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  • 00:00

    [MUSIC PLAYING][Social Listening & Reclaiming the Future]

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    MARK CARRIGAN: What I'm going to be talking aboutis somewhat more diffuse, partly because I took the framingof the future very literally.[Mark Carrigan, PhD, Digital Engagement Fellow,Faculty of Education, The University of Cambridge]And also, because when I was thinkingabout the future of social listening,the future of social science, the future of society,I found myself getting preoccupiedby the role of metaphors in framing these discussions,

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    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: and particularly about what big data is,what social listening is, because I've alwaysbeen very interested in how people talk about these things,because I sometimes feel like a little bit of a charlatanin these kinds of debates, because I'm nota practitioner of big data methods.But I often find myself at eventslistening to people talk about big data

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    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: and sometimes talking about it myself,because in the fields that I do work in,I confront big data, or rather the challenge of big dataendlessly.So I work on issues such as the uptakeof social media in higher education,the everyday experience of life, when social media has becomeubiquitous, the future of sociology, in particular,

  • 01:15

    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: and how the social sciences are reconfiguring themselvesin the changing landscape.And big data is something that refersto a quite distinct set of social technical developments.We've talked today about all manner of analytic techniquesthat are being used to generate knowledge in this environment.But I think there's something broader and harder to pin down

  • 01:37

    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: taking place, which is where the role of metaphorbegins to creep in, which is a transformation in the horizonof practice, something which hovers above us,and it's hard to pin down.The metaphors are inevitable, because we'retalking about a transformation in the social world,a transformation in how we know about the social worldand the transmission in how we communicate that knowledge

  • 01:58

    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: of the social world.And metaphors in this context, whenwe trying to get a grip on something that'schanging around us, that's changing faster than wecan conceptualize the change that's underway,they're inevitable.But they can also mislead, because on the one hand,metaphors matter, because they [INAUDIBLE] enthusiasms.They define our epistemic horizons.

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    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: They shape our sense of the possibilitiesand how we orientate ourselves to those possibilities.But I think they can also close things down.And I'm very interested in how the social sciences arereconfiguring, that we're seeing the institutionalizationof a digital social science that is still only now beginningto take shape.But the role of metaphors at this sort of pointin the establishment of something defined

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    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: as a profession, as a established body of expertisebecome crucial, because metaphors are sticky.And the ways in which we talk about thingsat this crucial stage are liable to becometaken for granted thoughts of practice at a later date.And my concern about the metaphors surrounding big datalargely stem because I think they can tendto ossify the online order.

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    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: They can take something contingent and markedby powerful vested interests as a givenso that it fades into the background as [INAUDIBLE]to rise in the practice.And I'm concerned about how we talk about big dataand how this might lead us to foreclose addressingsome very pressing political and economic questions that

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    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: are starting to enter the agenda of broaderpolitical life in a serious way at much the same timeas I think there's a risk of them beginning to slip awayfrom practice amongst specialists who arebest equipped to answer them.And so metaphors abound, I think,when we're talking about these things.

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    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: Big data is itself a metaphor.Data likes physical extensions.Talk of big data is an implied performanceof contrast to small data.And there's a whole series of assumptionsthat they can bound up in how we talkabout big data in that sense.In the earlier more Utopian phase and hyperbolic sensingwhich big data was talked about as the revolution that

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    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: will sweep away theory, we heard endless hyperboleabout tsunamis of data, drowning in data, avalanche of data.Even now, we hear much more sober and moderate talkabout following digital breadcrumbs,following digital trails.And in this landscape, I like the metaphorof social listening, because of course, social listeningis a metaphor.We are largely talking about text and images.

  • 04:27

    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: We are not literally listening to them.But when we think about the literal meaning of the word"listening," to give one's attention to a sound,and so I think to frame what we'redoing in terms of social listening,it captures a sense of paying attention at scale.It's [INAUDIBLE] to be sensitive where framing the possibilitiesthat big data offers to us, where we can extract knowledge

  • 04:49

    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: from conversations taking place at unprecedented scale,conversations that would formerly have been lost.And I think this is very exciting.And if I had to pick a metaphor, whichwould be a slightly silly game, but thiswould be my favorite metaphor, because I think it alsocontrasts interestingly with what I would argueis usually an implicit metaphor, a more ocular metaphor,where big data allows us to read the book of society

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    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: as we once dreamed of reading the book of nature,that big data allows us to see the reality of the social worldin a way that dispenses with pesky business of theoryand interpretation.And I think this focus on listening,it's about the quality of social life.It inclines us towards an attentiveness to that quality.

