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The Facebook Experiment: Cow-Sociology, Redux

Once having arrived at a set (or sets) of defensible moral positions, social psychologists should better be able to educate those outside the field concerning appropriate ethical criteria by which to judge the field's work...
Alan C. Elms, 1975
Warnings of public backlashes against psychologists, diminished subject pools, and a tarnished professional interest had little, if any, visible effect. The psychologist's ethical stance remains to his or her chosen methodology. Where the behavioristic model applies, deception is usually part of it.
C.D. Herrera, 1997
The reason we did this research is because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product. We felt that it was important to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post positive content leads to people feeling negative or left out.
Adam Kramer, 2014

Now that the initial heat has faded, it is a good time to place the Facebook experiment in historical perspective. In the first two quotes above, social psychologist Alan C. Elms and philospher-ethicist C.D. Herrera represent two sides of a debate over the ethics and efficacy of relying on deception in experimental research. I highlight these two quotes because they demonstrate moments within social psychology, even if they are a generation apart, when deception surfaces as a topic for reconsideration. Elms, one of the original research assistants involved in Stanley Milgram’s obedience research, writes as deception is being called into question. Herrera, writing with the benefit of hindsight, suggests that paradigms other than behaviorist are the way forward. The crux of this disagreement lies in the conceptualization of the research subject. Is the research subject a reflexive being with an intelligence on par with the researcher’s intelligence, or is the research subject a raw material to be deceived and manipulated by the superior intelligence of the researcher?

<a href="">Danger, cows ahead</a> CC BY-SA akenator

Danger, cows ahead
CC BY-SA akenator

Unseen, but looming in the background of this disagreement, is the Industrial Psychology/Human Relations approach, which developed in the 1920’s and 1930’s through the work of researchers like Elton Mayo and his consociates, and in experiments such as those at the Hawthorne plant.

This debate is worth revisiting in light of the Facebook experiment and its fallout. Any understanding of the Facebook experiment — and the kind of experimentation allowed by Big Data more generally — must include the long, intertwined history of behaviorism and experimental deception as it has been refracted through both Adam Kramer’s home discipline of social psychology and somewhat through his adopted discipline of “data scientist” [1].Read More… The Facebook Experiment: Cow-Sociology, Redux

When Science, Customer Service, and Human Subjects Research Collide. Now What?

Now What? CC BY-ND Frits Ahlefeld

Now What?
CC BY-ND Frits Ahlefeld

I’m frustrated that the state of public intellectualism allows us, individually, to jump into the conversation about the recently published Facebook “Emotions” Study [1]. What we—from technology builders and interface designers to data scientists and ethnographers working in industry and at universities alike—really (really) need right now is to sit down together and talk. Pointing the finger or pontificating doesn’t move us closer to the discussions we need to have, from data sharing and users’ rights to the drop in public funding for basic research itself. We need a dialogue—a thoughtful, compassionate conversation among those who are or will be training the next generation of researchers studying social media. And, like all matters of ethics, this discussion will become a personal one as we reflect on our doubts, disagreements, missteps, and misgivings. But the stakes are high. Why should the Public trust social media researchers and the platforms that make social media a thing? It is our collective job to earn and maintain the Public’s trust so that future research and social media builders have a fighting chance to learn and create more down the line. Science, in particular, is an investment in questions that precede and will live beyond the horizon of individual careers.

As more and more of us crisscross disciplines and work together to study or build better social media, we are pressed to rethink our basic methods and the ethical obligations pinned to them. Indeed “ethical dilemmas” are often signs that our methodological techniques are stretched too thin and failing us. When is something a “naturalistic experiment” if the data are always undergoing A/B tweaks? How do we determine consent if we are studying an environment that is at once controllable, like a lab, but deeply social, like a backyard BBQ? When do we need to consider someone’s information “private” if we have no way to know, for sure, what they want us to do with what we can see them doing? When, if ever, is it ok to play with someone’s data if there’s no evident harm but we have no way to clearly test the long-term impact on a nebulous number of end users?Read More… When Science, Customer Service, and Human Subjects Research Collide. Now What?

