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this is not a post about ello

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This is not a post about Ello. Because Ello is so last Friday. But the rapid rise of and backlash against upstart social media network Ello (if you haven’t been paying attention, see here, here, here) reminded me of something I was wondering a while back.

Lots of people are dissatisfied with Facebook — ad-heavy, curated in a way the user has little control over, privacy-poor. And it looks like Twitter, which really needs bring in more revenue, is taking steps to move in the same direction: algorithmic display of tweets, with the ultimate goal of making users more valuable to advertisers.

The question is, what’s the alternative? There have been a lot of social network flavors of the month, built on a variety of business models. Some of them, like Google Plus, are owned by already-large companies that would be subject to similar business pressures as Facebook and Twitter. Others, like Diaspora (remember Diaspora?), were startups with an anti-Facebook mission (privacy, decentralization), but collapsed under the weight of their own hype.

I can’t imagine that a public utility model would work for a social network — I just don’t see “government-owned” and “fast-moving technological change” going together successfully. But I keep wondering why a Wikipedia model couldn’t work. Make it a 501(c)3. Attract some foundation funding — it’s a pro-democracy project. Solicit gifts from pro-privacy people in the tech industry — there are lots of those. Then once it’s off the ground, ask users for donations.

Sure, there is the huge, huge hurdle of getting enough of a network base to attract new users. But it seems like the costs should not be insane. If it only takes 200 employees to run Wikipedia, as large as it is, how many would it take to get a big social network off the ground? Facebook employs 7000, but a lot of them have to be in the business of figuring out how to sell Facebook.

Maybe there have been (failed) efforts like this and I just haven’t noticed. Or maybe the getting-the-user-base issue is really insurmountable. But it seems like if a real Facebook alternative is to emerge, it can’t just be from a corporate competitor (e.g. Google), and the startup/VC model (e.g. Ello) is going to be susceptible to all the same problems as it grows. Why not a different model?

Written by epopp

September 30, 2014 at 2:21 pm

book announcement: party in the street – the antiwar movement and the democratic party after 9/11

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It is my pleasure to announce the forthcoming publication of a book by Michael Heaney and myself. It is called Party in the Street: The Antiwar Movement and the Democratic Party after 9/11. It will be available from Cambridge University Press starting in early 2015.

The book is an in-depth examination of the relationship between the major social movement of the early 2000s and the Democratic Party. We begin with a puzzle. In 2006, the antiwar movement began to decline, a time when the US government escalated the war and at least five years before US combat troops completely left Iraq. Normally, one would expect that an escalation of war and favorable public opinion would lead to heightened  activism. Instead, we see the reverse.

We answer this question with a theory of movement-party intersections – the “Party in the Street.” Inspired by modern intersectionality scholarship, we argue that people embody multiple identities that can reinforce, or undermine, each other. In American politics, people can approach a policy issue as an activist or a partisan. We argue that the antiwar movement demobilized not because of an abrupt change in policy, but because partisan identities trumped movement identities. The demobilization of the antiwar movement was triggered, and concurrent with, Democratic victories in Congress and the White House. When push comes to shove, party politics trumps movement activism.

The book is the culmination of ten years of field work, starting with a survey of antiwar protesters at the Republican National Convention in August 2004. The book examines street protest, public opinion, antiwar legislation, and Iraq war policy to makes its case. If you are interested in American politics, political parties, peace studies, political organizations, or social movements, please check this book out. During the fall, I’ll write a series of posts that will explain the argument in some more detail.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

on facebook and research methods

Twitter is, well, a-twitter with people worked up about the Facebook study. If you haven’t been paying attention, FB tested whether they could affect people’s status updates by showing 700,000 folks either “happier” or “sadder” updates for a week in January 2012. This did indeed cause users to post more happy or sad updates themselves. In addition, if FB showed fewer emotional posts (in either direction), people reduced their posting frequency. (PNAS article here, Atlantic summary here.)

What most people seem to be upset about (beyond a subset who are arguing about the adequacy of FB’s methods for identifying happy and sad posts) is the idea that FB could experiment on them without their knowledge. One person wondered whether FB’s IRB (apparently it was IRB approved — is that an internal process?) considered its effects on depressed people, for example.

While I agree that the whole idea is creepy, I had two reactions to this that seemed to differ from most.

1) Facebook is advertising! Use it, don’t use it, but the entire purpose of advertising is to manipulate your emotional state. People seem to have expectations that FB should show content “neutrally,” but I think it is entirely in keeping with the overall product: FB experiments with what it shows you in order to understand how you will react. That is how they stay in business. (Well, that and crazy Silicon Valley valuation dynamics.)

2) This is the least of it. I read a great post the other day at Microsoft Research’s Social Media Collective Blog (here) about all the weird and misleading things FB does (and social media algorithms do more generally) to identify what kinds of content to show you and market you to advertisers. To pick one example: if you “like” one thing from a source, you are considered to “like” all future content from that source, and your friends will be shown ads that list you as “liking” it. One result is dead people “liking” current news stories.

My husband, who spent 12 years working in advertising, pointed out that this research doesn’t even help FB directly, as you could imagine people responding better to ads when they’re happy or when they’re sad. And that the thing FB really needs to do to attract advertisers is avoid pissing off its user base. So, whoops.

Anyway, this raises interesting questions for people interested in using big data to answer sociological questions, particularly using some kind of experimental intervention. Does signing a user agreement when you create an account really constitute informed consent? And do companies that create platforms that are broadly adopted (and which become almost obligatory to use) have ethical obligations in the conduct of research that go beyond what we would expect from, say, market research firms? We’re entering a brave new world here.