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    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: But still, I think we need to be careful,because the reality of speaking and listening on social mediais complex.And it's complex in a way that I think most,if not all, people involved in this kind of research activityrecognize in principle that that recognitionin the pragmatic flow of decisionsthat a research project entails often falls by the wayside.

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    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: And I think metaphors can play a subtle role in allowing thatfalling away to take place.Those things that you recognize and the level of--of course, everyone knows that the demographics of Twitterare very different to the demographics of the population.Nonetheless, we can remain inactivewhen we're actually conducting a project.So these [INAUDIBLE] of how social media platforms are not

  • 06:20

    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: quite as we frame them to be has a tendencyto become circumscribed.And I'm interested in the ways in which we talk about thisand how it licenses that, how our conceptual vocabulariesclose down this awareness that we might otherwise have an acton in perfect circumstances.On the most obvious level, the architectureof social media platforms shapes action

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    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: and shapes the kind of talking and listeningthat takes place upon them, because there are lotsof people who aren't there.In the most literal sense of the [INAUDIBLE]between the demographics or of a given platform and the broaderpopulation.But there are also the quite specific exclusionsthat inevitably take place when werely on particular kinds of listening

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    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: techniques or listening platformsand the expansiveness or otherwise of the populationwe're thus listening into.But what interests me particularlywith my social media in higher education haton is the way in which certain modes of talking and actingbecome incentivized on social media and how the speechwe find up on social media is intensely

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    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: marked by the platform.And in a sense, this might seem like social imperialism,because I'm ultimately just sayingthat the activity we engage in is situationally bound,meaning it has [INAUDIBLE] shaped by the situation.But I think we often don't see the materialityof the architecture of a social media platformas shaping the interaction that takes placeupon it in as obvious a way as when we have interaction

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    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: at a conference, or at dinner or in a [INAUDIBLE]..We recognize the fact that there are particular featuresof those situations that shape how people act within them.And again, speaking in terms of my interestin how academics use social media,we can see many examples of how social media incentivizescertain modes of academic speech.

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    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: We can see tendencies that academics engage inof the context.And we can see new, and in some cases, more troublingproclivities that develop amongst academicsusing social media.And I think if we take an architectural analysisof these platforms to look at the assumptions loadedinto the design, to look at the incentives of a varietyof users and the interests underlying these incentives,

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    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: we can see quite clearly that visibilityis something accrued through speaking on social media.And listening, which is every bit as purposive an activity asspeaking is something that tends not to register empirically.Indeed, if we take seriously the suggestionthat some people use social media in a compulsive way,then actually listening might sometimesbe a much more purposive activity

  • 08:48

    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: on social media than speaking.And yet, speaking is what we tend to notice.Speaking is a path to visibility.Speaking is a way to create influence on social media.And I say this as someone who's tweeted 50,000 timesin the last few years.So I'm not judgmental about speaking on social media.But we need to recognize the way this conditionsbehavior in certain ways, encourages

  • 09:09

    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: certain modes of relating to each other,and relating to the world.And in essence, the practical implication of thiscould just be to say, well, it's messier than it might sometimesbe described to us.But I think it also gives us reasonto pause about how we conceptualize these platformsand to be cautious about the ways in which metaphors maygrant a limited sense of the architecture of these platforms

  • 09:32

    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: as something that's taken for granted,as something that fades into the background,because, as I stressed at the start, we're at the stagewhere regulation of what is now coming to be termed "big tech"is starting to want to enter onto the political agendain a major way.Indeed, some people would argue it'samongst the most pressing political issues of all time.And I'm becoming preoccupied by the parallels between debates

  • 09:54

    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: surrounding the regulation of the mass mediain the early 20th century and the regulation of social medianow.And they're all issues that are nowin the non-specialist news every day, computation of propaganda,[INAUDIBLE] information, behavioral interventions.And my concern is that if we look

  • 10:15

    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: at these in terms of the exercise of power and influenceof temporary society, we see the emergence of a whole plethoraof new techniques through which the already powerfuland the already influential can find ways to further entrenchtheir own influence.And I'm very interested in what this means for the future, whatthis means for the space as a possibility that

  • 10:36

    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: are open in front of us and how the possibility that wecollectively determine our futurethat our outcomes and the life that we all shareare almost determined by a broad swathe of society,and civil society, Instead come to be the silent machinationsexercised by the already powerful true means thatby definition tend towards the opaque.

