A 1916 American Mug Shot
A 1916 American Mug Shot

Visual technologies continue to play an increasingly key role in strategies for monitoring and surveillance in modern capitalist societies in crime prevention and detection, and the apprehension, recording, documenting and classification of criminals and criminal activities. Still and moving ‘visual evidence’ is stored in state archives, used in courtrooms as evidence, and disseminated across almost every major media platform: from the printed press to the World Wide Web.

The relationship between visual technologies and the criminal justice system can be traced back to the emergence of photography and the invention of the camera as a tool for documenting ‘reality’ in the nineteenth century. The camera was widely believed, even more so than today, to be able to objectively and truthfully record social reality. A photograph was perceived to be like a window on the world – a mechanically produced, impartial and literal representation of the real world.

Unlike oil painting and other forms of art, the camera required minimum human intervention and was therefore deemed to be free from the vagaries of human interpretation.  Prior to the invention of photography and the wider availability of cameras, the criminal justice system relied heavily upon eye-witness accounts and written descriptions largely based on memory for the detection, identification, apprehension and sentencing of criminals.

The mid-nineteenth century was an era that was profoundly preoccupied with classification and order as evidenced by the application of the scientific method to occupations that were once considered more of an art than anything else. “The drive to produce taxonomies of race, social deviance and insanity so as to identify distinguishing ‘characteristics’ and thus predictable and recognisable social types was greatly aided by photographic technology.”1  The widely held-belief of the truth value (or factual nature) of the photographic image quickly slotted into the social and political regulatory systems of the time with newly emerging state bureaucratic and administrative networks of surveillance, power and authority. Photographic technology aided in the positivist reorganisation of knowledge 2.

The ascendant theories of criminology in the nineteenth century posited that an individual was born criminal and that criminal tendencies could be identified by physical indicators.  This logic was underpinned by the use of criminal portraits which served the dual purpose of both the identification of criminals and to further support dominant theories about crime and criminality.

One such photographic taxonomy was produced by the Italian physician Cesare Lombroso who drew ink portraits depicting ‘criminal types’. Lombroso’s work is an exemplary case of the rise of positivist criminology in the nineteenth century. He argued that criminals possessed more ‘atavistic’ features and shared more characteristics with our evolutionary ancestors than more law-abiding citizens3.  On the basis of post-mortem examinations of dead convicts and the extensive measurement and documentation of the distinguishing features of prison inmates, Lombroso proffered a form of explanation that attempted to establish a causal link between the physiological features of individuals in prisons and the types of crimes they were said to have committed. Such knowledge, Lombroso claimed, could offer a means of predicting criminality in the general populace.

Lombroso’s approach also combined phrenology (the study of the contours of the head) and the identification of anatomical stigmata (physiological features deemed to be ‘abnormal’) which came together in a general theory of biological determinism wherein physiological differences were assumed to be strong indicators of criminality or the propensity for deviant / criminal behaviour.

Images from Cesare Lombroso’s ‘L'Uomo Delinquente’ published in 1876
Images from Cesare Lombroso’s ‘L’Uomo Delinquente’ published in 1876

Not long after the publication of Lombroso’s work, French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon employed photography as a means for classifying and recording criminals combining visual documentation with the precise measurement of distinguishing bodily characteristics (distance between the eyes, length and width of the nose and so on) whilst Francis Galton developed (a then quite innovative) technique of exposing multiple portrait negatives which were then combined to form a single image highlighting shared characteristics displaying the inherent similarities between supposed criminal types.  It is this sort of work, identifying composite criminal types and not just individuals, which forged the link between photography and the criminal justice system. Before long there were entire established professional disciplines (e.g. physiognomy and physical anthropology) that aimed to demonstrate the ways in which particular physical attributes indicated the propensity for criminality4.

© Wellcome Collection
© Wellcome Collection

As the nineteenth century progressed, official institutions of various kinds realised the value of the photograph for all kinds of purposes of classification and identification.  Photography became increasingly deployed across a range of human, physical and biomedical sciences producing a unique fusion of knowledge, information and visualisation which assisted various state authorities in the power they exercised over citizens, making photography complicit in these new networks of administrative and bureaucratic power5.  Initially, the uses of photography by the police varied considerably in terms of framing, composition and distance but through the work of Bertillon and Galton (amongst others) photographic practices quickly became refined and standardised.

By the twentieth century, the insights of Lombroso (and others working within these fields) were largely discredited on the grounds that far from offering objective evidence much of this work did nothing more than put a veneer of science on structural oppression. Many of the claims made about abnormality, pathology, deviance and criminality were deeply racist, classist and sexist in their implications6.  Today, the work of Lombroso (and his contemporaries) now looks profoundly ethnocentric and androcentric, but an enduring and perhaps the most interesting aspect of this work is its visual legacy in the familiar and ubiquitous ‘mug-shot’ which is still widely used to this day.

In the twenty-first century, there is much talk about the death of photography or the notion that with digitalization we are now living in the post-photographic age. This argument does not seem to hold water, given that the relationship between the photographic image and the criminal justice system remains remarkably strong. The association between photography and criminal identification and apprehension firmly established in the nineteenth century is still alive and well today7.

But while the criminal portrait (or mug-shot) still occupies a prominent place in modern policing, these images no longer solely reside in the official domain of the archives of state authorities.  As a form of visual evidence, the criminal portrait has not changed much over the years but digital networks have radically altered the means of their dissemination and circulation.  This has prompted some critics to speculate these images have to some extent transcended their forensic roots.

Take, for example, the posting of the police mug-shot of criminal Jeremy Meeks on Stockton Police Force Facebook page resulted in his image going viral and concluding with the offer of a quite lucrative modelling contract. What is interesting about the Jeremy Meeks mug-shot story is that once his photograph was displayed outside of the authoritative domain of the police archive and publicly circulated across different social media platforms and networks it accrued different sets of meanings (sexy, hot, good-looking) along the way despite the attempt to officially encode (or fix) the meaning (criminal, dangerous, wanted by the police) of the photograph.

Jeremy Meeks’ Mug-shot

As David Banks’ article on Sousveillance reminds us, in an era where increasingly sophisticated digital and mobile tools and platforms have opened up the field of human communications in ways unimaginable 150 years ago, the boundaries between those with the power to observe and those who are the observed are increasingly subject to contestation and struggle. Power is never absolute or total and there will always be micro-pockets of resistance, counter-struggles and challenges to that power. The disempowered may become empowered in unintended or unanticipated ways.

According to the media scholar John Fiske8, in socially divided capitalist societies, dominant social groups use various forms of control to maintain their power which is reinforced and reproduced through the legal, political, educational and cultural systems. But this power can never be total, absolute, or complete – it is an on-going struggle between what Fiske terms the power-bloc and “the people”.  Semiotic resistance (the interpretive power of “the people” to subvert, challenge, evade or resist dominant meanings and values which support the power-bloc) arises out of semiotic productivity – the interpretive ability to produce different or new meanings from the discourses, texts, resources and commodities produced by those in power. Rather than dismiss these instances of semiotic resistance as irrelevant, Fiske sees them as important (albeit minor) victories of the subordinate against a system that constantly seeks to socially divide, dominate, monitor and exert forms of control over them.

Fiske’s theory was formulated in the late 1980s and so pre-dates the emergence of web 2.0 and social media but his model of culture (and popular culture) does have a resonance with the ways in which social media tools and platforms further open up the terrain of culture for struggles over meaning, semiotic productivity and popular resistance. Imposing official (or dominant) meanings is now much more difficult because there are so many opportunities for contestation.  It would be naïve to cite the Jeremy Meeks example as some kind of paradigm changing moment or as the empowerment of the masses but it does offer an insight into the ways in which the potential for popular resistance is always possible and can surface in the most unlikely of places.

Liam French is a lecturer in the Journalism and Media Department at the University of St. Mark & St. John.

