No doubt of interest to sociologists, Facebook is throwing a sociology pre-conference on its campus ahead of the annual American Sociological Association meetings this fall. When the company is interested in recruiting sociologists and the work we do –research of the social world in all of its complexity– their focus, as shown in the event’s program, is heavily, heavily focused on quantitative demography. Critical, historical, theoretical, ethnographic research makes up a great deal of the sociological discipline, but isn’t the kind of sociology Facebook has ever seemed to be after. Facebook’s focus on quantitative sociology says much about what they take “social” to mean.
My background is in stats, I taught inferential statistics to sociology undergrads for a few years, I dig stats and respect their place in a rich sociological discourse. So, then, I also understand the dangers of statistical sociology done without a heavy dose of qualitative and theoretical work. Facebook and other social media companies have made mistake after mistake with their products that reflect a massive deficit of sociological imagination. The scope of their research should reflect and respect the fact that their products reach the near entirety of the social world.
Instead, what so many technology companies want from sociology is “big” data research, or what some survey researchers are calling “passive” data collection. One of the scariest things about numbers is that they find a shorter path towards authority; numbers are seductive because they look like answers. While social researchers fluent in statistical methods are calling for a more thoughtful understanding of what “big” data actually is and how it should be responsibly wielded —read danah boyd and Kate Crawford’s paper on this— social media companies, government agencies, and many other research institutions are rushing towards “big” data research at the expense of other methodologies.
What one sociology PhD candidate said in the Venturebeat story linked to above reflects what I hear all too often,
The data set available at Facebook is incredible. One reason is just the sheer scale of the data. While sociologists usually don’t have the resources to interview or survey millions of people, Facebook has data generated every day by its 802 million daily active users.
The second reason is the naturalness of the data. Sociologists typically use interview, survey, and ethnography to collect data.
“So I give you a survey you fill it out, which is very artificial,” said Laura Nelson, PhD candidate in Sociology at UC Berkeley, in an interview with VentureBeat.
“Whereas ethnography, as soon as you walk into the room, you change that room, because you are a foreign presence. There’s a scientist in the room. People get self-conscious. They don’t act naturally.”
In comparison, Facebook data is not influenced by the presence of a social science researcher. “It has no artificially construct, you are not bringing people to the lab,” Nelson said. “So you are recording social interaction in real time as it occurs completely naturally.”
This is common: “big” data is more natural and objective because researchers can peer in and gather data without disturbing what happens in this highly-recordable social context. Big N’s and small p’s from the comfort of the screen. At this point, methodologists are pulling their hair out: Facebook, or any social platform, isn’t “natural” (even when sidestepping nerdier debates if anything at all is ‘natural”). That Facebook “big” data is made by users unaware of or unconcerned about social science researchers doesn’t change the fact it is made through and around a structure engineers have coded. Yes, researchers, quant and qualitative, bias data in the collection process, but of course so does the Facebook and any site’s data collection process.
This fallacy of the “naturalness” of social media data is described in the boyd and Crawford paper linked to above (see their provocation 2), and especially great on this point is Zeynep Tufekci. From a paper of hers on “big” data research,
Each social media platform carries with it certain affordances which structure its social norms and interactions and may not be representative of other social media platforms, or general human social behavior
Research in the model organism paradigm can be quite illuminating, as it allows a large community of scholars to coalesce around similar datasets and problems. The field should not, however, lose sight of specific features of each platform and questions of representativeness
The tendency to see “big” social media data as objective and natural is the methodological avatar of the classic tech instrumentalism/constructivism mistake. I’m as tired of the tech constructivism versus determinism theory-go-round as anyone, but, quickly, the tech determinism fallacy is the myth that technologies “cause” or force us and the social world to do things or be a certain way, forgetting human agency and creativity; and the fallacy of tech constructivism (or “instrumentalism”) is that “guns don’t kill people“/”tech is just a tool” stuff that forgets that technologies have affordances –what we think we can or cant do with them– that structure our selves and the world. Don’t forget about agency don’t forget about structure and so on and so on: as simple as it seems, these errors crop up over and over again, and “big” data research too often comes standard with the constructivism fallacy, as the “naturalness” quote above exemplifies.
My scarequotes reference the fundamental smallness of “big” data. I think the term is half-misnamed, where “big” references only the size of the dataset, not its ability to answer the questions we ask of it. And this all speaks to the problem of social media companies fixating on “big” data at the expense of the rest of a vastly more diverse sociological imagination. I’ve got my issues with American Sociology as a discipline itself too often promoting quantitative research over the rest, but it should be made clear that social media companies’ research of the social world is even more dramatically lopsided. What does it mean for users when companies that trade in the “social” don’t attempt to understand the social in anywhere near the complexity the sociological discipline does? And who suffers from the inevitable mistakes that result?
nathan is on twitter and tumblr
Brian Keegan — June 9, 2014
I'd disagree with the claim that "...ethnographic research makes up a great deal of the sociological discipline, but isn’t the kind of sociology Facebook has ever seemed to be after." There's a large and growing group at Facebook that focuses on user experience that employs participant observation, ethnography, and other qualitative methods with an eye towards growth into new markets by understanding the motivations and uses in culturally-specific contexts. Scratch the surface and talk to some Facebookers, and there's much more to Facebook's sociological interests than "big data" alone.
Sam Ladner — June 9, 2014
I have to pile on to Brian's comment. Facebook is, like most tech companies, realizing that there is no "why" in Big Data. I personally know at least one ethnographic sociologist recently hired by Facebook to do UX-related research with ethnographic method.
