Understanding news consumption and production can be like understanding the air we breathe

A careful, systematic look at the way you encounter news might just dramatically change your understanding of the genre. Here are some observations about creating and consuming news in our current information ecosystem.

Creating News

News is not one size fits all, and news methodology can’t be one size fits all. This is probably a well known fact to people with more of a journalism background, but it is often overlooked by people who are newer to the field. Here are a few points that stem from differences:

– Social media can be a great source for information about breaking events that have a critical base of witnesses with internet access.

– Social media is no substitute for news that has very few witnesses with privileged access to information.

– The core job of newsmakers is to keep the public informed about unfolding events. Oftentimes newsmakers are as invisible to their audiences as the people who develop dictionaries are. The audience assumes that the major events they see covered are the objectively most-major events, often without any understanding of the curation involved. Newsmakers provide a vital public service and have a moral obligation to the public, but that obligation is far from straight forward.

– News consumers may choose to engage most deeply in the topics they are most interested in, but that doesn’t invalidate a basic desire to know what’s going on in the world. This is why I like to advocate for eye tracking as an engagement metric- the current tracking metrics don’t reflect the most basic function of the news media.


Consuming News

News exposure is seamlessly integrated into our daily experiences. As a child, I would watch multiple newscasts with my mom, and we would both scan the newspapers regularly. As a new parent, I visited multiple websites to collect news from different perspectives and regularly watched multiple newscasts- this seemed like an essential tie between the small world of new parenthood and the larger world outside my door. But these days I work long hours and rarely catch newscasts or have time to visit multiple news sites. Someone recently asked me which news outlets I follow, and I was surprised that the answer didn’t come very readily to me. I’ve been making a careful effort to observe my contact with news stories, outlets and journalists, and I highly recommend this exercise to anyone interested in understanding or measuring media use.

Here is some of what I’ve observed:

– Twitter is the first platform I think of when I think of news. I think of it as my own curated stream of news amidst the wider raging river of information flow. But when it comes to news stories in particular, I often hear about them not because I seek them out or curate them but because my streams are based on people who have a variety of interests. I hear about emerging news because people go off-topic in  their Twitter streams, not because I seek it out. I often value this dynamic as a kind of filter of its own, because major events enter my stream from a variety of perspectives, but the majority of news does not.

– Re: Interest-based streams- I mostly follow researchers on Twitter. As a result, I can follow conferences as they happen or read interesting articles as they come out. Is this news? What makes it news?

– Platforms morph based on the way people use them. See @clintonyates Twitter feed for an example of a journalist using Twitter to tell resonant stories in a unique way that defies traditional uses of the platform.

– Re: Instagram- I love to follow Instagrammers because I really love photography. Some of the instagrammers I follow are photojournalists. This is an area of news coverage that is rarely considered in depth. And sometimes I wonder whether these pictures are only news if they contain, and I read, captions explaining their context and importance?

– Facebook is often discussed as a news source, but it is very important when discussing Facebook as a news source to consider the social context of information. I will share news from news sources only if I think it is something I can share without harming valued personal relationships with people across many ideological spectra and backgrounds. That said, some of my friends will regularly share the pieces that I choose not to. When I see those articles from these friends I will put the articles in the context of what I’ve seen from those people in the past, my patterns with them in regards on the topic, and my social patterns with them in general.

– It is important to recognize that news items on Facebook can come from news sources, interest groups or pages, interested people, or simply from Facebook. The source interacts with the platform to create the stimulus.

– Re: other fora- There are many more news sources that I follow to varying degrees. I receive research updates and daily briefings from Pew and Nielsen, which I read with varying frequency (the only one I read every day is the Daily Briefing from the Pew Journalism Project.) I also receive e-mails from research and technical lists, lists about STEM education, community lists, blog notifications and emails from LinkedIn. I read the Sunday paper, and weekly updates from my employer, and I regularly hear and participate in discussions in my workplace and outside of it. Each of these are potential news sources that may bring in other news sources.

– These sources listed together may appear to amount to a critical mass of time, but I was not aware of that critical mass until I stopped to observe it. Our choices and actions regarding media consumption are as unconscious as many other choices I make with my time.

