended social reach with a large audience base. My account is rather personal and I do not aim to be exhaustive or general [2]. I do try to be politically unbiased, although it is a particularly challenging matter to which I don’t think I can fully comply. Although there are atrocities committed by all sides, the sequence of events and the numbers do not put equal responsibility. I present these observations within themes, showing examples when possible [3], and I further use them to provoke questions about the design of social media. So, there we go.

Themes of Facebook use in Syria

1. News, events, and activism

Facebook is a main aggregator of various sources of news: news of family and friends, of the local town, of national events, and of world politics. This is supported both by the various possibilities for social connection (person-person, person-group, person-page, page-page) as well as its ability to curate various types of other media (photos, videos, and generic URLs). Facebook is therefore an important way for many Syrians to get news about local, national and international events. Although anybody can be a source of news, specific people (media activists), public figures, local groups, and media agencies dedicate special effort to follow the news and report on it (often with political commentary). Volunteers and local media groups often specialize in certain areas (a town or a region), and are almost always politically affiliated. The news can cover anything: the locations of bombings heard early morning, the state of repair of power and water lines, the condition of roads and the possibility of travel, the progress of combat on the front lines, the names of those killed in a recent strike, prices of vegetables, the elections in USA, and media statements made by politicians, activists, or military leaders.

A known personality in Aleppo reports on the recent status of water delivery in the city after a prolonged suspension.

— A known personality in Aleppo reports on the recent status of water delivery in the city after a prolonged suspension.

A Facebook page dedicated for delivering news on Aleppo reporting on heavy clashes.

— A Facebook page dedicated for delivering news on Aleppo reporting on heavy clashes.

After the recent killing of "Father Frans"; a dutch priest who was residing in the Old City of Homs. The picture shows Father Frans in the green t-shirt along with another young man in a blue shirt: "Bassel Shehadeh", who was a Syrian film producer and an activist. Bassel was killed in May 2012 during a government assault in Homs. Finally, the profile picture of the activist posting this picture is a pic of the activist "Razan Zaitouneh" who was kidnapped in December 2013 by unknown militants.

— After the recent killing of “Father Frans”; a dutch priest who was residing in the Old City of Homs. The picture shows Father Frans in the green t-shirt along with another young man in a blue shirt: “Bassel Shehadeh”, who was a Syrian film producer and an activist. Bassel was killed in May 2012 during a government assault in Homs. Finally, the profile picture of the activist posting this picture is a pic of the activist “Razan Zaitouneh” who was kidnapped in December 2013 by unknown militants.

2. Personal connection, friends and family

The direct straight-forward theme is using Facebook to communicate and keep-up with friends and family. Syrians are becoming increasingly displaced. Large numbers of refugees continue to flood into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, while those better-off economically manage to leave to Egypt, the gulf states, or Europe. Browsing the Facebook feed has therefore became a primary way to get news and commentary about the whereabouts of friends and family, either inside or outside of Syria. My connections have mentioned often that browsing the “green dot” that indicates that somebody is online on Facebook chat was a way to know that they are doing OK. With the increased absence of electricity and Internet the whole city of Aleppo can go offline for several days, and even weeks. It is then common to have a wave of “online cheering” and exchange of greetings when the city gets reconnected with friends and family appearing back online.

A friend of mine recently shared a music piece with the theme of remembering the homeland. He tagged us in the first comment.

— A friend of mine recently shared a music piece with the theme of remembering the homeland. He tagged us in the first comment.

3. Nostalgia towards left places and sorrow over destruction

Numerous homes, villages and cities have suffered immense destruction, largely due to the use of heavy artillery and air bombing, and due to clashes taking place among inhabited areas. In Aleppo, the line of clashes goes right through the city center and the old city. You can often find posts of photos and Youtube videos with compassionate comments showing destruction in civilian areas, infrastructure, and historic sites, while comparing the condition of those places with photos and videos taken before 2011.

A Facebook page dedicated for celebrating local Aleppo culture (accent, food, events) posting a picture of the city with words of nostalgia: "Good morning o peace of my aching heart".

