How has activism evolved in our digital society? In this episode, Sudhir talks to Jade Magnus Ogunnaike about the intersection of big tech and civil rights. She is a senior campaign director for Color of Change. It’s a racial justice organization that blends traditional organizing efforts with an updated playbook for how to make change.
Last week, the board upheld the ban of former President Donald Trump’s social media accounts. Sudhir talks to Noah Feldman, the constitutional law scholar who helped design this “supreme court” for content moderation. They reveal the inside story of how the idea came about, how the court was built, and ask big questions, like … will anyone trust it?
If the big social-media companies are unable or unwilling to make major changes from within, it may be up to outsiders to create better, healthier digital communities. Whether it’s smaller platforms for like-minded people, a publicly owned social network, self-policing by user groups, or activist campaigns to pressure Twitter and Facebook to improve, Sudhir explores what’s next for social media — and what makes societies function or fail.
What’s it like to try and police millions of pieces of abusive content every day? Sudhir takes us inside Facebook, as he and his former colleagues recall how hard it was to encourage civility at a company obsessed with growth — especially when that growth was often driven by some of the most toxic behaviors.
When online anger turned to offline violence at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, the big social media companies responded by kicking some users — including the president himself — off their platforms. What led to that decision? Was it an overreach? And what role did they really play in the events that took place? Sudhir explores how social media is built to encourage bad behavior, and why one afternoon of unrest can’t overcome a decades-old mindset in Silicon Valley that blinds them to this reality.
I recently read an engaging book on the use of crowds and crowd-based intelligence for generating innovation. Shaun Abrahamson is one of the authors of Crowdstorm: The Future of Innovation, Ideas, and Problem Solving.
I have to admit that I am not a big believer in leveraging crowds for change—I think there is a fetish of the role that masses play in idea formation. I do believe that intelligence is distributed, but I’m an old-fashioned proponent of formal organizations.
But after reading Shaun’s book, I changed some of my stubborn views. The book is a systematic (and critical) appraisal of the role that crowds can play in diverse organizational and personal settings. I think Freakonomics readers might benefit from hearing Shaun’s insights.
Q. Aristotle said that every new idea builds on something earlier by hiding/transforming it. What’s old and what’s “new” in crowdstorming?
A. The main newness is the identification of patterns for finding and evaluating ideas. More specifically the identification of patterns that seem to deliver good or better results than if we were to working with smaller groups of people.
Freak Readers, It is my distinct pleasure to introduce Maxine Doogan, from the Erotic Service Providers Union. I won’t offer a lengthy introduction —I’d embarrass Maxine! — because her words below say it all. Maxine has taught me a lot about prostitution and the sex trade in general. She has been instrumental in helping me craft my own research. Together, we hope to launch the first multi-city comprehensive research study of the sex economy. In a subsequent post, I’ll ask you for some feedback on that project. For now, I want to share her insights about the sex economy today.
Q. Our readers might be interested in understanding exactly what you are seeking that might improve the economic conditions of sex workers? By the way, how you do you define “sex worker”?
A. To improve one’s economics is to improve their lives and the larger communities.
I recently read a terrific book by sociologist Jennifer Lena, Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music. She explores the factors that influence the spread of musical taste — why some genres, bands, etc., gain popularity. Jennifer’s research is impressive because of the range of her exploration — according to her publisher’s website, she covers “rap to bluegrass to death metal and South Texas polka.”
Jennifer is helping redefine our understanding of social influence — what and who matters, and how ideas and tastes spread in complex social networks. I had a chance to ask Jennifer a few questions about her work.
Q. You are interested in factors that determine whether particular musical styles, genres, etc., will gain mass appeal — or remain circumscribed to a small niche. Have you discovered something about the process of “influence” or “contagion” that the social network scholars have ignored or underemphasized? What does your work tell us about the role of networks in shaping popular tastes?
A. The most common way for music to blow up from a small scene into global pop is for a controversy to erupt.
Dear Freakonomics readers,
A profile of me and my work appeared in the N.Y. Times yesterday. There were two story angles: how I conduct my research and allegations of questionable financial dealings in which I was involved. I wrote a formal statement to the Columbia University student paper and online blog, but you are also my community, so let me address you directly.
