Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Paying for Online (Media) Information

James Surowiecki has a piece in the current New Yorker "News You Can Lose" (22 December) about the increasingly common disappearance of local newspapers. He notes that a common explanation for the problems faced by newspapers is that, like the railroads last century, they have failed to recognize what business they are in. If "newspapers had understood they were in the information business, rather than the print business, they would have adapted more quickly and more successfully to the Net."

True enough perhaps, Surowiecki writes. But something else interesting is going on: "The peculiar fact about the current crisis is that even as big papers have become less profitable they’ve arguably become more popular." We blog about what's in the paper; we forward articles millions of times a day. I do it; you do it. What most of us don't do, is pay for online subscriptions.

Why don't I, as an avid consumer of news, opinion, and commentary, and as one of those bloggers who spread the renown of NYT content, have more online media subscriptions? Simple reason: they all require me to pay up front before I know whether and how much I will actually look at them in practice. Sure enough, that's the same commercial relationship I have with them on the newstand or when I sign up for home delivery (not exactly -- I usually don't have to sign up for, say, a year at a time).

Why don't they agree to at least split the risk with me? I sign up today and if I end up using them everyday, my annual subscription is X. If I only visit on average once a week, then I'll pay, say, X/30. If I check them out only a few times and then never come back, they get a small token payment and we part ways. Notice that this is not "per use" pricing -- that's not attractive -- it won't work for either of us if I have to make new purchase decisions every time. But any media outlet confident enough to say "we think we're good enough that if you start looking at our pages, you'll be back regularly" would stand a pretty good chance of signing me up. And, if it turns out I really did like them and use them regularly, they'd get a year's worth of subscription fee from me. I'd likely try out numerous publications under such a plan, knowing that in the end, I can stay within my media budget because I only have so much time to read. The one's who keep me coming back get the bigger slice of my media spending (and their advertisers get my eyeballs and maybe even my clicks).

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Fundamentals: information, society, and economy

Provocative short piece on Keynes in NYT Magazine today: "The Remedist" by Robert Skidelsky. At issue is the question of just what it was that Alan Greenspan was backing off from when he said that his policies had been based on a "flaw." Skidelsky channels Keynes to suggest that it's an information problem that lies at the heart of our financial woes. The ideas that the market system, unregulated, will generate, in prices, all the information needed for social actors to act wisely (whatever that means) AND that the right calculations could capture all the relevant uncertainty (and thus price it correctly so that actors could make informed choices) both turn out to be not quite right. A discovery for some, but something Keynes and others said before.

Hence the title of this post. Weber wrote his "Economy and Society" almost one hundred years ago. What I'm imagining for a sociology of information is to insert "information" into that holy duo. We create systems and structures that can be either "net obscuring" or "net clarifying." That is, they help us to see the world more clearly or they make that world even harder to comprehend than it already is. How we do so is what a sociology of information looks at.

Friday, December 05, 2008

What Goes on Page One?

I am today working on a chapter called "Learning to be a Node" about how we need to be socialized into our roles as nodes in social information networks. While playing around with different metaphors and analogies I been playing with journalism metaphor: the idea that the competent node (what I mean by this is, generically, someone who "gets notification right," that is, doesn't inappropriately "spill the beans" or "talk out of school" or "overshare" or their converses) is someone who knows what goes on page one (and what does not).

To manage our relationships -- with spouses, friends, co-workers, etc. -- our encounters need to be governed all day by composing and recomposing what's on page one of our personal newspaper. People expect relevant stuff first (and relevance varies with each person and we are expected to know how it varies). They don't want to read on page one what they've already heard (and we are responsible for having an idea of what they have already heard). And we are expected to have multiple editions -- page one of the workplace edition won't look anything like page one of the family edition.

To get back to the "learning" part: with each new role we take on we have to learn a new set of guidelines for "what goes on page one." A good bit of the formal socialization in a new job, for example, concerns what goes in reports to whom, while the informal socialization will include things like what never gets written in an email, what happens only behind closed doors and what can only be said in surreptitious meetings on park benches (a favorite device in film). In relationships there tends to be a sort of ongoing socialization as partners remind one another about what they expect to be told and when (also a common dramatic device: see, for example, "Relational Notification Norms on 'Mad Men'".

The process of learning to be a node occurs across the life course. Small children need to be trained how NOT to be muck-raking publishers of personal and family secrets (see "Children as Spies"). Teenagers need to be cajoled into not producing "empty editions." Gossips need to learn the limits of even bad taste. Organizations are forever fiddling with reporting lines. And there's always more to be done -- "stovepiping," cited as a big problem in the intelligence community in the 9/11 report, is really a pathology of notification in which nodes have learned the "wrong" rules about who ought to be informed about what.

O.K., enough of that metaphor for now.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Information and Fairness

Insider trading is a classic example of the instrumental value of information and it reminds us of how markets are socially constructed (not in the sense that they are figments of the collective imagination but in the sense that they generally need the support of some social norms, rules, and laws in order to function well.)

The Times just reported (in "S.E.C. Accuses Mark Cuban of Insider Trading") that Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, has been accused of selling all of his shares in a company a few hours after receiving confidential inside information suggesting the stock price would drop. At first glance it would appear that the "bottom line" is the monetary value of the information (that Cuban had but others did not), but consider how a source explained things, as quoted by the article's writer: "It is fundamentally unfair for someone to use access to nonpublic information to improperly gain an edge on the market." The "technical" reason for prohibiting insider trading is that markets can fail if people think others have private information, but this comment suggests that there's a social norm at work too: it's just not informationally fair.

Equality, Information and the Courts Redux: The Dan Rather Report

Dan Rather's lawsuit against CBS isback in the news*. The gist of the suit is Rather's claim that the network allowed political considerations (over his reporting on President Bush's military service) to influence their pressuring him to resign. Readers may recall I've previously commented on this lawsuit under the title "Courts and the Information Order."

The reporter on the story makes an important initial point, Rather's status as plaintiff permits him to access information that his status as reporter, employee or concerned citizen would never have given him access to.
"Using tools unavailable to him as a reporter — including the power of subpoena and the threat of punishment against witnesses who lie under oath — he has unearthed evidence that would seem to support his assertion that CBS intended its investigation, at least in part, to quell Republican criticism of the network."
This nicely highlights several "layers" of social information access. We ordinary members of the public are reading about this in the newspaper. Rather, as a reporter, could not access this information. Rather as a member of a bureaucratic organization was clearly kept out of certain loops. But Rather the plaintiff is formally, if temporarily, informationally equal to his adversaries. The two parties' "equality before the law" is partly enacted by the fact that one can say "you have to tell me" and the other one is compelled – by all of us – to tell him.

