The purpose of this Disclosure Statement is to position what you might find on my blog. This is heavily cribbed from David Weinberger who I adore and find to be a brilliant mentor.
First things first, I am not speaking on behalf of my employer (Microsoft Research) and what I say on my blog may not reflect the beliefs or interests of my employer. This is a personal blog. I say what I want and no one pays me to write this blog or say particular things in it. I am not compensated for my blog – I do not run ads, no one pays me under the table, and I don’t sell Apophenia t-shirts or coffee mugs or chachkas of any kind. I do get compensated to blog in other places, but not here; I sometimes repost content that I write for elsewhere here because I think it might be of interest (and then I identify where it was originally posted), but I do not repost everything. I don’t do favors or blog about people because they’re nice to me or say that I’m brilliant; I may blog about other people when I think their work is interesting or when I’m working with them but I also might not.
I am currently employed by Microsoft Research. I run a research institute called Data & Society. In the past, I have been an employee of: Macromedia, Intel, V-Day, Tribe.net, Google, and Yahoo! I do have a continuing relationship with the Leigh Bureau who represents me in my speaking engagements.
I have advised or consulted for numerous companies over the years on short-term gigs, sometimes for pay and sometimes because they’re friends of mine. Most of these relationships are between me and them but I will disclose them if I talk about them on my blog. I tend not to talk about them or their products because of conflict of interest issues.
My research has been or is funded by many foundations, including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Digital Trust Foundation, the Open Societies Foundation, and the National Science Foundation.
I am currently on the Board of Directors of Crisis Text Line and the Social Science Research Council. I am a trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian. I have also had numerous other affiliations and relationships with other organizations. I am a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum. For a full list, see my CV.
Objects of Study
In my research, I typically study people’s practices using social media, including many companies. Examples of this include: Friendster, MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. I intentionally do not work for these companies, but I leave myself open to working for them in the future if and when it is appropriate. Different companies feel differently about my studying the practices that take place on their site. Friendster’s management despised my work and was regularly hostile to my findings. MySpace, on the other hand, was been nothing but supportive and provided me with data over the years. Facebook sometimes likes my findings and sometimes works hard to dismiss my findings. The attitude of each company does not affect my decisions of what to discuss (and I’ve been known to piss off MySpace), but I never reveal data provided to me in confidence.
I have learned that it is not generally helpful to my research to berate these company’s policies or politics, even when I disagree with them. For this reason, I am sometimes silent on things that piss me off simply because a pissing war is not fruitful for moving forward. That said, I never do and never will justify a company’s actions when I disagree with them and I will critique onerous decisions that I think have a strong societal cost regardless of the access costs that I might face. Whenever I praise a company that I’m studying, I mean it. Silence is a bit more of a gray zone. And when I’m critical, it’s because I want to see the company do better.
I did my undergraduate degree in computer science at Brown University, my Master’s in Sociable Media at the MIT Media Lab, and my PhD in the School of Information at the University of California-Berkeley. I have spent time at Harvard, USC, and NYU and regularly visit many other campuses. I’m on advisory boards at the University of Michigan and Brown. I’m sure that these affiliations color my judgment on some issues.
I may one day want to be a professor and I’m painfully aware of how insular academic circles are. My feelings towards academia and other academics are probably the most silenced aspect of my blog simply because I do not have a good sense of the consequences. When it comes to my peers, I often follow the rule my mother taught me: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. The exception to this is my absolute frustration with academic Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) and locked-down journals. I feel as though these institutions need to be rethought and challenged because even if their intentions are good, the outcomes are deeply problematic. My advisor (the beloved Peter Lyman) passed away in July 2007; he was an academic activist and I try to carry his torch.
I currently – and have in the past – sat on the committees of various conferences in both professional and academic spheres. This typically involves advising the conference organizers and reviewing submissions. These include: ICWSM, YPulse, O’Reilly’s ETech Conference, SXSW-Interactive, Blogher, HICSS, Prix Ars Electronica, ACM’s CHI, AOIR, Webby Awards, BlogTalk, CSCW, ASSA, and many others. I have also run numerous conferences.
