There was a great article in The Nation last week about social media and ad hoc credit scoring. Can Facebook assign you a score you don’t know about but that determines your life chances?

Traditional credit scores like your FICO or your Beacon score can determine your life chances. By life chances, we generally mean how much mobility you will have. Here, we mean a number created by third party companies often determines you can buy a house/car, how much house/car you can buy, how expensive buying a house/car will be for you. It can mean your parents not qualifying to co-sign a student loan for you to pay for college. These are modern iterations of life chances and credit scores are part of it.

It does not seem like Facebook is issuing a score, or a number, of your creditworthiness per se. Instead they are limiting which financial vehicles and services are offered to you in ads based on assessments of your creditworthiness.

One of the authors of The Nation piece (disclosure: a friend), Astra Taylor, points out how her Facebook ads changed when she started using Facebook to communicate with student protestors from for-profit colleges. I saw the same shift when I did a study of non-traditional students on Facebook.

You get ads like this one from DeVry:

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Although, I suspect my ads were always a little different based on my peer and family relations. Those relations are majority black. In the U.S. context that means it is likely that my social network has a lower wealth and/or status position as read through the cumulative historical impact of race on things like where we work, what jobs we have, what schools we go to, etc. But even with that, after doing my study, I got every for-profit college and “fix your student loan debt” financing scheme ad known to man.

Whether or not I know these ads are scams is entirely up to my individual cultural capital. Basically, do I know better? And if I do know better, how do I come to know it?

I happen to know better because I have an advanced education, peers with advanced educations and I read broadly. All of those are also a function of wealth and status. I won’t draw out the causal diagram I’ve got brewing in my mind but basically it would say something like, “you need wealth and status to get advantageous services offered you on the social media that overlays our social world and you need proximity wealth and status to know when those services are advantageous or not”.

It is in interesting twist on how credit scoring shapes life chances. And it runs right through social media and how a “personalized” platform can never be democratizing when the platform operates in a society defined by inequalities.

I would think of three articles/papers in conversation if I were to teach this (hint, I probably will). Healy and Fourcade on how credit scoring in a financialized social system shapes life chances is a start:

providers have learned to tailor their products in specific ways in an effort to maximize rents, transforming the sources and forms of inequality in the process.

And then Astra Taylor and Jathan Sadowski’s piece in The Nation as a nice accessible complement to that scholarly article:

Making things even more muddled, the boundary between traditional credit scoring and marketing has blurred. The big credit bureaus have long had sidelines selling marketing lists, but now various companies, including credit bureaus, create and sell “consumer evaluation,” “buying power,” and “marketing” scores, which are ingeniously devised to evade the FCRA (a 2011 presentation by FICO and Equifax’s IXI Services was titled “Enhancing Your Marketing Effectiveness and Decisions With Non-Regulated Data”). The algorithms behind these scores are designed to predict spending and whether prospective customers will be moneymakers or money-losers. Proponents claim that the scores simply facilitate advertising, and that they’re not used to approve individuals for credit offers or any other action that would trigger the FCRA. This leaves those of us who are scored with no rights or recourse.

And then there was Quinn Norton this week on The Message talking about her experiences as one of those marketers Taylor and Sadowski allude to. Norton’s piece summarizes nicely how difficult it is to opt-out of being tracked, measured and sold for profit when we use the Internet:

I could build a dossier on you. You would have a unique identifier, linked to demographically interesting facts about you that I could pull up individually or en masse. Even when you changed your ID or your name, I would still have you, based on traces and behaviors that remained the same — the same computer, the same face, the same writing style, something would give it away and I could relink you. Anonymous data is shockingly easy to de-anonymize. I would still be building a map of you. Correlating with other databases, credit card information (which has been on sale for decades, by the way), public records, voter information, a thousand little databases you never knew you were in, I could create a picture of your life so complete I would know you better than your family does, or perhaps even than you know yourself.

It is the iron cage in binary code. Not only is our social life rationalized in ways even Weber could not have imagined but it is also coded into systems in ways difficult to resist, legislate or exert political power.

Gaye Tuchman and I talk about this full rationalization in a recent paper on rationalized higher education. At our level of analysis, we can see how measurement regimes not only work at the individual level but reshape entire institutions. Of recent changes to higher education (most notably Wisconsin removing tenure from state statute causing alarm about the role of faculty in public higher education) we argue that:

In short, the for-profit college’s organizational innovation lies not in its growth but in its fully rationalized educational structure, the likes of which being touted in some form as efficiency solutions to traditional colleges who have only adopted these rationalized processes piecemeal.

And just like that we were back to the for-profit colleges that prompted Taylor and Sadowski’s article in The Nation.

Efficiencies. Ads. Credit scores. Life chances. States. Institutions. People. Inequality.

And that is how I read. All of these pieces are woven together and its a kind of (sad) fun when we can see how. Contemporary inequalities run through rationalized systems that are being perfected on social media (because its how we social), given form through institutions, and made invisible in the little bites of data we use for critical minutiae that the Internet has made it difficult to do without.

Tressie McMillan Cottom is an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University.  Her doctoral research is a comparative study of the expansion of for-profit colleges.  You can follow her on twitter and at her blog, where this post originally appeared.

What do you think?


