Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociologist who has studied crack gangs, sex workers, and gun runners, suddenly found himself working at Facebook, and later at Twitter. Now he’s back from Silicon Valley to explore and explain our overheated digital universe. “Sudhir Breaks the Internet” is a production of the Freakonomics Radio Network.
The sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh spent years studying crack dealers, sex workers, and the offspring of billionaires. Then he wandered into an even stranger world: social media. He spent the past five years at Facebook and Twitter. Now that he’s back in the real world, he’s here to tell us how the digital universe really works. In this pilot episode of a new podcast, Venkatesh interviews the progressive political operative Tara McGowan about her digital successes with the Obama campaign, her noisy failure with the Iowa caucus app, and why the best way for Democrats to win more elections was to copy the Republicans.
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.
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.