digital methods seminar

We (Katja Mayer and I) have just finalized our course on digital methods for next summer term. We’ll be teaching at the Department of Social Studies of Science, University of Vienna. The seminar will be part of the master program “Master of Arts – Science. Technology. Society”, but, in principle, everyone can join – if I understood it correctly. I’m not really familiar with the new curriculum yet though.. But I’m sure it will be fun since theoretical inquiry will be mixed with hands-on empirical research – fed by our own research and recent studies from our colleagues.

© image credit: Digital Methods Initiative (Amsterdam)

Here’s the syllabus. Join us if you like! Or otherwise, follow our seminar blog (which we plan to write if we find the time to do so 😉 )

Digital Methods – How Do We Know?

New information and communication technologies (ICTs) and social media like Google, Facebook and co. crucially change our daily lives. The “computational turn”, however, also affects the social sciences and humanities. Applications and software programs – ranging from simple presentation to complex network visualization tools – increasingly intrude into and shape scientific practices and the ways we conduct, present, and disseminate research. Rooted in the tradition of Science and Technology Studies (STS) this seminar addresses the central question of how digital methods of all kinds influence “how we know”. We will experiment with and critically examine various software tools and visualization techniques to better understand the growing number of digital methods used not only in the natural sciences, but increasingly also in the social sciences and humanities. We will ground these new tools respectively in older research traditions, discuss implications digital methods have in the process of knowledge production, and how to meet new challenges arising in the growing field of “digital social sciences and humanities”.

Drawing on literature from STS and critical new media studies, we aim to discuss the following questions: What are “digital methods” and what kind of knowledge(s) do they create? How do (digital) methods organize our research objects and what realities are enacted by them? How can hyperlink networks and Google analyses be used to analyze controversies like climate change or biofuels? How can social networking services, and Twitter in particular, be used to analyze political discourses and “hacktivist mobilization”? What information hierarchies and biases does commercial software trigger in the research process, and how can we handle this problem? What is “big data” and what are the benefits and dangers of large-scale computational science? And, finally, what are the implications of open access, creative commons, and Wikis in the context of both research and politics?

Technoscientific Promotion and Biofuel Policy

Jenny Eklöf and I have been collaborating on a project during my HUMlab fellowship (2010-2012). Our study investigated how the biofuel controversy plays out in the Swedish press and Google search results. The results will be published in the journal Media, Culture & Society (mid of next year). The exact phrasing of the editor goes like this:

“It will be several issues, and certainly several months, before your piece is prepared for publication and the proofs sent on to you. Please do not contact us for a specified issue number and date until 5 months or so after this note of acceptance.”

Well, if you don’t want to wait that long please let us know and we’ll send you a copy!

That’s the abstract:

What are the conditions for the public understanding of biofuels and how do the media shape these conditions under the influence of a new production of knowledge? This article investigates how the biofuel controversy plays out in the Swedish press and Google search engine results and analyses winners and losers in the tight attention economy of contemporary media. It describes different visibility strategies biofuel stakeholders employ in both media arenas, and identifies a form of technoscientific promotion that hybrid actors use to succeed in the day-to- day struggle for media attention. To conclude, it raises broader societal questions of the contemporary blurring of knowledge boundaries and the emergence of new information hierarchies and their biases. By understanding how contemporary media shape controversies, we can address the democratic potential of both mass media and science.

issue mapping online / london

That’s how issue mapping looks like when new media scholars from Goldsmiths, Sociology/ London and the Digital Methods Initiative/ Amsterdam meet. Rather than lectures and passive entertainment the workshop consisted of hands-on projects carried out on site and actual work. As always, a highly enjoyable exercise! Compared to the Digital Methods Summer School annually taking place in Amsterdam more “issue experts” – from the Open Society Foundations, for example – were involved this time. Their practical knowledge and expertise in certain issue areas clearly stimulated the discussions since issue mapping requires both software tools/ visualization techniques AND background knowledge on the object of study – be it climate change, ageing or privacy. Only the combination of “digital methods” and “issue expertise” produces new insights and findings in my opinion (even though we didn’t carry out the Turing test to proof this hypothesis 😉 )

The workshop was organized by Noortje Marres & Carolin Gerlitz – both from Goldsmiths. It is well documented on the website (including the workshop agenda, readings and a box of tools and tactics for “Issue Mapping Online”). A second workshop is planned for the fall; not least to think about future projects and further software developments; since issue mapping means constant experimentation with and refinements of the methods at hand.

oxford / #OII in march

I’m happy that my abstract for the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) symposium “Interdisciplinary Insights on the Social Science of Digital Research” got accepted! I’ll be talking about the “the performative character of digital methods”. I’m already looking forward to seeing Malte Ziewitz, Jean-Christophe Plantin, and other exciting Internet researchers again!!!

