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Keynote speech at the Digitale Praxen conference at Frankfurt University


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We will discuss four misunderstandings often connected to use of digital traces:
1) the use of a notion of digital traces that is both too narrow and too ambitious;
2) the alternation of oblivion and paranoia on the conditions of digital traces' production;
3) the tendency to confuse digital and automatic;
4) the hope that the digital traces are easily clamped by conventional methods.
We will try to show than when these misunderstandings are avoided, digital methods can renew the vision of social sciences and help them to overcome the classic divide between qualitative and quantitative methods.

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Keynote speech at the Digitale Praxen conference at Frankfurt University

  1. 1. 4 misunderstandings about digital methods Tommaso Venturini
  2. 2. 4+1 misunderstandings 0. [ Digital mediation traces society ] 1. Digital traces are not sociological data 2. Quantity is less interesting that variety 3. Digital does not mean automatic 4. More quantification demands more qualification
  3. 3. M. 0 Digital mediation traces society
  4. 4. The media as (just) an object of study Photo credit – Brandon Doran via Flickr - ©
  5. 5. The media as carbon paper Chris Harrison, 2004 Internet connections
  6. 6. The rise of digital methods Virtual reality Late ‘80-early ‘90 (Barlow, Turkle, Negroponte, Rheingold) Virtual society? 1997-2002 (Steve Woolgar et al.)
  7. 7. Digital traceability Once you can get information as bores, bytes, modem, sockets, cables and so on, you have actually a more material way of looking at what happens in Society. Virtual Society thus, is not a thing of the future, it’s the materialisation, the traceability of society. It renders visible because of the obsessive necessity of materialising information into cables, into data. Latour, B. 1998 “Thought Experiments in Social Science: from the Social Contract to Virtual Society”
  8. 8. From digital traceability … Bruno Latour (1998), argued that the Web is mainly of importance to social science insofar as it makes possible new types of descriptions of social life. According to Latour, the social integration of the Web constitutes an event for social science because the social link becomes traceable in this medium. Thus, social relations are established in a tangible form as a material network connection. We take Latour’s claim of the tangibility of the social as a point of departure in our search (p. 342). Rogers, R., and Marres, N. 2002 “Frenchs candals on the Web, and on the streets: A small experiment in stretching the limits of reported reality.” Asian Journal of Social Science 66: 339-353.
  9. 9. The rise of digital methods Virtual reality Late ‘80-early ‘90 (Barlow, Turkle, Negroponte, Rheingold) Virtual society? 1997-2002 (Steve Woolgar et al.) Digital methods 2009 (Richard Rogers) rogers-digital-methods
  10. 10. Hansel, Gretel and the breadcrumbs birds Drawing credit – Frits Ahlefeldt
  11. 11. Media acceleration [Media] amplify or accelerate existing processes. For the "message" of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs. The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure. Mcluhan, M. 1964 Understanding Media
  12. 12. M. 1 Digital traces are not sociological data
  13. 13. Tracing collective life is not cheaper (the price is paid elsewhere) Cable industry investments (cumulative unadjusted data source: Cable industry investments (de-inflated rate source:
  14. 14. Digital traces are second-handed Askitas, N., & Zimmermann, K. (2011). Health and Well-Being in the Crisis. IZA Discussion Paper
  15. 15. Digital traces are second-handed
  16. 16. ogle-suggest-enabled-by-default.html Digital traces are second-handed
  17. 17. Are we mapping the media or the content? E. Borra, E. Weltevrede, P. Ciuccarelli, A. Kaltenbrunner, D. Laniado, G. Magni, M. Mauri, R. Rogers, T. Venturini. Societal Controversies in Wikipedia Articles CHI'15: 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems Proceedings, 2015.
  18. 18. Redistribution of research methods • Methods as usual (ex. Andrew Abbott, ) The techniques used by digital platforms have been long used in social sciences. • Big methods (ex. Newman et al, 2007) Digital traceability increases the quantity of social data thereby demanding use of mathematical techniques of analysis. • Virtual methods (ex. Christine Hine, 2000, 2005) Digital media transform the quality of social practices and demand therefore increased efforts of observations and interpretation. • Platform repurposing (ex. Richard Rogers, 2009) Digital platforms have their own methods that need to be understood and re- purposed for social research. • Re-mediation of sociological methods (ex. Nortje Marres, 2011) The techniques used by digital platforms have been long used in social sciences, but are radically transformed the new context of their use. Marres, N. (2011). Re-distributing Methods: Interventions in Digital Social Research. More redistribution Less redistribution