— A Facebook page dedicated for local Aleppo culture (accent, food, events) posting a picture of the city with the words: “Good morning, O peace of my aching heart”.

4. Solidarity with the missing

With Syrians detained by the government (estimates of 200,000), and also increasingly by various militant groups, it is common to use Facebook to report of missing Syrians. Friends and activists would spread posts explaining the circumstances of those detained or kidnapped, and Facebook pages would be opened to follow their news and to remind people with their disappearance. Sometimes, the family of those missing asks for no fuss to be made online, fearing that this will bring further hardship.

5. Loss, death, and grief

With 9 million displaced Syrians, many Syrians have experienced loss in one way or another over the past three years: losing home, losing a family member or a friend, or losing work and savings. As military action escalated in late 2011 and onward, it is rare to find a Syrian who does not have a family member or who did not personally know someone who was killed, either because of participating in combat, or as a result of detention and torture, or because of being a civilian under fire. It is almost a custom now that Facebook pages would be opened in memory of those who passed away, for friends to write elegies and words of condolence, and for the public to become aware of the reasons and circumstances of their death. The personal profiles of those who passed away would also become a place of mourning where friends would write words of farewell.

A Facebook page created in memory of "Waseem Abu Zenah", a young Syrian IT engineer who recently died in detention due to lack of medical attention. The page shares an English article written by one of Waseem's friends.

— A Facebook page created in memory of “Waseem Abu Zenah”, a young Syrian IT engineer who recently died in detention due to lack of medical attention. The page shares an English article written by one of Waseem’s friends.

6. Fight, debate, and violence

I would argue that it is next to impossible to remain neutral in light of the events in Syria. Debate (or simply online flaming) therefore takes place on any type of a shared post or a comment. Also, violent content is abundant in the Syrian online social sphere. Photos and videos of the aftermath of bombings, airstrikes and front-line fighting (which are extremely graphic and violent by any measure) are very common in the daily stream of content on my Facebook wall. Along this, it is common to find comments on these pieces of content that are inflaming and calling to exterminate and defeat the “other side” and calling for justice and revenge.

A raging debate goes on a post made by a Syrian activist who heavily denounced air strikes and barrel bombings.

— A raging debate goes on a post made by a Syrian activist who heavily denounced air strikes and barrel bombings.

-- A debate between a commentator who is pro-government military action and another one who is opposing.

— A debate between a commentator who is pro-government military action and another one who is opposing.

7. Collaboration and thriving local communities

Many Syrians use Facebook to collaborate, communicate and learn. This includes local activist groups connecting over Facebook groups to coordinate for covering the news of localities, relief and charity groups coordinating online fundraising campaigns, and potentially militants who communicate to coordinate some of their operations (this last one I have not observed personally, but activists mentioned that it happens). In my own work, I have worked for a prolonged period (over two years by now) with a community of learners (mostly university students) who use Facebook, blogs, youtube and custom wikis to learn about cutting-edge technology, hold public talks and presentations, and organize collaborative workshops. Social media helps them to find alternative places to collaborate and publish content as well as to spread the word about their events and grow the community by reaching to new members online.

8. Charity and relief

The cyberspace, and on top of it the social layer, has allowed Syrian groups and organizations to sprout and coordinate for the benefit of a certain activist agenda without having to establish official associations going through complex procedures (which are often unclear and subject to corruption and authoritative government control). Today, countless groups and organizations dedicated for the relief of Syrians use Facebook and other social media, sometimes as media outlets to announce their activities and publish reports, or even to coordinate the work between their members and to announce their need for volunteers and donations.

A local charity and relief organization reporting on their recent knitting workshop held in a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey.

— A local charity and relief organization reporting on their recent knitting workshop held in a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey.

-- A volunteer working in a local charity group asking for aid through her Facebook profile.

— A volunteer working in a local charity group asking for aid through her Facebook profile.