While the defendant (CBS) maintains that the case is "meritless" and that they will, in the end, prevail, Rather has already achieved a part of what he set out to do:
"One of Mr. Rather’s initial goals was to compel depositions of many of his former bosses and colleagues under oath. Thus far, in addition to Mr. Heyward and Ms. Mason, his lawyers have questioned Leslie Moonves, the chief executive of CBS; Gil Schwartz, executive vice president of communications for CBS; Sandra Genelius, a former CBS News spokeswoman; and Michael J. Missal, who helped oversee the panel report on behalf of Mr. Thornburgh."
The judge has not yet ruled on a motion "to gain access to several thousand documents that were used by the investigative panel to compile its report, including notes from interviews and e-mail messages from top executives."
Defendant lawyers claim it's just a "fishing expedition" and that information is privileged and something about which CBS should be able to say "you can't see it." Plaintiff lawyers say it is relevant to the issue at hand and as such it is something that an equal party should have access to it.

*NYT 16 November 2008, Jacques Steinberg: "Rather’s Lawsuit Shows Role of G.O.P. in Inquiry"

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Notification on your Blackberry

A textbook perfect example of notification appeared on the front page of the NYT business section today. Geraldine Fabrikant tells the story of Sallie Krawcheck's leaving Citigroup("When Citi Lost Sallie") and a good bit of the story of the story has to do with how notifications were handled.

Long story short, Krawcheck was a top exec at Citi who was "shunted aside" in an internal shakeup in September. After speaking to colleagues at a corporate retreat she went back to her room and fired up her Blackberry:
"A friend had written to warn her that within a few days Citigroup would announce that it was stripping her of most responsibilities...."
The article goes on to note:
"[t]hat she was being shunted aside was not a surprise to [her].... What infuriated [her] was that the bank moved up its announcement without telling her...."

Plain vanilla notification. Even when it doesn't matter consequentially, it does matter to us when and how we find things out (or find out that others are finding out).

Apparently, though, her superiors were not being entirely crass. When she got back to New York she found a voice mail "formally notifying her that the timing of the announcement was being accelerated." Evidence then, that a phone message (presumably from (near) the horse's mouth) is preferred to finding out via a leak and rumor (I leave it to the reader to figure out where hearing such news face-to-face fits in this scheme).

And, from the organizational side, the idea that the threat of a spreading leak can create an imperative to officially announce was suggested by sources who told the reporter that the announcement was moved up "because news of it was already spreading."

Finally, we get a nice taste of how notification rights and obligations are organizationally structured and how they are regarded and disregarded in interaction. At several points in the article the reporter quotes anonymous sources who cannot be named because they are "not authorized to speak publicly about the company." Such disclosures are of course common -- how many times do you hear (or say) "OK, here's the info but you can't tell anyone I told you (because I am, in fact, not authorized to tell you)"? It tells us something about the information order that such departures from protocol do not disqualify a source. More importantly, it shows how the information order is built up out of a complex network of notification norms honored in practice and dishonored in rhetoric and vice versa.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Where Does the Information Go? Preserving a Sense of History

In the last few days I've read a number of blog posts and letters to the editor in which the writers expressed discomfort (a kind way of putting it) with the post-election enthusiasm of Obama supporters. My attention was drawn especially to those who clearly harbored a lot of resentment toward those celebrants who communicated a sense of the victory as a decisive one. The writers frequently called the supporters "arrogant" or "presumptuous" or similar. While I'm sure there have been some annoyingly boisterous winners, the losers were talking like this was a first time phenomenon unique to Obama supporters.

Hello?!? Does history really fade so fast or circulate so little that these writers completely forget how recent republican victories have been celebrated? Reagan's victories were touted as the end of an era, the obliteration of the 60s and the New Deal and his policies as self-evident. The excess and dismissive arrogance of the campus young republicans after Bush's 1988 election shocked me at the time. But more recently, in two elections that W barely (if actually) won, both he and his supporters paraded around talking about mandates and having political capital to burn.

And now, if I can, for one moment, engage in a little post election rhetorical excess of my own: of course it's not really a matter of history being forgotten or erased. It's just that the information in history's database can be hard to access from inside its dustbin.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Intellectual World as Magazine Shop

Just back from "Family Weekend" at MIT (very well done, BTW) and catching up on things. The following appeared in the American Sociological Association's newsletter this month. It reminded me of the stunning fragmentation of intellectual discourse -- the number of mutually exclusive conversations going on at one time, even among those who claim membership in one discipline in one country.

Just when you thought it was safe to start reading again....
An Interdisciplinary Collection of Essays on the Zombie seeks proposals for an interdisciplinary volume discussing the zombie from a variety of perspectives and within a range of contexts. Submissions from all disciplines are invited. In addition to theoretical essays on zombies, we also welcome critical discussions of specific zombie films, novels, and graphic novels, including those both pre- and post-Romero. Proposals should be between 200 and 300 words. Include brief author biographical details with their submissions, including name and academic affiliation. Submit proposals either electronically or by regular mail. Deadline: October 31, 2008. Contact: Cory James Rushton, Dept. of English, St. Francis Xavier University, PO Box 5000, Antigonish, Nova Scotia, B2G 2W5, Canada;; or Christopher M. Moreman, Dept. of Philosophy, California State University-East Bay, 25800 Carlos Bee Blvd., Hayward, CA 94542;

My title refers to the fact that the value of targeted advertising can make it economical to publish magazines aimed at extremely small niche readerships. If you scan the titles in a magazine shop it's easy to start thinking, "there can't be that many people around here interested in moose hunting!" And you're right, there aren't. But the ones that are out there love reading that magazine and the sellers of moose hunting paraphernalia really need to reach them, not you. It's a small world with lots of villages.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Who Knows What Everybody Knows?

A few months ago I was hanging out with a group of folks from National Public Radio's "Next Generation Radio" Project. Participants were sitting around a room editing stories on their laptops. At some point one, who didn't strike me as a techie, showed one of the real tech whizzes that you could change the case of text in MSWord with a single command. He thought this was the coolest thing he had seen in a while.

I sat their trying to figure out how this guy who seemed like he knew way more about computers than I did could possibly not already know this. It reminded me of a bit from the Devil's Dictionary: "self evident -- evident to the self and no one else."

Relevance for the sociology of information? Any bit of information we possess potentially has a "meta-informational wrapper" that tells us who else knows it. We experience this wrapper along a continuum from, say, "I've got a secret" to "duh, everybody knows THAT." What's interesting, though, is how hard it is to achieve anything like 100% accuracy on this meta-informational front.