All of this is to say that news is as seamlessly integrated into my environment as the air I breathe, and it stems from sources of all kinds. Every story has a different way of intersecting with and co creating my own. Whereas news media has a particularly strong history of top down and one way dissemination, it is much more ubiquitous, multi-directional and part of our ecosystem now than ever before. We are consumers and participants in very different ways, and understanding these is a key to understanding and developing tools for news in the future.


* A side note re: pay to read. My advice to news outlets is to find a way to integrate pre-existing online funding resources (like Amazon, paypal, etc.) in a collective or semi-standardized way, so that people don’t have to provide financial information to anyone new, and so that people can pay small fees (e.g. 25 cents for a long-read or something that required a good deal of expense to produce, 5 or ten cents for smaller or shorter pieces) with a single click and pay as they go to read around a variety of sources.

Free Range Research will cover the Sentiment Symposium in NYC next week #SAS14

Next week Free Range Research will be in NYC to cover the Sentiment Symposium and Innovation session, and I can’t tell you how excited I am about it!

The development of useful analytics hinges on constant innovation and experimentation, and binary positive/negative measures don’t come close to describing the full potential of social media data. This year’s symposium is an effort to confront the limitations of calcified measures of sentiment head on by introducing new measures and new perspectives.

As a programmer, a quantitative and qualitative analyst, a recent academic, and a fervent believer in the power of the power of mixed methods and interdisciplinary research, I am eager to cover the Symposium as both an enthusiastic and a critical voice. The new directions that will be represented are exciting and interesting, and I expect to gain a better feel for many cutting edges analytic practices. But the proprietary and competitive nature of the social media marketplace has led to countless overblown claims. I do not plan to simply be a conduit for these. My goal will be to share as much as possible of what I learn at the Symposium in a grounded and accessible way, as timely as possible, offering counterpoints and data driven examples when possible, on both my blog and through my Twitter handle @FreeRangeRsrch

I hope you’ll join me!


today in research & zen: “What is known as ‘realizing the mystery’ is nothing more than breaking through to grab an ordinary person’s life” Te-Shan

Storytelling about the Past and Predicting the Future: On People, Computers and Research in 2014 and Beyond

My Grandma was a force to be reckoned with. My grandfather was a writer, and he described her driving down the street amidst symphonies. She was beautiful and stubborn, strong willed and sharp. Once a young woman with the good looks of a model, she wore high heels and took daily trips to the gym well into her 90’s. At the age of 94 she managed to run across her house, turn off the water and stand with her hand on her hip in front of the shower before I returned from the next room over with the shampoo I forgot (lest I waste water).

My Grandma, looking amazing

My Grandma, looking amazing

A few years ago I visited her in Florida. She collected work for all of her visitors to do, and we were busy from the moment I arrived. To my surprise, many of the tasks she had gathered involved dealing with customer service and discovering the truth in advertisements. At one point she led me into the local pharmacy with a stack of papers and asked to see the manager. Once she found the manager she began to go through the papers one by one and ask about them. The first paper on the stack was about the Magic Jack. He showed her the package, and she questioned him in depth about how it worked. I was shocked. I’d never thought of a store manager in this role before.

After that trip I began to pay closer attention to the ways in which the people around me dealt with customer service, and I became a kind of customer service liaison for my family. My older family members had an expectation that any customer service agent be both extensively knowledgeable and dependably respectful, but the problems of customer service seemed to have grown beyond this small, personable level to a point where a large network of people with structurally different areas of knowledge act together to form a question answering system. The amount and structure of knowledge necessary has become the focus of the customer service problem, and people everywhere complain about the lack of knowledge, ability and pleasant attitude of the customer service agents they encounter.

This is a problem with many layers and levels to it, and it is a problem that reflects the developing data science industry well. In order to deliver good customer service a great deal of information has to be organized and structured in a meaningful way to allow for optimal extraction. But this layer cannot be everything. The customer service interaction itself needs to be set-up in such a way to allow customers to feel satisfied. People expect personalized, accurate interactions that are structured in a way that is intuitive to them. The customer service experience cannot be the domain of the data scientists. If it is automated, it requires usability experts to develop and test systems that are intuitive and easy to use. If it is done by people, the people need to have access to the expertise necessary for them to do their job and be trained in successful interpersonal interaction. I believe that this whole system could be integrated well under a single goal: to provide timely and direct answers to customer inquiries in 3 steps or less.

