Friday, February 07, 2014

The Socially Competent Node

Consider the following deviant characters: loose cannons, blabbermouths, gossipers, and yentas, stool pigeons and canaries, tattlers and squealers, garblers, the nosy, the deaf to hints, talkers-out-of-school, missers-of-winks, leakers, spoilers of surprises, whistle blowers, betrayers, moles and turncoats, unreliable messengers, and friends who “didn’t realize you’d want to know” or forget to mention. In each case the deviance lies in the social handling of information. 

Curiously, they can all be distinguished from the most well know information deviant, the liar, by the fact that they can be deviant while handling "the truth."  These characters are "deviant nodes" who fail at their duties in a social information networks.  They do so by passing along what they should not, or by transmitting to the wrong people, or by notifying in the wrong manner, time, or sequence.  They fail to discriminate.  They introduce errors into the message.  They do not distinguish relevant from irrelevant.  They miss the real message, fail to appreciate urgency or delicateness. They let down those who trusted them to stay silent or to speak up.

The list above shows that we have lots of nouns to describe those who talk out of turn, but few for for those who fail as nodes by saying too little.  Adjectives abound: "diffident"implies not speaking up when one could or should, and "reticent" means "to remain silent" and implies a hesitance to pass along information.  And there are familiar utterances such as "What? Why didn't you tell me?" or "I didn't think you would want to know…" that are evocative of the node who falls down on the job, but the social types seem not sufficiently crystalized to have names the way the overzealous communicators do. We do have terms of approbation to describe those who positively exceed expectations of discretion and reticence: confidantes, bosom buddies, pals, and cronies are all characters with whom information is safe, but even these are not as general as the negative types, each being tied to specific others.

While the colorful terms above describe empirically unusual roles, the potential for each of the behaviors is high.  The social networks of everyday interaction are full of opportunities for nodes to get it wrong or go rogue. Each of us walks around "recording" images and sounds and actions and utterances, we engage in conversations and we have random thoughts, all material that we could "post" to our ("real world") social networks, pass along to the next person we run into.  But mostly we do not.  

What stops us from describing to colleagues the sounds a co-worker just made in the bathroom or what one's spouse said last night? Why do we not worry that our kids will narrate for their friends the details of her parents' recent fight or that our colleague will reveal the source of that tidbit about the boss we passed along? Even people who completely take to heart advice to "never put something in an email that you don't want the world to see," are far less guarded and vigilant in everyday life.  

The relative worry that we put into Facebook privacy settings compared to the nonchalance with which we participate in everyday social networks suggests the phenomenally high levels of "privacy settings" we take for granted in the people around us.  Most of the nodes in our everyday social networks, we seem to assume, know how to be socially competent nodes.  

Before they are very old, before they've been friends for very long, before they have much experience on the job, they are masters of nuance and signaling, they understand the security clearance levels in within circles of friends and family, they understand what is for attribution and what is not, what is on the record, what is off; without being explicitly told they know what does not leave a room, what was not said by you, and what was never said at all;

But how do they get that way?  How does one learn to be a (competent) node? That's what this chapter is about.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Religion and Learning to be a Node

A short excerpt from zeroth draft of chapter "Learning to be a node"