I was motivated to think about this while reading David Pogue's blog/column in the NYT the other day ("Tech Tips for the Basic Computer User"). In it he listed a few tips that are useful for those of us using computers -- things like "you can select a word by double clicking it." He doesn't come out and put it like this, but I think a take-away from the piece is that these are things that if we know them we don't think of them as "tips" -- they are just things one knows about the machines one uses. It's actually another cognitive step to recognize these taken-for-granted bits of know-how as things that lots of other people might not know. Nobody, after all, wants to pass along a tip that's not really a tip ("duh" hurts!).

Interestingly, the blog turns out to be a great vehicle for eliciting tips from folks without the disincentives of (1) worrying that the person you give the tip to will not think it is a tip, or (2) having to make the observation that the recipient does not know something so as to be "safe" in giving the tip. If you read the 1000 plus tips people have sent in, you will no doubt find some of them to be "obvious" and "well known" but others will provide an "aha" moment.

He suggests at one point that of all the stuff you know that "everybody probably knows" probably only 40% of everybody actually knows. I don't know about the numbers, but the point is a good one. Most of us are probably not very good estimators of how much of what we know is idiosyncratic, local, general, or universal knowledge.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Silence on the Soc of Info Front

Week's worth of silence here was due to a quick trip to Paris in the company of my partner, Gillian Hadfield, who was talking at a conference on new institutional economics. Sociologists spend a lot of time attacking their straw-person version of economics, but I find that I learn a whole lot from them, especially these smart institutional economists. Prediction: I'll probably start investing some serious time in learning more game theory. That probably sounds like apostasy to some of my sociology colleagues, but so be it; I find a catholic approach to things intellectual, and a disregard for disciplinary boundaries to be the most fruitful approach to understanding the social world. It's a hard nut to crack and we need all the tools we can find.

So, I'll be back on the information trail soon.

Oh: Paris was great. What a city!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Calibrating Blog Traffic Tracking

A classic information illusion arises on the net: the conflation of a click with a look with a read. It's easy to track how many far away computers access a web page, not so easy to figure out whether anything on that web page was seen, read, thought about, etc.

So, a small experiment so I can come up with a tentative correction factor for the "visitor" count. If you actually read a post here could you post a very short comment to the effect of "yes, in Portland (or where ever)"? I'll set it so it can be anonymous and not require signin and so on. I'll leave this hear for a day or two to see if it garners any results.

Just click on "comments" below and a new window will open up.



Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Notification and the Life Course

We've become so aware of our embeddedness in networks that it's easy to forget that you have to learn how to be a node. Competent execution of one's responsibilities as a part of social information networks is a learned skill. A lot of early childhood socialization is informational; kids need to learn what needs to be reported to whom. What kinds of things you tell everybody and what kinds of things you say only at home? Which things need to be reported to adults immediately and which not? They learn that it's not nice to tattle, never to cry wolf, always to tell the truth, etc. And such informational socialization is a life-long process.

Perhaps the network in which we all spend the greatest share of our social time is the family. It turns out that there's a neat evolution of notification expectations and practices across the life course. First we teach kids to notify us if they feel sick, see something dangerous, get approached by strangers, etc. Then they have to learn that some things are not disclosed to people outside the family, that it's not nice to tattle, and that they should never cry wolf. As our roles in the family change, it is a continuing challenge to "get notification right."

For several pre-adolescent years kids are pretty much informational open books. Parents are either in on or let in on much if not almost everything that happens in their lives.

Then, as the teenage years approach, parents have to ask and prod and they start receiving "none of your business" type responses. As kids get the use of the car and gain other access to spatial independence, parents become more and more dependent on what the child elects to notify them about. They have to invest more and more in notificational oversight: "call me when you get there," "tell me who you are with," "let us know when you are leaving." This is notificational socialization round three, training the kid in the notificational expectations that attach to their new status as semi-autonomous semi-adult. Rules and norms are called on to replace more direct information channels previously supplied by first-hand surveillance.

A big source of emotional conflict around notification at this stage is the growing contradiction of informational asymmetry experienced by the teenager. They know the parent can ask "where, when, with who, how long," and they know well that they have no hope of extracting similar information from the parent.

But then the kids go off to college and their entire life is suddenly out of view. We switch to phone calls and emails and spend out time exhorting them to call or write more often and to have more to say when they do.

And around this time, we see emerging an interesting conflict between parents as one forgets to mention right away, news received in a phone call or email. You know the response when in the company of friends one parent says "Our oldest just the other day said she was having an interesting time in her math class" and the other parent thinks "Hmmmm, that's news to me...." The classic notificational rebuke will follow: you should have told me that sooner!

Those same parents have parents of their own, of course, and will soon experience the notificational conflicts that go on between older adults and adult children. They get a phone call from mom describing a medical or financial emergency that occured a week or two before: "Ma! I can't believe you are just telling me this now!" It's quite possibly a vain attempt at late life socialization, but the adult children will work this angle just the same. The comeback is standard: "We didn't want to worry you."

The adult child is robbed of the ultimate informational comfort: no news is good news. They have to worry all the time and they say this makes them feel like they are dealing with a child. And it does, of course. But it's different too. Parents often withhold information from kids because they are too young to be told or because they don't need to worry about something. As older adults with adult children, there are vestiges of these sentiments – our adult problems are ours – and to yield to their adult children's "you should tell me right away" is to give up some of the relational adultness they have earned. And for the adult children to demand it is, in a way, an attempt, innocent as it may be, at replacing the adult-adult relationship by adopting the adult role and tilting their informational relationship with their adult parents toward notificational asymmetry.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Quick Followup : More notification in "Mad Men"

An earlier post (8 September) described the use of notificational deviance as a dramatic plot device using the television series Mad Men as an example.   The most recent episode provided another delightful example of the use of notification to communicate and structure social relationships.

Early in the episode "A Night to Remember" there is a great scene where Pete and Duck are leaving Don's office.   As the two are heading out the door, a quick conversation about an upcoming dinner/meeting occurs between Duck and Pete.  Pete is obviously out of the loop (and wasn't invited).  He lingers for a fraction of a second behind Duck and shoots Don a look.  Don's shoulder shrug and "oh well" facial expression do a marvelous job of putting Pete in his place.  He doesn't even deserve an explanation of what it is he has been left out of and he so feels it that he doesn't display his usual out-of-place brashness.

Notification and the Public Sphere

Working today on the outline for a chapter on "notification and the public sphere."  In previous chapters the focus was notification and the maintenance of relationships among individuals. In this chapter I look at the broader distribution of information in society and the institutions that give rise to it.