Meta. A word on marginalization and non-use

Internet access in Syria before 2011 has been gradually increasing with more private users, internet cafes, and public institutions getting connected. I have not found an informative report, but it is common sense to expect that those better off economically had better Internet access. This is also true after 2011. Government-controlled areas still have better access to electricity and Internet, and those better off economically have stronger voices online. News about areas outside of government control come mainly from media activists or from online media outlets (Facebook pages, Youtube channels) of oppositional armed groups. This heavily questions the non-proportionate representation of Syrians online, where those who access the Internet can deliver their point of view, while the weakest and the most vulnerable are photographed and studied by activists, media agencies, and relief associations instead of speaking for themselves. A Syrian researcher has an insightful report of his visit to Syrian refugee camps in northern Syria and Turkey where he comments on issues relevant to the marginalization of Syrian refugees from the possibility to take initiative in actively controlling their circumstances [Idlbi 2013]. In addition to that, with the escalation of military action in Syria, the voices of civil and peaceful activists have gradually faded out of the picture, and news of armed attacks became the more dominant content.

On the role of Social Media

After this quick overview of different existing uses of Facebook, I find it quite uninformative to claim that social media has a positive or a negative effect on the Syrian situation without being concrete and in relation to a particular case. Few months ago, I have attended a talk by Kentaro Toyama, who made the compelling argument (and I paraphrase), that by looking at the historical impact of technology, we can see that technology is an “amplifier” of human intentions, motivations and desires [Toyama 2011]. I find this accurate in the use of social media by Syrians, where people use it for family connections, relief efforts, collaboration, activism, news, war, and flaming. It is a question then on how to design social tools to enable certain forms of interaction while discouraging others. This  is a task that is neither easy nor politically-neutral (it will always come associated with a political agenda). On this note, I will close with deriving questions from the above themes on the design and making of social media in the context of the lives of Syrians.

Problematizing social media in Syria

  1. Spread of hate-speech: how can social media be designed to encourage mutual understanding or peaceful debate instead of increasing rift between people?
  2. Spread of graphic violent content: Facebook and Youtube frequently delete content that is deemed to be violent or offensive. The policies that these platforms follow to moderate content posted by their users remain unclear, but one of them is mass reports made by other users. For example, Syrian pro-government and pro-opposition pages often lead “reporting campaigns” in order to shut the opponents’ pages down. The question that I raise here is around regarding the nature of “violent content” and the effect of its posting and the discussion that goes around it. It is, on the one hand, a fundamental right to know about atrocities. On the other hand, this content is never neutral and is often interpreted and re-purposed for emotional charging and calls for in a war-torn Syria.
  3. Ownership of data and Facebook’s monopoly: a relevant issue is Facebook’s ultimate control over its content. Several activists and pages have reported the suspension of their accounts at one point or another, and content deletion is common due to mass reports. This has raised some concerns and suggestions to find an alternative, possibly federated, social platform where the ownership of data does not belong to one central authority. Such platforms do exist, but the immense popularity of Facebook where “everybody is there” makes such platforms less appealing.
  4. Security of data and cyber intelligence: when somebody gets detained or kidnapped (especially an activist or a charity worker), I have seen in many cases that their friends would swiftly write to Facebook administration to close their account. Even more, activists often leave their account passwords with people they trust such that those friends would change all passwords if the activist is detained or kidnapped. This is to prevent the leak of sensitive insider data (connections, personal messages, online social interactions, political affiliations) from being exposed, and thus further endangering the kidnapped and their social circle. Further, it is common among activists to be aware of suspicious account of people they do not know personally for they might be following them for the sake of tracking them down. This raises the questions on how we can protect private data and quickly lock-down accounts to protect against malicious access.
  5. Role in escalating or dampening violence: it is a big question whether social media in the case of Syria has actually contributed to reducing or escalating the violence. On the one hand, whenever an atrocity is committed, tweets, Youtube videos, and Facebook posts flood the media sphere. This somewhat enables people to become moral supervisors of each others. However, due to the flexibility of engineering your own connections online, I have seen several of my friends mentioning that in Facebook you can end up completely isolated within a similarly-minded group of people. This, in turn, might encourage extreme identities and a closed-world view where it is easier to dehumanize the other.
  6. Design for collaboration and for rapid small groupings: Facebook is being used by collaborative and volunteer groups to communicate, coordinate action, collect donations and announce events. However, I have seen concerns around the lack of possibility to organize and retrieve content on Facebook, which is linear and “decays” with time. Could there be alternative structuring for a social platform where there is the possibility to structure how information are created and retrieved? Further, could we think of providing small charity and voluntary groups with tools that help them express their needs and find resources? There are even local efforts by Syrians to create alternative social platforms that aim to address these very issues [4]

