Author Archives: samanthaong

Can we expect of machine learning what we cannot ourselves exemplify?

While trying to look up more information on algorithmic filtering, I chanced upon the Wikipedia article for the term “filter bubble”- this refers to the process by which an algorithm “selectively guesses what information a user would like to see based on information about the user”…thus “effectively isolating them in their own cultural or ideological bubbles”.

Based on my experience in my entrepreneurship fraternity, these filters and algorithms are part of a larger discipline called machine learning. This is a “scientific discipline that explores the construction and study of algorithms that can learn from data”. Because these algorithms operate by building a “model from example inputs and using that to make predictions or decisions”, the system attempts to learn to make human choices using precedent. This in itself is not flawed- but the way we make choices often are. We rely on our cultural background and circumstances to make choices, and these choices are often biased- the very same way that these programs are accused of unfairly functioning. But if the goal of technology is to imitate that human decision making process (however flawed), then we are in no position to say it has not achieved its aim.

However, this does warrant a more concerning inquiry regarding the way we make choices.  There seems to be a tension between equating the advancement of technology to human simulation on the one hand, and the advancement of technology to promote ideals of democracy and a globalized interconnected world of information on the other. Because people are not automatically conditioned to be impartial and all-accommodating, machine learning’s pursuit to capture the complexities of human thought will necessarily fail at upholding complete neutrality.

However, the difference in the way various social media platforms choose to formulate their algorithms shows promise for the field. Examining the difference in Facebook and Twitter feeds in the Ferguson article, it is apparent that the philosophies of each platform weigh heavily on how and how effectively information is filtered. In the case of Facebook, its way of simulating relationships and building networks is based off of a person’s life and profile. Like a customizable AI device in the movie Her, we very much customize Facebook to suit our personality. In contrast, while Twitter is very focused on what accounts you follow and the type of news you are interested in, it also keeps the big picture by alerting users to trending topics. It seems more of a conversation starter than it is a platform for you to gather information about another acquaintance’s life. Because of the etiquette and practices of each platform, we have also come to expect certain things out of each platform. We are more likely to get information about a party on Facebook, and real time updates on news issues on Twitter. These differences, and our knowledge of these differences, hopefully make us more discerning and savvy users- at least until developers figure things out on their end.

That said, at this point, I don’t think we can quite reach the assertion that net neutrality and algorithmic filtering are human rights issues. It is, however, something worth considering if/ when we are able to reconcile machine learning’s trend toward human simulation, and broader expectations that information on the web be credible and fairly filtered.


Kickstarter and the Politics of Funding

“The Politics of Funding” in 3.3.5 of today’s readings were interesting to me, considering the use of numerous crowdfunding platforms as a way of conducting online community fundraising. The idea that it is “necessary to think of a funding model that offers incentives, financial assistance and support to ideas without the usual mechanics of funding and scholarship” is basically the idea that drives Kickstarter. However, there is a minimum threshold that must be observed to effectively accomplish any serious goals or to mobilize activity- lest it end up fulfilling the prophecy set out by the “Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism”. This theory suggests that people are not interested in using the Internet for activism- they would much rather surf pornography or lolcats.

Projects like this one on Kickstarter, where the initiator raised $55,000 for potato salad, demonstrates the entertainment value and troll effect that Digital Natives are undeniably influenced and oftentimes motivated by. Since the internet is a platform for recreation as much as it is for rather serious campaigning, the potato salad Kickstarter reflects the viral nature of the Internet that compels Digital Youth to support projects that are otherwise pretty professional.

In contrast, there are several examples of what a successful Kickstarter campaign (that is also aligned with social justice) might look like- take the Reading Rainbow project that raised $5 million on Kickstarter, for example.

But like any activist project, it takes a good marketing strategy to engage Digital Natives. Similar to the success of the Reading Rainbow campaign, the All of Us Mental Health campaign launched by a couple of offices in UCLA student government might be considered an effective use of media to convey activist causes. The particular strategy used here was to use photographs with a unifying theme that were photographed in the same fashion, then released at the same time. Part of this process tacitly recognizes a couple of things- such as the potential virality of releasing many photos at once (leading us to consider what might or might not be a good strategy to make content viral), and the use of profile pictures as a way of garnering attention (as opposed to simply sharing a post).