References & Further Reading

1 Jermyn, D. (2007) Crime Watching: Investigating Real Crime TV. New York, I.B. Tauris

2 McQuire, S. (1998) Visions of Modernity. London, Sage Publications.

3 Smith, M.J. (2003) Social Science in Question. London, Sage Publications.

4 Jermyn, D. (2007) Crime Watching: Investigating Real Crime TV. New York, I.B. Tauris

5 Tagg, J. (1988) The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories. New York.  Palgrave MacMillan.

6 Klein, D. (1996) The Etiology of Female Crime, in Muncie, J., McLaughlin, E. & Langan, M. (eds) Criminological perspectives: a Reader. London, Sage Publications.

7 Jermyn, D. (2007) Crime Watching: Investigating Real Crime TV. New York, I.B. Tauris

8 Fiske, J. (1989) Reading the Popular.  London & New York. Routledge.   See also Television Culture (1987) and Understanding Popular Culture (1989) by the same author.



Cesare Lombroso (1876) L’Uomo Delinquente:     http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/exhibitions/Babies/pictures/big/8600.c.97_tableVI.jpg   (accessed 6th June 2015)

Plymouth Crime Gang Broken by Undercover Police Operation. Plymouth Herald 25th March 2014:   http://www.plymouthherald.co.uk/Plymouth-crime-gang-broken-undercover-police/story-20846710-detail/story.html   (accessed 5th June 2015)

The Hands of Justice: Fascinating Nineteenth Century Mug-shots Show Criminals Displaying Their Fingers for the Camera to Reveal Tattoos or Even Missing Digits:   http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2967021/Whodunnit-shattered-skulls-real-life-game-Guess-new-exhibition-lifts-lid-morbid-fascination-forensics.html    (accessed 5th June 2015)

Ellen Pao, CEO of Reddit. image credit: Christopher Michel
Ellen Pao, CEO of Reddit. image credit: Christopher Michel

An unfortunately predictable thing happened on Reddit last week. Reddit’s corporate administrators announced that they would be shutting down “five subreddits that break our reddit rules based on their harassment of individuals.” These were fairly small subreddits, except for r/fatpeoplehate which had 150,000 subscribers at time of banning. The primary mission of r/fatpeoplehate was to find pictures of fat people, make fun of them in the comments and –if at all possible—find these people and harass them for being fat. [If you’re unfamiliar with the structure and vocabulary of Reddit I’ve provided a primer at the bottom of this page.]

The administrators were careful to point that they were “banning behavior, not ideas.” That is, while they know that there are dozens of subreddits devoted to white supremacy, tactics for violent raping women, and doxxing young women for espousing feminist beliefs on Tumblr, (yes, all of those exist and they are a lot bigger than you or I want to believe) those communities should rest assured that they will be safe so long as moderators make overtures to discouraging collective behavior that goes beyond reaffirming each other’s dangerous and hateful thoughts.

One could be forgiven for thinking that banning such disgusting behavior from a small minority of people would be met with some “that makes sense” head nods and any sort of outrage would be directed at the failure to ban more subreddits, not less. What in fact happened was quite the opposite: within the day there were dozens of new subreddits playing host to the kind of content and behavior that characterized r/fatpeoplehate. What’s more disturbing though, is that the content from these new subreddits were making it to the frontpage with thousands of votes. There were also countless posts calling for Reddit’s CEO Ellen Pao to do everything from resign to defile herself. As of writing, a full four days after the announcement, there’s an “Ellen Pao Must Resign” subreddit with over seven thousand subscribers that are still able to get links to the front page.

What happened here? How and why would the banning of such a despicable and small community cause such outrage? The answer comes in three parts: 1) the site’s features obscure more than they reveal about the social relationships that undergird the site, 2) the destructive and contradictory politics of extreme “free speech” rhetoric fan the flames of hate and 3) voting systems, as I have argued twice before (1 and 2), tend to reassert hegemonic discourse.

1) Social Relationships

Subreddits are administered by volunteer moderators that have wide-ranging discretion over the behavior of the community and set the tone for acceptable behavior. Their presence on the site however, is somewhat limited to their own submissions and comments, and a small box on the right-hand side that announces their handle. If a moderator is also a charismatic leader, or even just an influential voice, there are no indicators of their outsized influence on the group. From the outside, without spending a lot of time reading the comments, a subreddit that does a lot of infighting looks exactly the same as one that shares a very particular viewpoint.

Also, if subreddits work anything like other groupings of humans (and there’s no reason to assume otherwise), then smaller subreddits will act more like small towns than bigger subreddits that act like cities. Small towns might have squabbles, cliques, or even total schisms but there’s something that holds them together. Cities on the other hand, have a lot of people just passing through and while there can be devotees, everyone might not have the kind of loyalty that smaller places garner. Therefore, when small, tight-knit communities are threatened, they can act quickly and decisively with a unified front.

2) Extreme Free Speech

It is really important, speaking in the most general terms possible, that people get to express themselves in a way that they feel heard and their arguments considered. This is an ethical position that is shared, in varying shades and colors, by just about every political thinker since the Enlightenment. What makes Redditors’ free speech politics so destructive is their belief that “freedom” is synonymous with “no consequences” and that “community standards” are tantamount to “censorship.” This gets even more ridiculous when they invoke the 1st amendment to the U.S. Constitution which only states that the government –and not your preferred social media company––is prohibited from retaliating against political speech acts.

Notice here that I say extreme and not radical. Radical free speech would interrogate the very root of what freedom and speech acts mean and how they behave. This might require some critical thought about consequences, a study of the history of who typically gets to speak, and a thoughtful analysis of how one person’s freedom from abuse or harassment balances with others’ freedom to say and do certain things. Extremism doesn’t interrogate anything. Instead, it seeks to take things as they are to their most illogical conclusion. The sort of free speech extremism espoused on Reddit in the days after the announcement of the banned subreddits, posits that even the most reprehensible speech must be left alone because to silence even the worst among us is the beginning of a slippery slope towards… well, that’s sort of vague. Sometimes it’s the calcification and slow death of Reddit, sometimes it’s a more general indicator of fascism.

The irony here is that free speech extremism opens the door for fascism. It demands that hate, whether it is directed at fat people or anyone else, is somehow part of a spectrum that also contains more agreeable ideas: one of many things to be considered on their own merits. Lots of people upvoting derogatory posts about fat people may fancy themselves a one-man-ACLU: they don’t agree with the posts, but they’ll defend the right to post it. It is the kind of logic that could only come from someone with no skin in the game: people with enough privilege that decisions about what sort of speech should be tolerated are thought experiments and not matters of literal life and death.

3) Voting Systems

I would understand if voting seems somehow antithetical to extremism. We typically think of voting as a democratic mechanism that helps us arrive at commonalities, not divisive extremes. Generally this is the case. As I argued back in 2013:

Voting-oriented sites are often billed as exercises in crowdsourcing: Thousands of Reddit users take the place of Buzzfeed editors, and the hundreds of Quora users answering a question about the relative merits of Android over iOS replace the technology reviewer. But voting doesn’t foster virality so much as it encourages Redditors to play on well-worn tropes and memes to ensure a better chance at making the front page. The never-ending elections and karma hunts incentivize Redditors to try to craft perfect social media content just as canned and constrained as typical politicians. Users have begun to notice this uniformity in the sites’ comments, link titles, and even the content itself but there isn’t much that can be done. While using common phrases (Reddit’s are compiled here) are one of the more basic methods of forming and performing in group status, the karma-driven voting system asks the Redditor to wield cat GIFs and Xbox stories as a presidential speech writer might wield God and family.

This sounds like an argument for commonality, not extremity until one remembers that norms need not be neutral or all-inclusive. Reddit’s ability to deliver fat shaming is akin to a Texas legislature banning abortion providers. Voting can be a highly efficient delivery mechanism for violence, especially against marginal populations. Without mechanisms and features to actively and continually fight structural oppression, the same old violence will reassert itself. Just as a relative few people espouse explicitly white supremacist views in a country that benefits from and implicitly forgives structural white supremacy, so too can the banning of a relatively tiny hateful subreddit spur a massive backlash from a once-silent majority.

Voting mechanisms are particularly good at supporting this sort of social dynamic because it is so easy to register your support (no one asks you to defend your position) and the entire enterprise is meant to anoint definitive winners and losers. In that way, Reddit not only asks its users to be extremist, they are also zealots in the way Joel Olsen uses the term [paywall]. Zealotry is a kind of political tactic that draws clear lines of winners and losers, friends and enemies. Moderate positions are intentionally and forcibly removed as an option. Such tactics, according to Olsen, have been incredibly effective across the political spectrum, having been indispensable organizing tactics for both slavery and abortion abolitionists.

