Beware Social Media's Dark Side, Scholars Warn Companies

Technology festival features academic gadflies

Kelly West for The Chronicle

Lisa Nakamura, a professor at the U. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, spoke about racism surfacing among online game players who compete globally.
March 20, 2011

Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, was out to cause "anxiety and concern" among his audience. His argument: Internet companies that focus on "crowdsourcing," getting the public to do odd jobs for small or no fees, are morally questionable ventures.

His audience, in a packed conference room here at a session of South by Southwest Interactive, included many people building those companies. His panel even included the CEO of one of them. The session was an example of how professors played a sobering role this year at a conference that has grown into one of the largest gatherings of technology companies hoping to be part of the Next Big Internet Phenomenon.

More than 19,000 people were registered for the event, the warm-up act to the long-running South by Southwest film and music festivals. The various industries brought together here for the "interactive" portion are known for pushing out their software and services while they're still under construction, or "in beta," which perhaps explains their unusual willingness to engage with experts making suggestions and raising concerns.

The trends that got some of the biggest buzz this year—other than tapping (and protecting) the wisdom of crowds—were online social gaming and social entrepreneurship, in which companies seek to support a cause in addition to, or in the process of, selling a product.

Some professors and college-technology officials showed up to learn how companies use social media with an eye to bringing those ideas back to their campuses. (Most of the sessions, it should be noted, emphasized the positives of online technologies.) Still other participants seemed content to revel at corporate-sponsored parties that have earned the conference the label "geek spring break."

But some professors here pointed out that this year—more so than at past conferences—the mix of panels included cautionary tales and warnings against technology run amok.

To Craig A. Piercy, director of a master's program on Internet technology at the University of Georgia's business school, such questioning matches a public mood, expressed in recent books like the MIT professor Sherry Turkle's Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, about feeling overwhelmed by online messages and gadgets that demand constant attention.

'Digital Sweatshop'

Mr. Zittrain began his argument against crowdsourcing with the story of the Mechanical Turk, a machine in the 18th century that was said to play chess as well as a human. But the contraption was a showy fraud; a man hidden inside moved the arms of a turban-wearing mannequin. Amazon, the online shopping giant, now offers a crowdsourcing service it calls Mechanical Turk, which lets anyone, for a fee, commission unseen hands to work on tasks like proofreading documents or identifying artists in musical recordings.

The similarity of crowdsourcing to a man shoved inside a box means the practice isn't exactly worker-friendly, the professor argued. "In fact, it's an actual digital sweatshop," he said of the many sites that use the approach.

Fees paid for crowdsourced tasks are usually so meager that they could not possibly earn participants a living wage, Mr. Zittrain argued. He is familiar with one group drawn to the services: poor graduate students seeking spending money.

In many cases, companies have persuaded people to complete simple tasks for no pay at all, instead offering recognition within the volunteer community or points in the guise of a game. Mr. Zittrain called it "a wonderful Tom Sawyer syndrome."

The chief executive who shared the stage was Lukas Biewald, head of a crowdsourcing company called CrowdFlower, whose service is similar to Amazon's—and not at all like a sweatshop, he said. All of the activities are voluntary, he pointed out, and the workers can log off anytime. He said it was hard to imagine the repressive tactics used in physical sweatshops going virtual.

And he argued that some crowdsourcing efforts promote social goals or research projects, citing Galaxy Zoo, a Web site that asks users to classify galaxies in thousands of telescope images collected by scientists. "You could be bored at a talk like this and be helping your favorite charity" on your iPhone, he said with a laugh.

In the end, Mr. Zittrain conceded that he didn't have all the answers, and that he was not suggesting a ban on crowdsourcing. His hope, he said, was to get people thinking about its unintended consequences.

Why did Mr. Biewald join the panel, knowing the criticism his business would face? "I think people are nicer to you when you show up," he said in an interview, noting that Mr. Zittrain's talk would have happened whether or not he was there.

