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Social Media and Human Rights


Alex Taylor

R(w)SM Reading Group, Oct 22, 2014, 12-2pm, Seminar Room, Sociology


Human Experience & Design Group, Microsoft Research, @modestwitness

I'm a sociologist working at Microsoft Research Cambridge. I've undertaken investigations into a range of routine and often mundane aspects of everyday life. For instance, I've developed what some might see as an unhealthy preoccupation with hoarding, dirt, clutter and similar seemingly banal subject matter. Most recently, I've begun obsessing over computation and wondering what the compulsion for seeing-data-everywhere might mean for the future of humans and machines. 

Presentation overview

Through my paper, “Out There”, my hope is we can collectively reflect on the role of empirical (and largely ethnographic) studies in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) research. Specifically, I’d like us to consider issues raised in studies of people and technology- and media-related practices that aren’t our own, but are in some fashion “out there”. 

HCI consists of a mixed bag of disciplinary perspectives and methods, joined together (often awkwardly) by a common concern for the use and design of interactive systems (i.e., everything from PCs and mobile phones to scientific modelling tools and control rooms). I’ve spent a bit of time looking for something that fairly represents this heterogenous body of work, but unsurprisingly haven’t had much luck. So, instead, I’ve chosen a text that considers the practices from a particular perspective, one that although dated still has an edge to it with its proposal that reflective and critical social science research is relevant to the mostly pragmatic project of interactive systems design. If you want a relatively straightforward summary of HCI it won’t hurt to visit Wikipedia. The illustrative text I’ve chosen, “Working with new media’s cultural intermediaries” (Wakeford 2003), will offer a view that I hope is relevant to the reading group but it must be said, it tells its own story.

The area of research I concentrate on in the Out There paper is referred to as ICT4D (ICT for development) or more recently ICTD. I see this as a fairly well circumscribed area of HCI research that aims to look “out there”. Again, to identify some representative piece of work in ICTD is tricky. To get a flavour of the work (and some of the issues I raise), it may simply be best to read a piece I briefly write about in my text, a paper by the anthropologist Genevieve Bell (2006), “No more SMS from Jesus”. For now, I won’t say any more than it works through some engaging examples of technology and media practices that are intended to be unfamiliar to us, "back here".

Finally, Ella and Anne have invited me to suggest a methodological text that offers a more concrete idea of how to work with the issues I discuss in the paper. That’s a challenging request for me, as an implicit but still significant implication in my argument in “Out There" is that method/methodology is deeply entangled in practice. Both Ella and Anne have suggested a book chapter I wrote in 2009, titled: "Ethnography in Ubiquitous Computing” (draft). Of course, the group are very welcome to read this, but I’d want it to be seen (in hindsight) as a struggle on my part to problematically extricate method(ology) from practice, for the purposes of a textbook. What I’d suggest, instead, perhaps, is a wonderful text by the anthropologist Lucy Suchman, "Located Accountabilities in Technology Production", in which she may not lay out a tractable method, but does succeed in drawing our attention to what matters in our studies of techno-mediated practises and, thus, how we should be thinking about what we do vis-à-vis design. 

Key reading

Alex Taylor "Out there”. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, 2011.

Supplementary readings

Genevieve Bell "No more SMS from Jesus: ubicomp, religion and techno-spiritual practices”. UbiComp 2006 Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2006. 141-158.

Lucy Suchman ‘Located Accountabilities in Technology Production’, published by the Centre for Science Studies, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YN, UK, at

Alex Taylor 2009 Ethnography in Ubiquitous Computing. In Ubiquitous computing fundamentals, John Krumm (ed.), p. 203-236, Boca Raton, FL: Chapman and Hall/CRC.

Nina Wakeford, Research Note: Working with new media’s cultural intermediariesInformation, Communication & Society 6:2 2003 229–245.

McCarthy, J., 2011. Bridging the gaps between HCI and social media. interactions, 18(2).

About this website

This is the website for Ella McPherson's work related to her 2014-17 ESRC-funded research project, Social Media, Human Rights NGOs, and the Potential for Governmental Accountability.