Verklempt: Historically Informed Digital Ethnography

VerklemptI’m not one to speak about theory and method in the abstract. But when I am asked about my method, I typically respond that I use historically informed ethnography. However, whenever I say this I think of Mike Meyers’ SNL character Linda Richman. On Richman’s public access show, she and her friends talked about “about coffee, New York, dawters, dawgs, you know – no big whoop – just coffee talk.” During their discussions Richman would often become “verklempt,” such as in recalling meeting Barbara Streisand; overcome with emotion, she’d turn to her guests with a prompt: “The Prince of Tides is neither about a Prince nor tides – discuss.”

Hence, while I might say “historically informed ethnography,” I think to myself that “my work is neither historical nor ethnographic – discuss.”

Historically informed

As a computer science undergraduate I loved (and minored in) history. I still do love history and find that while I am typically focusing on contemporary communities and how they work together, historical context is important to my developing understanding of the practices of today.

When I went off to graduate school for a PhD, I was very much inspired by a little known work about Quakers: Michael Sheeran’s1 Beyond Majority Rule: Voteless Decisions in the Religious Society Of Friends. This was an ethnography of their consensus decision-making, but began with an introduction to their history, one that greatly informs the present-day. For instance, Quakers’ decision-making is a reflection of the origins of Protestantism. In short, under Protestantism it was thought that divine will could be discerned via the individual rather than through the church. However, the idea of individual discernment allowed for some unusual (and ill-favored) beliefs, such as those of the Ranters and the messianic Quaker James Naylor. This, in turn, brought increased persecution by the state. Hence, early Quakers faced the problem of how to represent themselves as moderate and nonthreatening. Their solution, in part, was to adopt a position of pacifism and community consensus. This historical context imparted a much richer understanding than if I had only read of their current day decision making. Accordingly, I tried to do the same thing with respect to Wikipedia collaboration by placing it in the historical context of what I called the pursuit of the universal encyclopedia.

Hence, even when I am focused upon the seemingly faddish phenomena of the digital realm, I challenge myself to ask if this is truly something never seen before? It rarely is, which then permits me to ask the more interesting and productive question of how is it different from (or a continuation of) what has gone before?

Is this history or ethnography? And at what point, in trawling through online archives, does ethnography become history?

A digital interlude

Much of my quandary about history and ethnography relates to my domain of study. I love being able to immerse myself in the conversations and cultural artifacts of a community. Much of this is likely a reflection of my personality. I can be shy and I enjoy hunting through archives for something that is novel and leads to an insight. I am often happy to work alone as I read through blogs, wiki pages and email archives. Yet, is this history or ethnography? And at what point, in trawling through online archives, does ethnography become history? (When the sources are dead?)

I’m fortunate that I tend to study open communities and geeks. This means that many of my sources are prolific self-documenters, publishing their thoughts and contributions in public. Consequently, I have many primary sources, and I want to share them with my readers. In fact, after a decade of work, I have over four thousand sources and as I’ve done this work, I’ve continued to develop a system by which I can easily document, find, and manage this information. I recently did a screencast of the two tools I’ve developed for this.

Of course, this is not to say that conversations and interviews with community members are not useful. I’ve attended many a conference, Meetup, and un-conference. Many times people have shared with me context and background that has been invaluable to my understanding and portrayals. Sometimes, I delight in a key insight or wonderful quotation I can use from an interview. However, I do take lesser pleasure in an insight communicated to me privately than one I can find publicly. I don’t attempt to rationalize or advocate for this position, it is simply my preference. (I suspect many of the lofty words spent on academic distinctions is to justify similar differences in personal sensibilities and social habitus).Read More… Verklempt: Historically Informed Digital Ethnography

Ethnography Beyond Text and Print: How the digital can transform ethnographic expressions

WendyHsu_pinecone Editor’s note: This is the final post in Wendy Hsu‘s 4-part series, On Digital Ethnography. Wendy asks what does an ethnography beyond text and print look like? To answer this question, she calls on us to reconsider what counts as “ethnographic knowledge.” Wendy provides examples of collaborative multimedia projects that are just as “ethnographic” in nature as a traditional ethnographic monograph. The first post in the On Digital Ethnography series called for ethnographers to use computer software, the second post introduced readers to her methods of deploying computer programs to collect quantitative data, and the third post urged ethnographers to pay more attention to the sounds, sights, and other material aspects of our field research.  Wendy @WendyFHsu  is an ACLS Public Fellow working with the City of LA Department of Cultural Affair. She recently finished her term as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center of Digital Learning + Research at Occidental College and completed her dissertation on the spread of independent rock music.

