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  • Mark 6:46 pm on October 23, 2019 Permalink | Reply  

    Social Media for Academics: The Changing Landscape of Scholarship 

    Social media has become an inescapable part of academic life. It has the power to transform scholarly communication and offers new opportunities to publish and publicise your work, to network in your discipline and beyond and to engage the public. However, to do so successfully requires a careful understanding of best practice, the risks, rewards and what it can mean to put your professional identity online.

    It means confronting what these digital platforms mean for scholarship and how they are changing higher education. The second edition of Social Media for Academics is released on October 25th and provides a practical guide to the emerging landscape of digital scholarship.

    In this launch event a series of leading thinkers on social media, knowledge production and the university talk about the current state of social media within higher education and where it might go in future. Join Jana Bacevic, Mark Carrigan, Susan Robertson, Thomas Roulet and Tyler Shores to discuss these issues and more.

    Book online here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/social-media-for-academics-the-changing-landscape-of-scholarship-tickets-78229429329

     
  • Mark 6:48 am on October 23, 2019 Permalink | Reply
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    The outlook of the digital technocrat 

    From Automating Inequality by Virgina Eubanks pg 123-124:

    The proponents of the coordinated entry system, like many who seek to harness computational power for social justice, tend to find affinity with systems engineering approaches to social problems. These perspectives assume that complex controversies can be solved by getting correct information where it needs to go as efficiently as possible. In this model, political conflict arises primarily from a lack of information. If we just gather all the facts, systems engineers assume, the correct answers to intractable policy problems like homelessness will be simple, uncontroversial, and widely shared. But, for better or worse, this is not how politics work. Political contests are more than informational; they are about values, group membership, and balancing conflicting interests. The poor and working-class residents of Skid Row and South LA want affordable housing and available services. The Downtown Central Business Improvement District wants tourist-friendly streets. The new urban pioneers want both edgy grit and a Whole Foods. The city wants to clear the streets of encampments. While Los Angeles residents have agreed to pay a little more to address the problem, many don’t want unhoused people moving next door. And they don’t want to spend the kind of money it would take to really solve the housing crisis. These are deeply conflicting visions for the future of Los Angeles. Having more information won’t necessarily resolve them.

     
  • Mark 4:35 pm on October 20, 2019 Permalink | Reply
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    An agenda for Digital Sociology 

    Originally published in Portuguese in CARRIGAN, M. “Sociologia Digital: Problemas e Propostas” In: ALVES, P. & NASCIMENTO, L.
    Novas fronteiras metodológicas nas Ciências Sociais. Salvador: EDUFBA, 2018.

    Only five years ago, Jessie Daniels observed that were “Digital Humanities but No Digital Sociology” (Daniels and Feagin 2011). Since then the situation has changed, with an edited collection by Orton-Johnson and Prior (2013), a monograph by Lupton (2014), a collection by Daniels, Gregory and Cottom (2016) and a monograph by Marres (2017). Daniels, Gregory and Cottom have organised two popular Digital Sociology mini-conferences at the annual Eastern Sociological Society conference in the United States, with a third to follow in 2017. This reflects a similar trend in the United Kingdom, where a Digital Sociology study group was established within the British Sociological Association (BSA) by myself and Emma Head in 2012, leading to numerous events both within the main BSA conference and beyond it. There has been an MA in Digital Sociology offered by Goldsmiths, University of London for some time before this, convened by Noortje Marres, who now leads a module in Digital Sociology at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies at the University of Warwick. The University of Edinburgh now has a Digital Sociology research group, as does Cardiff University. Numerous other universities in the UK have research clusters which are coterminous, or at least overlapping, with these trends, even if they do not used the precise terminology of digital sociology. The same trend can be seen within the Australian landscape, as digital sociology has become a regular feature of meetings of The Australian Sociological Association (TASA). These international developments have to some extent been mutually reinforcing, as the affordances of social media have allowed an increasingly rich web of interaction to unfold through blogs and twitter, while podcasts and videocasts have allowed face-to-face event to circulate outside the confines of a physical location and incite further debate and discussion in the process.

    It is no longer the case that there is ‘no digital sociology’. But what is digital sociology? Marres (2017: 32) suggests that a working definition is a commitment to addressing digital objects, digital techniques and digital platforms. Lupton (2014) suggested four major aspects to digital sociology: professional digital media use, sociological analyses of digital media use, digital data analysis and critical digital sociology. To what extent are these new developments? As Lupton observes, sociological analyses of digital media use have clearly been part of the discipline for as long as there have been digital media. It is not a novelty for sociologists to study digital technology, even if other designations might have been used e.g. information society, computing, information technology, communications technology. Lupton (2014) is particularly alert to the long history of studying cyberculture, emerging from growing engagements with computer technologies from the interdisciplinary field of cultural studies within the UK. However locating such a trend within the history of sociology raises a complex and important question of disciplinary ‘ownership’. Given what Holmwood (2010) describes as sociology’s tendency towards being an ‘exporter’ discipline, fields of inquiry that emerge from the discipline and/or its practitioners often do not remain within it. The role of sociologists in establishing fields such as internet studies, science and technology studies and computer-support cooperative work are a case in point. This tendency is compounded by the inevitable position of digital technologies at the intersections between disciplines, something which Lupton (2014) discusses with regards to the division between communications and sociology in both the US and Australian contexts.

    We can identify a comparable pre-history to the other dimensions which Lupton (2014) considers. For instance, the voice recorder is an indispensable tool of the trade for qualitative sociologists, initially in the form of a tape recorder prior to today’s ubiquitous digital recorders (Back 2012). Such technology figures in practice as a device but rarely as an object of inquiry in its own right, let alone the broader socio-technical architecture within which its use is embedded. This reflects a broader suppression of the technological within the university (Hall 2016). While sociologists have long used technology, the more recent proliferation of digital technologies offers an opportunity to reclaim the lost socio-technical architecture of sociological practice as an object of inquiry in its own right. It offers a possibility for a renewed reflexivity about the purposes, techniques and tools of sociological research. Marres (2017) describes this is a ‘coming out’ of technology within social inquiry. It has always been there but the changing socio-technical environment necessitates we attend to it in a newly focused way.

