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  • Mark 11:46 am on February 26, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , , ussstrike   

    Social media strategy and #USSStrikes 

    In the last week, I’ve found myself obsessing about the use of social media in #USSStrikes. This was probably inevitable, helping with two social media campaigns related to the strike while also being someone who studies social media. In preparation for a teach out later today and to feed into the social media strategy for my local branch, I spent a couple of hours this morning preparing some thoughts on social media strategy for #USSStrikes and reading a really helpful paper someone sent me about @UCU.

    In this 2015 paper, Andy Hodder and David Houghton offered a systematic analysis of @UCU’s twitter activity over a four month period. They frame this in terms of the uptake of the internet by trade unions, which in the earlier literature was “centred around debates on optimistic and pessimistic opinions about the possibilities for the Internet to enable union renewal” (174). The core claim of the optimists was a now familiar one: internet communications made it possible to flatten the hierarchies of trade unions, producing a more distributed and democratic discourse in the process. However the pessimists recognised that new communications technologies can be taken up by existing elites within organisations in order to extend their control over deliberation, contrary to the assumption of a binary opposition between bureucracy and the internet (174).

    Hodder and Houghton reconsider these considerations in terms of the emergence of social media, which they recognise as less a technological innovation (for these capacities existed in ‘Web 1.0’) as an extension and mainstreaming of existing opportunities, facilitated by a technical infrastructure allowing much greater opportunity to access the internet. This leads them to stress how a platform like Twitter has no intrinsic democratising effect on trade unions, simply offering another channel through which the existing leadership can formulate, communicate and manage a collective message:

    However, for example, while Twitter largely facilitates interaction and conversation between users, it still enables a union to control what message is coming from an account, and to monitor and control the content of such communication. Therefore, the way in which social media platforms are used by unions can reinforce the power and
    authority of union leadership. (175)

    The novelty is in how fast moving these platforms are rather than how organisations approach them. It is possible these communications challenges drive pluralism through making traditional message discipline difficult to sustain and incentivising engagement as a root to increasing visibility online. Their empirical study sought to clarify this through three research questions:

    1. Is the content of the message in line with mobilisation theory?
    2. What is being said by trade unions on social media?
    3. Who are the audience?

    The four month period in which they collected and categorised all @UCU tweets (original, retweet or conversational) included four instances of strike action. The original tweets were coded in terms of mobilisation theory: framing of an injustice, attribution of blame for the injustice or evidence of action. 61.79% of the original tweets could be coded in this way. They take this to mean that “although UCU is using a modern platform to communicate, the content of the majority of tweets (61.79 per cent) remains in the traditional style of unions” which I’m not sure I agree with (185). In a parallel analysis, all  tweets were subsequently categorised as recruitment, campaigning, external campaigning, strike building, strike action, solidarity, engagement, news, other. This analysis produced a range of interesting findings:

