Facebook at 10, and Internet Time Revisited

Robinson Meyer has a nice piece at TheAtlantic, discussing Facebook’s web publishing surge.  Websites within the Buzzfeed Partner Network now get nearly 4x more traffic through Facebook than through Google.  That’s… a pretty big deal.  Google used to be synonymous with the “attention backbone” of the internet*.  Now, it appears as though the Facebook “wall” is overtaking the Google search.

It’s a particularly timely piece, because Facebook just turned 10.  And Facebook’s digital publishing surge is not a natural outgrowth of its ten years of success.  As Meyer puts it:

“The kind of traffic surge from Facebook—so vertiginous to be almost hockey-stick-ish—wasn’t an accident. Facebook didn’t grow at that rate in 2013, especially among U.S. users, and “naturally” eclipse Google. As I’ve written before, Facebook’s directing that kind of traffic because it wants to direct that traffic—it wants to be a digital publishing kingmaker.”

I remember learning about Facebook in 2005.  I was in grad school, and a teaching assistant for a large undergraduate intro-to-politics class.  All of my students had created Facebook accounts to go along with their Myspace accounts.  Since I had a university email address, I created one too.  But I didn’t see much point to the site.  It was an exclusive, barebones version of Myspace.  No one I wanted to socialize with was on the thing, and “poking” seemed innately stupid.

Facebook-as-digital-publishing-kingmaker was not foreseeable in Facebook’s initial years.  Hell, it wasn’t even foreseeable two years ago.  Facebook changed as it grew, and as other parts of the World Wide Web grew around it.  That change doesn’t occur along a single vector, or in response to a stable five year strategic plan.  I’ve written on this subject before.  It’s a concept that I call “Internet Time.”

In secular time (normal human being time) a decade isn’t really that long.  Ten years ago, everyone was watching J.J. Abrams shows on television (and Lost hadn’t disappointed us yet), and watching Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien on the big screen.  Hollywood was being awful about copyright, and environmentalists were warning that it was long-past-time that we got serious about addressing climate change.

By comparison, 10 years is an eon in Internet Time.  Blogs were still in their nascent stage ten years ago.  The iPhone wasn’t invented until 2007.  The iPad was science fiction. Hell, YouTube didn’t even exist in 2004.

This is a pretty important distinction.  It means, when we study Facebook use over time, the object of analysis is unstable.  Facebook in 2014 performs a different function than Facebook in 2009.  And this isn’t simply because people have started to use it in different ways.  It’s because Facebook’s engineers have modified the system itself.  In its first few years, the Facebook Wall didn’t exist.  Then it provided you with status updates from your friends.  Now it provides you with news and opinion pieces, and steers you away from low-quality content farms, and charges companies to boost their wall content.  All of these engineering decisions and policy decisions matter.  They make Facebook at 10 something different than Facebook at 7 or 5 or 1.

When we study Facebook’s role in politics, or news, or entertainment, our empirical research has a relatively short half-life.  By the time an article makes it through peer-review and publishing, the object of analysis may have changed in ways that invalidate  many of the findings.  (Example: if someone conducted a solid study of Facebook and digital publishing traffic in 2011, it likely wouldn’t be published until this year.  Those findings would be robust for Facebook circa 2011, but inaccurate for Facebook circa 2014.)

This all reminds me of a passage from Kurt and Gladys Langs’ classic 1968 book, Television and Politics. (further discussed at QualPoliComm).  the Langs discuss how television does not reflect reality, it refracts reality.  The introduction of the tv camera alters and helps to create the scene.  The Langs write “Refraction inheres in the technology, but the particular angle of vision rests on the decisions and choices within news organizations and how an event is to be reported.”

Facebook is also a refracting media technology.  And the angle of vision rests on the decisions of engineers and A/B testers.  But that angle of vision is also constantly changing, constantly evolving.

We can be confident that social media refracts, rather than reflects.  But Internet Time means we constantly have to revisit just what is being magnified or obscured.


*”Attention Backbone” is Yochai Benkler’s term.  I love it and am borrowing it for a slightly different context here.  You should read his recent paper about the SOPA mobilization, though.

News Coverage of Economic Immobility: Free of Historical Context

A recent Harvard study has found that economic mobility has not changed substantially in the last couple decades.

This has been framed repeatedly in the media as “mobility has not declined.” The Times headline is literally, “Upward Mobility Has Not Declined, Study Says”.

The NPR headline, “Study: Upward Mobility No Tougher In U.S. Than Two Decades Ago“, captures that story’s spin. Over at the New Yorker? “Social Mobility Hasn’t Fallen: What It Means and Doesn’t Mean“.

The reason for this framing is surely that political leaders of several stripes have contended that mobility actually is going down. Remarkably, this has included not only by Obama and other Dems, but also visible Republicans like Paul Ryan.