Whatever it is, the burden of proof seems to lie in the creators- so while it might be true that people consciously seek out pornography and lolcats over going fishing for an important social cause to donate to, they are evidently more than happy to support a well marketed and properly supported cause, the success of which is dependent on the creators. For me, this in no discredits users- it is human nature to gravitate toward an entertaining more than serious cause.


Reflecting on the Race Argument- as an International Student from Singapore

The readings this week really hit home for me. I grew up watching Youtube stars like Nigahiga- and, as the article mentions, it is pretty common to use humor to get at deeper concerns about race as a social construct- people throw it around a lot, but even in the most serious of social justice discussions, there seems to be a way in which it is used to shut others down. I found it funny that some scholars might want to confine race to “the dustbin of analytically useless terms”, but it helped me see past all the empty rhetoric and recognize that is really just an “ideological system” for “thinking about, categorizing and treating human beings”.

Despite this, people are more emotional than rational when it comes to the issue, and the fact that it has become so sensitive makes me wonder how differing sentiments can be expressed in other art forms, or even plainly, without somehow inciting race as a defense mechanism. Common arguments employed by communities of color/ minorities include their “history of oppression”, “cultural appropriation” and even stereotypes and microaggressions launched against them. One of the most difficult to refute is the fact that “white privilege” permits people outside the culture to ever understand the struggles of these minority groups.

While I find it problematic to use personal experience (or lack thereof) as a basis for shutting others arguments down, I wanted to reflect on my own status as a minority group on this campus. As an international student from Singapore, hardly anyone knows about my home country and what that says about my identity. I have had several people ask me where in China Singapore is, and causally compliment me on my good English. Fact is, Singapore is not part of China, and most people in Singapore speak English (it’s my first language). It is also a diaspora, as a number of US immigrant groups seem to be. More in this article:

However, unlike the tension created between whites and communities of color here, Singaporeans have used social media to respond more humorously than seriously to stereotypes and idiosyncrasies of the culture. It might be that it is difficult to offend anyone because the country is so young (about 50 years old) and we lack a strong sense of national pride, or that we have not been the victim of hate crimes or racially motivated wars. This, however, does not change the fact that we have learnt to take embarrassing facets of our culture very generously upon criticism. An example (Shit Singaporeans Say)-

Despite the fact that no one really understands my culture (nor would I claim to completely understand it myself), I don’t feel the need to use it as a tool against others. Further, I think the fact that these videos are created speak to the desire to contribute to a greater narrative about the way we interact with the world, and mis(portrayal) of Asians don’t really upset me. Stereotypes are meant to be reductionist, and while racism is alive and well here, the knowledge that the medium of humor is as reductionist as the stereotypes it seeks to imitate speaks to some truth in the representation. This also forces acknowledgement and further reflection on nuances and complexities.

While the race argument is very difficult to address, I think Spencer does a great job of pointing out that “the use of racial divisions emerged as a way of resolving the conflict between the ideology of equality for all and universal reason, and on the other hand, facts of social inequality”. But because social media has the power to democratize, it seems as though social inequality is temporarily suspended. It does not change the fact that racism is still prevalent, but because you can be anyone on social media, it removes the label of race and hopefully encourages us to develop arguments that are conceptual rather than simply contextual.

Legal Implications of Cyberbullying?

This week’s Boyd readings raised some questions for me about the legal diagnosis of bullying and cyberbullying. Boyd defines bullying as “a practice in which someone of differential physical or social power subjects another person to repeated psychological, physical or social aggression”. However, she points out that “simply describing one’s experience as “bullying” obscures the significant criminal harassment” that appeared to be at the crux of her interviewee’s pain. This then makes it harder for us to differentiate between “teasing” and “horrific acts of aggression”, making it difficult for the public “to fully understand the significance of any particular bullying claim”.

Given that there is a wide spectrum for acts that might be qualified as bullying, I am curious to know what the law has done to account for these differences in degree and severity of bullying instances, and how a court of law might reasonably interpret instances of bullying when their meaning is so opaque to parents and the general public. Further, given that it no longer seems appropriate to simply diagnose an act as “bullying”, I am curious to know if other torts, such as harassment, undue influence and duress might be better used to describe acts of bullying, and if so, how it would be different from traditional instances of such tortious crimes. Returning to the issue of scope, it might also seem problematic to classify bullying as a crime in all instances.

