Archive for the ‘technology’ Category

no, facebook is *definitely* not a failure

Over at A Programmer’s Tale, “jewsin” argues that Facebook is a failure because it encourages people to post junk. Two clips:

I am signed into Facebook right now. At a quick glance, the entire list of posts on the first screen are irrelevant to me. If I scrolled down I can find 4 stories I actually care about, from a list of about 30. The most important page on Facebook has more than three-fourths of absolutely useless content.

Surprising. Facebook is a company with a very large number of talented people. They know a lot about me. Yet, their product looks like one of those spam filled mailboxes from the nineties.


Since everybody is on Facebook, one can expect that it will in some way mirror the behavior of society in general. In the real world however, people’s opinions only have a limited reach.

Facebook is godsent for people who love to talk, but have nothing to say. Here is a network that doesn’t care about originality or the quality of content. In the time it takes to create something original, they could share dozens of things.

I agree, but “jewsin” is missing the point. The point of Facebook isn’t to produce high quality content. It’s a tool for getting millions of people to divulge precious marketing data (however coarse) in exchange for creating a platform where they hang out and stalk their high school crushes. On that count, it’s a mind blowing success.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 7, 2013 at 12:56 am

Posted in fabio, technology

more tweets, more votes – cause or correlation?

A number of people have asked me a very important question about the More Tweets, More Votes paper. Do relative tweet rates merely correlate with elections or is there is a causal link?

The paper itself does not settle the issue. The purpose of the paper is merely to document this striking correlation. Given that qualification, let me explain the argument from both sides and my priors.

  • Correlation: Twitter is a passive record of how excited people are. If a candidate somehow garners the attention of the public, they get excited and start talking about it, which translates into a higher twitter presence.
  • Causal: The unusual attention that a candidate attracts in social media sways undecided or weakly committed voters. In a sense, highly active twitter users are the “opinion leaders” of modern society.

My prior: 75% correlation, 25% cause. How would tease out these arguments? For example, what variable could instrument the district level tweet counts? Interesting to find out.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 15, 2013 at 12:01 am

no sentiment needed – comment on the tweets-vote curve

When people read our More Tweets, More Votes paper, they often wonder – where is the “sentiment analysis?” In other words, why don’t we try to measure whether a tweet is positive or negative? Joe DiGrazia, the lead author, addressed this in a recent interview with

DiGrazia said the researchers were “kind of surprised” that they saw a correlation without doing sentiment analysis of the Tweets. “We thought we were going to have to look at the sentiment,” he said. He speculated that one reason for the correlation could be a so-called Pollyanna Hypothesis, “that people are more likely to gravitate toward subjects that they are positive about and are more likely to talk about candidates that they support.”

The idea is simply this: the frequency of speech is often a relatively decent approximation of how imporant people think that topic is relative to salient alternatives. If people say “Obama” a little more often than the competition, then it’s not unreasonable to believe that he is more favored. And you don’t need content analysis to suss that out.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 29, 2013 at 3:16 am

more tweets, more votes: social media as a quantitative indicator of political behavior


Unit of analysis: US House elections in 2010 and 2012. X-Axis: (# of tweets mentioning the GOP candidate)/(# of tweets mentioning either major party candidate). Y-axis: GOP margin of victory.

I have a new working paper with Joe DiGrazia*, Karissa McKelvey and Johan Bollen asking if social media data actually forecasts offline behavior. The abstract:

Is social media a valid indicator of political behavior? We answer this question using a random sample of 537,231,508 tweets from August 1 to November 1, 2010 and data from 406 competitive U.S. congressional elections provided by the Federal Election Commission. Our results show that the percentage of Republican-candidate name mentions correlates with the Republican vote margin in the subsequent election. This finding persists even when controlling for incumbency, district partisanship, media coverage of the race, time, and demographic variables such as the district’s racial and gender composition. With over 500 million active users in 2012, Twitter now represents a new frontier for the study of human behavior. This research provides a framework for incorporating this emerging medium into the computational social science toolkit.

The working paper (short!) is here. I’d appreciate your comments.

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* Yes, he’ll be in the market in the Fall.

Written by fabiorojas

April 23, 2013 at 2:41 am

delegitimization as a new world order

Imagine going to the ATM and discovering you can’t withdraw your money because the ATM is out of cash. Not only that, but the bank is closed because of a national holiday so you can’t use the bank teller to withdraw money, electronic transfers of funds are frozen, and the stores refuse to accept credit cards out of concerns that electronic payments won’t be made. If you are able to get to your money, you learn that 6.75% of your funds (or 9.95% if you are a lucky ducky with over 100K euros in your account) will be converted into bank shares under a compulsory levy intended to prop up the banking system. The mortgage payment that you scheduled, the student loan check that you deposited to pay for your education, the vendors that you need to pay for your small business – all are up in the air.

