This time last week, I was probably on an aircraft waiting to fly back to Gatwick, following five days in Rome.  It seems like a long time ago now.


He’s got wood.

You really can’t take more than three steps in Rome without stumbling over some ancient ruins.  They’re everywhere.  Often, they’re just some pillars, supported by metal bands and standing among weeds and rubble, usually up against more contemporary buildings.  I don’t doubt that just a few feet beneath the pavements, so much more remains undiscovered.  The point is, you can see so much without paying a penny, like the Trevi Fountain, which is pretty much what we did.

I didn’t bother to do any specific research before I went.  I watched Mary Beard’s series on BBC4 when it was broadcast.  I wanted to just look, and take it all in.  And it really is spectacular.  My general photos are here.  The river you can see is the river Tiber – the Tiber!  I don’t know why this excited me so much, but it did.  I wish I’d kept up with Latin, though.  Just the street names can tell you so much, but I might have been able to read some of the inscriptions and graffito.

Anyway, out hotel was this one, which was central for everything and very comfortable.  Mind you, it was a bit inconsistent.  My room was right at the top, with my very own balcony, and very spacious for a single room.  Wifi was pretty near impossible to get, though.  My travelling companions had single rooms each, both of which were smaller than mine (although one had a queen(?) sized bed and a door that was incredibly difficult to open.  The other was more like a cupboard and had a leaking bidet.  And none of our rooms were in the hotel we originally booked, which was this one.  For some reason, they’d made a mistake and had to move us.  The Helvazia was more central, but further away from the Colosseum and the conference venue which is the reason one of us was there in the first place.


Even had a lime tree…

In fact, the mistake with the hotel booking came at the end of a day that had started with the rail strike meaning that I had to get a taxi to the station because my train was cancelled, then the aforementioned taxi hit a cyclist who had come tearing out from a park straight across the road (and was wearing his earphones….), and then the train to Gatwick was cancelled as well so we ended up getting another taxi (fifty quid each) to the airport because we didn’t want to take any more chances with public transport.  Sigh.

I didn’t find Rome as expensive as I thought it would be, which probably says more about how prices have risen generally than anything else.  We are really well (apart from the last evening, which was ok but not up to the standard of previous choices).  We ate here (which was my favourite, and by far the cheapest, especially with wine at 7 euros a litre) on the first evening; lunched here on Thursday (lovely, freshly cooked food but very uncomfortable seating if you have anything other than a small bottom); a Sicilian restaurant Melo on Thursday evening; and here on Friday evening.  The Constanza was something special.  Not only was the food and wine excellent, but the restaurant itself is partially in the remains of a Roman theatre.  Saturday was a bit of a disappointment.  We wanted to go to a place that made pizzas fresh and right in front of you, but unfortunately it was full, complete with queue of people waiting for a table


The Tiber!

Two spectacular places we did pay to visit were the Colosseum and Trajan’s Market.  My Colosseum pictures are here.  Trajan’s market (photos here) was originally directly linked with the Colosseum.  The magnificent horse sculptures you can see are modern, and part of a touring public exhibition, the Lapiderium.  Given that I hard a tour guide say that more  ‘exotic’ animals were dispatched for public entertainment (and probably by ‘accident’ in the chariot races) in the Colosseum than at any time in history, I thought they were a poignant reminder of how cruel human beings can be.20161015_180440I would definitely go back to Rome again.  I didn’t see the Sistine Chapel,  or visit any of the art galleries.  I’d do some more research as well, and visit something with a bit more knowledge under my belt.  Oh, and I’d take several pairs of comfortable walking shoes and loads of pairs of socks.  Walking around Rome is incredibly hard on your feet, paved as it is with small granite blocks  if you’re lucky, crumbling concrete and tarmac if you aren’t.  It’s the best way, though, as nothing is especially far away and public transport looked packed and tricky to negotiate unless you speak some Italian.  I wouldn’t like to be there in the summer.  It was very warm even in October, and busy.  I can only imagine how hot and crowded it must be July/August.


