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Article on difficulties in social-media research

Five years ago, this column looked into scholarly potential of the Twitter archive the Library of Congress had recently acquired. That potential was by no means self-evident. The incensed “my tax dollars are being used for this?” comments practically wrote themselves, even without the help of Twitter bots.

For what -- after all -- is the value of a dead tweet? Why would anyone study 140-character messages, for the most part concerning mundane and hyperephemeral topics, with many of them written as if to document the lowest possible levels of functional literacy?

As I wrote at the time, papers by those actually doing the research treated Twitter as one more form of human communication and interaction. The focus was not on the content of any specific message, but on the patterns that emerged when they were analyzed in the aggregate. Gather enough raw data, apply suitable methods, and the results could be interesting. (For more detail, see the original discussion.)

The key thing was to have enough tweets on hand to grind up and analyze. So, yes, an archive. In the meantime, the case for tweet preservation seems easier to make now that elected officials, religious leaders and major media outlets use Twitter. A recent volume called Twitter and Society (Peter Lang, 2014) collects papers on how politics, journalism, the marketplace and (of course) academe itself have absorbed the impact of this high-volume, low-word-count medium.

One of the book’s co-editors is Katrin Weller, who is an information scientist from the GESIS Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences, in Cologne, Germany. At present she is in the final month of a Kluge Fellowship at the Library of Congress, which seems like an obvious place to conduct her research into the use of Twitter to study historical events. Or it would have been, if the archive of tweets were open to scholars, which it still isn’t, and won’t be any time soon.

Unable to pursue her original project, Weller used the Kluge Fellowship to broaden her focus -- which, she told me in an email exchange “has been pretty much on working with Twitter data [over] the last years.” She spent her time catching up with the scholarship on other forms of social media and investigating various web-archiving projects at the library.

As for the digital collection that made her want to go to Washington, DC, in the first place… well, the last official statement from library was issued in January 2013. It reported that Twitter’s output from 2006 to 2010 -- consisting of “approximately 21 billion tweets, each with more than 50 accompanying metadata fields, such as place and description” -- had finally been organized, by hour. The process was to be completed that month, even as another half billion or so tweets per day were added to the collection.

The Library of Congress finds itself in the position of someone who has agreed to store the Atlantic Ocean in his basement. The embarrassment is palpable. No report on the status of the archive has been issued in more than two years, and my effort to extract one elicited nothing but a statement of facts that were never in doubt.

“The library continues to collect and preserve tweets,” said Gayle Osterberg, the library’s director of communications, in reply to my inquiry. “It was very important for the library to focus initially on those first two aspects -- collection and preservation. If you don’t get those two right, the question of access is a moot point. So that’s where our efforts were initially focused and we are pleased with where we are in that regard.”

As of early 2013, the library reported it had received more than 400 requests to use the archive. Since then, members of the public have asked for updates on the library’s blog, with no response forthcoming. At this point no date has been set for the archive to be opened to researchers. The leadership of the Library of Congress may be “pleased [by] where we are,” but their delight is not likely to be contagious.

No grumbling from Katrin Weller, though. She sent me a number of her recent and forthcoming papers on what might be called second-order social-media research. That is, they take up the problems and concerns that face scholars trying to study social media.

Apart from the difficulties involved in archiving -- enough on that, for now -- there are methodological and ethical problems galore, as becomes clear from a paper Weller co-authored with her colleague Katharina E. Kinder-Kurlanda, a cultural anthropologist also at the Leibniz Institute. In 2013 and 2014, they conducted 42 interviews with social-media researchers at international conferences. The subjects were from various fields and parts of the world. What they had in common was the use of data gathered from a variety of social-media venues -- not just Twitter and Facebook but “many other platforms such as Foursquare, Tumblr, 4chan and Reddit.”

Elsewhere, Weller has described social-media research as a kaleidoscope containing “thousands of individual pieces, originating from different perspectives and discipline, applying different methods and establishing different assumption about social media” -- with the kaleidoscope constantly shaking from site redesigns, changes in privacy policy and so on.

