On 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.
I’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.
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.
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.
After 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.
On March 22nd, I had the honor of appearing as a guest on TVO‘s The Agenda with Steve Paikin. I appreciated the opportunity to introduce the concept and existence of commercial content moderation to a wider audience. Here is the segment of the program in which I appeared.
“I had an empty shelf when I started this class and now it’s full of games.” –student in #lis9371 Analog Games in Libraries @westernuFIMS 2/26/16, 3:50 PM
This term, students in FIMS’ Master’s in Library and Information Studies (MLIS) program have the opportunity to participate in a new class I am teaching, offered as a special topic, entitled Analog Gaming in Libraries.
While video gaming has stolen the spotlight for the past several years, analog gaming – that is to say, non-electronic board games, card games, dice games and tabletop role-playing games – is experiencing a considerable renaissance, as evinced, in just one example, by the 60,000 players who flocked to GenCon, in Indianapolis, IN, USA in the summer of 2015 to participate in a four-day convention devoted to their play. The development and design of these games is the site of considerable artistry, creativity, sophistication and complex game mechanics, as well as a reflection of and commentary on cultural and political concerns and conditions. Indeed, one text describes these modern board games as “information-rich environments.” Their play is a hugely popular across many demographics, and their market share and economic impact is considerable, and growing.
Given these factors, this burgeoning area has significant potential implications across the practice and, therefore, for LIS students, particularly in the areas of information literacy and transfer, programming, information organization, information design, cataloguing and collection development. This course therefore serves two main purposes: one, to familiarize MLIS students with analog games (their play, vernacular, genres, mechanics, etc.) both conceptually and practically and two, to provide opportunities for MLIS students to think about analog games in the context of libraries and information organizations – their challenges as well as their opportunities.
Demonstrate familiarity with the contemporary analog games landscape (e.g., genres; taxonomies; mechanics; cultures) and knowledge of analog games history and their relevance to LIS contexts and institutions;
Assess and recommend games for collection using appropriate informational and evaluation resources;
Successfully develop and deliver modular curriculum designed to teach games rules, mechanics and concepts in an LIS setting;
Propose and program appropriate events built around analog games for a variety of LIS institutions and types of patrons;
Gain experience playing games and reflecting critically and thoughtfully on those experiences through multiple forms of writing.
On a weekly basis, students gather in gaming groups, sustained throughout the term, to play through a series of ten games selected to expose them to a number of genres, themes and mechanics. These play sessions are greatly informed by in-class lecture and discussion, focusing on topics such as:
The meaning of play
Games throughout history
Learning analog games and their culture (with a focus on board games, card games and tabletop RPGs) – including a significant emphasis on terminology!
Analog game design
Representation (race/gender/sexuality/ability/etc.) in analog games – we used the Said lens of “orientalism” to critique themes of colonial conquest and mechanics of domination as the go-to in many analog games
The political economy of analog games – a topic with almost no academic research ascribed to it; we are definitely covering new ground on this topic within the context of our class
Topics specific to the integration of analog games and gaming culture in an LIS context. To this end, we are talking about collecting games, programming around them, information transfer and instructional practices in and with gaming, demographics of gamers, and more. We are looking forward to welcoming two guest speakers, Michelle Goodridge of Wilfrid Laurier (a FIMS grad), and Nicole Dalmer, a current FIMS LIS Ph.D. student, to round out our in-class discussions on this topic
Students are also honing their writing skills by writing about games. Using Clara Fernandez-Vara’s text, Introduction to Game Analysis, we have adapted it to be relevant to the discussion of analog games (rather than video) as texts. Students produce weekly writeups designed to acclimate them to the rules and specifics of the particular game they are playing in class that week, which gives them a chance to practice both their information-gathering and analysis skills. They then are responsible for authoring five “session reports” throughout the term on games and play that take place outside of class. Conveniently, many students are accomplishing those play sessions via the FIMS Gaming Club, which meets weekly to accommodate student demand. Many session reports can be found there. The course was also featured in a recent Western News article by Adela Talbot.
Are you programming with games in a library or information organization? Are you an LIS instructor, wanting to bring these concepts into your program? Are you an LIS student or practitioner and also a gamer? I’d love to hear from you. The course will be offered again in spring 2017, and we are looking forward to keeping the energy going.
On Wednesday, February 3rd, FIMS welcomed Alison Macrina, of the Library Freedom Project, for an exciting and provocative afternoon of events focused on information and data privacy and library practice. Macrina, an MLIS-trained librarian, is a Knight Foundation grant recipient who devotes her time and energies to training librarians – and their patrons – in using privacy-enhancing digital tools, such as encryption and Tor browser. Not only did Macrina give of her time in a panel discussion event, along with two other experts in their respective areas – datejie cheko green and Dr. Jacquelyn Burkell, both affiliated with FIMS – but she provided a hands-on workshop for over 30 participants made up of FIMS students, staff and faculty. Both panel and workshop saw a full house of eager FIMS and wider community members.
Macrina’s visit sparked a great deal of interest among FIMS’ LIS students, who are using the momentum generated by the special day and visit to continue to program around information privacy and security issues – from technical, policy and LIS-specific perspectives. Staff members Matt Ward, of the IT department, and GRC Librarian Marni Harrington will be supporting these efforts with their time, resources and expertise. We look forward to seeing the continued dialogue, led by student interest and supported by FIMS faculty, staff and the broad community of experts and enthusiasts that Alison has connected us to. Thank you, Alison, for your visit!
Below, please find video of the panel discussion, featuring Alison, datejie and Jacquelyn.
On Friday of last week, Democracy Now! devoted its program to interviews with four whistle-blowing ex-Air Force personnel who were charged with piloting drones and unleashing bombs on people under the auspices the U.S.’s policy of “targeted killing.” The interviews coincide with the release of a documentary film, Drone, making its North American début this weekend.
The former drone pilots, both interviewed on the program and in the film, described the process of going from horror to a state of being numb to the screen-mediated violence and death they were causing. As I have discovered with CCM workers I’ve interviewed, becoming inured to screen-mediated video violence becomes a precondition of survival in workplaces that demand such viewing as a primary function of employment. And, like the CCM workers, all of their ability to discuss, deal with or receive support for the work they did was curtailed by non-disclosure regimes that precluded them from talking with anyone about the nature of their work.
In the case of the drone pilots, of course the relationship to the violence was heightened, in the sense that it was they who pulled the trigger, despite being located halfway around the world from their targets. This relationship between the immediacy of the interconnected, “flattened” world of the network society, coupled with the geospatial removal and constant screen- and physically-mediated distancing of the violence, is paradoxical and incongruous, and workers are finding themselves located directly at the nexus of the tension between the two.
“There’s always been a connection between the world of war and the world of entertainment,” says author P.W. Singer, as quoted in the film’s compelling segment on the way in which the military is using video games as recruitment tools while making the interfaces for unmanned aircraft (i.e., drones) resemble those of video games, and the skills needed to pilot them – manual dexterity and joystick control, facility with HUD, the ability to process massive amounts of information quickly – those familiar to and honed by video game players.
In 2010, I wrote a brief entry on this site, tying contemporary digital technologies and their operators, such as drone pilots, to their roots in the Cold War. At the same time, I collected a number of screenshots from an Air Force recruiting website that clearly demonstrated their desire to capitalize on the video game fantasy that war is mediated, technological and, ultimately, without human consequences. Might as well be a video game.