Yea, as a fellow with the City of LA Department of Cultural Affairs, I have a mission to innovate and technologize the department. I’m spearheading the department’s web redesign project — thinking about how to better articulate our work, outreach to constituents, and digitize some of our services. I’m still wearing my ethnographer’s hat, thinking about how to cull through the vast amount of data related to arts and culture here at the city, and leveraging social media and other mobile/digital data to better understand the impact of our work. I’m also working with the City’s Information Technology Agency to join efforts in their Open Data initiative with the goal to augment civic participation through innovation projects like civic hacking.

Ethnography means fieldwork or field research – a set of research practices applied for the purpose of acquiring data; but the term also refers to the descriptive representation of one’s fieldwork. In my series on digital ethnography so far, I have discussed how digital and computational methods could enhance how we as ethnographers acquire, process, explore, and re-scale field data. In this last post, I will shift my focus away from field research to discuss the process of “writing up” field findings. I ask: How might the digital transform the way we communicate ethnographic information and knowledge?

I pick up from where Jenna Burrell left off in her recent post “Persuasive Formats” to interrogate the medium of writing as a privileged mode of expression of academic ethnographic practices. Early in graduate school, I learned that the eventual outcome of doing ethnographic research is the publication of a monograph. People around me use the word “monograph” to refer to a book-length treatment of research of a single subject published by an academic press [they looks something like what’s shown in Figure 1]. This is, however, one of many definitions of monograph (apparently humanists have a definition stricter than scientists and librarians). Burrell attributes the scarcity of academic publication to economic reasons, and suggests online publishing as a potential solution to remedy the cost of print-based publishing and to enable the integration of visual materials in publications.

Ethnographic monographs in the stacks in the Occidental library

Figure 1: Ethnographic monographs in the stacks in the Occidental library

Ethnography, based on the Greek root of “graph,” means the representation of field experience, findings, and analysis through the medium of writing. But writing, denoted by the word “graph,” may have always been used to refer to textual means of representation (i.e. what we think of as writing), but there are instances of this root referring to non-textual means such as photograph, lithograph, phonograph, heliograph, etc. The ambiguity of writing as a medium that can be either textual or nontextual has been with us since the invention of these words.

I’m not advocating for abolishing academic book publishing. Others have and have discussed the economic and ideological structure that supports academic publishing and valorizes the monograph.) Instead, I want to make room for a serious consideration of ethnographic expressions that are not strictly based in text, either in the form of a book or a journal article, but are dynamically articulated in interactive and multimediated systems afforded by digital technology. Some of you might find this claim to be professionally irrelevant to you, if your preoccupation with ethnography falls outside of the academy. But the concerns and techniques that I will talk about may pique your interest as you consider the ways to communicate findings and analysis to clients, collaborators, and stakeholders.

If we open up the definition of ethnography beyond text and print, then we can start to envision a media-enriched, performative, and collaborative space for ethnographers to convey what they have encountered, experienced, and postulated. Utilizing the affordances of digital media, ethnographic knowledge can be stored, expressed, and shared in ways beyond a single medium, direction, and user. In what follows, I will outline a few computational practices, platforms, and projects to illustrate these points.Read More… Ethnography Beyond Text and Print: How the digital can transform ethnographic expressions

Glorious Backfires in Digital Ethnography: Becoming an Urban Explorer

Screen shot 2013-11-11 at 12.53.11 PMFor four years, Bradley Garrett (@Goblinmerchant) explored abandoned hospitals, railways, tunnels and rooftops as part of his PhD ethnography studying an elite group of urban explorers. 

Brad has in many ways had it all: a book deal from Verso just after finishing his PhD, a position at Oxford University to continue his research, and numerous requests for media appearances and license deals. But he has also just had one of the hardest years of his life, struggling with a backlash from some members of the urban explorer community as well as attempts by authorities to stop the publication of his book. Last month, Brad gave a talk to the newly-established Oxford Digital Ethnography Group (@OxDEG) about some of the perils of doing public ethnography. His story is a counterpoint to the uncritical enthusiasm usually espoused about this form of engagement. Public ethnography, we soon learn, can be dangerous.

