Archive for the ‘social media’ Category
Last week, I was asked to be a discussant on a panel for a conference on Russian media. I responded to a paper by journalist, Andrei Soldatov, whose paper chronicled the Russian state’s response to social media. The way I summarized it is as follows:
- As with most states, initial confusion.
- Then, journalists, and social media by extension, were granted Western style autonomy. Until…
- The contraction of the Russian economy de-legitimized Western views of press freedom.
- And then the Russian state clumsily tried to usurp social media firms.
- And then that failed, they turned to the Chinese state for help managing social media.
In my reading, then, the Russian state is in between Western and Chinese models of social media control. The Western model is passive and uses law enforcement as a model. You let people post what they want but you do surveillance and intervene as needed. In the Chinese model, you control the entire platform and censor as needed.
Soldatov added that recently the Russian and Chinese states have met to set up standards and arrange for the purchase of Chinese equipment, which suggests that the Russian state is going deeper into the Chinese model of social control.
A few weeks ago, I reviewed Catherine Turco’s The Conversational Firm. The book reports on field work conducted at a tech firm and the goal was to understand how social media was reshaping the internal structure of the firm. As I said before, it is a good book that is of strong interest to organizational ethnographers.
Here, I want to focus on one issue that bugged me about the book. Throughout the book, social media is treated as this interesting thing that allows communication to be less hierarchical and thus (possibly) nudge the firm in more democratic directions. What bugged me about this account is that Turco, I think, never considers an alternative explanation for why managers are democratizing things – laziness.
One of the things that you appreciate about firms is that entrepreneurs often lack the skills needed to run larger, more mature organizations. When firms are small, the entrepreneur is the person who brings endless energy and can jump in to many roles. This is simply not possible in larger firms. Successful entrepreneurs either exit the firm to focus on the world of start ups, or they must learn the art of delegating and managing people.
Social media and the egalitarian culture of modern firms allows entrepreneurs to avoid or postpone this difficult process. They don’t have to go through the process of establishing lines of authority and command, which is painful and results in hurt feelings. Social media may be less a tool for democratizing things and more of a way for firm leaders to postpone or avoid difficult personnel issues. It’s an important hypothesis that needs more attention.
So overall, good book. Strongly recommended to internet and society scholars and orgheads everywhere.
This month, we are reviewing Catherine Turco’s Conversational firm. Earlier, I summarized the contents. The book is an ethnographic account of a tech firm that uses social media for internal communication. Turco’s main goal is to advance the argument that social media has substantially altered communications and hierarchy inside firms. Now, I’ll highlight some strong points of the book and next week I will raise critiques.
First, the book correctly points out that the interactional order of firms is now quite different in the social media age than before. In a world of paper based communication and face to face meetings, it was relatively easy to control who knew what. In contrast, it is now possible for modern firms to have much more wide ranging discussions. The project manager really does have (some) direct access to the CEO. This is truly remarkable.
Second, the book discusses the possibility that authority may be redefined in this situation. If everyone at work has a wiki where they can discuss the firm’s issues, then managers may end up giving away power to others.
For me, these two lessons point to an important issue in organizational design – the importance of social media as a tool for “flattening out” the organization. This has gotten a lot of attention among business writers and management scholars. The lesson I take from Turco’s book is that the story is complex. On the one hand, yes, social media democratizes the culture of many firms. But on the other hand, this is not straightforward or even desirable in many cases. The “internal” public sphere of a firm may not be the best place to settle policy. By allowing the middle of the organization to define issues, it may or may not be valuable or constructive.
Next week: Why didn’t Turco talk about laziness?
This Spring’s book forum is dedicated to The Conversational Firm: Rethinking Bureacuracy in an Age of Social Media by Catherine Turco. The book is based on an ethnography of tech company and focuses on the communication practices within the firm. Turco’s main goal is to understand how social media have shaped the way that people talk or interact within firms. As is my normal practice with book fora, I’ll summarize some major points of the book in the first post. Then, in subsequent posts, I will describe the strengths and weaknesses of the book.
The Conversational Firm is the result of about a year or so of participant observation in a “high tech firm.” The focus of the write up is how the use of internal forms of communication reshape bureaucratic authority and power. The subtitle is slightly misleading. The focus of the field work is not on social media as an average person understands it. It is not, for example about how employees gossip about work Facebook or Snapchat. Rather, it is about internal “wikis” and bulletin boards. The book is about how open ended and highly egalitarian forms of communication might be changing firms. So the book is filled with discussions of how workers discuss projects, argue about who is in charge, and otherwise negotiate the social world of the firm.
