Category Archives: social observations

“Privacy and Publicity in the Context of Big Data”

I gave today’s opening keynote at the WWW Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina.  My talk was about methodological and ethical issues involved in the study of Big Data, focusing heavily on privacy issues in light of public data.  The first third focuses on four important arguments: 1) Bigger Data are Not Always Better Data; 2) Not All Data are Created Equal; 3) What and Why are Different Questions; 4) Be Careful of Your Interpretations. I then move into argue “Just because data is accessible doesn’t mean that using it is ethical,” providing a series of different ways of looking at how people think about privacy and publicity.  I conclude by critiquing Facebook’s approach to privacy, from News Feed to Social Plugins/Instant Personalizer.

Privacy and Publicity in the Context of Big Data

Please enjoy!!

musing about social networks and g/local cultures

While taking a break from my dissertation to do my taxes, my mind wandered back to my data. I started reflecting on how the new suburbia* parents I met when interviewing teens knew few other adults in their community. They knew other adults in passing – fellow churchgoers, parents of kids’ friends, etc. but many didn’t really socialize outside the family. Explanations always seemed to boil down to time, but I couldn’t help but wonder if lack of interest was also part of it. One parent complained that it was more fun when there were playdates because she could choose which adults to hang out with; when her kids started making their own friends, dealing with other parents became a nuisance. In thinking about who these parents knew in their communities, I started wondering about the diversity of the people they were likely to know.

My mind then began chewing on the importance of knowing people in your community to being invested in “buy local” rhetoric. In my social circles, “support your local XYZ” is a collective mantra that is more abstract the experiential. I don’t know my local farmer, store owner, bookkeeper, etc. but there is an ethos that I should support them anyways. What happens when that ethos doesn’t exist? People are expected to be outraged that box stores are costing their neighbors their jobs, but what if you don’t know your neighbors let alone the people who own the local stores? Lacking that personal connection or liberal guilt, doesn’t it make sense to save money instead of support local?

In many of the middle class new suburbia communities I visited, many of the cash registers at box stores were worked by teenagers. What if parents are more likely to find someone they know at the cash register of a box store (a kids’ friend) than a local one? What’s the likelihood of building a long-standing connection with the waiter, grocer, movie ticket guy, person behind the cash register, etc.? Given the general turnover of jobs like this, what’s the likelihood that the front-facing people of a store are likely to be there the next year? And if you don’t know the owner, all you know is who works at the front. [Older folks seemed to be much more likely to visit establishments frequently where they build long-lasting relations with local folks while the “no time” parents didn’t appear to be doing that.]

It seems to me that kids have much more extensive and diverse local networks than their parents. But these networks are age-based, meaning that they knew other teens. When these teens talked about the ideal places to work as a student, they talked about working in box stores or Starbucks or the mall because they valued larger stores where other teens worked the same shift and where it was likely that other teens would come and visit them. They certainly weren’t fighting for local small business to stay.

I know that the above observations are way overgeneralized, but this is a musing not an academic report… It’s quite possible that these observations don’t hold up more broadly – I didn’t collect enough data to say either way. Still, I couldn’t help but thinking about that observation as a side thought.

And I can’t help but wonder about how different social network structures in different communities might have a lot to do with issues behind local vs. global. If you’re more likely to know people globally than locally, why be invested in local business? (Ignoring for the obvious long-term implications that are too abstract to be felt in comparison to the immediate wallet impact.) This could especially be true if you don’t expect to live in a community for the rest of your life. How much do mobility and homophilous connections result in not building enough local social solidarity to sustain local business? Perhaps there is no correlation between community social network structures and investment in local businesses, but I can’t help but wonder if there is. It would seem to make sense, no?

Anyhow, random late night musings…

* Its important to distinguish between new and old suburbia. My observations explicitly concern new suburbia where entire neighborhoods of people have been living in their house for under 5 years, where neighborhoods are rigidly planned and yet structured to permit next to zero neighbor interaction or child play space, where cars are needed to get a carton of milk, where walking gets you nowhere and there aren’t sidewalks anyhow, etc. Old suburbia tends to be extremely functional and not have the same social or community dynamics.

stupid Scion

As you know, I bought an adorable little Scion back in November. I continue to feel kinda guilty about it, knowing that it was targeted directly at my demographic: young, pre-children, trendy, urban, etc. Today, I received an email from Scion asking me to fill out a survey about “various ‘Front-End’ styling directions.” I like design, I like my car, and I was curious. So I clicked the link. Up came a huge warning page saying the following:

Although we attempt to make our surveys compatible with as many web browsers and operating systems as possible, this survey currently requires functionality only available in Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.0 or higher (on Windows 98 or higher). If you are using Mozilla, Firefox, Netscape, Opera, another alternative browser, or an operating system other than Windows 98 or higher, you will not be able to continue with this particular survey.

