Thursday, February 16, 2017

Introducing: The Twitter-thing!

Context: The Twitter-thing is the (awkward?) translation into English of 'Twittertinget' - a project I worked on last year with two Danish colleagues, Irina Papazu (CBS) and Tobias Bornakke (Uni. of Copenhagen) in collaboration with the Danish newspaper Politiken. The Twitter-thing is a tool that draws on TCAT in order to build a network visualisation of how Danish MPs use hashtags on Twitter. Here follows my abstract for the upcoming Data Publics conference in Lancaster, where I'll be exhibiting the Twitter-thing.

Parliaments could seem to be highly issue-agnostic places. All sorts of problems move in and out of these large and expensive devices (Dányi 2015), while the membership stays more or less the same in-between elections. But as issues are taken up and left behind by parliaments, they also make cuts in the parliament in the sense that specific sets of parliamentarians become attached to specific issues. The aim of the Twitter-thing tool is to trace these cuts and visualize them by means of Twitter hashtags and a piece of code developed by Tobias Bornakke while visiting the médialab at Sciences Po in Paris.

Screendump of the tool. Click to interact with it.
What the Twitter-thing tool does, is to track all tweets sent by parliamentarians in Denmark and then visualize the individual parliamentarians in a network together with the hashtags, they have used. In this network, a link is made between the name of an MP and a hashtag when this MP has used the specific hashtag in a tweet. In other words, the tool visualizes how parliamentarians group around specific topics and issues by using hashtags.

As such, the Twitter-thing seeks to explore the following question: What if the parliament was approached not as a representation device for the population of a nation, but as an assembly of multiple and constantly transforming issue publics (Marres 2007)? What kinds of issues are highlighted by the parliament via Twitter, and what would it mean to ask a parliament to represent issues, or indeed ’things’ (Latour 2005), instead of a populace?

The resulting publics – or things in the sense of a collective aroused by an issue – are data publics in the sense that they are not aware of themselves as specific publics (Warner 2002). At the same time, it is entirely possible to self-select membership of these data publics by using a specific hashtag. This raises the question of what feedback loops are in place between visualizations of the use of hashtags and decisions to use hashtags in tweets, including the question of how a tool like the Twitter-thing might change things.

The Twitter-thing invites users to explore these questions, and more, by making the network available in an interactive format that allows users to browse at their own leisure, zoom in and out, search for particular politicians, parties or hashtags, narrow down the network and make screenshots. As such, the Twitter-thing is an experiment with re-tooling the parliament into a more issue-oriented device.

Outro: I'm still thinking about how to exhibit this in the best possible way at the Data Publics conference. Any thoughts and ideas are most welcome in the comments! 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

PhD defended and now available online

I haven't posted here for a year, but there is a reason for that: I have been finishing my PhD thesis! Now it is all over and done - I defended the thesis publicly (in the Danish tradition) on 25th May 2016, and have received my diploma. So I thought it was high time to post an update here.

First, let me point to the Danish Association for Science and Technology Studies website, where the PDF version of the thesis can be downloaded: (direct link to PDF).

Second, here is a short blurb about the thesis content that I wrote for the announcement of the defense. There is a longer abstract in the PDF.
Caring for publics - how media contribute to issue politics
The thesis investigates how media become part of processes of formulating issues and organizing publics in practice. It draws on the pragmatist approach to publics developed by Dewey, Lippmann and recent literature in Science and Technology Studies (STS) in order to get out of an idealized notion of public debate, one the one hand, and avoid attributing deterministic effects to media, on the other., Media contributions are instead conceptualized as a ’caring’ for publics, where media are studied as part of an ongoing tinkering with issue articulations and the organization of publics. The thesis specifies how such ’caring for publics’ happens in practice by documenting and analyzing how two different media, a newspaper and a social media platform, contribute to the ongoing development of issues and publics. 