  19. 19. On digital traceability Venturini, Tommaso, and Bruno Latour. 2010. “The Social Fabric: Digital Traces and Quali-Quantitative Methods.” in Proceedings of Future En Seine 2009. Paris, pp. 87–101 Venturini, Tommaso. 2012. “Building on Faults: How to Represent Controversies with Digital Methods.” in Public Understanding of Science 21(7):796–812. Venturini, Tommaso, and Daniele Guido. 2012. “Once Upon a Text : An ANT Tale in Text Analysis.” in Sociologica 3.
  20. 20. M. 2 Quantity is less interesting that variety
  21. 21. What happened on the September 25 2015?
  22. 22. What happened on the September 25 2015?
  23. 23. Taking “data mining” seriously conventional oil VS unconventional oil
  24. 24. An (pseudo-) exhaustive map of the Web
  25. 25. Compulsive hoarding
  26. 26. A good map of the Web tographie-de-la-blogosphere-politique-en- 2012_1635269_823448.html
  27. 27. A good map of the Web tographie-de-la-blogosphere-politique-en- 2012_1635269_823448.html
  28. 28. And back to big data
  29. 29. Quantity VS diversity Patrick Blanc
  30. 30. Quantity VS diversity
  31. 31. Quantity VS diversity
  32. 32. M. 3 Digital does not mean automatic
  33. 33. Finding a needle in a needlestak Drawing credit – Frits Ahlefeldt
  34. 34. This is a world where massive amounts of data and applied mathematics replace every other tool that might be brought to bear. Out with every theory of human behavior, from linguistics to sociology. Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology. Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves… Petabytes allow us to say: ‘‘Correlation is enough.’’ We can stop looking for models. We can analyze the data without hypotheses about what it might show. We can throw the numbers into the biggest computing clusters the world has ever seen and let statistical algorithms find patterns. Chris Anderson magazine/16-07/pb_theory The end of theory?
  35. 35. No, its not just pushing a button
  36. 36. Corpus constitution
  37. 37. Terms identification
  38. 38. Terms extraction http://medialab.sciences-
  39. 39. Term cleaning mpler2new.html
  40. 40. Term merging http://medialab.sciences-
  41. 41. Co-occurrence http://medialab.sciences-
  42. 42. Time analysis http://medialab.sciences-
  43. 43. Narration!/narrative/mitigation-and- adaptation-in-the-unfccc-debates
  44. 44. Venturini, Tommaso et al. 2014. “Three Maps and Three Misunderstandings: A Digital Mapping of Climate Diplomacy.” in Big Data & Society 1(2). Venturini, T. et al. 2014 Climaps by EMAPS in 2 Pages (A Summary For Policymakers and Busy People in General). in SSRNDecember 2, 2014. If you want to know more
  45. 45. M. 4 More quantification demands more qualification
  46. 46. Where size does matter
  47. 47. (Collective) life is complicated Andreas Gursky 1999 Chicago, Board of Trade II
  48. 48. Situating VS aggregating
  49. 49. The quali/quantitative divide poor data on large population extensive data intensive data rich data on small population
  50. 50. Follow the White Rabbit why controversy mapping (and digital methods) will change everything you know about sociology Tommaso Venturini The strabismus of social sciences Photo credit – tarout_sun via Flickr - ©
  51. 51. Situating and aggregating Armin Linke Inside / Outside
  52. 52. La fabrique de la loi
  53. 53. On datascape navigation Latour, Bruno, Pablo Jensen, Tommaso Venturini, Sébastian Grauwin and Dominique Boullier, 2012. “‘The Whole Is Always Smaller than Its Parts’: A Digital Test of Gabriel Tardes’ Monads.” The British Journal of Sociology 63(4), pp. 590–615 Venturini, Tommaso, Pablo Jensen, and Bruno Latour (forthcoming), “Fill in the Gap. A New Alliance for Social and Natural Sciences.” Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulations.
  54. 54. The micro/macro divide Merian & Jonston 1718 Folio Ants, Clony, Nest, Insects Thomas Hobbes, 1651 The Leviathan
  55. 55. Visual network analysis
  56. 56. Venturini, T. (2010). Diving in magma: how to explore controversies with actor-network theory. in Public Understanding of Science, 19(3), 258–273. Jacomy, M., Venturini, T., Heymann, S. & Bastian, M. (2014) ForceAtlas2, a Continuous Graph Layout Algorithm for Handy Network Visualization Designed for the Gephi Software. PlosONE, 9:6 Venturini, T., Jacomy, M and De Carvalho Pereira, D. (working paper) Visual Network Analysis: The example of the rio+20 online debate Beyond micro/macro
  57. 57.