The book’s main theoretical contribution is to argue that these forms of social media are, in fact, redefining authority and order in the firm. The book highlights its case by contrasting it with older theories of bureaucracy that focus on top down hierarchies and clear social divisions between managers and workers. The book is to be commended for taking seriously the view that technology has a real impact on firm organization.
That’s the summary, then will delve into the good and the bad. If you’d like to follow the conversation, please buy a copy of the book. It’s a pleasure to read and will be of interest to organizational studies scholars, ethnographers, and work & occupations people.
Since we’re both here, my social media bubble probably looks a lot like your social media bubble. And in my social media bubble, people are freaking out about the Trump presidency. There are false voter fraud claims, ugly attacks on the media, chilling of speech at government agencies, and a whole host of policy actions many find disastrous. I am also disturbed and fear that the U.S. is making an irreversible turn toward authoritarianism.
At the same time, I’m disheartened by how quickly academics and others who should know better unreflectively buy into the latest outrage on social media. This has negative consequences independent of Trump’s actions. Catastrophizing the bits that aren’t catastrophic undermines our authority to speak up about the things that actually are. And further politicization of the media and, now, the federal bureaucracy will continue to erode the very things that protect us from Trump’s worst.
I do not mean to create a false equivalence here. What Trump has the power to do vastly outweighs the chattering of academics or journalists on Twitter or Facebook. But I have no direct influence over Trump’s administration. I can, however, exhort my academic colleagues to do better.
In that spirit, here’s two things to consider before you decide to share the latest outrage.
1) Is this an important bill? Or just another bill?
In the 114th Congress, more than 12,000 bills were introduced. You know how many became law? 329. 86% never even make it out of committee. There are a bunch of extremists in Congress. Some of them introduce the same bills over and over that are never going to see the light of day. This has been going on for decades.
A few days ago, an Alabama Republican introduced a bill that would pull the U.S. out of the United Nations. Twitter went nuts, quoting the bill with captions like “WHAT. THE. ACTUAL. HELL.” It spread like crazy.
Problem is, this is nothing new. This representative has been introducing this bill into each Congress for the last two decades. It has nothing to do with Trump, nor are there any indications it was treated differently this time. There are lots of things to get worked up about. This bill is not one.
2) Is this politics as usual? Or something truly new and dangerous?
There has also been a lot of freaking out in the last couple of days about the silencing of federal agencies. EPA, NIH, and USDA have all had reports about communications restrictions, including cancellation of a planned climate change conference and a halt on all “public-facing documents” at USDA.
A lot of Trump’s political agenda will play out—or not—through the executive agencies. It is very likely that his appointees will attempt to undercut what many see as their basic missions. By all means, oppose this with great intensity.
But when administrations change, they are going to point agencies in new political directions. I don’t have firsthand experience working in federal agencies. But I have spent a lot of time reading documents from just these types of agencies in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Putting a pause on public communication during a transition doesn’t seem that radical to me.
I keep looking for a quote from an actual agency employee that says, “This is wildly different from what happened when George W. Bush took office.” The closest I can find is ProPublica saying an EPA employee “had never seen anything like it in nearly a decade with the agency.” But that only covers the Obama transition, which aligned with the mission of the EPA. It’s not clear that this is not politics-as-usual. Could it transition into something new and dangerous? Absolutely. But that ship has not yet sailed.
Why commitment to critical thinking matters in the face of a Trump administration
I can already hear people yelling that I’m not taking Trump seriously enough. “This isn’t ordinary times! This is an emergency. Real lives are at stake!”
But it’s precisely because I don’t think this is ordinary times—because I think we’re in a uniquely dangerous moment—that it is especially important that we retain the ability to think clearly, for two big reasons.
First, treating every single action of the administration as dangerous and disastrous, without any larger context, further politicizes our fragile institutions. It may be too late for the media. But it is not good for democracy if our bureaucracies go rogue.
People are delighted that the Badlands National Park gave the administration a big old middle finger yesterday with its climate change tweets. But to the extent that federal government functions at all, it functions because of all the unelected, unappointed people who do their jobs, regardless of administration. If ordinary government employees become seen as actively in the bag for the left, we are one step closer to having our government stop functioning entirely.