Voting doesn’t deliver the best, most important, or even the most popular content. Instead, voting asks that we adhere closely to established community norms, whether that be extremist free speech, hateful bigotry, or both. What we are seeing on Reddit is the same social phenomenon that drives the sort of community harassment that the smartphone-based social network Yik Yak is constantly fighting. When I wrote about Yik Yak back in April I warned, “Implementing a voting system as an information filter signals that group cohesion is prioritized over most other outcomes, including justice or equality for all members.” Voting, whether it is on content or candidates, asks us to double down on abstracted convictions so that we may achieve specific things later on.

When you live in a society that hates fat people it shouldn’t be surprising that one’s right to continue harassing and degrading them be used as cannon fodder for an extremist free speech crusade. Ellen Pao is also currently embroiled in a fight with her previous employer over fair hiring practices, making this an easy proxy war for the Mens’ Rights crowd as well. All this shows just how much work social network administrators have cut out for themselves. Unfortunately we have yet to find a mix of features and standards that help in actively discouraging structural oppression and not just individual bad behavior. Once we figure that out, we all might have the luxury of being surprised when something like this happens again.

David is on Twitter, Tumblr, and yeah actually- even Reddit.

Reddit primer

The main features of the site are minimal, almost elegant: a user submits links or short pieces of text and other users vote that submission up or down based on “importance.” Discussions are hosted on a fairly standard commenting system. The site is organized into “subreddits” which can be anything from vague categories’ like “pictures” all the way down to the more obscure “Where did the soda go?” which asks users to submit out-of-context gifs of infomercials. Subreddits are usually referred to by the unique portion of their URL. For example Where did the soda go? is r/wheredidthesodago. Users subscribe to subreddits which populate their custom frontpage. Individual profiles are sparse and contain not much more than a username, a history of things you’ve submitted and said in the comments, and a “karma” number that represents the net up and down votes you’ve received across the entire site.  If all of that didn’t sit right you can check out the Reddit’s about page.


Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that all banned subreddits were under 5,000 subscribers.

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Yesterday Apple announced something many of us were expecting: a streaming service to rival Spotify and possibly expand/destroy the services provided by recently acquired Beats Music. At first glance the recently announced service seems to be not much more than an also-ran for streaming: Apple Music lets you stream the iTunes catalog, make playlists, and provide a radio service for a reasonable monthly subscription. Unlike other services however, Apple is claiming to keep some of the human-curated playlists that gave Robin James’ 80 gig iPod classic a run for its money.

At the center of this “we’re not just Spotify” pitch are not only ad-free stations with real DJs playing music available to a global audience, but a kind of global radio brand that is something much more than Spotify’s pre-made playlists. The inaugural station “Beats 1” will be available in 100 countries when the service launches at the end of this month and even though, at time of writing, most of the world has known about this service for all of half an hour there’s still a lot gleam from the introductory demo. Apple is interested in not only shedding its U2 Dad Rock Albatross (someone photoshop a literal visual representation of that please), it wants to do so by establishing itself as the arbiter of global pop.

Cultural literacy, a term coined by E.D. Hirsch, refers to a sort of comfort with a group or community. Apple is both putting on a display of its own “cultural literacy” by eschewing U2 in favor of artists like Drake and The Weekend, and setting itself up to be a platform for popular music curation. Of course Apple has played a huge part in music since the first iPod but now they will be paying actual human beings to select music that can be heard in 100 countries 24/7.

Internationally synchronized pop music is nothing new, but a single company broadcasting a single playlist of “what is hot right now” is certainly a categorically bigger beast. In some ways it is completely predictable. The DJs that select the music for Beats 1 are in three global cities: LA, New York, and London. Saskia Sassen has convincingly argued [PDF], these cities have much more in common with each other than the countries that surround them. Apple is further solidifying the Global City phenomenon by broadcasting one single common cultural artifact to anyone with a smartphone (Apple Music and Beats 1 will be available on Android as well). Similar efforts with different technologies, like satellite radio, have failed miserably at doing this but perhaps they hewed too closely to traditional radio rather than iTunes playlists.

Practically, I doubt Beats 1, even if it is listened to by millions of people every day for years to come, will have a profound homogenizing effect on the music listening habits of most people. The Internet has made it easy to share a common cultural literacy even without a common language (cat videos) for decades. What’s different is the overtures to professional curation and selection. By definition Beats 1 isn’t creating viral hits, its making old school triple platinum music superstars. This time though, platinum status is instantly global. The music played on Beats 1 has to be appeal to (literally!) billions of potential listeners. The very existence of Beats 1 as a viable business model necessitates the idea that a single song can resonate with that many people. This is made possible through the mutual shaping of global distribution platforms and the shared cultural literacies of people in global cities.

It makes sense then, that in a minute-long product video for Beats 1 the audience is presented with a wide range of human forms and actions spanning what looks to be nearly every continent. It is the kind of multicultural diversity that springs up in university promotional materials: carefully curated but in the service of a sort of orientalism: a single Pharrell track is somehow universally applicable to lives in (what might be) an LA loft, a Pakistani suburb, and a Malay river. This display of vastly different people is not as an invitation for inclusion into any decision-making role, it is a statement on the reach of a single cultural milieu.

We know that this video is about dominance, rather than inclusivity because about halfway through this video we see several young people of color dancing in the middle of what looks like a New York City subway car. It is an energizing and fun scene that only lasts for a moment but is enough to conjure up any pre-existing memories of big city busking. Using public transit as a stage is both the lowest barrier to entry into grabbing a sizeable audience, and the best way to get arrested for practicing an artful craft. The fact that Apple would take that image and wrap it up in their product is the semiotic equivalent of gentrification: packaging up something unique, colorful, and exciting so that it is easily consumable in standardized units for a purchasing public.

Lots of well-known authors including David Harvey and Jane Jacobs have made a similar point about traditional gentrification: that well-financed firms can reverse-engineer the intangible things that make a place desirable –the weirdness of Austin, the painstakingly refined cuisine of New York boroughs– and change it ever-so-slightly so that it is inviting to anyone willing to pay for it. You standardize the form and sand down the rough edges so that Brooklyn becomes a recognizable flavor and Austin a desirable interior design aesthetic. Each vignette in the product video is available to well-heeled consumers the same way the edge of a gentrified neighborhood is: something pretty to look at but not worthy of spending any real time interacting with.

Of course this process mines the marginal for its most valuable parts and leaves the original inventors and innovators high and dry. New York City buskers face some of the harshest law enforcement in recent memory and yet Apple is still able to successfully leverage their image in their efforts to remake their music brand. These buskers are dancing to a relatively safe artist that is not Bono but still one of the handful that could be recognized by an audience as big as Beats 1’s could be. These are all places and times that are literally muted in favor of a track that appeals to the widest possible audience capital can deliver. If the progress of urban gentrification is any kind of bellwether to this business model I’m sure there’ll be lots of subscribers.

David is on Twitter and Tumblr.