In case you are curious, here is a list of my supervisors and the assessment committee (huge thanks to all of them!):

Assessment committee
Professor MSO Anders Buch, Aalborg Universitet
Professor Fabian Muniesa, Mines ParisTech
Professor Celia Lury, University of Warwick 

Prof. Torben Elgaard Jensen, Aalborg University (main)
Associate Prof. Noortje Marres, University of Warwick 
Director of Research Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Reuters Institute, University of Oxford

Thursday, June 25, 2015

London update

(This is an expanded version of a post I wrote for the new TANTlab website)

It has been very quiet here on my blog, as it often happens with blogs in these days of social media. But here is a nice occasion to write an update: I've spent the last couple of months in London. This is my second stay abroad as part of my PhD. For the first half of 2014, I worked in Paris. Now it's London, where, more specifically, I am spending the summer term at Goldsmiths. Even more specifically, I am a visiting fellow at the Centre for the Study of Invention and Social Process (CSISP), Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London. Lots of fancy names, but what goes on here? Here are some brief examples.
Back in May, I was at an all-day workshop on ’doing screen work ethnographies’ together with a group of highly interesting researchers, including Lucy SuchmanAdrian MackenzieAnne BeaulieuDaniel Neyland and Christine Hine. The reason why these people (and more) came together at Goldsmiths is Evelyn Rupperts’ new ERC-funded project on work done with statistics in Europe. It is called ”Peopling Europe: How data make a people”, or ARITHMUS for short. There is a bit more about it here, but the work is just starting now. Last week’s meeting was the first out of six methods workshops that will be organized over the coming years as part of the project, and this one started with the extremely relevant challenge of how to ethnographic research in settings that are heavily mediated by screens. A question that is key, I think, also for how to do good techno-anthropological research.
Earlier in June, I was at another interesting event, but as a speaker rather than a workshop participant. On June 9th, Goldsmiths hosted a seminar on ”Experiments with Data Publics”, which featured myself talking about my on-going research on Facebook pages and sociotechnical controversies, but started with the work of Anders Koed Madsen,  University of Aalborg CPH, and Anders Kristian Munk, University of Aalborg CPH and SciencesPo médialab, on using Facebook for collectively envisioning the future of schooling in Aalborg, Denmark. There is a bit more about the event on June 9th here and Anders Koed Madsen and Anders Kristian Munk have written about their project previously on the TANT-Lab website here.
As a third example of what I am up to in London, let me give you an idea of my day to day work. I am in the final year of my PhD, which means trying ’to write up’ my work into a thesis. Here at Goldsmiths, I receive supervision from Noortje Marres, the director of CSISP, on this writing work. She is a very relevant person for me to work with, since her own research interests overlap a lot with my own. These topics include publics, STS and digital methods. So far, I have had two very productive meetings with Marres, and I have been assigned a desk in a room on the CSISP floor, so I get to be a part of the everyday of her research group for a while. You can read more about Noortje Marres here. I've also enjoyed discussions with fellow PhD researchers David Moats and Jess Perriam, who are both supervised by Marres.

In fact, I spent yesterday on a field trip to Warwick University with Noortje and Jess, who were presenting their ongoing project about the selfiestick as an issue object (read more here) at a workshop on interfaces organized by Nathaniel Tkacz of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies. The selfiestick, Noortje and Jess argued, is more interesting that is could appear, because it does work both as a media object and an issue itself. As such, it could be interrogated as an interface between issues and media, a relationship that is arguably very important for the fate of issues. For more on this theme, check out Noortje's new paper in Science, Technology and Human Values called "Why map issues?".
So, lots of interesting stuff going on here in London! That is, at least, what I hope these four examples have suggested. In closing, perhaps I should mention that I am able to afford this stay in London because I was lucky to be awarded one of the 2014 EliteForsk travel stipends for PhD researchers. You can read a bit more about that and my project (in Danish) here.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Mapping Controversies and/as research?

Several ’Mapping Controversies’ courses have been taught in Copenhagen for some time now, at various places and with various titles. Earlier this week some of the people involved in these efforts sat down for a one-day seminar to discuss whether there is something under the umbrella of ’Mapping Controversies’ that can be taken from an existence as pedagogical tools towards research contributions (at this point I am using ’Mapping Controversies’ as a placeholder for multiple activities instead of offering an authoritative definition).

The seminar was funded by the Digital Humanities Lab Denmark (DigHumLab) and hosted by the Techno-Anthropology Research Group (TANT) at Aalborg University Copenhagen. For a ’Mapping Controversies’ teacher and practitioner such as myself, the seminar came across as a rare chance to discuss among peers where our work might be heading. Here follows an account of the discussions.