All of which makes establishing methodological standards -- how material from social media platforms is collected, documented and handled -- extremely difficult, if not impossible. A research team might find it necessary to invent a program to harvest raw data from a site, but if the overall focus of the project is sociological or linguistic, the details will probably not be discussed in the resulting publication. There is also the issue of “data cleaning,” i.e., filtering out messages from spam accounts, bots and the like, in order to create a data set consisting of only human-generated material (as much as that is possible). It is a time- and labor-intensive process, and the thoroughness of the job will in part be a function of the budget.

So the size, quality and reliability of the raw material itself are going to vary widely from researcher to researcher. Weller and Kinder-Kurlanda note the case of the same data being collected from a single social-media website using the same tools, but run in parallel on two different servers. The result was different data sets. And all of this, mind you, before the serious analytical crunching even gets started.

One partial solution, or at least stopgap measure, is to share data sets -- certainly easing the strain on some researchers’ purses. The authors mention finding researchers “who felt an ethical obligation to share their data sets, either with other researchers or with the public.” About a third of the researchers Weller and Kinder-Kurlanda interviewed “had experience in working with data collected by others.” But the practice raises ethical problems about privacy, and it sounds like some of the exchanges take place sub rosa. And in any event, sharing the data sets probably won't change the drift toward some social-media platforms being over- or underresearched because their data are easier to collect or clean.

Weller indicates that she intends to write more about the epistemological issues raised by social media. That sounds like an interesting topic, and a perplexing one. Besides, it will clearly be a long, long time before anyone gets to use Twitter as a tool for historical research.

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Colleges award tenure

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The following individuals have recently been awarded tenure by their colleges and universities:

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Essay about teaching students who appear to suffer from depression but don't seek help

As I got ready to turn in my spring semester grades this week, I was depressed to realize I would have to fail two students who hadn’t finished the work in my classes.

I say “depressed,” but I wasn’t really. I’m using this word as a shorthand to describe my gloomy sense of wishing I had been a better teacher. The students were the ones who were actually depressed, which was precisely the problem.

As someone who teaches disability studies, I think a lot about how to make my classes accessible to students with a range of learning styles and physical abilities. I present material in varied formats and offer different options for completing assignments so that students can produce work that best reflects what they’ve learned and what they are capable of doing. Because of their subject matter, my courses attract students with disabilities, and I’m used to accommodating them.

But I find students with depression among the hardest to accommodate. Students who are depressed tend to withdraw and vanish rather than to ask for help. When they do show up to class or office hours, they are unmotivated and joyless. The very nature of their illness often makes the professor into an antagonist rather than a source of support.

Tania, a student who -- ironically enough -- failed my class on disability studies, didn’t respond to my email messages about an upcoming presentation. She showed up in my office 15 minutes before class looking exhausted, her skin covered in an angry rash. “I didn’t do the work, OK?” she said in a despairing tone. “I know you’re going to yell at me, so why don’t you just do it?”

Putting aside my dismay over the missing presentation, I asked how I could help. Tania dissolved into tears: she was depressed and having trouble getting her work done. She hadn’t bothered to register with our Office of Disability Services because she felt so confident at the beginning of the semester. I made sure she had seen a therapist and gave her the chance to make up for the missed presentation. I urged her to stay in touch and ask for my help rather than vanishing if she continued to struggle. I also suggested that she contact the ODS to help her get accommodations for her other courses. (Do I even need to say that I did not yell at her?) After that day’s class, I never saw her again. She didn’t do the presentation or turn in a final paper. When it came time to turn in my grades, I had no choice but to give her an F.

My other student, Aurora, did register with ODS late in the semester after sitting silently during seminar discussion for most of the term and then missing a series of classes. Through ODS, she asked for extra time on her final paper and the opportunity to make up for her lack of participation. The deadlines we had set came and went, I was unable to reach her, and she too failed the class.