(un)mask is a short film about the near future of affective, immaterial labor. Cameras—owned by advertisers and the state—pervade our physical spaces. Hypersensitive to facial expression data, corporations and government entities capture and exploit it, offering new modes of biopolitical control through a commodity we cannot help but give away.
Drawing on discourses about immaterial labor and the increasingly sophisticated face-tracking technologies embedded in surveillance systems and tools to measure the effectiveness of advertising, (un)mask suggests that every facial expression is a valuable piece of data—affective labor that advertisers and government agencies can use to make inferences about us and make recommendations to us, algorithmically anticipating our actions and more deeply enmeshing themselves in our daily lives. The film aims to question what avenues of resistance are available to us, and suggests that by over-emoting and thus overflowing the databases of facial expression recognition data with a flood of affect, we can confuse those aiming to exploit this data and devalue it as a commodity.
About the filmmaker: Zach Kaiser is an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design and Experience Architecture in the Department of Art, Art History, and Design at Michigan State University. A designer and music producer, he earned his MFA from the Dynamic Media Institute at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in 2013. He has exhibited and lectured both in the U.S. and internationally, including recent appearances at the IMPAKT Festival in Utrecht, The Netherlands, and Relating Systems Thinking and Design 3, in Oslo, Norway. When he’s not worrying about the algorithmic mediation of daily life, Zach can usually be found opining to the nearest passerby on why his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, is the greatest city in the world. 
Image Credit Miguel Noriega
Image Credit Miguel Noriega

Two weeks ago Zel McCarthy published a story in Thump about a mysterious infographic that’s been making the rounds lately. The infographic purports to show which drugs are popular at various music festivals by scraping Instagram for references to different drugs. Anyone that knows a thing or two about research design would already raise an eyebrow but it gets worse. According to McCarthy:

this intentionally-opaque study was conducted and assembled by a Florida-based content marketing agency Fractl, which works regularly with DrugAbuse.com. While at first glance the site appears to be a credible resource for those struggling with addiction and abuse issues, it’s actually a redirect for for-profit rehab and addiction centers, mainly ones that bankrolls the site.

To help dig deep into the issues of research design, online performativity, and substance use I sat down over Skype with Ingmar Gorman, a clinical psychologist at the New School for Social Research who was quoted in the Thump article saying that this “study” was not only poorly constructed, it was also indicative of an archaic, “moralistic approach” to substance abuse research. What follows is edited to make us both sound more articulate. You can listen to the whole interview (warts and all), using the SoundCloud embed at the end of the interview. The recording, along with the sound of a computer fan and me saying “uhh” a lot, also includes something I’ll call “bonus content” about a study that used the Watson supercomputer to tell if someone was on psychedelics. Enjoy.

David A Banks: You are interviewed in Thump regarding research that was done by a treatment center that used Instagram tags to study drug use at festivals, or at least that’s what it billed itself as. Could you start by describing the basics of this study and why wasn’t it the best science it could have been?

Ingmar Gorman: From a methodological standpoint what this study consisted of was going through a large number of Instagram posts and looking to identify when words associated with substances appear along with the names of a festival or a photo from a festival. And essentially what they did was say, “in X percentage of these posts from this festival, this percentage mentioned this drug.” But now we have to get into the nitty-gritty of it a little bit. They used words like cocaine or marijuana which clearly mean a drug however they also use words that could be potentially more ambitious. For example, crack could mean someone spoke about cracks in the playa at Burning Man. When you design this study looking at the use of language and these words, yeah they’ll probably get a “hit” —what you’re looking for— but there will also be a substantial number of false positives. The issue with the study, really if I can go into it, is transparency.

It’s interesting because it is sort of an example of the democratization of science. Maybe you could think of it this way: do scientists and researchers have to be the only people that produce “scientific knowledge”? I don’t know very much about the background of the people who developed this study because well, it isn’t really available! I think in the Thump interview the reporter was able to contact the person behind the research and ask them questions, but in a peer reviewed publication we would see who the authors are but in this case we don’t even know who the person is. The first thing to do would be to speak to this person and ask what their methodology was.

Depending on how you design your study, the methodology you use, the data you collect, the quality of the data, how you ensure the quality of that data, and most importantly the question that you ask —what is your hypothesis— it will set you up for a result that you can deduce some sort of understanding from.

The main issue with the study was that well, all parts of it were poor. The design was poor, the data quality was poor, we have no idea of the quality checks that were in there, so its not that we can’t draw conclusions its that we don’t really know what it means! The best conclusion that we could make is that these words coincided with these festivals.

DAB: Some of the other words that struck me as, at the very best, ambiguous were, “coke”, “spice”, “pills”, “yellow jackets”, “white girl” and references to prescription drugs that could be totally legal! These could be prescribed to these people and no one has to defend why they are taking an Instagram photo of them having to take their medication.

IG: I could see someone responding to this, to play devil’s advocate here, saying “oh c’mon guys, we know when people use these words they are talking about drugs there’s no need to make excuses about it.” And we could concede to that sort of argument and say yeah let’s take [this study] at face value and everything is completely accurate, [but] the next issue is that —and this is where things get very tricky and very clever— this does not translate into behavior. The data showed something like 3% of Instagram messages had mentioned Burning Man and crack cocaine. So what does that mean? Do 3% of festival goers use crack at Burning Man? That’s highly unlikely. But we can’t know [from the data in this study].

The clever piece about this is that the clinic never made that claim. So, if you had a peer-reviewed journal and you made a statement that said this is the data we collected and this is the conclusion we’re drawing, 3% of Burning Man attendees take crack we could argue against that. But what this group did, which is interesting, is they said “we’re just going to look at this data,” which we might call a convenience sample, “and we just make an infographic.” Which wasn’t really all that obfuscating, but then they ask you to draw your own conclusions. So what happened was the EDM festival community of web sites picked up on this and started spreading these infographics around. And then all sorts of claims are drawn from these. “These sorts of drugs at these festivals.” Which is a logical leap, there’s no indication of that.

DAB: Do you know any that could use social media to study these sorts of claims or do you think that this might be a fool’s errand: to attach what we say online to actual action?

IG: You might know more about this than I do but the first thing that pops into my mind is “how we present ourselves online, is that necessarily accurate of who we are and how we actually behave?” I think you and probably most people would argue that we present a persona, so that is an issue in interpreting data like this. The other question about whether this is a fool’s errand: you know, no. On some level I would even applaud this group who did this study… I even hesitate to call this a study because I don’t even know if that’s what they would call it, but the people that collected this data and presented it— I applaud them for using a novel method. But I think there’s a little aspect of it that’s disingenuous when— we have science and we present our methodologies and look for controls and confounds so that… we’ll never get a 100% accurate, objective picture of reality but we’re trying to sort of do the best we can.

DAB: I think that while everything we’ve already discussed definitely indicates problems with this study in particular, the beginnings of the privatization of social data in general in science is also at play here. Would you say that this study starts to reify or make stronger our long-standing beliefs of what you described in that Thump article as the moralistic approach to treating issues related to substance use?

IG: So is there a connection between my statement about the moralistic approach and the privatization of data?

DAB: The structure of the data that is already available to us, and the people that hold the keys to this data, are probably not as versed as you in what it means to do a good study on drug research. So then, is all of this data in the wrong hands? Is it fixable? Can this data ever be used for good research in your field?

IG: There are several things that come to my mind. First of all the data that they accessed in this study, this project that they did, was available from people’s feed.

DAB: They used the Instagram API which almost anyone can get, where in their very tiny methodology section, they said over March 2015 using the Instagram API they collected all of that data. [Editorial Note: while I said “anyone can get” it is also totally within the discretion of parent company Facebook to withdraw a person or organization’s access to the API for any reason.]

IG: Right, so I want to be fair to that group and not misrepresent what they did, however clearly there is data privatization that exists which is an issue! So the question is an interesting one. Yeah, how you execute a proper study is important. But also the deeper question is “how do the questions that we pose reflect our biases?” When I spoke [in the Thump article] about the moralistic approach to substance abuse treatment, that was a response to a statement made by the group that generated the data for this project.  The article reads, “One of the report’s authors, Michael Genevieve, tells THUMP the study was conducted with the intention of ‘[raising] enough awareness to scare readers into a sober festival experience, in fear of being arrested.’” My response was that that quote itself represents a moralistic approach to substance abuse treatment.

Now the reason why I said that –and this really goes into the area of substance use that’s outside of the social media question– is because historically the early perspectives of why people misuse and become dependent on substances was thought to be because they lacked moral character. “You are a bad person. There is something wrong with you. You are sinful. Therefore you are weak and you engage in these behavior because you lack self control.” The next movement was the disease model which is still prevalent and is difficult to unpack. Some people have a very strict, narrow scope of the disease model which is, “Substance addiction is a disease, an illness, you have it for your entire life, there’s nothing you can do, you’re allergic to alcohol [for example] and you can never touch it again.”

What is beginning to come into our conversation is a kind of model of self medication, a model of harm reduction. Which is an idea that encompasses the bio-psycho-social perspective. Yes, there are biological components, so it takes that piece of the disease model but it also has to do with a person’s psychology. Meaning, the way they see the world, the way they view themselves, histories of trauma, things like that. And then the sociological, which is the broader culture that perpetuates use or the context for the person’s use.