The past few years have brought a rapid increase in customization. We have learned to expect the information around us to be customized, curated and preprocessed. We expect customer service to know intuitively what our problems are and answer them with ease. We expect Facebook to know what we want to see and customize our streams appropriately. We expect news sites to be structured to reflect the way we use them. This increase in demand and expectations is the drive behind our hunger for data science, and it will fuel a boom in data and information science positions until we have a ubiquitous underlayer of organized information across all necessary domains.

But data and information science are new fields and not well understood. Our expectations as users exceed the abilities of this fast-evolving field. We attract pioneers who are willing to step into a field that is changing shape beneath their feet as they work. But we ask for too much of a result and expect too much of a result, because these pioneers can’t be everything across all fields. They are an important structural layer of our newly unfolding economy, but in each case, another layer of people are needed in order to achieve the end result.

Usability is an important step above the data and information science layer. Through usability studies, Facebook will eventually learn that people and goals are not constant across all visits. Sometimes I look at Facebook simply to see if I’ve missed any big developments in the lives of my friends and loved ones. Sometimes I want to catch news. Sometimes I’m bored and looking for ridiculous stuff to entertain me. Sometimes I have my daughter next to me and want to show her funny pet pictures that I normally wouldn’t look twice at. Through usability studies, Facebook will eventually learn that users need some control over the information presented to them when they visit.

Through usability studies newspapers will better understand the important practice of headline scanning and develop pay models that work with peoples reading habits. Through qualitative research newspapers will understand their importance as the originators of news about big events with few witnesses, like peace treaties and celebrity births and deaths and the real value of social media for events with large numbers of witnesses and points of view. News media sources are deep in a period of transition where they are learning to better understand dissemination, virality, clicks, page views, reader behavior and reader expectations, and the strengths and weaknesses of social media news sources.

There have been many blog posts (like this one) about Isaac Asimov’s predictions for the future, because he was so right about so many things. At this point we’re at a unique vantage point where his notions of machine programmers and machine tenders are taking deeper shape. This year we will continue to see these changes form and reform around us.

Rethinking Digital Democracy- More reflections from #SMSociety13

What does digital democracy mean to you?

I presented this poster: Rethinking Digital Democracy v4 at the Social Media and Society conference last weekend, and it demonstrated only one of many images of digital democracy.

Digital democracy was portrayed at this conference as:

having a voice in the local public square (Habermas)

making local leadership directly accountable to constituents

having a voice in an external public sphere via international media sources

coordinating or facilitating a large scale protest movement

the ability to generate observable political changes

political engagement and/or mobilization

a working partnership between citizenry, government and emergency responders in crisis situations

a systematic archival of government activity brought to the public eye. “Archives can shed light on the darker places of the national soul”(Wilson 2012)

One presenter had the most systematic representation of digital democracy. Regarding the recent elections in Nigeria, he summarized digital democracy this way: “social media brought socialization, mobilization, participation and legitimization to the Nigerian electoral process.”
Not surprisingly, different working definitions brought different measures. How do you know that you have achieved digital democracy? What constitutes effective or successful digital democracy? And what phenomena are worthy of study and emulation? The scope of this question and answer varies greatly among some of the examples raised during the conference, which included:

citizens in the recent Nigerian election

citizens who tweet during a natural disaster or active crisis situation

citizens who changed the international media narrative regarding the recent Kenyan elections and ICC indictment

Arab Spring actions, activities and discussions
“The power of the people of greater than the people in power” a perfect quote related to Arab revolutions on a slide from Mona Kasra

the recent Occupy movement in the US

tweets to, from and about the US congress

and many more that I wasn’t able to catch or follow…

In the end, I don’t have a suggestion for a working definition or measures, and my coverage here really only scratches the surface of the topic. But I do think that it’s helpful for people working in the area to be aware of the variety of events, people, working definitions and measures at play in wider discussions of digital democracy. Here are a few question for researchers like us to ask ourselves:

What phenomenon are we studying?

How are people acting to affect their representation or governance?

Why do we think of it as an instance of digital democracy?

Who are “the people” in this case, and who is in a position of power?

What is our working definition of digital democracy?