The day started with Anders Kristian Munk’s keynote, which played with the idea of treating Mapping Controversies as a patient that we could expose to a collaborative medical examination. The metaphor was successful because it invited Anders to think about the biography of the patient, starting with its early Mertonian childhood in the 1950s, where it realized that the norms of scientific communities were usefully exposed for study when they broke down into controversies.

Then followed the formative years of SSK and ANT in the 1970s and 80s, after which the patient ’came into its own’ as a way to teach STS to engineering students. This was soon followed by a severe midlife crisis, however, where the patient started to get increasingly worried about democracy and the need to reestablish the respect for what scientists do. The midlife crisis kick started a lively ’second youth’ in the 2000s where the patient suddenly set out to fix both social science and the broken public sphere with large EU-funded projects like MACOSPOL and EMAPS.

While noting Mapping Controversies’ new sense of mission and newfound ability to attract other actors, Anders Munk’s patient metaphor of course implied that all is not well. He gave two examples of cutting edge mapping controversies research, but largely left it up to the other participants in the medical examination to suggest a diagnosis and possible treatment. Four ’doctors’ took the lead here.

First, Anders Blok noted how MC was doing well as a teaching tool, but not so well as a method for basic social research. The treatment that fits this diagnosis, ’Dr Blok’ argued, is to specify what exactly we do research on when we ’map controversies’. He provided three alternatives, and then three reasons why he preferred one of them. The first possible answer would be to say that mapping controversies means to do research on techno-scientific controversies. The problem is that this is not new. The second possible answer is that we do mapping. But this just means that we are doing inquiry as all researchers are. The third possible answer is to say we do research on digital methods, which was Dr Blok’s recommended treatment. The advantages of rallying under ’digital methods’ he mentioned included: 1) The chance to contribute to innovation in research devices in social science, which seems to run on techniques developed in the 1960s or earlier. 2) The chance to explicate the social life of methods, to find new allies. 3) The chance to disentangle and rearrange the many partial connections of mapping controversies in order to find a balance between isolation and megalomania.

The intervention by Blok brought up some discussion over where to position oneself vis-a-vis the two schools of mapping controversies that have established themselves most visibly: Amsterdam and Paris, or to be precise, Bruno Latour’s médialab at Sciences Po and Richard Rogers’ Digital Methods Initiative at the University of Amsterdam. Blok allowed himself the useful simplification of self-identifying as an ’Amsterdamian’ to express an interest in ’digital grounding’. Digital grounding is Rogers’ (2013) term, which is used to describe the idea that digital findings do not necessarily have to be ’grounded’ in offline inquiry, but could also be grounded in additional web data. For Dr Blok this was not so much a claim he wished to make, but rather a good research question for focusing on methods innovations: How does digital grounding work?

The half-serious self-description as an ’Amsterdamian’ led Anders Kristian Munk to intervene with the comment that one of the main interests in Amsterdam seems to be media studies, something that there was general agreement was not the main purpose for us. At this point it became clear that Blok’s self-description as an Amsterdamian was a negative rather than a positive statement, serving to avoid the Parisian school, where Mapping Controversies run the risk of posing as some kind of heroic social science on digital steroids. As Blok put it, the point would be to be able to stay in conversation both with media studies and anthropology, engaging with a range of empirical objects and asking methodological questions in the same tonality as elsewhere in social science, such as investigating carefully what it means that digital data is often found rather than made by researchers.

Next up was Mark Elam, who built on Anders Munk’s reminder that there have been controversy studies going on for a long time. With the recent interest in digital data, Dr Elam warned, we run the risk of becoming picky in our choice of controversies: It can be tempting to choose according to data availability. But this might not lead to the most interesting controversies.

At the same time, Dr Elam suggested that the patient was doing well on other frontiers. The ’coming crisis of empirical sociology’ argument (Savage and Burrows 2007) was presented as having created a wave of interest that one might link up with in efforts of ’retooling the sociological imagination’. This latter slogan was well received in the room as a way to point to a middle ground of digital methods craftsmanship, perhaps between the ’abstract empiricism’ of computational social science and the ’grand theory’ of revolutionary claims about the digital.

