The other day a colleague sent me a link to a social graph that he said was "fascinating" -- it was about the protests in Azerbaijan.
It turned out to be made by anthropologist Katy Pearce but I couldn't see her name in my view of the screen -- it was only visible later when I returned for a closer look and scrolled down -- but of course, visible to anyone who clicked on the link and took an interest.
Here's what it said (go to the link and keep reading for the full jargon-laden experience):
The graph represents a network of up to 1500 Twitter users whose recent tweets contained "#protestbaku". The network was obtained on Monday, 14 January 2013 at 23:01 UTC. There is an edge for each follows relationship. There is an edge for each "replies-to" relationship in a tweet. There is an edge for each "mentions" relationship in a tweet. There is a self-loop edge for each tweet that is not a "replies-to" or "mentions". The tweets were made over the 2-day, 6-hour, 37-minute period from Saturday, 12 January 2013 at 15:36 UTC to Monday, 14 January 2013 at 22:13 UTC.
What, you didn't get the wind-chill factor or the latitude and longitude on Google maps? This report is the sort of high-falutin essential nonsense that passes for scholarship in our day, and I'm going to be ruthless with it. I've decided to call this field of study "machinopology" instead of "anthropology" because I think that not only have these social scientists ceased to study real human beings; when they study their spoor left on the Internet -- not a good substitute -- they become fierce apologists for this decidedly inaccurate and misleading means of studying people and you can't speak sense to them.
THE "SCIENCE" OF HASHTAG DIKTAT
In gathering this data, Pearce was heedless about what has been called the Niels Bohr effect -- that the scientist himself intrudes on his data by the very act of study and is studying his study, so to speak. Pearce first goosed her contacts on Twitter to come up with a hashtag, then pushed them toward used of a standardized one, #protestbaku -- policing with fierce hostility anyone who didn't keep to the meaning of the hashtag as she saw it (typical of the Twitter hashtag Nazis). There may have been very rich and rewarding conversations on Twitter on January 14; but if they didn't have Katy Pearce's hashtag, they are like a tree falling in the proverbial forrest...
In fact, Pearce was such a "scientist," that she even got into an epic Twit fight and started to mouth off to some of the people who appeared to be "pro-government" tweeters -- who maybe just didn't seem to agree with Katy and her source-friends. She even yells at this woman to "stay off their hashtag" -- not just because she cared about the integrity of meaning, but because it would have screwed up her results if the meaning wasn't uniform. (If you don't understand the meaning of hashtags, email me, I've been on Twitter since 2007).
Imagine, pretending you are an impartial anthropologist, and telling anybody in the field -- even a regime tool (which we can't be sure this person really is, simply because they disagree with the way the soldier's death should have been handled) -- to "go home, turn off your phone/computer, watch a movie, and leave these people alone". Does she think she's talking to her toddler here?! This is just outrageous stuff -- but it passes as "cool" because it's machinopology and not anthropology -- and anything goes.
Anyway, I use Twitter as a kind of "Delicious" if "Delicio.us" had ever been functional and useful. That is, I park links for myself there to catch up on later and figure I can also share them at the same time if anyone else has anything to say about them. I often go back to my own stream to find things -- for me, re-tweet often does mean endorsement and I don't shirk from that association, but it also can merely mean "parked here to read later, looks interesting" or "read this, want to file it". I wrote on my tweet about the social graph an "h/t" to this colleague because that's what you do when someone else tells you something you didn't know -- you acknowledge their reference. No big deal -- but then I saw a rare response from Katy Pearce, the anthropologist who feels she owns this field of Internet studies in the Caucasus.
Her remark was puzzling to me because she said "thank you" -- although I'm an enemy to her (she denounced me a year ago to my then-boss!) and then said she helped with a blog post. Not realizing what she was going on about, I called he out for her unsavoury role in joining up with Sarah Kendzior after I challenged the Registan diktat last year, and going to denounce me as somehow "unfit" to my editor at EurasiaNet because I...dared to stand up to Joshua Foust in a completely legitimate and much-needed manner, and because I refused to be bullied by these gals online.
I was particularly appalled at Pearce at the time -- I published a perfectly ordinary and fine little blurb about the surge of Facebook membership in Uzbekistan, citing Socialbakers; I cautioned that it had to be seen in relative terms due to the harassment there, but she blasted me as using shoddy research. It was insane -- over a blog blurb, and on Twitter. She herself later was found using Socialbakers, which is perfectly fine. She was doing this just to troll, as they say -- it was sinister.