::laugh:: Who’s the dumbass at Scion who thinks that the majority of young, urban, design-minded trendsetter types are using Internet Explorer let alone Windows? Seriously now. My suspicion is that the majority of their clientele are probably using “alternative” browsers and probably even “alternative” operating systems. Hello? I hate to bring you up to 2008, but Firefox and Mac aren’t exactly “alternative” anymore.

I wonder what kind of feedback they’ll get. Needless to say, I ain’t dragging out the old Windoze box from the closet to respond.

social scripts for rituals and ceremonies, of religion and culture

Last night was the first night of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. For Jews, this means celebration with family and friends, eating apples and honey, sending postcards to friends, and wishing all well (“Shanah tovah!”). One of the things that I love about Jewish holidays is that they are typically filled with friends, family, food, alcohol, and celebratory attitudes (except for Yom Kippur which is a bit more serious). As a non-Jew, I have a deep admiration for the various rituals that are a part of Jewish holidays. I especially love how my snarky secular Jewish friends are more likely to modify them to make them more fun rather than reject them. Consider the Dr. Seuss Haggadah we did for Passover one year. Christian holidays don’t quite have that flexibility, unless you consider the way Americans turned the day of Resurrection into an opportunity to gorge yourself in chocolate and chase after plastic eggs. I guess that’s fun too, but it’s a bit different since I can’t work out what bunnies have to do with Christ nor do I think of over-consumption of material goods for personal desire as a fun-ification of a holiday. I’m more down with the excuses to bring together friends and drink that I am with the excuses to buy gifts.

I especially appreciated last night’s holiday because I spent the night before at my advisor’s memorial service. On one hand, it was so good to see everyone and to hear people share their stories of Peter. I love that man and it’s hard to stomach the reality that he’s gone. Yet, I’m not so good at group mourning. And the whole memorial thing made me antsy and uncomfortable in ways that I can’t yet articulate. But I think that part of the puzzle has to do with the way in which major events are ritualized (or not) in American society.

Standing outside, Mimi was talking about the differences between the American approach to death and memorial and the Japanese approach. She told me about how there were prescribed activities that you do on certain days in certain ways. Depending on your relationship to the deceased, you know exactly what you’re supposed to do, who you’re supposed to say what to, when you are supposed to show up, etc. We don’t have that. Nowhere was this more clear than when you looked around the room at what people were wearing. Some people had dressed up, some wore all black, some wore what they normally wore, etc. At one point, I was teasing someone about their suit and he responded with a remark about how it was what you’re supposed to do. And then another person (in casual wear) responded that Peter would’ve wanted people to be comfortable. The fact that that conversation happened shows the way that we’re not sure what to do when how.

At every step of this process, I’ve felt like a total fuckup. Do I send flowers? What should the card say? Should I show up to the widow’s house? Should I send a letter? What should I say to the widow, to the children? What should I wear to the memorial? Everyone’s response to me is always to do what would make me feel better and I want to scream at them that having a script would make me feel a hell of a lot better.

Social scripts are funny things. Most of them stem from religious traditions, but are deeply embedded in society as cultural practices. Not a single one of the Jews at my house last night could explain why honey and apples, but they all knew that’s what you do. And they were all able to tell me the Jewish traditions for mourning. And the Jewish traditions for weddings. And the Jewish traditions for holidays. And the Jewish traditions for births. My friends have a Jewish social script and they all know it, even if they preferred to modify it (shiva, but chairs allowed; chupah and glass, but no rabbi; apples or afikoman, but no kosher meal; bris ceremony, but no knives). Yet, most American folks can’t even tell you what the social script is supposed to be for most situations and it’s so damned modified that everyone around you is imagining an entirely different script. Every wedding I go to has different dress code expectations, gifting expectations, and social norms. I’m at a loss for how to participate in mourning, at a loss for what to do when a child is born.