Still, just because political leaders are wrong does not justify using their claims as a starting point. A more accurate headline would be, “Study Finds Economic Mobility Remains Low”. Economic mobility has been remarkably low in the US since the middle of the 20th century. The new Harvard study is a valuable addition to the literature, but it is consistent with years-old studies suggesting that we’ve plateaued near the bottom of the scale.

Here’s a graph from a 2007 study using Social Security data, showing how mobility dropped sharply in the 1940s and ’50s, and has stayed low since then. (Click for a larger version.)

Graph: Decrease in Economic Mobility

Even the 1960s and ’70s had slightly more variability in mobility and were (on average) higher in mobility. The Harvard study, however, covers the working years of those born in the 1970s and later — that is, roughly the last twenty years.

Look again at the graph. There is about a 3% chance that somebody in the bottom 40% will climb to the top 40%, and vice-versa, in a given year. Through 1950, the odds of moving up from the bottom to the top 40% were at least 6%, and as high as 12%, depending on the year. Compared to that range especially, the Reagan years basically saw everyone cemented in place.

When mobility is already so very low, and has been for decades, the key finding of this study is not that it has failed to drop further. This is akin to a sports section headline of “Cubs Fail to Win World Series”. Nobody would write that headline. “Cubs Wrap Another Miserable Year” is more like it.

This would likely be true even if the GM had promised a title at the start of the year — though the New York Post would probably go with throwing that promise back in his face. Sadly, the reporters who cover economics research know far, far less about that subject than sports reporters do about the games.

These headlines are a good example of political coverage only taking place within the boundaries set by policy leaders, even when the facts should militate otherwise. Political reporters and editors don’t know whether economic mobility has gone up or down over the 20th Century; they only know what Paul Ryan and Barack Obama say about it. That’s shameful, of course, when good information is publicly available — much of which is readable to the outsider.

Shouldn’t reporters be fact checking whether mobility really has gone down? Asking politicians where they got their data? Reading enough books and scholarly articles (or at least the darned abstracts) to have at least a semblance of an idea where to start looking for such an answer? Regardless, they are not doing so, and it takes the PR flacks at Harvard (who have apparently done their job very well this week) to put such research on their desks.

Thankfully, both the paper and the coverage have put this finding in the broader context of growing concentration of wealth. On this question there is widespread agreement that inequality is (a) worse in the US than in any other industrial country, and (b) growing. Here’s the relevant chart from the 2007 study linked above that shows the growth of inequality:

Graph: Rising Economic Inequality

This graph depicts the “Gini Coefficient,” which is a measure of economic inequality. Inequality dipped after the war, and it has climbed steadily since then. This graph stops in 2004, but it has continued unabated in the decade since as well.

The study and the coverage are also right to highlight important geographic differences in mobility. A kid who grows up in the bottom fifth in San Francisco or New York City is over twice as likely to reach the top fifth as a similarly positioned kid growing up in Atlanta or Charlotte. (Could it possibly be that collective investment leads to greater mobility?) Check out the Times‘ really cool interactive map of economic mobility.

This wealth of great detail notwithstanding, the new Harvard study’s framing in the news headlines and leads is disappointing. “Cubs Not Champions” is not the right frame; this is a lot closer to “Cubs Continue Futility”.

P.S. Thankfully, economic inequality is now being treated as an economic problem. In that vein, we should be looking at the political explanation for inequality — which brings me, for the umpteenth time, to Winner-Take-All Politics by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. If you have not read this book and give a gram of care about inequality, go read it now. Even for those with no training in economics or political science, it’s a very accessible — and persuasive — read.

My Trouble with VictoryKit

We lost Aaron Swartz a year ago today.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about VictoryKit, Aaron’s final unfinished project. He told me just a little bit about it last year, when we were both at the OPEN Summit.  The overlaps between his tech product and my emerging research puzzle (on analytics and activism) were uncanny, and the last conversation we had ended with a promise that we’d discuss it further soon.

As far as I can tell, VictoryKit is a growth engine for netroots advocacy groups.  It automates A/B testing, and draws signal from a wider range of inputs (open-rates, click-rates, social shares, etc) than usual.

The thing is, as I’ve conducted my early book research and learned more about VictoryKit, I think I’ve identified a real problem in the design.  I’m worried that VictoryKit automates too much.  It puts too much faith in revealed supporter opinion, at least as it is constructed through online activity.  And in the long term, that’s dangerous.

VictoryKit is designed to “send trickles, not blasts.”  The idea is to be constantly testing, constantly learning.

I heard Jon Carson from OFA give a talk last summer where he remarked “if you get our email before 8AM, you’re in our testing pool.”  OFA basically is the industry standard for email testing.  They test their messaging in the morning, sending variant appeals out to random subsets of their list*. They refine their language a few hours later, based on the test results, then they can send a full-list blast in the afternoon.  That’s one of the basic roles of A/B testing in computational management.