    • There was little use of Twitter for recruitment during this period: only 4 instances. I found this particularly striking given it was during a period where there was repeated industrial action, higher visibility and a greater propensity of non-members who were engaging with @UCU to join.
    • This finding on pg 181 seems particularly important: “An interesting approach UCU adopted was to tweet to those affected by industrial action—students—explaining the reason, purpose and necessity of such action”. My hunch is the capacity of social media to not only generate solidarity between staff and students but also to produce action on the basis of this has barely been tapped.
    • Another finding on pg 181 which seems interesting: “UCU frequently retweeted posts that linked current issues to wider cultural references, or current Twitter trends, often containing humour. For example, a parody of Monty Python’s The Life or Brian, ‘What Have the Romans Ever Done For Us?’ had been tweeted by users in a video entitled, ‘What Have the Unions Ever Done For Us?’, which listed union successes. Links to the profession were also made around Valentine’s Day, when a Twitter trend for academic valentine’s poems was hijacked by users writing similar style poems about the pay dispute, which UCU often retweeted.” My impression has been this has declined with time but I’ve not examined it systematically.
    • They note how useful social media is for allowing “workforce that does not have common, set hours or a physical place of work when they are not teaching or attending meetings” to signal their participation in strike action, expanding visibility beyond the picket line (182).
    • @UCU was on the whole more active during strike periods, retweeting more often but engaging in less conversation (182-183). This presumably reflects greater engagement coupled with greater demands on the time of union staff. But could carefully escalated conversational engagement prove to be a crucial strategy during strike periods? In its absence simply retweeting more could be seen as “an attempt to demonstrate some form of controlled interaction with followers” (186) without the underlying reality.
    • It was interesting to note that in spite of the decline in conversational engagement, @UCU was well engaged with publications such as Times Higher Education via Twitter: “UCU was particularly engaging with the Times Higher Education’s request via Twitter for details on those VCs earning more than £100,000 per annum. In these tweets, the language became increasingly subversive towards institutions, VCs and UCEA, especially regarding pay deductions for participation in the strike action.” 
    • Tweets were used to coordinate strike action, being “sent to indicate when strike action began, but also when members
      should return to work, coordinating the different picket lines and those working from home who had ‘downed tools’ in their own way” (183). Coupled with the aforementioned conversational strategy, I wonder if this could be used more directly in order to address some of the confusion and uncertainty which circulated online in the run up to the current extended period of strike action?
    • Unsurprisingly, sharing solidarity messages was a distinct feature of @UCU’s tweeting during the period.
    • Another interesting observation they made in the paper was the non-existent relationship between the size of a membership and the size of a Twitter following for the trade unions they analysed.

    It was particularly interesting to see who UCU was engaging with. This classification is difficult on social media and the author’s chose to interpret multiple self-identifications into which ever was most relevant to the union:

    Towards the end of the paper, the authors acknowledge the limitation of focusing only on @UCU. The question which seems urgent to me is: how are branches using social media? Can it be analysed in the terms above to understand strengths and weakness? How can @UCU maximise its engagement to harness the reach and creativity of these branches? How can branches develop their own strategies which hook in to national campaigning in an effective and sustainable way? These issues are not a million miles away from ones which Labour has dealt with in the last two years, as the run away success of their social media strategy has come from building a flexible and open relationship with a vast array of affiliated initiatives.

    Any thoughts on this are much appreciated. We are shaping the local branch’s social media strategy on the fly, as I suspect are many other branches around the country. To whatever extent time allows, it would be great to share experiences and coordinate action, particularly as the strike continues beyond this week.

    • Tony Coughlan 8:46 am on March 3, 2018 Permalink

      Thanks for this timely and interesting post Mark.

      You end by asking how union branches are using social media. I might be wrong, but I think during the current USS dispute UCU have asked local branches to emphasise that it is a national dispute, potentially limiting local branches’ autonomy.

    • Mark 10:44 am on March 9, 2018 Permalink

      Hi Tony, I’d love to read about that. Do you have any more details?

    • Tony Coughlan 11:36 am on March 9, 2018 Permalink

      Regret that I’ve not seen anything in writing Mark; I heard it during a discussion on a picket line on 27 Feb.

    • Mark 4:17 pm on March 11, 2018 Permalink

      Ah I haven’t seen anything here. Would be really interested to know more.

  • Mark 9:41 pm on February 19, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ,   

    Are you interested in the political sociology of Corbynism? 

    Back toBlack

  • Mark 9:40 pm on February 19, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ,   

    Are you interested in Graphic Social Science? 


  • Mark 9:38 pm on February 19, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , here comes everybody, , the demotic imaginary, ,   

    Social Media and The Demotic Imaginary 

    One of the most prominent tropes of social media is the crowd. As the cyber-utopian Clay Shirky put it: here comes everybody. This endlessly repeated motif sees social media in terms of the people. Where once there were a few commentators who dominated the airwaves, now everybody has their say online. Where once there were a few musical superstars, now we have a ‘long tail’ of productive musicians. Where once a few critics exploited their position, now everybody has their voice heard through online review sites. In any given sector, we can see the same motif repeated, with digital platforms seen to have replaced the few with the many in a way implicitly assumed to be democratic. In many cases, we can be reasonably certain that these claims are empirically false e.g. musical superstars dominate more than ever in a global culture mediated by algorithmic discovery.

