Sketches from London: “Where are you from?” as Microaggression

I read ‘“No, I meant where are you really from?” on being black and German‘ by Ella Achola the other day. It’s a post from August 2014 that did the rounds again on my Twitter feeds and that remains much relevant. She rightly points out that the question “where are you really from?” is a micro-agression.

This is an experience I have had many times whilst living in the UK. I am surprised that a fully multicultural city such as London can still be a place where this kind of attitudes are prevalent. It tends to happen to me and other Mexican friends in London that we are often asked “where are you from?” as a non-sequitur to something we asked or said.

At the airport the other day en route to a conference a white British academic I struck casual conversation with while queuing insisted on asking me where I was really from in response to a conversation about literary festivals, and insisted after I answered I lived in South London. “No, where are you really from? Colombia? Mexico?”, this person with a professorship insisted on asking me. It ended up exasperating me: “seriously, why is knowing where I was born so important for you?” “I want to place your accent”, she told me.

It’s not that I mind saying where I’m really from, I am proud of my background, of being of dual citizenship. I am also aware I do have an accent, but I am now acutely sensitive to being asked this question when it has nothing to do with the conversation one is having. It’s as if one had not been understood, as if one’s accent and appearance obliterated any possibility of meaningful engagement beyond the placement of the Other as an Other.

I have a very good friend with whom I go to gigs frequently. Last night, standing in the crowd at Koko, my friend started feeling uncomfortable as he was aware that two white guys were talking about him and making gestures about him, standing way too close to him, even for a mosh pit crowd before the gig started. The conversation that ensued was like this:

Me: “Hey, you alright? This is gonna be good, yeah?”

Bloke 1: “Where are you guys from?”

Me: “Why, I live in South London and he lives in East London. You?”

[Bloke 2 laughs]

Bloke 1: “No, really, where are you from?”

Me: [exasperated]. “We are originally from Mexico but we live here in London. And you?”

Bloke 1: “I’m from Surrey, mate”.

Me: “I see, so, do you live in London?”

[Bloke 2 laughs]

Bloke 1 [laughing]: “No…”

Me: “Well, welcome to London, mate. I hope you guys enjoy the gig”.

 

It is, frankly, exhausting.

It’s not the question that’s necessarly an issue. It’s the non-sequitur.

I insist it’s not about the question per se; it’s the obsession with figuring out where someone is really from, a question that makes us feel like we cannot possibly be from here, and that no matter what we may be saying, no matter what we may have in common in terms of context at a given time, it is our otherness that takes centre stage, urging a pressing need to solve the mystery of provenance, of origin. Where do these aliens come from? Anyway, that’s how it feels.

So next time you meet someone who in your opinion does not appear to be from where you come from (whatever that means), wait before you get to know them better before you drop that bomb of a question. It is loaded, and it is indeed aggressive as it emphasises difference and exclusion, even if you mean it in good faith. If you don’t know them and they ask you, say, “do you take sugar?”, or “do you work in finance?”, or “would you like another drink?”, or “what’s your reading of Kant’s categorical imperative?”, whatever, never, ever, answer that non-sequitur of a question out of the blue: “where are you from?”. Think of what people are telling you, not of where they can possibly ‘be from’. Please.

The fact I have taken the time to blog about it will tell you all you need to know about how fed up I am with being asked the same thing out of context again and again.

This is my home, mate. It’s yours too…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On UK Labour and Conservatives Tweet Sources

 

I‘ve been tracking the Twitter accounts of the UK Labour, Conservative, Green, and LibDem parties as we approach June the 8th (General Election). I am interested in what they are saying on Twitter through their official Twitter accounts, how they are saying it, how often and what apps they choose to do so.

Unfortunately there are still some duplicates in my Twitter data collection, but I can at least share at this point the sources used to tweet from the UK Labour and Conservatives Twitter accounts, as well as some indicative numbers, bearing in mind they may vary slightly, for tweets per source in a sample of 500 Tweets per account from 12/05/2017 to 01/06/2017 so far.