Screen shot 2013-11-12 at 8.39.51 AM

Bradley Garrett’s book “Explore Everything” documents his ethnography of urban explorers

When Brad first started working on the urban explorer project, he realized (like so many ethnographers before him) that joining the community would not be easy. He couldn’t simply join other explorers without first establishing himself as trustworthy and serious. Brad needed currency. Photographs of him pictured in hard-to-reach spaces were that currency. Brad recounts that it took him about eight months of exploring mostly on his own, taking photographs of his explorations and then publishing them on his blog, Place Hacking and other forums to get an invite.

The very method used to meet the elite explorers who he ended up studying also led to exposure of a more problematic kind. Because he was sharing his photographs and field notes using his real name, Brad was increasingly seen as a spokesperson and leader of the urban explorer community among the press who, he said, “couldn’t deal with a leaderless community”. By the time him and his crew posted photographs of them climbing the Shard in London, his website crashed and he had “every national newspaper in the country trying to get photos”.Read More… Glorious Backfires in Digital Ethnography: Becoming an Urban Explorer

Ethnography and Speculative Fiction

Clare Anzoleaga

Clare Anzoleaga

Editor’s Note: In this third post in our “Ethnography and Speculative Fiction” series, Clare Anzoleaga (@ClareAnzoleaga) from Fresno City College and Porterville College discusses the potential of fictional accounts of ethnographic work. In doing so, she complements the piece by Anne Galloway and the article by Laura Forlano: this time it’s less about design or design fictions and more about writing. More specifically, she highlights the rhetorical possibilities of such approach for understanding knowledge and shared meaning.


In 1991 famous ethnographer, Dwight Conquergood, published a piece titled, “Rethinking Ethnography.” One important point from this piece deals with the ethnographer’s challenge to appropriately convey the experience of the “Being There” of fieldwork with the rhetorical final product of the “Being Here.” It begs the question: What rhetorical/communicative strategies should we use to adequately tell the story of a culture? This came into play a bit further for me the other night when I had a dinner party for some colleagues. One of the topics we playfully debated had to do with whether ethnography should reside in the field of Communication theory or not (to me, this is a no-brainer). Ethnography is Communication because whether the researcher is in the field talking to people or at their laptop storifying analysis, one of its intents is to elicit a communicative and performative response. Ethnography sends a message through the form of a story either through text, performance, images or all of the above. This got me thinking, however, about this article on speculative fiction and ethnography that I was writing for While many speculative fiction writers have been incorporating the practice of ethnography into their work, few Communication scholars incorporate speculative fiction into their ethnography. Thus I began to wonder about Conquergood and his discussion on the rhetorical possibilities of ethnography and the differences between a researcher who writes ethnographic, peer-reviewed journal articles who uses speculative fiction, and a writer who uses ethnography as a way to write in the genre of speculative fiction. In this essay, I direct my focus of inquiry at some of the benefits and challenges of the ethnographer in the field of Communication who uses speculative fiction in their research. While my focus is oriented in the field of Communication, I acknowledge these concepts are also applicable to the broader work of any social researcher.

I should start with making two distinctions here first. On one hand, there is the question of where and how ethnography, which weaves in speculative fiction scenarios as part of the ethnographic analysis, is being produced in such scholarly fields as Communication. I ran a quick keyword search of “ethnography” and “speculative fiction,” at “Communication & Mass Media Complete” and found no journal article or book results on this matter. This means there are few ethnographers in the Communication field who are currently producing peer-reviewed journal articles who use speculative fiction in their storified analysis (but I hope they start soon, ahem!).

Read More… Ethnography and Speculative Fiction

Towards Fantastic Ethnography and Speculative Design


Anne Galloway

Editor’s Note: Anne Galloway (@annegalloway) is Senior Lecturer at the School of Design (Victoria University of Wellington,) and Principal Investigator at Design Culture Lab. Coming from a background in anthropology and STS, Anne’s work focusses on relations between humans and nonhumans, and the development of creative research methods for understanding issues and controversies around science, technology and animals. In this first post of this month’s edition about Ethnography and Fiction, she gives her perspective on design ethnography and speculative fiction. More specifically, she describes various authors who inspired her work as well the relationship between ethnography and design.