VictoryKit gets rid of the full-list blast.  Instead, you keep feeding petitions into the magical unicorn box**, it judges which petition is more appealing, and it then sends that petition to another incremental segment of the list.  I haven’t looked into the exact math yet, but the basic logic is clear: analytics represent member opinion.  Automate more decisions by entrusting the analytics, and you’ll be both more representative and more successful.

The problem here is that our revealed preferences are not the entirety of our preferences.

A.O. Hirschmann wrote about this in “Against Parsimony.”  Essentially, we have two types of preferences: revealed preferences and meta-preferences.  Revealed preferences are what we do, what we buy, what we click.  But Hirschmann points out that we also have systematic preferences for what kind of options we are presented with.

I always think of this as the Huffington Post’s “Sideboob” problem.  Huffpo has a sideboob vertical because celebrity pics generate a lot of clicks.  That’s a revealed preference: if Huffpo gives us a story about inequality and a story about Jennifer Lawrence at juuuuust the right camera angle, JLawr will be far more popular.  So Huffpo provides a ton of sideboob and a medium amount of hard-nosed journalism.


If the Huffington Post gauged reader preferences through different inputs ((by asking them to take online surveys, for instance), then they’d get a different view of reader preferences.  More people click on celebrity pics than will say “yes, that’s what I want from the Huffington Post.”

There’s a narrow version of economic thought that rejects meta-preferences as being unreal.  If people say they want hard news, but they click on the celeb pics, then they must really want the celeb pics.  But that’s unsupportable upon deeper reflection.  People are complex entities.  We can simultaneously watch junk tv and wish there was higher-quality programming.  New gym memberships peak around new years and late spring, as people who generally don’t reveal a preference for regular exercise act on their meta-preference for healthier living.

In online political advocacy, the signals from revealed preferences are even weaker.  We click on the petitions that are salient, or engaging, or heart-rending.  But we want our organizations to work on campaigns that are the most important and powerful.  Some of those campaigns won’t be very “growthy.”  But that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.

Take a look, for instance, at question #6 in Avaaz’s 2013 member survey.  Avaaz asked global members their opinion on a wide range of issues.  It also asked them “how should Avaaz use this poll.”  Only 5% thought their opinions should be binding on the organization.  The other 95% felt it should be as minor input or as a loose guide.  When asked, Avaaz members announce a meta-preference that the staff reserve a lot of room to trust their own judgment.

The problem with analytics-based activism is that it can lead us to prioritize issues the most clickable issues, instead of the most important issues.  That’s what can happen if you equate revealed preferences, as evidenced by analytics signals, with the totality of member preferences.

There’s a simple solution to that problem: maintain a mix of other signals.  Keep running member surveys.  Make phone calls to your most active volunteers to hear how they think things are going.  HIre and empower the right people, then trust their judgment.  Treat analytics as one input, but don’t put your system on autopilot.

If I understand it right, VictoryKit promotes exactly the type of autopilot that I’m worried about.

Maybe Aaron would have had a good rebuttal to this concern.  He was incredibly thoughtful, and it’s entirely possible that he envisioned a solution that I haven’t thought of.

But today, one year later, as we reflect on his legacy, I want to offer this up as a conversation topic:

Does VictoryKit automate too much?  And if so, how do we improve it?

*I have a hunch that they also test during the day. …otherwise their response pool would be biased toward earlybirds.

**Adam Mordecai refers to Upworhty’s analytics engine as a “magical unicorn box.” Adam Mordecai is funnier than I am.  Ergo, I’m going to start stealing language from him.

Frank Luntz as a Man Out of His Time

Molly Ball has a typically excellent article at TheAtlantic, profiling Republican spin guru Frank Luntz.  In the 1990s, Luntz was the guy who told Republicans that they should rename the estate tax “the death tax.”  Since then, he’s become a fixture of political media, synonymous with spin.  He is a one-man-confirmation of all your most cynical fears about congressional politics.

The premise of Ball’s article is that Luntz has grown depressed and disheartened about the American public.  I think the more surprising thing is that the man truly seems to believe that his techniques still work just fine.  Consider:

“I spend more time with voters than anybody else,” Luntz says. “I do more focus groups than anybody else. I do more dial sessions than anybody else. I don’t know shit about anything, with the exception of what the American people think.”

Focus groups and dial sessions were the cutting edge of 1994.  They’re laughably antiquated today.  And what’s more, they were never a perfect approximation of public opinion.  They’re useful-but-limited tools that reveal an imperfect artifact, which in turn can serve as a stand-in for public opinion.

Focus groups and dial sessions are technologies that can help you pick out particularly resonant phrases and images.  They were excellent tools back when the 30-second attack ad was virtually the only messaging vehicle in town: (1) Run a focus group.  (2) Find resonant language.  (3) Produce a commercial.  (4) Test it with some people.  (5) Run the commercial.  (6) Get paid crazy money.  Sounds like a pretty sweet gig.