 

from_user
UKLabour
Source Count
MediaStudio 279
SproutSocial 106
TweetDeck 55
Twibbon 1
Twitter for Android 3
Twitter for iPhone 8
Twitter Web Client 48
500

 

from_user
Conservatives
Source Count
MediaStudio 25
TweetDeck 222
Twitter for iPhone 73
Twitter Web Client 180
500

Even bearing in my mind the sample of 500 tweets from each account may still contain some duplicates, the list of sources alone provides objective indication of each account’s social media management tool preferences. Something that stands out is that in comparison to, say, the realdonaldtrump account, none of these tweets were posted from Twitter Ads.

The source list indicates to me that UK Labour has attempted a more professional social media management strategy, with a reduced number of tweets from Android, iPhone and the Web Client, whereas the Conservatives have a majority of tweets coming from free & anyone-can-use apps, with no shortage of tweets coming from an iPhone (but no Android at all).

This short update is part of an ongoing lunchtime pet project for which I wish I had more time, but hey.  I also have data from the other political parties, but no time right now. Anyway, for what it’s worth, I thought I’d share.


N.B. Dear Guardian Data, in case you like what you see here and you ‘borrow’ the idea or any data… please kindly attribute and link back. It’s only polite to do so. Thank you!

Untangling Academic Publishing: Key Recommendations for Universities and Academics

Fragment from the cover design of 'Untangling Academic Publishing' (Fyfe et al 2017)
Fragment from the artwork on the cover design of ‘Untangling Academic Publishing’ (Fyfe et al 2017)

The report ‘Untangling Academic Publishing: A history of the relationship between commercial interests, academic prestige and the circulation of research’ (Fyfe et al 2017) has been published today.

It’s available for all to download, share and reuse under a CC-BY license from the open access repository Zenodo:

Fyfe, A., et al. (2017), Untangling Academic Publishing: a history of the relationship between commercial interests, academic prestige and the circulation of research https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.546100

The 26-page report is a very welcome addition to the ever-growing evidence-based literature documenting the need for academics to enhance the fairer dissemination of their research work and to reclaim and redistribute ownership of academic content from for-profit publishers.

A significant contribution of this report is its historical perspective. The report shows how the business and practice of academic publishing has changed since the late 19th century, which serves as the basis to discuss how in spite of new technologies, publishing models and cultures have been relatively slow to change. It is particularly important that the report, having provided a thoroughly documented historical account of the transformations of scholarly publishing, presents clear and decisive recommendations for key stakeholders such as the government, research agencies, university leaders, learned societies and academics.

Personally, I cannot but be pleased that the recommendations the report makes to university leaders and academics are very similar to points I (and of course others) have made previously in different occasions, myself most recently during a presentation and debate on 20 April 2017 at Roma Tre University.

I hope that everyone interested in scholarly publishing reads the complete report, but I would like to copy and paste below a selection of the recommendations that I believe we should all work harder to communicate (and, of course, actively embrace) within our own professional and disciplinary networks:

To University leaders

  • Universities should revise their recognition and reward processes to relieve sta from the pressures associated with journal-based metrics (Signing the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment can serve as a clear signal of intent in this regard, empowering staff to challenge the status quo). These revised processes will give staff increased confidence that their work will be judged on its own merits. In this way universities will enable their academics to take fuller advantage of publisher offerings that combine rigorous peer review with increased speed and value for money
  • University leaders should introduce measures (such as the UK Scholarly Communications Licence) to ensure that the copyright in academic work is retained by its creator, rather than being transferred in toto to third-party organisations. This is an appropriate rebalancing that will allow researchers to assume greater responsibility in the dissemination of the fruits of their work
  • University leaders should recognise that, as employers, they are the funders of a large proportion of research in the arts and humanities; with fewer and fewer publishers remaining in the academic book market, universities should shoulder the responsibility for making academic work in those fields known more widely

(Fyfe et al 2017:19)

To the trustees, directors and o cers of mission-driven or discipline-based learned societies (and other representatives of disciplinary scholarly communities):