So ever since stumbling on these academics and defense contractors on Registan, I've challenged them as a group that is a funny amalgam of seeming criticism of the US yet reverence for US policies such as on drones, and seeming criticism of the regimes of Central Asia -- but always within limits and always with disparaging the opposition, particularly in exile, and the human rights movements along the way.
It turned out Pearce was kvetching at me because she believed that "h/t" should go not to the person who tipped me off to the link, but to her, as designer of this graph. I simply didn't know it was made by her at first, and no "impropriety" was intended; that she had to cross the Internet to police this and make a snide comment lets you know how HUGELY controlling she is -- so much so that those who once criticized her or Kendzior publicly are now beaten into silence -- it's a scary thing to watch. Academe is a frightful place. In a world where attribution is one click away when you link, it's hard to posit ill will or damage.
REALISM UBER ALLES
Thus, while I'm not in academia myself and not an Internet or official regional expert, I've had a long period of closely reading what Katy Pearce and Sarah Kendzior produce for the academic world, and have grown to be a very stringent critic as you can see in past entries of this blog under the topic "Registan": their thesis is designed to minimize and disparage dissenters; celebrate those who are more cerebral and incremental and less active; caution against publishing too much negative human rights material on the Internet so it doesn't scare off lolcat posters; and then essentially do the government's work for it -- making sure that the Internet is something that grows on the conditions and timetables and in the manner that these New Realist academics wish instead of people who use it for protest and not only communications. If you think this is a caricature of their studies, go and read them and judge for yourself. I think you will come away very disturbed if you care about democracy and human rights. They are part of the New Realists school of Joshua Foust, Nathan Hamm and others at Registan and they work overtime to belittle, discourage, disparage, intimidate and bully people in the human rights movement who disagree with their RealPolitik regarding the post-Soviet countries.
Time and again, in article or op-ed or longer monograph or journal piece, I've seen their theses "prove" the same points: a) the governments of Central Asia are all-powerful and will never change; b) no Arab Spring will ever occur here; c) there is no civil society here and only 2 1/2 old Soviet-style dissidents who have no following; d) people inform on each other and hate each other and are spiteful so it is not a milieu in which a social movement can get started; e) repression is very severe and even deadly.
It's not as if any of these things are untrue in a sense, but it's their culmination and their vectors that lead you to wonder what on earth they are up to here: they seem to see it as their job to discourage any challenge to these governments by using the homeopathic method -- only they get to challenge them -- a little, in the way they wish, but not too much.
That's actually why it's so strange Registan is having a conference this week to discuss the passing of Karimov -- it must be that they either feel this is a "safe" topic now or the defense contracting circles in which they travel find it useful to do a little scarifying of Karimov now. I've called Registan the "small game" before and that about sizes it up -- it's about some sort of power trip, but it's just not clear whose, entirely.
SHINY NEW COOL INTERNET THING -- WHICH WE HAD 12 YEARS AGO
The social graph that at first so fascinated me and others is a case in point for the kind of study of the post-Soviet countries that I simply find suspect -- suspect because it leads to conclusions and influences policy in such a way as to get those in power in our government or wealthy foundations or universities to stop taking the opposition seriously and to discount human rights work as marginal. Any objection to their New Realism is met with withering scorn that you are a Neo-Con and hopelessly mired with Commentary and Jennifer Rubin. There's no in-between for these people. ANY criticism gets the "Neo-Con" slur.
So...At first glance the social graph seems really cool! Who wouldn't like a cool Internet thing like this! As it happens, I first saw a social graph like this in The Sims Online in the year 2000, made by Will Wright. He had developed a program to capture in that simulated virtual world a way of showing relationships to people -- every time you gave a balloon to someone as an avatar, or even just interacted with them, that person would become your "friend"; if you slapped them, they would become your "enemy", and these "balloons" would then show as green or red in an elaborate graph accessible above every avatar's head on his profile. People spent hours pouring over these balloon graphs -- they were fascinating. You could acquire a "balloon" merely by going to a simulator or a place on the server and being in proximity to other people -- many a sim-hubbie would catch his sim-wifey cheating by reading her balloons. You could also see who wasn't letting their relationships "stay green" -- the more interactions you had with a person, the higher and brighter your relationship would show. The capturing of relationships by machine was something that fascinated Will Wright, maker of the Sims and now on the board of Linden Lab, maker of Second Life.
People don't take these virtual worlds seriously, thinking them as pathetic sexting chat rooms and furry enclaves, but I have followed them for their interesting sociology for more than a decade because I see them as petri dishes, simulators and testing grounds for the means and methods of social media and social networks on the wider Internet. Time and again, I have seen things prototyped, or played out in Second Life, that then appear in the real world, almost as if it had uncanny predictive powers -- events like WikiLeaks or the Instagram scandal -- all these have played out in these worlds first.