Are the lack of social scripts in the U.S. because Christianity never had strong traditions that would be continued by secular ancestors? Or because American scripts have been defined by Hollywood that changes the traditions with each generation? Or because the U.S. didn’t really melt diverse scripts into one, but boiled them out to be non-existent? Or because we’re too damn rebellious as a secular society to have any patience for any expectations? Or why? Why do we not have social scripts that can help frame the situation for the crowd?

I’m finding myself frustrated with the lack of social scripts and then curious about my desire for a more “conservative” way and then frustrated because I’m at a loss for how to make sense of these social situations. It’s not that I want the social script to be definitive… I just want it to be there as a guiding principle that allows people to focus on what they’re really trying to focus on: a joining of two lovely people, mourning, celebration, etc. I’ve been re-reading Goffman lately and I’m reminded of all of the social scripts that used to exist in society that we’ve so diligently destroyed. As a rebellious college student, I loved the destruction of traditions. Now, I just want to be able to relax into a script every once in a while, even if that script can be annoying at times. It’s not that I want the scripts to be rigid, but I want conscious engagement with and modification of the scripts rather than an outright rejection of them. Maybe I’m just getting old.

chemistry as architecture

Jo Guldi and I were musing last night about architecture and I got to thinking about Lawrence Lessig’s Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. He lays out a framework that there are four regulatory forces operating in society: law, market, social norms, and architecture. The core of his argument is that code (the programming matter that makes up all things digital) is architecture.

One of the things that he points out is that when all regulatory forces align, change happens effectively and efficiently. A good example of this (not in his book) is domestic violence. The concept didn’t exist 50 years ago, but in the 1970s, social norms and law teamed up against domestic violence. The role of the market and architecture is a bit more of a stretch, but in some states, wages were withheld for domestic violence (in conjunction with divorce) and that rethinking of the home as a space that law could regulate was part of the puzzle. Still, I got to thinking about what made domestic violence spike back up in the 1990s. Domestic violence has long been associated with alcohol… and then, in the 90s, with crystal meth.

So I started thinking that there’s a third element of Lessig’s architecture:

Objects: architecture of space
Code: architecture of information
Chemistry: architecture of people

It is easy to discount chemistry as an architecture of humanity if we assume that it’s out of our control. But as we increasingly live in a world of DNA programming, pharmaceutical manipulation, and mood-altering substances (from the crap in Doritos to crystal meth), we must start accounting for the ways that chemistry serves as an architecture of human behavior and, thus, a force in regulating peoples and practices. I don’t think that it’s a distinct force, by a third leg of what constitutes “architecture.”

Part of why I think it’s important to highlight the role that chemistry (and to a certain degree biology) play as an architectural force is that it seems to me that there’s too little attention payed to the ways in which chemistry & social norms and chemistry & the law connect (while there’s a lot concerning objects and code). There are some great STS scholars in this area, including Cori Hayden (author of When Nature Goes Public) and Joe Dumit (author of Picturing Personhood: Brain Scans and Biomedical Identity (In-formation)). Because of Big Pharm, there’s a lot of public talk about chemistry & the market, but I’m not aware of a lot of broader discourse about how chemistry is a regulatory society force (although Quinn Norton’s Bodyhacking Talk is fantabulous on this).

If we do conceive of chemistry as another aspect of architecture, how must we think of its regulatory powers and the needs to regulate it? In what ways is chemistry similar to and different from code or objects? (Or am I totally off base?) Anyhow, just some musings for the weekend…

in-flight newstainment is paid-for advertising

I fly too much. Far too much. When I’m bored out of my mind, I can’t help but get distracted by the TV that they show – CBS Eye on America, a sitcom or two, and some various newstainment (or late-night TV reruns). I also read the magazine. I figured that, like other magazines and TV drivel, what was being run was reporting. It may not be the best reporting, but I figured that when they featured someone, it was because that person was in theory of interest to people.

This morning, I was notified that American Airlines was doing a series on “America’s Innovators and Entrepreneurs” and that I could pay $3995 (off from the normal $6995) to be included as an innovator. Ewwww. This reminds me of when in high school, I could pay to be in the “Who’s Who of America’s Students.” I realize that the blurring of news and entertainment is pervasive and I guess I should suspect that a lot of news is paid-for advertising, but knowing for certain that I’m being locked into a vessel of misery with pervasive advertising is depressing. Le sigh.