Is there a time to say “no”, and openly rebel or quit? Absolutely. And if you haven’t already, you should probably write down your own personal lines in the sand, before our sense of “normal” further erodes. If you’re at the EPA, maybe it’s active suppression of climate change evidence. If you’re at NSF, maybe it’s meddling with individual grants. Maybe your lines have already been crossed.
But if they haven’t, as a civil servant you serve democracy better by doing your job—even if that’s carrying out decisions made by someone you hate—than by throwing shade from a government Twitter account.
Second, assuming everything is catastrophic limits our ability to focus on the real catastrophes. The single most dangerous thing Trump has done in the last few days (and I know, it’s been a busy few days) is double down on his claims about massive voter fraud. Because if people don’t believe that our elections are basically honest and agree to respect the results of those elections, our democracy is truly toast.
The good news is that, according to the Washington Post, “Trump has virtually no elected allies in this assault on the election system.” Not even Sean Spicer will say Trump’s claims are actually true.
If we cry wolf about every change that is not in fact catastrophe—if we suddenly scream “fascism” about changes that are part of the normal workings of democracy, we undermine our ability to fight the things that matter most.
And if we don’t have a democratic government, all this other stuff we care so much about—healthcare, immigration policy, racial justice, science, foreign policy, whatever your personal biggest concerns are—will be irrelevant. A fully authoritarian government can do what ever it wants, and we’ll have no say. Defending democracy has to be priority #1. And defending democracy means commitment to reason.
This diagram compares Twitter users with male and female profiles. Female users are baseline. IRR means “incidence rate ratio.” The quartiles refer to quartiles of users – Q1 Twitter users have very few followers and Q4 users have many followers.. See the paper for study details.
I have a new paper that will be presented at the 10th International Conference on Web and Social Media. This paper, written by Shirin Nilizadeh, Anne Groggel, Peter Lista, Srijita Das, YY Ahn, Apu Kapadia, and myself, documents an important phenomena on social media: there seems to be a “glass ceiling” that penalizes women who strive to be visible on social media.
We took a random sample of 100,000 Twitter users and asked – what is the difference in visibility between those who appear to be male and female in their profile?* Answer, not much – except among those users who have a lot of followers. The nearly identical level of visibility suddenly shifts and those with male profiles have more followers and the difference is significant. Similar results are found using other measures of visibility like retweets and the results hold accounting for user behavior, off line visibility, and other factors.
* There is the subtle point of users who do not present a gender. The paper deals with that. Read it for details.
The Oxford Internet Institute reports that Twitter data picked up some of the trends in last week’s election, when traditional polling did poorly. In their blog, they ask – did social media suggest the massive upset from last week? Answer, somewhat:
The data we produced last night produces a mixed picture. We were able to show that the Liberal Democrats were much weaker than the Tories and Labour on Twitter, whilst the SNP were much stronger; we also showed more Wikipedia interest for the Tories than Labour, both things which chime with the overall results. But a simple summing of mention counts per constituency produces a highly inaccurate picture, to say the least (reproduced below): generally understating large parties and overstating small ones. And it’s certainly striking that the clearly greater levels of effort Labour were putting into Twitter did not translate into electoral success: a warning for campaigns which focus solely on the “online” element.
One of the strengths of our original paper on voting and tweets is that we don’t simply look at aggregate social media and votes. That doesn’t work very well. Instead, what works is relative attention. So I would suggest that the Oxford Institute look at one-on-one contests between parties in specific areas and then measure relative attention. In the US, the problem is solved because each Congressional district has a clearly identified GOP and Democratic nominee. The theory is that when you are winning people talk about you more, even the haters. People ignore losers. Thus, the prediction is that relative social media attention is a signal of electoral strength. I would also note that social media is a noisy predictor of electoral strength. In our data, the “Twitter signal” varied wildly in its accuracy. The correlation was definitely there, but some cases were really far off and we discuss why in the paper.
Finally, I have not seen any empirical evidence that online presence is a particularly good tool for political mobilization. Even the Fowler paper in Nature showed that Facebook based recruitment was paltry. So I am not surprised that online outreach failed for Labour.
Bottom: The Oxford Internet Institute should give us a call, we can help you sort it out!