Another thing that Will Wright did was show -- because he could, possessing control of a virtual world in which every person's speech and actions could be captured by the machine -- what people were doing or saying. So he could take snapshots or make dynamic pictures -- X percent were kissing or X percent were going to the toilet as you can do in the Sims -- and X percent were saying the words "love".
So it's not surprising to me that now people use Twitter -- and all the gestures, as they are called ("likes", links, comments, replies, retweets, etc. etc. ) -- to track social relationship.
MACHINES ARE NOT PEOPLE
The problems is that machines are far from perfect in replicating organic human relationships -- replicating their ways and means online in social networks can be disastrous -- and the scientists studying this and pretending that it enhances anthropology don't seem to take into account the fundamental fallacies of their science, making it a pseudo-science.
I realize just how cool it is to have charts and graphs and fancy jargonistic words like edges and vertices. We have seen this in Second Life for years and it's old news for some of us. But it has to be thoroughly questioned, as it is laying now -- in its still-primitive state -- the grounds for the totalitarian Wired State, and it has to be challenged before our freedoms are eradicated. It's not just study; it's study with an aim to control society by letting certain elites drill and analyze the data and then use it to shape online experience -- where we all increasingly live. The most obvious exploitation of this data was in the recent elections, where sociologists were put to work for the Obama Truth Team to manipulate stories to attract voters.
THREE FALLACIES OF MACHINOPOLOGY
But there are deep fallacies in these machine-readings of people, and they need to be called out
Here are three main fallacies right off the bat in this artifact:
1. We can't be sure that retweets equal political affiliation. We are told ad nauseum especially by the Registani types on Twitter that "retweet ≠ endorsement" -- they love using the geeky ≠ which means "does not equal" but which isn't always instantly recognizeable as such to the average person. Of course, people usually lie when they say this, and are merely covering their asses, especially at jobs. Of course their retweets are endorsement. Especially when they retweet each other and bolster their friends. They're just saying that but we know better.
The assumption of Katy Pearce's graph here is indeed that retweet DOES mean endosement because she uses it to group people into political affiliation. She even says that pro-government forces are known for using certain words like "yolo". Of course, "yolo" is what the kids say on Tumblr or Facebook, "you only live once". It's very popular now among teens here in New York, especially Hispanic teens although it isn't a Hispanic word, it just sounds like one. There may be an insider's piece of esoteric knowledge here, where pro-government forces in Azerbaijan have already been established as always saying "yolo" like hipsters in New York, but I am out of the loop so I'll have to say that it needs questioning.
We can't be sure that every person who retweets dissenters' links or retweets government links are on the same page as those forces. Maybe they are only bookmarking. Maybe they are making a cover story but disagree. The fact is, you can't have it both ways. You can't, as academics CYAing on Twitter yourself and telling us "≠" on all retweets, yet in your shiny social graph studying a country's demonstration, suddenly then group everybody's tweets in a certain political framework as if retweets *do* equal endorsement. Which is it? Or at least admit that it's sometimes one, and sometimes the other, and you don't have a basis for grouping people rigidly in this fashion.
2. Many accounts, especially pro-government accounts, could be fake or bots. As one of the Azerbaijani tweeters noted, there are a lot of fake accounts made by the government. For all we know, there's a few guys sitting in the basement of the secret police and manufacturing all these personas. Or maybe some loyalists who spontaneously on their own do this, although the former scenario is more likely. There could be hundreds -- thousands of them -- and they could be set up by scripts or bots to behave even realistically.
The Anonymous types always grouse about the US military and its "persona" projects, which is used only overseas to do things like debate on Al Qaeda's web pages; they are not supposed to engage in propaganda at home, which is known as "blowback". But Anonymous itself wrote the book on persona craft, and do it themselves all over, everywhere, in spades, and were the first to cause destruction everywhere with it, corrupting the entire online environment. And the descendents of the Bolsheviks and the KGB, who were masters at making doubles and disguises, have no problem in moving this skill online. Again: they can sound very realistic but could be fake or even bots. The Flatter Bots in Second Life that go around appearing as suave men and women and flatter people's outfits and then eventually get them to give them money have had amazing success earning the bot wrangler tens of thousands of real dollars. Artificial intelligence and online persona work is really getting good. Turing would be proud.