Tania and Aurora are hardly unique. In The Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon writes that depression is the leading cause of disability in the world’s population over age 5. Up to 19 million Americans (3 percent of the total population) suffer from depression, while manic depression affects 2.3 million people and is the second leading killer of young women, the third of young men. “Worldwide, including the developing world,” Sullivan writes, “depression accounts for more of the disease burden, as calculated by premature death plus healthy life years lost to disability, than anything else but heart disease.”

College students are particularly vulnerable, and rates of depression are on the rise. College creates an environment of high expectations, constant evaluation and deadlines that can heighten stress and anxiety. A 2008 study from Columbia University found that up to 50 percent of college students experience psychiatric disorders, although fewer than 25 percent seek treatment. Students suffering from psychiatric illness are less likely to attend class, complete assignments and graduate from college. They are more prone to engage in substance abuse. Suicide rates among college students have nearly doubled since the 1950s.

An elite residential university like mine is especially likely to produce or exacerbate depression. Students are especially susceptible when they are living away from home for the first time, often with less experiences and resources for coping with adversity than older adults. A rising senior at my university blogged recently that my university is “a place of unimaginable wealth, privilege, cruelty, pressure and stress…. Depression is normal, but here, it’s the norm.”

I know some of my colleagues see the rising incidence of disability among their students as evidence of the medicalization of our culture. The problem is not that more students are experiencing learning, mood and behavior disorders, they tell me, but that we live in a society that is too quick to diagnose and medicate conditions that, in the past, would be considered ordinary human behavior. So too, they argue, privileged students often use diagnoses as an excuse to get accommodations that give them an unfair advantage over their peers.

Given the stigma surrounding disability, there is little incentive for students to claim disability for the purposes of personal gain. It is far more likely for students to avoid getting treatment than to deliberately pursue a diagnosis to get a competitive edge. Indeed, research shows that less than 25 percent of students suffering from psychiatric illness seek treatment.

Depression is a real disability that needs to be accommodated, in the same way we accommodate students who use wheelchairs or have vision impairments. Beyond the minimum requirements stipulated by the Americans With Disabilities Act, colleges and universities need to do all they can to help students with disabilities by providing adequate counseling and accommodations.

But we also need to face the unfortunate fact that sometimes college, especially a highly competitive, residential college like the one where I teach, is an unhealthy environment for students with more severe forms of depression. Maybe depression is one disability I’m not able to accommodate. And maybe my students, in vanishing from class, are making that decision for themselves.

Rachel Adams is a professor of English and American studies at Columbia University, where she also directs the Center for the Study of Social Difference. Her most recent books are Raising Henry: A Memoir of Motherhood, Disability and Discovery and Keywords for Disability Studies.
 

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Academic Minute: Fracking Concerns

In today's Academic Minute, Susan Brantley, a professor of geosciences at Penn State University, discusses her research on the water in areas where fracking occurs. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

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Why Is Harvard Closing Its Primate Lab?

Many researchers are wondering why Harvard University is closing a primate research laboratory that has been instrumental in key scientific breakthroughs for decades, The Boston Globe reported. The university says it is making a "strategic" shift, and that the motivation is not a controversy over several monkey deaths that have prompted criticism from regulators and animal rights groups.

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Stanford political science department overhauls undergraduate major

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After seeing its majors drop, Stanford's political science department overhauls the undergraduate major, focusing less on specialization and more on issues students care about. Could other departments be next?

Ithaca College Adjuncts Form Union

Adjuncts at Ithaca College voted to form a union affiliated with Service Employees International Union, 172 to 53, they announced Thursday. Sarah Grundberg, an adjunct instructor of sociology, said in a news release that the union will “not only make the college stronger as a whole but will also continue to set an example nationally that part-time faculty deserve better working conditions and that coming together can and does facilitate positive change.” Adjuncts elsewhere in New York State, at the College of Saint Rose and Schenectady Community College, have recently formed SEIU-affiliated collective bargaining units as part of the union’s national Adjunct Action campaign. Thomas Rochon, Ithaca’s president, said in a statement that the college plans to bargain in good faith with the new unit, to “reach a consensus that balances the requests of the faculty with the ongoing needs of the college and its students.”

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