Science and Technology Studies has long concerned itself with a proliferation of “hybrids” (messy mixings of science and politics, nature and culture) but it seems that we now face a proliferation of methods and devices for studying them. Under various banners, from The Social Lives of Issues to Mapping Controversies, teams of social scientists, programmers and designers have developed a staggering array of technical tools for analysing, profiling, locating and visualising these issues, controversies and matters of concern. Many of the people who developed these tools were present at an exploratory workshop at Goldsmiths last week, the first of two planned for this year.
As workshop organisers Noortje Marres and Carolin Gerlitz explained, issue mapping has a long history in the social sciences going back to issue and controversy analyses in the 70s (and perhaps earlier), but it was the rise of the internet that opened up many new possibilities for the study of complex issues in-the-making. But the digital certainly didn’t make things simpler. The study of issues on the internet often means relying on metrics offered by the objects of study themselves (follower counts, “likes” etc). Because of this, online issue researchers engage in reflexive examinations of the devices they employ as well as the back end / front end politics of the platforms they study – how they format, and are formatted by, the activities of actors. Platform specificity is thus crucial to any mapping project.
Taking participants through the Issue Mapping Wiki, Marres and Gerlitz offered a series of established Recipes for analysing issues online (such as mapping issue networks and issue cloud analysis) and various Tactics, ways of deploying these recipes analytically in order to intervene in specific issue contexts. They explained that these methods were “modular” – themselves composed of hybrid scraping, mapping and visual techniques.
Tomasso Venturini (Media Lab, Sciences Po) explored this further, presenting a “Map of Maps” which attempted to organise some of these diverse tools and show how they could be combined to move between generated lists, tables, networks and images. But he also noted the futility of this task as new techniques were being developed all the time. He also outlined new tools developed out of the Media Lab: Table 2 Net a simple way of converting tables to networks, Tube My Net a kind of Youtube for sharing networks and ANTA a way of automatically reading texts as Actor-Networks.
Sabine Niederer and Esther Weltevrede (Digital Methods Initiative, University of Amsterdam) then moved into a specific platform, asking how Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia could be used for exploring controversies. They located issues through the heat of edits and displacement of controversy through article “forking”. They also compared Wikipedia articles across language versions revealing, in the case of an article about a massacre, significant variation in th terminology used (“massacre” versus “tragedy”), figures such as death tolls and the quantity and type of images used. Finally they presented an experimental “controversy index” based on key indicators in different Wikipedia objets.
After lunch, we split into groups to explore each of the four tactics under guidance of workshop consultants of the Amsterdam Digital Methods Iniative: Issue Profiling, Issue Action Formats, Liveness / Liveliness and Issue Resonance. The goal was to push these ideas and techniques to their limits, to locate new problems and questions which might “break the devices”.
The Resonance group explored the different renderings of a specific issue across language versions of Google, examining the words associated with “care of the aged” through an analysis of Google query returns. They discovered though these search patterns stark cultural differences in who was seen as responsible for the care of the aged (the state? communities? children?).
Issue Action Formats examined the very current phenomenon of photoshop memes: the day of the conference saw an explosion of images featuring a cheering David Cameron inserted into inappropriate settings like occupy protests and Titanic. The study of visual objects presented several problems for the mainly text based tools at our disposal, but also memes, even ones with a political edge, can quickly become freed of their original context and hard to track.
The Issue Profilers attempted to detect bias in the SOPA / PIPA and ACTA debates. They proposed to extract “issue languages” from press releases of polarised actors and examined how these vocabularies were biased in terms of the actors assiocated with them. They could then use Issue Crawler to locate an issue network and a clustering algorithm to define different actor camps and thus assign a stance to tweets which linked to these urls. In this way, they hoped to rank words by polarising power and hypothesised that the Anti-SOPA group had a less cohesive set of terms.
The Liveness/Liveliness began to draw out the implications of the terms –“liveness”, the intensity or currency of an issue at a given time, as opposed to “liveliness”, the change and heterogeneity of an issue over time. They were especially interested in examining possible ambiguities and overlaps between the two forms of relevance, and to further develop methods could help differentiate them: liveness is often analysed using some form of word frequency analysis (what’s trending) but other forms of textual analysis might be added to this to detect liveliness,
These mini-projects were followed by Richard Rogers (Digital Methods Initiative)’s closing remarks which further explored the opportunities as well as the potential pitfalls of this work. This led on to a high level discussion of the role of visualisation itself as a social science method. The workshop consolidated much of the skills and theoretical acquisitions of issue mapping but also threw open new questions and problems, some philosophical while others prompted by the ever shifting sands of digital objects. It seems that issue mapping is not united by a given set of topics issues or techniques but rather a particular mindset – an obstinate refusal to dumb-down either the process or the finding of social research.
By David Moats.
See here for another workshop report by Astrid Mager