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What I Did On My Summer Vacation: 2023

It’s chilly here in western MA and there’s a hint of red starting to show in the leaves. This was the second full week of classes and I’m remembering the joy of teaching at UMass, a place where our classes bring together a remarkable cross-section of smart people from across our state and the world. Summer is well and truly over, even though there are likely at least a few hot days still to come.

I had an odd summer. I often work on a new course, a book or another major project in those months “off”. (Because I run a research lab, there is no “off” – our work continues through the summer, but the rhythms are different.) Instead, I did a great deal of reading (often listening, as I walked or slowly jogged in a feeble attempt to get my 50 year old body into better shape) about climate change, urban resiliency and migration patterns in the US and across international borders. (I wrote briefly about what I learned here, and hope to be writing more about cities, migration and climate soon.)

But, it turns out, I made some stuff too.

With Mike Sugarman at the helm, Reimagining the Internet, our biweekly podcast, has become one of my favorite things we produce at Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure. We released some amazing episodes this summer. My interview with Timnit Gebru, founder of DAIR and co-founder of Black in AI, has been our most dowloaded ever. Timnit, who’s been doing original research in AI for many years, is skeptical of many of the claims made by large AI vendors and offers explanations that will help you become a more critical consumer of claims made about these systems. My dear friend danah boyd joined the show for the following episode and helps us understand the wave of legislation that tries to “protect” children from internet harms, real and imagined, and ends up harming queer youth.

As the summer came to an end, Mike and I started talking with scholars who’ve been researching social media’s effect on democracy, including scholars who worked with Meta on a series of experiments around the 2020 US presidential election. Laura Edelson, a brilliant computer science researcher whose work studying ads on Facebook was blocked by the platform, talks about the challenges of researching what’s really happening on major social media platforms, which is difficult even when you’re representing the US government. We just released an episode with Talia Stroud, one of the leaders of the collaboration between academics and Meta to study the US elections, and in a forthcoming episode, I talk with Brendan Nyhan, lead author on one of the papers. You can think of this package of episodes as an asynchronous debate about the values of “permissionless” and “permissioned” research.

I write a monthly column for Prospect, a terrific British magazine edited by Alan Rusbridger, who helped lead the transformation of The Guardian into a digital powerhouse. My first column of the summer was poorly timed – it was a celebration of the wonderful weirdness one can find on Reddit, introducing the redditmap.social tool we developed in my lab, but after it was submitted, Reddit severely limited access to its API, harming its community leaders and crippling the tool we’d built. I still love Reddit, even if I don’t love these changes it has been making.

My most recent column for Prospect is one of my favorites. It was inspired by a trip I took early in the summer to Lowell, MA, to visit Lowell National Historic Park, a museum about the rise and fall of the textile industry in a small city north of Boston. It took armies of poorly paid people to keep those massive textile looms running, even though the awesome and powerful looms captured the public imagination. My most recent column draws an analogy to generative AI which, though awesome and powerful, relies ultimately on generations of humans generating text and images and on armies of humans annotating those pictures and text. Please give it a read – I think it’s a helpful perspective on how generative AI really works and what its limits are.

My team and I worked on several academic papers which may come out in the next year, focusing on our Reddit and YouTube research. There’s two recent academic publications that I’m excited about. One was inspired by a talk I gave to Stanford’s Trust and Safety Research Conference, a personal talk about my early history with content moderation on user-generated content platforms. Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci, my indispensable writing partner, pulls us back from nostalgia and into recommendations for how we might learn from earlier models of community management that resembled governance more than customer service. From Community Governance to Customer Service and Back Again: Re-Examining Pre-Web Models of Online Governance to Address Platforms’ Crisis of Legitimacy” in Social Media and Society.

(Some of the reading I did in late Spring/early Summer is of marvelous work by Nathan Schneider at CU Boulder, who’s done great work on some similar topics – we wrote the paper before I had the chance to dig into his writing, but I’m highlighting it here for those excited about these topics. )

Chand was lead author on the second piece we released this summer, an essay about third party tools you can use to manage social media better. We are big supporters of tools like Tracy Chou’s Block Party, but wanted to address some very smart concerns raised by Daphne Keller about privacy implications of this type of software. Chand (with a modest assist from me) suggests considering these tools through the framework of contextual privacy and offers a way to think of handing off your email or social media to be scanned by a third party as within the bounds of how we expect to be treated within a social media interaction. You can see the piece here: “A Better Approach to Privacy for Third-Party Social Media Tools” in Tech Policy Press.

I’m posting this all here for at least three reasons. One, I’m proud of this work and want to make sure people see it, hear it and read it. Two, I’m finding that I’m using less social media – Twitter makes me sad these days, and I haven’t found the momentum I’ve wanted on any of the alternative social platforms. I am no longer sure how people are finding my work, and I want to spend more time on this blog, as it’s a space I own and control, as opposed to a “public” space controlled by a capricious billionaire. And finally, like everyone else, I have terrible imposter’s syndrome and need to remind myself that I really do make things that I like… :-)

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