Thanks to @WyoWeeds!

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

3Thanks xkcd.

I’m not saying that the Patriots are out-and-out liars. But they are outliers.

The advantage of an underinflated ball, like the eleven of the twelve footballs the Patriots used last Sunday, is that it’s easier to grip. Ball carriers will be less likely fumble if they’re gripping a ball they can sink their fingers into.

We can’t go back and measure the pressure of balls the Patriots were using before the Colts game, but Warren Sharp (here) went back and dug up the data on fumbles for all NFL games since 2010.  Since a team that controls the ball and runs more plays has more chances to fumble, Sharp graphed the ratio of plays to fumbles (values in red squares in the chart below) along with the absolute number of fumbles (values in blue circles). The higher the ratio, the less fumble-prone the team was.


One of these things is not like the others.  That’s what an outlier is. It’s off the charts. It’s nowhere near the trend line. Something about it is very different. The variables that might explain the differences among the other data points – better players, better weather or a domed stadium, a pass-centered offense – don’t apply. Something else is going on.

As the graph shows, when the teams are rank ordered on the plays/fumbles ratio, the difference between one team and the next higher is usually 0-2, there are only two gaps of 5 until the 9-point gap between #3 Atlanta and #2 Houston. From the second-best Texans and to the Patriots there’s a 47-point jump.

Sharp also graphed the data as a histogram.

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It’s pretty much a bell curve centered around the mean of 105 plays-per-fumble. Except for that outlier. And the chart shows just how far out it lies.

The Patriots play in a cold-weather climate in a stadium exposed to the elements.  Yet their plays/fumble ratio is 50% higher than that of the Packers, 80% higher than the Bears. They have good players, but those players fumble less often for the Patriots than they did when they played for other NFL teams.

Usually, the statistical anomaly comes first – someone notices that US healthcare costs are double those of other nations – and then people try to come up with explanations.  In this case, it wasn’t until we had a possible explanatory variable that researchers went back and found the outlier. As Peter Sagal of “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” said, “The League became suspicious when a Patriots player scored a touchdown and instead of spiking the ball he just folded it and put it in his pocket.”

UPDATE, Jan. 28: Since I posted this, there has been some discussion of Sharp’s data (“discussion” is a euphemism – this is sports and the Internet after all). If you’re really interested in pursuing this, try Advanced Football Analytics  or this piece  at Deadspin “Why Those Statistics About The Patriots’ Fumbles Are Mostly Junk,” (to repeat, “discussion” is a euphemism, and if you more strongly voiced views, read the comments). One of the difficulties I suspect is that a fumble is a rare event. The difference between the teams with the surest grip and the most butterfingered is about one fumble every couple of games.

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Every year, at the first faculty meeting, representatives of the registrar tell us what percentage of the incoming class is [insert variable in which we are interested, such as American Indian, working class, international, etc].  They compare it to last year’s percentage.  This drives me crazy because they do so as if comparing the last two data points in a sequence is indicative of a trend. But to determine whether or not there is a trend, and therefore whether the increase or decrease in the percentage of [insert variable in which we are interested] significant relative to last year, depends on more than two data points!

xkcd does an excellent job of illustrating just how two data points can be utterly meaningless, even wildly fallacious:


Other great xkcd cartoons: attribution and the in group, on statistical significance, correlation or causation, and the minimal group paradigm.

Originally posted in 2009.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

In statistics, a little star next to a coefficient generally means that the result is statistically significant at the p<.05 level. In English, this means that there is only a 1 in 20 chance that the finding just popped up by pure random chance. In sociology, that’s generally considered good enough to conclude that the finding is “real.”

If one investigates a lot of relationships, however, this way of deciding which ones to claim as real has an obvious pitfall.  If you look at 20 possible but false relationships, chances are that one of them will be statistically significant by chance alone. Do enough fishing in a dead lake, in other words, and you’ll inevitably pull up some garbage.

Thanks xkcd, for making this funny:

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Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

2At Junk Charts, Kaiser Fung drew my attention to a graph released by Reuters.  It is so deeply misleading that I loathe to expose your eyeballs to it.  So, I offer you this:

1The original figure is on the left.  It counts the number of gun deaths in Florida.  A line rises, bounces a little, reaches a 2nd highest peak labeled “2005, Florida enacted its ‘Stand Your Ground’ law,” and falls precipitously.

What do you see?

Most people see a huge fall-off in the number of gun deaths after Stand Your Ground was passed.  But that’s not what the graph shows.  A quick look at the vertical axis reveals that the gun deaths are counted from top (0) to bottom (800).  The highest peaks are the fewest gun deaths and the lowest ones are the most.  A rise in the line, in other words, reveals a reduction in gun deaths.  The graph on the right — flipped both horizontally and vertically — is more intuitive to most: a rising line reflects a rise in the number of gun deaths and a dropping a drop.

The proper conclusion, then, is that gun deaths skyrocketed after Stand Your Ground was enacted.

This example is a great reminder that we bring our own assumptions to our reading of any illustration of data.  The original graph may have broken convention, making the intuitive read of the image incorrect, but the data is, presumably, sound.  It’s our responsibility, then, to always do our due diligence in absorbing information.  The alternative is to be duped.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.


By xkcd.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.