    If we recognise this pre-history, it becomes clear that digital sociology should not be seen as something entirely new. So what is it? In this chapter, I argue that digital sociology should be seen as a project, one undertaken within a rapidly emerging community of practice (Orton-Johnson, Prior and Gregory 2015). As such, it is not intended as a comprehensive review of the development of digital sociology as a literature. The focus of this chapter is instead upon the challenges which digital sociology is a response to and how it might seek to meet those challenges.  To help define this project, I consider four areas in which socio-technical developments have created problems and opportunities for sociology: social media, digital capitalism, public sociology and digital methods. The project of digital sociology involves practical engagement with these emerging issues, with the intention of reorientating sociology towards a social in which the digital can no longer be treated as a specialised matter. This in essence is the challenge: accounts of the social which marginalise the digital are decreasingly tenable, while knowledge production predicated upon them is being challenged by newer ways of knowing the social world.

    Social data produced as a by-product of digitally mediated transactions has been held by many to signal a revolution in the social sciences (Schönberger and Cukier 2013, Petland 2014, Rudder 2014). Such ‘big data’ is frequently characterised in terms of its volume, velocity and variety (Kitchin 2014a, Ruppert 2013). Its advocates see it as representing an epistemic gain over older forms of social data, counterpoising such unobtrusive measurement to the traditional instruments of the social scientists such as the interview or sample survey. Such a claim often carries a logistical assumption as well, framing research using existent social data as an efficient alternative to the expensive business of undertaking new research. Any claim the discipline could once make to a monopoly over the social has long since passed, with new techniques for representing and analysing the social world now primarily emerging sociology and often outside the university itself (Savage and Burrows 2007, Savage and Burrows 2014). Defensiveness in the face of these changes risks leaving the lacunae of the nascent computational social sciences unexamined and the relevance of sociology’s intellectual resources for addressing these challenges unexplored (Kitchin 2014a). Digital sociology is an optimistic and open-ended project which seeks to move beyond this defensiveness, albeit one still in an early stage.

    Digital Sociology and Social Media

    Prior to the mainstreaming of ‘social media’, the most commonly invoked designator was ‘web 2.0’, used for instance by Beer and Burrows (2007) in an early contribution to digital sociology. Both phrases invite an understandable reluctance, inviting a they do a “fiction that digital technologies only acquired a social dimension with the rise to prominence of commercial platforms” (Marres 2017: 50). Part of the reluctance to accept such a definition rests on the obviously commercial origins of the terms themselves, as a new cohort of technology companies sought to differentiate themselves in a resurgent Silicon Valley by claiming they were bringing into being a radically new ‘social’ dimension to digital technology that had heretofore been lacking (Marres 2017: 49-50, Marwick 2013).  The fact these prior platforms were not as mainstream or as popular certainly does not make them any less social (see Marres 2017: 50) but the scope of their expansion is something which we need to take extremely seriously in sociological terms.

    Interaction on these platforms is richly symbolic, mediated by the specific architecture of each platform, in a way which resists dissolution into behavioural terms. These platforms have given rise to what Housley et al (2014: 2-3) describe as “the mass communication and sharing of ‘user-generated content’, and have given rise to a form of mass, self-reported data about their users’ daily routines, perceptions of, and sentiments about, particular events.” Such data is of immense sociological interest, facilitating the ‘digital remastering’ of classical sociological questions (Housley et al 2014). But it challenges us to move beyond the existing traditions of qualitative and quantitative in social research, hindering qualitative analysis through the size of these datasets and frustrating quantitative analysis through the socio-demographic uncertainty which pervades them (Edwards et al 2014). Furthermore, platform specificity creates challenges for synthesis, particularly in terms of how to develop general accounts of ‘social media’ as a social phenomenon which remain empirically grounded. Realising the sociological value of such social data necessitates that we resist calls to use it as a replacement for existing methods and instead see it as augmenting existing methods and reorienting inquiry towards new objects (Edwards et al 2014, Housley et al 2014).

    While the category of ‘big data’ is usually understood to extend beyond social media data, the two notions have arisen in parallel for reasons which are worth reflecting upon. The emergence of social media is often narrativized in terms of quantity: 3.5 million internet users, 1.1 billion websites and 1.7 billion Facebook users. 3.3 billion Google searchers, 7 billion YouTube videos viewed and 430 million tweets sent on the day of writing alone, October 2nd 2016 (Internet Live Stats 2017). However a preoccupation with the number of users on a platform or the number of uses of that platform taking place each day can too easily obscure the qualitative transformation taking place. For this, we need to locate social media in terms of a history of digitalisation and capitalism, identifying why this particular form of technology emerged under these conditions in the way that it did. Examples such as the Soviet internet as well as the Chilean Cybersyn project, illustrate why the relationship between capitalism and digitalisation must be understood as contingent rather than necessary. If we take ‘big data’ as a self-evident category, instead of one which has emerged historically under specific politico-economic questions, we risk naturalising developments which ought to be an object of analysis.

    How do we contextualise these developments? As Housley at al (2014: 2) observe, many of them “speak to core sociological concerns that relate to classic questions of social organisation, social change, and the integration and regulation of citizens within complex, late modern, globalizing, and interconnected social formations.” The tradition of epochal theorising within sociological thought, in spite of the many criticisms which can be made of it, offer important resources to make sense of digital change and that which it portends. These accounts have proliferated in recent years, raising the question of how we can evaluate competing claims of late modernity, liquid modernity, second modernity, network society, morphogenic society and social acceleration (Archer 2013b). This is a vast literature, orientated around common themes: Atkinson (2010), Carrigan (2014), Heaphy (2007) and Howard (2007) provide either critical or credulous overviews of its key features. But they offer a panoramic perspective on social change, suggesting rich themes (e.g. identity, risk, lifestyle, pace of social change) which can be used to build connections between empirical studies of social media and synthetic developments which locate social media within a broader account of social change.