What Big Data Can’t Tell You

I’ve spent what seems like months writing Python code that will let me download the content of blog posts.  You can  do this using what’s known as an RSS (Rich Site Summary) feed, but that only yields a summary of the most recent posts, when I need the whole post, and every post the blogger has written.  In some cases, this goes back years.  It’s been a painful process, and will be the subject of my next blog post, but just for a bit of ‘fun’ I thought I’d look at the comments feed instead.

A while ago, Tom Starkey (@tstarkey1212) asked on Twitter if there was any way of finding out which Edu-blogs might be the most popular.  One way of finding out might be to look at the number of comments made on posts, so I thought I’d use the RSS feed this time to download the latest ones and have a look.  I wrote some Python code, and bingo! there they all were in a nice tidy spreadsheet.  There are some issues, though.  Quite a few, actually.

  1. I have no idea if I have the http address of every Edu-blogger out there.  My source was the list in a spreadsheet provided by Andrew Old .  How complete it is depends on a) whether you’ve heard of Andrew, or b) whether you’ve heard of him but don’t want to add your blog to ‘his’ spreadsheet.  Still, there are over 800 blogs on there so it’s a big enough sample to be getting on with.
  2. The information I needed was the blog post title, the name of the commenter, the date the comment was made, the comment itself, and the http link to the comment.  The link is important because it contains the title of the blog site.  RSS feeds yield particular information as they’re kind of standardised.  However, the title of the blog post contained in the link, the bit in bold in fact: isn’t always the actual title.  Nor is it always after the //, so any attempt to automatically extract the title based on its position in the http address was difficult.  When you’ve got over 8000 rows in your spreadsheet, you so want to automate the process if you can.  I chose not to, because….
  3. The name of the commenter might also be the title of the blog.  In fact, this was the case for quite a few posts, something that only becomes obvious when you slowly scroll through each of those 8000-plus rows.
  4. The name of the commenter should be the very last item in the field yielded by the RSS feed.  In theory, it should be easy to extract because it would come after a comma or possibly even a | symbol.  So, I could write some code that would iterate over every one of those 8000 rows and just extract the commenter’s name and put it in a separate column, right?  Wrong.  Some fields were truncated because they were too long.  Relying on commas to demarcate the right characters risked getting the wrong information.  Sometimes there was nothing more than a space.  In the end, I did it manually, copying and pasting.  That also helped me to identify names that related to the blog title and the name of the commenter, so I could match them up.
  5. Finally, the most obvious thing.  Not everyone who read a blog leaves a comment.  In fact, I’m willing to bet most people don’t. And if they do, I bet they do it via either posting a link to the blog with a recommendation, or simply retweeting the link that brought the blog to their attention in the first place.  The only way of knowing who reads a blog is in the hands of the blogger themselves via their stats pages, or possibly Google with their page link algorithm.  Still, I think the real proof (in spite of what some bloggers have claimed) lies in those stats.  And given I’ve been accessing some sites repeatedly in an effort to see if my code works, there may be some glitches there as well.

In spite of all this, I gathered my data and used NodeXL to produce a graph.  Three, in fact.  The basic one is here and is best viewed using a laptop or PC.  I’ve made some notes based on the graph metrics (graph-notes) and there are two other versions here and here .  Again, it’s best you view them using a laptop or a PC.

Finally, if your blog isn’t on Andrew’s spreadsheet, and you want to see how it compares with everyone else’s (or you’d like me to include it in the data I’ll be using for my PhD) you can either add it yourself or let me know the address and I’ll add to my own records.  I intend to anonymise all my data before I publish it because I know how sensitive it is even though it’s public (I’m an ex-teacher myself).  Or you can send me your viewing stats because, after all, they paint the clearer picture.

The thing is, though, that while it’s easy to think your blog might the one that’s influencing everyone and getting them ‘on your side’,  knowing and proving it are completely different things altogether.

A Mini Review

I’m a bit behind with my blogs, I know.  This is an attempt to try and catch up a bit, pending a longer post tomorrow that will for the bare bones for a chapter in my PhD.

