Carnegie Fellows 2018 – An Honor

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It is with gratitude that I share with you the news that I am one of 31 recipients of the 2018 Carnegie Fellowship. This is a career-defining honor for which I am supremely grateful and by which I am deeply humbled. I was able to respond to the news this morning on Twitter, and then stepped away from email and other online activity for much of the day, as Wednesdays are my heavy advising and teaching day (and also a lot of fun; one three-hour class on Libraries and Their Social Role(s) that is driven by an incredible group of smart and energized students, and the UCLA iteration of Analog Gaming in Libraries, always an incredible way to end the day).

So I think the best way to share this news is by simply returning to my extemporaneous but deeply-felt words on Twitter from this morning.

I look forward to the next chapter.

“I am honored, humbled and profoundly grateful to announce that I have been named a 2018 Carnegie Fellow. This is a life-changing award ; I am in awe of the entire class. My deepest thanks to the esteemed jurors and to the UCLA community for my nomination.

It is deep validation of my past decade of work and life, and my commitment to the importance of commercial content moderation at a time when many weren’t ready to see that yet. Indeed, I was told more than once along the way that it was a non-issue.

I’d also like to acknowledge the power and importance of the incredible family of friends who have been at my side for the years of this work. A couple of them – and – were there at the genesis, at the germination of seed of the idea, and are still.

And now I have incredible colleagues across the globe – those at home like and , those further afield like and , those who are academe-adjacent but who mean so much and have great impact of their own, like .  The list is nowhere near exhaustive but just meant to illustrate that building community out of the loneliness and isolation of the work has been critical and powerful to me. If you are reading this you are a part of that network.

And of course I am so very lucky to have a supportive family of origin in the form of an incredible spouse, a brilliant emerging scholar in her own right who blows me away every day, and with a mother and step-father who might be my biggest fans. This last isn’t something all LGBTQ people can count on – not even close. I don’t take it for granted. It’s also been a long journey from the time when my young single mom shoveled the snow from the sidewalks outside the Montessori school she enrolled me in, for a tuition break.

She did that because she was deeply committed to my education, no matter what it cost her and what she had to forego. So she is likely having some breakfast right now, looking at the paper, and talking aaaalllll the credit she should for this and more. Good for her.

Lastly I’ll say that this goes back to my grandparents, who worked their whole lives so that I could have some opportunities that they didn’t have. My grandfather spent 45 years on the line at the same factory so that I wouldn’t have to. I miss them every single day.”

No, YouTube is not a library – and why it matters

Last week, en route to deliver a keynote at the 11th annual #libtech2018 conference at Macalester College, I came across a tweet reporting out on YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki’s remarks at sxsw, as transcribed by a Twitter user. Among other things, she claimed that a great model for describing what YouTube is is, in fact, “a library.”

Of course, I couldn’t help myself and had to include a screengrab of this tweet in my presentation, which I’d already finished but simply had to edit. And, predictably, the libtech crowd responded with audible groans. As one astute audience member observed, and I paraphrase, YouTube is a library in the same way a pile of unsorted crap thrown on the floor is “an archive.” Notably, YouTube-as-library exists without librarians; the closest one might come there is the invisible army of commercial content moderators who toil in obscurity to operationalize and enforce the platform’s opaque rules.

But another key difference, rendered all the more acute by this week’s breaking Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, is the social media giant’s treatment of user data (in libraryland, we refer to these people as “patrons,” more typically). In short, in public librarianship, in particular, but in librarianship across the board, patron privacy is key and is understood as an important tenet that _facilitates_ access to information and use of the library. In social media land, these same data are currency. 

Let me repeat that for the back of the room: social media treats user data and user behavior as material to be extracted, analyzed, aggregated and sold. In fact, this process of data mining and manipulating _is the economic engine of social media platforms_. It is what allows the platforms to, among other things, build their products to more effectively encourage user participation and sustained relationships – thereby giving more opportunity to extract data. It is what allows the platforms to connect users like you and me to advertisers, its primary customers. And the existence and ease of aggregation and extraction of these data is also what is proving to be irresistible to a host of actors, from university researchers (I’d love to see that IRB) to nefarious actors keen on manipulating whole swaths of people to benefit their clients. And everyone in between.