    Digital Sociology and Digital Capitalism

    Much as sociological treatments of digital technology have tended to circumscribe it, restricting their analysis to the digital transformation of a particular sphere of social life, so too have economic analyses been similarly restricted. The tendency has been to treat the technology sector as sui generis, whatever the political stance, if any, taken by the analyst. Even the breathless discourse of ‘disruptive technologies’ does this, constructing the economic system as a dependent variable in a deterministic playing out of technological change. The difficulty arises because of the confusion this generates between the technology sector, technology-dependent sectors of the economy and capitalism as a whole. As Srnicek (2016: loc 157) notes, the technology sector is relatively small, employing around 2.5% of the US labour force and accounting for around 6.8% of the value added by private companies. The preoccupation with technology forms as cultural and political actors obscures a wider systemic transformation in which new socio-technical forms arising from and supported by this relatively small sector of the economy penetrate across the economy as a whole (Srnicek 2016: loc 157-158).

    We should see digitalisation as on a par with financialization in terms of understanding contemporary capitalism. In fact, the two processes are deeply interconnected, with their separation being as much an artefact of disciplinary divisions as anything else. This has most obviously been the case at the level of global communication and the international dispersal of the supply chain, but the ensuing transformation of the corporation effects every aspect of its internal organisation and the experience of those working within it (Sennett 2007, Woodcock 2016). The infrastructure of the contemporary digital economy emerged out of the vast investment of the ‘dot com’ bubble, without which the mainstreaming of the internet might not have been possible (Srnicek 2016: loc 294-333). However the link between what Peter Thiel describes as the first Silicon Valley gold rush and the unfolding of contemporary digital capitalism goes further than this (Masters and Thiel 2014: loc 155-171). The importance of recognising this is in part macro-economic, as the the bursting of the dot com bubble sowed the seeds for the housing bubble, (partial) recovery from which involved the development of a low-interest rate environment in which the second Silicon Valley gold rush took shape. But the

    Many of the current power players within Silicon Valley are those who survived the ensuing crash. In fact many of them emerged from the same company, the so-called ‘Paypal Mafia’ who have since founded Tesla Motors, LinkedIn, Matterport, Palantir Technologies, SpaceX, YouTube, Yelp, and Yammer. The most prominent members of this group, Reid Hoffman, Peter Thiel, and Elon Musk, are amongst the most powerful figures in contemporary technology. The start-ups which later came to power, riding a wave they self-interestedly distinguished as web 2.0, in fact enjoyed remarkably similar conditions: ready access to venture capital (often mediated through the aforementioned elders) and a lack of demand to demonstrate profitability. But conjointly, we can see also a culture that emerged within this febrile atmosphere, concerned with self-branding and networking one’s way to the top. A sub-culture of relentless self-ambition and accelerated aspiration is of sociological significance because what emerged in the first Silicon Valley gold rush has only intensified with the onset of social media (Marwick 2013, Vance 2015: 10-11). The cultural norms of Silicon Valley have begun to spread beyond it as the corporations involved have sought political influence, both in terms of their own self-interest but also the character of government itself (McGoey 2015, Frank 2016: loc 2918-2934). As  Srnicek (2016: loc 157-178) puts it, the digital economy now acts as a leading light in an otherwise stagnant economy, increasingly to the point of “becoming a hegemonic model: cities are to become smart, businesses must be disruptive, workers are to become flexible, and governments must be lean and intelligent.” We should take the rhetoric of ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ seriously, but address it sociologically as a form of self-understanding and self-justification amongst a nascent class of digital elites, emerging under extremely specific conditions. The vibrancy we see within this space is cultural as well as techno-economic.

    A key difficulty in attempting to unpick the frantic activity of the technology sector is distinguishing the genuinely novel from variations on a theme. Do we live in an age of continual innovation or one in which endless iterations of the same technology substitute for meaningful change (Featherstone 2013)? The self-descriptions promulgated by the heroic entrepreneurs of digital capitalism raise important questions concerning the ontology of social change (Archer 2013). Within a relatively new sector of the platform economy, the venture-capital led rush towards entry can create the appearance of heterogeneity, as an array of platforms spring up to meet a need without providing any obvious way to distinguish between them. The apparent vibrancy of the tech start-up, with aspirant firms springing up into being and falling off the radar each week, scene masks an underlying consolidation within the technology sector. There can be many factors responsible for this disappearance: rebranding, ‘pivoting’, failure or acquisition. Rushkoff (2016) offers a powerful critique of how the desire to be acquired is shaping the life cycles of start-ups in ways harmful to the possibility of innovation and Martínez (2016) presents a fascinating first-person account of such a life cycle. But the overall trend is one of consolidation, as little benefit can be accrued through being a runner-up in a sector where winner-takes-most or winner-takes-all dynamics dominate (Lanier 2014; Stone 2013, 2017).

    Van Dijck (2013) identifies four major chains of platforms: Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon. Many other corporations, large and small, existing within this eco-system but the tendency is towards increasing vertical-integration and isomorphism. Consider the number of services which at least three of these four platform chains offer: e-mail, tablet computers, mobile app stores, instant messaging, cloud storage, streaming music, video-on-demand, wearable computing, eBooks and more. If we look through the list of services which two of the four offer, it is easy to see potential growth areas for the others. We can see the tendency at work in dynamics of imitation and acquisition, as Facebook sought to first acquire its new rival Snapchat before instead incorporating its functionality into the Instagram platform which was acquired in 2012.