  1. I bought an electric bike a few months ago.  The journey to Soton Uni is 2/3 uphill and takes half-an-hour to walk.  This is fine when I have time to spare, and the weather is nice (but not too hot).  If I drive, it takes five minutes, which is not good for a car with an old diesel engine, and I have to move the car every two hours.  As well as having a battery that helps take the effort out of pedaling, my bike also folds in half and so I can store it under my desk.  It’s been reasonably well-used so far, and given that the journey is no more than about 10 minutes, I’m not at too much risk from Southampton’s shocking drivers.  And I wear a helmet and cycle in the middle of my half of the road.wp_20160504_001
  2. I’ve been to Amsterdam three times now, and I absolutely love it.  I have photos to publish, and I’ll put them in an album soon.  I’ve also been to Berlin, and in October I’m gong to Rome.
  3. My beloved car is 15 years old, and this year I paid for the air conditioning to be fixed.  I don’t care what anyone says, this was essential, and there’s nothing more annoying than having something in the car that doesn’t work.  Oh, and it’s also gained a dent that’s classic city damage.  Some numpty has swung into the car parking space beside me and rubbed their bumper up against my front passenger-side wing.
  4. I’ve been on HRT for a whole month.  It’s completely transformed my life  on so far as I’m the person I was when I came here.  I’d been experiencing hot flushes, which was disturbing my sleep, and consequently my ability to concentrate on my work.  Frankly, the jury is out as to the health risks of HRT.  If you don’t have to do a demanding job (or work at all) then you can probably manage.  Otherwise, don’t suffer.  I know my symptoms will return when I come off the HRT, but when that happens will be down to me.  In the meantime, I’m in control and back as a fully-functioning human being.
  5. I have become a really good cook of vegetarian food.  The thing about being a vegetarian is that you can’t just cook what you did before and simply leave out the meat.  It’s a whole new way of thinking about food.  It’s easy, and it’s delicious, and I can honestly say that I can’t get excited over meat-based food any more.  I will eat it occasionally, and I still like the unidentified pink stuff that comes  in the middle of your average greasy sausage roll as much as I ever did.  Just not as often.  My small vegetable garden here is fully planted  up with veggies for the winter, and I’ve applied for an allotment here in Southampton.
  6. After several weeks – months, probably – of writing and re-writing code, I’ve finally written some (with some help from friends) that does what I want it to.  I now know more than I ever thought possible about the structure of web pages and how to deploy Python code to open them and gather the contents.  When I mentioned what I wanted to do to someone from the Uni back in December last year, he suggested that rather than spend lots of time learning how to do it myself, I should get someone else to do it for me.  This goes against my very soul.  I was brought up to be independent and resourceful, to always be in control and to be self-reliant.  the idea of getting someone else to write the code I need….. well, it just wasn’t going to happen.  So I’ve written a bit, tested a bit, asked for help, written a bit more, tested and tested lines of code, and now I have a working model.  Ok, it only works with one set of web pages, but I know I can modify it to work with others.   I came here to learn, and learn is what I’ll do.
  7. I will never cease to be grateful for the chance to do this.  Thank you to everyone who has had a hand in it, whether you wanted to (or anticipated the consequences of your actions) or not.  My dreams aren’t big, but I’m living them.

A Reflection

I submitted my nine month report to my supervisors at the end of June, and a couple of weeks later had a meeting with my lead supervisor and my examiner.  This was conducted as a ‘mini-viva’, which meant I had to have a stab at defending my research proposal and background reading.  In the short time between submitting the report and re-reading it in preparation for this, I could already see some holes and issues, and of course they pointed out some more and we talked them through.

I can’t begin to tell you how much I hate tests, exams, or judgements on my performance.  I’ve always taken criticism personally, which is why I never went into graphic design when I had the chance.  Having the thing you’ve created (or the words you’ve written) pulled apart and rejected is the very worst thing in the world.  It’s literally like being stabbed in the heart whilst simultaneously being humiliated by being told to stand still for the stabbing after you’ve stripped naked.  On the other hand, I don’t want lavish praise for something that secretly isn’t right either.  It’s a fine line which, I’m happy to say, everyone I’ve met in academia (especially my supervisors) are able to negotiate successfully.  I’ve had no end of ‘well, what do you actually mean by that….. ‘  or ‘something you might like to consider is….’ which is how it should be done.   The very worst experience I’ve ever had was when my Head teacher not only turned down my application to move up a notch on the payscale, but savaged the evidence I’d presented, in front of my head of department, and didn’t stop even when I was in tears and could no longer speak.  That afternoon will forever be etched in my memory.