Three years ago, at my request, I began working with Columbia University on an internal initiative to develop greater clarity and transparency of an institute that they had asked me to direct. Together, we systematically reviewed grants management and research procedures as we sought to establish new, higher standards of reporting and accountability. Part of that review included the grants managed by my position. An audit was conducted, it was completed, and ethically I felt it was my responsibility to pay back $13,000 in previously reimbursed expenses for which my own recordkeeping did not meet these new standards. That matter is closed, and has been for over two years.
Perhaps some of you have been following the debates in various cities (e.g., New York, Chicago) over big retail stores that land in their backyard. I enjoy reading about attempts to regulate economic activity because I believe it raises a central contradiction of American society: phrased as a question, how much regulation is necessary to maintain the free market? Maybe this is not a contradiction, but a perennial challenge. Two areas seem ripe for inquiry: The need to monitor big financial institutions and the limitations that some want to impose on mega-retailers who crowd out the little mom & pop establishments.
Regarding the second issue, I came across a book I thought might interest you. Al Norman has been writing critically about the retail chain Walmart for some time. He brings his insights and passion together in a book called Occupy Walmart. Below is a brief Q&A.
Last week, I asked Freakonomics.com readers “Which Social Science Should Die?” The results are in. Thank you for your clear-eyed, sober judgment. Recall that some of you answered in the comments (see previous link) and others visited the on-line poll (which is still open). As of this writing, more than 1,200 votes have been registered.
And the winner — er, “LOSER”(!) is:
Let’s Kill Off Sociology and Political Science!
As you can see from the chart below, nearly 50 percent believed that college/university presidents should eliminate sociology. Nearly 30 percent thought poli sci should be shuttered. [Editor’s note: it is perhaps not surprising that Freakonomics readers wouldn’t vote to eliminate economics.]
I’d like to enlist you in a debate that, to date, is mostly occurring within the academy.
Imagine that, in order to respond both to budgetary pressures and calls for greater relevance of the American academy, College & University Presidents are re-examining their social science disciplines. They have decided to eliminate one major discipline. In your opinion, which of the following is no longer as relevant to the mission of research and education, and should be eliminated as a consequence?
Freakonomics readers may know that I’m not the most qualified person to talk about using surveys. My first attempt — asking street gang members “How does it feel to be black and poor? Very bad, bad, good, …” — was met with laughter, disbelief and, scorn. (I suppose it was all uphill from that point!)
A basic question social scientists confront is: Why would you want to participate in our survey? Interviews can be long and boring; who wants to sit on the phone or stand on a streetcorner answering questions? A few bucks may not be worth the time. In fact, you have likely already perfected methods of avoiding telemarketers and sidewalk interviewers. From a data standpoint, your skilled avoidance is our problem: the views of respondents can differ from non-participants. From political races to consumer habits to opinion polls … we love numbers, and we need participation to get an accurate reading.
This is the first installment of a new Freakonomics.com feature from Sudhir Venkatesh. Each AI: Adventures in Ideas post will showcase new research, writing, or ideas.
A new book is garnering significant attention. In Going Solo, Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at NYU, looks at a growing trend in contemporary adulthood: living alone. How we live, Klinenberg argues, is shifting, and it could be one of the most important developments of the last half-century.
Columbia sociologist Shamus Khan went back to teach at his alma mater, the prestigious St. Paul’s School, nine years after graduating. He’s written a book about how society’s elite are brought up, and what behaviors they carry through life.
The F.B.I. released its 2008 data on hate crimes in the U.S. The figures suggest that American hatred is on the rise, but not my much: only about 2 percent. The highest upticks occurred for hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation (up 11 percent) and religion (up 9 percent).
I wrote a book on the underground economy a few years ago. For about a decade, I observed activity in Chicago’s South Side — our current president’s backyard. I was surprised to learn about the importance of “creditors” — otherwise affectionately known as “loansharks” — who operated an informal lending network in the area. (These people are known for charging . . .