3. Relationship lines may not mean anything. One of the first things we discovered with Will Wright's experiments 10-12 years ago, and then Philip Rosedale's experiments in Second Life in the last 5-7 years, is that when machines grab and aggregate and render relationship lines from chat and various other social gestures, they can be woefully inaccurate or outright wrong. I already mentioned the "balloons" in the Sims that caused couples to break up -- someone could teleport to a sim by accident, or due to a spam invitation; they would acquire a seeming "relationship" by appearing in proximity to someone, but it would mean nothing. In Second Life, when someone invented two-way wrist watches (hmmm) to show who was near you and beam that information up to a webpage for display, people howled and screamed because they felt it was an invasion of privacy.
It was. Unscrupulous and unethical hackers said it was open data so they could get to scrape it and use it. Technically it was, although no one who had chosen to make a public profile with their static data linked to their name and their list of favourite places or comments had ALSO granted permission for real-time display of their proximity data.
GIRLS NEAR ME DO NOT WANT TO BE NEAR YOU
It's like what happened then five years later -- just last year -- with Girls Near Me. That app was widely popular with boys -- they grabbed open FB data about girls with geolocation and used it to stalk them for dates. The girls did not like this because they hadn't put up FB pages to be accessed by creepy guys in bars with smart phones; maybe they didn't know how to fix their privacy sliders. This is a case where users screaming enough finally overwhelmed geekitude, and the ap was removed. People HATE HATE HATE having proximity data even if "open" displayed to the web; they HATE HATE HATE others -- scientists and marketers -- making judgements about it. Anthropologists are not supposed to do experiments or gather information on people without their consent. Did the people in the graph given their consent to be shown this way? Of course not.
But it's not only about privacy; it's about ridicularity. As one woman put it very aptly about the newfangled search thing that Facebook put up the other day: "Hey, is this thing going to make it so that FB stops offering my husband's ex-wife as a friend?"
Bingo. That's proximity data handled by machines in Machinopology which is a very poor substitute for anthropology -- which itself isn't always in ethical and skilled hands online or in real life these days.
I find that FB is uncanny in chosing just those people who are sworn enemies and serving them up to me over and over again as "friend" prospects; Linked-in is the absolute worst at this. It really is annoying and drives you away from the service. Of course "it can't know" and you wouldn't want "it" to know -- and it is supposed to "get smarter" by having you X out the offer. But you don'to want it to get THAT smart...do you?
MY FAVOURITE LINK TO HATE
So if I answer somebody's tweet; if I retweet them, if I even favourite them, it means nothing. One of the most common gestures I see online is when Anonymous "favourites" something critical I've said about them -- they don't mean that they like this; in fact, they hate it. They've favourited it merely to keep it parked and accessible so they can organize attacks on me among their contacts. I've seen this played out with others as well. Most things are not what they seem online; much of the time, they are just the opposite.
How many of those using #protestbaku were secret policemen; how many were hipsters; how many wanted to prove to Western grant-giving foundations that they were active? We may never know.
HOW SAFE ARE SOCIAL GRAPHS?
This brings me to the issue of privacy and the usage of these graphs. This first thing I noticed when I clicked on this thing -- after the initial "ooh, ahh, shiny" that anyone will make at seeing all the protesters of Azerbaijan laid out in a nice "map" -- was that the people in this nexus might not like being shown this way. Somebody casually firing off a tweet on their iPhone may not realize that a social scientist has now captured them and fixed them like a fly in amber as talking to a notorious opposition leader; now through a sinewy wire on a jpeg that is easily copied, they are forever not alone.
And that must be why you can't see this picture clearly. No matter how much you click or resize, the names actually don't show up. Only Katy Pearce and her fellow "scientists' can see this information.
This could be a function of my browser (Firefox); of the need to register for the site (I didn't) or some other artifact, but the fact is: I cannot click on it on various computers and on the iPhone and see anything, and others likely have that experience to.
So this Internet shiny dines out on being part of the "open" Internet and "accessible" and "free" but...you actually can't see it. If you *could* see it, you might start reality-testing it. You'd click on some of the big nodes -- people with larger and familiar pictures -- and see if those people linking in were really friends or enemies; casual or dedicated -- you might judge it.
But you can't do that: it is not clickable to a bigger size to really study. And I'm actually fine with that, given that this is Azerbaijan we're talking about -- that thing is an indictment! But there's something slimy about sending it all over the web to be gawked at, but not really seen. It's elitist and controlling. I think it's wrong. You could start from the premise that anyone with an open Twitter account in a sense "consents" to being seen and having their data known. But as we saw with Second Life and Girls Near Me, what people HATE HATE HATE is when their *proximity data* is shown. And that's what this does -- more than standing next to someone at a demonstration, it shows who was connected enough to share an idea, a link, etc. And that is risky. I think this has to be debated; it isn't being debated. Machinopologists -- the term I think is apt for people who have replaced the study of humans directly with the study of machine-gathered data about humans *and* are fierce apologists for this method -- think everything is up for grabs; they are greedy.
