Category Archives: research

Reflections on online cruelty and kindness

This morning, I read an interesting reflection on dealing with online cruelty in the New York Times by Stephanie Rosenbloom:

In the virtual world, anonymity and invisibility help us feel uninhibited. Some people are inspired to behave with greater kindness; others unleash their dark side. Trolls, who some researchers think could be mentally unbalanced, say the kinds of things that do not warrant deep introspection; their singular goal is to elicit pain. But then there are those people whose comments, while nasty, present an opportunity to learn something about ourselves.

Easier said than done. Social scientists say we tend to fixate on the negative. However, there are ways to game psychological realities. Doing so requires understanding that you are ultimately in charge. “Nobody makes you feel anything,” said Professor Suler, adding that you are responsible for how you interpret and react to negative comments. The key is managing what psychologists refer to as involuntary attention.

When I checked her reference, I found that Rosenbloom made an error with her citation of research, along with failing to link to it: the 2011 report on teens, kindness and cruelty on social networking sites by the Pew Research’s Internet and Life Project she cited found that a vast majority of young people (88%) had “seen someone be mean or cruel to another person on a social network site,” not 69%. That percentage refers to a happier statistic: “69% of social media-using teens think that peers are mostly kind to each other on social network sites.

On that count, I’m glad the author chose to end with a reflection on kindness and the psychology involved with focusing on positive comments and compliments, as opposed to the negative ones. Anyone who wants to see how a positive feedback loop works should look at how Justin Levy’s friends & networks are supporting him, or how dozens and dozens of friends, family and strangers supported me when I lost my beloved greyhound this week.

I’m not sure about the New York Times editor’s summary — that the “Web encourages bad behavior,” through anonymity and lack of consequences.

I think that what we see online reflects what humans are, as a mirror, and that what we see on social media (which is really what is discussed here, not the World Wide Web) is 
1) a function of what the platforms allow, with respect to the architecture of participation, and
2) what the community norms established there are.

Compare newspapers’ online comments, YouTube comments and Twitter to what you find in the comments at Ars Technica, BoingBoing or even, dare I say it, in the blogs or public profiles I moderate. As Anil Dash has observed, the people who create and maintain online forums and platforms bear responsibility for what happens there:

It’s a surprisingly delicate balance to allow robust debate and disagreement on politics, current events, technology choices, or even sports (hello, tribalism) while guiding conversations away from cruelty, anger, or even hatred, whether we lead a classroom or an online discussion. The comments we allow to stand offline or online largely determine the culture of the class, town hall or thread they’re made within:

While people bear always responsibility for their own cruel actions or words, it’s incumbent upon those of us who host conversations or share our thoughts publicly online to try to respond with empathy, kindness and understanding where we can, and with polite but resolute moderation when others do not respond to those tactics or attack our friends and communities.

[IMAGE SOURCE: Amanda Lenhart, Pew Research Center]

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When speech becomes text, what happens to writing?

downey

I successfully put down the baby for her late morning nap half an a hour ago. After running quietly around in sock feet trying to do things while she was out cold, I sat down to answer email and messages. As I entered this post into WordPress, she awoke again.)

It’s not easy to respond quickly and at volume using one hand or thumb, though I’ve gotten much better at both over the past five months with a baby daughter.

Over that time, I’ve been struck by how good the voice recognition in iOS on my iPhone has become. I’ve been able to successfully dictate a rough draft of a long article into the email interface and respond to any number of inbound inquiries that way.

That said, neither the soft keyboard nor voice-to-text on the device are a substitute yet for the 15″ keyboard in my MacBook Pro when I want to write at length.

It’s mostly a matter of numbers: I can still type away at more than eighty words per minute on the full-size keyboard, far faster than I can produce accurate text through any method on my smartphone.

Capturing and sharing anything other than text on the powerful device, however, has become trivially easy, from images to video to audio recordings.

The process of “writing” has long since escaped the boundaries of tabulas, slate and papyrus, moving from pens and paper to explode onto typewriters, personal computers and tablets.