For those interested, that’s the abstract:

The performative character of digital methods

Scholars following the tradition of the Actor-Network Theory (ANT) have argued that methods do not simply report on a given reality, but rather enact social reality in a certain way (Mol 2002, Law 2004). Methods make “certain (political) arrangements more probable, stronger, more real, whilst eroding others and making them less real.” (Law 2004: 149). Accordingly, it has been shown that research objects are differently performed in different empirical settings rendering them slippery and multiple. This argument becomes particularly striking when thinking of various digital methods performing and depicting web realities in distinct ways, as I will illustrate with my own research. Concretely, I will address the peformative character of digital methods by drawing on an ongoing research project investigating how the biofuel controversy is represented in search engine results compared to classical media; with a particular focus on Sweden (project conducted together with Jenny Eklöf from Umeå Studies in Science, Technology and Environment, Umeå University; data gathered from April 2011-November 2011).


For the purpose of this article, I draw on Google search queries we conducted with a range of different keywords and juxtapose them with hyperlink network visualizations we developed with the software Issuecrawler (from the Foundation, Amsterdam). I will discuss strengths and weaknesses of both methods in terms of understanding how the biofuel issue plays out in search engine results and how link networks contribute to these search results. More fundamentally, I will show how the choice of method shapes the object of study by using concepts from ANT. I will elaborate that observing search results over time enacts the web as a search-engine organized information space and performs search engines as central gatekeepers. Contrary, hyperlink network maps evoke the imagination of the web as a de-centralized information network configured by link connections. Based on this analysis, I will discuss how different digital methods – network visualization tools in particular – bring different aspects of the web to the fore, while hiding others in the background according to the different algorithms they incorporate. Digital methods should thus not be seen as passively representing web reality, but rather as actively shaping the web realities we try to observe. What “ontological politics” (Mol 2008) this implies and what consequences it involves for Internet researchers and the emerging discipline of “digital research” or “e-research” increasingly drawing on (network) visualizations, will be finally discussed.

This research was funded by my HUMlab postdoctoral fellowship (September 2010- February 2012).


Law, John (2004) After Method. Mess in Social Science Research. New York: Routledge.
Mol, Annemarie (2002) The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Durham/ London: Duke University Press.
Mol, Annemarie (2008) Ontological Politics. A Word and Some Questions. Socio-logical Review 46(S): 74-89.

workshop “studying digital cultures” / lund

I just returned from a great workshop on “studying digital cultures” organized by Jutta Haider, Sara Kjellberg, Joost van de Weijer & Marianne Gullberg (from HEX, the Humanities Lab, and the Department of Arts and Cultural Sciences). They invited me and Kim Holmberg (Department of Information Studies, Åbo Akademi University/ Finland) to present tools and methods to study digital cultures. Drawing on our own work we presented, explained and discussed the tools we used and for what purposes.

Referring to his dissertation work Kim presented tools, which have been developed by Mike Thelwall, the SocSciBot and LexiURL in particular. Since I’ve been reading quite some of Thelwall’s publications I found it highly interesting to learn more about the technicalities involved in these link network visualization methods. If you’re willing to invest some time to understand the various tools (and have a PC since the tools don’t work on macs) you could do some pretty neat stuff with them (including YouTube searches with LexiURL). The advantage of these tools is that they are free to use; the downside of LexiURL is that it only includes Bing searches. Besides serious research tools Kim also showed us some fun stuff including the Twitter Sentiment Analysis Tool or the We Feel Fine websites, that enables you to explore human emotions (both didn’t seem to work properly though, but try it for yourself).