Even if you are told “nevermind, we’re re-evaluating that policy, back to the drawing board!”, what’s the rational thing to do? Most likely, you as a depositor will lose trust in the banking system and pull out as much as you can. If you are in an adjoining country with a shared currency, the mattress, precious metals, and alternate currencies are looking like more attractive places to keep your money. This is the scenario currently unfolding for residents in Cyprus and those who were parking their money in what seemed like a safe haven.

Less than a year ago, Greece was in a similar situation and is still dealing with the consequences. Now, it’s Cyprus’s turn. These supposedly one-off, “unique” situations involving untested interventions are becoming regularities as banking and governance systems around the world are becoming more tightly coupled together. Although Chick Perrow‘s Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies discusses nuclear plants and chemical plants, his concept of how reactions, once started, are hard to stop (much less understand) in tightly coupled systems, is a helpful read. Add to his concept the erosion of a shared understanding and belief in institutions for a potent mix – that is, the delegitimization processes of trust in banking and governance that we may be seeing in the EU.

For those of us who have been living under the various rocks of committee work/teaching/research/other commitments, a little background reading: Dealbreaker’s take, with plenty of links to others’ analysis, Reuters,and Zero Hedge’s mordant posts.

Written by katherinechen

March 21, 2013 at 2:47 pm

february guest bloggers: john padgett and woody powell

It is my pleasure to announce our February guest bloggers: Woody Powell and John Padgett. Professor Powell is Professor of Education and (by courtesy) Sociology, Organizational Behavior, Management Science and Engineering, Communication, and Public Policy at Stanford University. Professor Padgett is Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.

Woody and John are both leading figures in the study of organizations and networks. Professor Powell is co-author, with Paul DiMaggio, of the groundbreaking “iron cage” article and then went on to publish a series of highly influential papers in social network analysis. John Padgett is one of political science’s leading formal modellers, having written seminal papers on budgeting & garbage can processes, the courts, and state formation. His most well known work is likely the “Medici paper,” which used network analysis to describe the cultivation of political power in early modern Italy and introduced the idea of “robust action” into modern social theory.

They will be discussing their new book: The Emergence of Organizations and Markets. Here’s a summary:

The social sciences are rich with ideas about how choice occurs among alternatives, but have little to say about the invention of new alternatives in the first place.  These authors directly address the question of emergence, both of what we choose and who we are.  With the use of sophisticated deductive models building on the concept of autocatalysis from biochemistry and rich historical cases studies spanning seven centuries, Padgett and Powell develop a theory of the co-evolution of social networks.  Novelty in new persons and new organizational forms emerges from spillovers across multiple, intertwined networks.  To be sure, actors make relations; but the mantra of this book is that in the long run relations make actors.  Through case studies of early capitalism and state formation, communist economic reforms and transition, and technologically advanced capitalism and science, the authors analyze speciation in the context of organizational novelty.  Drawing on ideas from both the physical sciences and the social sciences, and incorporating novel computational, historical, and network analyses, this book offers a genuinely new approach to the question of emergence.

This week and next week, I’ll post some thoughts that John and Woody have shared with me. This is *required* reading for sociologists, management scholars, political scientists, and economists. And yes, there, will be a quiz!

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Written by fabiorojas

February 5, 2013 at 12:01 am

computer literacy vs. digital natives

The interesting thing about technology is that early adopters tend to be very technical people. The average person who owned a computer in 1982 was probably educated and very interested in technology. A Popular Mechanics reader, if you will. Later, there is nothing remarkable about computer owners. Scientific literacy is not a precondition for computer use.

That leads me to a distinction: computer literacy vs. digital natives. The computer literate is someone who is steeped in the ways of computing. Not a professional engineer, but they approach a computer the way some people approach a car. It’s a machine, you can take it apart, make it do things, and so forth. The digital native is some who is comfortable with computers because they grew up around them. They are consumers of computers, not builders. They know how to use computer, but they can’t really write code or otherwise command a computer. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It should be expected that when a technology is well diffused that it is easy to use and requires little training or knowledge.

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Written by fabiorojas

January 3, 2013 at 12:01 am

Posted in fabio, technology

censorship and repressing social movements

Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret Roberts have an interesting working paper about the kinds of online content censored by the Chinese government. The big insight is that it’s not dissent that gets you censored in China, it’s efforts to mobilize collective action. From the abstract:

Contrary to previous understandings, posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored. Instead, we show that the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content.