    Far from the disintermediated world which the rhetoric of Silicon Valley promised, the consumers are increasingly presented with a choice between incompatible eco-systems or social platforms with minor differences in functionality and demographics. The most immediate manifestations of this may seem trivial, such as the difficulties consumers face in foregoing a platform in which they have built up (Vogelstein 2013). But the increasingly bitter conflict between them seems likely to intensify this process and the minor irritations confronting consumers today herald what seems likely to be a more worrying and nakedly oligopolistic situation in the near future. Under these circumstances, we cannot easily detach political economy from methodology. Whatever access a platform currently offers to social data does not imply this offering will be sustained over time, as corporations become subject to increasing pressure to generate revenue over time (Edwards et al 2012). The continual reinvention which takes place in this environment carries similar consequences, as even user-focused platform developments such as modifications to how a timeline is ordered have consequence for social research which depends on access through such platforms (Vis 2016). Furthermore, the highly commercialised character of much research using social data raises questions of ‘black boxes’ which have important philosophical and methodological ramifications (Edwards et al 2012, Pasquale 2014). It does not follow from these concerns that digital methods orientated towards social data are in any sense unviable, only that the landscape within which such work proceeds is inherently unstable. There are familiar questions of power, prestige, interests and inequality raised by the circumstances under which we consider narrower issues of methodology and epistemology.

    Digital Sociology and Public Sociology

    Foremost amongst the concerns of digital sociology has been the use of digital tools and platforms by sociologists. However sociologists have long used digital tools.  Many of these uses are so everyday as seem instinctively unworthy of mention, such as the reliance on e-mail to coordinate academic work, electronic systems to allocate rooms within universities, the use of library catalogues to find resources or the reliance upon electronic access to journals as print subscriptions continue their decline into non-existence. But it is this everyday dependence, the ready-at-hand nature of these technologies as tools, which can obscure the affordances and constraints of technologies, particularly in relation to what came before. For instance, as Hayles (2012: 5) observes, “print-based scholars increasingly compose, edit and disseminate files in digital form without worrying too much about how digital txt differs from print, so they tend not to see the ways in which digital text, although superficially similar to print, differs profoundly in its internal structures, as well as in the different functionalities, protocols and communicative possibilities of networked and programmable machines”. It is precisely for this reason that “we need to be inside of the networks, online communities, and collaborative movements to be able to see what is going on and describe it” as Beer and Burrows (2007) put it an early contribution to digital sociology.

    Through doing so, we confront the rapidly changing reality of digitalisation through our everyday practice, ideally in a way that is dialogically reflexive about that practice, a possibility underwritten by the demonstrable tendency of academics to use social media to talk and reflect on the conditions of their own working lives (Carrigan 2016). In doing so, we can move beyond the forgetfulness of the technical pervasive within the social sciences (Hall 2016). The ubiquity of digital infrastructure renders such a recovery necessary at the methodological level, allowing us to retain an epistemic distance to the processes and events into which we inquire (Marres 2017). But it also heralds a potential transformation of sociology’s relationship to external publics, facilitated by a reflexivity about the communication of sociological knowledge developing to match the more familiar reflexivity about the production of sociological knowledge.

    Such reflexivity necessitates that we remain critical about platforms and their publics. As Couldry (2014) has convincingly argued, an account of this relation is integral to the branding of social media. These platforms are seen as new sites for assembly, in which a previously fragmented public can come together, with their latent sociality finally given expression by this new technology. This ‘myth of us’ obscures the complex dynamics which mediate the groups we encounter on any different platform, as algorithmic and curatorial functions overlap to delimit those who will see any given communication (Carrigan 2017). Even the totality of users on any given platform does not represent a general public. While Facebook might appear to come closest, the 79% of online adults (68% of all Americans) using Facebook, reveals extensive swathes of the population as non-users of Facebook (and in many cases without access to the internet) even in the country from which it originated. The second and third most popular platforms amongst Americans, Instagram (32% of internet users and 28% of American adults) and Twitter (24% of internet users and 21% of American adults) reveal how wide this gap is when we consider social media platforms as a whole (Greenwood, Perrin and Duggan 2016).

    Social media does not offer us unmediated access to a general public. Such an ambition, in so far as it exists, represents a hangover from a previous era of the ‘total intellectual’: a problematic role, able to be occupied by a handful of scholars, which emerged under conditions which no longer obtain (Baert 2012, Fatsis 2014). Social media does however provide powerful tools for building relationships with groups outside the academy, particularly in asynchronous ways compatible with the temporal demands of the accelerated academy (Vostal 2015, 2016). The affordances of social media described by boyd (2012), particularly their persistence and searchability, engender a discoverability to sociological conversation conducted through social media that can be sufficient in its own right to facilitate connections with journalists, policy makers, activists groups or charities who are either directly seeking sociological knowledge or pursuing some end which leads them into indirect contact with sociologists on social media platforms.

    However much more deliberate forms of engagement are facilitated by social media, which can be mapped onto Burawoy’s (2005) distinction between traditional public sociology and organic public sociology. The former has traditionally been embodied by the figure of the intellectual, whether the aforementioned ‘total intellectual’ (or those aspiring to such a position) or the more modest ‘specific intellectual’. The familiar activity of traditional public sociology encompasses writing for opinion pages, being interviewed in the media and publishing books intended for a wider audience which address pressing social issues. As noted, media can support this activity by making sociologists more easily discoverable by journalists and producers. It is also extending the range of online outlets, with newspapers and magazines having large digital sections and new online-only publications opening up which specialise in academic content. But it creates new opportunities for narrow-casting rather than broadcasting, connecting with specific audiences who might previously have been marginalised within mainstream media. For this reason, writing for specialised blogs and engaging with niche social media forums can be an effective form of traditional public sociology if the publics with which one seeks to engage with are pre-constituted and specific. The organic public sociologist might work with labour movements, community groups, social movements or human rights organisations. Social media offers new ways of identifying and beginning to engage with groups, it offers new ways of supporting groups (albeit ones that might often blur into the category of traditional public sociology) and it offers new ways of making this activity visible within the academy in a way that might draw others into their remit. Social media is changing how such groups can come together, particularly in their initial stages, by offering new opportunities and challenges for assembling similarly-concerned people in time and space.

