The academic, the wikipedian, the vandal [Full version, updated 05.11.2012]

The French translation of this essay is available on OWNI (part 1 and part 2), as installments of my column Addicted To Bad Ideas.

With the new academic year kicking in, my colleagues and I have decided to add a little wiki twist to a couple of courses we teach at Telecom ParisTech. I started a Wikispace for my digital culture class, and with Isabelle Garron and Valérie Beaudouin we’ve made compulsory for first year students to try and edit and discuss at least one Wikipedia page, as part of their initiation to online writing.

Sure, Wikipedia has been used as teaching tool in academia for some years now, to say nothing about its increasing popularity as a research topic. But the main rationale for using it in the classroom is that it has become the one-stop-shop for bibliographical research and fact-checking.

Challenging the Academic Mindframe

Think about your own online information habits. What do you do when you don’t know the first thing about a given topic? You probably google it, and the first occurrence is most likely a page from Jimbo Wales’s brainchild. You do it, we do it, our students do it. So we have to incorporate Wikipedia in our academic activity, not because it’s a cool gadget, but because otherwise it will create a dangerous blind spot.

[Don’t panic… Ok, panic]

And yet, admitting to this without panicking is not simple. At least here in continental Europe, ill informed judgments about the allegedly poor quality of Wikipedia articles are still commonplace in higher education. Some – like the French high-school teacher Loys Bonod, who had his 15 minutes of fame earlier this year – go as far as to add false and misleading information to Wikipedia, just to demonstrate to their students that it… contains false and misleading information.

Such paradoxical reactions are a case in point. Wikipedia is just as accurate and insightful as its contributions. Hence, the need to encourage its users to relinquish their passive stance and participate, by writing about and discussing relevant topics. Of course, one might say, when it comes to Wikipedia the Internet iron law of 90–9–1 participation applies: for 90 simple readers of any article, there will be only 9 who will make the effort to click on the “modify” tab to actually write something in it, and maybe just 1 motivated enough to click on the “discussion” tab and start a dialogue with other wikipedians.

Social scientists can come up with many explanations for this situation. The claims about the dawn of online participatory culture might have been largely exaggerated. Or maybe the encyclopaedic form tends to recreate cultural dynamics that are more coherent with an “author vs. reader” dichotomy than with many-to-many communication. Or maybe Wikipedia editors tend to intimidate other users in an effort to increase their own social status by implementing specific barriers to entry.

Try starting a new article. In all probability, its relevance will be challenged by some editor. Try starting the biography of a living public figure. Chances are that a discussion will ensue, focussing not on the public figure in question, but on the private qualities of the biographer. Is the author just an IP-based anonymous, or a legit logged-in user with a recognized contribution track record?


Censorship and social media: some background information

[Update July 27, 2012: so far, our study has been featured in a number of media outlets in UK, India, Algeria, US, Oman, Indonesia… These are just the ones we know of: The Daily Mail, Yahoo Lifestyle, CNN, Technorati, The Times of India, GigaOM, Buzzfeed, National Affairs, Sify News,, Science Daily, Zee News TV India, Oman Tribune, The Free Library, L’atelier, Sciencenewsline, Le Soir d’Algérie, Tempo Indonesia. We’re particularly impressed by this response, and would like to thank the researchers, journalists and activists who’ve been spreading the news.]

Hello everyone,

You have probably reached this page after reading in the international press about our study “Social Media Censorship in Times of Political Unrest – A Social Simulation Experiment with the UK Riots” (published in the journal Bulletin of Sociological Methodology, vol. 115, n. 1). This post will provide some background information.

Read the study

First of all, if you are interested in reading the paper, you can purchase the article from SAGE website. Anyhow, here’s a preprint version you can download for free. Just saying.

About the authors

If you are looking for the authors’ bios:

 Antonio A. Casilli, is an associate professor of Digital Humanities at Telecom ParisTech and a researcher in sociology at the Edgar Morin Centre (EHESS), Paris, France. He is the author of the social media theory book Les liaisons numériques [Digital Relationships], published by the Editions du Seuil. He blogs at, tweets as @bodyspacesoc, and is a regular commentator for Radio France Culture. You can contact him here.

 Paola Tubaro, is a senior lecturer in Economic Sociology at the Business School of the University of Greenwich, London, UK, and associate researcher at the Centre Maurice Halbwachs (CNRS) Paris, France. Economic sociologist with interest in social networks and their impact on markets, organisations, consumer choice and health, her research also includes work in the philosophy and methodology of economics and social science. Her blog is here, plus you can contact her here.

