Categotry Archives: Social Network Analysis

Why Do We Always Need to Change?


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Photograph of a sign in a store window that reads "FREE WIFI & INSPIRATION"

Seen at the REI Store in Roseville CA

Back in May, I talked about some of the hyperbole that constantly surrounds social media trends. If you follow these trends at all, you’re always hearing that [fill in the blank] is now the hot platform, what you know already is obsolete, and there’s something magical that will answer all of your needs just around the corner, especially if you’ll fund my kickstarter account!

In the meantime, the most popular and commonly used platforms are constantly changing things, seemingly to maintain hipness and interest plus deal with constant lawsuits over privacy violations and patent infringement. Less popular ones do the electronic equivalent of throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.

I used to think that a lot of this stuff is done just to tick me off. I really loathe it everytime a platform innovates, and Facebook is the nadir of this annoyance, I guess because it’s the most pervasive platform out there. I hate it for the same reason I hate video games. I never get the doggone thing totally figured out! Just when I feel like I know what’s going on, here comes a shift; a new reality.

Much as it might annoy me, though, these platforms have to innovate constantly. Part of it is litigation. It’s common knowledge that Facebook, Instagram, Google and other platforms are constantly being sued for privacy violations. As a result, they change the way they collect, display and use information.  It’s not benign or necessarily corrective, by the way. Rather than really address privacy issues in a way that most people would be happy with, the changes often just provoke frustration and tick people off. Most recently, privacy settings have changed on personal pages. This and several other things have been explained by Information Week.

They like to change how information is laid out on the platform too. It was just a couple of years ago that Facebook did a major redesign to incorporate cover images. and switch over to a two-column layout. Milestones also appeared, allowing you to highlight significant dates. Nearly everyone I talked with about these things hated them, but we adapted.

Another reason for this constant innovation is to better monetize the platform. It’s one of the things that virtually all of us, I think, totally disregard about social media. Regardless of whether we’re providing content as an individual or on behalf of an interpretive site or business, we are performing unpaid labor for the platform’s owners.

Let me rephrase that. Without our content, Facebook, Instagram, Google +, Foursquare, Tumblr, or whatever has no content to draw viewers. No viewers, no eyeballs, no advertisers, no Silicon Valley, no Mark Zuckerberg, no… Hey, wait! This could be just great! I’m going to set up a Meetup group so we can plan this, and then send out evites, and…


Al Jazeera has a great opinion piece written by E. Alex Jung called Is It Time To Quit Facebook? where he makes his case pretty well. You may have heard about the research project that Facebook used us as Guinea Pigs for, Emotional Evidence of Massive Scale Emotional Contagion Through Social Networks. You can read the “editorial concern” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for yourself to learn some of the details, but essentially Facebook played everyone who uses the platform by selecting post types that you and I would receive, determining (duh) that happy posts make us more engaged, while sad or non-happy posts decrease our engagement. This might sound kind of silly and obvious, but it’s not if you understand that we are not only an audience, but also unpaid content providers for some of the richest and largest content providers in the world. The study, while verifying something that seems obvious, also gives license to social media platforms to target what we will see, to drive more engagement and therefore sell and charge more for ad content.

How does this concern us, aside from the obvious? Well, for those of us who provide content on behalf of an employer or a beloved interpretive site, perhaps some of our most intellectually important posts are not “happy” enough, and won’t be seen by a large part of our desired audience.

The work we do as interpreters is not at all related to feeding tame deer and reveling in nature’s beauty. Well, part of it is, I guess, but in addition to the “happy” stuff we also interpret tragedy, death, greed, horror, accident and natural disaster. If we don’t, but they are part of our story, we do a disservice to our audience and stakeholders. Who is the world is Facebook or whoever to censor or diminish distribution of what we feel is important to get out to our audiences? Who gave them the right?