I think this is an illustration of how governments repress social movements in the age of online media. The tactic may be new, but government repression is most certainly not.  Repression has long been considered one of the main components of the political opportunity structure. Challengers who face more repression are less likely to mobilize and form a real movement. I think censorship represses in at least two ways. First, it increases the costs of mobilizing, simply by making it more difficult to transmit information, create free spaces, etc. But second, and perhaps just as important, it sends a clear signal to would-be activists that the government will take action against mobilization efforts. This signal aspect of the opportunity structure creates fear among challengers and hurts their morale. (For further reading about signals as a mechanism of the political opportunity structure, I recommend Meyer and Minkoff [2004] and Cornwall et al. [2007]).

Along these same lines, I encourage you to read this online excerpt from William Dobson’s book, The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy.  Dobson writes about the Chinese government’s attempt to stifle even the most subtle and symbolic efforts by challengers to instigate collective action in remembrance of the Tianenmen Square massacre.  Since I’m handing out reading assignments, let me also recommend Eugene Morozov’s The Net Delusion,  a critique of the idealists who see online activism as the new democratizing force of society. Although Morozov’s arguments have been somewhat muted by the success of the Arab Spring, he makes an excellent point that dictators and authoritarian governments can also use the Internet against activists, potentially invading their privacy and initiating repressive counter-tactics. It’s a provocative read.

Written by brayden king

June 14, 2012 at 5:35 pm

open innovation, a primer by joel west

Here’s Joel West giving a primer (at Berkeley) on open and user innovation.

Written by teppo

April 2, 2012 at 8:29 pm

getting big stuff done: is this an organizational problem?

I’m a sucker for nutty futurist speculations.  So bear with me on this one.

A few nights ago I was watching Neal Stephenson’s talk on “getting big stuff done,” where he bemoans the lack of aggressive technological progress in the past forty or so years.  There’s obviously some debate about this, though he makes some good points.  He raises the question of why, for example, we haven’t yet built a 20km tall building despite the fact that it appears to be technologically very feasible with extant materials.  Nutty.  But an interesting question.  From a sci-fi writer.

Stephenson ends his talk on an organizational note and asks:

What is going on in the financial and management worlds that has caused us to narrow our scope and reduce our ambitions so drastically?

I like that question.  Even if you think that ambitions have not been lowered, I think all of us would like to see the big problems of the world addressed more aggressively.  (Unless one subscribes to the Leibnizian view that we live in the “best of all possible [organizational] worlds.”)  Surely organization theory is central to this.  This is particularly true in cases where technologies and solutions for big problems seemingly already exist – but it is the social technologies and organizational solutions that appear to be sub-optimal.  So, how can more aggressive forms of collective action and organizational performance be realized?   I don’t see org theorists really wrestling with these types of questions, systematically anyways.  It would be great to see some more wide-eyed speculation about the organizational forms and theories that perhaps might facilitate more aggressive technological, social and human progress.

I can see several reasons for why organization theorists don’t engage with these types of, “futurist” questions.  First, theories of organization tend to lag practice.  That is, organizational scholars describe and explain the world (in its current or past state), though they don’t often engage in speculative forecasting (about possible future states).  Second, many of the organizational sub-fields suited for wide-eyed speculation are in a bit of a lull, or they represent small niches.  For example, organization design isn’t a super “hot” area these days (certainly with exceptions) — despite its obvious importance.  Institutional and environmental theories of organization have taken hold in many parts, and agentic theories are often seen as overly naive.  Environmental and institutional theories of course are valuable, but they delimit and are incremental, and are perhaps just self-fulfilling and thus may not always be practically helpful for thinking about the future.

That’s my (very speculative) two cents.

Written by teppo

March 5, 2012 at 1:06 am

sociology of intellectual property?

I’ve been reading up on intellectual property of late.  Here are some sources worth perusing and reading (some of them can be downloaded for free), along with some interviews and clips.

Interestingly, there isn’t meaningfully any kind of sociology of intellectual property, that I am aware of (feel free to correct me).  Though several of the above scholars do call for increased dialogue between law and the social sciences (e.g., Julie Cohen), though this seems to be a relatively nascent area.

There is of course the “social construction” argument (e.g., that authorship or ownership is a myth)—a favorite argument of mine (e.g., see Beethoven and the Construction of Genius)—or the ubiquitous and tired references to “networks” (help!), but it seems that there is much opportunity in this space.