The reason I mention that is because, as a result of the feedback, one of the areas I need to research in more detail is ‘community’.  My PhD is based on a community of professionals discussing their practice and other related issues in blogs of their own, and on social media.  my approach is, I think, going to be rooted in ethnography (the study of communities from the point of view of an insider/participant) and to that end I’ve been reading this excellent book.  One of the things the author suggests is reflecting on your own personal reasons for wanting to research a particular community, and so here is mine.

My interest in this was sparked two or three years after the incident I mentioned above.  I was sat at home, signed off with stress, and so I turned to Twitter and invested a bit more time lurking around the discussions that were going on, and contributing my own points.

Back then, my account on Twitter was private.  I originally joined Twitter not long after it started in 2006, and enjoyed the banter with the people I found on there.  One or two of them I still talk with today, although I’ve never met them.  A couple of years or so later, and I’d found a community of teachers, some of whom appeared to use their real names, some used pseudonyms, and some, like me, kept their accounts private so as not to be identified by students.  Around that time, I was also ‘warned’ by my Head (the same one) that I should be careful what I said on Twitter, and that she was ‘aware I used it’.  I’ve no idea how.  Maybe she was one of the pseudonyms?  A couple of years or so after that social media use was mentioned in staff forums, and the official local authority guidance directives were delivered.  The bottom line was basically say absolutely nothing about your work, don’t even hint at anything, and it would be much better if you didn’t actually engage at all.  Shortly after this Michael Gove weaponised Ofsted and the culture of fear surrounding social media was suddenly very real.

It probably won’t surprise you to know that the head to which I have referred was one of the ones that bought unquestioningly into the idea that if Ofsted said jump, she said ‘how high?’.  I’m not criticising her for that – lots of Heads did the same.  The real problem was that suddenly everything changed.  Seating plans had to be submitted and revised and explained and justified; the same with lesson plans; the threat of a lesson observation (entitled ‘learning walks’) was ever present; books had to be marked and extensive feedback left for the students (who then had to comment and then we’d have to comment on their comment…. . Yes, really.); the amount of data that had to be submitted went through the roof; and on top of all this Ofsted appeared to be demanding lots of group work and student-led activities in a school where behaviour was an on-going problem the senior staff refused to deal with if there was even the faintest chance that they could claim it was down to poor teacher planning, lessons that weren’t engaging enough, or lessons that weren’t challenging enough.  Plus, there were plenty of aspiring middle and senior leaders peddling the latest fad that we were ‘encouraged’ to try as it would be ‘exactly what Ofsted would love to see’, such as flipped learning.  For those of you that don’t know, flipped learning is where you ask a student to watch a video with the knowledge they need at home, and then this is used as a basis for the lesson.  Yes, it’s a great idea a) with students that actually do their homework, b) students with access to the web at home, c) students that are allowed to access the web at home, and d) students that care enough to do the task properly.  If just one student fails to watch the video, the lesson’s activities are already compromised.  If a handful don’t bother, you may as well abandon the lesson.

It’s at this time that I began to seriously question and doubt the things I’d been taught when I was training to be a teacher.  I also realised that the atmosphere at my school was, in effect, toxic, and the only people that were going to suffer would be the teaching staff.  Indeed, a number of staff left or were hounded out; the senior leadership team also changed and became a group of cheerleaders for the Head.  There was nowhere to turn for support.  And then I spend some time on Twitter, and realised that, while Ofsted had put THE FEAR into every school, not everyone was dealing with it in the same way.  Some Heads and their teams were obviously supportive, as teachers in their schools were making clear on Twitter. These were the people that also blogged openly and felt able to discuss the strategies of their own school, and criticise the Educational establishment without fear of being called to account by their Head.  They did it professionally, but they did it.  I would have been too terrified to say anything openly.  The experiences of other teachers were just like mine, and we commiserated together.