Today, I’m thinking about how the bards of today will  be able to reclaim the oldest form of storytelling — the spoken word — and apply it in a new context.

As we enter the next decade of rapidly improving gestural and tactile interfaces for connected mobile devices, I wonder how long until the generations that preceded me will be able to leave decades of experience with keyboards behind and simply speak naturally to connected devices to share what they thinking or seeing with family, friends and coworkers.

Economist Paul Krugman seemed to be thinking about something similar this morning, in a blog post on “techno-optimism”, when he commented on the differences between economic and technological stagnation:

…I know it doesn’t show in the productivity numbers yet, but anyone who tracks technology has a strong sense that something big has been happening the past few years, that seemingly intractable problems — like speech recognition, adequate translation, self-driving cars, etc. — are suddenly becoming tractable. Basically, smart machines are getting much better at interacting with the natural environment in all its complexity. And that suggests that Skynet will soon kill us all a real transformative leap is somewhere over the horizon, maybe not this decade, but this generation.

Still, what do I know? But Brynjolfsson and McAfee have a new book — not yet out, but I have a manuscript — making this point with many examples and a lot of analysis.

There remain big questions about how the benefits of this technological surge, if it’s coming, will be distributed. But I think this kind of thing has to be taken into account when we try to imagine the future; I’m a great Gordon admirer, but his techniques necessarily involve extrapolating from the past, and aren’t well suited to picking up what could be a major inflection point.

That future feels much closer this morning.

[Image Credit: Navneet Alang, “Sci-Fi Fantasies, Real-Life Disappointments]

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In defense of Twitter’s role as a social media watchdog

Mike Rosenwald is concerned that overzealous critics will make Twitter boring.

twitter is ruining

Rosenwald, who has distinguished himself in articles and excellent enterprise reporting at the Washington Post, appears to have strayed into a well-trodden cul de sac of social media criticism.

Writing in the Post, he quotes from series of sources and highlights a couple of Twitter users to arrive at a grand thesis: online mobs taking tweets out of context could chill speech. Rosenwald’s point was amplified by Politico chief economic correspondent Ben White, whose tweet is embedded below:

When I went to grab the embed code for the tweet above, however, I found something curious: I couldn’t generate it. Why? After I strongly but politely challenged White’s point twice on Twitter, he’d blocked me.

Here’s what I said: I am disappointed that the democratization of publishing and speech continues to be resented by the press. Celebrities, media and politicians will be criticized online by the public for inaccuracy and bias. It’s not 1950 anymore. And for that, a journalist blocked me.

Irony aside, I wish White hadn’t taken the nuclear option. I’m no absolutist: when George Packer slammed Twitter 3 years ago, I suggested that he take another look at what was happening there:

Twitter, like so many other things, is what you make of it. Some might go to a cocktail party and talk about fashion, who kissed whom, where the next hot bar is or any number of other superficial topics. Others might hone in on politics, news, technology, media, art, philosophy or any of the other subjects that the New Yorker covers. If you search and listen, it’s not hard to find others sharing news and opinion that’s relevant to your own interests.

Using intelligent filters for information, it’s quite easy to subscribe and digest them at leisure. And it’s as easy as unfollowing someone to winnow out “babble” or a steady stream of mundanity. The impression that one is forced to listen to pabulum, as if obligated to sit through a dreary dinner party or interminable plane ride next to a boring boor, is far from the reality of the actual experience of Twitter or elsewhere.

Packer clearly read my post but didn’t link or reply to it.

Given his public persona, I suspect Rosenwald will be much more open to criticism than Packer or White have proven to be, although I see he hasn’t waded into the vitriolic comments on his story at the Washington Post, which slam Twitter or the article — or both. Here’s what I’ve seen other journalists and Twitter users tweet about the piece:

For my part, I tend to lean towards more speech, not less. Twitter has given millions of people a voice around the world, including the capacity to scrutinize the tweets of members of the media for inaccuracy, bias or ignorance.

