The Twitter world versus the world of academic research

A recent conversation about Twitter and my own acknowledgement of my lack of Twitter participation pushed me to think about the differences between Twitter conversations and academic research. These rough thoughts may be obvious to many but I think they are helpful to enumerate as we think about good information and data.

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1. The speed of Twitter, and social media, is quite fast. An opinion expressed or a “story” (link/video/article/”text”) can generate a lot of feedback but the process usually happens over just a few days. In contrast, academic studies routinely take years as researchers develop good questions, collect and analysis data/evidence/”texts”, and respond to hypotheses, theories, and existing conversations while also thinking about the implications of their findings and then go through the publication process. Academic work can sometimes go quicker but that length also theoretically allows time for more reflection.

2. Posts on Twitter are limited to a certain number of characters through tweet threads or good conversation following a post can effectively convey a longer argument or set of information. Academic studies also have space restrictions – while there are indeed examples of very lengthy books or articles, journals tend to have proscribed word count or page limits depending on their audience and the format of papers – but there is more space to make and develop an argument.

3. Twitter offers more immediate feedback, possibly much more, compared to academic works. When students ask me how many people read academic studies, it is hard to know: we have citation counts (which suggest at least those citing the work read it or are familiar with it) and journal websites now often offer the ability to see how many times an article has been viewed. But, how to count students who read pieces for class or projects, researchers who access material through databases and repositories, and other means of accessing academic work? However, I would assume the viral posts of Twitter gain more readers in a shorter amount of time than almost all academic works.

4. Those with Twitter accounts can post or access tweets. Those who publish in the academic world are a small subset of the population generally with advanced degrees and specialized knowledge. Yet, the percent of the American population who engage regularly on Twitter is low.

5. Tweets are validated or not by likes, retweets, and comments made by other users. Academics have more formal processes to vet work including peer review and presentations at conferences, lectures, and colloquia plus responses from audience members. A published academic work likely has had multiple eyes on it; tweets do not require this.

On the whole, academic research involves a longer, more formal process to get to publication and information available to other academics and the public. In contrast, Twitter offers speed, quick feedback, and is easier for both readers and posters to access. Thus, when the two worlds collide – academic posting about research or Twitter users engaging with academic work – it can seem as if two worlds with different processes and rules are trying to engage. The overlap can go successfully but it does not always; the advantages each system has do not necessarily complement what the other side does well. And the two systems may influence each other: the world of Twitter may prompt academics to speed up research and/or communicate their work differently while academics participating in Twitter may engage in deeper and longer conversations since much study involves nuance and complexity.

I do not spend much time on Twitter. It can be used effectively to quickly gather or share information. And if you follow engaging Twitter users in a particular subject area or field, there is much to be learned. I am grateful there are academics who can effectively use Twitter to engage audiences regarding their research and knowledge. But, the speed of the conversation can gloss over the depth of the issues at the heart of conversations or leave little room for the important context and background knowledge of phenomena.

(An aside: attempts to find a middle ground between such universes are worth thinking about. TED Talks seem to offer some compromises: an expert on the subject gets roughly 10-20 minutes to share out of their vast expertise. The videos are easy to follow and digest and they tend to come from people with advanced experience or education. The visual format has some appeal as opposed to text-based communication on Twitter and in academic writing. Podcasts could offer some similar benefits: there is more space for the storyteller to share but the audio cannot go on too long.)

Internet shaming vs. shaming with silent disgust

Internet shaming is popular but is it effective? One writer suggests private shame is a better route:

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Internet-based outrage nearly always gives way, like most mob action, to what the sociologist Randall Collins calls “forward panic”—a mad dash in which individual shamers efface their own identity in the rush to attack a single individual. Last night, the object of this rush was a white woman who, in a short video clip, appeared to be threatening an innocent black bird-watcher while inadvertently strangling her own cocker spaniel. If the goal was to make her pay for her misdeeds with her reputation, her guardianship of the cocker spaniel, and perhaps her job, it was accomplished within the first 60,000 retweets; for her detractors, the subsequent 100,000 (and counting) have been pure gravy. But other tools are available—precision tools that save us from the indignity of the pile-on and allow us to spread the outrage more effectively.