  • Learned societies should facilitate discussion and greater awareness among their members about the relationship between academic prestige, the publishing industry, and the circulation of knowledge. To inform such discussions, annual reports should explain the organisation’s rationale for the pricing of its book and journals, and how this is justified by the organisation’s mission
  • Societies that co-publish journals or book series with third-parties should reflect on whether the mission and business strategy of the co-publisher is a good fit for the society’s scholarly mission
  • Disciplinary communities should embrace the opportunities for more rapid and widespread circulation of research offered by pre-print servers (such as arXiv and bioRxiv ), and online mega-journals
  • Learned societies should open discussions with other societies with similar interests, both in the UK and internationally, to consider whether pooling resources could enable the creation of a low-cost, sustainable, online and non-profit-driven model of academic publishing

To academics:

  • Those serving as editors of journals and book series, or on editorial boards, should reflect on the ownership and mission of the publishers they are working for, and consider whether they are helping to get the best value for their discipline by serving in these roles
  • In setting up new journals or book series, academics should seek to work with mission-driven, non- profit-oriented publishers or online platforms
  • Senior research leaders should leverage their accumulated prestige to enable their more junior co- workers to balance rigour, speed and value for money in their publishing choices
  • Academics should not sign copyright transfer forms that would give ownership to a profit-oriented publisher if a licence to publish can be granted instead

 

(Fyfe et al 2017:20)

 

The report will be launched this evening at the British Academy in London.

 

Reference

Fyfe, Aileen, Coate, Kelly, Curry, Stephen, Lawson, Stuart, Moxham, Noah, & Røstvik, Camilla Mørk. (2017). Untangling Academic Publishing: A history of the relationship between commercial interests, academic prestige and the circulation of research. Zenodo. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.546100

Don’t Walk Away: The Aporetics of Information in the Age of Twitter Overload

“The Oxford English Dictionary includes two forms of the word: the adjective “aporetic”, which it defines as “to be at a loss”, “impassable”, and “inclined to doubt, or to raise objections”; and the noun form “aporia”, which it defines as the “state of the aporetic” and “a perplexity or difficulty”.”

– from the Wikipedia entry for ‘Aporia’

Like you, I’ve read the news today.

One immediately wants to write something. One also feels lost for words. We used to be, as humanity, ‘lost for words’ when facing something unspeakable, because it had not been said before. There were no words for it because it exceeded the limits of our understanding, of current and previous systems of belief. That for which we had no words for was unknown and unknowable. And now, words flow. Please bear with me.

Tragically, incidents like the Manchester Arena attack are no longer ‘new’. Steadily, mostly thanks to the almost immediate global mass dissemination of information, we already have a discourse and therefore a vocabulary of reaction. Online and on print, everyone feeds from incidents ‘like this’ (language is a minefield). Organizations, communities and individuals struggle to make sense of our own being in the world by becoming present through utterances. We say/write/post, therefore we exist. There should be no doubt that many of the reactions are in good faith, as an expression of humanity. Extending one’s hand for a handshake or an embrace.

There is also, however, a negative side. It is the ongoing feeding of fear, the promotion of the terror that through loopy repetition gets ingrained in our minds. The effects are double: the terror is widely known, in detail, and impossible to ignore, changing society at its core, but the terror also gets normalised, and therefore muted. Multiplicity of sources, angles, opinions create confusion. So better to look away, focus on what keeps our lives ‘normal’. Just another day on Planet Earth. Carry on, nothing to see here. This is the effect we should try more actively to avoid, but how? As usual when I write, I am aware that this very post is contributing to the problematic phenomenon I am trying to make sense of by writing. This is why I think we have in front of us an aporia, a perplexing problem which is or seems impossible for us to crack.

The world today avoids problematic situations. The term ‘problematic’ is indeed now every sociologist’s and academic’s cliché. In the English-speaking tradition, practical solutions through practicable methods and measurable solutions are preferred to the Romance languages’ preference for the essay that by definition attempts or rehearses an approach around a problem. Essaying is ‘problematising’, but this is incredibly frustrating when there is a pressing need to just get on with things and face what cannot be avoided and requires a ‘solution‘. As soon as we use that word, however, echoes of the unspeakable come back to haunt us, sometimes consciously, sometimes not.