The raw material I am working with runs the gamut from sunshine and freedom of information laws, mandatory disclosure regulations, discovery in legal context, state mandated notification, truth and reconciliation commissions, emergency warning systems, diplomatic protocol, gag rules, and privacy standards. Generically, I'm thinking of these as "information institutions."

This is admittedly a big bucket of diverse phenomena; today's work was a first stab at grouping and categorizing and discovering underlying dimensions that organize these things as manifestations of basic informational forms.

Here are my preliminary categories.

Sunshine, Stickers, Labels, and Report Cards. Laws and rules that say that the state and private and public actors cannot keep (all) secrets. Some of these are things like sunshine laws that promote accountability or combat corruption, others are disclosure rules that address information asymmetry between producers and consumers or between service providers and the public. This category resonates with the "is more information always better" posts that have appeared here previously.

Structured Honesty: Social Organization of Informational Equality. Being able to say "I don't have to tell you" is an important manifestation of inequality with both material and symbolic consequences. In various forms, the capacity to maintain some control over the disposition of some information is widely recognized as a key component of autonomous personhood. This category includes institutions that collectively enforce (true) information sharing -- from legal rules of discovery to truth commissions. It is, I think, distinct from the previous and next categories, but I'm still working on a rigorous way to distinguish them.  The "democracy and the information order" posts that have appeared previously would fall into this category (6 August 2008, 20 September 2007,  22 May 2007, 11 March 2007)

The Social Organization of Omniscience (includes warning systems). These can be distinguished from the disclosure examples because in those cases one entity either has the information and just needs to be compelled to release it or has/controls access to the information and needs to be compelled to collect and release it. By contrast, this category includes cases where either the information is dispersed and we organize a means to detect and aggregate and channel it. Or, where a special channel is set aside to that one type of information (perhaps a rare one) can take precedence. Examples: ER doctors who must report abuse or abortion providers who must provide parental notification for minors, emergency warning systems (tornado.,hurricane, tsunami), airport announcements that recruit everyone as a lookout for unattended bags (see also post on children as spies).

Protocol. In diplomacy, for example, protocol strongly regulates who would speak with whom. As in computer communication protocols, these institutions allow us to tie systems together.

Socially Sanctioned Non-Telling. This is almost the opposite of the first category (leaving an interesting space in between) -- secrets that are socially organized. Gag rules and sealed agreements, trade secrets, intellectual property regimes, governments classification systems (top secret, etc.), official secrets acts, privacy standards.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Economy and Information : Does More Info Make the World a Better Place?

This week's serial superlatives in things economic -- each day the "events of recent days" were "the most stunning thing to happen since the thirties" -- has led to lots and lots of hand wringing and calls for new kinds or amounts of regulation. And a lot of what folks are saying has to do with information -- more of it, in public, is what we need!

This brings to mind two things I've recently read. One is a 2007 book by Fung, Graham, and Weil called Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency (Cambridge University Press). It is a report on an empirical study of 18 cases of what they call "targeted transparency" -- legislated requirements that corporations (or other private entities) disclose specific information so that the public can make informed choices about their products, services, etc. They looked at the history of disclosure as public policy, why it emerged when it did, whether it's likely to continue to expand, and whether, and under what conditions, it works. In a nutshell, they conclude that it works well in some cases, not at all in others. The process is always political and it works when the results of the political process produce a system that is "user oriented" and "sustainable." I'll post a full review of the book here in the near future.

The other piece I was reminded of was by Malcom Gladwell in a January 2007 New Yorker: "Open Secrets: Enron, intelligence, and the perils of too much information." In it Gladwell builds on, among others, the work of Yale law professor Jonathan Macey who, in a review article about the Enron debacle, argued that the problem was not information that Enron hid, but the fact that no one could put together the puzzle pieces represented by the information they disclosed.

I recommend both Fung et al. and the Gladwell piece as grist for your thought mill this week.

See also this old post on the "is more better" question.

Talking to Ourselves

This post is not my usual brand of sociology of information. It's true that the topics I'm including under that title DO veer off in the direction of media and journalism and related public discourse realms, but since there are already well established and well defined fields that study that stuff, I've felt there's no reason for the sociology of information to be intellectually imperialist in its aspirations.

But just the same....

My local radio station is fund-raising this week. During one of the pledge breaks the hosts were talking about a lefty show that had an episode on voter suppression (meaning republicans are trying to prevent folks from voting democratic). They bantered back and forth to the effect of "We know there was lots of voter suppression in the 2004 election and it's still going on, you know...." My politics being more or less the same as theirs, my main reaction was a simple "yup" between spoonfuls of cereal. The next thing they said was that there would be a local show about the presidential debate next week. Both sort of tripped over words trying to express something like "because we're different [from the national crowd] here in the (San Francisco) Bay Area."

First, I'm sure that if I played with my radio dial or sat down at my computer I could really fast find a right wing radio show that was all up in arms about "voter fraud" (meaning some people who shouldn't be allowed to vote voted democratic). So what? Seems so symptomatic of the state of our public discourse : preaching to the choir on both sides; demonization and fear mongering. "Our" side is probably right, but I just found myself wondering what we hope to accomplish with this kind of "journalism." Does it fan the flames of my indignation? Burn in more deeply my conviction? Or does it just make it less and less likely that we'll ever manage to have a conversation with someone who disagrees with us and less likely that either will budge if we did?

For the second thing, back to the radio hosts' comment about the Bay Area being different. Again, I suspect there are lots of radio hosts around the country saying more or less the same thing this morning. And each of them is comparing local sensibilities to an idealized version of some "outsider" them. We Texans are a might bit different from those New Yorkers! We Floridians are not like the rest of the south. We south Floridians are not like the rest of Florida. And on and on. If we (whoever we are) really want to win this election, you'd think one of the most important things would be to listen to people who are not like us, listen good, and learn how to talk with them too.

It is interesting that we could live in an "information age" and yet maybe have lost the ability to talk.