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YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki’s remarks at the 2018 SXSW Festival, as relayed in Wired

Libraries are imperfect, flawed institutions. They move slowly and often have trouble with change. They have had a long history of problematic social positions that have needed to be challenged in order to foment change and responsibility. They are underfunded, which leads to a position of being on the defense more often than is perhaps warranted or helpful. But they sure do get some things right.

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This sign and others made by Jessamyn West

One thing libraries have done very successfully is to develop principles intended to keep patron privacy… well, private. Laws that govern patron privacy of records vary from state to state, with California having some of the nation’s strongest, and Kentucky and Hawaii being the only two not addressing this issue in state law. In California, “Government Code sections 6250 through 6270 ensure ‘the right of individuals to privacy . . .’ This section is considered the ‘California Public Records Act.’ Sections 6254 (j) and 6267 (a), (b), and (c) refer specifically to registration and circulation records. Registration records are the patron library card records and circulation records are the items checked out on patron library cards.

But best practices within libraries themselves may go further. One example is that of the San Francisco Public Library, which has as its principles:

  • Gather only the data necessary to perform the specific service
  • Keep the data only as long as needed to provide the service or to meet the City’s record retention rules
  • Limit access to the data to those who must use it in the performance of their duties
  • Keep the data in a secure place
  • Protect the privacy of individuals and the collection, use, retention of personal information; disclosure of reasons for collecting, uses.

Further, the American Library Association, the primary governing and accreditation body of American (and other, e.g., Canadian) libraries and library education programs, has its own principles regarding patron privacy, and even a toolkit designed to help its libraries get on board with being good stewards of patron data and its ethical protection and use.

“Why have they done this?” one may ask. Seriously, who would possibly be interested in the list of who checked out what at a public library branch in a suburban area, or who looked at what website in a bustling downtown central library. Well, after 9/11, the US government and its agents got pretty interested. Librarians, in contrast, became especially concerned about the encroachment on patron privacy most recently right after the adoption of the USA PATRIOT Act, and the demands on libraries to turn over information to government agencies – under the mandate that they not disclose to patrons that such demands had been made. This did not sit well with many librarians, who felt they had an obligation to their patrons to at least help them understand the new informational landscape in which they were operating. But it went further than that, and some librarians resisted – and won:

All of this to say that these principles and protections, as well as a core dedication to the patron herself, make libraries something special, unique, and increasingly fundamentally important in the social fabric. It is all the more important, therefore, that we describe what they are so that we can recognize what they are not – and so we can call foul when others try to co-opt the institution for their own purposes. I should also just note that I don’t think it’s an accident or any surprise that some academics who have made a career out of studying, and critiquing, social media (such as Safiya Noble, Siva Vaidhyanathan, Casey Fiesler, Zeynep Tufekci and others) have backgrounds in or teach in LIS programs.

No, YouTube, you’re not a library. Not. even. close.

Researching ICT Companies: A Field Guide for Civil Society Researchers (and everyone else!)

Interested in how to research ICTs, but finding it daunting? Nathalie Maréchal, of USC Annenberg and Ranking Digital Rights and I wrote this handy guide, with support from the Internet Policy Observatory – a fancy PDF version is now available!

tl;dr: you don’t have to have insider status (and it may even be preferable not to) to do this work.

New article: Digital detritus: ‘Error’ and the logic of opacity in social media content moderation

Announcing a new article on the politics of commercial content moderation: Digital detritus: ‘Error’ and the logic of opacity in social media content moderation. This article is part of a special issue of First Monday devoted to gender and digital labor, edited by Carolyn Elerding, Roopika Risam and Radhika Gajjala. The issue also features contributions from Mél Hogan, Kylie Jarrett and Liz Losh, in addition to articles by the editors.10Norwayfacebook-web01-master768

The Norwegian newspaper editor Espen Egil Hansen during his paper’s controversy regarding Facebook’s takedowns of “The Terror of War,” as depicted in the New York Times in 2016.