That’s not to say that a networked public can’t turn to an online mob and engage in online vigilantism, but the causality that Politico chief White House correspondent Mike Allen trumpeted regarding Twitter use in yesterday’s Playbook was painful to read on Saturday morning.

Twitter makes people online vigilantes? Come on. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Google+ and other social media platforms have taken nearly all of the friction out of commenting on public affairs but it’s up to people to decide what to do with them.

As we’ve seen during natural disasters and revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa, including protests in Turkey this weekend, an increasingly networked public is now acting as reporters and sensors wherever and whenever they are connected, creating an ad hoc system of accountability for governments and filling the gaps where mainstream media outlets are censored or fear to tread.

That emergence still strikes me as positive, on balance, and while I acknowledge the point that White and the sources that Rosenwald quotes make about the potential for self-censorship, I vastly prefer the communications systems of today to the one-to-many broadcasts from last century. If you feel differently, comments — and Twitter — are open.

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It’s time for a national conversation on gun violence in the United States

Our hearts are broken today“-President Obama, wiping tears from his eyes this afternoon.

I heard his comments on the radio, driving back to DC. I teared up, too. I’ve been mostly reading and listening today, not writing or reporting. I’m thankful I was not responsible for covering breaking news at a media outlet or on the ground in Connecticut, trying to sift fact from fiction or interview bereaved parents or photograph traumatized children.

I can write now with certainty that 27 people were killed by a gunman in Newtown, Connecticut, including 18 children in an elementary school. It’s one of the worst shootings in our nation’s history.

My Facebook feed is full of people offering prayers, voicing anger and frustration, and, happily sharing pictures of their own children. One of my friends announced the birth of his first child. Amidst grieving, new life and joy.

As the reality of this tragedy settles in, this moment may still be too raw to decide exactly what the way forward should be. In the wake of dozens of mass shootings in the past several years, there’s more interest in doing something to prevent them.

What, exactly, we should do to prevent more mass killings should be up for debate, but losing 18 children like this is unbearable. What science says about gun control and killings is not clear, though the literature should inform the debate.

If today is not the time to have that national conversation, many people would like to know when. A new White House epetition asks the President to set a time and place to debate gun policy. Another asks the White House to immediately address gun control through legislation*. As difficult as it may be to navigate the politics of gun control and the 2nd Amendment, that time may have come. That conversation should be balanced by one about mass shootings and mental illness, which is the other significant factor in these events.

In his remarks this afternoon, laden with the emotion that so many of his fellow citizens were feeling, President Obama said that “…we’re going to have to come together to prevent meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”

As a country, we need to be able to have a national conversation about what to do next that does not vilify those on the other side of the debate.

I hope our Congress, our Supreme Court, our President and my fellow citizens are ready to work towards preventing more days like today in the year ahead.

The White House epetition to introduce legislation on gun control gained more than 197,000 signatures since its introduction. It was one of the fastest growing White House epetitions to date. By the end of the weekend, it became the most popular epetition in the nation’s history. (Another epetition subsequently passed it in popularly.)

RESPONSE: “We Hear you”

On the evening of December 20, President Obama responded to 32 different epetitions related to gun violence in a video posted on YouTube. It was the first direct response to a White House epetition by a President of the United States.

Earlier in the day, Vice President Joe Biden held the first meeting of a task force formed by the White House to look for ways to reduce gun violence in schools. On December 21st, the National Rifle Association called for armed guards in schools to deter violence.

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Notes on Dr. Atul Gawande’s talk at the Health Data Palooza [LIVEBLOG]



[Editor’s note: these are live, rough notes from my iPad, and should not in any way represent a 100% accurate transcription. I missed far too much. Caveat lector. My comments are in brackets. You can find Dr. @Atul_Gawande‘s bio & writing at the New Yorker. Update: I’ve posted video of Dr. Gawande below.]

GAWANDE: A fascinating part [of the Health Data Palooza]: the idea that we’re putting together people from government, healthcare systems, people from outside who have knowledge about data and tools. This is quite different from the normal models: regulatory or laissez faire.