© photo credits: digital cultures blog

Compared to the methods Kim presented the tools developed by Richard Rogers and his team are user-friendly and easy to use. Both the Issuecrawler and related tools, such as the Issue Discovery tool or the Google scraper, are ready-made software packages that allow the user to create link network visualizations by clicking on a number of settings (which make them appealing to social sciences and humanities scholars with limited technical skills and less appealing to people, who want to modify/ adapt the tools for their own research purposes, as I’d assume). To really understand what you see on the Issuecrawler link network maps, however, also requires a certain understanding of the software and the algorithm it incorporates, which I tried to explain during the workshop by walking participanst through the software. The log-in for the Issuecrawler is easy to get and 10 crawls are for free. After that individual terms of use may be negotiated depending on whether researchers have funding or not. For more advanced users I suggested, a network visualization tool free to use with great capacities (ask Bernhard Rieder for details, he knows all about it). Finally, we played around with Wordle, a tool that creates beautiful issue clouds out of text (with one mouse click).

After the presentations participants tried to make use of the tools for their own research purposes. It was a mixed crowd with different research interests, which was fun. Further, Joost van de Weijer showed us the Lund Humanities Lab, which appeared to be really different from the Umeå HUMlab since it mainly focuses on eye tracking, motion tracking and similar technologies (it was impressive to see their “experiment” rooms!). All in all we had a great time and a delicious dinner after a long day of digital work 😉 Thanks again to the organizers for having made this event happen & all the participants for having shared their ideas with us! Finally, I want to thank Olof Sundin, who gave me the opportunity to speak about digital methods in his methods seminar, and Karolina Lindh, who let me and Mike Frangos stay at her gorgeous apartment in Lund. You guys really made my stay – as always – a great pleasure! Take care & hope to see you again soon!!!

Upcoming travels and events

Tomorrow morning I’ll go to Oxford to participate in the OII conference “A Decade in Internet Time“. The line-up of speakers looks very promising and includes big names such as Manuel Castells, Ted Nelson, Danah Boyd, and others. I’m looking forward to present and discuss my paper “Algorithmic Ideology” in this great intellectual enviroment. That’s the abstract of my talk:

This article investigates how the “new spirit of capitalism” (Boltanski & Chiapello, 2007) gets inscribed in the fabric of search algorithms by way of social practices. Drawing on the tradition of the social construction of technology (SCOT) and 17 qualitative expert interviews I discuss how search engines and their “capital accumulation cycle” (Fuchs, forthcoming) are negotiated and stabilized in a network of actors and interests, website providers and users first and foremost. I further show how corporate search engines and their capitalist ideology are solidified in a socio-political context characterized by a techno-euphoric climate of innovation and a politics of privatization. This analysis provides a valuable contribution to contemporary search engine critique mainly focusing on search engines’ business models and societal implications. It shows that a shift of perspective is needed from impacts search engines have on society towards social practices and power relations involved in the construction of search engines to reconsider and renegotiate search engines and their algorithmic ideology in the future.

The full paper could be downloaded here. After the OII conference I’ll take part in the workshop Social Media Cultures, which will take place at HUMlab right after (26-28 September). It’s a joint workshop of researches from the Umeå University and the University of Wollongong/ Australia. Thanks to Jim Barrett for organizing this event!

On the 5th of October I’ll go back to Austria to join the symposium “Knowledge Machines between Freedom and Control” in Hainburg, which is organized by IMA, Institut for Media Archeology, in cooperation with Theo Röhle. It’s the final event of the exhibition “insight-Tower – A World Machine“, where you can “stick your head into the net” (concept: Seppo Gründler, Nicole Pruckermayr, Elisabeth Schimana, Martin Schitter):

© photo credit IMA

The symposium aims at initiating a discourse on search engines between researchers, technicians and artists and closes with a public event, which seems exciting to me! From Vienna I’ll  most probably go to the inauguration symposium of the new research institute “Internet and Society” in Berlin (25-28 October). Since the institute is financed by Google and renowed German Universities have started to collaborate with them I expect it to be a truly interesting conference/ workshop (some of the details are still fuzzy though).

Finally, in November, I’ve been invited to participate in the workshop “Studying digital cultures – tools and methods for Humanities scholars” in Lund; organized by Lund University’s Humanities Laboratory, the Humanities Experiment Group (HEX), and the Department of Arts and Cultural Sciences (24 November). I’m already looking forward to seeing Jutta Haider, Olof Sundin & Karolina Lindh again, who made my last stay in “the south of Sweden” incredibly enjoyable!! Finally, in December, there will be another HUMlab conference called “The Internet of Things”, more infos will follow!