In the case of Syria, social media tools and platforms need to take into account radically new contexts and use cases. The current tools have provided a promising space, and their relative neutrality contributes significantly to their wide adoption and adaptation by various groups with diverse views, however, looking at how they are used within the Syrian context provokes various questions of the current status and alternative possibilities to work out. My final word here is to encourage others to provoke and suggest what I have omitted, where social media is surely being used by Syrians in ways far more diverse and complex that what I have listed in this post [5].

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Notes

  1. Facebook is what is mainly addressed here. However, due to connectedness of social media, it is a melting pot. On Facebook you can see references and discussions around videos, blog posts, news articles, photos, and statements made by public figures or activists. It is therefore fair to consider it as the social platform where most other social media are referenced, shared and discussed in the Syrian sphere.
  2. To clarify my position:  I am currently  located in Switzerland, working at the University of Fribourg, and with good contact with a local community of Syrian volunteers (mainly in Damascus) as well as with people working in charity and relief. I have spent the time between June 2011 and February 2012 in Aleppo. Since Aleppo is my home town, my connections and attention is naturally biased to it. Also, what I see on Facebook is only what my personal social & professional circles enable me to reach and what I tend to follow due to my political views. This post should therefore be read as a single account.
  3. In the screenshots taken, I have anonymized personal information, including personal names and profile pictures. In the case of public pages, I have left the snapshots un-blurred.  I have translated all content except for the one case where content was written originally in English (I noted that explicitly).
  4. MicroCommunity” is a project lead by Syrians for creating a social platform for encouraging the formation and collaboration of small-scale communities, particularly in the Arab world.
  5. The topics that I omitted include the use of social media for: fun and humor; history and documentation; political activism and popular mobilization; political propaganda; cyber war; and also, for connecting and recruiting foreign fighters, apparently mostly by the Islamic State of Iraq And Al-Sham (ISIS) and Al-Nusra front [ICSR 2014]. For more information, there is a number of media articles on the use of social media particularly in relation with the Syrian uprising, mentioning recruitment of fighters; fund-raising for humanitarian aid as well as for weapons and supplies; artistry; news and activism; cyber intelligence; debate and flaming; and media campaigns [MediaMeasurementMitchell, Reuters 2011Baker 2014].

References

  • Becker, H. S. (1998). Tricks of the Trade: How to Think About Your Research While You’re Doing It (p. 232). University of Chicago Press.
  • Idlbi, A. (2013). On a Mission to Learn – My Trip to a Syrian IDP Camp. Field report. Link
  • Taylor, W. (2004). Community Informatics in Perspective. In S. Marshall, W. Taylor, & X. Yu (Eds.) Using Community Informatics to Transform Regions (pp. 1-17). Hershey, PA: Idea Group Publishing.
  • Toyama, K. (2011). Technology as amplifier in international development. In Proceedings of the 2011 iConference on – iConference ’11 (pp. 75–82). New York, New York, USA: ACM Press.

“Neverland” or “networked publics”? : A review of “It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens”

A few months ago, I started collecting data for my Ph.D dissertation. Since I study interpersonal and group behavior in multiplayer online games, I got quite involved in the online forums of my studied game. I also interviewed many gamers via Skype text chat. As I expected, most of these gamers are teens (aged 14 to 17).