Written by teppo

March 2, 2012 at 5:43 pm

richard stallman and free software as a social movement

Here are some links about free software as a social movement:

Update:  Jenn Lena adds a link in the comments, a 9000+ word rider on Stallman’s speaking contract.

Written by teppo

December 29, 2011 at 8:36 pm

#ows, the human microphone and hand signals

I’m sort of intrigued by the various innovations emerging from the Occupy Wallstreet Movement (I posted at strategyprofs about some of the tech ones, specifically apps).

One of the cooler, more low-tech innovations (ok, ok, these have been around for a long time – but still) is the use of the “human microphone” – note that the wiki entry was initiated just two weeks ago.  Occupy also has its own hand signals (and, check out the hand signals for consensus decision-making).  Cool.  Twinkles.

Here’s a hand signal tutorial:

Written by teppo

November 3, 2011 at 7:55 pm

psychology of organizational networks

In case readers haven’t seen this, Organization Science has a call for papers out for a special issue on the psychology of organizational networks.  Details can be found by clicking here (pdf).  Or click below the fold.  Read the rest of this entry »

Written by teppo

October 6, 2011 at 7:35 pm

twitter, social science and mood

[link via David Lazer]

Twitter is getting lots of interest from social scientists.  Here’s a piece from the current issue of Science about how “social scientists wade into the tweet stream” (the figure below is from this article).  And, an NPR piece on a forthcoming Science article by Macy and Golder on affect and mood and twitter.

Written by teppo

September 29, 2011 at 11:02 pm

quantified self

There’s lots that is nutty about the Quantified Self movement.  But I love it nonetheless. Here’s the blog, Quantified Self.

And, here’s an example of someone who carefully tracked social interactions, for years.

Written by teppo

August 20, 2011 at 2:03 am

patent trolls and innovation

Other than financial measures (like ROA) I can’t think of another firm-level variable that is more commonly used in organizational studies than patent activity. Patents are used to track everything from innovation to technological niches to social networks among scientists.  Patents are an all-purpose measure because we think they are tightly linked to creativity and knowledge production, the engine that drives both science and capitalist enterprise. But what if this is increasingly not true? What if patent use is becoming decoupled from creativity?

This is one of the questions posed made by last week’s This American Life, my favorite NPR show and one of the most consistently interesting programs of journalism out there. The show talked about patent trolls – companies or individuals who acquire patents for the primary purpose of suing other actors who might use technology that potentially infringes on that patent.  The show focused on the firm, Intellectual Ventures, and its founder Nathan Myhrvoid. Through a couple of interesting vignettes and sly investigations, they showed how the company uses lawsuits, brought by a number of shell companies, to get large settlements out of technology companies, some of which are struggling enterpreneurial groups.  The show demonstrates how, rather than protect and promote innovation, increasingly patents are being used to stifle innovation by wiping out or financially weakening companies that are actually trying to bring innovation to the marketplace. Meanwhile, patent trolls sit on those patents and do nothing to advance the innovations.

This must have some implications for our current understanding of patents as indicators of creativity and innovation. One of the startling revelations in the program was just how much redundancy there is in the patent system. The number of patents issued that cover the same basic function is often in the thousands, especially in the software industry. Patents may be more indicative of turf wars than they are of real innovation.

Even if you’re not a technology scholar, I highly recommend that you listen to the podcast of the show.

Written by brayden king

July 26, 2011 at 8:33 pm

crowdfunding academic research?

I really like what companies like kickstarter are doing — they provide a “crowdfunding”-type platform for artists.  Artists and budding entrepreneurs can post project ideas and needs onto the web site and readers can pledge funds to help realize these projects (based on a threshold funding system).  The projects range from hundreds of thousands of dollars to much smaller ones. (Warning: thumbing through the various projects is pretty addicting.)  The wikipedia site for “crowdfunding” lists other such companies (e.g.,, sponsume, pledgemusic).

As NSF funding for the social sciences appears to be under threat, it would be great to see a crowdfunding model for academic research as well.  There seem to be lots of potential benefits: a new source of funds could be tapped, researchers wouldn’t have to chase funds as funders might find them instead, new populations would be introduced to research, etc, etc.  Lots of benefits, downsides of course too.

Here’s someone who has thought about some of these issues.

Written by teppo

June 30, 2011 at 6:07 am

philostv and econstoriestv and orgtheorytv?

Pressure seems to be mounting as other disciplines are setting up online “TV stations.”  Philosophy TV ( features very engaging discussions between philosophers,  similar in format to (also a favorite).   econstoriestv is a Russ Roberts venture — the site seems to largely be dedicated to the Keynes-Hayek rap videos (perhaps there is a part III to come).  I really like the fact that academic content/discussion is now available in this type of format.  What’s next?  orgtheorytv?

