Why sociologists should make their own apps

A sociologist who has made her own medical sociology app argues that her colleagues should be making their own apps:

My decision to make an app stemmed from two major reasons. First, I have long been interested in the ways people interact with computer technologies, and have published some research on this in the past.

More recently my interest has turned to health-related apps available for smartphones and tablet computers. I had been researching the various apps available for such purposes and had noted that many apps have been developed for teaching purposes for medical students.

Second, we have mobile digital devices at home that are very popular with my two school-aged daughters. I had noticed the huge number of educational apps that are available for children’s use, from infancy to high-school level. Some Australian high schools, including my older daughter’s school, have acknowledged young people’s high take-up of mobile digital devices and are beginning to advocate that students bring their devices to school and use them for educational purposes during the school day.

The relevance for tertiary-level education appeared obvious. I wondered whether many universities, academic publishers or academics themselves had begun to develop apps. Yet, having searched both the Android and the Apple App Stores using the search term of my discipline, ‘sociology’, I discovered only a handful of apps related to this subject for tertiary students. Nor were there many for other social sciences. There seemed to be a wide-open gap in the market…

My app is very simple. It is text-based only and has no illustrations or graphics, but there is provision for these to be included if the developer so chooses. Apps developed using this particular wizard are only be available for use on Android devices, but having looked at similar app makers for Apple devices I was put off by their more technical nature and the greater expense involved.

In just a couple of hours my app was ready. I had typed in over 25 medical sociology key concepts (for example, social class, discourse, identity, illness narratives, poststructuralism), plus a list of books for further reading, chosen a nice-looking background and paid US$79.00 for the app to appear without ads and to guarantee that it would be submitted to the Android App Store.

Three issues I could see with this:

1. How much demand is there really for such apps? I can’t imagine too many people look for sociology or social science apps. Of course, it is relatively easy to make so it isn’t like tons of time has to be invested in such apps (though there could be a relationship between the time put into an app and how engaging it is).

2. The assumption here is that people want to use these apps for educational purposes. Would this work? Can apps effectively be used for education

3. How much better is making an app than putting together a website?

I’m glad to see more sociologists venturing into new technologies but it is worthwhile to consider the payoffs and how they are really going to be used.

Media looks for ways to better measure fragmented audience

As media platforms proliferate, media companies are looking for better ways to measure their audience:

“We have Omniture data, comScore, Nielsen, some of our internal metrics that we look at — they don’t match,” Wert said.

Hampering the effort are audiences splintering into ever smaller shards as they use an array of outlets and platforms — including websites, mobile devices, print and broadcast…

The tinier the pieces the more precious each becomes. It’s more important than ever for traditional media looking to cover the costs of producing content to deliver to marketers as much information as possible about who’s watching, reading and listening.

Arguably, technology has made the measurement systems better than ever. But the result is counterintuitive: Consumers are followed more closely but the numbers don’t always add up, and it’s not clear how to put a value on those numbers…

Nielsen’s Patrick Dineen, senior vice president of local television audience measurement, said it’s “wildly inappropriate” to try to track audiences through one medium. Kevin Gallagher, executive vice president and local director at Starcom, said his firm has replaced talk of traditional media planning with something that tracks targeted consumers’ daily interaction with media.

Getting the right numbers means media companies will be able to more accurately gauge advertising, particularly target audiences, and then make more money. Solving these issues and appropriately valuing these media interactions will be a huge issue moving forward and whoever can do it first or do it best could have an advantage.

Sociologist Duncan Watts helped come up with the idea for the Huffington Post

Here an interesting sidelight to sociologist Duncan Watts career: he helped create the Huffington Post.

The origins of the now famous Huffington Post began at a lunch in 2003 between AOL’s Kenneth Lerer and author and sociologist Duncan Watts. The two met to discuss Watts’ book, and left with the beginnings of the Huff Post.  The Columbia  Journalism Review recently gave its own take on Watts’ book, Six Degrees, that inspired Lerer from the get-go and on the history of The Huffington Post as we now know it. According to CJR, before AOL’s purchase of HuffPost in 2011, the company was not known for revenues or breaking news stories. However, the website had managed to master social media integration and search-engine optimization.