When cyberbullying is introduced, Boyd aptly notes that the “persistence and visibility of bullying in networked publics” enables “larger audiences to witness acts of bullying”, which “create novel opportunities for people to intervene”. Though the audience is wider, it also seems to lessen the degree to which people are held accountable as witnesses because of its anonymity. What is worse is perhaps the realization that cyberbullying demands not only an accurate interpretation of the act and context of bullying, but the need to sift through layers of filtered reality, impression management, social media etiquette and even self-construction- all of which add complexity to what a court might traditionally count as evidence to allege bullying.

Although the language of bullying seems legally set up for clarity (“assumes there is a perpetrator and a victim”), Boyd’s assertion that the emphasis on punishment “provides little incentive for understanding how punitive measures enable the cycle of violence to continue” suggest this binary does not work. This implicitly suggests that the legal system of judgment might be problematic in the instance of cyberbullying. She discourages the use of zero tolerance approaches that are unjust, ineffective and “create additional harm that increases unhealthy interpersonal interactions”, thus creating more bullies. However, the law generally structures itself for deterrence and a respect for the law, and does not really fit with ideas of positive reinforcement- how else would anyone adhere to the rules?

While positive reinforcement might work for parenting, the law must necessarily be different- yet the issues it needs to gain clarity on and regulate are the same. There are many instances of rules that are knowingly broken e.g. the no drinking under 21 rule, but a policy for something as serious, yet easily ignored as cyberbullying ought to keep a stronger system of checks and balances in place. While zero tolerance might not be the answer, positive reinforcement, along with other soft initiatives like education and raising awareness (two of my pet peeve solutions to any problematic issue in society), do not present themselves as strong enough solutions to the legal puzzle at hand.

What might God think of selfies? / The Selfie Stick

Who cares about public opinion when you have God to worry about? I wrote this post at 4am in the morning and had the weirdest idea to google “what God thinks of selfies”. Interestingly, I found numerous articles on the topic, but for purposes of brevity, I will be referring to this one-

The article first establishes the Christian method of questioning to all standards of behavior: “Is this a good thing? How does this affect me? What impact would it have on others?” The article also mentions that part of the “normal, ascetic life of a Christian is to be aware of, and reflect on the motives that prompt our actions”. Saint Catherine of Siena is also quoted as saying that we must dwell “in the cell of self-knowledge in order to better know God’s goodness”.

In view of this, it appears that Christians ought to abstain from taking selfies those who take them (and worse, post them) are interpreted as being narcissistic and completely lacking in self-awareness. The article elaborates by mentioning vanity as detracting from our humility and focus on God, and developing pride that challenges a willingness to serve God. It was also funny to me that they were enraged to discover that the word “selfie” had made it into the Oxford dictionary in 2013. Rather than just a social taboo, it is interesting to consider how such a seemingly harmless modern phenomenon might conflict with traditional religious teachings.

On a separate note, I was surprised that the selfie stick did not come up in this week’s readings. Given the negative hype that surrounds people who take selfies and post selfies, it would seem even more outrageous that a product was manufactured for the specific purpose of facilitating an activity and behavior that is shrouded in such negativity. On a broader scale, it is interesting to note how products are manufactured to suit our changing and evolving needs, and that products with a single use/ purpose are becoming increasingly popular.

On a recent trip to Disneyland, I noticed many couples and even families carrying selfie sticks. Thinking about my own practice of selfie taking, I take selfies when there isn’t anyone to take a photo for me, but I still want the moment to be captured. In a similar fashion, I imagine couples and families prefer to take their own photos, rather than have someone else take them (I always think asking is a little bit awkward and people surprise me with how bad of a photograph they manage to take). Combined with flip camera technology, it just seems a lot easier to get a sense of what your face looks like on camera before actually taking a picture, thereby eliminating terrible things like ugly drivers’ license photos. Vanity or not, I think our desire to look our best (if not better) is what drives such “self-photography”.

That awkward moment when your date doesn’t look like his Tinder profile picture

tinder booty shorts

(Tinder booty shorts circa 2014)

Rettberg’s Seeing Ourselves Through Technology, Chapter 3: Serial Selfies stuck out to me this week, since I was curious to see how such an informal and colloquial thing like the selfie would manifest itself in academia and theoretical readings. The discussion of profile photos as personal identity and identification with groups was nothing new, but it became interesting to consider in the context of the popular dating app Tinder. For instance, I noticed guys use Red Solo Cups as a symbol of their willingness to partake in underage drinking, and group photos to show their social side while trying to divert the attention of the viewer from their unattractive selves to their attractive friends. I swipe left immediately on both occasions.