Under that definition, what would constitute effective or successful participation? Is this measurable, codeable or a good fit for our data?

Is this a case of internal or external influence?

And, for fun, a few interesting areas of research:

There is a clear tension between the ground-up perception of the democratic process and the degree of cohesion necessary to affect change (e.g. Occupy & the anarchist framework)

Erving Goffman’s participant framework is also further ground for research in digital democracy (author/animator/principal <– think online petition and e-mail drives, for example, and the relationship between reworded messages, perceived efficacy and the reception that the e-mails receive).

It is clear that social media helps people have a voice and connect in ways that they haven’t always been able to. But this influence has yet to take any firm shape either among researchers or among those who are practicing or interested in digital democracy.

I found this tweet particularly apt, so I’d like to end on this note:

“Direct democracy is not going to replace representative government, but supplement and extend representation” #YES #SMSociety13

— Ray MacLeod (@RayMacLeod) September 14, 2013



Spam, Personal histories and Language competencies

Over the recent holiday, I spent some time sorting through many boxes of family memorabilia. Some of you have probably done this with your families. It is fascinating, sentimental and mind-boggling. Highlights include both the things that strike a chord and things that can be thrown away. It’s a balance of efficiency and sap.


I’m always amazed by the way family memorabilia tells both private, personal histories and larger public ones. The boxes I dealt with last week were my mom’s, and her passion was politics. Even the Christmas cards she saved give pieces of political histories. Old thank you cards provide unknown nuggets of political strategy. She had even saved stirrers and plastic cups from an inauguration!


Campaign button found in the family files

Campaign button found in the family files



My mom continued to work in politics throughout her life, but the work that she did more recently is understandably fresher and more tangible for me. I remember looking through printed Christmas cards from politicians and wondering why she held on to them. In her later years I worried about her tendency to hold on to mail merged political letters. I wondered if her tendency to personalize impersonal documents made her vulnerable to fraud. To me, her belief in these documents made no sense.


Flash forward one year to me sorting through boxes of handwritten letters from politicians that mirror the spam she held on to. For many years she received handwritten letters from elected politicians in Washington. At some point, the handwritten letters evolved into typed letters that were hand-corrected and included handwritten sections. These evolved into typed letters on which the only handwriting was the signature. Eventually, even the signatures became printed. But the intention and function of these letters remained the same, even as their typography evolved. She believed in these letters because she had been receiving them for many decades. She believed they were personal because she had seen more of them that were personal than not. The phrases that I believe to be formulaic and spammy were once handwritten, intentional, personal and probably even heartfelt.



There are a few directions I could go from here:


– I better understand why older people complain about the impersonalization of modern society and wax poetic about the old letter writing tradition. I could include a few anecdotes about older family members.


– I’m amazed that people would take the time to write long letters using handwriting that may never have been deciphered


– I could wax poetic about some of the cool things I found in the storage facility



But I won’t. Not in this blog. Instead, I’ll talk about competencies.


Spam is a manifest of language competencies, although we often dismiss it as a total lack of language competence. In my Linguistics study, we were quickly taught the mantra “difference, not deficiency.” In fact it takes quite a bit of skill to develop spam letters. In survey research, the survey invitation letters that people so often dismiss have been heavily researched and optimized to yield a maximum response rate. In his book The Sociolinguistics of Globalization, Jan Blommaert details the many competencies necessary to create the Nigerian bank scam letters that were so heavily circulated a few years ago. And now I’ve learned that the political letters that I’m so quick to dismiss as thoughtless mail merges are actually part of a deep tradition of political action. Will that be enough for me to hold on to them? No. But I am saving the handwritten stuff. Boxes and boxes of it!



One day last week, as I drove to the storage facility I heard an interview with Michael Pollan about Food Literacy. Pollan’s point was that the food draughts in some urban areas are not just a function of access (Food draughts are areas where fresh food is difficult to obtain and grocery stores are few and far between, if they’re available at all). Pollan believes that even if there were grocery stores available, the people in these neighborhoods lack the basic cooking skills to prepare the food. He cited a few basic cooking skills which are not basic to me (partly because I’m a vegetarian, and partly because of the cooking traditions I learned from) as a part of his argument.