Dr Elam also suggested that in addition to the work of C. Wright Mills, STS sensitivities would be another ally for developing a craftsmanship that understands our own methods as processes of technical mediation. This led on to a general discussion on how STS also contributes with an idea of ’controversy as method’ in the sense of insisting on the non-stabilized and relational understanding of our objects of study. One question that followed from this was how to make best use of digital traces that exactly seem to offer more dynamic and unsettled data than social science is used to.

The third diagnosis and treatment was offered by Anders Koed Madsen who emphasized Mapping Controversies as a specific mode of seeing that can bring emerging categories to the front, challenge existing hypotheses, and explicate translation work and the contingencies of invariants. Dr Koed’s suggested medication was thus based on pragmatist perception theory.

This line of thinking led to several observations, including Dr Koed’s own recent experience that Mapping Controversies-inspired visualizations can work as breaching experiments in organizations by offering them new ’modes of seeing’. It was also noted that working in this way with visualizations that point out contingencies and brings forward assumptions and disagreements might make it hard to generalize to a ’larger public’, making the maps valuable mostly as comparative resources.

One of the comments that were made suggested that this way of thinking about mapping controversies shifted focus from basic research to concrete interventions in organizations, etc. Here, it might be important to keep trying to ask new questions and not just raise key STS questions in new ways, although that certainly also has value.

Another issue that emerged here was that different disciplines bring different epistemic interests into mapping controversies – from a sociologist’s interest in social change, over a geographer’s interest in mapping, to an organization studies interest in organizational norms.

The final intervention was made by Torben Elgaard Jensen who started out by flattering the patient that it worked well as a practical teaching device that did not require large theoretical grounding. This was also a diagnosis, however, since theoretical considerations might be lacking when the ambition becomes research rather than teaching.

Dr Elgaard Jensen challenged mapping controversies by presenting his recent attempts at making scientometric and semantic mapping do work for him in a case study on psychologists. He suggested that mapping might work as a device for falsifying of troubling received ideas, in much the same way as STS has deployed anthropological studies or historical studies to questions ideas such as the rationality of science or the efficiency of technology. He argued that taking your own medicine in this way has worked well with other patients, for instance the field of European Ethnology (Munk & Elgaard Jensen, forthcoming). In the early 20th century, ethnologists held a number of assumptions about culture, but when they embarked on a systematic mapping of cultural elements, it turned out that all of the initial assumptions were either wrong or simplistic. This paved the way for the far more complex notion of culture, which the ethnologists hold today. The way forward, Dr. Elgaard Jensen suggested, is to find ideas in STS that one should be able to map, but which might turn into similar productive disasters, when the actual mapping is attempted. This brought forward discussions over the case study as the method of choice in STS and how digital methods would tie in to this time-tested approach, including the risk of producing maps as a quick-and-dirty way of producing some grounding in a new and relatively unknown field.

After these rich but also exhausting interventions and discussions, we took a breath of air on the rooftop terrace at AAU-CPH, which fittingly enough offered a sweeping view of Copenhagen, but also seemed to rest on quite fragile foundations, or at least half-invisible ones.

The day ended with the remaining doctors writing down their final diagnosis and suggested treatment for the patient known as Mapping Controversies on small, round pieces of cardboard (also known as paper plates). One diagnosis said ”Stress (Trying to do everything at once)” and came with the friendly advice from the doctor to go ”easy on the networks and forget about democracy”. Another doctor’s note echoed these ideas and added: ”Accept that you are a mess. Use that productively”. I will leave you at this point to imagine what some of the other diagnoses/treatments sounded like – and come up with your own.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Two (used) comments on Gillespie's new chapter "The Relevance of Algorithms"

I'm in Paris this semester, as a visiting doctoral student at the Center for the Sociology of Innovation (CSI) at Ecole des Mines and at the médialab at Sciences Po. 

Apart from finding myself in the middle of two very lively research communities, I've also been so lucky that a series of cross-institutional seminars on Digital Methods are taking place in Paris this spring.

The last seminar was on "Transformative interaction: web effects on social dynamics", for which I volunteered to prepare a brief comment on one of the selected readings, namely Tarleton Gillespie's chapter "The Relevance of Algorithms", forthcoming in an edited volume on "Media Technologies" to be published by MIT Press. (The full chapter has been uploaded by Gillespie here).