The problem for Frank Luntz isn’t that people have gotten “more contentious and argumentative”*.  The problem is that his two nifty tools aren’t the only game in town anymore.  We’ve realized that campaign ads are pretty weak persuasion tools.  We’ve developed plenty of other outreach mechanisms (*cough* Analyst Institute *cough*) that don’t rely solely on Luntz’s preferred form of crafted talk.  And we’re developing new techniques for gauging activated public opinion through social media and analytics.**

Luntz is a lot like the old school scouts in Moneyball. He “knows baseball,” and he knows it based on the same old techniques that he pioneered 20 years ago.

If he seems sad, it’s probably because he’s in denial about how the game has changed.


*I’ve just started reading Berry and Sobieraj’s new book, The Outrage Industry.  I’m pretty sure they would argue that we have gotten more contentious and argumentative.  I’m inclined to agree.  But I find it hard to believe that’s the real problem Frank Luntz is facing.

**Which is the subject of the book manuscript that I’ll go back to working on as soon as I’m finished with this blog post.

David Brooks Is Not a Good Person

David Brooks is not a good person.

I’m often mildly offended by Brooks’s writing.  I think he’s (mostly) a lazy columnist who dresses up culture war outrage with faux social science language.  But it’s only a mild offense.  There are plenty of bad columnists out there, and the best response is simply not to read them.

But yesterday’s column was a bridge too far.  The state of Colorado has just officially legalized pot.  David Brooks wants us to know that this is a Very Bad Thing.  He tries to convince us of this by telling the story of how he smoked up for awhile in high school, but then got over it and became a Well Rounded Individual.  The police never enter into his story.  The threat of jail time or expulsion from school never impact his decision-making.  He tried pot, got bored of it, and moved on to other things.  This ought to be the beginning of a column supporting Colorado’s policy decision — I imagine plenty of Colorado teens will go through the same cycle.  But no, because David Brooks is a culture warrior.  Here’s the conclusion of the article, in all its offensive glory:

The people who debate these policy changes usually cite the health risks users would face or the tax revenues the state might realize. Many people these days shy away from talk about the moral status of drug use because that would imply that one sort of life you might choose is better than another sort of life.

But, of course, these are the core questions: Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture? What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage? I’d say that in healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship. In those societies, government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.

In legalizing weed, citizens of Colorado are, indeed, enhancing individual freedom. But they are also nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be.

Look, David Brooks is not an idiot.  He is surely aware that our current drug laws are not only “subtly tip[ping] the scale to favor temperate citizenship,” but also landing thousands upon thousands of people in jail for being kids who try illicit substances.  And he is also aware that those laws apply overwhelmingly to people who don’t share his race and class privileges.  It is pretty damn hard to “be the sort of person most of us want to be” if you land in prison because you got caught with some weed.

Brooks knows all this.  Of course he does.  In 2014, it is almost impossible NOT to know all this.  The debate over marijuana use has changed steadily from “I didn’t inhale” to “sure, I tried it when I was a kid.” That’s not because our society has fallen in love with “tax revenues for states.”  It’s because of the moral exhaustion that comes from all the lives laid waste by the War on Drugs.  Marijuana prohibition has worked about as well as alcohol prohibition.  Maybe its time to try something new.

But David Brooks is a culture warrior with column inches to fill.  So he ignores his racial privilege and his class privilege and the prisons filled with non-violent drug offenders, and instead phones in a column about “nurturing a moral ecology” where other kids don’t have the same experiences he had when he was young.

This isn’t Brooks being lazy.  Lazy is his normal motif.  Lazy would be to write another column about the moral failings of Obamacare.

No, this column tells us something deeper about David Brooks.  At the end of the day, he isn’t just a lazy pundit with a prestigious perch at The New York Times.  He’s also a downright awful person.  He uses his power to fight against society correcting its most obvious mistakes.  He doesn’t deserve to be ignored.  He deserves to be shamed.


On Coding My Own Data (Reflecting on Research Methods)

[a long research methods post.  Because who doesn't like reading about research methods during their holiday break?]

I’ve developed a daily routine.  At 2PM EST, I stop whatever I’m doing and go collect data.  I launch an excel spreadsheet, open browser windows for petitions.moveon.org and change.org, and record data on the top 10 petitions at each site.  It  takes about 15 minutes per day.  I’ve done this for two months so far. I have another four months of the activity planned.

It’s an intentionally low-tech approach to studying digital activism.  I have friends and coauthors who could scrap together some python script and automate the whole process.  I also have a part-time research assistant who could obviously handle this herself.  And I have contacts at both organizations that could probably compile six months of this data over their lunch break.  Oh, and don’t even get my started on the clunky use of excel.  Combing through all these data points and converting them into graphs is going to be a PAIN. Data collection is pretty boring work.  This sure doesn’t appear to be an efficient use of my time.