I’ve previously opined that social media is the equivalent of a public utility. They are pervasive, ubiquitous, and necessary for a lot of people to keep up in a fast-paced and modern world. I was wrong. A public utility normally provides a level of service commensurate with our ability to pay for the services. My water service won’t be diminished by my mood or the colors of the flowers in my garden. My electricity won’t be cut off if I like to burn lights all night, and my satellite provider won’t change my channel lineup based on what they think I should see. How can social media providers then, filter what I see versus what’s put on the platform and offered for viewing?

They are the owners. We are the unpaid employees, and we are at least partially, suckers for agreeing to be in servitude to them.

I’m not quitting social media; it’s simply too much a part of my life, and it’s definitely a part of my work. I’m not happy about it though.

In Praise of Dr. Monica Stephens and Social Network Analysis


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segments of visual analysis maps based on twitter and other social media content

A few weeks ago, I was browsing a news site that I read occasionally. “Occasionally” generally means that I have a tight deadline for something and can’t think, so I read some arcane news or comment, hoping that it will trigger some creative thought before I wander too far into the weeds. ANYWAY…

I saw a reference to an infographic that mapped hate speech based on twitter content. Using phrases and words associated with racism, homophobia and discrimination against the disabled population, the volume of this kind of twitter content was plotted over a map of the US:hatemap


My first visceral reaction was focused on the point of the infographic. Why? How in this day? Who? This is a very powerful graphic. Then I started marveling at the idea behind this and the power of asking these questions, as well as having the talent to ask them and use technology to generate answers. This is not only a powerful graphic, but a powerful tool.

While we fret and discuss our privacy and what the government might be listening to and reading that we hope and assume should be our own, private content, there are people such as Monica Stephens who are trolling for information to ask questions that need to be asked. Dr. Stephens is an Assistant Professor of Geography at my alma mater, Humboldt State University in Arcata CA. Her work makes me even happier about the money that I give the University annually, and it will probably influence my future giving. This particular graphic attracted some media attention, as shown here, here and here.

This is really a very powerful tool, but not unlike Tim Taylor in the TV Series Tool Time there is a very human desire to use this power for perhaps some not-so-serious uses. My favorite, because the mere word is a meme at my workplace, is a graphic showing mention of zombies in the Google Maps database:

zombie-distributionWell, there you go. For my friend Robert, who seems to both fear and welcome the coming Zombie Apocalypse, this will further his ambivalence, if that’s possible.

Oddly enough, the map shows that the former Soviet Union, Africa, most of Asia, and South America are much safer than the United States, and sorry Sarah, but New Zealand seems to have significant risk as well. Cal, if I were you, I’d head for the Northwest Territories or the Yukon. Also, stay away from Japan! I’m not even sure that Gamera can save them. For some of the rest of us, we may spend more time in Google Maps trying to find some of the zombie references. You know, of course, what this really signifies though, don’cha?


Sorry. I couldn’t resist, but really, it does signify brains! Whether it’s specifically Dr. Stephens, or one of her students, or someone at the Oxford Institute, who host lots of visualized data from Dr. Stephens and others, this is a brilliantly simple idea. In a certain way, it’s very similar to creating a word cloud that you sometimes see on blogs. They visualize how often words or phrases are used in a document, much like the Visualization Project uses color or icons to indicate density of speech or resources or references to something. For those of us who are visual, this is an easy way to understand the answer to a question. In fact, this kind of display is something that I used to know how to do within the GIS interface at a former employer. We could plot tree density, wildlife population and habitat, basically anything within our database. This is just another GIS application.

So my hat’s off to Dr. Stephens, her students, and others who work on developing the technology to find data, ask the questions, and plug in the data in a way that can be visualized by people like me. This is a fabulous communication tool, immensely compelling and easy to understand by nearly anyone. This is one of the truly great outcomes of our increasing use and reliance of social media. In the Geography of Hate graphic, we find a disturbing reminder that we still have a lot of work to do to educate, enlighten and rethink who we are as a society, but we could also plot a graphic of tweets based on kindness or good deeds done, or even mentions of the Phillies, just to keep Mr. Caputo engaged.

There are some really fascinating infographics using this general idea at Take a gander when you get a chance!