Perhaps of Interest

Diana C. Mutz Hearing the Other Side. Cambridge University Press

Monday, September 15, 2008

Information, People, Machines, and Systems

Last week United Airlines (or more properly its stockholders) had an unfortunate information experience. It turns out to be pretty delicious stuff from a sociology of information point of view. Apparently, a small newspaper in Florida linked to an old news story about UAL declaring bankruptcy (in December 2002). A google search by a staff member at a financial information website brings up the article (some sources say on a page with that day's date on top so that it was easily mistaken for new news as opposed to old news). The info goes on the newsletter site and they are picked up by Bloomberg, perhaps the most widely distributed financial news service. Services like Bloomberg serve up headlines that anyone can see with links to full stories available only to subscribers. Once the headline hit Bloomberg, traders around the world start dumping UAL stock and other news services apparently compounded the misinformation by repeating it.[see also FN1]

Now much of the post mortem inquiry into this event seems to suggest that the main culprit was automation (e.g. Katherine Thompson on The Editors' Weblog). One version of this is that what we saw was a tightly knit network of automated search agents and news consolidators run amok (I'm imaginging someone has already thought through the "small world" and "preferential network attachment" angles on this). Humans, this take suggests, serve a useful purpose as governors (in the mechanical sense rather than the state government sense) because they can have a "that sounds funny to me" reaction and double check something before passing it on.

So there's lots of grist here for my chapter on technology and the information order, but for the moment I'm stuck on what we learn here about our assumptions about humans as components of information networks. Of course, we all know examples of people who don't think before passing along what they have heard, but we recognize that we think of it as a basic norm of communication network membership: use common sense, don't be a hollow, mechanical repeater. It's a responsibility hinted at by many religions' prohibitions against gossip, idle talk, and so on, although these are often primarily about spreading harmful (true or false) personal information.

In addition to the above ideas, I'll file this under "the headline problem" -- how info on the net is easily passed around (or acted on) by folks who have not read past the headline and how news consolidators and interfaces that show abbreviated titles can exacerbate this.

FN1: On a completely different analytical trajectory, one might inquire as to whether there will be a tendency here for the fingers to point, and the investigative paths to lead, in the direction of the deepest pockets (probably google).

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Notification and Disclosure

Sooner or later, the analysis of notification leads to a consideration of disclosure. The two terms blend into one another in dictionary and thesaurus but we can make a useful distinction (useful, that is, for sociology of information purposes).

To notify is to inform or make known to a particular notifyee (it can be a large number of people -- even "the public"). To disclose, though, is to release information without a target recipient. Again, the point here is not whether this distinction covers all the empirical usages of these words; rather, the point is to zero in on a useful distinction. For us, that distinction is whether the teller is telling because of a specific relational obligation to an identifiable other or whether the telling is more a revelation for all to see.

A further analysis of this will come up in a still to be written chapter on notification and the public sphere. I was motivated to think about it today, though, while reading an article in the paper about a new disclosure law ("Note to Civic-Minded - Prepare to Reveal Riches" by Alison Leigh Cowan) being discussed in New York by the city's Conflict of Interest Board. At issue is whether volunteer members of civic boards should be required to disclose financial interests and the like.

The case brings up a lot of interesting sociology of information issues. The whole thing falls under the "information order" category as it concerns the social regulation of who gets to know what. The arguments for and against the measure (and the articles (perhaps even more interestingly) which boards will be subject to the regulation and which ones not) will be fascinating. What does the public deserve to know? What do (wealthy) people get to hide? What do we make of the way engaging with "the system" changes one's informational environment (the same thing has come up recently in discussions about the private lives and backgrounds of politicians in connection with Governor Palin's nomination)? How do we think differently about legislated disclosure and media snooping?  How do privacy and a public "right to know" intersect?  Etc.

The article suggests that "Albany passed the law because of a sense that public authorities...were operating off the radar screen." We note in passing that it's interesting that information about members was seen as a way to improve oversight of what boards DO. Another source added "What they’re saying here is you got to fill out disclosure forms if you’re an alter ego for government." This resonates with something Gillian Hadfield and I have written about under the heading "democracy and the information order": a part of our experience of the generic equality we are promised in a democracy is the expectation that under certain circumstances you don't get to say to me "I don't have to tell you." The regulations ARE designed to ferret out actual material conflicts of interest, but to the degree that they "feel right" it would seem to be a manifestation of the principle that of those who are, or would be, public servants can be more powerful and wealthier than the average Joe but they don't get to say "I'm not telling you."

Somewhat predictably, this is exactly the sticking point. The city council is considering toning down the regulation so it requires only a short form that demands only limited information. The article quotes a former public board member who had experience filling out the current 32 page disclosure form:
"It takes a long time to complete and do a careful job, and it is a complete undressing," he said. "I can tell you," he said, referring to the slew of billionaires who sit on the Central Park board, "the members of that board would jump out of their skins if forced to file those forms."

I think this suggests something interesting about social stratification and the sociology of information. Stay tuned.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Sociology of Information Gaffes

Much has been made of VP candidate Joe Biden's capacity to put his fut in his mouth. In this morning's paper, reporter John Broder ("Hanging On to Biden’s Every Word") reviews the issue and highlights a few recent events. In one of them, Biden either did not know or forgot an important bit of information about someone:
In Columbia, Mo., this week, Mr. Biden urged a paraplegic state official to stand up to be recognized. “Chuck, stand up, let the people see you,” Mr. Biden shouted to State Senator Chuck Graham, before realizing, to his horror, that Mr. Graham uses a wheelchair.

“Oh, God love ya,” Mr. Biden said. “What am I talking about?”

How is this kind of gaffe is different from those which amount to inelegant diction or impolitic revelations? The "offense" here is certainly not anti-disability bigotry or insensitivity, and the sociologist of information should not get distracted by (either republican or disability-rights) activists who might want to make hay about the event. Rather, it's a failure to be aware of, or keep track of, a relevant piece of information about someone. As such, it is, before all else, relationally revealing : a basic norm of relationships is to keep track of relevant information about the other. When one utters the phrase "my friend," even if it is ritualized political speech, it triggers some informational expectations. When these aren't met, we find it jarring or even offensive (consider the simple case of getting a form letter that mis-addresses you as Mr. or Ms. -- it quickly becomes even junkier mail than it already was).

Normally, politicians can synthesize relationships such as "my friend..." because their handlers can remind them of information-you-ought-to-know-about-the-other as they make their way toward a handshake. Getting such things right may not mean anything in an objective sense, but in terms of the relational work it does, it can certainly be consequential.

The take-away is that relationships, even those created artificially for the purposes of the moment, always come with informational expectations and obligations.

The Theory of Notification

As you might know, I'm on sabbatical this year working on a book on the sociology of notification (alas, along with two other projects and a few projectlets). It's time to move on to the first-drafting (the second version since I start with a "zeroth" draft) of my "theory" chapters. Chapter four examines how notification varies as a behavior -- who we tell, how we tell, when we tell -- and how these are dependent on the information content and our understanding of the relational ecology in which we find ourselves. As a first approximation who, how, and when can be seen as dependent variables while content and relationships are independent variables. Notification norms link these together: when we acquire a particular bit of information they tell us whom to tell and how and when to do it given the relationships we think we are in (or, see next paragraph, want to be in).