My roommate is an avid Tinder user and reading Rettberg’s article also immediately made me recall one of her many dates she recounted to me. She was basically upset because she met up with a guy who looked nothing like his Tinder profile picture- read: he looked something like it, but he was hairier and fatter and way less cut. She said she tried to be nice about it, but she was really super mean and told him she wanted to end the date right there and then because she was so disappointed in how he looked. He apologized and asked if he could make it up to her over dinner but she was bent on leaving and actually got up and left. She emphasized that it was not so much the fact that he looked bad, but that she had showed up reasonably expecting him to look good, that really disappointed her.

Given our implicit awareness and practice of filtered reality, I was curious to know why she felt that way, and why I felt that same sense of disgust after listening to her story. How dare he deceive her into thinking he was someone better than he actually was! Did he not think she would notice, or that she would care? Since people are expected, and certainly do try to make themselves look better online (be it through technological or cultural filters), why was there the expectation that someone look just as good in real life as they do online? Isn’t the point of social media to make yourself look better in virtual space? My immediate response is to say that online representations must have sufficient reality, though some glorification is still bearable. The fact that Tinder is a dating app does, however, have more responsibility for accurate representation attached to it.

On another note, the way that Tinder has restructured the presentation of content is interesting. Tinder differs from the typical timeline or feed based buffet of information- instead, we are presented with one picture/ profile at a time, and are forced to make a judgment call on the person before we can move to the next one. Since we are not given information in a continuous stream, I’m curious to know if this signals a newer cultural trend that is moving away from chronological narrative to random spurts of information, or fragments of information on the basis of preference. Though this certainly does not reflect any narrative time progression, it reflects in a progression in our judgments of people. This is so significant, in fact, that friend of mine (who was a product intern at Tinder) told us how they would create fake profiles just to see what qualities or features in men would result in girls being more likely to swipe right on them.


Impression Management and “Controlled Vocabulary” on LinkedIn

The concept of impression management stood out to me in this week’s readings. Described by sociologist Erving Goffman as “the social rituals involved in self-presentation”, the impressions we make on others are “a product of what is given and what is given off”. Throughout the article, references are also made to the way that teens can pick and choose their identities online, whether for privacy, humor or otherwise. These ideas are relevant for social networking sites like Facebook, but they seem to occupy a different meaning in the context of professional networking sites like LinkedIn.

As I go through recruiting for summer internships, there has been such a heavy emphasis on boosting my resume (and digital resume) to make myself appealing to prospective employers. Rather than taking steps to ensure privacy and avoid misrepresentation like I would on Facebook, I find myself seeking strategies to make myself more accessible to recruiters. This entails my regarding social media as an opportunity for personal branding and marketing, and constructing my identity in a way that appeals to employers- but even then, a good image might not be enough for employers.

For particularly saturated and highly competitive industries like investment banking and management consulting, I’ve been told that they search cover letters, resumes and LinkedIn profiles for a set of “key words” that point them toward applicants with the right skill set. Given that such a “controlled vocabulary” exists, it is discomforting to imagine ourselves as just another dataset or as a small portion of a vast, easily searchable database. It is even more uncomfortable to think that your profile and experiences might not be considered by employers, regardless of your qualifications, if you fail to include key words in your resume and your profile does not show up from their “controlled vocabulary” searches.

Impression management in this context therefore becomes an issue of distinguishing yourself and standing out, rather than preserving a positive image simply by virtue of omitting or concealing questionable information on your profile. We are now concerned with how others process and interpret the information on our profile, but in a way that encourages endless scrutiny of the way we present ourselves on networking sites.

As we ride a wave of increasing ease of integration of multiple social media platforms (you can use Facebook to sign in to almost everything), I am curious to see how our social and professional lives might converge, and if so, whether a consistency in identity across platforms is necessary. Failing which, I am curious to explore how discrepancies can be managed to avoid misrepresentation and misinterpretation. While it is a lot harder to navigate privacy in cyberspace, we are ultimately on the losing end of any such misinterpretation, making it necessary to hold ourselves accountable for our conduct on social media.