    Such engagement confronts important questions about the status of sociological knowledge. What makes claims to know the social emerging from the discipline relevant when so many other actors offer competing claims? One possibility is simply to ignore this challenge, perhaps buttressed by a sense that ‘our’ knowledge production is characterised by a degree of profundity which will ensure their inevitable victory in the market place of ideas. Such a response seems almost wilfully ignorant to the changes that have taken place in the organisation of inquiry within social life: not just the fact of the aforementioned plurality of authoritative claims to speak about the social but of the material interests vested in the growth of consultancy and the think tank system (Medvetz 2012, Thrift 2005). Underlying this view we often see what I have elsewhere termed the amelioration fallacy: the self-regarding assumption that social problems would be easy to fix if only our existing knowledge circulated more effectively i.e. if more people listened to us (Carrigan 2016, French 2012). Another is to seek to adapt ourselves to these conditions, accelerating our reflective impulses in order to thrive more effectively within the time horizons of the media and politics, perhaps seeking to become one of what Linsey McGoey (2015) memorably calls ‘TED Heads’: celebrity academics who thrive within the international conference circuit.

    But if we reject both acquiescence and  adaptation then what strategy is left? Fighting back. As Savage (2015: 403) puts it, this “involves the social sciences getting their hands dirty and seeking to wrest intellectual authority from market researchers, consultants, journalists and commentators”. Social media represent potent tools in such a project, though not ones liable to lead inexorably to social influence, not least of all because of the aforementioned challenge of ‘being heard above the din’ (Beer 2009). If the affordances of social media are seen as something entirely extrinsic to scholarship, merely to be drawn upon in disseminating existing findings, it is doubtful whether an impact on the distribution of intellectual authority is likely. The realities of contemporary labour within an accelerated academy militate against this (Vostal 2015, 2016). With unmanageable workloads and an increasingly inhospitable labour market now  ubiquitous features of academic life, expecting younger scholars to take advantage of the affordances of social media represents ‘just another thing to do’. In such cases, engagement is liable to become a means to an end, undertaken to be counted and recognised, rather than as an end in itself. After many years of what Burrows (2012) calls living with the h-index, it is possible that the metrics of social media might prove alluring to scholars. What van Dijck (2013) calls the ‘popularity principle’ is built into the architecture of platforms: ‘importance’ is reduced to ‘popularity’ within these platforms, creating a feedback loop where the popular progressively monopolise the attention space. Such a dynamic is liable to produce a handful of academic celebrities, much digital labour but little meaningful engagement. The challenge faced by digital sociology is how to build collective platforms which allow us to exploit the affordances of social media without having this effort smothered by such pernicious platform dynamics. Digital sociology is not simply a matter of new techniques or objects, rather it is concerned with how we orientate ourselves towards this novelty as such and what it means for our labour.

    Digital Sociology and Digital Methods

    The far too frequent assumption made about digital methods is that, as Marres (2017: 51), describes it “these ‘data-intensive approaches to social analysis somehow provide better or ‘truer’ access to social life than older social research methods”. This epistemic complacency obscures epistemological and methodological issues which urgently need to be addressed. We see new modes of analysis emerging, driven by both the affordances and constraints of data environments, raising important questions in the philosophy of science which are still relatively unaddressed. The unobtrusive character of transactional data is understood to offer an unprecedented window on human life, revealing who we are when we think no one is looking, as one popular book about data science memorably put it (Rudder 2014). Unfortunately, the epistemic specificity of transactional data too often gets lost in the hype surrounding it, making it difficult to engage adequately at the level of philosophy of science.

    Opposition to the hype and the politics of discipline in which it is embedded should not incite a rejection of transactional data but rather a careful scrutiny of its ontological and epistemological character, as well as its methodological implications (Kitchin 2014b, Halford 2015). As Little (2015) observes, “most social activity leaves no digital traces” and this is something which should be incorporated into our approach from the outset. In fact digital sociology could help address this variance by highlighting what are ultimately sociological questions. Why do some activities leave digital traces and others not? Who has access and who does not? How is this distribution structured? How does it change over time and what factors play a part in shaping these changes? If we accept a naive resurgent positivism which sees transactional data as providing access to the truth of human behaviour, we obscure precisely those questions liable to prove useful in realising the methodological promise of these innovations.

    Those rightly critical of the “utopia of social legibility” which Little (2015) identifies in the advocacy of computational social science, can too easily lapse into a rejection of the epistemic gains offered by transactional data. It is a mistake to see some inherent danger to sociological inquiry latent within computational techniques. The risk is rather that our preoccupation with computational techniques leads us to confuse technical innovation with epistemological advance. As Gary Hall (2016) provocatively asks of an example often cited by Lev Manovich to introduce cultural analytics, how interesting is it to more or less confirm an established history by new means rather than deploying these techniques to challenge or complicate this history? Technical advances do not lead inexorably to epistemic gains and a sociological approach to method can help us sustain this awareness while nonetheless resisting a lazy slide into facile rejection. We should be vigilant with regards to the theoretical and methodological issues raised by technical innovations, not assume that these innovations necessarily create theoretical and methodological problems. We should be sensitive to the allure of new techniques, particularly given the intellectual climate in which technical mastery can be a potent source of disciplinary self-confidence at a point in time where others appear to be lacking (Beer 2014). But our response to these issues should be to open up, rather than close down, elaborating on the possibilities latent within new techniques rather than rejecting them.

