TW Reads – About that Facebook study

5 articles that show how to elevate a conversation about big data, the tech industry and the scientific community.

The more I read people’s reactions to this study, the more I’ve started to think the outrage has nothing to do with the study at all. There is a growing amount of negative sentiment towards Facebook and other companies that collect and use data about people. In short, there’s anger at the practice of big data.

–danah boyd

Observing the kerfuffle around the Facebook “emotion contagion” study this week, one could see two typical reactions:

  • “How could they do this? This is outrages!“
  • “What are you angry about? Everybody is doing this all the time!“

But besides all the typical gut reactions, I was hoping that a more nuanced discussion would be triggered by this. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Here are our favorite articles about the Facebook study and connected topics that show how a conversation can be elevated by looking deeper and trying a more balanced approach, minding the complexity that comes with these kinds of topics.

Zeynep Tufekci in Facebook and Engineering the Public

Tufekci was one of the first to react, speaking mostly to the research community, demanding that it speaks to (new) power and uses it’s methods and models to investigate the manipulative abilities of tech companies.

To me, this resignation to online corporate power is a troubling attitude because these large corporations (and governments and political campaigns) now have new tools and stealth methods to quietly model our personality, our vulnerabilities, identify our networks, and effectively nudge and shape our ideas, desires and dreams. These tools are new, this power is new and evolving. It’s exactly the time to speak up!

danah boyd in What does the Facebook experiment teach us?

boyd first looked in detail at how “informed consent” works and the context of scientific research today. She then analyzes what we can learn about the public’s fear of big data by examining the reactions to the study.

Information companies aren’t the same as pharmaceuticals. They don’t need to do clinical trials before they put a product on the market. They can psychologically manipulate their users all they want without being remotely public about exactly what they’re doing. And as the public, we can only guess what the black box is doing.

Kate Crawford in The Test We Can—and Should—Run on Facebook

Crawford suggests that Facebook should do an experiment. They should let people opt-in to take part in research studies.

There is a tendency in big data studies to accord merit to massive sample sizes, regardless of the importance of the question or the significance of the findings. But if there’s something we’ve learned from the emotional contagion study, a large number of participants and data points does not necessarily produce good research.

Whitney Erin Boesel in Facebook’s Controversial Experiment: Big Tech Is the New Big Pharma

Boesel points to the difficult distinction between human subject research and data science in big data projects like this one. Another consequence is that the lines between corporate research and academic research are blurring with data companies offering lucrative jobs to scientists.

We need to create new basic standards for social and behavioral research, and these standards must apply equally to corporations and institutions, to market researchers and academic researchers, to data scientists and social scientists alike.

What they all talk about is the new power that these data companies hold, which demands a much bigger sensibility towards their users and in handling their data. In my opinion, this is maybe the biggest issue that the tech companies and the big data industry is facing right now.

Anab Jain in Valley of the Meatpuppets

With an increase in monitoring, surveillance, AI and big data, this ambiguity, this sense of uncertainty and unconnectedness will become more pronounced. Invisible wars over autonomy will become a recurring leitmotif of the 21st century.

All of this connects tremendously to a talk Anab Jain gave at Future Everything this year and which she posted this week.
She looks at the topic of power from a surveillance point of view, but goes much, much deeper to reveal the patterns that influence us and the approaches that will help us to create our own way.

As designers we believe it is important to think about wider complexities in order to challenge the deeper assumptions about technological power and control.

Highly recommended reading!

What we read this week (8 Mar)

A Weekly Reads tribute to Seed Magazine.

Quote of the week

Religion as augmented reality?

Justin Pickard

Articles of the week

We found this week that the great Seed Magazine is no longer running. Mysteriously, we couldn’t find any press releases or posts saying why or when this happened – content on the site just stops in early 2012. This is a Seed tribute edition of the Weekly Reads.

  • Seed Magazine: On Early Warning Signs
    Theoretical biologist George Sugihara talks about the intricate dependencies between systems in economics, biology and the climate, why instability is inevitable, and how complex systems show warning signs before huge changes happen.
  • Seed Magazine: Humans, Version 3.0
    On how culture will allow our abilities as a species to evolve, and on the processes of harnessing nature and recycling neurons.
  • Seed Magazine: World Wide Mind
    A beautifully written (and quite long) piece introducing a book on the possibilities that physical integration of the internet into human bodies could allow.
  • Seed Magazine: The Living City
    On defining and understanding cities, and the paradoxes of urban growth.
  • Seed Magazine: The Web is Not a Gadget
    A piece on Jaron Lanier’s controversial thesis that the web impedes human creativity.