In times of alarm and pain, there is a responsibility in saying as much as there is a responsibility in not saying. Knowing when and how to participate online is a skill to be developed, individually, as communities, societies and cultures. I am motivated to write by the following questions/writing this has made me think of these questions:

  • When everyone with a social media account contributes to the infosphere in which we are immersed in, how do we balance the need to say, to participate in society, while being aware of how each of us may be contributing to the steady deterioration and erosion of public discourse?
  • What are the effects that our postings have on others, and can we ever fully have control over these possible effects?
  • How do we build ‘healthy’ networks of support, online and offline, without alienating others who are also at the producing-and-receiving end of the information flow?

Obviously I have no answers to these questions.

Many respectable folk have written about the ethics of storytelling and the need to actively resist the horror through art and documentation.*  This documentation will one day be the testament of our era, an immense archive of humanity’s consciousness, spoken out loud. Social media today replicates many of the bad practices of the mainstream media (in the UK, the tabloid press has a lot to answer for), and we must look into the role that the pervasive broadcasting of information has on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Victims and affected communities are vulnerable and in pain, and constant semi-immersive and excessive broadcasting can contribute and exacerbate the pain, as well as the social divisions that make extremism thrive.

At present, however, the way we live rarely allows us to stop and reflect, and more importantly, to listen to each other. Issues on international mainstream news that affect us all are constantly considered outside the limits of professional practice, regardless of what we may do for a living, and the pragmatism of everyday survival trumps more considered attempts to prioritise the building of relationships, a commons of solidarity and understanding (and also respectful disagreement) seeking to build and maintain the public good. We mute accounts tweeting and retweeting the hashtag or event du jour. We lament not more young people even register to vote, but we have embraced politics (and the social consequences of politics) as a form of entertainment. At most, we have allowed most political ‘engagement’ to become a version of Gogglebox. In our everyday lives, we walk away from all the chatter to remain sane and to focus. We cannot deal with so much and get back to our work, and the clamour ‘outside’ overshadows the individual tragedies and issues, becoming pure noise and fury. In the age in which methods of production of information have been made widely available to the masses, actual resistance, we know well, has been almost completely deactivated.

And so we ‘carry on’, we tell ourselves, but the problems remain, and the need to share, to make sense of it all still somehow remains as well. Whether it is murdered journalists in Mexico or teenagers in a pop concert in Manchester, the terror is real. People are suffering right now. Attacks, victims are not mere metrics, nor ‘content’, nor objects of study. Incidents like the Manchester Arena attack are no longer ‘new’, we said, but each death and the pain of each parent, relative, friend, fellow citizen, human being is absolutely unique. The tragedy is never repeatable, it is absolute uniqueness, and this is what makes it so utterly painful, shocking, and perplexing.

As the crowds pour their thoughts and pain online, this is paradoxically a crucial moment to reconsider our understanding of the meaning of ‘engagement’. As algorithmic relevance defines concrete realities and the attention economy becomes so fierce that most people are seen but not heard, the temptation is to back off and walk away in silence. This seems to me to be exactly what those seeking to terrorise want. For us to hide, to close up, to not go out, to not be together. For us to forget who we are and what makes us human.

As I worked on this interview, and once it was published as I shared it, I was visited by fears that it did not matter, that it made no difference. Friends ironically, jokingly, said they would share it with friends who couldn’t care less. Friends and family directly affected by the situation documented in the article reacted to it with distance. I could literally touch the fear. I was aware that in my ability to translate it into English I was already exercising a privilege not altogether disconnected from the inequality that is one of the causes of the horrors I was trying to document. I was also aware of my distance from the events, even if I feel very close to them. The alternative, not to do anything, not to at least try to contribute to avoiding the complicitous silence denounced by the interviewee did not seem to me like an option. I had to face the contradictions.

There is the feeling that there is already enough information out there, and that therefore we don’t need anyone else’s contribution. So much information is perceived as an ‘excess’, and its effect is to alienate us and disempower us. The point is precisely to make us feel like nothing we can do really matters – and if it matters it does for different reasons to the message conveyed- because it brings some kind of capital to the author, or because it provides authors with a sense of identity, of singularity or importance in a world where it is harder and harder to stand out. Black Mirror stuff.

