Monday, April 29, 2013

Social Networking Sites Become Increasingly Political...

Since its inception, the Internet has often been heralded by some as a potential tool for raising levels of civic and political engagement.  New evidence seems to (finally) support this claim.

From 2008 to 2012 there was a major jump in how many online social network users engaged in some type of political activity, according to a new study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.  Most notably, the overall number of people who posted links to political news stories or articles rose from 3% to 19%.

Here are a few other notable statistics:
  • 38% of SNS users "Liked" or promoted political material that others have posted.
  • 35% encouraged other people to vote.
  • 34% posted their own comments/thoughts on political issues.
  • 33% reposted political content.
  • 31% encouraged others to take action.
  • 28% posted links to political stories for others to read.
  • 21% belonged to a group that is involved with a political issue or promoting a political cause.
  • 20% actually followed elected officials or public figures.
Also, significantly, the total amount of SNS users who said they engaged in at least one of these activities was 66%.

What would be interesting to see is further research on the growth patterns for specific social-network sites.  For instance, how people use Facebook is often very different from how they use Twitter or Instagram, so breaking down these overall numbers into more detail would be instructive.  Also, correlating these numbers with voter turnout patterns or political party identification might also be revealing about the current state of affairs.

Nevertheless, considering that 66% of social-network users are engaging in some sort of political activity online, is that surprising, or does it merely confirm what you may have already noticed in your increasingly politicized news feeds?


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Will Online Social Networks Help Find the Boston Marathon Bomber?

As I write this post exactly 48 hours after the horrific Boston marathon bombing, the race is on to discover the identity of the bomber(s) and there is a mass movement online of individuals participating in the hunt.  For better or worse.

On Facebook, these IMGUR high-resolution photos are spreading like wildfire - depicting a sequence of images where, some are claiming, two men are seen at the site of both bombs, mysteriously losing their bulging backpacks en route from one site to the next.

Also, on Reddit, there is currently a popular thread ominously-located in the "Conspiracy" category titled: "Two males seen at the site of both bombs, photographed later walking away - only one has a bag. The first picture shows a clear bulge from the bag, very consistent with the type of pressure cooker believed to be used." It's sole purpose seems to be to let orindary people chime in with their opinions on the photos.

There is also a more general Reddit discussion thread devoted to finding the bombers. Meanwhile, another thread is now emerging devoted to confirming certain people as innocent.

This is obviously a tremendously sensitive issue.  On the one hand, these public crowdsourcing efforts are a sign of just how much Americans want to help and contribute to the cause of finding whatever terrorists launched the attack and bringing them to justice.  On the other hand, and this ought to be clear to any reasonable person, there is an enormous danger of the crowd completely misidentifying individuals in such photos as terrorists when they are completely innocent.  And due to the viral online nature of these discussions, a mob mentality could ensue irreparably damaging someone's reputation forever based on the mere conjecture of totally random conspiracy-theorists on the Internet.

Anyone participating in these online discussion forums really ought to heed Reddit's own caveat...

This subreddit is a place for people to post images, links, and thoughts about the potential identities of those responsible for the bombing. HOWEVER, please keep in mind that most or all of the "suspects" being discussed are innocent people.


IMPORTANT: We do not support any form vigilante justice. We are not law enforcement. If you have major information about the identities of any of the bombers, please send a tip to the FBI or BPD.

Look, we all want to help.  And if these public crowdsourcing efforts actually lead to finding the bombers, that will truly be an amazing thing.  However, this is such a frightening endeavor, and so fraught with peril, that collectively we need to, at the very least, exercise severe caution and make sure that our efforts are helping more than they are harming the very-real investigation performed by law enforcement and counter-terrorist professionals.


Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Closing the Gender Gap in Computer Science...

There is a fabulous article in the New York Times today profiling the gender gap in computer science.  Just to restate some of the statistics...
  • Even though women represent more than half the overall work force, they hold less than a quarter of computing and technical jobs.
  • Women earn just 12% of computer science degrees, down from 37% in 1984.
  • Roughly 74% of girls in middle school express an interest in engineering, science and math. But by the time they get to college, just 0.3% choose computer science as a major.
As an instructor of computer science myself, I can definitely attest the accuracy of these figures.  In my freshman-level Intro to Programming class, I would anecdotally say that it's common to have only 6 or 7 female students in every class of 35.  In the more advanced courses, that number dwindles to only 1 or 2.

Researchers have attributed this phenomenon to a variety of causes such as discouraging parents, inadequate resources for teachers, and a lack of exposure.  None of these seem especially convincing.  After all, aren't boys similarly affected by teachers not having adequate resources for their classrooms, and in this digital era aren't boys and girls pretty equally exposed to high-tech products and the Internet from an early age?

What groups like Girls Who Code are doing is very welcome.  They are strategically shifting towards teaching girls how to actually write code, and moving away from past attempts at teaching girls the skills needed to build start-ups, raise venture capital, and climb the management ranks at big companies.  Not that these are bad things, mind you.  They just haven't led to more women pursuing high-tech careers.

Girls Who Code should be lauded, but it's a shame that such groups are even needed in the first place.  Why does this gender gap even exist?  Socialization must be the biggest culprit.  It is certainly not inability, contrary to some archaic stereotypes.  In fact, most of the female programming students I have had regularly outperformed the overall class average.  And it isn't discrimination either.  My experience echoes that of the tech executives, recruiters, and financiers cited in the Times article:  The problem is that women simply aren't walking through the door.

The solution to the gender gap ultimately rests upon changing social norms.  That's a process that takes time, and I'll leave it up to the advocacy coalitions to determine the best tactics for realizing this objective.  I'll just add, from the relative insider perspective of a political-scientist-turned-computer-scientist, that nobody should be intimidated from pursuing a high-tech skillset.