Silent disgust: Have you tried it recently? The effect is potent. In his 2010 book, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah describes a two-step process by which historic moral changes swept over societies. The first is to decide that some practice (dueling, say, or foot-binding) is wrong. But that is not enough. Practices that are wrong can be honorable. Dueling, for example, was widely considered murder—but an honorable form of murder—until the real moral revolution happened and English gentlemen decided that it was wrong but also dishonorable, and the practice ended in the 18th century…

The nature of silent disgust is that you don’t hear about it. There are no viral videos of people not accepting invitations to a cookout. The lack of public shaming may seem like a disadvantage, but it is in fact an advantage—and more so now, in the era of trolling, than before. A troll is someone who gets a thrill from provoking a mob, and who prefers to provoke a mob by violating a rule that the mob holds dear. In fact, the dearer the better: that is the diseased psychology of much of public life now. Private shaming removes the transgressive joy that the troll seeks. All the confrontation happens in muttered comments, in invitations that never come, in expulsion from society without the courtesy of a notice.

And the troll, having failed, has a chance to repent, if the shaming is private. Eventually the offender notices the embarrassment of former friends—and because the disgust is silent, she can hold out hope for an equally silent restoration of social status. One day she shows up at the grocery store with a tasteful homemade mask. Or the neighbor who went to the Ozarks announces casually that he is quarantining for a couple of weeks, just to be on the safe side.

As a sociologist, the first thing that sticks out to me about the description of private shaming above is that it relies on social interactions between people who know each other or within specific communities. Internet shaming allows people far and wide to weigh in. Private shaming takes place within existing social bonds. People today may have fewer social bonds or communities but they still have some and are not just people floating around social media or the Internet without anchors to other people.

A second sociological feature of above: there is an opportunity to repent or restore those social bonds. The surrounding people or community register the disgust and then the actor has an opportunity to respond. They may still disagree with the shame they received but since it is done within existing bonds, it may be harder to completely sever the relationship.

Two other quick thoughts:

1. Shame these days is complicated. In some instances, we would not want to provoke shame, such as within children. In other instances, promoting shame is seen by many as good to prompt change.

2. If you want to read more about the earlier days of Internet and social media shaming, I recommend Jon Ronson’s 2015 book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

What will happen to those large, all-encompassing tech headquarters if employees can now work from home?

Employees in the tech industry may have more ability to work from home in the future:

Now that a large company like Twitter has announced the option to not return to the office, it will likely “drive momentum across the industry,” says Aaron Levie, the CEO and cofounder of Box. “Other companies look to those events as a signal for what they should do in their organization.”…

Not all companies are so eager to extend the work-from-home life. Employees at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino have been told they will start returning to Apple Park in phases, starting in late May. Apple’s security policies, meant to protect the company’s internal work, have reportedly made it difficult for employees to do their jobs while at home, especially if their jobs are related to building hardware….

Of course, Twitter is not abandoning the office altogether. In the wake of the pandemic, Box CEO Levie thinks bigger tech companies are more likely to take what he calls a “hybrid approach,” blending remote teams with in-office ones. “We’re still far from saying, ‘We’ll shut down entire offices,’” Levie says, adding that the realities of childcare would make it difficult for all employees to enjoy working from home permanently. “There’s a lot of power in people coming together, certain types of functions being able to collaborate in person, but there’s equally power in the flexibility and convenience of no commute and being able to work in a more efficient way.”

But other companies may reconsider the expense of office space, or at least downsize it, if enough employees choose to work remotely going forward. In 2017, Automattic—the company that owns WordPress—decided to give up its sprawling 15,000-square-foot office in San Francisco, because its employees never came in. For some smaller startups, this massive work-from-home experiment has made it obvious that they don’t need offices at all.

What does all of this mean for offices and headquarters and big campuses? The big office or work campus, such as those for Facebook, Apple, and Google, offers multiple advantages: the ability for people to meet, gather, and interact formally or informally face-to-face or in the same room; the company can know where everyone is; the ability for the company to control the work environment; and they are status symbols both for the companies and their communities.

But, working from home or away from the office also offers advantages: the employee is more in control of their immediate surroundings; there is limited commuting time; workers can connect via technology when needed and shut that off or limit contact when needing to focus; and expenses related to a big building are reduced.

And, as the article notes, the implications are huge for how organizations operate, what it means to be an employee, and for communities where businesses use land and pump money into the local economy. A more decentralized landscape for companies might reduce the need for cities to compete for headquarters (Amazon example) or even make the competition more cutthroat fighting over scraps. What happens to all that office space and how can communities fill vacant space in an era of budget issues?

For the record, I do not think the big offices will go away. At the least, they provide a physical reminder of the company and social interaction is different in-person than through technology. But, if a significant number of companies allow more employees to work from home, this could transform many physical locations.