Here are more details from the story in the Columbia Journalism Review cited above:

He brought the book with him and Watts would recall that the copy was dog-eared, the flatteringly telltale sign of a purposeful read. Lerer had a plan and he wanted Watts to help him. He had set himself an ambitious target. He wanted to take on the National Rifle Association.

He told Watts: “I know the answer to this is somewhere in these pages.”…

Ken Lerer listened, and he was not deterred. Networks did, in fact, occur—vast networks through which previously disconnected people suddenly found themselves joined together, perhaps to share an idea, a song, a sentiment, a cause. Why not then try to create a network that could challenge the vast and powerful and sustaining network of the NRA?

“I know the answers,” Watts told him. “I am confident they are not there.” Then, having deflated Lerer, Watts threw him a lifeline: “Maybe my friend Jonah can help you.”

An interesting read: in order to fight the NRA and counter the DrudgeReport, people wanted to make the Huffington Post both viral and sticky.

However, from his Twitter account, here is Watt’s Apr 18 take on the CJR piece:

Six degrees of aggregation: A fascinating (in my biased opinion) take on the origins of the Huffington Post.

Facebook as “the most appalling spying machine ever invented”

The Drudge Report has a link to a story that details what Wikileak’s Julian Assange thinks about government monitoring of Facebook:

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange called Facebook “the most appalling spying machine ever invented” in an interview with Russia Today, pointing to the popular social networking site as one of the top tools for the U.S. to spy on its citizens.

“Here we have the world’s most comprehensive database about people, their relationships, their names, their addresses, their locations, their communications with each other and their relatives, all sitting within the United States, all accessible to US Intelligence,” he said. “Facebook, Google, Yahoo, all these major U.S. organizations have built-in infaces for US intelligence.

“Everyone should understand that when they add their friends to Facebook they are doing free work for the United States intelligence agencies,” he added.

The comments were a bit strange, coming from the founder of a website best known for pushing spilling secret information.

In an email to the Daily News, a Facebook spokesman denied the company was doing anything that they weren’t legally obligated to do, saying that “the legal standards for compelling a company to turn over data are determined by the laws of the country, and we respect that standard.”

This article suggests Assange’s idea is a bit daft. And while I’m just guessing at the reason for Drudge’s link, this headline could be a sobering thought for many a Facebook user and is also evidence for conspiracy theorists who think the government is out to get them. So what should we make of such comments?

On one hand, I am skeptical that the government has to-the-minute access to everything that these websites offer. On the other hand, why shouldn’t the government be monitoring online activity? If employers routinely check Facebook in order to learn more about applicants or their own workers, why shouldn’t or can’t the government? In fact, in today’s world, wouldn’t the average Internet user expect that the government is looking at websites in order to monitor and investigate certain threats that are harmful to society? Privacy (account numbers, passwords, etc.) is one thing but if people are conducting illegal activity online, don’t we want the government to check it out?

Perhaps these comments should serve as a reminder for all Internet users: what is posted to the Internet can be found by all sorts of people, your friends and your enemies.

Conclusions about PC vs. Mac users based on an unscientific web survey

Based on the headline, this looks like an interesting story: “Mac vs. PC: The stereotypes may be true.” But there is a problem:

An unscientific survey by Hunch, a site that makes recommendations based on detailed user preferences, found that Mac users tend to be younger, more liberal, more fashion-conscious and more likely to live in cities than people who prefer PCs.

While the first part of this paragraph is treated as a clause that barely affects the rest of the text, it really is the key to the story. Hunch’s survey respondents identify as 52% PC users and 25% Mac users with 23% percent identifying with neither (and what do we do this category?). This compares to PC vs. Mac world market share of 89% to 11%. This is evidence that the online sample doesn’t quite match up with what computer users are actually buying. Voluntary web surveys are difficult to work with for this reason: even if there are a lot of respondents, we don’t know whether these respondents are representative of larger populations.