Dear Secretary Geithner, I’ve been out of touch. Sorry. I spent the last month on grand jury duty, putting Manhattan’s poor minorities behind bars. I needed a little time to recover. As promised, this is the first in a series of friendly dispatches. Advice, if you will. Learned counsel. Wisdom from the streets (as opposed to “The Street,” where wisdom . . .
Dear Mr. Geithner, I have been on jury duty recently. Nevertheless, I have been observing your first few weeks in office. I figured you could use a little help. I, personally, don’t have the expertise, so I thought I’d lean on a few acquaintances who have weathered several economic storms. What’s that? You say you have your own friends? Well . . .
Sudhir Venkatesh‘s book “Gang Leader for a Day,” originally published last January, is now out in paperback. You can read reviews of it here, here, and here; and The Economist named it a book of the year. Robert Rosenkranz has proposed means of financial market regulation. His Wall Street Journal op-ed offers redress for the abysmal behavior of credit agencies, . . .
I have been posting on this site about the trials and tribulations of young donors. I’m in the middle of chronicling the life of Michael, an heir to a trust, who must soon begin giving away $78 million (U.S.). More on his philanthropic journey in the next post. Another group is stumbling into the American philanthropic scene. Young South Asians . . .
Photo: cicilief In my last post, I offered several reasons why the urban riot has gone out of style in the U.S. However, France will not be spared the sword. I predict that the world will watch French cities light up in youth unrest in 2009, 2010 at the latest … 2011 for sure. I have been traveling to the . . .
Photo: Mika Hiironniemi I have been struck by the absence of collective protest over the actions of those in the financial industry. Free market advocates have been rendered impotent; why aren’t they up in arms that their belief system has been forever invalidated? Leftists watch as our elected leaders hand over the oversight function to the very companies that caused . . .
This past weekend I had the opportunity to bring two ends of the American income spectrum together. I introduced Michael, the blue-blood New Yorker who plans to start a family foundation (see earlier posts), to Curtis, a squatter in Chicago who moves from one abandoned apartment to another. Michael, a multi-millionaire with a team of professionals managing his assets, must . . .
Readers of this blog might recall my earlier posts about Michael, a young man who is expecting to donate about $70 million over the coming decade. In the last six months, Michael has committed himself to understanding both the responsibilities and challenges of philanthropy. There was some interest in his progress among Freakonomics readers, so I thought it might be . . .
Photo: Rhett Redelings After writing my last Freakonomics post, I received a phone call from a police officer who began his career in Chicago. Carl, the 54-year-old cop, started working in Chicago’s inner cities at the height of the crack epidemic. He transferred to the suburbs of Seattle for a lifestyle change — “I was tired of getting shot at,” . . .
I recently published a paper on urban gun markets with Philip J. Cook, Jens Ludwig, and Anthony A. Braga. I was sort of the odd man out. The three researchers have been studying gun use in the United States for many years. I had access to gun sellers, prospective customers, ammunition dealers, and gun brokers who bring purchasers and sellers . . .
Michael and I looked over the 500 plus comments and suggestions that were generously offered regarding his upcoming dilemma: How should I give away $70 million? We were joined by his sister, Cathy, who also has a “small sum of money” (her words) that she needs to donate in the coming decade. Apparently, she will have to give away “only” . . .
This is the dilemma faced by Michael, a 31-year-old who will soon inherit a large sum of money. For reasons that the truly wealthy will immediately understand, Michael has been advised to set up a foundation. “I have to donate about $70 million over the next decade,” he laughs. “Or maybe it’s $50 million. I can never remember.” I occasionally . . .
Dorothy (right) and her daughter Do-Do. Last week Sudhir Venkatesh solicited your questions for Mindy and Dorothy, two of his contacts in the high-end (and low-end) sex worker world. Mindy and Dorothy also had a pop quiz for Freakonomics readers — which you answered enthusiastically (though not all of you passed). Thanks to Mindy and Dorothy for their generosity and . . .
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