Their stories are not so different from my assumption: They love their parents but they want to escape from the “boring” family lives; they crave for friendships but they struggle with finding “true friends” in school; they look forward to love and romance but they are afraid of responsibilities; they expect to grow up but they are scared of the “cold” adult world.

What is out of my expectation is how Internet and social media have become a “natural” part of teens’ social lives. Many of these teens described how disappointed they felt with their offline lives but how wonderful those friends they made online; and how they felt restricted at home and at school but how much freedom they enjoyed in social media platforms. Those “cool” places – Facebook, Youtube, Tumbler, Snapchat, Instagram, online games, etc.— become Peter Pan’s “Neverland” where they can fly and “never grow up.”

But teens are not trying to live virtually or escape from the real world. Instead, Internet and social media compensate their living world and extend their social lives. Their social lives are more complicated than we, as adults, assume. They are also, sometimes, more self-conscious than we expect. I am very impressed by those teens’ stories. So I read danah boyd’s new book It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens.

This book is definitely a good work to help adults understand the “mysterious” teens in the Internet Era. Its main goal is to depict young people’s experience of using social media, and the role of social media in shaping their lives. boyd’s work is based on two essential understandings: First, teenhood is an awkward period “between childhood and adulthood, dependence and independence” (p. 17), and the penetration of social media into many aspects of teens’ lives makes contemporary youth more complex than before. Second, many adults worry about youth engagement with social media, but few listen to teens’ stories or understand them from teens’ own stance. How teens use social media to make sense of the world around them may be very different from adults’ imagination.

Thus, one of the most important contributions of this book is its focus on the teens’ own voice. Drawing on rich qualitative and ethnographic material that she collected from 2003 to 2012—and interview data con­ducted from 2007 to 2010, boyd provides vivid images of the old and new impacts of social media on teens’ lives, and the quality that social media add to or take away from teens’ social lives. Based on detailed quotes from interviews and in-depth analysis of teens’ true stories, audience can better understand why and how teens use social media from teens’ own perspective.

boyd’s another focus is “networked publics,” a main concept throughout the whole book.  boyd explains this concept at the very beginning: “[s]ocial media has become an important public space where teens can gather and socialize broadly with peers in an informal way. Teens are looking for a place of their own to make sense of the world beyond their bedrooms. Social media has enabled them to participate in and help create what I call networked publics” (p.5). Networked publics is related to Ito (2008, 2010) ‘s work on digitally networked media and on “hanging out, messing around, and geeking out,” as boyd mentioned in notes on page 222.  But boyd uses networked publics here in a broader sense: Networked publics represent a complex interaction between technological affordances (i.e., networked technologies) and networked people. “Through engagement with publics, people develop a sense of others that ideally manifests as tolerance and respect.”

Based on this understanding, this well-researched book is organized into eight chapters that address seven important issues concerning youth engagement with social media, including identity, privacy, addiction, danger, bullying, inequality, and literacy.  As a conclusion, the last chapter summarizes the impacts of networked publics on contem­porary youth: To create a world of their own (not shaped by parents and teachers), teens use social media to seek networked publics. Teens both construct and participate in such networked publics in their everyday lives, “to see and be seen,” to belong to a broader public world, and to “build networks of people and information” (p. 201).

As a researcher, I appreciate boyd’s endeavor to let us, adults who “have power over the lives of youth” (p. 28), better understand teens’ actual social lives in the networked era. boyd expresses her hope that adults and youth collaborate together to create a networked world that we all want to live” (p. 213), which is also our hope. As an adult who had teenhood not long time ago, this book makes me think about my own teenhood and how important it is for my life experience. Charles Dickens’ words may still be appropriate to describe how complicated someone’s teenhood can be in today’s network society:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. 

 

References

boyd, d. (2014). It’scomplicatedThe social lives of networked teens. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Ito, M. (2008). Introduction. In K. Varnelis (Ed.), Networked Publics (pp. 1–14). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ito, M., et al. (2010). Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out: Kids living and learning with new media. Cambridge, MA: MIT press.

 

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