College students see inequalities while doing classes from home

Video conferencing software allows colleges classes to go on during COVID-19 but they can reveal differences between lives at home:

But as each logged in, not everyone’s new reality looked the same.

One student sat at a vacation home on the coast of Maine. Another struggled to keep her mother’s Puerto Rican food truck running while meat vanished from Florida grocery shelves. As one young woman’s father, a private equity executive, urged the family to decamp to a country where infections were falling, another student’s mother in Russia couldn’t afford the plane ticket to bring her daughter home…

She added: “It’s possible to believe that we can bridge inequalities by coming together on the Haverford campus, or that we can at least soften the edges — and then there is this incredible rupture. I’m very worried about what comes next for them.”

I suppose there is an optimistic and pessimistic way to look at this. For the first, perhaps college campuses truly do offer opportunities for students to have a somewhat level playing field. At the least, they have similar accommodations on campus and face similar day-to-day pressures regarding school. For the pessimistic side, on-campus college experiences may simply gloss over stark differences and access to resources while in school (as well as before and after). The campus experience might even make the problem worse by suggesting everyone has similar resources and opportunities.

Going further, there is a possible research study here looking at how students – and others using conferencing software for a variety of groups and organizations – display their surroundings. What are markers in a Zoom tableau or background that indicate relative advantage or disadvantage? How aware are users that they are doing this? Does it get discussed in the class/meeting/session or is it talked about later off-screen? What are the accepted norms in these areas?

From my own areas of research, I wonder what could be found regarding homes and interior spaces. Particularly for college students, where are the best or most common spaces for them to participate? American home activity can tend to center around the kitchen but I assume this is not the optimal space for video conferencing. This creates an interesting contrast: there are parts of homes that are meant to be showpieces for visitors – updated kitchens, big open concept spaces, entryways, the front exterior – but these would rarely show up on video conferences. If extended isolation becomes more common, would this change how people design homes and interior spaces?

5G over what percent of America? T-Mobile: covering over 5,000 cities and towns, 200 million Americans

T-Mobile is running a commercial touting their new 5G network. They claim it reaches 200 million Americans and over 5,000 cities and towns. What if we put those numbers in context?

On one hand, both figures sound impressive. Two hundred million people is a lot of people. This is a lot of text messages to send, TV shows and videos to stream, and social media and web pages to visit. This is a potential large market for T-Mobile. And 5,000 cities and towns sounds like a lot. I don’t know how many places Americans could name but many would probably struggle to name 5,000.

On the other hand, the figures suggest that the 5G coverage still does not reach a good portion of Americans or certain parts of the country. According to the Census Population Clock, the US population is over 329 million. So covering 200 million people comes to roughly 61% of Americans covered. This more than half, not quite two-thirds. Additionally, 5,000 cities and towns sounds like a lot. Some older data – 2007 – suggests the United States has over 19,000 municipal governments and the Census in 2012 also counted over 19,000. With these figures, 5G from T-Mobile covers a little more than one quarter of American communities.

Perhaps T-Mobile is doing the best the can with the coverage they have. The numbers are big ones and I would guess they could catch the attention of viewers. Maybe the numbers do not matter if they are trying to be first. However, just because the numbers are large does not necessarily mean the product is great. Significant segments of Americans will not have access, even with the big numbers. The numbers look good but they not be as good for some when they look into what they mean.

Mode, plurality, and “the most popular way”

I recently stumbled across this headline from Stanford News: “Meeting online has become the most popular way U.S. couples connect, Stanford sociologist finds.” Would the average reader assume this means that more than 50% of couples meet online?

This is not what the headline or the story says. More details from the story:

Rosenfeld, a lead author on the research and a professor of sociology in the School of Humanities and Sciences, drew on a nationally representative 2017 survey of American adults and found that about 39 percent of heterosexual couples reported meeting their partner online, compared to 22 percent in 2009.

It appears 39% of couples meet online. According to the summary of the paper, the others ways couples meet are:

Traditional ways of meeting partners (through family, in church, in the neighborhood) have all been declining since World War II.

The 39% figure meets the definition of both the mode and a plurality, respectively (both definitions from Google):

the value that occurs most frequently in a given set of data.

the number of votes cast for a candidate who receives more than any other but does not receive an absolute majority.

Still, I suspect there might be some confusion. Online dating brings more Americans together than any other method but it is only responsible for a little less than forty percent of couples.