The chapter is about how social networks depend on competent nodes and how competent nodes are made rather than born.  I show how primary and secondary socialization help us learn what we can tell to whom when.  Other sections in the chapter are about children as spies; discretion as a social achievement; humor, drama and the incompletely socialized node; the social organization of omniscience; and the social control of nodes in corporations and states.
For Jews and Christians, the most well known religious exhortation about information behavior is probably the commandment "thy shall not bear false witness" (Exodus 20:16, Deuteronomy 5:20), but sacred texts are rich in behavioral guidance for nodes in social networks.  The admonitions are general guides for information behavior and suggest misgivings about humans as untutored nodes in community communication networks.
The most basic suggestion is to err on the side of silence.  Imam Nawawi, the 13th century Islamic commentator,[1] says 
"It is obligatory for every sane adult to guard his tongue against talking, except when it contains a clear benefit. If talking and remaining silent are of equal benefit, it is sunnah (normative) to abstain, for permissible talking might lead to something undesirable or forbidden, as in fact is very often the case, and nothing matches safety."
The book of Proverbs (21:23) suggests "Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble" and in Ecclesiastes (3:7) we are reminded that there is "a time to keep silence, and a time to speak."  In the Christian New Testament, Saint Paul exhorts the Ephesians  to "[l]et no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear" (4:29). The Koran is on the same page: "He does not utter a [single] word, except that there is, with him, [an angel] ready and waiting [to record it]" (50:18).
The baseline recommendation, then, for nodes is mindfulness about what they transmit; in a word, nodes should not always be "on." But all of these traditions go into greater specificity about what responsible and socially competent nodes should and should not "put on the network."
Both Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions address gossip and "tale-telling" as a continuum of network behaviors that require regulation. Three levels are specified in the Torah: mere idle talk; negative truths about others; and negative falsehoods about others. The first, Avak lashon harah, follows from the suggestion to err on the side of silence, prohibiting rechilut or “peddling,” prattling on, repeating things for the sake of repeating them (Leviticus 19:16).  A more serious network sin is for a node to be a conduit for negative information, even if it is true, unless it is specifically intended to improve a bad situation.  Lashon hara means repeating negative truths.  The most serious infraction is Hotzaat shem ra, slander or defamation through spreading untrue negative things about others.
This suggests an awareness that a community depends on actors to socially attenuate what gets through to the network, to apply generic content rules to what they do and do not transmit.  And nodes are not only prohibited from sending gossip along, they are actually also enjoined from Mekabel lashon harah, accepting and believing gossip or slander (Pesachim 118a).  This is, perhaps, a recognition that the temptation to pass gossip along is so strong that the only way to avoid it is to prevent the information's arrival in the first place.
In Sharia law, slander, gossip, and backbiting, or "ghiba" is regarded as a major sin, perhaps more serious than adultery (Al-Ghazali 2008):
"O you who believe! Avoid much suspicion, for some suspicions are a sin. Do not spy on one another, nor backbite one another. Would one of you love to eat the flesh of his dead brother? Nay, you would abhor it, [so similarly, avoid backbiting]. And fear Allah. Indeed, Allah is Most Forgiving, Most Merciful." (Qur'an, [49:12])
The excessive attention given in these traditions to the regulation of gossip suggests a keen awareness of the deleterious effects of unregulated communication networks. In the book of Proverbs the transmission of gossip is connected to social conflict: "Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down" (26:20) and the destruction of relationships: "He who covers over an offense promotes love, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends" (Proverbs 17:9). These traditions are also aware of the non-linear effects of deviant information transmission; in the epistle of James we read "The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell" (James 3:5-6).
Too, nodes are admonished to eschew second hand information:  "And do not follow that of which you do not have knowledge. Indeed, the hearing, the sight and the heart - [you] will be asked about all of those" (Qur'an, [17:36]).
In these sources we even find attention being paid to the micro-sociological aspects of nodal behavior. Rashi, the medieval Torah commentator, notes that winking is a behavior common among those who would traffic in gossip. "To eat the food of winking" was understood as a way of sealing the deal – you spread gossip and your willingness to break break proves your sincerity but the winking part means that some folks are in on it and know it is gossip while those unsuspecting hearers take it as reportable truth. [2]
The counsel to prefer silence is not an absolute that would shut networks down.  Believers are reminded that even as they are enjoined from spreading malicious gossip, nodes still have obligations upon receiving certain kinds of information:
If you hear it said about one of the towns the LORD your God is giving you to live in that wicked men have arisen among you and have led the people of their town astray, saying, "Let us go and worship other gods" (gods you have not known), then you must inquire, probe and investigate it thoroughly. Deuteronomy 13:12-15
Another aspect of being a competent node is to wisely pick the nodes to which you are connected.  The Book of Proverbs suggests that gossip reveals meta-information about the gossiping node:
With his mouth the godless destroys his neighbor, but through knowledge the righteous escape... A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret (Proverbs 11: 9;13).
and
A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much (Proverbs 20:19).
This same observation also shows up in a Spanish proverb, "Quienquiera chismea a ti chismeará sobre ti"(best-quotes-poems.com. 2007): Whoever gossips to you will gossip about you. (worldofquotes.com 2013). Publilius Syrus, a first century BC wit also counseled picking friends on the basis of their nodal competence: "Count not him among your friends who will retail your privacies to the world" (worldofquotes.com 2013)(Wikipedia Editors 2013). Horace (65BCE-8BCE) gives similar advice: "Percunctatorem fugito, nam garrulus idem est; / Nec retinent patulæ commissa fideliter aures" : Avoid an inquisitive person, for he is sure to be a gossip; ears always open to hear will not keep faithfully what is intrusted to them (Wood 1899).