(I’ve included the full email in the Extended Entry if you’re curious to learn more.)

Continue reading

conference t-shirts

::laugh:: I just opened Kathy Sierra’s blog where she talks about what conference t-shirts say about how the organization feels about its users. It’s a funny post but what’s funnier is that i happen to be wearing my Webstock t-shirt today. And at Le Web, i rejected multiple vendors’ offers of free t-shirts because of size; each told me that i could sleep in it. (Like Kathy, i don’t wear anything to sleep and an oversized t-shirt is the last thing i want to wear.) There are a handful of tech t-shirts i wear all the time because they are comfy, stylish, and they fit: Blogger, Odeo, Webstock, Chumby (oh do i love the Chumby ones – i even asked for extras). The sad part is that i think that’s it… Anyhow, Kathy’s point rocks and should be emphasized so here’s my blog post emphasizing it. If you want me to celebrate your brand, make a t-shirt that i want to wear. Cool and stylish is one part; a shirt that fits and is comfortable is also key.

a massage in Venice

Coming home from USC on Thursday, i thought my arm was going to fall off. The pain eminating from my back was brutal and i could barely see for the headache that it produced. I didn’t know any massage therapists in LA but i had seen a place or two on Lincoln that advertised massage. As i drove past one of them, i caught the number in neon and called it. A ?Korean? woman answered and i asked if they had availability. She asked when and i said 10 minutes and she said sure. When i entered the building, my headache was wrecking me so i pretty much ignored a lot of obvious signs. Being stared at. The gate between the front room and back room. Having to pay upfront. The price being surprisingly high for non-shishi massage joint. Being asked on the form if i was single or married. Being asked if i wanted to take a shower. Being escorted to a room without getting to meet the massage therapist first.

I lied down under the sheet. The massage therapist started massaging me over the sheet which is odd but ::shrug:: i couldn’t be picking in the pain i was in. I’m trying to explain to her that my shoulder wants to fall off; she doesn’t speak much English but i point and she digs in so i just relax. She pounds away at it. Not the world’s best (or frankly trained) massage, but ::shrug:: Anything would make that knot better and she had the pressure thing down. Plus, she did a bunch of it with her heels using the handle bars on the ceiling. At one point, she asks me if i want a front massage too. Uhh… i stumble. Then she asks me if i’m Christian. At this point, i realize why my presence was so odd. I respond quickly with a YES! to the Christian question and proceeded to blush crimson into the massage table. I continued to play stupid and she continued to work out my dreadful knot from hell (successfully) until the hour was up.

When she finished and i got dressed, there was a lot of awkwardness but i just continued to bumble around and tipped her (well). She was very thankful and made it very very clear that i’m welcome back whenever. I said thank you and blushed and left.

I can’t help but wonder what actually goes on there. I was telling this story to some friends and one of them pointed me to this SF Chronicle series on sex trafficking and i wanted to die. I really hope that the nice woman who got rid of that knot doesn’t have to go through days like the story depicts.

feigning injuries for insurance companies

On my first night in Los Angeles, my friend got into a small accident. She was driving a Uhaul, going 5MPH and trying to move lanes when she hit an SUV who had pretty much ignored her. It was difficult to figure out what the SUV lady was thinking because she didn’t speak any English. We called the cops who said that they would not send anyone unless there were injuries. There were none. The SUV lady wouldn’t exchange info with us and kept calling someone and it was clear by her movements that someone who spoke English was coming. Eventually, her granddaughter showed up and explained that her grandmom didn’t speak English. Duh. The granddaughter exchanged insurance and contact information with my friend. Everything seemed fine – a dent on the SUV and a damaged bumper on the Uhaul but no one was hurt.

Today, my friend got a call from one of the insurance people who asked her to go through everything. She explained what happened in great detail. They asked why there was no police report and she explained that she’d called the cops but they only come when someone’s hurt. They asked so no one was hurt? And my friend was like no. And then it became obvious that the woman had filed injuries. WTF?

Having seen the woman and the car and having hung out with the woman for a good 20+ minutes waiting for the granddaughter, there’s *no* way that there were injuries. No possibility of whiplash and it was the passenger side. She wasn’t holding on to any part of her body and her granddaughter said nothing. Everything was normal, even if we were all a bit frazzled.

