When you think of a librarian, what image comes to mind? Photographer Kyle Cassidy ventured to the American Library Associations Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia in January to explore that question. In between networking, educational events, and panels, librarians from across the country stopped by Cassidys makeshift studio to sit for…
One of the more provocative conversations I’ve heard at CSCW was a panel called Computational Social Science: CSCW in the Social Media Era, organized by Munmun De Choudhury with Eric Gilbert, Brian Keegan, Mor Naaman* and Hannah Wallach as panelists. ‘Computational social science” is a term that I hear a lot, sometimes bewilderingly in the context of my own work. Rather than a play-by-play live blogging (live tumbling?), I’m doing nearly-live tumbling, fleshing out some of the not-at-all comprehensive notes I took and occasionally adding my own responses. The panel was structured around some key questions, as well as some questions that surfaced from the audience.
What is computational social science?
Brian Keegan says it’s a set of methods for interrogating social science questions, with a core belief that social behaviors are encoded in databases and other digital artifacts and systems. It’s important to note that often times graduate programs don’t necessarily support this kind of work.
How does computational social science relate to CSCW?
Asked specifically in the context of being a first year attendee to CSCW, Hannah Wallach talked about the spectrum of computational social science between computing and social interactions. CSCW brings together people where there’s an overlap in both techniques and data sources with fields like sociology and political science, but has there been sufficient discussion from disciplinary communities? So it’s less in the overlap in techniques, but the similarities of data.
Is computational social science in the service of social science?
Mor says, we’re not here to study society, we’re here (citing Mark Ackerman) to bridge the gap between the socially desirable and the technologically feasible. We’re not here to answer questions about is the world more polarized, we’re here to design systems, to address societal needs through design interventions. For Mor, the issue becomes what’s the question behind the project? Is it to explain human behavior or look at a technological system out in the world?
Hannah pointed out that Mor’s definition privileges computer science over social science, so computation in the service of whom? Social science or computer science?
Mor says that in this community we’re doing computational social systems, we’re looking at behavioral data, and the questions we’re investigating can now use a new set of tools, a new set of systems. Throughout the panel, Mor returns to the notion that particularly at CSCW but also more broadly, we should do “computation social systems” that should really be about the study and design of systems. It’s unclear to me, though, how this body of research would relate to other conference based collectives, like the iconference’s annual Consortium for the Science of Sociotechnical Systems or ASIST’s social informatics SIG.
What are the big open questions?
Hannah noted that given that we’re still trying to figure out what computational social science is, it’s hard to figure out what the big questions are. Doesn’t want to stress methods as a key question.
Munmun notes that part of figuring out what computational social science means is to consider what the contribution of a project will be,
Brian notes that social science was meant as a provocation, a way for quantitative folks to colonize social science, and much of this work is in fact quantitative. How can we develop quantitative social science that can speak to more qualitative questions?
How do computer scientists and social scientists collaborate?
I used this question to raise the issue of the tendency to totalize social science, where a particular pet peeve of mine is the way that computer scientists (and others!) will refer to social scientists as a coherent referent, nevermind that that lumps together disciplines as disparate as sociology, anthropology, communication, economics. This does a disservice to the complexity of the disciplinary boundaries at stake and also betrays a borderline insulting lack of awareness of what it is that people in these fields do.
Libby raised the awesome point that when we call data easily available, that is a big assumption that assumes that APIs are available or usable. Social scientists might as easily say to computer scientists looking to explain human behavior, theory is easily available, just go out and read** it.
Mor says it is the responsibility of information scientists, if not specifically CSCW, to develop tools for computational social systems work, even as social scientists should accept the work of learning what is possible computationally.
Given concerns about mass surveillance of datasets, what are the implications for computational social science?
Raising the question of ethics of comp ss in the context of NSA disclosure, Brian noted that other disciplines have confronted these issues, like physicists after nuclear weapons, biologists in the 70s after recombinant DNA. Munmun noted that doing research on datasets that involve historically marginalized groups can generate deeply troubling ethical concerns.
I voiced something that’s been on my mind for a while, which is that one of the weirdly welcome consequences of the NSA disclosures is the validation of paranoia and an increased literacy among the general public about issues and technologies of surveillance. To Munmun’s point, I noted that many of these issues have already been raised in ethnographic literature, so it’s important to reach out to other disciplines that have experience and advice with these issues of methodological ethics. Beyond turning to our academic colleagues, I also pushed for reaching out to activists and community members themselves to adjudicate issues of membership.
*Statement of disclosure: Mor was my PhD advisor, and he rocks.
I’m in Baltimore for CSCW. On Monday, I’m presenting a paper on craft, which I wrote with Tim Regan. On Wednesday, I’m presenting a paper I co-wrote with Mor Naaman and danah boyd, based on work from my dissertation. So far, I’ve been having really terrific conversations in the Feminism and Social Media workshop, and I’m looking forward to Mary Flanagan’s keynote tomorrow.
In January, I went with a group of information activists and technologists to Haiti. Partly I went to conduct some initial fieldwork on bookmobiles, but partly I went to build solidarity networks with local activists. One activist group we met is called KOURAJ, Haiti’s only local queer advocacy group. KOURAJ organizers made a very simple request of us, which was to gather rainbow flags for Haiti’s third annual Pride celebration. I’m planning on heading back to Haiti for additional fieldwork this summer, so I volunteered to gather flags to bring to Haiti on that trip.
Being asked to gather rainbow flags has forced me to confront my own relationship to this particular LGBT symbol. I don’t own any rainbow flags or clothing and I don’t usually go to Pride. I identify as queer, but have never really felt that much kinship with a specific queer community, in contrast to communities to which I’ve felt deeply tied over time, like punk, body modification and library communities. Talking to KOURAJ leadership, I realized how much of a privilege and luxury it is to have queerness be only a part of how I present myself to people, to be able to pass up Pride because I don’t feel politically invested in the collective display of queerness. For me, rainbow flags function in much smaller, everyday ways. If I see two otherwise identical cafes or bars or shops but one has a rainbow flag, I’m far more likely to go there as a show of solidarity with queer folk and their allies. I appreciate it when academics post rainbow stickers or flags on their doors as a means of declaring their offices to be safe and supportive spaces. I think this flag drive offers a small way of supporting queer Haitians in their work to foster tolerance and build networks of support, so that it gets to a point where they have the luxury of queer identity being accepted, celebrated and only one part of who they are, so that rainbow flags can be everyday rather than exceptional symbols.
If you’d like to help out in the flag drive, you can send them to my work address, which is:
1 Memorial Drive.
Cambridge, MA 02142