In between all these exciting events I hope I’ll get some writing done, another grant proposal out, and to pursue my research project on the biofuel controversy in Swedish media and search engine results (together with Jenny Eklöf), a project I’m really looking forward to!! :) We’ll present our work at the beginning of November as part of the Umeå Studies in Science, Technology and Environment seminar series. Stay tuned!

Amsterdam & Vienna: two cities – two summer schools – some reflections

I’ve attended two summer schools in the last three weeks and it was fun. Both the digital methods summer school (Amsterdam) and the Marie Jahoda summer school of sociology (Vienna) were highly inspiring events with great participants! The differences were striking though. And reflected the spirit of two different cities and two different academic cultures.

photo credit left: Marieke van Dijk — right: Monica Titton

The purpose of the digital methods event was to learn how to conduct Internet research by following the medium and its natively digital objects. If you want to investigate search engine results, use and learn from Google and its way of functioning, for example. Employ and build on search query data instead of creating artificial user search experiments was one of the messages. How to investigate and theorized “big data” was thus one central issue debated, in Richard Rogers´talk most importantly. What implications the use – and dependency on – algorithms and commercial tools such as Google or Facebook triggers was another interesting aspect raised by Noortje Marres. Besides theoretical discussions – such as the “salon” on Bruno Latour and David Berry moderated by Mark Tuters – we were motivated to work on actual projects. The main part of the summer school was organized around research investigating issues/ controversies in search engine results, on social networking platforms, Wikileaks and other “web spheres”. Here are some maps we developed on the biofuel controversy in Google results in different European countries:

People were thus gathered around computers and tried to make use and sense of the great variety of methods created by the DMI (digital methods initiative) team, but also the network visualization tool Gephi, that Bernhard Rieder presented, and the text coding software DiscoverText developed by Stu Shulman. Thanks to all of you for the great tools and advice!!!

It might be a coincidence that the highly digital summer school took place in Amsterdam – a city concerned with open government data, participatory architecture and urbanity & technology. But it might also reflect the tight entanglement of urban vibes and academic cultures. In Vienna the cultural heritage is central. The first district with its beautiful architecture preserves the empire of the last century. Accordingly, the Viennese summer school took place in a “festive room” mirroring the old charme and elegancy of the University. Paper and pencil instead of hashtag and wiki. The summer school was organized around lectures and presentations instead of laptops and projects. Even though I only participated three days out of six I saw great talks on markets and organizations in the tradition of German intellectual circles. Sophie Mützel talked about the sociology of markets and Frank Hillebrandt elaborated on culture and economy, for example. Further, I learned a lot about economic sociology in a number of great PhD projects from Austrian and German graduate students. That made me realize how interdiscplinary my own work got over the last years, where I was strolling from sociology, science and technology studies, Internet research to digital humanities. I was thus very happy that I got truly great feed-back on my search engine project and reading tipps from the summer school crowd, and especially Sighard Neckel (e.g. “the new spirit of capitalism” by Boltanski and Chiapello, “global complexity” by Urry or “market devices” by Callon, Millo and Muniesa). I do really hope that our paths will cross again in the future!

If you want to learn more about the Viennese summer school I recommend listening to the Ö1 broadcast “Dimensionen” on 26 July 2011, 19h05 (web radio here). Further, I really hope you get to see the “Erschießt Sie – eine Finanzkrisenoper“, which is a theatrical performance of interview material on brokers & the economic crisis based on the book “Strukturierte Verantwortungslosigkeit. Berichte aus der Bankenwelt” (Claudia Honegger, Sighard Neckel und Chantal Magnin). It is a clever and hilarious piece of work!

(photo credit: Summer School)

summer school season 2011

I’m excited about the summer school season that’s starting soon! My first stop will be Amsterdam, where the Digital Methods Summer School is taking place from the 27 June till the 8 July. It will be fun to meet Richard Rogers, the organizer of the summer school, and his team again and share ideas, empirical insights, and “digital tools”. The program looks amazing and there’s going to be a great number of participants from all over the world (see also this blogpost).