Written by epopp

June 29, 2014 at 3:00 am

when hybrid organizational identities can help attract supporters – AJS paper by Heaney and Rojas now available online

How can social movements gain supporters?  According to Michael T. Heaney and Fabio Rojas‘s hot-off-the-virtual-press Jan. 2014 AJS paper “Hybrid Activism: Social Movement Mobilization in a Multimovement Environment,” one way that social movement organizations can appeal to prospective members is to use a hybrid identity that can attracts individuals from a variety of social movement interests. While prior studies have argued that hybrid organizations are penalized by an “illegitimacy discount” for not having a clear identity, the authors argue that boundary-crossing works for some contexts such as social movements.

Here’s the abstract:

Social movement organizations often struggle to mobilize supporters
from allied movements in their efforts to achieve critical mass. The
authors argue that organizations with hybrid identities—those whose
organizational identities span the boundaries of two or more social
movements, issues, or identities—are vital to mobilizing these constituencies.
They use original data from their study of the post-9/11 U.S.
antiwar movement to show that individuals with past involvement in
nonantiwar movements are more likely to join hybrid organizations
than are individuals without involvement in nonantiwar movements.
In addition, they show that organizations with hybrid identities occupy
relatively more central positions in interorganizational cocontact networks within
the antiwarmovement and thus recruit significantly more
participants in demonstrations than do nonhybrid organizations. Contrary
to earlier research, they do not find that hybrid organizations are
subject to an illegitimacy discount; instead, they find that hybridization
can augment the ability of social movement organizations to mobilize
their supporters in multimovement environments.

Kudos to the authors for wearing-out-the-shoe (p)leather: Using survey data collected from antiwar movement demonstrators in several major US cities between 2007-2009, the authors identified which organizations protestors belonged to, and which organizations had recruited them to these demonstrations.  After collecting online information about these organizations’ missions, a team of coders (followed by another team of coders for inter-rater reliability) then identified these organizations as belonging to one or more of 11 non–mutually exclusive categories: antiwar, peace, peace church, social justice, personal identity, partisan or ideological, education related, religious, environmental, labor union or labor related, and other.  Using these categories, the authors identified organizations as hybrids if they spanned categories.  As a validity check on this coding of organizational identities, the authors subsequently conducted interviews with organizational leaders.

Check out a preview here.

university of chicago visit – everything you wanted to know about tweets and votes, but were afraid to ask

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I will be a guest of the computational social science workshop at the University of Chicago this coming Friday. I will present a very detailed talk on the more tweets/more votes phenomena called “Everything You Wanted to Know About the Tweets-Votes Correlation, but Were Afraid to Ask.” If you want to chat or hang out, please email me.

Refreshments will be served.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz 

Written by fabiorojas

January 13, 2014 at 3:56 am

comments on andrew gelman’s dec 21 post

Last Saturday, Andrew Gelman responded to a post about a discussion in my social network analysis course. In that post, my student asked about different strengths of a network effect reported in a paper. Gelman (and Cosima Shalizi) both noted that the paper does not show a statistically significant difference. I quote the concluding paragraphs of Andrew’s commentary:

I’m doing this all not to rag on Rojas, who, after all, did nothing more than repeat an interesting conversation he had with a curious student. This is just a good opportunity to bring up an issue that occurs a lot in social science: lots of theorizing to explain natural fluctuations that occur in a random sample. (For some infamous examples, see here and here.) The point here is not that some anonymous student made a mistake but rather that this is a mistake that gets made by researchers, journalists, and the general public all the time.

I have no problem with speculation and theory. Just remember that if, as is here, the data are equivocal, that it would be just as valuable to give explanations that go in the opposite direction. The data here are completely consistent with the alternative hypothesis that people follow their spouses more than their friends when it comes to obesity.

Fair enough. Let me add a pedagogical perspective. When I teach network science to undergrads, I generally have a few goals. First, I want to show them how to convert social tie data into a matrix that can be analyzed. Second, I want students to learn how network concepts might operationalize social science concepts (e.g., how group cohesion might be described as high density).  Third, I want to spark their imagination a little and see how network analysis can be used to describe or analyze a wide range of phenomena and thus encourage students to generate explanations. Given that students have very, very modest math skills and real problems generating hypotheses,  getting down into the weeds with the papers is often last.

So when I teach the week on networks and health, my discussion questions are like this: “Why do you think health might be transmitted from one person to another? How would that work?” I also try to get into basic research design: “How do you measure health? Do you know what BMI is?” So the C&F paper has many up sides. The downside is that the paper has an interesting hypotheses and you can easily get distracted from the methodological controversy the paper has generated, or even some very sensible observations on confidence intervals. The bottom line is that when you have to teach everything (theory, methods, research design and topic), you don’t quite get everything. But still, if a student, who self-admitedly knows little math or stats, can get to a point about asking about mechanisms, then that’s a teaching victory.

Post-Christmas blow out: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz 

Written by fabiorojas

December 26, 2013 at 12:18 am

friends vs. spouses in influence

After reading the Fowler/Christakis paper on networks and obesity, a student asked why it was that friends had a stronger influence on spouses. In other words, if we believe the F&C paper, they report that your friends (57%) are more likely to transmit obesity than your spouse (37%) (see page 370).

This might be interpreted in two ways. First, it might be seen as a counter argument. This might really indicate that homophily is at work. We probably select spouses for some traits that are not self-similar. While we choose friends mainly on self-similarity of leisure and consumption (e.g, diet and exercise). Second, there might be an explanation based on transmission. We choose friends because we want them to influence us, while spouses are (supposed?) to accept us.

Your thoughts?

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Written by fabiorojas

December 20, 2013 at 12:01 am

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