This is an important part of this aporetic nature of being online and being a citizen: how to balance the rights of individual expression with the need to consider the effects it has on others given the current infrastructures for communication and the discourse they enable, encourage and actively produce. Terrorism and mass social media have something in common: one of their side effects is to make individuals and communities feel like there’s nothing they can do to make a difference, that no resistance is likely to make a difference, that no awareness or documentation of the terror will stop the pain.

I said I felt lost for words, and now I’ve written more than 1500 words. The irony is painful and awareness has its limitations.

To be honest I don’t know how to end this post. I just want to resist repressing the grief and the concern. I want to think there are still ways we can share our feelings, report on what we believe deserves to be known, and be active part of our communities.

The logic of Terrorism and the commodification of all human communication, of human pain, packaged as ‘content’,  cannot triumph, even if our humble means to resist it are always-already the same tools used to advance it. It’s perhaps a question of remembering the precious singularity, the absolute uniqueness of each human being in this world.

___

*Not just people like Paul Ricoeur and Dominick LaCapra, just look at this 2015 conference programme for more recent work.

#TheDataDebates: A Quick Twitter Data Summary

Screenshot of an interactive visualisation of a #TheDataDebates archive created with Martin Hawksey's TAGSExplorer
Screenshot of an interactive visualisation of a #TheDataDebates archive created with Martin Hawksey’s TAGSExplorer

1 October 2016 Update: I have now deposited on figshare a CSV file with timestamps, source and user_lang metadata of the archived tweets.

Priego, Ernesto (2016): #TheDataDebates Tweet Timestamps, Source, User Language. figshare.https://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.3976731.v1. Retrieved: 10 03, Oct 01, 2016 (GMT)

Social Media Data: What’s the use‘ was the title of a panel discussion held at The British Library, London, on Wednesday 21 September 2016, 18:00 – 20:00. The official hashtag of the event was #TheDataDebates.

I made a collection of Tweets tagged with #TheDataDebates published publicly between 12/09/2016 09:06:52 and 22/09/2016 09:55:03 (BST).

Again I used Tweepy 3.5.0, a Python wrapper for the Twitter API, for the collection. Learning to mine with Python has been fun and empowering. To compare results I also used, as usual, Martin Hawksey’s TAGS, with results being equal (I only collected Tweets from accounts with at least 1 follower). Having the collected data already in a spreadsheet saved me time. I only collected Tweets from accounts with at least one follower.

Here’s a summary of the collection:

First Tweet in Archive 12/09/2016 09:06:52
Last Tweet in Archive 22/09/2016 09:55:03
Number of Tweets 

594

Number of links

152

Number of RTs

312

Number of accounts

152

From the main archive I was able to focus on number of Tweets per source and user language setting.

Source

source Count
Twitter for iPhone

246

Twitter Web Client

131

Twitter for Android

100

Twitter for iPad

74

TweetDeck

12

UK Trends

11

Mobile Web (M5)

5

Hootsuite

5

Twitter for Windows Phone

3

Big Data news flow

1

Linkis

1

Twtterrific

1

iOS

1

Flipboard

1

Lt RTEngine

1

RoundTeam

1

Total

594

User Language Setting (user_lang)

user_lang Count Notes
en

547

en-gb

32

fr

7

6 of it are spam
de

3

it

3

ar

2

both spam
Total

594

 The summary above is of the raw collection so not all the activity it reflects is either ‘human’ nor relevant, as some accounts tweeting have been identified as bots tweeting spam (a less human readable hashtag could have potentially avoided such spamming given the relatively low activity). Except where I identified spam Tweets, in this post I have not looked at the Tweets’ text data (i.e. I haven’t shared here any text or content analysis). Maybe if I have time in the near future. As Retweets were counted as Tweets in this archive a more specific and precise analysis would have to filter them from the dataset.

I am fully aware this would be more interesting and useful if there were opportunities for others to replicate the analysis through access to the source dataset I used. There are lots of interesting types of analysis that could be run and data to focus on in such a dataset as this. As in previous posts about other events, I am simply sharing this post right now as a quick indicative update published only a few hours after the event concluded.