That's the hyper-simplified version. The first complication is that, in fact, the process goes both ways: we can manipulate relationships and the meaning of the content based on our notification choices. We share inside information with close friends, but we also draw others close by sharing inside information.

I still haven't quite settled on what the "punch" of chapter 4 will be. In its current form, I think that what it does is demonstrate the many dimensions along which notification behavior can vary (and which matter in practice -- it's key that senders and receivers are not indifferent about them), thereby making the argument that the norms that direct the system are really accomplishing something pretty amazing. That's not as gripping as I'd like. I think what I want to do here is get the reader pretty jazzed up about how much relational work she is doing all the time.

The following chapter, working title "The Micro-sociology of Notification," is where I get all phenomenological and social psychological. Will it be of any interest at all to the general reader? Hard to say. The main framework here is the self-world axis; to have a self is to have a world and vice versa (I'm primarily channeling Alfred Schutz here). The challenge of being in the world with others is to keep our worlds aligned (I coin the not-as-mellifluous-as-I'd-like term syncosmize for this). We do this, in part, by selectively disseminating what we know (take) to be the case. The last chapter described how we do that. This one pushes a bit more and asks how the competent node accomplishes the task. In addition to relatively passive knowledge of the rules/norms of notification, she needs to keep track of who would want to know what, who already knows what, etc. Ultimately, this means maintaining a model of the other's world and of the local epistemological ecology. This chapter describes how we do this.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Children as Spies

I'm working today on my chapter about how we are socialized into our roles in information networks. It's called "Learning to Be a Node." The section I'm working on is about the use of children as spies. Huh? What this refers to is how up to a certain age kids are informationally unsophisticated and are treated as such. They can go "back stage" (Goffman 1959) and no one even thinks about it. If they reach the age where they can observe and report on their observations before they learn what one does and does not talk about "out there," then outsiders can take advantage and use kids to peer inside the family unit.

The first example is the largely apocryphal case of Pavlik Trofimovich, a Russian boy who, in the 1930s, is reputed to have been killed by his family after he turned his father in for anti-communist behavior. The next examples are the case of the Romanian secret police apparently using children for similar purposes during that country's communist era and the attempts in the 80s and 90s by anti-drug zealots in the US to get kids to call 911 at the first sight of anything related to drugs in their own homes (that is, to turn their parents in to the police).

Those examples are all about how the state can use kids to pierce the information firewall that surrounds the family. The last example comes from a 1967 anthropology article in which John Hotchkiss describes how villagers in Chiapas, Mexico, employ their own kids as roving information gatherers to learn what's happening in other families. The kids are given free reign and adults act unguardedly around them so that their own parents can ask them, when they come back from errands or from visiting with friends, "what's going on over there? Is Sr. Gonzales still drinking?"

Of course, the kids are potential double agents. One of the reasons that adults are unguarded around them is because they can also pump the visiting child for information about her own home. Hotchkiss is primarily interested in the ways that the kids act as intermediaries that permit information to flow and for material transactions to occur without the adults losing face (cf. Goffman 1959). It serves my purposes, though, because it shows how, until we are socialized into the notification and information norms of each network, we are sources of potential "leaks" by spilling beans that we don't know are beans (and, correspondingly, the sources of blindspots by not passing along things that we ought to).

You might detect an undercurrent here that will connect this chapter to the one on notification in organizations: the whole question of how to build an effective intelligence network so as to avoid "stovepiping" and related problems that were said to be behind the intelligence failures that led up to 9/11.

Sources Mentioned

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books.

Hotchkiss, John C. 1967. "Children and Conduct in a Ladino Community of Chiapas, Mexico." American Anthropologist New Series, Vol. 69:711-718.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The CONSEQUENTIALIST View of Information

Most of what I'm writing about under the banner "sociology of information" focuses on the relational and symbolic value of information and information transition in distinction to its instrumental, consequential, or material value. For the latter, the "value" of information derives from the benefits one can acquire (or costs one can avoid) by having the information. Analytically, that's to distinguish what I'm doing from information economics -- my basic point is that there is a component of human information behavior that can't be reduced to material consequences without a loss of explanatory power.

An example of the instrumental value of information showed up in the paper today (NYT "A Mistaken News Report Hurts United"); apparently, a false news flash that United Airlines had filed again for bankruptcy sent it's stock price tumbling.

This is the instrumentalist or consequentialist side of information because the value comes in the form "if I had known it was false I would not have sold my stock" or "if I had known then I could have made a killing." We think of the import of the information here in terms of what we could have done differently had we known. Contrast this with the "Madmen" character Betty pointing out to her husband that she expected to be called about his accident whether or not she could do anything about it because that's the kind of information that spouses share with one another immediately.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Relational Notification Norms on "Mad Men"

I joked that I wanted a footnote while watching a recent episode ("The New Girl" season 2 episode 5) of the TV show "Mad Men." A scene between Don and Betty Draper was almost verbatim from the first page of the book I'm currently working on (working title Notification and the Information Order).

Don's just come home around dawn after having a car accident while carousing with a client's wife. Betty, his wife, has apparently been awake all night wondering where he was and that's her first question when he comes into the bedroom. "I was in an accident," he explains. Then there's a back and forth where she says "why didn't you call me?" and he says he did not want to worry/wake her and so on. She says, basically, "I'm your wife, you idiot -- when this sort of thing happens, you call, it doesn't matter what time it is." She then adds that it doesn't matter whether or not she could do anything about it, spouses call, period, the end. They follow this with him mentioning that the doctor told him he had high blood pressure and she gets bent out of shape all over again because he'd failed to tell her this earlier too.

In the book I use an almost identical scene to make the point that social relationships come with specific informational responsibilities and that these are constitutive of the relationship -- in other words, they are a part of how we know we are in a particular kind/level of relationship. This relational dimension of information exchange is largely independent of the instrumental value of information (as in, you should have told me so that I could have done something different and achieved a better outcome for me or us) and so introduces an object of study for a sociology of information that is distinct from the object of, say, the economics of information.

Notification issues popping up on "Mad Men" was not actually an unusual event. It turns out that mis-nofitication is an incredibly common dramatic and humorous device. I started keeping a list a few years back when an episode of "The West Wing" (titled "17 People") was all about how the characters squared their sense of their status in the White House inner circle and their relationships with one another and the president with the order and manner in which they found out about the president's illness. It soon became obvious that variations on this theme were so common as to not warrant an exhaustive cataloging.

These ideas were first introduced in my 2006 piece in Sociological Theory (24,3): ―"Getting the Word Out: Notes on the Social Organization of Notification."