Since I prepared the comments in writing, and since they did in fact spark some discussion, I've decided that it might be appropriate to recycle them as a blog post. Here goes:

The chapter by Gillespie is what he calls ”a conceptual map” to ”interrogate algorithms as a key feature of our information ecosystems”, the ”cultural forms” that follow and the ”political ramifications” of these new knowledge practices (p. 2).

The main theme is what Gillespie calls ’public relevance algorithms’, which signals a specific attention to the role algorithms play for participation in publics and politics. This is perhaps where Gillespie’s general contribution lies.

I’m not entirely convinced about the metaphor of a ’conceptual map’ – it is not clear to me that Gillespie provides much of a map in the sense of specifying the position of certain concepts in relation to each other. However, the chapter does cover a lot of ground and reads perhaps more like a textbook introduction to thinking about algorithms – and a rather good one, I think – which also means that it contains many different arguments and cannot be summarized in the same way that some research papers can be summarized. 

On page two, Gillespie provides a very pedagogical list of six dimensions of public relevance algorithms. These points summarize the themes covered in the paper, but they do not really stand in for the main text, which surveys a lot of different arguments and references. Instead of going through these, I will just point to a few places that I found especially useful or thought-provoking, and elaborate a bit on those in an attempt to provoke some comments from you.

I’ll jump directly to the sixth and last theme which is the production of calculated publics. Here, Gillespie thematizes how algorithms feed claims about publics back to themselves in ways that are often intuitive, but opaque in their mechanisms of calculation. He draws a contrast to surveys and polls as other measures of public opinion, where the problem is how to move from sample to population in the best way. With algorithms, however, Gillespie says that the central problem is not so much reaching the population, which is often quite accessible through the web, but that ”the intention behind these calculated representations of the public is by no means actuarial”. That is, they are not limited to an interest in neutral accounting, but shaped by all sorts of other factors that Gillespie explores a bit.

I think this problem raises a couple of questions that we could discuss. First, is this ’central problem’ really new? Surveys and polls are also motivated by interests that are more than actuarial. Perhaps it is rather the case, if Gillespie is right, that the problem of intentionality in the devices used to elicit publics comes to the fore with algorithms. If so, then it seems to me a productive thing. To recall an argument of Noortje Marres, who was here last week, the formation of publics is perhaps inherently problematic, and a foregrounding of this problematicness might thus be useful. 

The next question that we could discuss is, as Gillespie also hints at, what kinds of reflexivity, if any, comes with this foregrounding of the role technologies play in enacting publics through the widespread use of web algorithms. Does the fact that web users can select from a variety of algorithms, and the quite visible ways in which they rank information in front of our eyes, lead to new reflexivities about how publics are enacted? Perhaps even about how more conventional social science methods operate? One of the things I am thinking about at the moment is how to understand the roles it plays that Facebook constantly feeds back qualitative and quantitative evaluations in the forms of likes and comments. These mechanisms seem to resemble social science methods at our fingertips, and in an imperfect way that highlights their problematicness.

These questions are related to Gillespie’s third theme, the evaluation of relevance, where he points out that the question is not only what choices we make with the help of algorithms, including how our choices are shaped and traced, but also how the notion of choice itself is enacted in new or different ways.

In the paper that Noortje mentioned last time that I am working on together with a colleague, what we do is try to articulate the ’world’ that is assumed by Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm. One vantage point for our arguments, which is a second and related point that I would like to offer up for discussion, is that the impetus to participate in publics comes form a pragmatic need to orient ourselves in uncertain situations. As such, orderings to navigate by are never just something that need to be revealed or exposed, but always already something that need to be in place for action to be possible at all. In a sense, we are all big data analysts, because of our need to handle the constant flow of inputs from our environments, and as such, we are on the lookout for invariants – to use a term from James Gibson – that means immobile objects that can make a difference that we can navigate by. Perhaps then, we have already operated according to certain algorithms in order to arrive at some kind of objectivity that allows us to navigate a large stream of input and go on with our business in an efficient way. When algorithms provide ’algorithmic objectivity’ (which is Gillespie’s fourth theme), they enact a world in which an algorithm becomes a invariant that can be trusted to remain in the same place, and against which other events can be measured. As a kind of ’scopic systems’ that Buczowski talks about in his paper, drawing on Knorr-Cetina. In this way, algorithms are perhaps pragmatically useful, even when their objectivity is far from ’perfect’ or ’universal’. How might this change the way in which the can be critiqued or not?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