    But there’s more to their plausibility than the mistaken belief they are true. They embody what I think of as the demotic imaginary: the conviction that introducing more people into a sphere, in a loud and noisy way, represents a democratic game. There can be a kernel of truth to these claims, supplemented by the affective force of the demotic imaginary to help the complexity fade away. Thus the ambiguities which qualify our judgements retreat into the background, as we are taken in by superficial realities. For instance, as Leigh Gallagher describes on loc 2004 of The Airbnb Story: 

    When the attorney general’s report came out, it said that 72 percent of Airbnb’s “private” listings in New York were in violation of state law. And it said that while 94 percent of hosts had just 1 or 2 listings, the other 6 percent were so-called commercial hosts —those who had 3 or more listings regularly through Airbnb —and they accounted for more than a third of bookings and revenue. It said that one hundred hosts had 10 or more listings. The top dozen hosts had anywhere from 9 to 272 listings and made more than $ 1 million per year each. The biggest user, at 272 listings, had revenue of $ 6.8 million. 2 It wasn’t so much the illegal activity that was new —after all, given the 2010 law, any Airbnb listing for a full apartment was illegal (unless it was in a house with fewer than three units), and both then and now, thousands of hosts and guests either don’t know about the law or willfully ignore it. What was new was that this report —marking the first time a party outside Airbnb had any access to the company’s data —revealed the scope of the multiproperty activity on the site. It dovetailed with previous reports that suggested a small percentage of hosts was responsible for a disproportionate share of the company’s New York business. Airbnb called the data incomplete and outdated. It said that New York’s current rules lacked clarity, and it wanted to work together with the city on creating new regulations to stop bad actors while putting in place “clear, fair rules for home sharing.”

    It is undeniable that Airbnb has introduced more providers into the rental sector. But the demotic imaginary leads us to conceive of this influx as intrinsically democratic, as a disaggregated mass of equally situated actors. The reality is rather more complex.

  • Mark 2:04 pm on February 16, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ,   

    Answering social science questions with social media data 

    March 8th, 2018 9:30am to 5:00pm Wellcome Collection, London

    After last year’s successful ‘Introduction to tools for social media research’, the SRA and #NSMNSS are teaming up again to deliver this one-day conference.

    As social media research matures as a discipline, and methodological and ethical concerns are being addressed, focus is increasingly shifting on to the role that it can and should play in the social sciences.

    The packed event will include keynote presentations from Steven McDermott and Suzy Moat, and examples from eight expert speakers of how social media research can provide insight into research questions in novel ways. It is aimed at social researchers who want to find out more about what this new methodology can offer, and see how the promises of social media research can be actualised.

    Our speakers come from a range of backgrounds, including government and academia, presenting examples on topics such as politics and health, with data from Twitter, Facebook, blog sites and other platforms.

    Register online here: http://the-sra.org.uk/event-registration/?ee=626

  • Mark 7:20 pm on February 15, 2018 Permalink | Reply

    CfP Changing Political Economy of Research & Innovation Workshop 2018 

    Very excited to be one of the keynotes for this:

    6th Annual CPERI Workshop, 29-30 July 2018
    Institute for Social Futures, Lancaster University, UK
    We cordially invite submissions to the 6th workshop on the Changing Political Economy of Research & Innovation (CPERI), following previous events at Lancaster (2012), Toronto (2013), San Diego (2015), Liège (2016) and Boston (2017).  CPERI is a unique global forum for the exploration of scholarship regarding thepolitical economy of research & innovation (R&I), and hence at the intersection of STS, political economy and multiple other cognate disciplines, including geography,  sociology, politics, law, education, medicine, engineering, computing & philosophy.  The workshop series is dedicated to cultivating a growing community of committed and engaged international scholars of the political economy of R&I who will continue to build on their CPERI connections at subsequent workshops and conferences, and through collaboration on research.  We aim to bring this crucial but neglected issue more centrally to major conferences in adjacent fields, where it remains overlooked.  With these goals in mind, and to assist attendance from as diverse a group as possible, the workshop is also being held directly after the EASST Conference 2018, also in Lancaster. Attendance is free.
    Our theme for 2018 is:
    Making & Doing Technoscientific Futures Better
    Keynote speakers:
    Professor Susan Robertson (Cambridge) on “the University in an age of platform capitalism”
    Dr Mark Carrigan (Cambridge) on “Securing public knowledge amidst the epistemic chaos of platform capitalism?”
    Abstracts should be no more than 300 words, and should include the author’s name, institutional affiliation, and contact information. Questions and abstracts should be sent via email to CPERIWorkshop2018@gmail.com  by 30 March.
    David Tyfield (Lancaster University)
    Stevie de Saille (Sheffield University)
    Janja Komljenovic (Lancaster University)
  • Mark 6:25 pm on February 13, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , drabbles, , micro-fiction, , ,   

    A call for sociological micro-fiction! 

    I’m once again editing a section on sociological micro-fiction for Ashleigh Watson’s wonderful So Fi zine. See here for full details about how to submit. There’s lots of inspiration to be found in the last issue, collecting a wonderful selection of sociological fiction of 100 words or less.

  • Mark 4:28 pm on February 10, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ,   

    CfP: Understanding the political economy of digital technology 

    A BSA Digital Sociology Study Group event hosted by the Web Science conference at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam May 27th 2018

    In more optimistic times we thought of ourselves as masters of digital technology: we told ourselves it was empowering, liberating, and democratising. Today, there is growing concern that we have ceded control of digital technology to digital capitalism’s rapacious market monopolisers whose former insiders, in their epiphanies, tell us have ‘ripped apart the fabric of society’. All corporate algorithms are black-boxedprotected by intellectual property law. Concepts that describe them such as AI and machine learning are problematically slippery and esoteric. So we are told algorithms that we can’t see or understand are to blame for digital capitalism’s social and political effects. This is a particular concern for sociologists because those who suffer material and social inequality are increasingly having their life chances defined by these algorithms (see for example Eubanks (2018)). Perhaps the tech companies aren’t “anymore equipped to self-regulate any more than the fossil fuel industry” (Umoja Noble, 2018): it would seem the best we can hope for is to judge them by their results, attempt to legislate, or petition technology’s plutocrats to stop ‘doing evil’.

    All these issues, however, share an overarching theme: technologies are made and deployed within a political economy that incentivises, allows, enables or rewards actions that draw us away from visions of digital technology – particularly the Web – as a transporter for the Enlightenment’s values. Driven by the logic of extracting the maximum amount of the surplus value from our social and economic transactions and our (often very personal) data, these companies have ruthlessly and relentlessly pursued economies of scale to leverage their platform’s network effects: whatever the social cost. Interpreted through the political economy, problems with fake news, the attention economy, surveillance, the power of Silicon Valley etc. all demonstrate that politics, economics and digital technology are now indivisible. Addressing the political economy of digital technology more explicitly will help explain who are the ‘we’ in this instance, how have ‘we’ lost control and what do ‘we’ have to do to get it back?

    This event will showcase some of the scholarship that is currently tackling these issues under the banner of Digital Sociology. As this event forms part of the 10th ACM Conference on Web Science speakers and delegates will have the opportunity to share insights with a broad community from a diverse range of academic and professional backgrounds. We also invite contributions from members of all disciplinary fields that provide insights into the relationship between digital technology and the political economy. How does the political economy affect your area of expertise? What needs to change and how can it be changed?

    This is only a brief list of suggestions: we welcome contributions on any topic that addresses the day’s theme.