They are not entirely secret about their work either. Facebook researchers do publish, and I have met several at conferences like IxDA and EPIC. I think "secrecy" is not entirely accurate. The model is not like academic publishing, with its very public peer review (and very private, for-pay paywalls). Research does get published in some ways, and shared at conferences as well (particularly IEEE and other tech related conferences).
As a sociologist myself, I find it quite funny that sociology proper has "discovered" technology as an industry. I have worked in the private and academic sectors for years, and so few academics have any clue what kind of technology research is happening. I actually had one sociologist in a conference ask me with incredulity that people actually send electronic calendar invites to each other. She did not believe that is how people manage digital calendars (Outlook has 1 billion users worldwide; her assessment was totally out to lunch).
I think we are butting up against a cultural divide between industry and academia. There are many ethnographers working in industry, productively and with epistemological humility. IT is hard fucking work. There are very few academic sociologists who are aware of that, much has respect it.
SAA — June 9, 2014
Thanks, Nathan, for a thoughtful piece.
My experience and research here on the technology makers within Silicon Valley suggests that there isn't much beyond quantifiable that carries any internal clout or weight within the company systems at the moment. Mostly because, and this is the term many I interviewed actually used, people research is "messy" and "hard," and the same people that logically create programs lack the training or understanding to deal with these aspects, so they don't, or they dismiss it because it isn't (yanno) "real science."
Never mind that mathematics and statistics (and the programs themselves as you pointed out) and the languages that the programming runs on and the machines that run those languages are all human constructs--that doesn't enter into it. This has been a norm in Silicon Valley since well before I started working at HyperPro and then Apple in the early 1990's.
Don Norman tried, really tried, to engage in conversations about this early on, and with some success for hardware adaptation and a bit of software too. People were coming around. Because there was a lack of the same kind of quantifiable metrics available as broadly then as now, there was less of quant as a foundation (except for the business planners in a different branch of development) than there is now and people were starting to learn. UI/UX started to develop as a field in applications at least, and really grew as the web took off later on.
Now, within the current tech climate (at least in the valley and SF), the people building the technology for the most part do not seem to have much demonstrated interest in that which is not quantifiable as their starting point for understanding human behavior.
As they've said themselves, humans are "messy" and understanding their needs and contexts are harder problems to solve, so instead of actually trying to solve the hard problems, they go with numbers only.
There seems to be a certain sense of ethics missing with Social in these companies as well.
Facebook, for all of their "social research" as others mentioned above, also completely seems to miss an understanding of social, except seemingly to research more effective manipulation or deception techniques that collect data and obfuscate privacy.
This is inherently anti-social behavior. If FB and others actually cared about the Social and understanding people, wouldn't they build systems and interactions that supported sociability in all of its forms, not just in the forms that are the easiest to syphon data, track behavior and advertise to?
In the name of free market and capitalism, these companies are under no obligation to be a conduit for sociability, of course, but at some point, they become more than a connective service, they become community, albeit one that is privately held, and accountable to shareholders. The ethics that seem to be missing is any form of accountability to those actually in the community, whose behaviors are mined and profited from.
La naturalidad de los datos y la Sociología en Facebook. - Meditaciones Sociológicas — June 9, 2014
[…] Leyendo a propósito que Facebook organizó una pre-conferencia para sociólogos antes de la reunión de la Asociación Americana de Sociología, me encuentro que en el blog donde lo leí se plantea lo siguiente criticando algunas de las premisas del análisis de datos de Facebook (link aquí) […]
nathanjurgenson — June 9, 2014
super super interested in the feedback coming in from this piece today (here in the comments, on twitter, and people emailing me)! some insiders are saying there's TONS of qualitative research being done in silicon valley. others are saying there is almost none and it isn't taken seriously. what is interesting is that i have no way of checking these claims. if companies really are doing more diverse work, they aren't sharing it publicly - itself a problem.
no one has chimed in saying that social media companies are routinely taking into account good historical critical theoretical sociology. no surprise there.
one of the most interesting replies is people saying 'why would we want facebook to do *better* research?' LEGIT POINT. if you are working on actively destroying commercial social media, this is an appropriate response, and you should disagree with my post above because you are right, i'm outlining reform not destruction. if you are like me and tend to think silicon valley is going to be around for a little while and they will exert influence on the world, then my argument is that we all will be better off if these companies didn't fuck up so much, and i think more, better sociology, not just big data stats, is essential to that goal.
SAA — June 9, 2014
"i think more, better sociology, not just big data stats, is essential to that goal."
I'd broaden that...
Social Sciences in general... but that's because I'm anthro!
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Atomic Geography — June 13, 2014
Nathan, This is just speculation, but I wonder if the orientation toward BD is partly results from an assumption by the social media companies that they have an accurate intuitive sense of the qualitative aspects. This is after all how they started, and that kind of faith in gut instinct is hard to shake. Even more so if the gut instinct is to not rely on gut instincts but to look at the numbers.
So what you view as mistakes on their part is just data gathering to them perhaps - learning from their mistakes. What does understanding all the complexity of the social get them? And if they do gain it what are the chances they will use it to promote the social vs representing the Human Terrain to be colonized?
Additionally, you probably have something of a vision of what FB, for instance, should look like to promote the social. That is, you have an agenda, as many of their users do, many different from yours. These agendas probably sort mainly as business opportunities or threats.
I'm guessing these folks can't be seduced by numbers, because that ship has sailed. They may fear being seduced by the agendas, by the social.
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