There was also a lot of discussion about Ofsted, which spilled over into blogs where the issue could be stated in more depth.  There was much criticism, and many of their ‘demands’ were refuted with evidence drawn from research into pedagogy.  Things like ‘learning styles’ (which my school, among many others, was still holding up as a guide to good practice) were thoroughly debunked.  I felt, I knew, that I wasn’t alone in the doubts I was having, and the toxic work environment I was experiencing.

When I decided I was going to apply to study for a PhD, I knew the area I wanted to research, and I knew why. The discussions three years ago were intelligent, informed and supportive.  Today, I’d argue that they’re even better.  Many people appear to have joined in with blogs of their own, and I think I’ve learned more from them both in terms of pedagogy and a professional mindset than I ever learned when I was training.  When I reach the end, if just one teacher who has been isolated like I was becomes aware of my work, or perhaps reads my blogs, and finds this community for themselves, I’ll be happy.  And if the Educational Establishment realise that there is a community of knowledgeable, reliable and thoroughly professional teachers out there who know their stuff and care about what they do, so much the better.  I live in hope.

p.s. After I’d left, my school went through an Ofsted inspection and was judged ‘requires improvement’ for the fourth time.  The Head resigned.

Baby’s First Conference*

Nearly a month ago now, I attended my very first conference – WebSci16 – in Hanover, Germany.  I submitted a short paper, which was accepted as an extended abstract.  I was also invited to submit a poster for the poster session.

Now, I admit I was a little puzzled about posters when I first started my MSc, but I know now they’re just one of the things academics use to communicate their work.  As such, they’re not necessarily works of art with lots of illustrations (although some of the best ones I’ve seen have been) but they need to be concise, clear, and not overly wordy.  If you want to see mine, it’s here Extended Abstract Hanover 16 Poster .  And here’s my paper, if you’re really bored… Extended Abstract Final.


Me and my poster.

So anyway, a few thoughts.  Web Science is, basically, an inter-disciplinary thing.  It usually combines an ‘ology’ with computer science, but then there are other approaches like my colleague Nikko who is researching online identities from the perspective of Law; or another colleague who is researching event detection on social media.  Basically, if some aspect involves people and the internet, Web Science can fit in there somehow.  A lot of computer science people have also moved across to Web Science, which is great.  They work hard to develop and refine all manner of things including data analysis, machine learning (AI) and language processing.  The problem is that they can sometimes be so focused on the technical side that they forget the human aspect, and I think it’s that which really defines Web Science.

Many times during the course of listening to someone present their research, I wanted to ask why they thought their work was important, and the impact they thought it would make.  Many of the questions focused on technical aspects of the paper, which told me there were a lot of computer scientists in the audience.  These things are important, of course they are, but a little more thought about where humans fit in would have been better.  In short, there were times when I was disengaged and a bit bored, but I was with some fab colleagues, the venue was great, and the food lovely.  And I met my data science hero, Pete Burnap.  Oh, and the organisers very kindly averted disaster when I realised that the posters I’d been carrying in my poster tube fell out the bottom when we had to make a mad dash across Schipol airport to catch the connecting flight to Hanover.  I wouldn’t have been too upset about mine, but I was also carrying one for a colleague who was had also been accepted for a paper and poster, but couldn’t attend.  Both posters were reprinted without any fuss , so a massive thank you! to them.

Here’s a link to my photo album if you want to browse.  The post looking building in the park in the town hall where we went for a formal dinner on the last evening.

Oh, and then Nikko and I went to Berlin for a couple of days…..

*phrase courtesy of Nick Bennett.




Talking BIG THINGS in Amsterdam.

As some of you know, last week I went to Amsterdam with a group of fellow students (and some academics of course) to meet with other students from the University there and discuss BIG THINGS.

WP_20160330_002We flew from Southampton airport, and I still can’t quite believe that it takes less time to get there than it does to get to London.  The hotel room was amazing – the picture doesn’t really do it justice (or reveal the full horror, depending on your point of view).  The toilet and shower were effectively glass pods within the room itself, complete with coloured mood lighting, with the bed taking the whole of the far end of the room, under the window.  We could probably all have slept in it, it was so huge.