So when I talk about this “moralistic approach” to say “oh well we’re just scaring people” essentially what this person is communicating is “we looked at Instagram, we can associate festivals with drug use, therefore if you’re posting about the drugs that you’re using or you’re using drugs at these festivals, we know about it and you better not do it otherwise you’ll get thrown into jail.” It’s a fear tactic. It is unfortunately a dominant perspective in this country about why people use drugs and how people who use drugs should be treated, but in my opinion it is an archaic perspective that will be replaced by the newer perspectives on substance use. That’s why I made that statement.

DAB: I would like you to actually go a little deeper into why this new bio-psych-social perspective might be said to be better on lots of different axes. It could be more efficacious in helping people lead lives that allow them to flourish, or it could be a better explanatory model for why people engage in drug use at all. Could you do a little more unpacking on why it’s a better model. Then —given what we discussed earlier about how a lot of social media is performative— if there is any compatibility in doing better work in the bio-psycho-social perspective using big data analytics.

IG: Our approach to data analysis, and our approach to asking questions, whether it is big data or [conventional] scientific research, reflects our biases and that is something we have to own. And if individuals who are responsible for data analysis and big data have a moralistic attitude towards substance use, then they will very likely find what they are looking for because of how they structured their questions or analysis. What’s almost more important than developing a better study is having a different understanding of substance use and why various people use. An issue in this country is that people outside of the mental health field is that the dominant cultural perspective of why people use drugs —whether they have a problem or not— is set in this moralistic “you have a weak character” kind of approach. So that’s where I see those two things coming together.

Moving to your first question, the bio-pyscho-social model has been around for quite a while, a few decades at least, so that’s not necessarily new. What I believe is newer, and to be transparent I am a big fan of this, this is one of the models I use when I do psychotherapy as a clinician, is called the harm reduction psychotherapy model.

You’ll be familiar with harm reduction in terms of needle exchanges and safe sex education, there’s a whole host of things you can do. Harm reduction psychotherapy applies that perspective to the psychotherapeutic process in terms of dealing with substance use. And this is what I think is more novel and which is gaining steam is this idea that people who use and have a problematic relationship with a drug are doing it because it works for them and it helps them, or it did at one point and now it is a sort of residual behavior that is difficult for them to let go of. That idea kind of blows people’s mind.

By looking at the bio-psycho-social model through the harm reduction lens you can say, “there are reasons and motivations for substance use drugs.” Its fantastic because it includes everything. Biology is essential. I’m a materialist. I think some experiences which are hard to pinpoint in biology are important, ‘meaning’ is really important, but I’m a materialist and everything as far as I know is in the brain or somewhere in the body. That is essential especially when you’re altering your brain chemistry with a substance, that’s very biological.

The psychological piece, to speak more to that: the co-morbidity among substance use issues, what we call personality disorders, and trauma is enormous. Studies vary but I’ve heard something between 30 and 60 percent overlap [among these categories]. And this bears out. I was recently at a psychiatric emergency room and, this is anecdotal, but I’d say 95% of cases that were there at that moment all had a history of substance use and mental illness. There’s a lot of crossover, so understanding psychology is really important.

And then, the most important thing to talk about from a socio-cultural perspective, is the incarceration rates of black individuals and marijuana and other drug-related crimes. That’s the critical perspective. However, from a perspective of clinicians, [we ask ourselves] why do we not think twice about alcohol and caffeine ––or at least think minimally about it–– and there are minimal consequences for using these drugs. That’s a cultural context.

So this model is important for research because we are looking at causes and roots, but it’s also important in terms of treatment. What we look at in a clinical, psychological context is how a person derives meaning and understands their behavior. You need that insight, but there’s more than that. If someone comes from a disease model and I ask them “what’s behind this problematic, repeated use” they’ll say “well I’m an addict.” That closes off all exploration. No, you’re not just an addict! You’re a father, you have had a difficult childhood, you have issues becoming employed because of your criminal history, there’s so much there that makes someone depressed or upset that will drive them to their use. So really, what’s really important in this model is understanding the complexity that exists in the person.

DAB: I think we can leave it at that. Thanks so much for doing this.

IG: This has been really great, and thanks for having me.


Fox has decided to renew X-Files, a series that aired its last episode over thirteen years ago, with a “six-episode event series” that begins this January. I don’t know what an “event series” is but I’m pretty excited. Of course, there’s a lot of new things to distrust the government about, so one has to wonder: from the burning temperature of jet fuel to the Facebook algorithm, what will the writers decide to focus on? I couldn’t help myself and made a listicle.

Aliens are Still Around, Kinda

I’m gonna go ahead and say that alien abductions don’t quite capture the public imagination like they did in the 90s. The reason for this is probably over-determined, but making an educated guess as to why greyskins levitating someone off their bed and out the window went from terrifying to hackneyed, would help us know what to avoid while making a compelling and interesting alien sub-plot.

Perhaps the uniformity of alien abductions makes them no longer eligible for Quality Television. Maybe it was the very first episode of South Park that signaled that it was a predictable trope. In any case I think the classic bright lights, big eyes sort of alien abduction could make a comeback if it were shot immaculately and had some sort of new spin on it. There needs to be a new and compelling reason for the abductions. You can also reimagine the sequence so that the victim isn’t always walking through the forest or sleeping in bed. I think the V/H/S 2 (2014) alien kidnapping is the way to go here.

UFO sightings are harder to make compelling for many reasons that I’ll get into later but one of the biggest hurdles is that the ability to capture so much has diluted the market in unexplainable events caught on tape. There are tons of “Best UFO Sightings 2013 Compilation” videos but so many of them are well-made but obvious fakes. What would it take to convince Mulder and Scully to investigate one of the hundreds of videos uploaded every year? Perhaps the conspicuous absence of video (nine minutes perhaps) would be more compelling than capturing what looks to be a flying saucer. Proof of aliens won’t be shocking and well-documented alien abductions, it’ll just be creepy holes in the digital record.

Slenderman Episode

Slenderman is the closest the Internet has to a legendary folk creature, so naturally it would make sense that someone open an X File on it. Because Slenderman is from and of the Internet, so much about him is out of focus, glitchy, and full of static. A slenderman episode might be a great opportunity to push the genre and, like the X-Files did many times in its later seasons, bring in a guest director to do a feature episode. Bringing in Paranormal Activity director Oren Peli to do a found footage episode would be pretty fun. It’d have to be as least as good as X-Cops.

Slenderman is also suburban: hanging out in municipal parks, cul-de-sacs, and wherever bored teenagers can film their tallest friend in a suit with a sock on his head. It seems like a really appropriate story line give that the X-Files always played off of the same distinctly 90s paranormal of the mundane that also fueled shows like Unsolved mysteries and Sightings. Imagine an episode where kids are filming a slenderman episode but actually film something unexplainable? They’d bring in the Lone Gunman crew and dissect the video. Fun!

A Trip to a Data Center

“Scully, why is it that we don’t have a problem imagining a haunted Victorian mansion but these clean, modern buildings seem somehow immune to the supernatural?”

“I don’t know Mulder. Maybe because ghosts are manifestations of complex anxieties that don’t have a locatable subje–“

“Look, all ghost hunters agree that paranormal phenomena feed off of electrical energy. The largest server farm east of the Mississippi is practically an all you-can-eat buffet of EM waves. Think of it Scully, they’re probably getting second deserts.”

“I just think there’s a rational explanation for why photos of a dead girl are mistakenly showing up on other people’s profiles.”

Etc. Etc.

Fox Mulder Tries Tinder

This doesn’t have to be the plot of an entire episode. But I think we can get a solid ten minutes of Emmy-nominated air time on this subject.

Capturing Creepy Stuff on Camera is Harder, Not Easier.

I really, really need a scene where Mulder is seen standing in line at a pharmacy, disposable camera in hand, waiting for someone to actually come over to the photo center. Maybe a nice old lady would walk up to him and say something about how she still likes to make photo albums and Mulder will say, “Yeah, this is the only way I can seem to hold onto photos.”