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Notification, Everywhere

The multiple strands of the Sarah Palin Chronicles* are littered with notification relevant tidbits. The McCain campaign insists that they knew all about the pregnancy and the ethics investigation and who knows what else when he made his selection. There's a practical issue here, of course, in the question of how careful the prospective VP was vetted and how careful the candidate was in making the selection. The relational dimensions of notification, though, come out too. McCain cannot be seen to be caught by surprise by the news because that means he was out of the loop -- secrets were kept from him, Palin, et al. talked with him and failed to mention something that he'd pretty obviously want to know.

What's interesting is how enthusiastically they are all saying "we knew it all ahead of time" because this DOES make them seem a little lacking in the judgment realm. Did they not think it would become a big distraction? Did they not think that it would put the poor kid in a harsh and nasty spotlight**? The obviousness of these downsides underlines the symbolic importance of being in the loop; they'd rather expose their judgment to question than to appear to have been blindsided.

Another notification dimension comes up in news reports as investigators try hard to determine when and how McCain found out about the daughter's pregnancy. Again, there is an instrumental, legal angle here (the classic "what did he know and when did he know it?"), but reporters are also trying to learn something about the campaign organization and the organization of the VP selection process. The handling of information, who is told what by whom when, and the patterns of secret keeping tell us a lot about an organization.

* For example: "Disclosures on Palin Raise Questions on Vetting Process" by Elisabeth Bumiller, "The Caucus: Palin Dominates Convention Talk" by Kate Phillips and Michael Falcone

**No doubt many will simply fault the press for being unscrupulous, but they should stop and think about how the conservative media would have been all over a similar turn of events had it concerned the Democrats?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Notification Norms in the News

An article in the NYT today ("Welcome, Freshmen. Have an iPod" by J. Glater) would seem to be an "information" article because it was about colleges and universities giving students Iphones and trying to figure out how to use them in instruction and other college related activities. Yes, but since the story didn't really give us much in the way of ideas about how that would happen it was mostly just an empirically interesting story: "Hey, did you know this was going on?"

Buried in the piece, though, was a little bit of "information behavior":
It is not clear how many colleges plan to give out iPhones and iPods this fall; officials at Apple were coy about the subject and said they would not leak any institution’s plans.

“We can’t announce other people’s news,” said Greg Joswiak, vice president of iPod and iPhone marketing at Apple. He also said that he could not discuss discounts to universities for bulk purchases.
Nothing earth-shaking here, but reminder that there's another meaning of "property" when it comes to information and that information is often entangled with relationships.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Still Reaching Out to Touch Someone

On several occasions during the Olympics medal winners were observed to whip out their cell phones as soon as the final results were in to call home and let friends or family members know they had just won a medal. The information could get there through other channels (and maybe even faster if the event was broadcast live), of course, so it wasn't always about the simple transmission of information. The fact is, it does a lot for a relationship when it comes right from the source and right away. And you get to say a lot when you pick a particular friend out as the one you call first. The fact that a cell phone is small enough to have on hand, that international plans make it relatively inexpensive to call halfway around the world, and, maybe, the fact that the events ARE being broadcast live, create an imperative for competitors to make that quick call to those who really matter. One can imagine a mother in the Ukraine saying "I can't believe you let me find out about your gold medal on the TV news!" I think AT&T was just a little bit ahead of its time when it used to say, "reach out and touch somebody."

Telling Practices in the VP Selection Process

One part of Barack Obama's campaign strategy has been to build a network of supporters unlike any that's been built before in the U.S. An oft noted component of the organizational effort is the use of text messaging. One purpose of this is, of course, mobilization, and, specifically, rapid mobilization of supporters to rallies or to quash rumors and such. In addition to this, though, there is a symbolic function that almost certainly enhances the solidarity of the network: via the text messaging functions of their cell phones, supporters can be the first to receive campaign news. According to today's NYT ("Obama Ready to Announce Running Mate" by Adam Nagourney and Jeff Zeleny), within the next few days, if all goes according to plan, they will find out about his choice of running mate directly from the campaign (maybe even directly from him) rather than having to "read about it in the papers" or "hear it on the evening news." This is a great example of using technology to achieve a profoundly social accomplishment on a massive scale—using notification to build social relationships.

There's an interesting tension between the ordinary hierarchical structure of the campaign organization and it's more egalitarian mass base. The VP vetting committee consists of a small inner-circle at the top. Under "ordinary" circumstances, we would expect some initial spreading of the news through a few other levels of inner-circle, but, apparently, that won't be quite how it works:

"…Mr. Obama’s deliberations remain remarkably closely held. Aides said perhaps a half-dozen advisers were involved in the final discussions in an effort to enforce a command that Mr. Obama issued to staff members: that his decision not leak out until supporters are notified."

And even the future VP nominee is not in the loop:

"Mr. Obama had not notified his choice — or any of those not selected — of his decision as of late Monday, advisers said."

Some of these considerations are purely instrumental attempts to maximize media impact, of course, but there's relational information in them thar hills too: each player learns where s/he stands in the information order and can decode this to ascertain where s/he stands in the pecking order.

Friday, August 08, 2008

For the "Organization of Ignorance" File

News reports (e.g., Daily Journal, alas, by subscription) and blogs today mention the lawsuit brought by UCLA economist and law professor Richard Sander and others (including the California First Amendment Coalition) against the State Bar of California to obtain race tagged info on bar exam results. He wants the data for a research project testing his hypothesis that minorities who are admitted to elite law schools because of preferences are done a disservice and that they'd be better off going to mid-tier schools where they were admitted without preferences.

Why mention it here? Chances are most readers of the story will have strong opinions one way or another based on their political position on affirmative action. Well enough, me too. The story is filed here under "the organization of ignorance," though, as an example of information that exists and that could enlighten society about itself but that one group or another has specifically organized to keep "unknown." Debates about what data the census should or should not collect are another example.

Ironically, some of the players in the debate over this particular issue were also active in the so-called "racial privacy initiative" campaigns of a few years back. That proposal, which failed, would have made the collection of race-based data illegal. What all these efforts have in common is the fact that they are attempts to deliberately create blindspots in the information order. The motives may differ in each case (and may appeal to different political positions), but the form is the same: for one reason or another, we think we'd be better off if we did not know.

Note that this is an entirely different issue from when we decide that something would be too expensive and not cost-effective to find out (as when legislators decide not to spend money on a big physics experiment that might uncover the nature of the universe).

Background Links

September 2007 article on

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Democracy and the Information Order

Gillian Hadfield (USC Law) and I just gave a paper at the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association called "Democracy, Courts and the Information Order." The paper brings together Gillian's work on the 9/11 victims' compensation fund (VCF) and my work on the information norms that govern social relationships.