The late 2016 case of the Facebook content moderation controversy over the infamous Vietnam-era photo, “The Terror of War,” is examined in this paper for both its specifics, as well as a mechanism to engage in a larger discussion of the politics and economics of the content moderation of user-generated content. In the context of mainstream commercial social media platforms, obfuscation and secrecy work together to form an operating logic of opacity, a term and concept introduced in this paper. The lack of clarity around platform policies, procedures and the values that inform them lead users to wildly different interpretations of the user experience on the same site, resulting in confusion in no small part by the platforms’ own design.

Platforms operationalize their content moderation practices under a complex web of nebulous rules and procedural opacity, while governments and other actors clamor for tighter controls on some material, and other members of civil society demand greater freedoms for online expression. Few parties acknowledge the fact that mainstream social media platforms are already highly regulated, albeit rarely in such a way that can be satisfactory to all.

The final turn in the paper connects the functions of the commercial content moderation process on social media platforms like Facebook to their output, being either the content that appears on a site, or content that is rescinded: digital detritus. While meaning and intent of user-generated content may often be imagined to be the most important factors by which content is evaluated for a site, this paper argues that its value to the platform as a potentially revenue-generating commodity is actually the key criterion and the one to which all moderation decisions are ultimately reduced. The result is commercialized online spaces that have far less to offer in terms of political and democratic challenge to the status quo and which, in fact, may serve to reify and consolidate power rather than confront it.

Read the full article, in open access, here.

Announcing “All Things in Moderation,” Dec. 6-7, 2017 at UCLA

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It’s my great pleasure to announce the following event and related CFP. On December 6-7 2017, UCLA’s Department of Information Studies, part of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, welcomes participants to a two-day conference on commercial content moderation (CCM) of user-generated social media material.

At All Things in Moderation: The People, Practices and Politics of Online Content Review – Human and Machine we will offer a new forum bringing together those interested in the multiple challenges related to CCM, and to content moderation of all kinds. The goal of this foundational event is to map the current landscape from a number of perspectives. During these two days, scholars, students, journalists, policy makers and CCM workers will share their insights in order to generate a discussion about the challenges, methodologies and frameworks that are necessary to integrate a comprehensive, academic study of commercial content moderation, other kinds of online moderation, and its outcomes and implications into existing paradigms in labor studies, information studies, computing and internet history, public policy, internet governance and media studies, to name but a few.

Beyond analyzing the contemporary case of CCM across the social media and other digital industries, we anticipate that All Things in Moderation will require a look to the past and to other media sectors, as well as a gaze into the future, to anticipate the problems related to CCM and to our social media-reliant world, and to collectively think about solutions. We anticipate a fruitful gathering.

Please join us on the beautiful UCLA campus this December. The conference is _free_ for participants, but space is limited. Please register early (https://atm-ucla2017.net/registration/)  and visit the call for participation (https://atm-ucla2017.net/about/)  to submit your proposals for papers, sessions and other interventions.

We look forward to hosting you at UCLA!

PRI Science Friday: The Invisible Humans Who Sanitize the Internet

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 2.19.57 PMOn Friday, March 10, I appeared on PRI’s Science Friday program to discuss commercial content moderation (CCM). Along with me was Rochelle LaPlante, who has been working on CCM via microlabor platforms such as Amazon Mechanical Turk for over 10 years. Of particular interest was a caller who dialed in from Iowa to talk about his own work experience as a CCM worker over the past six years. Followers of this site and my talks over the past seven years on the topic will know that my interest in CCM was first piqued when I learned of Caleris, an Iowa-based call center firm that has used “Outsource to Iowa, not India” as a tagline at various points over the years. In the world of CCM, being able to offer Midwestern people, along with their imagined attendant sociocultural positionality, as your internet gatekeepers sells -a concept I take up in my forthcoming book, Behind the Screen: Digitally Laboring in Social Media’s Shadow World.