This was Wednesday evening, work started on Thursday morning.  Various topics for the two-day workshop were put forward a couple of weeks beforehand.  Fortunately, we weren’t expected to produce anything specific, which would have been very difficult because the BIG THINGS were very big indeed.  Before this, we had plenty of time to introduce ourselves to our colleagues who, like us, came from all different parts of the world, and talk about our research.  Honestly, the breadth of topics being studied under the banner ‘Web Science’ is astonishing, and this is what makes interdisciplinarity so important and interesting.  We had linguists, computer scientists, sociologists, psychologists…. all brought together because their research centres around some aspect or affordance of the web.  After lunch, we separated into groups to discuss the BIG THINGS.

This was the topic for our group: What characterises news stories that first emerge through social media (rather than through the official news media).   I was working with a colleague from Southampton, and two colleagues from Amsterdam, and we spend all of our allocated time on the first day just unpicking this.  Questions arose such as ‘what is ‘the news’?’  What makes a story worth repeating i.e. what are ‘news values’?  Are the values, first suggested in 1965 by Galtung and Ruge, still relevant in the digital age we live in now?  What do we mean by ‘social media’?  Twitter?  Facebook?  Comments sections of news stories posted online by the traditional media? (after all, you often see whole conversations happening beneath particularly contentious stories).  Then there’s the BIGGER THING around how you even find news stories in social media in the first place.  Ok, all the traditional media outlets have their own accounts, as do the non-traditionals like Buzzfeed.  And we know that some stories naturally emerge in social media first because they involve people using their smartphones to record events as they unfold, like the recent bombings.  But what else is there?   The real problem is that you won’t know if a story has originated in social media until it breaks in the traditional media, and then you’re working backwards through time.  How do you find it first?


Amsterdam without a windmill? No way.

I found this whole discussion, and the strategy that emerged from it, immensely satisfying.  First of all, I was able to draw from my own background in media studies.  It’s always heartening when you have some experience and knowledge you can bring to a group to help it on its way.  Secondly, the topic carried on from something I became interested in when I was working with colleagues in China.  There, we were using a data set of tweets from Twitter that focused on the general election in India.  The research students I was working with – all from China,  Singapore or Korea – were entirely focused on writing code to extract information from the data (directed by the group leader, which probably shouldn’t have happened, but hey-ho).  This was fine, but we ended up duplicating work that had already been done, and learned nothing new.  What would have been more interesting would have been to see how the various stories regarding each of the candidates/parties bounced between the traditional news media and was retweeted and/or added to by the ordinary people using Twitter.  It would have been much more interesting to find out how this happens in a network that has formed around an event like a general election, and to find a way of modelling it, preferably interactively.

Finally, it was thrilling on a personal level to know that I understood the theory behind the tools we were suggesting might be used to both identify news stories in social media, and pick up new ones as they emerged.  With only 140 characters to deploy to create words (at least, in English), identifying a cluster of words that suggest a news story centering around topic ‘x ‘ is appearing is challenging to say the least – and its perfectly possible that there is no way of identifying emerging news stories successfully.  You just won’t know until you try.  The two colleagues I was working with from the University of Amsterdam had plenty of experience with the kind of analysis that could be applied to our problem, but as good interdisciplinarians were more than able to discuss the wider aspects, such as the limitations of cluster and sentiment analysis when sites like Twitter shorten words and use slang.

WP_20160331_007In the end, we were able to do no more than resume our discussions on Friday, and formalise them into a short presentation and an illustrative poster.  My wish now is that we can meet again (or meet with other interested parties) and turn our discussion into something more formal, perhaps something fit to submit to a conference.  Certainly the topic as it stands is enough to fill an entire PhD.

WP_20160331_018Anyway, back to Thursday evening when this happpened…. yes, a boat trip around the canals, combined with dinner.  Lovely!

I’ll post more photos in a separate gallery, as we took advantage of the weekend and instead of flying back on Saturday, flew back on Sunday evening instead.  Much fun was had by all…. some more than others. *cough*  Coffee shops *cough*.  Not me, obviously.  Others.