There are three advantages to coding my own data, though.  (And they’re advantages that I never see discussed in methods textbooks or research appendices.)

Distributed petitions screenshot


1. Thought-work: Those 15 minutes per day are a cognitive commitment on my part.  It’s time that I have set aside to think about distributed petition platforms.  And since the actual data entry is a rote and mechanical activity, my mind is free to wander on the topic.  How are the two sites similar?  Where do they diverge?  What topics are popular?  What drives signature spikes? Am I seeing any patterns?

The human mind is a pattern-recognition machine.  And digging into the data often reveals those patterns as false-positives.  But without this daily thought-work, I wouldn’t have many worthwhile hypotheses to test with my data.*  There’s nothing inherently fascinating about the daily churn of distributed petition platforms.  If someone handed me a complete six-month dataset tomorrow, I wouldn’t immediately know what to look for.  The scheduled rigor of data collection helps me to figure it out.

Essentially, I’m establishing a beneficial inefficiency within my research process.  Offloading the data collection to a python script or a research assistant would be more efficient, but would also relieve me of a useful cognitive commitment.

2. (Blogable) Moments of Clarity: Visiting the two sites every day can lead to moments of clarity, where I think I figure something out.  These moments turn into ShoutingLoudly posts.  In the past month, I’ve written two posts about distributed petition platforms.  There are a few benefits (and one drawback) to this habitual blogging.

My dissertation advisor gave me a great piece of advice once: “just start writing.  That’s how you figure out what you know.”  Writing is a lot smoother when an idea is fresh in your mind.  It’s a lot easier to convert messy blog posts into clean academic articles or book chapters than it is when you start with a big dataset and a blank page.

Another benefit of the blogging is it leads people to read my stuff and challenge me.  I find out what resonates and what falls flat.  I get pointers toward interesting new directions.

The one drawback is that the blogging may alter the data.  Earlier this month, I criticized Change.org for putting a solidarity petition with no theory-of-change in their #1 slot.  The next day, the petition had dropped to #8.  That might have been affected by the critique.   Research methods textbooks caution against “infecting” the data in this manner.  If the act of observation alters the process you are observing, then your results are tainted.  That’s a reasonable concern.  But it’s balanced against the value a gain from sharing early findings.  I find it to be a net positive.  (And really, if their rankings can be influenced by an academic blog post, then that suggests there’s too much variance in the system to speak confidently about causal processes anyway.)

Augmenting Mixed Methods: I never rely solely on one research method.  I count things, process-trace through case studies, interview people, and experience processes firsthand.  The daily data collection has spillover effects for these other methods.  As I collect my data, I  take note of cases that deserve a deeper look.  I also figure out the right questions to pose during interviews.  And blogging my early insights can lead to email and twitter exchanges with smart practitioners which, in turn, can lead to additional interviews or research questions.

All of this is messier than it sounds in the textbooks.  That’s also by design.  I wrote an article last year titled “Social Science Research Methods in Internet Time” which talked about the values of “transparency” and “kludginess.”  The idea is, when studying underlying phenomena that are still in flux (like digital politics), it’s important to embrace the messiness of your research design and be transparent about its limitations.  Keeping close to the data is one way that I stay aware of my kludges and invent new hacks for understanding the field of analytics-based political advocacy.


“Collecting Your Own Data Builds Character.  I now have enough character.”

That’s a laugh-line I used to use when presenting research from the Membership Communications Project.  Back in 2010, I signed up for the email lists of 70 advocacy groups.  I collected over 2100 emails from them over a six-month period, and hand-coded each of them.  I also watched Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann every night and recorded the topics of the two shows.  The data analysis was tedious and left me with a wicked caffeine addiction.  But it also left me with an unmatched understanding of e-mail membership activation strategies.

So that’s why I hand-code all my own data.  Call me the crotchety old guy of the “big data” age.  While everyone else is learning hadoop and python, I’m still futzing around with Excel.  But there’s a method to the madness.  It’s thought-work, which leads to insights, which improve my other methods.  Coding my own data gives me a feel for the research topic.

It’s inefficient as hell.  But it’s a beneficial inefficiency.

Happy New Year, everyone.  Thanks for reading.


*This is one difference between the Internet politics subfield and other, more established subfields.  If I was studying negative advertising, for instance, then I could port over testable hypotheses from a robust literature that has developed over the past 30 years.  But barely anyone has studied distributed petition platforms before.  So my research process has to include both theory-building and theory-testing.




Change.org and the Duck Dynasty Thing

Ugh.  Really?

The Duck Dynasty Thing.

I can’t believe I’m writing about the Duck Dynasty Thing.