For the past five years I’ve worked as a design ethnographer. I haven’t always called myself that—I have a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology, a Master’s degree in Archaeology, and a PhD in Sociology—but I’ve always studied what people make in, and of, the world. And although I don’t feel much disciplinary allegiance, it would be disingenuous to say my disciplinary background, and their methods in particular, haven’t been instrumental in getting me to where I am today.

Perhaps because of my multidisciplinary education, I tend to have a rather idiosyncratic view of what design ethnography means. First, I do not use ethnography as a means to privilege people, and my approach to design ethnography is different from that which underpins much human- or user-centred design. My ethnographic practice is strongly informed by science and technology studies, most notably in their recognition of nonhumans as agents in everyday life, and by “multispecies ethnography“, which explicitly involves doing research with nonhuman animals. More generally, I see both ethnography and design as practices that re-assemble the complex assemblages to which we are already attached. And although I also see the need for ethnographic studies that directly inform design practices and products, and respect the people who do this valuable work, I don’t enjoy playing a support role to ‘real’ designers. I much prefer to find new ways of doing both ethnography and design.

So how do I teach ethnography to design students? First, I tell them that if they’ve ever wondered why people do things, or how things got to be the way they are, then they’re already part ethnographer. I say that my job is to help them get better at asking and answering social and cultural questions, because understanding and building entire worlds is a huge challenge that no single discipline can accomplish on its own. And I tell them that I believe the best designers are those who understand that what they’re doing is cultural innovation, which requires them to move beyond both personal impression and expression, as well as any self-righteous desire to ‘fix’ the world. My approach to design ethnography binds us to others, and I place a lot of emphasis on the need to develop a social ethics, rather than relying solely on personal interests and beliefs.

Over the years I’ve observed that design students often have much better observation and documentation skills than sociology and anthropology students do, but they appear to struggle greatly with how to interpret the information and represent this knowledge to other people. On the other hand, anthropology and sociology students often have superior analytical skills but are terribly limited in their desire or ability to communicate in anything other than the written word—even when their topic is visual or material culture. Consequently, I’ve come to think that ethnography makes design better as much as design makes ethnography better, and in that sense I believe we can serve each other equally.

Read More… Towards Fantastic Ethnography and Speculative Design

Why Weird Twitter

tl;dr There’s no such thing as Weird Twitter

Will there be a mythology in the future, they used to ask, after all has become science? Will high deeds be told in epic, or only in computer code?

And after the questing spirit had gone into overdrive during the early Space Decades, after the great Captains had appeared, there did grow up a mythos through which to view the deeds. This myth filter was necessary. The ship logs could not tell it rightly nor could any flatfooted prose. And the deeds were too bright to be viewed direct. They could only be sung by a bard gone blind from viewing suns that were suns.

R.A. Lafferty, Space Chantey

Imagine that there is a community or culture of people that use social media–let’s focus on Twitter–in a particularly interesting or funny or outlandish way. Would you give it a name? Would you try to understand its size or its structure? Its history? Its purpose? How would you go about doing that?

Could it be studied by an anthropologist? A data scientist? An economist? A philosopher? A critic? A journalist? Could it ever understand itself?

I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with a name: Weird Twitter.


This is a Google Trends query for the string “weird twitter”.

There have been two spikes in search popularity of “weird twitter” in the past year. The second spike corresponds to the publication of the brilliant “Weird Twitter: The Oral History“, by Herrman and Notopoulos, (BuzzFeed, April 2013). The authors explain:

Weird Twitter is vast and amorphous; what it looks like depends hugely on whom you follow, when you followed them, and what you find funny. … Some of its best writers have a few hundred followers, while others have tens of thousands. Styles of tweeting and types of jokes that originated among its small sects have bled out into the mainstream: Even to comedians, these are some of the funniest people on Twitter.

The first spike in October 2012, which marks the beginning of a consistent hum of search activity for “weird twitter”, coincides with this tweet by erstwhile pseudonymous Gawker writer Mebute Sese Seko.

At the time, Mebuto Sese Seko had almost 10,000 followers. This tweet triggered a series of events that lead to the wider adoption of the term.