Facebook releases big data to researchers outside the company

Researchers can now access a big dataset of Facebook sharing data:

Social Science One is an effort to get the Holy Grail of data sets into the hands of private researchers. That Holy Grail is Facebook data. Yep, that same unthinkably massive trove that brought us Cambridge Analytica.

In the Foo Camp session, Stanford Law School’s Nate Persily, cohead of Social Science One, said that after 20 months of negotiations, Facebook was finally releasing the data to researchers. (The researchers had thought all of that would be settled in two months.) A Facebook data scientist who worked on the team dedicated to this project beamed in confirmation. Indeed, the official announcement came a few days later…

This is a new chapter in the somewhat tortured history of Facebook data research. The company hires top data scientists, sociologists, and statisticians, but their primary job is not to conduct academic research, it’s to use research to improve Facebook’s products and promote growth. These internal researchers sometimes do publish their findings, but after a disastrous 2014 Facebook study that involved showing users negative posts to see if their mood was affected, the company became super cautious about what it shared publicly. So this week’s data drop really is a big step in transparency, especially since there’s some likelihood that the researchers may discover uncomfortable truths about the way Facebook spreads lies and misinformation.

See the codebook here and the request for proposals to use the data here. According to the RFP, the data involves shared URLs and who interacted with those links:

Through Social Science One, researchers can apply for access to a unique Facebook dataset to study questions related to the effect of social media on democracy. The dataset contains approximately an exabyte (a quintillion bytes, or a billion gigabytes) of raw data from the platform, a total of more than 10 trillion numbers that summarize information about 38 million URLs shared more than 100 times publicly on Facebook (between 1/1/2017 and 7/31/2019).  It also includes characteristics of the URLs (such as whether they were fact-checked or flagged by users as hate speech) and the aggregated data concerning the types of people who viewed, shared, liked, reacted to, shared without viewing, and otherwise interacted with these links. This dataset enables social scientists to study some of the most important questions of our time about the effects of social media on democracy and elections with information to which they have never before had access.

Now to see what social scientists can do with the data. The emphasis appears to be on democracy, political posts, and misinformation but given what is shared on Facebook, I imagine there are connections to numerous other topics.

More smartphones, more non-places

Place matters less when technology transports a user anywhere. Here is the argument from Ian Bogost:

This same pattern has been repeated for countless activities, in work as much as leisure. Anywhere has become as good as anywhere else. The office is a suitable place for tapping out emails, but so is the bed, or the toilet. You can watch television in the den—but also in the car, or at the coffee shop, turning those spaces into impromptu theaters. Grocery shopping can be done via an app while waiting for the kids’ recital to start. Habits like these compress time, but they also transform space. Nowhere feels especially remarkable, and every place adopts the pleasures and burdens of every other. It’s possible to do so much from home, so why leave at all?…

Architectural critics anticipated that modern life would change the sensation of space. Almost 30 years ago, the French anthropologist Marc Augé coined the word non-place to describe a family of transitional locations where people’s sense of self becomes suppressed or even vanishes. Non-places include airports, hotels, shopping malls, supermarkets, and highways. There’s a sorrow to these sites, because unlike legitimate ones, human beings never really occupy non-places; they simply move through them on their way to “anthropological places,” as Augé called them, such as schools, homes, and monuments.

Non-places have both proliferated and declined in the decades since. On the one hand, there are far more of them, and people encounter them more frequently. More airports and train stations in which more passengers transit more often. More hotel lobbies and conference centers, many boasting their own food courts and shopping plazas, non-places nested within non-places.

On the other hand, the anonymity and uselessness of non-places has been undermined by the smartphone. Every gate waiting area, every plush lobby couch cluster, every wood-veneered coffee shop lean-to has become capable of transforming itself into any space for any patron. The airport or café is also an office and a movie theater, a knitting club, and a classroom.

This same ability that can render places into a “non-place” could also be a feature of technology that users like the most: the ability to transcend time and place.

Based on this description of the term “non-place,” I wonder if modifying it might do better in regards to getting at the fluidity of so many spaces because of technology. Three options:

1. “Personalized non-place.” This would help capture the ability of an individual to make a place into whatever they want with a smartphone or another device. In a coffee shop, the person working on a laptop turns it into a personal office, another person talking with a friend turns it into a conversation space, and someone watching TV on their smartphone makes it a theater/viewing place.