If you’d like to listen to the segment, please visit the segment on the Science Friday page. You may also be interested in an article I wrote on CCM for the Atlantic that also went to press last week; it’s a good overview of what CCM is, and what the implications of these practices are.

CCM in the Atlantic connects phenomenon to key questions of democracy

Screen Shot 2017-03-08 at 12.59.52 PMI’m pleased to report that, after many, many months in the works, my article on commercial content moderation has appeared in the Atlantic today. The story has taken many forms over the past few months of work on it, and has undergone necessary evolutions in response to rapid developments in social media-related conversations, and public pushback against the incredible power these “not media companies” have over many people’s media environment. The addition of CCM to the discussion adds an important, yet frequently hidden, nuance to conversations of the social media production cycle, and making it known can only help the process of making the public debate around these issues more accurate and full. I’m pleased to have contributed in this way. I was disappointed, but not surprised, to not have received substantive responses from the firms I contacted.

For those wishing for a definitional primer on this topic that includes a broader discussion of content moderation, in general, please take a look at this short encyclopedia entry.

What is content moderation? What is CCM?

I am frequently contacted by press and by colleagues who ask me to define commercial content moderation, or CCM. In order to do so, it is also necessary to discuss social media content moderation, more generally – all of which leads to a need to historicize these practices in the larger history of the Internet. I am pleased to offer this pre-print of an entry on these topics, now in production for the Encyclopedia of Big Data, forthcoming from Springer (eds. Schintler and McNeely).

In light of the heightened awareness of these practices, particular given the recently filed lawsuit on behalf of Microsoft CCM workers, I hope this will be of use.

Microsoft sued by Commercial Content Moderators (#CCM) in first-of-its-kind case

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In a first-of-its kind case, a Washington state attorney has filed suit on behalf of two Microsoft employees who were exposed to disturbing and abhorrent content, all a part of the conditions of their work at Microsoft as commercial content moderators (CCM). According to the article reported in the McClatchy syndicate of newspapers, the two workers now suffer PTSD symptoms after reviewing material, such as child pornography, and removing it on behalf of the software giant.

While this may be the first instance of CCM workers suing their employers, I suspect it is not likely to be the last. Indeed, this must be worrisome not only for Microsoft and other technology and social media companies who engage CCM for their platforms and services (e.g., Google; Facebook and their properties), but also those firms with whom they frequently contract in order to outsource such work – even if the workers themselves remain onsite to undertake their CCM tasks.Countless other web sites, social media platforms and apps also use CCM to deal with their need for user-generated content.  What is particularly interesting about this case is the fact that the workers filing suit appear to be direct employees of Microsoft and not a third party, which will make it more difficult for Microsoft to appeal to the kinds of plausible deniability that such administrative and bureaucratic distance typically provides.

Although there are no definitive estimates of the number of CCM workers who toil on web and social media sites worldwide, the numbers are certainly well into the thousands, given the sheer number of platforms requiring adjudication in order to function. My own research undertaken with both Silicon Valley-based and Philippines-based workers confirmed that CCM work absolutely exposes workers to shocking and repulsive material, as a condition of their work, on a daily basis. The longterm results of such exposure are not yet known, but this new lawsuit will certainly contribute to the larger landscape of academic research and public concern over the issues it touches on, including worker safety, employer liability, social media policy and practice, legal responsibility and a host of others.

Now that the airing of employee harm has come to light, first through research, journalistic takes on the issue, and artistic interventions, legal and policy battles are the next frontier. Stay tuned.

Forced to watch child porn for their job, Microsoft employees developed PTSD, they say

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At UCLA

Royce panoramaAfter three years as Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS) at the University of Western Ontario, I have made an institutional change. As of summer 2016, I have joined the Department of Information Studies, a part of the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, at UCLA. I am an Assistant Professor here, and focus my instruction in the IS Department in Library Studies, while continuing my research on information work and workers, with a special focus on commercial content moderation (CCM) and social media, in general. I am grateful to my many colleagues and wonderful students at Western, and am honored to join my esteemed colleagues at UCLA in the diverse and culturally rich community of Los Angeles. Please find my faculty page here.