Yesterday, one of my former students pinged me about the Duck Dynasty petition on Change.org

Here was my response:

At the time, the petition talked about how Phil Robertson’s first AND second amendment rights were being violated.  That’s a silly misreading of the first amendment (the constitution does not guarantee your right to keep your tv show if you say something offensive.  No really, I just double-checked. It doesn’t.) and a non-existent reading of the second amendment.  But Change is an open platform, and if fans of the show want to offer an inarticulate defense of their favorite bigot, I don’t particularly care.

Change.org has now elevated the petition to the front page*.  So now I’m stuck blogging about it.


There’s a business-upside to this decision.  The petition has 89,000 signatures so far.  A lot of those are probably new signups.  The Christian Right is getting an introduction to Change.org, and that has to be good for the bottom line.

The downside is that it runs directly counter to Change.org’s feel-good creation story.  Ben Rattray’s inspiration for starting the organization came from a younger brother who came out to him.  He wanted to empower people like his brother, so he switched from an intended career in investment banking to a career in social change.

Now look, this whole controversy is pretty dumb.  Chris Hayes had a great segment about this on his show last night (see below).  The appeal of Duck Dynasty is that it shows charming, self-proclaimed “rednecks” saying charming redneck things.  The show is overwhelmingly popular.  A&E is sure to un-suspend the guy so it can produce the next season.   In the meantime, a lot of commentators are going to jump on the bullshit bandwagon.  There are much more important things to care about.  Unemployment insurance is going to expire 3 days after christmas, endangering 1.3 million people and hurting the economy.  But that issue is a downer, and you can attract way more pageviews by focusing on the Duck Dynasty outrage.

My thinking yesterday was that (1) Change.org is an open platform that can be used by pretty much anyone, (2) it adds value to petitions by promoting them to the front page and putting organizers in touch with petition-creators, (3) those limited organizing resources tend to be focused more on cultural issues than political issues, and (4) the company has to hold true to its identity, so jumping on this particular bandwagon doesn’t make much sense.

I guess I was wrong about (4).  I have no idea what this company stands for.


*It appears they’ve also reached out to the petition-creator and helped clean up the sloppy language.  The second amendment stuff is now gone.

[correction: nope, I was wrong about this footnote.  The second amendment stuff is still there.]

Johns Hopkins Gets It Right: Let’s Have Fewer PhD Students

In an effort to begin to address the glut of overqualified adjunct instructors, Johns Hopkins has announced that it is planning to cut its PhD enrollment by 25% and raise the stipend (read: salary) of the remaining graduate employees from $20,000 a year to $30,000.

Hundreds of current Hopkins PhD students are protesting, but they shouldn’t be, and in her writeup at Slate, Rebecca Schuman hits the nail squarely on the head — so much so that I’d like to elaborate a bit on how very right she is.

Generally speaking, a PhD — at least, one earned in the reasonable expectation of getting a “real” faculty job — is becoming a worse bet every year. Schools keep accepting more (and more schools keep creating new PhD programs in more disciplines), while colleges at all levels are relying ever-more-heavily on non-tenure track faculty. This includes adjuncts and (drumroll please) grad students.

This makes tremendous sense as a strategy for a given research university. Adjuncts and grad students (even if you count the tuition waiver) are way cheaper, more disposable, and easier to push around than full-time faculty. The star tenure-track faculty then get to teach more grad seminars. Advise more dissertations. Have more potential co-authors and research assistants floating about. Teach fewer lower-level undergrad courses.

The problem here, though, is that universities acting individually are not acting in the best interests of the academy overall or the nation in general. Collectively, PhD programs are burning through — and burning out — many of the nation’s best and brightest, then turning those same former rising stars into a lurking labor revolt.

Too often today, the people who did the best in undergraduate courses are becoming the burned-out, uninsured, woefully underpaid faces of college education to first- and second-year students. This makes college less valuable in a direct way. It’s hard enough to teach well when you’re paid fairly, have a reliable office, and teach 3 or 4 courses per semester while trying to do research and service. It’s damn near impossible when you’re teaching 5 or 6 courses, on multiple campuses, with little or no office space, little institutional support, and unsure how you’re going to pay your electric bill this month.

This system is also a poor advertisement for the product itself and even the “life of the mind” mentality that college is supposed to foster. If that’s what “too much” college education leads to, students might wonder if they should err on the side of too little. If the mastery of core liberal arts skills like critical thinking, reading difficult texts, and making sophisticated arguments has the appearance of leaving one broke, why should I put my best efforts into reading this book? Writing this essay? The savvy undergrad might think, “Give me the credential and let me get started at a ‘real’ job before your love of knowledge infects me and I wind up in your shoes.”

You know the “correction” the field of law just went through? The one with lots of freshly-minted JDs saying “I just spent a bajillion dollars and 3 years, and there are way too many candidates for every job”? We’ve been doing that in slow-mo in academia for heaven knows how long. It’s taking longer to sink in, of course, because compared to what you earned in whatever crap job you had during your BA, $15k/year and no tuition bill sounds like a great deal. Folks can’t or don’t account for opportunity costs, such as tens of thousands in lost salary, and heaven knows how much in lost opportunity to learn & rise up in other sectors.