2. “Ambiguous non-place.” This would get at the places that can be transformed by the people who come to them. Some places are more difficult than others to transform into whatever an individual or a group wants. Other places, those with places to walk, sit, eat, stay for a while, may be easier to transform by a variety of users.

3. “Fixed non-place.” This would get at places that are not transitional settings – hallways, highways, supermarkets – that are now non-places. Think the living room and family room, seating areas in more public settings, bedrooms. These are spaces we might assume people embody, develop attachments to, and nurture social relationship in but this does not happen in the same way now.

Eleven years in, self-driving cars are still a ways off

Transportation has changed in the last decade but self-driving cars will still take some more time:

The boldest bid to remake transportation with tech was also among the earliest, and so far, the most disappointing. In 2009, Google cofounder Larry Page tapped computer scientist Sebastian Thrun to build a self-driving car. Make a vehicle that moves people safely and efficiently, Page said (in Thrun’s telling), and you could have a business as big as Google itself. The resulting effort, now known as Waymo, helped trigger a global race for autonomy, one that many predicted would bear fruit by the decade’s end. Tesla CEO Elon Musk said a Tesla would drive itself across the country in 2017. General Motors promised to launch a robo-taxi service in 2019. Nissan targeted 2020 for the market debut of its self-driving car. Former Waymo lead Chris Urmson said he hoped his sons would never need to learn how to drive.

But billions of dollars and thousands of engineers haven’t produced a robot that can match, let alone eclipse, the ability of the human driver. AV developers have retreated to quiet suburbs and simple interstates, hoping they can master at least some corner of a profoundly complex world. GM pushed back its debut date indefinitely. Nissan has stopped talking about self-driving. Waymo is just starting to take the human backups out of its cars in the Phoenix suburbs. Musk never made his road trip.

Reading this brief overview, two things struck me:

  1. Having a computer do all that is needed to drive is a monumental task. There is a lot of information to take in from behind the wheel and the environment keeps changing. This makes human drivers look pretty good. Even with all the accidents and deaths that occur every year, that humans can handle all of this at 60 mph or higher is remarkable.
  2. All the money and effort that has gone into this simply reinforces the car as the primary agent of transportation in the United States. While having no human driver could be a game changer, all this effort does little to displace the car as center of social life, work, urban planning, and sprawl. Perhaps it would be too much to ask Americans to give up cars but this could be viewed by future Americans as a missed opportunity to reorganize society.

Even if the next decade features truly autonomous vehicles, it will take more time for these vehicles to work their way through the system. Since I have also seen lists of the new laws and regulations going into effect January 1, is it far-fetched to imagine a new rule starting in early 2025 that all new vehicles purchased must be fully autonomous?

Claim: “The physical environment feels depressingly finished”

As Derek Thompson of The Atlantic considers innovation and Silicon Valley, he includes this paragraph regarding innovation in the physical and urban realm:

And if you look up from your smartphone, progress becomes harder to see. The physical world of the city—the glow of electric-powered lights, the rumble of automobiles, the roar of airplanes overhead and subways below—is a product of late-19th-century and early-20th-century invention. The physical environment feels depressingly finished. The bulk of innovation has been shunted into the invisible realm of bytes and code.

There are several pieces that can be pulled out of this an examined:

1. Has innovation in cities and urban areas slowed? Many of the major changes may have already happened – think the modern skyscraper, the car and all the roads to go with them – but I’m guessing there are some lesser-known changes in the last few decades that have made a major difference. (For better or worst, one would be the global shift toward and innovations in capitalism, neoliberalism, and the finance industry that has had large effects on numerous cities and neighborhoods.)

2. If “the physical environment feels depressingly finished,” does this mean a change in aesthetics or style could alter this? Science-fiction films and shows tend to depict cities as white, gleaming, and move curved than they are today. Think Her which merges city life and technological change. Or, find images of cities from researchers, activists, and architects who imagine much greener cities full of plants and life rather than hard surfaces and cars. Perhaps the problem is not innovation as it is described in this article; one issue is that the look of big cities has not changed much in the fifty years or so (even as some individual buildings or projects might stand out).

3. If the look and feel of cities has not changed as much recently, could “the invisible realm of bytes and code” bring significant changes to the physical environment in the next few decades? In contrast to #2, perhaps future innovation in spaces will be less about collective experiences and aesthetics and more about changed private experiences. Imagine Virtual Reality in cities that allows pedestrians to see or overlay different information over their immediate surroundings. Or, easier access to Big Data in urban settings that will help individuals/consumers make choices.