    We can see an example of what this might look like in the proposal for ‘socialomics’ offered by Chen and Yan (2016) which adapts and extends techniques of cultural analytics in order to gain traction on questions of socio-cultural change at the macroscopic level which would usually fall outside of its remit. The underlying inspiration is shared with cultural analytics, resting on a recognition of the limitations of close reading and the quantitative possibilities afford by digitalisation and computational techniques, but the sociological concerns of their case study are ‘baked into’ the foundational categories of the inquiry, shaping their understanding and application of the techniques in a way which uniquely constitutes them for the task at hand. Pursuing such an approach necessitates a clarity about epistemology and methodology which is often lacking in these debates. For instance, as Housley et al (2014) argue, the emerging capacity to analyse macro-social processes in real time is an enormous opportunity but it is one which gives no reason to assume we can dispense with other forms of inquiry, as well as heralding all manner of philosophical, ethical and methodological questions which need to be addressed. Rather than seeing computational techniques as a threat, we should aspire to digitally remaster traditional sociological questions in order to render them adequate for these new technological opportunities (Edwards et al 2014). If we fail to do this, we risk an increasing subordination of sociological inquiry to what Kitchin (2014a: loc 3800-3817) describes as “ad hoc and pragmatic approaches” and “proliferating forms of weak empiricism”.

    We need digital methodology and digital theory to catch up with digital methods (Edwards et al 2014; Housley et al 2014; Kitchin 2014b). Unfortunately, the structures of the contemporary academy militate against this in a number of ways. The growth dynamics of the journal system encourage specialisation in both reading and writing, whereas what we urgently require are fora in which cutting-edge innovations can feed back into over-arching debates within a disciplinary and trans-disciplinary remit. Only then can we mitigate the fractal-like dynamics of disciplinary change which currently work to squeeze out crucial discussions about the future of sociology given widespread digitalisation (Abbott 2001). The problems caused by this hyper-specialisation are (perversely) paralleled by a counter-specialisation dynamic, in which important technical details about working with data are excluded from the discussion in mainstream journals, in the process making it more difficult to address the methodological questions which suffuse the whole process of working with digital data.

    Conclusion

    Digital sociology’s concern with its own disciplinary conditions creates a risk of insularity, leaving it preoccupied by what takes place within the discipline rather than looking outward from it. Avoiding this necessitates being clear about the ambitions of digital sociology at a disciplinary level. Marres (2017: 40) offers a useful comparison to environmental sociology. Sociological phenomena have an environmental dimension and sociological work takes place in an environment, but this does not mean all sociology should be environmental sociology. Digital sociology as a sub discipline can help us recover the digital dimension to social life and better appreciate how the digital environment in which we work shapes the work that we do. As Marres acknowledges, in many cases this digital dimension might be irrelevant to the inquiry at hand. What is crucial is that its existence is something which is acknowledged at the level of the discipline, rather than that all practitioners come to focus on it in the course of their substantive inquiry.

    Understood as a project in this sense, the notion of ‘digital sociology’ functions as an assembly device through which to gather the disparate strands of sociological engagement with the digital within what Porpora (2001) calls ‘argumentative space’: ensuring that agreements and disagreements on substantive matters play out between similarly motivated interlocutors, facilitating intellectual development on issues of shared concern without privileging any one particular position. In doing so, it aspires towards the emergence of what Mouzelis (2008: 9) calls a theoretical lingua franca: “a flexible vocabulary with no foundationalist pretensions, which can help sociologists establish bridges between their own and other disciplines, as well as between competing social science paradigms”. Exchanges which bring this about are dialogical rather than dialectical, increasing people’s awareness of their own views and expanding their understanding of others through the process of exchange, rather than seeing disagreement as an obstacle which must be overcome in pursuit of a common ground (Sennett 2008: 19).

    This entails an openness within the discipline and beyond it, involving proactive engagement with a wide range of trends: digital humanities, digital anthropology, digital geography, social informatics, data studies, web science, data science, software studies and beyond. Through such engagements, digital sociology might one day confront the temptation of intellectual imperialism, styling itself in neo-Comtean fashion as the queen of the (digital) social sciences. Such an ambition would prove regressive, suppressing the character of sociology as a scavenger in which Urry (2005) locates its propensity for “getting now into unexpected places and doing unexpected things once it has escaped beyond the drawbridge”. To seek to raise the drawbridge once engagement has taken place, seeing in the digital a new ‘centre’ for the discipline, would provoke precisely the fractal dynamics of fragmentation and specialisation which digital sociology seeks to overcome (Abbott 2001, Holmwood 2010).

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  • Mark 2:06 pm on October 16, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , virgina eubanks   

    A machine for killing relationality 

    This section from Virginia Eubank’s Automating Inequality has stuck in my mind. It describes the destructive roll out of an automated system for allocating benefits in Indiana, leaving tens of thousands of legitimate recipients caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare which required time, energy and know how at precisely the point where withdrawal of their expected income had plunged them into crisis. But what really stands out to me is how this machinery is intended to destroy the capacity of case workers to care about and help recipients. This came as part of a broader trend towards deskilling, outsourcing the process from public sector workers to (insecure) private sector alternatives and enmeshing everyone in a workflow system which sought to control what they did. But the automated system took this yet further, as she describes on pg 52-53:

    No one worker had oversight of a case from beginning to end; when clients called the 1-800 number, they always spoke to a new worker. Because the Daniels administration saw relationships between caseworkers and clients as invitations to fraud, the system was designed to sever those links.

    The allegation is that personal relationships between clients and case workers inject the potential for fraud into the system. This is a reaction to a broader politicisation of case work in which case workers came to identify as advocates for their clients, leading to a counter-attack tied to a broader neoliberal suspicion of the putatively lofty motives of public sector workers. But what this system seeks to do is something else entirely: prevent trust, understanding, empathy or any other relational good from emerging between actors representing the system and those making claims on that system. In this sense I suggest it is a machine for killing relationality.