More strikingly, nobody (not their undergrad faculty who graduated many moons ago, and certainly not the PhD programs who want as many apps as possible) tells these best-and-brightest about the real costs, benefits, and risks. Undergrad faculty in particular should be much more honest with themselves and their students about how much less repeatable their career trajectory is today versus 10+ years ago and how much depends on raw luck.

We’re also afraid to tell would-be applicants about the importance of the sub-discipline studied. Here, in my jauntiest department chair voice, is what the academy tells PhD students (outside STEM fields):

You there, doing critical cultural studies? And you there, doing detailed historical/archival/anthropological work? Welcome to the adjunct office! You’ll be here until you decide you want to own a home. Or get health care. Or not have your ability to pay rent be contingent on whether a tenured professor gets sabbatical.

You, however… You, with the experience working on a giant grant-funded data-collection-and-article-production machine? With lots of statistical savvy, who can teach the research methods and (field-specific quant) classes that befuddle and/or bore most of your soon-to-be colleagues? We’d really like to talk to you! Pay no attention to those poor souls all crammed into that tiny office there. Their working conditions are the just and fair recompense for their recalcitrant poststructuralism. Now, let me introduce you to our grant support staff.

I’m glad to have postponed my higher earning years to have chosen what is (for me) a highly rewarding career, even with the substantially diminished long-term earnings potential — versus, e.g., becoming a private-sector IP attorney. I love researching in an environment where research productivity is celebrated but not fetishized. I’m happy to have the chance to shape students’ lives, despite students’ highly varying levels of college readiness. I love teaching, despite the occasional class disruption due to our building’s mouse infestation. (Wish that was a joke.) That should be the expectation for more faculty, further up and down the prestige chain, and it should be a more likely outcome for a smaller set of PhD students.

Even though I’m quite happy where I’m at, there was a point where I realized how very in-doubt this outcome was. I was lucky to have picked communication; I believe we hire a larger portion of our PhD grads as tenure-track faculty than pretty much any other comparable discipline. I was lucky to get into Penn — by acclamation, the top program in media studies in the country, and the co-sponsor (along with Annenberg USC) of the party that all party crashers crash at the conference.

Despite this good fortune, even during my coursework at mighty Annenberg U Penn, I realized that I had only the thinnest grasp on what a Plan B (other than law school — and even more debt and postponed earnings) might look like. I realized that most potential Plan B employers would see my PhD as having little additional value versus an MA. More stunningly, I realized how very far from certain Plan A was from working out.

I don’t blame anyone for not telling me all of the above, not least because I think awareness on this point was much lower when I started my PhD program ten years ago. But today, in late 2013, programs and research faculty and teaching faculty and would-be students all need to come to the same conclusion as Hopkins. We should have fewer, not more, PhD students.

And while we’re at it, how about we work on making a BA more valuable, more broadly taught by tenure-track faculty, and (the horror) harder to earn?

On Change.org’s 50 Million Milestone and the Importance-Meter

This weekend, Change.org hit a big milestone: 50 million people worldwide have now taken action on their site*.

That’s huge.  By way of comparison, Avaaz.org has just over 31 million people.  It seems that Change.org’s controversial decision to stay politically neutral is paying off**.

For the past month, I’ve been visiting the homepages of Change.org and SignOn.org every day.  I record the top 10 petitions promoted by each site.  I’ll be doing this for another five months to create a dataset that I can use to draw some firm comparisons. Despite the milestone, I have to admit that the more time I spend studying Change.org, the more ambivalent I feel about the company.

The thing that bugs me about the top Change.org petitions is what we might call the lack of an “importance-meter.”

The #1 petition at Change.org today is titled “Justice for Andra Grace — Tougher Animal Abuse Laws Are Necessary!”  The petition tells the heart-rending story of a South Carolina man who tried to kill a dog by dragging it behind his pickup truck.  The maximum penalty for his crime in South Carolina is only $1,100 and/or 30 days in jail.  The author concludes by calling for tougher animal abuse laws.

Now, that can be a worthy cause.  People love their pets, and if pet-lovers get organized through Change.org and start taking on the government, I think that’s a Good Thing.  But this petition isn’t addressed to the South Carolina legislature.  It’s addressed to “animal lovers of the world.”  Signing this petition is an act of social solidarity, not an act of political pressure.

By comparison, SignOn/MoveOn’s #1 petition today is titled “Breaking News: House Republicans to Torpedo President Obama’s Iran Agreement.”  It tells the story of congressional maneuvering by Eric Cantor’s office that could undermine tense international diplomatic negotiations with Iran.  The author explains the interim deal with Iran, and the ways that Cantor’s bill could destroy our negotiating ability.  The petition is directed to members of the House of Representatives.