I am increasingly paid to speak at conferences. When I do so, I speak from my research not as a brand representative. I have made a few exceptions to this when the alignment is so strong that I feel as though it would be beneficial. When this is the case, I make this loud and clear.
Companies sometimes send me free technology; authors sometimes send me free copies of their books. Often, explicitly or implicitly, they are looking for a mention. If I like the book or object, I may indeed mention it, but I often don’t. I’m probably not going to tell you that I got a free copy. Why? Because it doesn’t matter and because it makes me feel like I’m boasting. Also, it reads funny and I get lots of free books from reviewing and friends unrelated to promotion.
Every day, I receive hundreds of requests to link to someone’s project or website. Sometimes these come in the form of PR announcement; sometimes it’s a begging request from a friend. I ignore 99% of these requests because I refuse to operate as an advertising vehicle. I only link to projects that I’m involved in or things that I think are really cool that I was not asked to promote; outside pressure to link to something tends to devalue it in my mind. When I post a link, it’s because I can personally vouch for it.
When I mention a book, I usually include a link to the book on Amazon. I make a small amount of money this way. I never mention a book for the purpose of making money. I make less than $150 a year this way. This helps feed my book buying habit.
Friends and Followers
My friends on most social media with bi-directional friend dynamics are real, in that these are people that I know, although my relationships with them vary. I once had to defend one of my MySpace friends in a court of law because he looks like a spammer. Just because I know someone doesn’t mean that I am able/willing to introduce that person to someone else. Power dynamics don’t work like that. Some of my “friends” are former lovers, mentors, or contested colleagues.
I do not befriend or follow people and organizations when asked. I try really hard to use social media as a user and I find it very frustrating when people ask me to use social media as a marketing service.
Politics and Activism
Politics are in my blood. I’m an activist and a progressive. I used to work for V-Day, an organization working to end violence against women and girls worldwide and I now volunteer for them. I am passionate about many issues, including abortion, queer politics, environmental sustainability, open access to education, civil rights, net neutrality, combating inequality, and internet civil liberties. I often post on these topics and leave room for disagreement but I rarely get into heated debates on my blog about these positions – I don’t think that it’s the appropriate place to do so. I am happy to have commenters who disagree with me, provided that they are not aggressive to others.
I voted for Obama.
I anonymously donate 10% of my income to organizations that I believe are doing good work. I encourage everyone else to do this as well. I also donate my speaking fees.
Many people take issue with the fact that I work for a corporation and argue that this biases my judgment. There is no doubt that every interaction that I have shapes my perspective.
Working for a company allows me to complicate my understandings of technology and society but I do not speak on behalf of my employer or past employers. I get paid to do research. This allows me to continue doing research, make that research available, and actively contribute to public knowledge. My research questions are unquestionably informed by the environment that I am in, but not always in the way that people might guess.
I am committed to making my research publicly accessible. I fight hard for open-access. Sadly, the biggest limitation for me making what I know available is time. I have terabytes of fieldnotes that haven’t been properly analyzed, countless papers that are half-written, and far too many notes of blog posts to write. None of this is MSR’s fault – this is entirely my inability to find extra hours in the day. I am deeply grateful to Microsoft Research for not silencing me.
Inevitably, when it comes to my blog and social media, I use my judgment. I am more likely to not mention a company that I am affiliated with than to promote their products. I do this out of fairness and because the bulk of my blog is dedicated to my opinions, not the opinions of organizations that hire me. Sometimes, my opinions are aligned with the espoused positions of the companies; at other times, they are not. This is just the way it goes. I also use encoded speech a lot, speaking simultaneously to different audiences. I don’t just study social steganography – I practice it.
All I can promise is that I will be honest with you and never write something I don’t believe in because someone is paying me as part of a relationship you don’t know about. I may be silent because of my relationships, so please don’t take silence as either approval or dissent. But I will never make shit up just to maintain good face with a company, organization, or person. And each day I will try to navigate the ethical challenges of my life the best that I can.