We have a healthcare system that’s fundamentally broken. The most common complaints from patients seem to be no one you can count on. If you’re paying, you have no sense that there is anyone who can help it costs be under control.

Where to start to fix that? We have recognized that there is enormous variation in cost, depending on whet you go. There is enormous variation in cost, depending on where you go. The two don’t have anything to do with one another. So there’s hope. [Good news.]

Some of the best places to get care are the least expensive. [In healthcare,] positive deviants are the ones that look the most like systems.

Examples from war and lessons within lethality

GAWANDE: Start by looking at performance of doctors in war and their teams. In the war in Iraq/Afghanistan, lethality below 10%. That doesn’t reflect intensity of conflict but improvement in care.

How did we do it? It was the not discovery of new tech that transformed survival but ability to use existing tech far better, in a system that works.

1) Kevlar. Got soldiers to wear it, operationally.
2) Speed to operating table. Improved forward mobile operating theaters.

We achieved the best survival rates in history. How? They changed the way they did surgery. Looked at data, realized needed to stop bleeding, stop contamination, under resource restrictive conditions. No X-rays, needed to learn 19th century techniques for finding fractures by feel.

They adopted “damage control surgery”: Do what you could during 2 hours. Ship and add a note: here’s what I’d did, what’s needed. That helped stimulate development of simple EHR. Average time from wounded on the battlefield, to getting care in the field, Baghdad, in Germany, in us, is less than 3 days. Less than 36 hours for some.

Soldiers can find better care for some conditions in Iraq than in a US city, with fewer resources. How? Alignment of finances, incentives. They weren’t “fee for service soldiers.” Everyone is on the same team: focused on saving life, maintaining health.

Within 48 hours of the wounding or death of soldier, posted on the DoD website. [DCAS: Defense Casualty Analysis System] The public accesses that data, but doctors & nurses access it the most.

One more example: soldiers not wearing protective eyewear. They called them ‘Granny goggles.’ The DoD contracted with a designer, made cool ones. Now wearing. Needed data and research to understand. [Stories matter.]

Affordable Care Organizations (ACOs) have done financial alignment. They’re committing to doing more project at a time. They’re committed to better health within an environment.

To get there, folks in war needed data useful to frontline decision makers. [The same is true at home.]

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Visualizing conversations on Twitter about #SOPA

Kickstarter data dude Fred Berenson visualized conversations around SOPA on Twitter: View visualization

@digiphile snapshot

His data crunching strongly implies that I’ve been a “supernode” on this story. I’m not surprised, given how closely I’ve been following how the Web is changing Washington — or vice versa.

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Yahoo Research: 50% of tweets consumed are generated by 20,000 elite users

New research from research on Twitter found that 50% of tweets consumed are generated by 20K elite users. Based upon the more than 37,000 tweets I’ve posted over four years of tweeting, it’s a virtual lock that I’m one of them. Of particular interest was the “significant homophily” that the researchers found within categories. I’ve tried hard to escape that effect after reading Ethan Zuckerman’s post on homophily, serendipity and xenophilia nearly three years ago.

FULL PAPER: Twitter flow

Abstract:

We study several longstanding questions in media communications research, in the context of the microblogging service Twitter, regarding the production, flow, and consumption of information. To do so, we exploit a recently introduced feature of Twitter—known as Twitter lists—to distinguish between elite users, by which we mean specifically celebrities, bloggers, and representatives of media outlets and other formal organizations, and ordinary users. Based on this classification, we find a striking concentration of attention on Twitter—roughly 50% of tweets consumed are generated by just 20K elite users—where the media produces the most information, but celebrities are the most followed. We also find significant homophily within categories: celebrities listen to celebrities, while bloggers listen to bloggers etc; however, bloggers in general rebroadcast more information than the other categories. Next we re-examine the classical “two-step flow” theory of communications, finding considerable support for it on Twitter, but also some interesting differences. Third, we find that URLs broadcast by different categories of users or containing different types of content exhibit systematically different lifespans. And finally, we examine the attention paid by the different user categories to different news topics.

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