References


  1. Al-Ghazali, Abu Hamid Muhammad. 2008. “TheRules of Backbiting.” Qibla - for The Islamic Sciences.
  2. Best-quotes-poems.com. 2007. “Cotizaciones y Refranes Del Chisme.”
  3. Wikipedia Editors. 2013. “Publilius Syrus.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.
  4. Wood, James. 1899. Dictionary of Quotations From Ancient and Modern, English andForeign Sources. London, New York: Frederick Warne & Co. .
  5. Worldofquotes.com. 2013. “Gossip Quotes.” WorldofQuotes.




[1] Nawawi (1234–1277 CE) wrote about Fiqh, an expansion of conduct rules found in the Quran,
 and hadith which are reports of the sayings of the prophet.

[2] See Vayikra - Leviticus - Chapter 19.  Note emphasis there on spying on your neighbors so you could talk about them.  This relates directly to the material on children as spies.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Institutional Reports and TagAlongs


While talking with GKH about writing today, I figured out what was wrong with a draft of an institutional report I read yesterday: it was packed with tag-alongs: words and phrases not invited to the sentences and paragraphs I was trying to read.  Their presence unnecessary and their company unwelcome, but all such familiar rhetorical faces that authors forget to play the doorman, ticket taker, bouncer, or maître d'hôtel and so all comers were admitted and seated.  Too polite to thin their own ranks, some sentences meander from initial cap to final period like an oversubscribed progressive dinner.  Some paragraphs careen down the page like overstacked, overstuffed pickup trucks you hate to drive behind for fear they'll tip over and spill their load.  And things that need saying and arguments worth making are left to fend for themselves, like a shy guy trying in vain to get a bartender's attention in a crowded, noisy pub.

This phenomenon is a variation on what Orwell had in mind when he wrote that "modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug" (1946).  He was advocating for elevated political discourse, but his characterization of it as "language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought" works for institutional uses of language too, which are too often, as Orwell says of political language, as if "designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

When it comes to reports, perhaps we'd do better to charge by the word instead of paying by the hour.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Conference Tools for Twitter

Recent experience of following (and contributing to) Twitter stream at the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association inspired a number of ideas (not all original, I'm sure, and some probably already implemented) in connection with Twitter and conferences:
  1. Conference organizers should devise and disseminate a simple hashtag schemes for sessions/presentations.
  2. Set up scheduled tweets that announce sessions, say, 15 minutes ahead of time.  Tweet can contain a link to web page with detailed information about session.
  3. Presenters can submit brief, say 5 to 10,  tweet summary of the points they are making and these can be automatically scheduled to be tweeted during the talk.
  4. If talks are being live streamed, start of each talk can be marked by a tweet with URL to the stream.  Major point tweets could be synced to location in recorded video/audio.
  5. Develop an app that aggregates and archives live tweets of presentations for live and followup discussion.
What would you add?

Sociology of Information Nuggets


Elections and a three course semester have crowded out blogging over last few months.  And so, the blogger's cop out of pointers to some recent interesting reads:

Maya Alexandri has a fun post, "What Thomas Cromwell had in common with the Dewey decimal system" calling attention the theme of information revolutions as noted in the Joan Acocella review of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall in The New Yorker.  Alexandri and Acocella note interesting similarity of Cromwell's time and our own as eras in which "information is being radically reorganized."  It's precisely the desire to clarify such recapitulations that drives my own work on the sociology of information.