The story, so far

In the wake of the August 2011 UK uprisings, Casilli and Tubaro built a rapid response study. Using computer simulation, the investigators showed that any move by the government to censor social media was likely to result in more civil unrest, higher levels of violence, and shorter periods of social peace. Released as a joint post on their websites and subsequently available as a working paper on SSRN (Social Science Research Network), the study was widely shared online and in the press.

Such an enthusiastic response prompted them to continue their research. Presently, they are launching follow-ups and new developments, both empirical and theoretical, in other European and MENA countries. They are members of the scientific committee of Just-In-Time Sociology (JITSO), an EPFL Geneva-based program gathering international researchers that try “to understand social phenomena as they unfold”.

TEDx talk, simulations and other stuff

If you want to watch a video presentation of the study, here’s Antonio Casilli’s TEDx talk (in French, with English subtitles), “Studying censorship via social simulation”, TEDx Paris Universités, May 19, 2012.

If you want to know more about our ongoing research, Internet Censorship and Civil Unrest (ICCU), here’s the project’s wiki.

If you want to download the computer simulation, here you’ll find a detailed technical description of the model. The model file (Netlogo and Java applet versions) is available here . You should: 1) unzip and save all three files in the same directory; 2) either open the .nlogo file from your computer in Netlogo, or open the .html file in your browser).


Trollarchy in the UK: the British Defamation Bill and the delusion of the public sphere

[UPDATE 26.06.2102: A French version of this post is now available on the news website OWNI. As usual, thanks to Guillaume Ledit for translating it.]

These days, the House of Commons has been debating an amendment to the British Defamation Bill specificially designed to tackle Internet trolls. Now website owners and internet access providers will be forced to reveal the IP and personal information of users identified as authors of ‘vile messages’. It is business as usual: whenever some ICT-related news story catches the public eye, British policy makers come up with an ad hoc law. Preferably, one mindlessly disregarding privacy and free speech.

Why mainstream media are scared of trolls

In a remarkable effort to lull the general public in a false sense of understanding digital cultures, The Guardian has devoted a special session of its June 12, 2012 edition to this peculiar online phenomenon. The pièce de résistance is Zoe Williams’s What is an internet troll?. An article concocted using the usual troll news story recipe: one part pyschology professor delivering highbrow quotes about the ‘disinhibition effect’ of electronic media, one part journalist whining about today’s diminishing education standards and pervasive hate speech, two parts sad anecdotes about some celebrities we’re supposed to sympathize with. The conclusion of this tone-setting essay (“We shouldn’t call them ‘trolls’. We should call them rude people.”) is probably best rendered when pronounced with a high-pitched monty pythonesque voice, like in The Life of Brian‘s “He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy!”.


The struggle for recognition in technological cultures: an anthology of “engineer’s laments”

Engineers have a lot of reasons to be miserable. I mean, they spend their precious time designing sophisticated and super-clever technological solutions to problems faced by people who hardly ever grant them the recognition they deserve. Take this piece of poetry, posted in a display case at Bletchley Park military research facility – the place where artificial intelligence pioneer Alan Turing and colleagues created Colossus, the very first electronic computer.

Most likely inspired by pre-existing seamen’s ballads written by ‘marine engineers’ operating ships and cargos, this lament was first published by Henry Jennings, a post office engineer, in the Bedford Telephone Area newsletter in 1950. Of course there’s a lot to be said about recognition. Philosopher Axel Honneth maintains mutual acknowledgement of the existence of social actors is what makes society work (cf. his seminal essay The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts, Polity Press, 1996).

Quite understandably engineers want to be appreciated for what they do. Problem is, when a system works, engineers’ activity becomes invisible. And when it becomes visible again, it’s usually because something’s gone wrong… There’s a lot of interesting books about this ‘vanishing effect’ of engineering, from Bruno Latour’s Paris: Invisible City (La Découverte, 1998) to Stephen Graham’s Disrupted Cities: When Infrastructure Fails (Routledge, 2009) – although they mostly deal with civil engineering.


La simulation sociale pour combattre la censure : texte de ma conférence à TEDxParisUniversités

[UPDATE 05.06.2102: La vidéo de mon talk est désormais en ligne sur le site Web des conférences TED. Enjoy & share !]

Le samedi 19 mai j’ai été parmi les heureux conférenciers de l’édition 2012 de TEDxParisUniversités. A cette occasion, j’ai pu présenter au public français les résultats du projet ICCU (Internet Censorship and Civil Unrest) que je mène avec Paola Tubaro, enseignante-chercheuse à l’Université de Greenwich, Londres. L’accueil a été plus que chaleureux : la tweeterie m’a porté en triomphe, j’ai reçu les accolades des organisateurs et je me suis imbibé de l’enthousiasme d’étudiants et de militants de tout bord. J’exagère, mais pas tant que ça (suffit de lire le compte-rendu Storify concocté par Gayané Adourian ;). Voici donc le texte et les slides de mon intervention, en attendant la vidéo.