Let’s set aside for a moment whether one of these issues is innately more important than the other.  The real problem is in how each is constructed.

Three years ago, I wrote a long ShoutingLoudly post titled “In Praise of Petitions (Sort of).”  The TL;DR version is that the best high-volume tactics like petitions (online or off) have layers to them.  An online petition act as a springboard for offline tactics like solidarity rallies, marches, and citizen lobbying.  The easy first step of signing your name leads into a “ladder of engagement” the promotes more intense participation.

The Andra Grace petition is directionless.  The Iran petition is focused.  The Andra Grace petition calls on no one in particular to promote tougher animal abuse laws.  The Iran petition calls on members of Congress to oppose a specific bill, currently under debate.

But the Andra Grace petition has a clickable image and a heart-rending story.  The Iran petition has no image and six footnotes.

Let me be clear: we should not expect every petition on either site to be professionally produced.  One of the benefits of distributed petition platforms is that anyone can launch these campaigns.  I don’t mean to insult the author for being new to online campaigning.  But the top of the homepage is valuable digital real estate and algorithms can automate value-judgments.  The campaigns that you promote and highlight say something about your identity as an organization.

Promoting the Andra Grace petition (or, two weeks ago, the petition to Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane to bring back the cartoon dog he’d killed off) represents an algorithmic value-judgment.  It says that the most clickable campaigns — the ones that will bring in the widest audiences — are the best campaigns.  And I doubt that anyone at Change.org entirely believes that.

50 million people is a hell of a milestone.  No other social change organization comes close to that reach.  I wonder, though, whether they are optimizing for the right things.



*(via PD+ First Post, which ShoutingLoudly readers should really subscribe to.)

**Note: those are all self-hyperlinks.  I maybe write too much about Change.org.

Analytics versus Slacktivism

A recent study by researchers at the University of British Columbia Saunder School of Business has brought “slacktivism” back into the headlines.  As usual, this has more to do with gaming for media attention than it does with the substantive findings.

The authors have conducted an interesting series of experiments, aimed at comparing “public tokens of support” (such as ‘liking’ on facebook) with “private tokens of support” (such as signing a petition).  They demonstrate that public tokens of support satisfy the psychological need for “impression management,” and thus reduce the urge to donate under experimental settings.  Displaying a pin or some other low-effort public token of affiliation can grant individuals “moral license” to slack off and not take further actions.  The study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, seems well-executed to me.  But it doesn’t quite show what they’d like it to show.

In a press release earlier this m0nth, the university press office announces “‘Slacktivism: Liking’ on Facebook May Mean Less Giving.”

Well, sure. …Maybe.

They go on to proclaim: “Would-be donors skip giving when offered the chance to show public support for charities in social media.”

Hmm… no. Not quite.  You’ve got an external validity problem.

Under their experimental design, the researchers make the exact same donation request, regardless of whether participants took a public action, a private action, or no action.  (It wouldn’t be much of an experiment if they didn’t.)

But in the real world, social change organizations routinely optimize their donation requests to account for different levels of participation.  Dan Kreiss offers an example in his book, Taking Our Country BackWhen you visited the 2008 Obama campaign website, they altered the splash page based on whether you had visited the site before, signed up, ordered a tshirt, and created a MyBO account (pages 150-151).  These various characteristics led to different donation requests and alternate donation language — all rigorously tested to maximize participation.

All that testing requires a LOT of traffic (h/t Kyle Rush).  And one of the benefits of “public tokens” like Facebook likes/shares is that it can generate increased traffic.  One of the secrets to Upworthy’s phenomenal growth has been optimizing their content for Facebook sharing (slide 21 in their slidedeck).  Companies like ShareProgress and CrowdTangle specialize in helping make these public tokens of support even more public.  Doing so brings in more potential supporters, which in turn leads to more engagement.


I’ve written about this before.  A lot.  The problem with calling this experimental design a study of “slacktivism” is that it completely ignores the feedback loop that occurs between individual acts of participation and a larger organizational context.  Advocacy groups are using sophisticated analytics tools to listen to their supporters in novel ways, and to reach new supporters that they otherwise wouldn’t encounter.  If you ignore all that real-world activity, then you can’t effectively measure whether the net impact of digital participation is positive or negative.

I’m not trying to trash the authors’ work.  They’ve produced a nice experimental study.  And they’ve packaged that study to attract media attention.  “slacktivism” works in headlines a lot better than “public vs private tokens of engagement.”  But the end result is that a lot of advocacy professionals are going to see the headline and think, “ah hah.  Research has shown that Facebook is bad for giving.  I knew it!”  Something gets lost in translation when you start packaging research for media soundbites.

The solution to decreased digital participation isn’t to stop asking supporters to engage online; it’s to embrace a culture of testing that leads you to start asking them better.