Written by teppo

June 28, 2011 at 5:00 pm

the internet and productivity

Without a doubt, the last few months of uprisings and pro-democracy protests in the Middle East will invigorate arguments about the power of the Internet to fuel democratization. Egypt, in particular, stands out. It’s not clear though how much influence the Internet had in encouraging change in these parts of the world. Was Twitter driving additional protests or would agitators have protested anyway? I just don’t think we know at this point. We need more and better research about the role of the Internet, social media, and other technology in fostering social change.

Research about the impact of the Internet on economic productivity may provide some insight. A recent study by my Northwestern colleague, Shane Greenstein, suggests that the Internet’s influence is unevenly distributed, mainly improving the economic productivity of geographical areas with previously high levels of economic development and technological sophistication. The paper is forthcoming in the American Economic Review. Here’s a bit from the press release on the study:

Out of about 3,000 counties in the U.S., in only 163 did business adoption of Internet technologies correlate with wage and employment growth, the study found. All of these counties had populations above 150,000 and were in the top quarter of income and education levels before 1995….

Why did the Internet make such big waves in these few areas? Greenstein believes the reason was that these areas already had sophisticated companies and the communications infrastructure needed to seize on the Internet’s opportunities. But there are other possibilities. The impact could have been due to a well-known phenomenon called “biased technical change,” which means that new technologies can thrive only in places with skilled workers who know how to use them.

This study provides more evidence that technological benefits disproportionately accrue to those who already have economic and educational advantages (for further evidence see the work of another Northwestern colleague, Eszter Hargittai). Could it be that the Internet has a differential effect on social and political change in more developed countries? Or perhaps, if you take the “biased technical change” argument further, you could expect that activists in countries in which there is already a well-established activist infrastructure will be better able to use the Internet to further their political causes. This would essentially be an extension of resource mobilization theory. The Internet’s usefulness for promoting social and political change may be moderated by the availability of preexisting organizational, social and human resources.

Of course, it’s way too early to tell if this is the case or not. However, with the number of pro-democratic movements on the rise, in the future there may be plenty of data to analyze.

Written by brayden king

March 31, 2011 at 12:46 am

spontaneous order, kinda

Related links:

Written by teppo

March 30, 2011 at 5:28 pm

the net delusion?

I’ve been reading Evgeny Morozov’s provocative book, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, and it, combined with the recent uprisings in the Middle East, have got me thinking a lot about the role of the internet in mobilizing activists and social reformers. Morozov, like Malcolm Gladwell, is not optimistic about the power of the internet to mobilize people and spur social change. I haven’t yet finished the book and so I’m sure there is more to his argument, but he rejects the idea that the internet is basically democratizing. It can be just as easily used by monopolistic and authoritarian forces as it can by activist consumers or democratic freedom fighters. People use the internet more for mind-numbing entertainment than they do for political reform or social change. The internet can be a powerful tool for dictators who want to appease their resistors.

But Morozov wrote this in 2010. He might be whistling a different tune had he seen the uprising in Egypt or the civil war in Libya. Or he might simply say that these movements would have happened anyway – the internet played no role in pushing these changes. I suppose it’s possible that Twitter, Facebook, other social media, and cell phone texts may have played no functional role in spurring these changes. We know that the Egyptian government tried to thwart reformers’ efforts by blocking access to social media sites, and yet the revolution carried on anyway. But does that mean that activists just found a way to get around the firewalls? Was their use of social media one step ahead of the government? Or was the movement to unseat Muburak simply a function of people looking out the window and seeing the smoke in the air and rushing to join their comrades in the streets?

Morozov’s book should make us skeptical of net-utopian thinkers who believe that the internet has freed the world from anti-democratic powers. Information alone isn’t the source of authoritarians’ power. Obviously, there are other structural forces at play here that reinforce power relations. However, I also don’t want to discount the role of social media and internet technology in promoting social change. As I’ve said before, the real power of the internet in facilitating activism may be in its ability to create new audiences and common knowledge, bringing local atrocities or problems to a global stage. Inasmuch as the larger public becomes aware of local grievances and puts pressure on power-holders, local activists increase their leverage in promoting change. We shouldn’t ignore this important function of social media given that most protests seem to generate power by activating the larger public interest (does a protest that doesn’t get media coverage really exist?).

What are the other functions of internet technology and social media in promoting social change? What do we really know about this?

Written by brayden king

March 11, 2011 at 4:01 pm