ello is now a public benefit corporation

As part of our continuing discussion over the ethics of Facebook’s emotional manipulation study, Philip Cohen advanced the idea that we should simply declare FB a public utility and regulate it as such:

But Facebook is too big, and they own irreplaceable archives of hundreds of millions of people’s stuff. I figure just nationalize it or regulate it as a public utility – call it critical infrastructure. Then let private companies out-innovate boring Facebook.gov if they want to and win people away.

This notion struck me as a bit extreme, but provocative in just the right way. What kind of a service is a massive social network and in whose interests should it be run? We need better answers to that question.

Enter Ello.co. Continue reading “ello is now a public benefit corporation”

symposium on the genetics of race in sociological theory

The most recent issue of Sociological Theory contains a four part symposium on the genetics of race. More specifically, three of the pieces are responses to a 2012 article in ST by Shiao et al., The Genomic Challenge to the Social Construction of Race, and the last is a reply by Shiao. The debate is an important one for both sociology and the broader public. Every advance in biology and genetics seems to trigger a new round of scientists, and social scientists, trying to justify widely-held beliefs about race in essentialist terms. Shiao et al. offer a new, sophisticated argument in a very long tradition.

Fortunately, sociology – especially sociology informed by the science studies (STS) tradition – is well-equipped to engage with the guts of the genetics underlying Shiao et al’s claims. Continue reading “symposium on the genetics of race in sociological theory”

performance management, threshold effects, and asa sections

Every year, the end of September brings a peculiar class of emails from American Sociology Association section chairs and membership committees. ASA sections (e.g. “Economic Sociology,” “Sex and Gender,” etc.) organize much of the activity at the annual meetings. Each section is awarded a certain number of sessions based on the size of its membership on September 30th. If you have 399 members, you get 2 sessions; if you have 400 members, you get 3, and so on. As you would expect, sections routinely scramble in September to try to exceed the next threshold. The form of this scrambling includes offers to subsidize graduate student members (who pay a much smaller amount in dues, but “count” the same towards the session thresholds), book raffles, and even drawings to win coffee with senior scholars. After receiving another such email, I got curious about the effectiveness of these strategies. ASA conveniently posts membership data back to 2009 on its website, and so it’s easy to plop that data into R and produce a quick histogram of year-end membership counts for 2009-2013.*


As expected, we see sharp jumps around major cutoff points: 300, 400, 600, and 800. We see similar trends when looking at publicly traded firms’ earnings data vs. analyst forecasts, or when looking at the size of courses offered by universities trying to game their USNWR ranking (see Espeland and Sauder’s work). So, it seems like all the emails are working – at least, working for the sections trying to get their numbers just above the threshold. Whether or not this particular system is collectively rational I will leave for you all to judge.**

* Thanks to the @ASANews twitter account for the links!
** One clunky but effective solution would be to transition from a pure threshold system to one that awards the final session to each section probabilistically based on how far past the previous threshold it went, with each member being worth about half a percent of a section.

did facebook and okcupid experiments violate maryland law?

According to James Grimmelmann, professor of law at the University of Maryland, the recent controversial studies by Facebook and OkCupid violated Maryland’s research ethics law. For past posts on the studies see here and here. The long version of Grimmelmann’s argument is up on Medium. The short version is:

Maryland’s research ethics law makes informed consent and IRB review mandatory for all research on people, even when carried out by private companies. As we explain in a letter to Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler Facebook and OkCupid broke Maryland law by conducting experiments on users without informed consent or IRB review.

Not only does Maryland require IRB and informed consent for research, it also requires that IRB meetings provide documentation on request, which both FB and OkCupid have failed to do. Grimmelmann and a colleague, Leslie Meltzer Henry, have asked the Attorney General of Maryland to enjoin the companies from conducting further research until they enter into compliance.

endowments and economic diversity

The NYT has an interesting story this morning about how top colleges do (or do not) use their large endowments to increase economic diversity.* Along with the article, the NYT also offers up the data themselves in a linked spreadsheet.** The selection criteria were a bit problematic for some purposes – they only include universities with graduation rates over 75% – but this is just a blog post, so let’s play around.

Continue reading “endowments and economic diversity”

uiuc board to vote on salaita appointment edit: nevermind

A group of activist students at UIUC made an announcement following a meeting with administrators:

We have discovered that the Chancellor HAS FORWARDED Professor Salaita’s appointment to the Board of Trustees, and they will be voting on his appointment during the Board of Trustees Meeting on September 11th, on the UIUC campus

Via Crooked Timber, where you can also find a good analysis of what this might mean and why organizing over the next 10 days is so important. Also included is this lovely quote, in reference to a theory that this forwarding is a mere formality to immunize the administration from legal challenge: “in a country of lawyers, Louis Hartz reminded us, every philosophical question is turned into a legal claim.” A more skeptical take is here. Let’s hope it’s not just the Board wanting a chance to fire Salaita themselves!

EDIT: Corey Robin at Crooked Timber has an extensive update. It seems the students who spoke with the Chancellor were mistaken. UIUC’s current plan seems to be to try to buy Salaita off, not to open up further debate. For extensive details, including how you can join a graduate student or faculty boycott, see here.

people deserve respect; viewpoints don’t

I have not been following the story of Steven Salaita and the University of Illinois closely, but the details coming out are troubling, to say the least. The basic facts are clear and I think undisputed: Salaita was offered a job by the American Indian Studies program at Illinois, which he accepted. Salaita resigned from his existing position and prepared to move to Illinois, when he was told that he would not in fact be hired because the Chancellor refused to send his appointment to the board of trustees for approval. The Chancellor’s refusal seemed connected to Salaita’s statements on Israel-Palestine on Twitter, and his criticisms of the phrase “support our troops” published in Salon.*

Today, more details have come out in the form of emails between the Chancellor and various parties including, perhaps most disturbingly, the fundraising wing of the University.

Continue reading “people deserve respect; viewpoints don’t”