Not all executives were such good sports, though.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, began his talk, "Be Evil: Does Corporate Responsibility Matter?," by noting that he had invited the chief executive of Whole Foods, based just down the street from the conference, to give a counterpoint to his talk. He got no reply, he said, despite repeated attempts.

"I'm going to try to start an argument," the professor said. He charged that the trend of corporate social responsibility, such as Whole Foods' donating money to charity each time shoppers bring a reusable bag, may in the long run make people less active in civic forums or charitable activities. As he put it, "it undermines political passions and actions by making consumer choices seem like political acts."

He admitted that he is an enthusiastic consumer of such socially responsible products—he regularly drives his hybrid car to Whole Foods to buy fair-trade organic coffee. But despite his own wish to believe that he is doing good, he wonders if such easy moves are shallow, casting companies in roles that other entities, ones without profit motives, might better serve.

Consider the moment right after Hurricane Katrina, he said, when Wal-Mart mobilized its extensive distribution network to donate water and other necessities to people in New Orleans. Mr. Vaidhyanathan said that he was glad the giant retailer had stepped in, but that "I don't feel good about being glad about it." He expressed outrage that the government had not done the job it should have done. Some conservatives, he added, argue that Wal-Mart's actions prove that government can be scaled back because the private sector can handle disaster aid.

Despite his call for a fight, no one in the room challenged his thesis.

The Racist Bits

Another session raised a problem that Internet companies generally avoid talking about—incidents of online racism.

Lisa Nakamura, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who studies virtual communities, argued that new forms of racism are emerging amid the bits and bytes of video games.

For instance, in China large numbers of users began earning actual money playing the fantasy role-playing game Lineage II. They did so by playing for many hours and selling their online loot to people in the United States who did not play as long. Many of the Chinese chose the online role of a female dwarf, a character class in the game that can more easily win treasure on solo missions. Rival players began killing off female dwarfs in the game on sight, often adding anti-Chinese slurs in the chat section of the game as they did, said Ms. Nakamura.

"What happened was that female dwarfs become an unplayable race" in the game, she said. "They basically became a racial minority."

She also noted a study that found what she called "plain old racism" cropping up in online marketplaces like Craigslist. The study found that when people posted listings on the free classifieds site that showed a black hand holding a product, the final selling price was lower than in an ad for the same product held by a white hand.

A news event later in the week illustrated her point about the apparent ease of online bigotry: A student at the University of California at Los Angeles posted a YouTube rant about "hordes of Asian people" on campus who use cellphones in the library; it was viewed by more than two million people and widely criticized as racist.

Ms. Nakamura, who co-edited a book due out in a few weeks called Race After the Internet, praised the conference for mixing media practitioners with critics and said she felt that the businesses in attendance were eager to promote friendly and open forums for discussion.

"Industry wants this more than academics do," she said in an interview. "If we can have a virtual world that's not racist, people would use it more because it wouldn't be a cesspool, as it is now."

She had decided to attend the conference, she said, in part to see the latest from companies that make the virtual communities she studies.

"I think academics should go to more stuff like this," she said. "We analyze it to death and really pick it apart, but we almost never talk to the people who do the design."

In some cases, those designs are far ahead of what colleges employ for their own technology services.

"This is two years away for us," said Megan Myers, an educational technologist at Barnard College, referring to some of the applications of social networking and smartphones she saw at the event. "But we can get started now."

That kind of serious business gets mixed in with the serious partying featured at South by Southwest, where valuable connections happen at get-togethers that run late into the night, with plenty of free drinks. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, a professor of media studies at Pomona College, and a co-editor and press director of MediaCommons, which promotes electronic scholarly publishing, said she found those too loud to have productive conversations.

But other academics appear quite comfortable in the mix. One night Amanda L. French, a literature scholar who works for George Mason University's Center for History and New Media—who that day had given a talk about David Foster Wallace, an author with a cult following among many here—took the stage with her guitar at a party sponsored by the Internet-news site CNET. She performed a song she wrote that has become a viral hit online, called "All My Internet Friends."

"I feel strong because all my Internet friends are here with me," she sang, "saying love and information want only to be free."