My second stop will be Vienna, where I’ll attend the Marie Jahoda Summer School of Sociology dealing with Economy–Markets–Organizations: The Culture of modern Economy.

That’s an excerpt from the website:

Like all economic processes, markets and organizations are embedded in social structures. Cultural values and political decisions strongly influence economic action, and economic processes follow social norms. The culture of markets transcends the homo oeconomicus. As the new economic sociology has shown, economic action, whether it takes place on markets, in organizations, in networks or as self-management, has to be understood as multi-dimensional and is not bound to an economic rationality existing outside social relations. In this perspective, current processes like the “economization” of social fields become themselves visible as cultural patterns of social organization.

The Marie Jahoda Summer School of Sociology will be set against this thematic background. We will examine competition, firms, management practices and organizations in the economic field, extending it to the arts, religion, sports, fashion, pop culture or the media – social fields, which themselves are examples of today’s “culture of markets”.

It will be really interesting to go back to the Sociology Department, where I studied more than 10 years ago! I’m sure a lot has changed in the last decade and I’m curious about the current state of the field. There will be 19 participants, mostly from the German-speaking context, and I’m happy to be one of them. The summer school will be an excellent opportunity to present my work on search engines in the context of present-day market capitalism and gain feed-back from Austrian/ German researchers. I’m particularly looking forward to  meeting Sighard Neckel, the organizer of the summer school – who kindly invited me to take part in this event – and his collaborators.

Digital methods summer school, Amsterdam: 27 June – 8 July 2011

I just arranged my trip to Amsterdam to attend the 5th Digital Methods Summer School organized by Richard Rogers and colleagues. The questions that will be addressed this year are the following (according to the summer school website):

In the 2011 Digital Methods Summer School we will pay homage to cyberspace, in the opening, by presenting thought on a particular strand of media coverage about WikiLeaks, where cybergurus and cyberwar experts reappear on the scene. Just as importantly, we will ask, how to make use of the leaks, and their containers, for research purposes? From data-driven journalism to bespoke cablegate engines, does WikiLeaks spawn an online ecology of tools, visualizations and other substantive practices and outputs? Is such an ecology typical for data platforms? For comparative purposes, we will introduce and study the tool and visualization universes of Twitter as well as Wikipedia, both of which are examples of data-rich media. We would like to learn from platform media analytics and apply it to other data-rich media, so as to further develop tools for cultural diagnostics. One challenge is the question of device effects. For example, when comparing the Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian Wikipedia entries for the Srebrenica Massacre, does Wikipedia’s “neutral point of view” policies overdetermine the content, perhaps neutralize it, or can one read culturally distinctive views on the events?

Another strand of study is networked content, which is thought of as online content held together, maintained or even co-authored by software and bots. The interplay of search engines and content interests us this year, not just because Wikipedia articles are routinely at the top of Google results. (The relationship between Google and Wikipedia remains understudied.) But there is also content seemingly authored for engines first and readers only second, as in the case of “demand media.” We would like to study efforts that seek to fill in engine results with content, reopening the question of engine epistemology. Presentations will include work on engine log analysis. Apart from (Google) flu trends, are log analyses able to identify and geo-locate cultural and political preference?

More infos on the summer school and some sort of online tutorial on the methods and visualization tools used – such as the Issuecrawler identifying and visualizing link networks – may be found on the Digital Methods Initiative Website or on the Website of the Foundation.

I’m especially interested in the second cluster of questions since I’ll further pursue my research on search engines and their information political implications while being at the summer school. Concretely, I’ll investigate how the controversy around biofuels plays out in search engine results, a project I’m working on together with Jenny Eklöf from the Umeå Studies in Science, Technology and Environment. In this project we basically aim to analyze how search engines structure and stage the controversy, what actors succeed in occupying one of the “top ten seats” and what their positions on the issue are, and what conclusions may be drawn in terms of search engine politics and the commercialization of information. In addition, I’d like to compare search engine results with other web spheres such as Google news, blogs, and social networking sites and their way of ordering, filtering and hierarchizing information on biofuels making use of all the fancy “digital methods” and tools.

I’m already looking forward to the summer school and to work with Richard and his wonderful team again! Not to speak of lovely Amsterdam..