As a linguist, it is very interesting to hear the baggage that people attach to language metaphorically carried over to food (“food illiteracy”). I wonder what value the “difference, not deficiency” mantra holds here. I’m not ready to believe that people in areas subject to food draught are indeed kitchen illiterate. But I wouldn’t hesitate to agree that their food cultures probably differ significantly from Pollan’s. The basic staples and cooking methods probably differ significantly. Pollan could probably make a lot more headway with his cause if, instead of assuming that the people he is trying to help lack any basic cooking skills, he advocated toward a culture change that included access, attainability, and the potential to learn different practical cooking skills. It’s a subtle shift, but an important one.


As a proud uncook, I’m a huge fan of any kind of food preparation that is two steps or less, cheap, easy and fresh. Fast food for me involves putting a sweet potato in the microwave and pressing “potato,” grabbing for an apple or carrots and peanut butter, or tossing chickpeas into a dressing. Slow food involves the basic sautéing, roasting, etc. that Pollan advocates. I imagine that the skills he advocates are more practical and enjoyable for him than they are for people like me, whose mealtimes are usually limited and chaotic. What he calls basic is impractical for many of us. And the differences in time and money involved in uncooking and “basics” add up quickly.




So I’ve taken this post in quite a few directions, but it all comes together under one important point. Different language skills are not a lack of language skills altogether. Similarly, different survival skills are not a total lack of survival skills. We all carry unique skillsets that reflect our personal histories with those skills as well as the larger public histories that our personal histories help to compose. We, as people, are part of a larger public. The political spam I see doesn’t meet my expectations of valuable, personal communication, but it is in fact part of a rich political history. The people who Michael Pollan encounters have ways of feeding themselves that differ from Pollan’s expectations, but they are not without important survival skills. Cultural differences are not an indication of an underlying lack of culture.

2013-07-05 11.13.21


Representativeness, qual & quant, and Big Data. Lost in translation?

My biggest challenge in coming from a quantitative background to a qualitative research program was representativeness. I came to class firmly rooted in the principle of Representativeness, and my classmates seemed not to have any idea why it mattered so much to me. Time after time I would get caught up in my data selection. I would pose the wider challenge of representativeness to a colleague, and they would ask “representative of what? why?”


In the survey research world, the researcher begins with a population of interest and finds a way to collect a representative sample of the population for study. In the qualitative world that accompanies survey research units of analysis are generally people, and people are chosen for their representativeness. Representativeness is often constructed by demographic characteristics. If you’ve read this blog before, you know of my issues with demographics. Too often, demographic variables are used as a knee jerk variable instead of better considered variables that are more relevant to the analysis at hand. (Maybe the census collects gender and not program availability, for example, but just because a variable is available and somewhat correlated doesn’t mean that it is in fact a relevant variable, especially when the focus of study is a population for whom gender is such an integral societal difference.)


And yet I spent a whole semester studying 5 minutes of conversation between 4 people. What was that representative of? Nothing but itself. It couldn’t have been exchanged for any other 5 minutes of conversation. It was simply a conversation that this group had and forgot. But over the course of the semester, this piece of conversation taught me countless aspects of conversation research. Every time I delved back into the data, it became richer. It was my first step into the world of microanalysis, where I discovered that just about anything can be a rich dataset if you use it carefully. A snapshot of people at a lecture? Well, how are their bodies oriented? A snapshot of video? A treasure trove of gestures and facial expressions. A piece of graffiti? Semiotic analysis! It goes on. The world of microanalysis is built on the practice of layered noticing. It goes deeper than wide.


But what is it representative of? How could a conversation be representative? Would I need to collect more conversations, but restrict the participants? Collect conversations with more participants, but in similar contexts? How much or how many would be enough?


In the world of microanalysis, people and objects constantly create and recreate themselves. You consistently create and recreate yourself, but your recreations generally fall into a similar range that makes you different from your neighbors. There are big themes in small moments. But what are the small moments representative of? Themselves. Simply, plainly, nothing more and nothing else. Does that mean that they don’t matter? I would argue that there is no better way to understand the world around us in deep detail than through microanalysis. I would also argue that macroanalysis is an important part of discovering the wider patterns in the world around us.


Recently a NY Times blog post by Quentin Hardy has garnered quite a bit of attention.