Nearly all photography is now taken on phones and those phones have internet connections. Mulder and Scully don’t have more tools at their disposal for capturing proof. They have less. Not only are we more skeptical of what we see on video, there’s also plenty of opportunities for the government to copy, monitor, and delete any photo available to the network. It would be a shame if they ignored this really complicated and relevant topic with an “I use Tor” throw-away line.

The X-Files had already run out of steam by 2001 but one of the final nails in the coffin was the nationalism immediately after 9/11. Suddenly, stories about government cover-ups and shadowy back-door deals was either in poor taste or too real to be entertaining. Today we might say the same is still true –perhaps even more true than ever before– but maybe that’s exactly why we need Mulder and Scully again.

Photo Credit: Bill Dickinson

Science, to borrow a phrase from Steven Shapin, is a social process that is “produced by people with bodies, situated in time, space, culture, and society, and struggling for credibility and authority.” This simple fact is difficult to remember in the face of intricate computer generated images and declarative statements in credible publications. Science may produce some of the most accurate and useful descriptions of the world but that does not make it an unmediated window onto reality.

Facebook’s latest published study, claiming that personal choice is more to blame for filter bubbles than their own algorithm, is a stark reminder that science is a deeply human enterprise. Not only does the study contain significant methodological problems, its conclusions run counter to their actual findings. Criticisms of the study and media accounts of the study have already been expertly executed by Zeynep Tufecki, Nathan Jurgenson, and Christian Sandvig and I won’t repeat them. Instead I’d like to do a quick review of what the social sciences know about the practice of science, how the institutions of science behave, and how they both intersect with social power, class, race, and gender. After reviewing the literature we might also be able to ask how the study of science could have improved Facebook’s research.

This sort of work has been done under a number of names, including social studies of science, science studies, science and technology studies, sociology of knowledge, and science, technology, and society. The banners that individual researchers march under is less important than the approaches and perspectives each take, so instead of concentrating on the changing names for this sort of work, I’ll instead focus on what these authors thought was aspect of science was most important to study.

The scientific method itself was born out of a debate between Thomas Hobbes (author of The Leviathan, best known for the “states exist so we don’t immediately kill one-another” hypothesis) and Robert Boyle (inventor of the air pump and widely considered founder of modern chemistry).  The two argued vigorously over whether or not you could see something and declare it as fact (Boyle), or whether one had to understand underlying causes before contributing to natural philosophy (Hobbes). Whereas Boyle was willing to separate facts from causes ––birds die when you put them in a vacuum, exactly why was a mystery–– Hobbes saw this as sloppy philosophy. One had to build an argument from the ground up, starting with the cause (which may have been grounded in what would today be called “social” or “political” reasons) and ending with the observable phenomenon.

The division between Hobbes and Boyle (catalogued in Shapin and Schafer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump)represents in microcosm, the modern western worldview we have today: politics says what should be and science says what is. But science, whether it is making nuclear bombs or social media platforms, often works in the service of politics or becomes the center of political debates. You can’t neatly separate the two. It’s no coincidence, for example, that Newton’s calculus is particularly helpful at calculating cannon ball trajectories and statistical methods are particularly well-attuned to assisting a few people make definitive claims about lots of people.

Prominent French sociologists like Emile Durkheim and Max Weber have written about science; the former recognizing that just because something is socially derived does not make it not objective, and the latter noticing that science is a vocation and, like all vocations, demands loyalties to certain practices and people that are based on social considerations. By the 1930s social scientists were dedicating their entire careers to studying science. Robert Merton and Bernard Barber were some of the first sociologists of science. They saw the rise of authoritarianism in Europe as a threat to science and set out to show that science was inherently democratic and therefore science was good for democracy. Their work was concerned mainly with the practice of science and rarely made claims about the nature of facts and claims. They studied how scientific communities formed, how they rewarded desirable behavior, and the ways science was internally stratified by rank and prestige.

Starting in the 40s with Michael Polanyi and picking up in the 60s with the publication of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, science studies began to expand out and make observations about the content of scientific knowledge as well. Polanyi argued that underlying claims to knowledge are personal and collective convictions and science does itself a disservice to ignore such preconditions. If the sort of free debate that is necessary for a healthy scientific community is to occur, values must be stated plainly. To claim neutrality, Polanyi argued, was to hide your values. Kuhn makes a similar, but more systemic argument that all science happens within a paradigm. A paradigm is analogous to what sociologists call a s social world: a set of practices, widely held ideas, values, languages, and practices that mark a particular place and time.

According to Kuhn, most of the history of science can be described as punctuated equilibrium. Scientists live within a certain paradigm and do work based on that paradigm until something really big happens that threatens the dominant paradigm. The go-to example is the “Copernican Revolution” but not for the reason most people think. The story that is popularly told is that Copernicus “discovered” that the sun revolved around the Earth, not the other way around, but it is more accurate to say he re-discovered this fact. It was widely understood by the Ancient Greeks that the sun was the center of the solar system, but that “fact” fell out of commonly-accepted natural philosophy for over a thousand years.

Kuhn would say that this demonstrates that science is not a linear progression of ever-increasing understanding, rather it is a practice that generally works within incrementally changing social worlds until something big happens that causes a revolution into a radically different one. The important thing to note here is that the “something big” need not be a scientific discovery or breakthrough. It can be a war, a new tool coming to market, or (and Kuhn says this is usually the case) the death of a prominent member of a scientific community. If their “rivals” are able to take up positions as department chairs and journal editors, entire disciplines can change dramatically. Of course the ability to gain prestige in the field is based in no small part on the ability to do science but it is far from a pure meritocracy.

From the 60s to the 80s social scientists were largely preoccupied with describing exactly what contributed to success in science beyond the merit of work. Or, to put it more precisely, social scientists set out to understand how, what, and who was deemed meritorious and worthy of praise within scientific communities.

Early work in this field falls under the large banner of “social constructionist.” Radical social constructionists say that all claims to knowledge are power moves, not efforts towards truth or understanding. More moderate social constructionists only contend that scientific theories should at least be subjected to the same sociological analysis, whether they end up being “proven” true or false. This still means that a social constructionist analysis would never ascribe the success of a theory to its (to use a Colbertism) “truthiness.” Instead, the success or failure of a scientific program or theory comes from its ability to do useful work or are particularly suited to confirming the beliefs of powerful actors. At the center of the social constructionist approach are authors like David Bloor, Barry Barnes, and Donald A. MacKenzie. They and others are usually referred to as the Strong Programme of STS.

Shapin and Schafer describe the social constructionist approach as “playing the stranger.” They write in the introduction to their history of Hobbes and Boyle that they sought to “adopt a calculated and an informed suspension of our taken-for-granted perceptions of experimental practice and its products. By playing the stranger we hope to move away from self-evidence.” They try to understand why someone might disagree with the scientific method, especially at a point in history when it was far from clear that Boyle would win that particular controversy.

Social constructionist analyses tend to focus on the role of individual agency to effect change in scientific research programs but, as Daniel Kleinman has shown [paywall], the institutional structure of science can have a big influence on research practice as well. The standardization of lab equipment, for example, has a constraining influence on the variety of scientific research. Widely available equipment and chemicals “are created to suit a wide market of laboratories, not the local needs of individual labs.” Specialized research isn’t just a matter of modifying those widely available chemicals or tools, especially if they are covered under intellectual property laws. Standardized, proprietary equipment can make private companies indispensable to entire sub-disciplines. It can also mean the replicability of a study is directly tied to the business decisions of private firms

Aside from social constructionism, another large branch of science studies comes out of critical feminist studies. Feminists focus on the ways androcentric views of the world are embedded in scientific accounts of nature and scientific practice. Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Karen Barad, Susan Traweek, Evelyn Fox Keller, Linda Layne, and many more authors have contributed extensive research in this field. Everything from the time to full professor (surprise, it takes much longer for women) to the tendency to ascribe the features of patriarchal white middle class family structures onto animal communities bend science toward male supremacy and away from other (and perhaps one could even say more empirically accurate) views of the world.