New short piece in themed issue of XRDS on privacy

When giving a presentation at a conference, it is often very hard to determine whether anyone is really listening. Lots of tired faces in the room, not least when it's Saturday afternoon and the city of Paris is waiting outside the conference center, as was the case when I presented my paper at the Web Science 2013 conference earlier this year.

Sometimes, however, it turns out afterwards that in fact some people had been listening. One person who was still awake at that last session in Paris in May was my fellow PhD student Richard Gomer, who later reached out to me about publishing a short and more popular version of my argument in XRDS - Crossroads. For the uninitiated (as I was), this is the official ACM Magazine for students.

The Fall 2013 issue has the theme "The Complexities of Privacy and Anonymity". Richard, who was one of the editors of this issue, thought it would be fun to have a less technical, more social theory-oriented take on the theme, and I liked the challenge of making my argument in only three pages and without heavy referencing.

So here it is, published this fall: "What is Public and Private Anyway? A Pragmatic Take on Privacy and Democracy". In this piece, I argue that when private content is revealed on the web, it is not only a threat to our privacy, but can also spark public engagement. I provide the example of a recent case study of mine, which focused on the use of Facebook groups during a snowstorm in Denmark. In order to understand what happens in cases like this, I suggest pragmatist philosophy is more helpful than dominating understandings of the relationship between public and private.

You can read the piece for free online:  or download it as a PDF from the ACM Digital Library.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

A look back at the Digital Methods Summer School 2013

Back home in Copenhagen, I am currently slowly but surely recovering from two intense weeks of summer school in Amsterdam. I took part in the annual Digital Methods Summer School, hosted by the Digital Methods Initiative at the University of Amsterdam. This year's theme -  "You are not the API I used to know: On the challenges of studying social media data" - was particularly relevant to my phd project, so I left Copenhagen full of excitement.

The DMSS proved to be unique in many ways. First of all, 'learning by doing' was taken seriously. We spent less time attending lectures than working on our own self-organised digital methods projects. (At the same time, the lectures were excellent, not least the ones by Bernard Rieder and Noortje Marres - see their slides here).

Fig. 1: Excitement while waiting for the Eurovision visualization to spatialize.

Second, the project work with considerably success bridged huge gaps in terms of the participants' previous experience with digital methods. Students and researchers with close to no knowledge of the DMI tools suite worked and presented side by side with among many others the director of the DMI, Richard Rogers, who took out a full two weeks to participate in and facilitate the summer school. "That's the way we do it here", he told me. Nevertheless an impressive commitment to a format that has grown from a humble beginning into an event with 70+ participants coming form 23 different countries.

So what did we do? Most participants took part in two individual projects (or rather sprints of two-three days), one per week. During the first week, my group formed around an interest in experimenting with analyzing overlaps in the users of different Facebook pages. We used Rieder's Facebook app Netvizz for data extraction and the open source network visualization software Gephi. Many resources were used on overcoming technical difficulties, but we also (re)learnt the importance of asking good questions. Our first attempts at coming up with a not-too-serious hypothesis ended up with the idea that people who like cats tend to be more libertarian and progressive, while people who prefer dogs tend to be more conservative and traditionalist (yes, the idea came about over after-work beers). With Facebook data, we thought, we could finally answer this pressing question.

We ended up visualizing the 'catosphere' and the 'dogosphere' in two different countries, Denmark and Italy, together with a couple of famous politicians of different leaning for each country. In short, what we did was to extract a sample of the list of fans of the pages for dogs and cats, and the two politicians. We then visualized the four groups together in order to see how they would position themselves in relation to each other. Each time an individual user was a fan of two pages, say dogs and Berlusconi, it would create a tie between the two groups, dragging them closer to each other in the visualization. Unfortunately, the result proved difficult to interpret, and we had to leave the question of the political significance of pet preferences unanswered.