Aujourd’hui je vais vous parler des effets négatifs de la censure des médias sociaux, en passant par le cas des émeutes britanniques de 2011.

La censure est extrêmement difficile à étudier du point de vue des sciences sociales. Dans la mesure où elle est une interruption de flux d’information, les données relatives à ses conséquences et à son efficacité prétendue sont souvent inaccessibles aux chercheurs. C’est pourquoi nous devons nous appuyer sur une méthode innovante : la simulation sociale. (more…)

Would online censorship be effective? Evidence from two research projects proves the opposite

you’ve probably reached this blog after listening to my interview with Jian Ghomeshi on CBC Radio Canada’s programme Q. In case you missed it, here’s the podcast:

In this post, you’ll find some background information about my ongoing research on internet censorship – mainly in collaboration with Paola Tubaro (University of Greenwich, UK) and other colleagues. Our focus is on unintended and negative effects of censorship, based on analyses of social media use conducted in the last few years.

In my latest book Les liaisons numériques. Vers une nouvelle sociabilité? [Digital Relationships. Towards a New Sociability?, Paris, Seuil, 2010] I dealt with the topic of pro-ana (short for “pro-anorexia”) and pro-mia (“pro-bulimia”) websites, blogs and forums of persons with eating disorders. The most controversial among them have gone as far as to claim that eating disorders are a choice or a lifestyle, rather than conditions. A grant from the French National Research Agency (ANR) allowed me and my colleagues to lauch ANAMIA, a large-scale study on eating disorder-oriented online communities.

ANAMIA research project – featured on Boing Boing

Since the early 2000s, fears that these websites may induce unhealthy behaviours (possibly in young and adolescent viewers), have prompted many web services to remove them, while some countries have considered outlawing them. Yet eating-disorder related Web communities continue to proliferate. They have migrated to more hidden platforms, barred entry to outsiders, concealed their true nature, and relocated in foreign countries. In a previous post published on Bodyspacesociety blog, I have dubbed this the “toothpaste tube effect“: squeezed from one service, controversial contents re-group elsewhere. Paradoxically, censorship multiplies these websites – if only because of the urge to duplicate contents for backup purposes, in case they have to shut down and move!

Mapping pro-ED websites (France, 2010-2012) – ANAMIA research project

Today, these websites are less open and less visible, though still numerous and densely connected with one another. Thus, they can still influence their users, just as before; but it has become harder for health and nutrition campaigns to locate them and reach out to their users.

Our results indicate that Internet censorship is ineffective and inefficient: it has failed to stop “negative” influences, and has made it more difficult for “positive” influences to operate.


Banning pro-ana websites? Not a good idea, as Web censorship might have a 'toothpaste tube effect'

[Update 05.04.13: A longer version of this post, with revised results, has evolved into a full-fledged article published by the UK Royal Society. To cite the article: A. A. Casilli, F. Pailler, P. Tubaro (2013). Online networks of eating disorder websites: why censoring pro ana might be a bad idea, Perspectives in Public Health , vol. 133, n.2, p. 94 95. As part of our research project ANAMIA (Ana-mia Sociability: an Online/Offline Social Networks Approach to Eating Disorders), the post has been featured in a number of media venues, including The Economist, Libération, Le Monde, Boing Boing, The Huffingtonpost, CBC Radio Canada, DRadio Wissen, Voice of Russia.]

Tumblr, Pinterest and the toothpaste tube

On February 23rd, 2012 Tumblr announced its decision to turn the screw on self-harm blogs: suicide, mutilation and most prominently thinspiration – i.e. the ritualized exchange of images and quotes meant to inspire readers to be thin. This cultural practice is distinctive of the pro-ana (anorexia nervosa), pro-mia (bulimia) and pro-ED (eating disorders) groups online: blogs, forums, and communities created by people suffering from eating-related conditions, who display a proactive stance and critically abide by medical advice.

A righteous limitation of harmful contents or just another way to avoid liability by marginalizing a stigmatized subculture? Whatever your opinion, it might not come as a surprise that the disbanded pro-ana Tumblr bloggers are regrouping elsewhere. Of all places, they are surfacing on Pinterest, the up-and-coming photo-sharing site. Here’s how Sociology in Focus relates the news: (more…)

EnemyGraph: blasphème ou ruse de l’amitié sur Facebook ?