Perhaps CNN does cover themselves. The headline does suggest that these stereotypes “may” be correct and the second paragraph suggests the stereotypes may contain “some truth.” But a more cynical take regarding both CNN and Hunch is that they simply want more web visits from devoted PC or Mac defenders. Perhaps the fact that all of this is based on an unscientific survey is less important than driving visitors to one’s site and asking people to comment at the bottom of both stories.

The 84,000 question

I hadn’t had a chance yet to comment on the 84,000 websites the U.S. government seized about a month ago because they were supposedly associated with child pornography.  Turns out the government was wrong about that, but the damage was done since a lot of visitors to the websites of innocent small business owners were directed to a page displaying an imposing government seal and the statement:

Advertisement, distribution, transportation, receipt, and possession of child pornography constitute federal crimes that carry penalties for first time offenders of up to 30 years in federal prison, a $250,000 fine, forfeiture and restitution.

Whoops.

Recently, the White House’s IP Czar Victoria Espinel testified before the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) had a lot of pointed questions (YouTube video of the exchange here).  Now Ars Technica has posted an interview Rep. Lofgren in which talks about the due process problems with seizing domain names without giving people a chance to defend themselves before the seizure takes place:

You’ve got the prosecutors coming in, they have a judge sign something, and the people whose property is being seized are never heard from. It doesn’t appear, honestly—though it would not solve the due process problems—that there’s much inquiry on the part of the prosecution, either. Is there a fair use right? Is there an authorized use? Is there legitimate business going on? There’s no opportunity for that to be raised, and once the damage is done, it’s done.I’ve not yet talked to some of the individuals, but we’ve had second-hand reports of people in the child pornography takedown [i.e., who owned one of those 84,000 websites] whose businesses were essentially destroyed. There’s hardly anything you can say. It’s worse than accusing somebody of being a pedophile.

These are troubling developments indeed.  The whole point of giving the innocent-until-proven-guilty the chance to defend themselves before seizure is to help prevent these sorts of devastating mistakes from happening.

Potential expansion for domain suffixes

Even amidst discussions that the Internet has run out of addresses, there is talk about expanding the list of available domain suffixes beyond the current 21 options. It sounds like these proposals would allow for all sorts of suffixes and this, inevitably, leads to questions about who would get to control certain domains:

This massive expansion to the Internet’s domain name system will either make the Web more intuitive or create more cluttered, maddening experiences. No one knows yet. But with an infinite number of naming possibilities, an industry of Web wildcatters is racing to grab these potentially lucrative territories with addresses that are bound to provoke.

Who gets to run .abortion Web sites – people who support abortion rights or those who don’t? Which individual or mosque can run the .islam or .muhammad sites? Can the Ku Klux Klan own .nazi on free speech grounds, or will a Jewish organization run the domain and permit only educational Web sites – say, remember.nazi or antidefamation.nazi? And who’s going to get .amazon – the Internet retailer or Brazil?

The decisions will come down to a little-known nonprofit based in Marina del Rey, Calif., whose international board of directors approved the expansion in 2008 but has been stuck debating how best to run the program before launching it. Now, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, is on the cusp of completing those talks in March or April and will soon solicit applications from companies and governments that want to propose and operate the new addresses.

Sounds like we could have some battles on our hands for particular suffixes. Perhaps the companies or organizations with the most money will win.

But many of the options in this article are set up as “good” options versus “bad” options. If given a choice, how many people would want the .nazi domain to be controlled by the Ku Klux Klan? And some of the other options presented in the story, such as whether someone who wants musicians and agents to be able to get .music addresses while the music industry wants to control this for their larger purposes, are less clear. ICANN, the organization who controls the domains, says they have considered this: “For people who might propose controversial domains – such as .nazi, which ICANN officials have worried about – approval will be based on the applicant’s identity and intentions, and on the grounds of “morality and public order.” How in the world will they be able to do this in a way that is satisfying to multiple parties? Is there a way to decide this before the domains are sold or are we simply in for long rounds of litigation?