     
  • Mark 10:54 am on October 15, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , the practical order as pivotal, the primacy of practice   

    The Digital Condition: The Practical Order as Pivotal 

    The Practical Order as Pivotal might seem like an odd choice to initiate a reading group on the digital condition, as it makes no reference to digital technology. However it’s been central to my own thinking as someone who has done a lot of theoretical work on social media and its implications for social life. My suggestion is that it raises a number of issues which are easy to overlook amidst ‘the shock of the new’ and cautions us against the readiness with which social media can be read in narrowly discursive terms. Archer argues in it for the primacy of practice: the relation to the world which is prior to language and follows from the constitution of our embodiment and the character of the world. As she puts it on pg 155:

    There must be practices like the raw emotionality of the involuntary ‘ooch’ when the toe is stubbed on something hard, the ‘argh’ of fear when predators attack, and the ‘oo’s’ of surprise or pleasure at a cool drink or a warm fire. Physiologically, the way we are made and the way the world is, together regulate these practices without verbal intermediaries. When cold, we extend our hands towards the fire, but excessive heat leads us to withdraw them, and it is upon these prior physiological signifiers that our language of feelings is built and our emotional expressiveness is born.

    These come first in the development of our species but also in our development as people. To foreground these relations dislodges language from its pride of place in our conception of the human, recognising how the aboutness of language tracks the aboutness of experience. There is an objective relation inherent in experience itself, in the sense that it is experience of something, even if we come to experience this through concepts which are linguistic at root. My experience of this desk as a ‘desk’ is involuntary but so too are its enablements and constraints in relation to writing. If it collapsed at the first sign of pressure then it would be a ‘broken desk’ or a ‘useless piece of shit I shouldn’t have bought’ but most of all it would no longer have the physical powers which explained my experience of its deskness. In parallel to this we should understand language as a doing in the world, albeit of a particularly valorised and dominant sort which defines our everyday life. In some cases our linguistic doings are intended to bring about effects in the world, in others they do so involuntary such as my subvocalisation while writing this irritating the person I share an office with. But they are doings which need to be understood in relation to states of affairs in the world.

    It follows from this that what Archer calls the practical order extends beyond our use of language. This argument stresses how non-linguistic knowledge (“tacit information, skills, know-how”) emerges from practical interactions between ourselves and the natural world or material artefacts. This comes in “chunks or stocks” rather than “linear sequences such as sentences”, it is “embodied in the seat of our pants rather than in the declarative memory” and it is multi-sensory in a way which codified knowledge tends not to be. Her focus on the latter point is on the reliance on alphabet or sentences for written/spoken transmission of codified knowledge. But I think the media is just as important, with such knowledge embedded in spoken lectures or codex books in a way which conditions our interaction with it. In fact recognising this blurs the distinction slightly because a book is obviously a material artefact but this in turn points towards practical engagement mediating the transmission of knowledge through books. If we approach a text in order to ‘mine’ it for knowledge, we inevitably read it in a shallow way. To engage thoughtfully involves a slower interaction with the materiality of it, turning pages and drawing in the margins, as opposed to going line-by-line to extract information in the most efficient way possible. This highlights what is lost when practical knowledge is codified, as a rich embodied relationship tends to get reduced into an abstract one which can be encoded through media but loses force and vitality in the process.

    However I’ve used natural world and material artefacts interchangeably in the paragraph above and this obscures the subtly of her argument. They both produce know how rather than know that but practical knowledge of material artefacts has additional features. It is procedural rather than declarative, implicitly encoded in the body as skills, tacit because understood through activity, extensive of our bodily powers. If propositional knowledge is acquired through scholarship and embodied knowledge through self discovery then practical knowledge is acquired through apprenticeship. This is undertaken through relations with artefacts that have been designed and engineered in specific ways. From pg 167:

    These powers which are most obvious with machinery, are universal to the practical order, as simple objects like the drinking gourd or spoon illustrate. However, these are built into their shape and form, their juxtapositioning and interlinkages, their cogs and wheels, strings and windholes; into the powers of a recipe, a flint, a medicine, a tune – and as such they are non-discursive.

    These decisions encode meanings in the artefact itself. Assumptions, ideas and theories are expressed in the artefact being one way rather than other, even though their primary influence on us is practical constraint. As she puts it on pg 168: “In a very serious causal sense, material culture ‘escapes’ its makers”. They retain the capacity to shape our actions but they do not control what we do with them nor what we make of them. From pg 169:

    The very physicality of material culture ‘informs’ by resisting certain practical actions: a normal corkscrew can only be made to work in a clockwise direction. Moreover artifacts discriminate among their legitimate users: blisters ensue when a right-handed person tries using lefthanded scissors, and safety tops on pill containers deter children. Furthermore, like nature, artifacts give us cues and clues as to how we are doing.

    To develop competence with an artefact entails a feel for it. I’m touch typing this without thinking about it but if I look at the keyboard and think about the letters then my typing speed slows dramatically. We can account for what we are doing, as well as how we learned to do it. But this accounting is secondary to the fact of our doing it. It is however crucial for helping others learn to do it, providing a guide for their approach to these artefacts in pursuit of their comparable ends. To develop this is an instance of embodied incorporation in which we take on board the use of an artefact,  extending our capacities and changing our orientation towards the world. We can learn about the new uses we can make of the artefact either through our own experimentation or by reading propositional accounts of their use. However each element of novelty we encounter challenges our embodied incorporation, confronting us with a burden of adaptation.