On m’a souvent entendu parler d’amitié et d’inimitié dans les réseaux sociaux. De l’amitié à l’heure du numérique, autant dans le chapitre « Mon friend n’est pas mon ami » (v. mon ouvrage Les liaisons numériques, Paris, Seuil, p. 270-277 – que vous trouvez résumées ici) que dans plusieurs interventions publiques  détaillant les tenants et les aboutissants du friending. D’inimitié, plus récemment, dans mon effort de théoriser la conflictualité et les liens négatifs en ligne.

 Donc, quand le toujours admirable @affordanceinfo m’a signalé aujourd’hui le lancement d’EnemyGraph, une nouvelle app qui permet de déclarer des ennemis sur Facebook, j’ai fait un bond de surprise. Créé à la University of Texas par Dean Terry et ses étudiants Bradley Griffith et Harrison Massey, l’application promet de faire le contre-pied de l’ethos de l’amour et de l’amitié forcées de Facebook et de réaliser le rêve longtemps refoulé d’un bouton dislike. Mais comment ça marche ? Selon Terry le tout est basé sur la notion de « dissonance sociale », voire l’évaluation des liens existants entre usagers selon leur désignation de personnes, choses et lieux qui leur déplaisent:

EnemyGraph is an application that allows you to list your “enemies”. Any Facebook friend or user of the app can be an enemy. More importantly, you can also make any page or group on Facebook an “enemy”. This covers almost everything including people, places and things. During our testing testing triangles and q-tips were trending, along with politicians, music groups, and math.
Dean Terry EnemyGraph Facebook Application [visité 26 Mar. 12]

Pour une sociologie du #troll

Hello folks ! Si vous êtes arrivés ici après avoir écouté l’émission Place de la Toile “Psycho-politique du troll” du 24 mars 2011, vous trouverez dans ce billet un utile complément d’information. Si vous êtes des lecteurs habituels de ce blog ou de celui consacré à la réception de mon livre Les liaisons numériques (Ed. du Seuil), vous y trouverez une bonne synthèse des contenus que vous connaissez sans doute déjà.

Typologie du troll

Quatre catégories principales de trolls sont identifiables :

1) le troll “pur” : le modèle de base, utilisateur bête et méchant des listes de diffusion ou des médias sociaux qu’il pourrit de commentaires désobligeants et mal adaptés au contexte d’interaction (ex. reconduire tout au sexe dans un forum de discussion sur la religion ou reconduire tout à la religion dans un forum de discussion sur la psychanalyse…). Sa nature est éminemment contextuelle et engage une réaction directe de la part des autres membres de la communauté qui se retrouvent investis de la fonction d’applicateurs de la norme sociale :

“Dans Second Life, je pourrais me faire passer pour un médecin, mais si je me présentais en tant que tel dans un forum de discussion santé ce serait perçu comme une intolérable imposture. À cet égard, la communication en ligne met constamment l’usager, à la première personne, dans une situation de risque de déviance. Il suffit de ne pas avoir bien évalué son environnement communicationnel pour se retrouver dans son tort. Ce qui explique pour quelle raison les internautes ne prônent que rarement l’intervention d’une autorité supérieure. C’est plutôt une ‘modération communautaire’ qui est souhaitée, où les membres eux-mêmes veillent au respect des règles du service informatique.”

Extrait du chapitre “Que va-t-on faire du troll ?” in Antonio A. Casilli (2010) Les liaisons numériques. Vers une nouvelle sociabilité ?, Paris, Ed. du Seuil p. 319.


Taking liberties: why feeling closer on social media can lead to higher conflictuality

A short note on an apparent paradox highlighted by Ronald E. Anderson on the blog Compassionate Societies. While commenting on a recent PEW survey on the “tone of life” on social networking sites, the author points out two interesting facts :

1)  heavy social media users are prone to conflict (and, more generally, a lot of users experience negative interactions, physical fight and even end up breaking friendships because of online communication)…

2) ..yet overall people declare they feel closer to others, more compassionate and feeling good about themselves.

How can this contradiction be explained? According to the author “social networking is a mixed bag of good and bad”. I, for one, would like to suggest another way of interpreting these results: social media users are not hostile despite the fact they feel closer to one another. Rather, they are hostile because they feel closer. Closeness primarily comes to mean that users approach social media sites with higher expectations about friendship and togetherness. Social networking might thus imply adopting a social style characterized by a hypertrophied sense of intimacy, verging on liberty – like in the expression “taking liberties”: being too friendly in a way that shows a lack of respect to others.

Facebook “friending” rhetoric plays a part in this process, of course: by spreading an irenic vision of harmonious social life, any deviation from emotional proximity is perceived as a major break in the code of communication. In this sense, while interacting in the informal environment of social media, individuals not only fail to cultivate deference, but they even come to think of it as a transgression of an implicit social norm, as a manifestation of distance – or, worse, indifference – that compromises social cohesion and introduces an element of mistrust conducive to conflict.