Notably, Mebuto didn’t use the phrase “weird twitter” himself, and he linked to screenshots, not to web pages. The second image was of an anonymous Quora post that identified Weird Twitter as Twitter’s equivalent of 4chan’s /b/, or “Random”, subcommunity. The first image pictured a blog post I had written the previous summer.

Boundaried symbolic network community

A lot was going through my head when I wrote that blog post. In the Spring of 2012 I was reading Anthony Cohen‘s work on the symbolic construction of community. For Cohen, a community is constituted by its creation and use of symbols. Especially critical for the community’s identity are the symbols it uses to mark its boundary–members and non-members. I was also reading Caroline Haythornthwaithe‘s work on Social Networks and On-line Community, which emphasizes the topological structure of on-line social networks over symbolic meaning-making.

Schematic diagrams of Cohen and Haythornthwaithe's models of community.

(I did this preliminary work in on-line community detection in collaboration with a classmate, Dave Tomcik.)

At the same time I was following a few of what now would be called Weird Twitter accounts. It got me thinking: most work on virtual communities in cyberspace depends on technical infrastructure to provide the community boundaries. A mailing list is a community circumscribed by the technicalities of mailing list membership. A web service like Reddit supports multiple communities by supporting multiple distinct subreddits. But Twitter supports the growth of an ad hoc network structure without distinct watering holes demarcated in the user interface.

How could one identify a community within such a social network? I had a hunch that these networks, which would depend on the organic social connections between individuals and not the commercially built and sustained technical environment, would be special.

Schematic diagram of a boundaried symbolic networks and containment relations between its lexicons

What sort of digital signature would such a community show? According to my reading of Cohen, it would be involved in vigorous, complex dialog about, among other things, what symbols to use to represent itself. Since the digital environment is one in which symbols (e.g. words) are constantly flying around and being recorded, I thought this kind of community could be algorithmically detected. Which I find both thrilling and chilling. Eric Snowden’s recent whistleblowing has let America know its on-line activity is under state surveillance all the time, on top of the surveillance by commercial interests.

Chaotic resistance

Duchamp's FountainI believe we have an opportunity to use the wealth of data available now to really advance social science. But the reality is our research will, if successful, be used for political manipulation, commercial advertising, and other kinds of social manipulation and control. For me, this makes it imperative that I present my research to the public. If I work on methods for on-line community detection, I should try to make those insights usable by communities to understand themselves and evade detection if they desire.

Most rhetoric about evading on-line detection is about making less information available. That makes sense for the individual. But in aggregate, this cleans the data set, making it easier to find patterns that haven’t been self-censored away.

The biggest challenges to behavioral data scientists are not the availability of data, but data’s complexity. If data has a high Kolmogorov complexity and perhaps logical depth, it will be very difficult to extract patterns from.

In other words: you cannot master noise and chaos. It is the abyss staring back. Much as Dadaism was a tool for eroding the establishment and Situationists sought to challenge society through liberated, authentic expression, social media users can resist surveillance by making their interactions more wild, original and complex. Big Brother is watching, but he can be blinded by confusion fu.

We are always already watched over by machines of love and grace, and other kindsI thought I had found a nexus of this kind of noisy on-line behavior on Twitter. If what I was seeing was a community at all, it was a community of chaos and exploration. And it knew it. I had read the term “weird twitter” in @regisl‘s tweets in March 2012 when he was writing a lot of exploratory, reflective thoughts on Twitter culture. His and others insights into virtual community were profound, echoes of some of the earliest musings on virtual community, such as by Electronic Frontier Foundation founder John Perry Barlow in “Crime and Puzzlement” (1990):

As a result of [the opening of Cyberspace], humanity is now undergoing the most profound transformation of its history. Coming into the Virtual World, we inhabit Information. Indeed, we become Information. Thought is embodied and the Flesh is made Word. It’s weird as hell.

I figured that holding a mirror up to the noise, crudely describing and interpreting practices that could not be interpreted or described, could only make the chaotic system more complex. At the same time, it would be a test of Cohen’s theory of the symbolic construction of communities in an on-line context: what happens when a community confronts a symbol, in this case the string “Weird Twitter”, that purports to mark its boundary?

Stuart Geiger had introduced me to M.C. Burton’s idea that “trolling is the new critique.” I was interested in trolling as an experimental method. A grown-up Internet kid who had done and been dished his share of trolling, I figured it was time to put those skills to good use: clumsy live field notes.