  • 10:58

    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: And it's in this political contextthat I think what might otherwiseseem to be very obscure issues of field formationand institutionalization in the digital social sciences,how those conducting digital social scienceunderstand what they're doing, how they identify,how they regard the difference between what they doand what other forms of social scientists do.

  • 11:19

    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: These otherwise obscure issues, I think,can take on a pressing importance, because there'sa risk the digital capitalism, platform capitalism-- it'shard to know exactly what term to use for this--but the broader political and economic situationwithin which social media has become ubiquitous,it fades away and becomes a condition for social science,

  • 11:40

    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: rather than an object of social scientific inquiry.The critical potential of social scienceto turn around on the condition within which we are allconfronted risks being lost, because if we see this as--if we lose the sense that this couldbe an object, if social science becomescircumscribed as something that takes place entirely

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    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: within the boundaries of given platforms,and the reality of social scienceas objects are reduced to objects that registerempirically as digital events within those platforms,then something really important has been lost.And the way in which the institutional dynamicsof how digital social science is taking shape

  • 12:22

    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: are liable to impact upon these broader trends.It's very complex.And I can barely scratch the surface of itin a short 10-minute talk.And there are many aspects to it--methods, methodology, theory, ethics, metatheory.But underlying them all, I think. is metaphor.And the way in which at an early stage of field formation,

  • 12:43

    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: the metaphors that are influential,the metaphors that people reproduce at conferences,these are all factors that shape all aspects of howthe digital social sciences are forming.And I think if we're cautious about metaphor,then we can exercise an influenceover the traditions that are being laid down now,because there's enormous critical emancipatory potential

  • 13:04

    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: in the social sciences.There always has been.And the emergence of the social scienceswas tied in to a desire to address social problems.The social sciences have always been as concernedwith action and change in the world,as with the disinterested study of that world.And my slightly diffuse, perhaps pessimistic,concern is that there are particular trends taking place

  • 13:27

    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: now in how the digital social sciences are startingto emerge, which risks their focus becoming very narrowand becoming very narrow in a waythat a certain range of questions about power,about influence, about democracy,about political economy start to fall by the wayside.I'm not for a second suggesting this work isn't being done.It is.

  • 13:47

    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: But I think this work is being doneagainst a certain background of constraints--institutional constraint, attentional constraint,but also the difficulty of sustainingthese questions in certain spaceswhen our focus tends to narrow to the confines of beingwithin a platform, rather than takingthat platform as an object.

  • 14:07

    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: And as I said, it was going to bea slightly diffuse talk compared to everything else today.But I'd really welcome any thoughts.Thank you.[APPLAUSE][Produced in association with Social Listeningat the University of Reading][To find out more, visit

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    MARK CARRIGAN [continued]: listening][MUSIC PLAYING]

Video Info

Publisher: SAGE Publications Ltd

Publication Year: 2019

Video Type:Lecture

Methods: Big data, Social media research

Keywords: bias; demographics; exclusion; influence and persuasion; influence and position; institutionalization; interaction analysis; listening; metaphor; metaphor and organization; Social media; social science; Social scientists; text messaging; trends; Twitter ... Show More

Segment Info

Segment Num.: 1

Persons Discussed:

Events Discussed:



Mark Carrigan, PhD, Digital Engagement Fellow, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, discusses how the metaphors used to frame the field of social science, as it re-configures itself in the digital world of big data, could profoundly influence its future.

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Social Listening & Reclaiming the Future

Mark Carrigan, PhD, Digital Engagement Fellow, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, discusses how the metaphors used to frame the field of social science, as it re-configures itself in the digital world of big data, could profoundly influence its future.

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