Beki Grinter

Another Facebook Study: Reflections on Writing about Corporations

In research on May 28, 2015 at 3:21 pm

Facebook recently published another study, this time about what news individuals who list their political affiliations on the platform see on their News Feed. Its received a lot of attention, particularly from academics who have questions about the methods and the way in which the results were written. I won’t reiterate these critiques, instead I point to the very eloquent Christian Sandvig who writes about his concerns and has kindly included links to others.

I started to wonder about how Facebook decides what can be published by their researchers. I assume that proprietary information such as how News Feed works is not publishable. Facebook has never published anything about people who leave the platform as far as I know. I wonder whether that’s off-limits.

I started to think about my own experiences of publishing about corporations while working for them. At Bell Labs, anything I wrote had to be read and approved by three non-researchers in the corporation, as well as a lawyer. The lawyer was always looking for intellectual property possibilities. The others were meant to review it for completeness and anything else they felt was appropriate.

If there were explicit rules or areas that we couldn’t publish about I didn’t know what they were. But I did choose to omit two types of information from papers. I didn’t describe intellectual property. As I said the lawyer was always looking for new revenue streams (I was a sad disappointment) but I am quite sure that he would have removed anything that was describing a competitive advantage. (And since I often wrote about things going wrong, I was actually usually more focused on what one might describe as competitive disadvantage, more on this later).

I also didn’t provide explicit financial information. This I am a bit more troubled by. In any organization the importance of money, how much, to whom it flows, how often, authorized by, etc… shape many software outcomes. I referred to that, but I never put dollar figures to the flows. But even now I do still wonder whether I should have written more about money. Its a statement of the obvious to say that money has incredible influence on what happens, but how money flows inside a corporation is also fascinating. For although the corporation was participating in a market economy, its internal finances bore no resemblance to a marketplace.

I want to return to the competitive disadvantage. I remember one paper in particular. It’s one of my favorites. Its a horror story about a corporate metrics program. Lucent wasn’t named, but it was clear that it was the corporation. We’d been asked to look into this by the CTO of the corporation at the time. So no pressure. When we conducted our empirical research we quickly found a lot of problems. We wrote them up. I wondered as we submitted the paper for internal review whether it would be allowed to be published. We wrote about cynicism and apathy, about how metrics competed with “real” work, and how the view from the top can overly black box the corporation. I wondered whether our reviewers would feel we were painting the corporation in a negative light. But it was allowed and it appeared in ICSE.

I’ve thought a lot about this experience over the years. I am glad that I worked for a corporation that allowed me to publish this work because I think that the most important lesson that comes from it is that initiatives that look deceptively simple from the top of the corporation can be surprisingly complex for an organization to implement. That was an important conversation to have with an intellectual community that I felt at the time was very invested in process engineering without having too much real-world experience in rolling any processes out.

But today I’m thinking about this as an example of writing about things that might appear to be against the corporate interest. Lucent took a chance on us. I don’t think they got damaged by it. Maybe their competitors laughed (although I’d bet that they too struggled with the same problems). We got no press attention for it, either positive or negative. I wonder whether people thought positively of the corporation for letting its researchers write about things that didn’t go so well (or horribly).

I will probably never know what Facebook encourages and prohibits its researchers from writing about. But there’s a sense that the study had a framing, and one that was at odds with the results. And that’s unfortunate for both the researchers and Facebook.

The Right to be Forgotten and the Right to be Equal

In computer science, empirical, European Union, social media on July 16, 2014 at 4:48 am

I’ve said this before, the Internet can be a mean misogynistic place. Could the Right to be Forgotten help with this?

The Right to be Forgotten is an EU ruling that gives people the means to ask search engine companies to remove data from their searches if it is irrelevant. Its sparked a lot of controversy as well as questions.

The controversy could be characterized as pitting freedom of expression and information against individual privacy rights. Additionally, people have argued that it creates an unfair burden on intermediaries such as Google.

While I am open to these arguments, I find myself thinking about how freedom of expression and misogyny interact. Some of the things that are written about women on the Internet are vile, abusive, full of bile and hatred. Freedom of expression has always had limitations: libel (making false and damaging statements) and obscenity. Freedom of expression on the Internet seems never to have had these limitations, and so obscene libelous statements directed at women exist in perpetuity on the Internet. Perhaps some might argue that its the responsibility of the person they are targetted at to take it up through the courts. But how, when the authors of these remarks are hidden. Which makes me think there is a role for corporations. Or at least a responsibility.

Some advocates for the right to be forgotten have argued that it reflects a social value of forgiveness. We all have the right to make mistakes and then over time have those mistakes disappear into a forgotten history. I agree.

But what I am asking and suggesting here is that the Right to be Forgotten maybe a means to finally have an Internet that is fair to all. For a long time visions of the Internet have championed it as a platform welcoming anyone and everyone. The right to be forgotten may have a role in actually ensuring that it welcomes minorities by proving for once and for all that it will not tolerate discrimination.

538, the World Cup, and Facebook: Telling Stories about Data

In computer science, discipline, empirical, research, social media on July 15, 2014 at 6:49 am

As many of you already know, I’ve been following the World Cup. My team, Germany, won. Watching the World Cup has always involved reading news reports and commentary about the matches. This year I decided to include 538 in my reading.

538 is Nate Silver’s website. Nate Silver became famous predicting US elections. He is a master of analyzing big data to make predictions. It works well for elections. But it doesn’t work so well for the World Cup, at least not for me. First, the site predicted Brazil to win for a long time.

But it’s not just that 538 did not accurately predict the winners. I think that 538 misses the point of a World Cup. Crunching data about the teams doesn’t tell the whole story. And the World Cup is stories. Many stories. As a fan you learn the stories of your team and its history. You might start with world history—this is very salient as a Germany fan. England versus Argentina similarly (1984). It also involves stories about the teams previous encounters. Germany versus Argentina has happened before, even in Finals. And those stories are recounted, and reflected on, in the build up to a game. You might tell stories about strategy. Certainly the Germans have been telling those, about a decade long commitment to raising German players. How you structure a league to encourage more domestic players that can also play for the national side. How you balance the demands of a national league and a national team.

In a nutshell, context matters. These stories of world politics, former World Cups, and the arc of time turn statistics about the players into something richer. 538 tells none of those stories. And I suppose that’s exactly what it wants to be, a “science” of the World Cup. But my World Cup isn’t statistics, it’s larger, more discursive and has a multi-decade narrative arc.

Reflecting on this caused me to revisit the Facebook study. Yes, that Facebook study. The study reported data. But it was data about people. However, at the same time I think some of the response could be interpreted as people feeling that there was more to the story than just statistical reporting of the outcomes. Is it a similar type of human-dimension, an infusion of humanity? This is the question I’ve kept wondering since reflecting on the problems of both of these data-driven reports. 538 reduces football to data. In so doing it loses the human dimension. The Facebook study started as data and the public raised human concerns and considerations. If I have a take away it is that fields like social computing, or any data science of humans, need to seriously pay attention to the stories that we tell about people. How we frame or potentially reduce people is something that the public will care about, for it is their humanity, their stories that we seek to tell.


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