    • Fake news, propaganda and public (dis)information
    • The digital public sphere: reconsidering democracy
    • Digital surveillance, high volume data and governance
    • Changing and emerging industries
    • Digital labour
    • Digital inequalities
    • Digital wellbeing
    • Education

    Provisional schedule for the day:

    Besides the traditional papers presentations, the event organisers will experiment with other formats, such as the fishbowl, that will allow speakers to engage their audiences in more active ways.

    • 9.30 – 10.30 panel with crowdsourced questions from the Digital Sociology & Web Science communities (panellists TBC)
    • 10.30 – 13.00 paper session 1
    • 13.00 – 14.30 lunch (including networking events)
    • 14.30 – 16.00 paper session 2
    • 16.30 – 18.00 fish bowl – a moderated interactive session where attendees can have the floor to discuss the burning issues (including what a bigger Digital Sociology event should look like and how it could be organised).

    To present your paper please submit an extended abstract (up to 750 words) to our easychair page here by midnight GMT on Friday the 2nd of March 2018. This should include an indication of the substantive issues and how they relate to the day’s central theme. Decisions on abstract submissions will be communicated by midnight GMT on the 23rd of March 2018.

    Successful submissions will be put forward for journal special issue (details to follow shortly).

    A breakdown for the registration fees for the day (and the full conference, which includes keynotes from Prof. José van Dijck, and Sir Tim Berners-Lee) can be found here.

  • Mark 9:09 am on February 9, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: A/B testing, , epistemology, , , , , user testing   

    The epistemic privilege of platforms 

    What is the relationship between platforms and their users? I’ve been thinking about this all morning while reading The Know‑It‑Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball, by Noam Cohen. On loc 277 he writes:

    In fact, tech companies believe that through artificial intelligence tools they understand their users’ state of mind in a way few other companies can, and far better than any regulator. They can track, measure, and analyze the billions of decisions their users make, and they can detect even the most minor feature that may be turning them off. And rather than wait for problems, these companies can compel their users to express a preference by staging so-called A/ B testing, which involves showing groups of users slightly different versions of the site and measuring which group stays longer and is thus happier with the experience. Google famously went so far as to prepare forty-one shades of blue to test which was the best color for displaying links in its Gmail service.

    This epistemic privilege is inflated but it nonetheless has to be taken seriously. There are forms of knowledge about users which platforms have unique access to, discerning real-time behaviour (including responses to planned stimuli) with a degree of granularity that would be difficult to match in any other context. What matters is how this epistemic relation is raised into a political claim: if we know our users better than any external party, how could regulation be anything other than incompetent?

    This relies on a reduction of the salient characteristics of the user to their actions which register within the confines of the platform, representing the core of what I’ve written about in an upcoming chapter as the evisceration of the human: the reduction of real agency to its empirical traces. Furthermore, it is bound up with the conviction of transcending the murky mess of self-interpretation, offering apparent insight into what OK Cupid data scientist Christian Rudder memorably described as Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking) in the subtitle to his book Dataclysm. This is bound up in a political economy which Mark Andrejevic identifies on loc 870 of his InfoGlut:

    In this regard the digital era opens up a new form of digital divide: that between those with access to the databases and those without. For those with access, the way in which data is understood and used will be fundamentally transformed. There will be no attempt to read and comprehend all of the available data – the task would be all but impossible. Correlations can be unearthed and acted upon, but only by those with access to the database and the processing power. Two different information cultures will come to exist side by side: on the one hand, the familiar, “old- fashioned” one in which people attempt to make sense of the world based on the information they can access: news reports, blog posts, the words of others and the evidence of their own experience. On the other hand, computers equipped with algorithms that can “teach” themselves will advance the instrumental pragmatics of the database: the ability to use tremendous amounts of data without understanding it.

    Does anyone know of ethnographic work which looks at how this epistemic relation is talked about in everyday labour within these firms? It must presumably be invoked constantly, in an everyday manner, during user interface design and similar activities. This could help elucidate the micro-structure for the inflation of epistemic privilege which I suspect Cohen is correct to identify as one source of hostility to regulation.