Semil Shah offers a  panegyric post about Timehop, an app that automatically sends you a photo of what you were doing a year ago today.  It purports, among other things, to be a "solution" to the problem of having boxes of memories that you either never find the time to look at or into which you unintentionally dump hour or hour of time you don't have.  Shah's optimistic take is
The carousel of old slides, the cigar box of warped pictures, and the Instagrams you’ve taken, now in your pocket, delivered to you in just the right way.
There are some great research questions swirling around issues like personal memory, artifacts, the externalization and automation of recall, search as every-ready reconstruction of the past.  Stay tuned.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Scoops in Journalism and Everyday Life


Jay Rosen has a post today titled "Four Types of Scoops" that will surely make it into my sociology of information book.  The four types are the "enterprise scoop" where the reporter who gets the scoop gets it by doing the "finding out."  The information may be deliberately hidden or obscured by routine practice, but it would not have become known to the public without the work of the reporter.  Then there is its opposite, the the "ego scoop": the news would have come out anyway, but the scooper gets (or provokes) a tip or equivalent.  The third type Rosen calls the "trader's" scoop where early info has instrumental value -- as in a stock tip.  Finally there is the "thought scoop."  This is when the writer puts two and two together or otherwise "connects the dots" to, as he says, "apprehend--name and frame--something that's happening out there before anyone else recognizes it."

The information order of everyday life is conditioned by information exchanges that might be similarly categorized.  But even before that we'd notice a distinction between exchanges that are NOT experiences as scoops -- I think there are two extremes: information passed on bucket-brigade style with no claim at all to having generated it or deserving any credit for its content or transmission.  "Hey, they've run out of eggs, pass it on, eh?"  and statements of a truly personal nature: "I'm not feeling well today" that do not reflect one's position or location or worth in the world.

Between these there are all manner of instances in which people play the scoop game in everyday interaction.  The difference between an ordinary person and a reporter in this regard is that the reporter's scoop is vis a vis "the rest of the media" while the scoopness of the person's scoop is centered in the information ecology of the recipient.  We have all met the inveterate ego scooper who moves from other to other to other trying to stay one step ahead of the diffusing information so that s/he can deliver the "scoop" over and over.  And the enterprising gossip who pries information loose from friends and acquaintances and is always ready with the latest tidbit.   In everyday interaction the wielder of the traders' scoop often generates the necessary arbitrage because others are willing to "pay" for information they can use as ego scoops.  Alas, as in the media, the thought scoop is probably the rarest form in everyday life too.  It's probably less self-conscious in everyday interaction and too more ephemeral which is too bad.  Those conversational insights are probably more often lost than their counterparts in "print."

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Tomorrow's Social Science Today? By Techies?

If you generate the data, the analysts will come.  And more and more of the technologies of everyday life generate data, lots of it. "Big data" takes big tools and big tools cost big bucks.  The science of big data is mostly social science but, for the most part, it's not being done by social scientists.  What's left out when social scientists leave themselves out of the conversation? And what happens to the funding for non-big-data social science when resource-hungry projects like this emerge?  And what will be the effect on the epistemological status of non-big-data social science?

from the New York Times...
THE BAY CITIZEN
Berkeley Group Digs In to Challenge of Making Sense of All That Data


"It comes in “torrents” and “floods” and threatens to “engulf” everything that stands in its path.

No, it is not a tsunami, it is Big Data, the incomprehensibly large amount of raw, often real-time data that keeps piling up faster and faster from scientific research, social media, smartphones — virtually any activity that leaves a digital trace.

The sheer size of the pile (measured in petabytes, one million gigabytes, or even exabytes, one billion gigabytes) combined with its complexity has threatened to overwhelm just about everybody, including the scientists who specialize in wrangling it. “It’s easier to collect data,” said Michael Franklin, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, “and harder to make sense of it.”