What we read this week (6 Jan)

Lots of great articles this week. Read about a Somali terrorist group’s social media strategy, the internet as a human right (or not), networked science, the way copyright is broken and plenty more.

Quotes of the week

The best way to predict the future is to hang out with some of the outliers already living it. We don’t make ‘predictions,’ but instead tell stories about the people and products that are exciting us before they’ve gone mainstream.

David Rowan

Internet Access Is Not a Human Right.

Vint Cerf

Articles of the week

  • Slate: Twitter of Terror
    A Somali militant group unveils a new social media strategy for terrorists.
  • Duke University: What Could Have Entered the Public Domain on January 1, 2012?
    The copyright system is pretty badly broken. Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain shows a few of the cultural works that would have entered the Public Domain – allowing you to reproduce, remix, and share them – under the copyright law in its 1978 version. That is, before copyright was extended from 28 years after publication to last ridiculously long, namely for 70 years after the author’s death. There is a whole treasure trove of culture, locked away and in many cases inaccessible.
  • mobiThinking: Global mobile statistics 2011
    A comprehensive, massive overview of mobile stats for 2011.
  • anideo: Harmony
    Apple’s overall success is being mostly attributed to their superiority in design. While there is no argument about their excellence in this field, it is much more then just the design that leads to such success.
  • The Atlantic: To Know, but Not Understand
    The Berkman Center’s David Weinberger, internet theorist and author of seminal books like The Cluetrain Manifesto and Small Pieces Loosely Joined, tackles a new subject: Big Data, and how to deal with it. This article offers an abstract of Weinberger’s new book.
  • heise online: Sparkassen führen NFC-Payment ein
    (Article in German) It is somewhat of a surprise to see the German Sparkassen Group implement NFC chips into their normal banking cards starting 2012. Nevertheless, we are curious how both consumers and retail will react to it and how the conversation will be shaped by this announcement.
  • The Next Web: Amazon’s e-book tax loophole could mean lower European prices, but that’s bad for UK competition
    Without making much fuss, Luxembourg cut the VAT, and in effect ebook prices for consumers. Ebooks, unlike paper books, are subject to full VAT across the EU. So this could change market dynamics quite a bit: Both Amazon and Apple sell their ebooks from Luxembourg, and might now be able to undercut local book prices. Here’s the German perspective (in German).
  • New York Times: Internet Access is Not a Human Right. As an elder of information technology and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google, Vint Cerf says the internet should not be a human right. Sounds outrageous? The point Cerf makes is an excellent one, actually: It’s important not to protect the tool, but rather its empowering qualities. A must read.
  • ReadWriteWeb: Google+ Is Going To Mess Up The Internet
    Jon Mitchell, one of the regular authors at RWW, documents his frustration with Google+. An interesting read with some very well placed arguments. The problem with Google+ right now is that nobody really can figure out what Google wants it to become and as soon people stumble into new insights around it, it becomes all very overdramatized and hectic. Google needs to take charge of the communication around its favorite product. But then again, Google was never good at that.
  • brand eins: Das digitale Urheberrecht steht am Abgrund
    Brand Eins, certainly one of the best business magazines in Germany, inquires into the way copyright works – or fails to work – in a digital context. It’s a long, in-depth interview in German. Well worth reading.
  • Clay Shirky: Newspapers, Paywalls and Core Users
    Newspapers have been experimenting with paid vs free content for a number of years, sometimes more, often less successfully. Clay Shirky thinks that 2012 might be the year where newspaper economics could start working out. That is, they might work out once newspapers stop treating all news as a product and all readers as customers.
  • GigaOM: You are what you curate: Why Pinterest is hawt
    A nice overview of a trend that’s been surging for awhile now, and is still gathering steam: Online content curation. Focusing on Pinterest, GigaOM explains why curation services are so successful and why we can expect a wave of services that make curation even more streamlined and structured.
  • CNN: Digital music sales top physical sales
    Digital music purchases accounted for 50.3% of music sales in 2011. That’s a first, and proves beyond any doubt that consumers are willing to pay for online content, and that the CD won’t be missed for long. Now the big question is: Will we see music purchases rise further, or see on demand streaming take over? In other words, is it ownership or access to music that consumers are willing to pay for?
  • Forbes: The Seven Habits of Spectacularly Unsuccessful Executives
    Sydney Finkelstein, a professor of management, did intensive research on some of the biggest corporate fails in recent history (Enron, Tyco, WorldCom etc.). Some years ago, he published the 7 habits that the senior executives at these companies all had in common. Eric Jackson has revisited them for Forbes. Recommended reading for anyone in executive positions.
  • Do Designers Actually Exploit The Poor While Trying To Do Good?
    A very interesting discussion with Jan Chipchase about design research and the work of big corporations in third world countries.