The offending post

According to the Encyclopedia Dramatica, this kind of trolling is a Philosopher Attack (“a type of flame war
where a terminally bored, yet well educated person or group ambush an innocent bystander or group, who were just minding their own business”). I posted in August. Nothing happened.

Then Jeb Lund tweeted about it.

Read More… Why Weird Twitter

“The @Adderall_RX Girl”: Pharmaceutical self-branding and identity in social media

headshot of Tazin Karim

Tazin Karim

Editor’s Note:  Tazin Karim (@PharmaCulture) is a medical anthropologist who studies pharmaceutical culture in the US and contexts of prescription stimulant use.  She is also active in the Digital Humanities and Social Sciences. In this post for our Virtual Identity edition, Taz examines the ways in which people use Twitter to construct virtual identities centered on the brand name stimulant Adderall.


In today’s digital world, choosing the right Twitter username is an important decision. It’s the first thing people notice and immediately signals to a potential follower who you are and why they should be interested in what you have to say. Although many stick to their given names, others use the opportunity to highlight their best qualities and brand themselves as an expert academic, baseball fanatic, or mother of the year. So when I found out there were over a hundred people on Twitter with the word “Adderall” in their username, it definitely got my attention. Of all the things to advertise, why would someone want to brand themselves around a mental health drug?

Adderall is a prescription stimulant designed to treat the symptoms of Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) – a condition affecting 12% of children and 5% of adults in the U.S. It is also used non-medically by a number of people from middle aged mothers to professional football players looking to manage their high-stress lives. My research in particular looks at the popularity of Adderall use among college students and how it is influencing cultural conceptions of mental health and academic performance.

Like other prescription drugs, the consumption of Adderall has become an important part of identity construction for many Americans. For a person with ADHD, it acts to reify the sick role by offering a tangible solution to an illness that is difficult to biomedically conceptualize. Lay conceptions of ADHD extend beyond biomedicine and are intimately tied to academic culture (“my grades are poor because I have ADHD” or “his grades are poor, he must have ADHD”). As a result, Adderall consumption can also construct and facilitate non-medical identities like being a good student, son/daughter, athlete, or friend. As the prevalence of these pharmaceutical practices increases, Adderall use is becoming not only de-stigmatized in American culture, but a normalized, and even glamorized way to achieve these idealized identities – both off and online.Read More… “The @Adderall_RX Girl”: Pharmaceutical self-branding and identity in social media

Onymous, pseudonymous, neither or both?

Heather Ford

Heather Ford

Editor’s Note: For our Virtual Identity edition, contributing editor Heather Ford (@hfordsa) explores the complications of attribution and identification in online research. Are members of online communities research subjects, research participants, amateur artists? When is online participation public, private, or something in between?


Pic by moriza on Flickr, CC BY NC SA

Pic by moriza on Flickr, CC BY NC SA

When I published one of my first studies of online communities as part of my master’s research, I came up against one of the most challenging aspects of online research: how to reflect the identity of one’s research participants. I had been observing an open educational content community and quoted one of the participants’ missives from the publicly available mailing list without referring to his name or username. I had thought that this was the right thing to do: to anonymize the data, thus protecting the subjects. But the “subject” was angry that he had been quoted “without attribution”. And he was right. If I was really interested in protecting the privacy of my subjects, why would I quote his sentence when anyone could probably Google it and find out who wrote it.

Since then, my process has evolved a lot, but I still send my research participants a draft of my paper before it gets published so that they can choose whether I a) anonymize their statements b) attribute according to their usernames or c) attribute their full (“real”) names. But the process becomes unwieldy when doing detailed content analysis (or “trace ethnography” as per Geiger and Ribes) on Wikipedia where only some editors accept email and where other editors may have left the project. These are publicly available statements on a website that is explicitly open for copying and remixing, but I’m also taking those statements out of the context in which they are written. This is technically a “remix” but may make some editors uncomfortable.

So, do I quote users and attribute their comments to their username on publicly accessible websites like Wikipedia? Or do I need to get their written permission where they choose whether they want me to attribute their name, username, both or neither?Read More… Onymous, pseudonymous, neither or both?