Fig. 2: Difficult to interpret Gephi visualization of the Danish catosphere, dogosphere and two politicians' pages

We still had half a day left of the first week, however, so we came up with another hypothesis that we thought easier to test: Does the alleged Eurovision block voting also appear on Facebook? Self-evidently another pressing issue. Do people vote strategically with their mobile phones on the night of the Eurovision final, and then go on Facebook and reveal their 'real' preferences? Our strategy for answering this question was to extract sample data from all the Facebook pages for the artists competing in the 2013 Eurovision final and then rely on the overlap of users who like more than one artist in order to visualize whether the Facebook 'like' data reproduce the well-known voting blocks, such as 'The Viking Empire', 'The Balkan Bloc', and 'The Warsaw Pact'. The effort resulted in an immense visualization of 200.000 nodes representing artist pages from 25 different countries. We did not have time for a thorough analysis, but we found no signs of a Nordic cluster, so to some extent we managed to answer our question: People might vote in regional blocks, but when they report their preferences on Facebook, geographical proximity does not seem to be a useful predictor of clusters.

Fig. 3: An also hard-to-interpret visualization of 25 Eurovision fan pages. The Nordic countries are colored purple.

In the second week most of us had grown a bit weary of these not-too-serious themes and joined a much larger group led by three DMI-affiliated researchers, focusing on 'Detecting the Socials' of social media. The main idea was to explore different ways of getting at something 'social' through Twitter, using the new 'TCAT' tool developed by Bernard Rieder and Erik Borra at DMI. We split up in three different subgroups focusing on users, bots, and hashtags respectively. I joined the group working on hashtags, led by Noortje Marres. A lot happened here, and hopefully I will be able to link to our final presentation soon. Let me just reveal a bit about what I worked on the most.

The question my sub-sub-group found ourselves asking - and trying to answer - was: What is the 'enduring social' on Twitter? Is there a continuous conversation in the sense of a stable activity around a group of associated hashtags? In order to 'get to' this particular version of 'the social', we quickly found a lot of cleaning had to be done. First of all, an amazing amount of 'botty' and 'spammy' activity was present in the dataset of tweets related to the word 'privacy' that we had chosen to work with. Second, some events resulted in large spikes of more 'newsy' activity, such as the revealing of the NSA-leaks in the middle of the time frame we were analyzing. These became our two main criteria for getting to the 'enduring social':
  1. High user diversity around a hashtag: Activity not driven by bots or single accounts.
  2. Continuity: Activity not 'blippy' or 'bursty' due to being driven by news stories.
In many ways these results led us back to well-known insights, fundamental to controversy mapping with digital methods: There is a 'vital middle' that is neither the top sites/tweets that everyone sees nor the underworld of sites/tweets that no one links to or retweets. In order to make a point with digital data, a lot of cleaning up is necessary. 

In the end we arrived at a series of attempts at pointing to the enduring social in privacy-related conversations on Twitter by showing how some hashtags continued to be used substantially and by a variety of users over four time intervals. In the third time interval, the NSA-leak happened, so we were able to suggest with our visualizations to what extend the 'enduring conversations' were inflected by the 'newsy' ones.

The below graphs would of course not have been possible without the 'Associational Profiler' function of the Twitter TCAT tool (to be released soon) and the immense talent of our data designer. The graphs show over time what other hashtags a particular hashtag have been used together with. The enduring hashtags are highlighted, and the 'newsy' ones are colored black (#prism, #nsa, etc).

Fig. 4: Associational profile for #google inside the privacy-discussion on Twitter.

Fig. 5: Associational profile for #security inside the privacy-discussion on Twitter.

Fig. 6: Associational profile for #tech inside the privacy-discussion on Twitter.


The three examples might also be a bit hard to interpret, and indeed there may be several problems with this take on Twitter and 'the social'. One obvious theoretical point is that focusing on something 'enduring' is a quite conservative, Durkheimian definition of sociality. One obvious technical point is that focusing on hashtags means accepting a quite platform-centric version of sociality, and indeed one that gives primacy to attracting large numbers of users/retweets.

Fortunately several other entry points to the 'social' of social media were explored during the week, and indeed the most important lesson to take away was that the delineation of data sets and objects of study is a crucial step that decides what kinds of social we come to study and articulate.