    I hope this hasn’t been too opaque because I realise it might be difficult to follow for those unfamiliar with critical realism. The reason I’ve chosen this text is because I think a number of very interesting concerns emerge from it which help us to understand the digital condition:

    1. Smart devices can track what users do with them and make of them in real time, feeding this back into design decisions. When we are talking about software, a dynamic front-end for a material artefact, these can modulate the interface in near real-time e.g. by presenting us with content which has been algorithmically filtered to maximise the likelihood of our engagement with it. This illustrates how smart devices are not merely contingently different from other material artefacts. The ontology of our relationship with them is substantially different because their constraints and enablements are dynamic.
    2. The dynamism ensuing from this poses a profound challenge to embodied incorporation. The fact that modulation is ubiquitous means the embodied habits we build around our devices are unstable. When my iPhone updated to iOS 13 overnight I spent the following morning being irritated that many things didn’t work in the way I used to. It was a particularly dramatic example of this challenge but more time and energy is being consumed by adapting to the dynamism which is inherent in smart devices and their associated platforms. The lifespan of our embodied incorporation rests on the stability of an artefact’s constraints and enablements. These are being eroded in accelerating ways as an expression of the dynamism which is inherent to the devices.
    3. The centrality of communication to our use of these devices does not mean they are narrowly linguistic. The writing we exchange take places through the mediation of the aforementioned devices, defined by the dynamism and unstable characteristics, in the process being shaped by them in ways which platform studies has sought to grasp. But there are also practical relations with the artefact which exceed these social relations. What are we doing when we check Instagram with no clear sense of why we are doing it? To focus on the embodied relationship with the device grounds questions like this in the intimate place which digital devices have in our lives. It’s not a new question but it does involve a subtle change of emphasis, highlighting how we keep our phones close, stroke them with our fingers and hope they won’t disappoint us.
    4. It helps us see how platforms and devices condition their users without controlling them. The constrained openness which characterises our engagement with artefacts, working with their features while escaping the intentions of their designers, means there is a degree of freedom which users have in their approach to platforms and devices. But designers seek to catch up with these uses in a potentially open-ended and accelerative cycle. This is the platform analogy to structure and agency.
     
    • Sourav Roy 6:06 pm on October 15, 2019 Permalink

    • Mark 1:55 pm on October 16, 2019 Permalink

      so that made sense to somewhere other than me? excellent! I wrote it half way through doing a mammoth bibliography and my mind was melted.

      this is the project it’s attached to if you’re interested: https://medium.com/the-digital-condition/schedule-cb40a4eaa140

    • Sourav Roy 5:14 am on October 17, 2019 Permalink

      Thanks (bookmarked)! I have just about started tiptoeing around my prospective PhD area of understanding Indian queerhood via Internet visual culture, and intend to use the very ‘ahistorical’ https://warburg.library.cornell.edu/about for methodology. So any direction which doesn’t treat the digital condition as a ‘strange / exotic / exclusive / subcultural subjectivity’ is very empowering for my work. That’s why I so keenly follow you. Much love!

    • Mark 4:36 pm on October 20, 2019 Permalink

      hope it’s going well, that sounds like a brilliant topic!

    • Sourav Roy 2:38 am on October 21, 2019 Permalink

      Thanks. Just dipping my big toe in water, standing in the shore. 🙂

  • Mark 4:50 pm on October 7, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , ,   

    Medium as a forum for warring digital elites 

    I thought this was a really interesting observation by Jill Abramson on pg 145 of her Merchants of Truth. What other forums are there?

    The Times ran a definitive investigation of the punishing work culture at Amazon, 23 with grizzly anecdotes about employees crying at their desks and burning out because of the unrelenting pressure to fill orders and grow. Bezos attacked the story as anecdotal and unfair on the open website Medium. Baquet responded, defending the piece. Open digital platforms such as Medium now replaced the private conversations and postpublication confrontations that used to take place in editors’ offices. The court of public opinion was all that mattered, not private, ongoing relationships between companies and the journalists covering them.

     
  • Mark 4:46 pm on October 7, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , ,   

    The vested interests of the media in Trump 

    From Jill Abramson’s Merchants of Truth pg 386:

    The “Trump bump” was mostly responsible for its strong financial reports following the election as the paid digital readership began to explode. By the end of the second quarter there were 600,000 new subscriptions, bringing the total number of digital subscribers above two million. In 2017 paid digital subscriptions continued to surge and lifted the Times ’s revenue picture and stock price in 2018. These new subscriptions helped push revenue up significantly toward CEO Mark Thompson’s 2020 goal of $800 million.

     
  • Mark 10:49 am on October 5, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ,   

    Social Media for Academics 2 

    It’s only a month to go until the second edition of Social Media for Academics will be released by Sage. It’s a vastly expanded text with almost 100 new pages of material. I’ve also rewritten the existing content from start to finish. There’s a whole range of topics which have been added: live blogging, developing hashtags, live streaming, videocasting, podcasting, working with freelancers, trolling, social media sabbaticals, building communities, auditing your footprint and much more. Here are some of the kind words which people have already shared about this edition. If you’d like to get a sense of the approach I take then you might like to explore the hundreds of blog posts about social media I’ve written or reviews and media coverage from the first edition. If you’d like me to speak or advise on these issues then please get in touch.

     
  • Mark 10:24 am on October 3, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: USSStrikes   

    Whose university? Our university 

    A remix by Wanya2k of this brilliant snippet recorded at the Cambridge student protests during the #USSStrikes:

     
  • Mark 10:22 am on October 3, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , ,   

    The acceleration of journalism 

    I’d tended to think of the acceleration of journalism as being a matter of fewer staff producing more copy. But this passage from Jill Abramson’s Merchants of Truth suggests the changing demands of editing are a factor as well. From pg 416:

    Before she left for ProPublica, Marilyn Thompson, the investigative reporter and proponent of “slow journalism,” found herself editing a slew of stories each day on the national desk. There was so much to edit that she often used one of her days off to work on the longer pieces that probed Washington’s underbelly of money and lobbying. With fewer editors and staffers engaged in story production (“the process people”), the responsibility for everything fell on the shoulders of editors who before the social media era had had time to brainstorm with reporters or change a story’s architecture and flow. Now they were expected to do and check everything, from writing the myriad headlines for different platforms to inserting hyperlinks referring to other stories—all at a sprinter’s pace.

     
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