There are lots of examples here but Haraway’s concept of Teddy Bear Patriarchy is one of my favorites so I will use that as my example. * Haraway, in tracing a genealogy of primatology and natural history more generally in her book Primate Visions, notes that early naturalists and conservationists’ practices form the ideological bedrock for how present-day scientists go about cataloging and understanding the world. She points to the dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History in New York, some of which date back to Theodore Roosevelt’s efforts at nature conservancy, as the epitome of patriarchy’s counter-intuitive logic: taxidermy –the active hunting and killing of animals so that their skins may be presented in a museum– is somehow held up as a window onto life. She writes:

This is the effective truth of manhood, the state conferred on the visitor who successfully passes through the trial of the Museum. The body can be transcended. This is the lesson Simone de Beauvoir so painfully remembered in the Second Sex; mas is the sex which risks life and in so doing, achieves his existence. In the upside down world of Teddy Bear Patriarchy, it is the craft of killing that life is constructed, not in the accident of personal, material birth.

Teddy Bear patriarchy can hide in plain sight thanks to what Donna Haraway, in her essay Situated Knowledges calls the “god-trick.” The god trick is “seeing everything from nowhere.” It is the illusion of an all-seeing eye that doesn’t just passively view natural phenomena but also “fucks the world to make techno-monsters.”** Instead of a disembodied and universalistic approach to understanding nature, feminists like Haraway argue for a  “Feminist objectivity” that situates knowledge in particular bodies and treats objects of study “as an actor and agent, not a screen or a ground or a resource.”

What might feminist objectivity look like in practice? How would the Facebook echo chamber report look if its authors had used feminist research practices? It is hard to tell because so much of Facebook is built upon a decidedly anti-feminist approach that capitalizes on the view from nowhere. But, if we were to start incorporating feminist epistemologies into Facebook research, a good place to start would be adopting what Sandra Harding and others have called “standpoint epistemology.” Standpoint epistemology is a way of reporting scientific findings without relying on the god-trick to assert legitimacy.

Facebook researchers using a standpoint epistemology would first recognize that their position of power in relation to users, not to mention their clear biases in showing that the algorithm is benevolent if not agnostic, has profound impacts on their results. If they still wanted to conduct the study they may mitigate their own biases by selecting users to review the data as well. They might pair their quantitative data with qualitative accounts and personal stories about avoiding or seeking out opposing viewpoints.

Most importantly though, a standpoint epistemology would recognize that different people avoid or seek out viewpoints for different reasons and not all echo chambers are created equal. A group of people intensely sharing news that confirms anti-choice legislation is not the same thing as a group of people sharing stories about the survival of trans people in the rural south. The latter acts as a safe space in a largely hostile world, whereas the former is means of distilling a hegemonic discourse.

Truly interesting questions arise when we think about how algorithms themselves may benefit from science studies in general and standpoint epistemologies in particular. Could algorithms help in the controlling of triggering content or might the formation and shaping of the algorithm become part of the daily practice of Facebook? It seems that having a single algorithm runs counter to the very basic precepts of standpoint epistemology in the first place. Perhaps the first step in a more feminist direction would be to acknowledge the obvious: that the Facebook algorithm is a product made for certain ends and to embrace that fact in future scientific reports.

David is on Twitter and Tumblr.

*It is worth noting, reflexively, that Pierre Bourdieu (who founded what he called, reflexive sociology wherein the sociologist recognizes and announces his or her sociological positioning) identified summaries and textbooks as inherently political documents wherein the author defines a discipline by selecting its constitutive authors. That’s totally what I’m doing.

**Not completely sure what this means but see asterisk above. An interpretation of this quote might suggest that the view from nowhere gives scientists ideological cover when building or contributing to weapons development or other destructive technologies. Scientists can say that their work is value-neutral and it is the decisions of politicians that actually produce deadly results.

Works Cited:

  • Bauchspies, Wenda K, Jennifer Croissant, and Sal Restivo. 2005. Science, Technology, and Society: A Sociological Approach. 1st ed. Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Bloor, D. 2007. “Ideals and Monisms: Recent Criticisms of the Strong Programme in the Sociology of Knowledge.” Studies In History and Philosophy of Science Part A 38 (1): 210–34. doi:10.1016/j.shpsa.2006.12.003.
  • Haraway, D. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14 (3): 575–99.
  • Haraway, Donna J. 1990. Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. Reprint. Routledge.
  • Harding, Sandra, ed. 2003. The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies. 1 edition. New York: Routledge.
  • jurgenson, nathan. 2015. “Facebook: Fair and Balanced.” Cyborgology. May 7. http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2015/05/07/facebook-fair-and-balanced/.
  • Kleinman, Daniel L. 1998. “Untangling Context : Understanding a University Laboratory in the Commercial World.” Science, Technology & Human Values 23 (3): 285–314. doi:10.1177/016224399802300302.
  • Kuhn, Thomas S. 1996. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd ed. University Of Chicago Press.
  • Merton, Robert K. 1979. The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. University Of Chicago Press. http://www.amazon.com/The-Sociology-Science-Theoretical-Investigations/dp/0226520927.
  • Sandvig, Christian. 2015. “The Facebook ‘It’s Not Our Fault’ Study.” Social Media Collective. May 7. http://socialmediacollective.org/2015/05/07/the-facebook-its-not-our-fault-study/.
  • Shapin, Steven, Simon Schaffer, and Thomas Hobbes. 1985. Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life : Including a Translation of Thomas Hobbes, Dialogus Physicus de Natura Aeris by Simon Schaffer. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
  • Tufekci, Zeynep. 2015. “How Facebook’s Algorithm Suppresses Content Diversity (Modestly) & How the Newsfeed Rules the Clicks.” The Message. May 7. https://medium.com/message/how-facebook-s-algorithm-suppresses-content-diversity-modestly-how-the-newsfeed-rules-the-clicks-b5f8a4bb7bab.


Cartoon by Matt Lubchansky (@lubchansky) original posting can be found here.
Cartoon by Matt Lubchansky (@lubchansky) original posting can be found here.

A few editorial cartoons offering a counterpoint perspective to the cultural sentiments and media portrayals that denounce the Baltimore “riots” as politically unproductive, ethically unjustifiable hooliganism have achieved viral status.  One particularly prominent cartoon illustrates alternative histories in which once denied freedoms and equities were achieved without systemically disruptive uprisings (see image above).  In one panel an 18th century Haitian slave cordially informs a French Imperialist that he and his fellow slaves would rather be free.  The receptive overseer responding in an equally kind fashion decides to abolish the system of slavery that legitimizes his very authority.  In another panel an 18th century French revolutionary asks King Louis XVI to abdicate his power as well as dissolve the monarchy to make way for democratic rule and, like in the previous example, history is comically rewritten to suggest that the powers that be were enthusiastically and progressively responsive to such a request. 

These cartoons are funny because they reveal an absurd distance between the historical actualities and their reimagined counterparts—a distance which further reveals the absurdity of expecting that the existing authority will readily relinquish oppressive, self-enriching policies of inequality for the betterment of others and society as a whole.

The cartoons communicate a series of specific messages.  For most observers these cartoons first and foremost communicate the naivety of assuming that progressive change of any social system is possible without some hostile disruption to said system’s order.  But there is, perhaps, a more important message embodied by these comic narratives.  The logic of these cartoons suggests something about the nature of communication: the condition of apparent clarity and reasonableness of a given utterance (or attempt at communication) does not necessarily elicit a systemic response.  To better understand this presently vague stipulation let us turn to some theoretical insights about social systemic communication.

Niklas Luhmann suggested that the social system is, first and foremost, a system of communications.  To understand how a social systemic order emerges, persists and changes, then, we must consider how communications emerge, persist and change.  Looking again to the cartoons, we may recognize that these reimagined circumstances present the reader with what are in practice comically ineffective means for communicating social grievances.  System’s theorists could say that such  utterances never becomes a communicative act, never emerge from noise and thereby fail elicit a meaningful response.

With these stipulations in mind, we may ask the questions: Who gets to participate in systemic communication? Whose communications make a meaningful difference to the systemic order?  The utterances of Haitian slaves, French revolutionaries and present day, black citizens of Baltimore emerged in their respective times without meaningful reception and response.  The prevailing social systems relegated their voices of dissent and discontent to meaningless noise.   Systemic disruption, however, serves as a means in which utterances may effectively emerge from systemic noise.   When an utterance takes the form of flipping cars, breaking windows, and impassioned shouts, it is increasingly difficult to avoid giving said utterance your full attention.