And finally, let me thank the Web Science Institute at the University of Southampton and the equivalent at the University of Amsterdam for an absolutely brilliant, thoroughly positive and very useful exchange.  Thank you!


In Conversation With….

…Del Harvey, the Head of Twitter’s Trust and Safety division.  Yes, really.  I should have included this in my last post, but so much happened in the run-up to the Easter weekend that I decided to leave it for a separate piece.

A colleague sent me a link to an article outlining how Twitter  was setting up a council to look at abuse on its platform, so I sent her a Tweet, she responded, we swopped email addresses, and then she phoned me and we chatted for twenty minutes.  I’d previously sent her a copy of the paper I submitted for the Web Science conference  as it was all about the problems of identifying misogynist abuse on Twitter, which I think she may have skimmed through.  She was certainly aware of the issues I’d raised, as I would expect.

Basically, it’s very difficult to identify an abusive Tweet.  One hundred and forty characters, even if they’re a) written TO an individual and b) contain offensive language don’t necessarily the recipient regards them as offensive or is insulted.  The meaning of words can change depending on the context in which it is used.  A machine can be programmed to identify offensive tweets by looking for particular words, and it can even be told to look for tweets before and after the one that’s been flagged as potentially offensive, but it still can’t be relied on to make the same decisions a human would as to whether further action is needed.  Indeed, even humans don’t always agree.  Another approach would be to ignore meaning and just focus on identifying combinations of words that appear in tweets most people would agree were offensive.  I proposed tweets like this should be immediately quarantined so that they never make it online.  Yes, some people will be cross but given some of the things that are said and threats made to women on Twitter, I for one wouldn’t care.  But anyway.

Del, and Twitter, prefer to look at this problem as one of managing the way users interact with Twitter, suggesting things such as disincentivising people from being abusive, and/or giving users who receive abuse more control over who can see their tweets and engage with them.  Certainly, there’s research to show that the bullying on Twitter – which seems vicious at times – is regarded as nothing more than a game by the perpetrators.  I don’t suppose it feels like that if you’ve had someone suggest you sit on a butcher’s knife, though.  Indeed, if tweets were quarantined on the basis that a particular combination of words was used, in no time a game would develop to try and see how the quarantine algorithm could be outwitted.  It happened on Reddit (certain words were automatically substituted with less offensive ones in posts.  This included things like references to supporting Hitler), it’ll happen on Twitter.  Sadly, social media has exposed a very nasty form of behaviour certain people just can’t resist indulging in, and even more sadly can’t see why what they’re doing is so abhorrent.  Or won’t see.  Tackling that kind of problem is one for society.

We talked over all these things, and more.  It was amazing to have the ear of someone at the top of a thing that touches all our lives (well, those of use who use social media.  Which is you, if you’re reading this).

Finally, I asked her if she had any ‘tips’ for future research students regarding under-explored areas…. Naturally, Del couldn’t give too much away, but she mentioned these things:

  • Connections and interactions, especially ‘mentions’ and ‘follows’.
  • Predicting spikes and shifts of interest across networks.
  • Are there direct relationships between different communities?  Do different communities interact – where are the edges of a network, and what other communities touch it?

Most people use social media like Twitter, or Facebook, or Tumblr, or Instagram, without a moment’s thought of the wider implications of what they’re doing.  Researchers like me, though, are fascinated with what people do online, and how they’ve adapted their behaviour to the new medium.  Some  of it is negative, like misogynist abuse on Twitter, but much more of it is positive, such as crowdfunding or online protests.  I’m interested in what teachers say on Twitter – there appears to be an extensive and very active network of people expressing their opinions about all things educational.  This network has developed in a way it never could have without the web and a social media platform like Twitter, and yet unless you’re a part of it, you might never realise it’s there.  Bringing it to the fore of academic research will be my life for the next two-and-a-half years.

Thank you, Twitter, for remaining open enough for researchers like me to learn something about what humans do on the web; and thank you Del for sparing some of your precious time to talk to me.

p.s. the paper has been accepted as a extended abstract and a poster.  More on that later…