Friday, March 02, 2012

Is There a Right to Data Collection?

What's more socially harmful: politicians not knowing what sound bite will play well or voters being mislead by scurrilous misinformation?

New Hampshire is one state where legislators listened when voters complained about "push-polling" -- the practice of making campaign calls that masquerade as surveys or polls.  Perhaps the most infamous example is George Bush's campaign calling South Carolinians to ask what they think if John McCain were to have fathered an illegitimate black baby.

The gist of M. D. Shear's article, Law Has Polling Firms Leery of Work in New Hampshire" (NYT 1 March 2012) is that pollsters and political consultants are whining that "legitimate" operations are getting gun-shy about polling in New Hampshire for fear of being fined.  Actual surveys won't get done, they suggest, because poorly worded legislation creates too much illegitimate legal liability.

They do not take issue with what the law requires and some even call it well-intentioned. Paragraph 16a of section 664 of Title  53 of New Hampshire statutes requires those who administer push-polls to identify themselves as doing so on behalf of a candidate or issue. In other words, if that's what you are up to, you need to say so.

The problem, they say, is that the law is poorly written -- good intentions gone bad, they suggest.  So, what does the statute actually say?  Not so ambiguous, really.  It says if you call pretending to be taking a survey but really you are spreading information about opposition candidates then you are push-polling:

XVII. "Push-polling" means:
  1. Calling voters on behalf of, in support of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office by telephone; and
  2. Asking questions related to opposing candidates for public office which state, imply, or convey information about the candidates' character, status, or political stance or record; and
  3. Conducting such calling in a manner which is likely to be construed by the voter to be a survey or poll to gather statistical data for entities or organizations which are acting independent of any particular political party, candidate, or interest group.
And so, the question arises: why aren't pollsters themselves taking steps to stamp out the practice?  One supposes the answer is that they still want to use it, even if the "good guys" would not stoop to the level of sleaziness that Bush and Lee Atwater practiced.

Interestingly, one of the objections that the pollsters raised was that "complying with the law by announcing the candidate sponsoring the poll would corrupt the data being gathered."  It's interesting because they don't think that constantly adjusting question wording and techniques that are technically push-polling even if they could stay inside the New Hampshire law would corrupt the data.

But this brings me to my real point.  As a practicing social scientist I am consistently disheartened and often angered at the abuse of survey research engaged in by political parties and organizations.   I receive "surveys" from the DNC, DCCC, Greenpeace, Sierra Club, MoveOn.org, etc. etc. that triply insult me:

  • They are, in fact, often push-polls (if gentle ones) whose real purpose is to inform and incite not collect data.
  • They are couched disingenuously in terms of providing me an opportunity for input, to have my voice heard.
  • As research instruments they are almost always C- or worse, violating the most basic tenets of survey construction.

Perhaps I should just humor them and wink since we do both know what's really going on.  Sometimes the political actor in me is content to do so.  But at other times the information order pollution that they represent really gets to me.  These things corrupt the data of other legitimate research efforts. If the results are used, they amplify the error in the information order.  These things undermine social information trust.  They cheapen the very idea of opinion research.  Imagine a certain amount of what passes as clinical trials is really just PR for pharmaceutical companies.  Or imagine that the "high stakes testing" used to study the education system was really just a ploy to indoctrinate children.  Or that marine biologists were just sending a message to the mollusks they study.

As a consultant helping organizations do research I used to ask "are you trying to find out something or are you trying to show something?" To this we could add "or are you just putting on a show?"

There's something disturbing when an industry like political polling can't do better than suggest that the one state that has taken steps to address a real democracy-threatening practice within that industry is somehow "the problem."  A republican pollster whined that the law has “a harmful effect on legitimate survey research and message testing that really impairs our ability to do credible polling,” as if we should care.  It doesn't take a Ph.D. to see that a little ignorance on the part of politicians about attitudes in New Hampshire as the price for stopping a practice that corrupts public deliberation is a tradeoff well worth making.