The violence perpetuated by such disruptions is not irrational or simply aberrant; rather it demands the penultimate acts of reason-centered discourse, the emergence of dialogue and mutual recognition.   The irony of discourses that fail to understand the sensibility behind the Baltimore uprisings is that they often appeal to Martin Luther King Jr’s teachings of nonviolence to justify their reservations.  Yet the Green party nominee of 2012, Jill Stein, suggests on Facebook that alluding to MLK, Jr. is wholly inappropriate for such discourses.  She concludes with his famous quote: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” In line with this logic, we may acknowledge that Baltimore’s turmoil will subside when grievances are addressed meaningfully; wherefore the aggrieved become a part of and meaningfully contribute to the systemic order.

James Chouinard is an independent scholar with a PhD in Sociology.

Photo By Aaron Thompson

I was happy to see Theorizing the Web go so well for so many people. The committee has been getting a lot of positive and constructive feedback and we’re reading all of it. If you feel so moved to write your own reflections on #TtW15 please send them our way. Last year, my post-conference thoughts were all about labor and the dangers of doing what you love. That’s still a problem ––TtW relies almost completely on volunteer labor–– but this year I’m thinking more about the institutions that prop up the typical Hilton-hosted conference model and make it difficult, if not financially impossible, to have more events like Theorizing the Web.

Our pay-what-you-want donation model reflects our commitment to lowering the barriers to participation in theorizing, but it is also indicative of all the little mundane ways that traditional academic institutions and TtW are not compatible. Most institutions have a little bit of money put aside for travel and conference costs, but need proof that the conference asks for a certain amount of money before funds can be approved. Without a posted conference fee many of our attendees (me included) have no mechanism by which to expense the registration cost and thus end up paying their donation out-of-pocket.  By choosing to not demand money from all attendees, we forgo the kind of money that average disciplinary associations receive every year.

Because we work out of unusual places we usually have to install a large, but temporary, internet connection. Internet service providers rarely, if ever, have someone asking to buy a single month’s worth of their biggest commercial line. We’ve tried to buy less (We only use it for one weekend!) but companies selling lots of bandwidth only work in monthly increments. I’m pretty sure we have become notorious to Time Warner Cable installation crews too—as we typically run multiple lines in the same building. Nothing about the conference fits neatly into the forms and procedures of a typical cable customer.

There are really important reasons why, for the last two years, we have opted to put Theorizing the Web in unorthodox locations. The early American university was purposefully isolated- it gave students a space where they were safe to make radical claims and were free from distractions so that they could get work done. If anything has been held over from that early time, it is the isolation that campuses breed. There’s a time and a place for that and TtW isn’t it. We want people to come off of the street, register really fast, and check out what’s happening. Few venues make this serendipity possible, but it is an important feature that we look for in selecting a venue. In the last two years we’ve had lots of people come in, listen for a few minutes and leave. Some stay. The ones that stick around are tremendously important to us.

All of this is to say that Theorizing the Web could actually be even cheaper than it already is, if we weren’t such an anomaly to venues, Internet Service Providers, and employers. TtW comes up against many of the actual and immediate material costs of constructing alternative institutions. There’s nothing quite like TtW but we hope that changes soon. We can’t meet the demand for this sort of project and if there were more organizations like TtW it might be easier for all of us. Until then, feel free to send us your suggestions and recommendations for making TtW16 even better: http://theorizingtheweb.tumblr.com/ask

 David is on Twitter
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The 2016 presidential race has already started and it’s easy to get caught up in the horserace and forget about all of the technologies and tactics that campaigns employ to get their message out. The 2008 Obama campaign was the first to take full advantage of social media and eight years later these tactics seem to have become the new normal. It is now possible to deliver precisely tailored messages for key demographics and even individuals. American presidential campaigns have never been models of democracy but with the help of private databases and corporate collusion, the 2016 presidential race is shaping up to be a very murky process.

What deserves our immediate attention is what Zeynep Tufekci, in a 2014 First Monday article, calls computational politics. “Internet’s propensity for citizen empowerment is neither unidirectional, nor straightforward.” Warns Tufekci, “The same digital technologies have also given rise to a data–analytic environment that favors the powerful, data–rich incumbents, and the technologically adept, especially in the context of political campaigns.” The use of big data “for conducting outreach, persuasion and mobilization in the service of electing, furthering or opposing a candidate, a policy or legislation” is computational politics.

In the past, campaigns relied on general relationships between demographics and voter behavior and reception to key messaging tactics. Today, instead of focusing in on “white males over the age of 65” a campaign message can be tailored specifically to an individual based on a natural language analysis of Facebook status updates, purchasing history, and other kinds of data. This means that not only are campaigns going to get much more personally persuasive, they are, somewhat paradoxically, going to get much more fractured. The same candidate can present themselves as a job creating capitalist to your slightly left of center dad while touting tough climate change legislation to the college student that has Greenpeace “liked’ on Facebook.

One might be tempted to see this as a more powerful version of what Herman and Chomsky called their “Propaganda Model” in their famous book Manufacturing Consent. Herman and Chomsky argue that instead of being skeptical and adversarial opponents to powerful interests, the media is actually complicit in framing and shaping the news in such a way that it legitimizes the state’s use of violence. “It is much more difficult” they write, “to see a propaganda system at work where the media are private and formal censorship is absent.

While this still holds true, social media doesn’t just broadcast information from a few people to a larger audience, it also shapes and mediates our conversations between each other. Tufecki cites studies that concluded Facebook could increase –to a statistically significant degree–voter turnout by showing users a list of their friends that had voted followed by a “go vote!” message. It doesn’t take much imagination to think of a scenario where a similar method is put up for sale as a way to selectively get out the vote for a particular candidate or party.

Even when the candidates don’t have algorithms to hide behind, their teams are adept at controlling the conversation and avoiding important topics. In the debates of the 2012 campaign there was virtually no discussion of drone warfare until the last debate where Romney and Obama agreed that drones were totally awesome. There was also absolutely no discussion of climate change, even though it has been a major debate topic for decades and the problem has only gotten worse. What sorts of topics can we expect to not hear about this campaign season? Will the candidates take strong stands on killer police, NSA spying, or escalating wars in the Middle East? If there isn’t loud and long debates on these subjects we should assume they all agree that these are good things worth keeping around.  Or, at the very least, campaign coordinators have all agreed that the politically viable opinions that secure winning percentages of the population have no bearing on sensible and permanent solutions.

Finally, we should be ready to hear a deafening silence when it comes to who actually gets to do the voting once all the campaigning is over. Who is allowed to do the voting gets smaller and smaller every year, thanks to so-called “voter fraud prevention” laws that take wild and wide swipes at voter rolls; knocking out people who should be able to vote. In October of last year, just before the midterm elections, Al-Jazeera reported on massive voter suppression efforts “that threatens a massive purge of voters from the rolls. Millions, especially black, Hispanic and Asian-American voters, are at risk.”

Much of voter suppression, according to the Al-Jazeera report, is accomplished through the Crosscheck Program. Crosscheck is a database that purports to help election officials see if people have voted more than once by comparing names of registered voters in different districts and states. The system spits out so many false positives that its continued use is an implicit admission of guilt. Moreover, it seems the program’s “lists are heavily weighted with names such as Jackson, Garcia, Patel and Kim — ones common among minorities, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic.”

Regardless of your feelings about whether or not –either through design or consequence of external factors– presidential campaigns are effective political change agents, it is safe to say that many of the databases that are coming online today are not in service of the greater good. They reify power differentials that hide us from candidates’ true intentions and (even worse) our own opinions about those candidates. By taking conversations that should be had in groups and in public, and personalizing them to the point of individual private conversation, we lose a lot of the advantages that come with outnumbering our elected officials. We can’t compare notes or even ask the same questions. We aren’t only battling misinformation, we have to do the hard work of fighting to know what we do not know about our candidates and the issues.