But then i started wondering, what’s the cost of reporting injuries? I mean, if she succeeds in declaring injuries, she gets money even if she’s lying, right? But what does she lose if the insurance company shows she’s lying? Are there any costs to lying when it comes to insurance? My moral fabric is horrified by the idea but then again, i return pens when i stole them from stores after signing credit card receipts. I cannot imagine lying to get more money from insurance. Of course, everyone thought that i should sue this person and that person after my neck accident. But it was an accident – i couldn’t ethically feel good about lying even if it cost me an arm and a leg. Yet, for others, is there any reason not to lie? What happens if you get caught lying to medical insurance?

being American in Fiji

When i landed in Fiji, i had no hotel reservation but had decided that i would simply go to the travel place and get a dorm somewhere in the islands that promised to have a security safe for my laptop. I figured it was an adventure so whatever happened would be entertaining. Upon exiting customs, i was surrounded by travel agents… i followed a nice woman up to her office where she gave me various brochures. She recommended a place called The Resort on Walu Beach and told me that it was filled with travelers like me. The price was uber cheap and i was promised a single room for cheaper than dorm prices. I figured that it should be entertaining and would let me test the waters with backpacker culture so i said yes.

I arrived on the island and everyone was exceptionally nice but there was a tension in the air that i couldn’t read. There was definitely nothing sacred about the Walu Beach Resort – it was set up for people trying to find themselves while drinking profusely. I put my bags down, took a shower and wandered down to take a walk. My room had another bed in it but there was no one there so i didn’t question the single thing. The staff was super nice and helpful… and then i started talking to the other travelers. There was lots of bitching – the food was atrocious, the water didn’t work, the people were rude, there were no available beds so people were sleeping on mattresses in the common rooms, etc. I found it strange since i had no such problems. But then i started watching – i would go up to the service people and they would be beyond helpful… the Brits and Irish and Aussies would go up and get the cold shoulder. Huh. At one point, a German couple were quite frustrated because of the lack of water and the failure of the dive master to show up to scheduled dives; the manager started yelling at them to leave; they said they’d leave if they could have their money back; he threatened to call the police. I shirked away to my private room.

And then the Americans arrived… It seems as though there’s this program where American college students come to “do conservation work” in Australia (whereby they pay a lot of money to an organization that brings them down under to party and provide a resume stamp). At the end of their trip, they get a week in Fiji full of activities. Walu Beach suddenly became filled with made-up college girls tanning while listening to loud music and gossiping for everyone to hear and college boys strutting their stuff, yelling and drinking profusely. They were the classic selfish American travelers that i’m always embarrassed to see outside of the US. That said, they had money. Lots of it. They were treated like angels. They got special beachside cabins, special food, special activities… they were waited on hand and foot with smiles and laughter. That first night, as the food lines were created (Americans outside, everyone else inside), i was pushed towards the Americans line… and then i got it… the staff thought i was one of them. By the end of the next day, it was clear to the staff that i was not one of this tour group even though i was doing scuba and spending more money on activities than the backpackers (i decided a massage was more interesting than 3 drinks). And then everything changed.

They stopped fixing the water in my room so i had no running water. I got a roommate (who masturbated loudly while i was “sleeping”). And everyone became super rude. It was an amazing shift but i was already very aware of the negative-ness so i just continued being super sweet whenever i faced staff. But i was definitely tired of the general negative atmosphere and it was magnified by the dynamic with the Americans so i decided to go back to the mainland a day early and check into a hotel where i knew i could take a shower and get an edible meal.

I’m quite glad i went to Fiji – beautiful lands, scuba diving with sharks, beach relaxation… It was also really fascinating to see the racial tensions between the native Fijians and the Indian Fijians, to see the way that the culture was still rife with anger from various recent uprisings. It was really eye-opening to see the role of tourists in the economic landscape of that culture and to see how certain places tried to hide the negativity from the tourists (especially at the more upscale hotels). Like i said, i’m really glad i went but i can’t say that i need to return soon… and certainly not as a tourist.

I also realized that i’m not sure that i could do the backpacker thing. After a week of “so, where have you been… where are you going?” i thought i was going to strangle someone in the same way that i hate that all club conversations seem to circle around sex, drugs or the music. I don’t think that i do well being in a place where i have no structure or responsibilities. I prefer going to places because locals have invited me and they want me to do something. I’m going to have to rethink my post-grad school traveling plans as a result of this journey. For this reason, i’m glad that i decided to land in backpacker zone.