DISPARAGING THE DIASPORA
I also want to say something about the groupings. Katy Pearce, like Ethan Zuckerman before her, and others of like mind, seems to disparage the diaspora. This group is least interesting to her and if it is larger she discounts it. These are people not in the country, and almost then "disqualified" from study. There's a loathing of the diaspora among the New Realists because they tend not to be very realistic about their homelands; they are "in the way" of making that OstPolitik that the NRs want to achieve.
But I think this is hugely shortsighted. The diaspora is the living link to the closed society; it is the best thing we've got. Social media, the study of the social graph and the social gestures online are no substitute for these living human beings. Lots of people come and go from the diaspora, or receive family and friends as visitors who come and go. It's a rich milieu and it should never be discounted. If a few very vocal opposition leaders in exile seem to set the tone, well, look past that; there is a lot more there. Twitter, Facebook, Live Journal -- these are the living ways these connections are kept up these days, and the diaspora handling of them is vital -- it simply shouldn't be disparaged as somehow irrelevant or "not a Twitter revolution". The diaspora is what helps bring awareness to Western countries as well (and the rest of the world, for that matter, but the West cares the most).
LIKE BIRDS NOT ON A WIRE
So that leaves the core of the people actually in the country, using Twitter for logistics, and tweeting with a geolocation of Baku itself (and as we know from the time when everyone switched their Twitter to say they were in Iran to try to confuse the secret police, this could be misleading as well).
One of my most vivid memories in monitoring human rights in Eurasia in the last 35 years is a scene I saw in Baku in the early 2000s -- perhaps 10 years ago or so. There was a large street demonstration organized by opposition parties and groups. It was all men -- women were seldom seen on the street. They all had cell phones and used them to coordinate their movements and get information about police movements and arrests and the route of their march.
Suddenly, the government shut off all the cell phones -- they can do that in a country where the mobile companies are under their control. Everyone on the square suddenly got disconnected. None of them could talk to each other and they were all confused and worried now, and couldn't figure out what was going on. That's how the government wanted them. It was like a flock of birds, suddenly flying into some poisonous air or something. They all stopped or jerked around and began meandering off in odd directions.
I've seen the authorities do the same thing in Minsk.
So the social graph is fragile; it is risky to establish it, but it isn't *so* fragile and *so* risky that people don't make it and use it.
And of course opinions change, groups form and reform, affiliations break and rejoin -- and these kinds of graphs are ephemera and really of limited value. There is no substitute for talking to people live in real life.
WHY CAN'T YOU JUST INTERVIEW PEOPLE IN REAL LIFE?
One of the critiques I had of another study done by Pearce and Kendzior is that they outsourced their field world. That is, while no doubt they've done interviews in the field, and talk to people online or when they visit the US, and while they do go to these countries occasionally, they tend to write articles and studies without going there for significant periods of time. And they literally outsourced their questions on one survey about the Internet and attitudes towards risk and critical information to some USAID type entity that was making a survey *anyway* already in country, and simply tucked in a few questions on the subject of Pearce and Kendzior's study into their own large and baggy effort.
I found the redaction of the questions odd; I found the whole thing just unsound. Why can't you go there and do your own surveys, even with less samples? Maybe it's too hard to get a visa and function in the country? Well, then let's not pretend we're studying a closed society just because we have a newfangled "open Internet". The two don't necessarily mesh.
There's more that could be said about the personalities involved in Azerbaijan; about the issue itself; about the things that motivate people to demonstrate. There was a strange locution that Katy Pearce was happy to pick up and rebroadcast: "this isn't a political demonstration". Nonsense. of course it's political. Every demonstration is political. And there's nothing wrong with being political and demonstrating. It's as if the hipsters of Baku want to be post-political as some strategy to save their skin. This won't work. And it denegrates others who are demonstrably political. Again, it's okay to be political; just because a demonstration wasn't on the platform of a political party or with political party leaders speaking or whatever the criteria was, doesn't mean it isn't highly political -- which AGAIN is ok to be! You sense that for Pearce, it's wrong to be political because that means challenging the government in unrealistic ways....That won't do if you are a New Realist.
I wish people would criticize these things more.