Why Big Data is Not Truth: http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/01/why-big-data-is-not-truth/

This post has really struck a chord with me, because I have had a hard time understanding Hardy’s complaint. Is big data truth? Is any data truth? All data is what it is; a collection of some sort, collected under a specific set of circumstances. Even data that we hope to be more representative has sampling and contextual limitations. Responsible analysts should always be upfront about what their data represents. Is big data less truthful than other kinds of data? It may be less representative than, say, a systematically collected political poll. But it is what it is: different data, collected under different circumstances in a different way. It shouldn’t be equated with other data that was collected differently. One true weakness of many large scale analyses is the blindness to the nature of the data, but that is a byproduct of the training algorithms that are used for much of the analysis. The algorithms need large training datasets, from anywhere. These sets often are developed through massive web crawlers. Here, context gets dicey. How does a researcher represent the data properly when they have no idea what it is? Hopefully researchers in this context will be wholly aware that, although their data has certain uses, it also has certain [huge] limitations.


I suspect that Hardy’s complaint is with the representations of massive datasets collected from webcrawlers as a complete truth from which any analyses could be run and all of the greater truths of the world could be revealed. On this note, Hardy is exactly right. Data simply is what it is, nothing more and nothing less. And any analysis that focuses on an unknown dataset is just that: an analysis without context. Which is not to say that all analyses need to be representative, but rather that all responsible analyses of good quality need to be self aware. If you do not know what the data represents and when and how it was collected, then you cannot begin to discuss the usefulness of any analysis of it.

Digital Democracy Remixed

I recently transitioned from my study of the many reasons why the voice of DC taxi drivers is largely absent from online discussions into a study of the powerful voice of the Kenyan people in shaping their political narrative using social media. I discovered a few interesting things about digital democracy and social media research along the way, and the contrast between the groups was particularly useful.

Here are some key points:

  • The methods of sensemaking that journalists use in social media is similar to other methods of social media research, except for a few key factors, the most important of which is that the bar for verification is higher
  • The search for identifiable news sources is important to journalists and stands in contrast with research methods that are built on anonymity. This means that the input that journalists will ultimately use will be on a smaller scale than the automated analyses of large datasets widely used in social media research.
  • The ultimate information sources for journalists will be small, but the phenomena that will capture their attention will likely be big. Although journalists need to dig deep into information, something in the large expanse of social media conversation must capture or flag their initial attention
  • It takes some social media savvy to catch the attention of journalists. This social media savvy outweighs linguistic correctness in the ultimate process of getting noticed. Journalists act as intermediaries between social media participants and a larger public audience, and part of the intermediary process is language correcting.
  • Social media savvy is not just about being online. It is about participating in social media platforms in a publicly accessible way in regards to publicly relevant topics and using the patterned dialogic conventions of the platform on a scale that can ultimately draw attention. Many people and publics go online but do not do this.

The analysis of social media data for this project was particularly interesting. My data source was the comments following this posting on the Al Jazeera English Facebook feed.


It evolved quite organically. After a number of rounds of coding I noticed that I kept drawing diagrams in the margins of some of the comments. I combined the diagrams into this framework:


Once this framework was built, I looked closely at the ways in which participants used this framework. Sometimes participants made distinct discursive moves between these levels. But when I tried to map the participants’ movements on their individual diagrams, I noticed that my depictions of their movements rarely matched when I returned to a diagram. Although my coding of the framework was very reliable, my coding of the movements was not at all. This led me to notice that oftentimes the frames were being used more indexically. Participants were indexing levels of the frame, and this indexical process created powerful frame shifts. So, on the level of Kenyan politics exclusively, Uhuru’s crimes had one meaning. But juxtaposed against the crimes of other national leaders’ Uhuru’s crimes had a dramatically different meaning. Similarly, when the legitimacy of the ICC was questioned, the charges took on a dramatically different meaning. When Uhuru’s crimes were embedded in the postcolonial East vs West dynamic, they shrunk to the degree that the indictments seemed petty and hypocritical. And, ultimately, when religion was invoked the persecution of one man seemed wholly irrelevant and sacrilegious.

These powerful frame shifts enable the Kenyan public to have a powerful, narrative changing voice in social media. And their social media savvy enables them to gain the attention of media sources that amplify their voices and thus redefine their public narrative.