It was pointed out last night that “social media data mining is starting but still has a way to go to catch up with hard analytical methodologies.” A post like this does not claim to employ a such methodologies, it simply seeks to contribute to the debate with evidence that may hopefully inspire other studies.  Perhaps it’s a two-way process, and  “hard analytical methodologies” (and researchers’ and users’ attitudes regarding cultural paradigms around ethics, privacy, consent, statistical significance)  have also a way to go to catch up with new/recent pervasive forms of data creation and dissemination that perhaps require different, media-community- and content-specific approaches to doing research.

Other Considerations [I am reusing my own text from previous posts here]


Both research and experience show that the Twitter search API is not 100% reliable. Large Tweet volumes affect the search collection process. The API might “over-represent the more central users”, not offering “an accurate picture of peripheral activity” (González-Bailon, Sandra, et al, 2012). Apart from the filters and limitations already declared, it cannot be guaranteed that each and every Tweet tagged with #TheDataDebates during the indicated period was analysed. The dataset was shared for archival, comparative and indicative educational research purposes only.

Only content from public accounts, obtained from the Twitter Search API, was analysed.  The source data is also publicly available to all Twitter users via the Twitter Search API and available to anyone with an Internet connection via the Twitter and Twitter Search web client and mobile apps without the need of a Twitter account. These posts and the resulting dataset contain the results of analyses of Tweets that were published openly on the Web with the queried hashtag; the content of the Tweets is responsibility of the original authors. Original Tweets are likely to be copyright their individual authors but please check individually.This work is shared to archive, document and encourage open educational research into scholarly activity on Twitter.

No private personal information was shared. The collection, analysis and sharing of the data has been enabled and allowed by Twitter’s Privacy Policy. The sharing of the results complies with Twitter’s Developer Rules of the Road. A hashtag is metadata users choose freely to use so their content is associated, directly linked to and categorised with the chosen hashtag.

The purpose and function of hashtags is to organise and describe information/outputs under the relevant label in order to enhance the discoverability of the labeled information/outputs (Tweets in this case). Tweets published publicly by scholars or other professionals during academic conferences or events are often publicly tagged (labeled) with a hashtag dedicated to the event n question. This practice used to be the confined to a few ‘niche’ fields; it is increasingly becoming the norm rather than the exception. Though every reason for Tweeters’ use of hashtags cannot be generalised nor predicted, it can be argued that scholarly Twitter users form specialised, self-selecting public professional networks that tend to observe scholarly practices and accepted modes of social and professional behaviour. In general terms it can be argued that scholarly Twitter users willingly and consciously tag their public Tweets with a conference hashtag as a means to network and to promote, report from, reflect on, comment on and generally contribute publicly to the scholarly conversation around conferences.

As Twitter users, conference Twitter hashtag contributors have agreed to Twitter’s Privacy and data sharing policies.Professional associations like the Modern Language Association and the American Pyschological Association recognise Tweets as citeable scholarly outputs. Archiving scholarly Tweets is a means to preserve this form of rapid online scholarship that otherwise can very likely become unretrievable as time passes; Twitter’s search API has well-known temporal limitations for retrospective historical search and collection. Beyond individual Tweets as scholarly outputs, the collective scholarly activity on Twitter around a conference or academic project or event can provide interesting insights for the contemporary history of scholarly communications. Though this work has limitations and might not be thoroughly systematic, it is hoped it can contribute to developing new insights into a discipline’s public concerns as expressed on Twitter over time.

References

González-Bailon, Sandra and Wang, Ning and Rivero, Alejandro and Borge-Holthoefer, Javier and Moreno, Yamir, Assessing the Bias in Samples of Large Online Networks (December 4, 2012).  Available at SSRN: http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2185134

Priego, Ernesto (2016) #WLIC2016 Most Frequent Terms Roundup. figshare.
https://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.3749367.v2AHRC [ahrcpress]. (2016, Sep 21).

Social media data mining is starting but still has a way to go to catch up with hard analytical methodologies #TheDataDebates [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/ahrcpress/status/778652767636389888

Priego, Ernesto (2016): #TheDataDebates Tweet Timestamps, Source, User Language. figshare. https://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.3976731.v1 Retrieved: 10 03, Oct 01, 2016 (GMT)

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