  • Mark 6:45 pm on February 6, 2018 Permalink | Reply
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    Using social media as a social theorist 

    A video of my talk is available here, starting at 2 hours in.

  • Mark 4:29 pm on February 6, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , egotism, , , , ,   

    Social media fosters egotism rather than individualism 

    What is the relationship between social media and individualism? It is often claimed that these platforms engender a preoccupation with the self, easily cast in terms of individualism. But it is a preoccupation which is just as often claimed to be profoundly social, in so far as that it involves a concern with how many facets of the self are perceived by others, as mediated through social media platforms. It occurs to me that de Tocqueville’s distinction between individualism and egotism could be useful in helping clarify this issue. Though egotism and individualism are commonly assumed to go together, such that individualism as a cultural force will foster egotism in individuals, de Tocqueville saw the distinction rather differently:

    Our [European] fathers were only acquainted with egotism. Egotism is a passionate and exaggerated love of self, which leads a man to connect everything with his own person, and prefer himself to everything in the world. Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from [others] so that, after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself. Egotism originates in blind instinct: individualism proceeds from erroneous judgment … Egotism blights the germ of all virtue; individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but, in the long run, it attacks and destroys all others, and is at length absorbed in downright egotism.

  • Mark 4:28 pm on February 6, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , career advice, career building, , ,   

    The changing character of the academic game 

    At a recent event, I heard an extremely distinguished professor make the argument that there was a certain sequence to career development which all academics who sought jobs in high status university ought to pursue. One ought to publish papers in well regarded journals before writing books. One ought to establish a reputation within a field before writing for a broader audience. The professor qualified by this recognising the dynamic might not hold for lower status universities. The statements were also clearly couched in terms of the United States, without this framing being qualified.

    It nonetheless raises an interesting question which has often occurred to me in recent years: does advice about ‘playing the game’ have a shelf life in a system which is itself undergoing change? The tenure system in the United States plays a large role in creating continuity between successive cohorts, as careers pass through a nodal point which only changes incrementally. The research assessment system in the U.K. brings a different dynamic with it because so much of institutional status hinges on your relative value for the forthcoming assessment exercise. My perception is that the rules of the game change with each cycle, in terms of the institutional requirements and how they are articulated on a local level, meaning advice about career development necessarily has a shelf life.

    • Debra Bassett 1:41 pm on February 7, 2018 Permalink

      Discussing an inspirational lecturer who had encouraged and helped me in my late-blooming academic life with a respected professor I said “you may know him he was a student here” to which he replied “gosh they let anyone into academia these days”

    • Mark 9:12 am on February 9, 2018 Permalink

      I’ve heard so many stories like this. Horrible attitudes beneath the surface, waiting to be revealed.

  • Mark 4:29 am on February 4, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , ,   

    When sociologists meet organised politics 

    Not for the first time when reading John Scott and Ray Bromley’s Envisioning Sociology, I was struck by the parallels between the strengths and weaknesses of the early ‘sociological movement’ and tendencies we can see within activist sociology today. From loc 4419:

    Until the 1920s, Branford and Geddes relied almost exclusively on Le Play House and the Cities Committee of the Sociological Society to promote their ideas on the Third Alternative. All their key works were published as books and pamphlets under the Le Play House imprint or as articles in the Sociological Review. They tried to influence mainstream politics through the occasional letter to a politician, but they were far from being political activists. During the 1920s, however, they began to engage with some of the political groups that they felt might give organizational form to their ideas. For the most part, this was limited to participation in small discussion groups where they hoped that their style of political discourse might have an effect and stimulate others to carry it forward. Their naive assumption was that their strategy would be adopted as soon as political and business leaders realized the logic and force of their argument.

    This is something I have written about as the amelioration fallacy: the assumption that it is only the circulation of sociological knowledge which prevents the amelioration of social problems. If only others actors within the social world realised “the logic and force” of the arguments we are making then productive action would inevitably ensue.

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