What does the latter mean? Imagine, for a moment, that you get fired one day. You head home at the usual time, though, and greet your partner as usual, have a drink and a nice dinner and watch some T.V. Then, around 10 p.m. you say, "Oh, by the way, I got fired today." Your partner is furious: "how could you just sit there for the last three hours and not say anything?" "What difference would it make? It's not like you can get me my job back. I just wanted to enjoy a nice dinner with you." And you are right. But so is your partner. Anyone who understands what a spouse is will tell you: spouses have implicit expectations about the sorts of information that they share with one another and when. Sitting on the fact that you got fired for several hours is simply unacceptable. The argument that inevitably follows the above event will, in part, be a debate about what kind of information obligations are implicit in any spousal relationship -- not just yours.

And all the rest of our social relationships come with socially defined and constantly negotiated "notification norms" too. All day long we get feedback on where we stand in our various relationships through what kinds of information we are given and what kinds of messages come along with it ("I shouldn't be telling you but..." or "You're the only one I've told" or "Just don't let him know you heard it from me."). In particular, when we experience relationships as equal, there are symmetric expectations. We don't have to swap identical information, but a friend who keeps an ear out for information related to, say, my hobbies, would expect that I would pass along similar information (although perhaps on some other avocation). When the expectations and performances are not symmetric, we recognize that our relationship is not an equal one. The boss, then, might tell the secretary that she will be out of the office for a few hours but the secretary needs to explain why she needs to take an extra hour for lunch. The parent can ask the teenager where he is going for the evening and when he will be home, but the teen cannot demand the same information of the parent.

In the 9/11 VCF data (and in many other cases -- plentiful enough that examples are in the news almost every week -- some (1, 2, 3) have been written up on this blog), victims' families expressed a high level of ambivalence about accepting a cash payout but giving up their right to go to court. Over and over again one hears "It's not about the money -- I just want to find out what happened -- I just want to be able to ask why this happened."

In the paper we argue that the conventional interpretations of such statements (dismissing them as disingenuous or as "merely" emotional) misses the mark. They point, we claim, to an important function of courts in democratic societies that can be lost if the focus is exclusively on the financial damages. We argue that private law (that is, civil suits between persons as opposed to either criminal cases or cases between the state and individuals or corporations) courts serve a democratic function in society insofar as they provide an arena in which formal equality is experienced through the implementation of information norms that characterize equal relationships. Though in everyday life the more powerful routinely say to the less powerful "I don't have to tell you," in court they may not. As soon as a suit is filed -- importantly NOT only when there has been a judgment of wrongdoing -- the parties to the suit are transformed into abstract actors who get to ask, and are compelled to answer, questions relevant to the legal issue that underlies the case. We contend that the existence of an arena in which empirically unequal actors can experience the formal equality they are promised in a democracy (where all are equal before the law) is a critical component of a democratic society.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Ontology of Mis-Information

An editorial, "We'll Have to Check, Sir," in this morning's Times criticizes the apparent difficulties in purging incorrect information from the government's terrorist "watch list." It's not, at first glance, at all counter-intuitive that organizations put less energy in deleting data than they put into collecting and storing it. Further thought, though, and I think this is a point that's implicit in the editorial, suggests that databases that contain errors may be more costly than you would think. A catalog company, for example, that has stale addresses in its database wastes money when it sends catalogs to nowhere. We might guess that there's an equilibrium somewhere -- the cost of identifying and purging bad addresses stands in some relation to the cost of producing and sending an advertisement to a landfill. The problem comes when the costs are invisible or externalized or when a powerful entity operates on a "better safe than sorry" logic or has the "luxury" of imputing an infinite price for false negatives (e.g., since the cost of letting a terrorist get away is infinite, any effort wasted by a false positive is worth it).

But one wonders whether the Homeland Security policy would stand up to a thorough cost benefit analysis. Unless it has access to infinite resources, every time it detains a Ted Kennedy, or other unfortunately named individual, it is diverting resources from its important duties.

But all this brings up a more general sociology of information question. How should we think about mis-information. I don't mean the act of spreading mis-information. Rather, how should we think about recorded information which is false? This includes information recorded in databases that is incorrect as well as information in circulation that is either false or has been stripped of context in a way that renders it uninformative. It looks like information, but it is not.

One approach is to think like a statistician or electrical engineer and describe it as error or noise. That's helpful, but we probably need to distinguish random noise -- high entropy, "signal-less" gibberish -- and non-random, incorrect signals born of lies, mistakes, or unrecorded change (as when I move and don't update everyone who has me in their database).

How are the data-miners thinking about this? What will we learn about the sociology of information through trying to port concepts from EE? More to come....

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Disclosure as Tactic and Strategy

Robert Frank has a nice piece on the "full-disclosure principle" in today's NYT Business section. It's called "To Disclose or Not? Ask the Frogs." Give it a read to find out what the frogs have to say on the topic.

The full-disclosure principle suggests that it's alway better to disclose information to potential adversaries lest they think the worst on the assumption that in a population of competitors there are always some that you are better than; even if you info shows you in a poor light, it will make you look better than those who are in reality worse.

It's a great example of a simple result built on some simple assumptions and which very frequently doesn't seem to hold. Why is that a good thing? Because it points us right toward what is peculiar about the situations where it doesn't hold. This is precisely where we start to do a little "sociology of information." Frank does this in the article when he ponders why political candidates aren't full disclosers.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Dominant Ideology Hypothesis

The more I look at the scholarship and journalism (actually, a lot of the former is just a step or so beyond the latter) on the internet and related phenomena, the more I am struck by the real domination of the ideology of marketing. Though often dressed up as "X is going on and we need to understand its impact," it seems that most folks are just looking at either new ways to commercialize the net or ways to produce information that's of interest to those who would use the net for marketing. So very little, for example, of what's written about how young people use Facebook or similar has much if anything to do with really understanding youth and the world -- instead, it's mostly fodder for those who want to know how to sell stuff to youth (whether it be music or a political candidate). I know I haven't read everything yet and I'm sure that the piece YOU wrote is an exception, but let me sign off with a simple "I am not yet impressed."

Oh, that title? Marx said something like: "The dominant ideology of any era is the ideology of the dominant group or class." Yup.

It's Been a While...

since the last posting here. What's the main take-away from that observation? There are two: one, last semester I was wicked busy, and two, the more I read and the more I observe, the less enchanted I find the "new media" realm. The one superlative that I think is deserved is that it may be the most self-referential phenomenon the world has ever known.