I was honored to be invited by The Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the University of St. Gallen to participate in the expert-workshop “Research Methods in the Digitally Networked Information Age” in Brunnen, Switzerland from 10 to 12 May 2010.

Switzerland 2010

Rob Faris and Christian Sandvig

On Tuesday Christian Sandvig and I moderated the “Evolution of Methods” panel in which we addressed two topics: 1. banditry (Sandvig) and 2. the volatility of methods (Helmond).

Banditry

Christian Sandvig proposes banditry as a metaphor for looking at the evolution of methods. We need to celebrate the bandits and ask ourselves how we can become better bandits in order to take banditry seriously. What methods can we borrow or which methods would we like to steal from other disciplines? In line with the banditry metaphor I would like to add a biological notion of evolution to this idea by taking into account the parasitic and symbiotic way of transferring methods or taking them from other disciplines. Banditry in that sense could be considered a parasitic method of transferring methods.

Gerhard Buurman notes that banditry has a negative connotation, it’s an angry action which often involves a victim. Instead of thinking about the evolution of methods from a banditry metaphor it might be more useful to think through the notions of translation and evolution.

Does transferring methods from one discipline to another involve a translation? Different disciplines use different definitions complicating the interdisciplinary movement of methods. Adopting methods should ideally involve the process of cultivation: “to improve by labor, care, or study.”1. Cultivated methods have been transferred from the environment or object of study originally applied to and as such are “no longer in the natural state.”2

The volatility of methods

The web has a focus on freshness (see The Perceived Freshness Fetish) and an update culture and as such “Internet methods are incessantly volatile due to the update culture of the Internet itself.”3 Digital methods may be volatile if we build tools (scrapers, crawlers, plugins) on top of devices that change.

There are different data gathering methods: The API is the polite way of gathering data and scraping could be considered the impolite way of harnessing data: “You can arrange digital research methods on a spectrum of niceness. On the one hand you use the industry-provided API. On the other you scrape Facebook for all it is worth.”4 APIs often limit which information you can retrieve and the amount of information you can retrieve. APIs bring back the notion of scarcity in the digital age which is often considered to be the domain of abundance. According to Chris Anderson in ‘The Tragically Neglected Economics of Abundance’ “clearly abundance (AKA “plentitude”) is all around us, especially in technology” but the limit on API calls show differently. The Twitter REST API allows general users only 150 requests per hour. Once you pass this number you are temporarily ‘banned’5. For developers this can be expanded to 20000 requests per hour by whitelisting your IP address or account but maintains update and followers limits. Social graph/social network analysis applications build on top of Twitter using the API like Wow.ly and Mailana still very often hit the API limits. Another important aspect for researchers is that the Twitter Search API is limited: “We also restrict the size of the search index by placing a date limit on the updates we allow you to search. This limit is currently around 1.5 weeks but is dynamic and subject to shrink as the number of tweets per day continues to grow.” Artificial limits cause a scarcity in retrieval methods.

APIs often change which has major implications for the applications built on top of them. In a worst case scenario applications may stop to function, especially if the platform providing the API fails to notify developers. Gowalla developer Ben Dodson wrote an extensive open letter to Gowalla about their lack of communication in API changes:

The major problem with the API is its fluid and changeable nature. Whilst we accept that any application will inevitably have bug fixes and changes, an API is supposed to provide a stable endpoint on which third party services can rely on. (Dodson via Techcrunch)

In a ‘perfect’ networked information ecosystem an API is open and stable for developers and researchers to be able to rely on the continuity of tools.

In the case of scraping a seemingly simple interface change can also break the tools built on top of them. This happened to Scroogle, “serving up privacy-friendly Google search results,” which was built on top of google.com/ie. When Google decided to discontinue IE6 support the google.com/ie page automatically redirected to http://www.google.com/toolbar/ie8/sidebar.html and Scroogle stopped working. Scroogle has since been brought back to life with the help of its users.6

So how can we address the issues of volatile methods caused by the ephemerality of the web? Martina Mertz introduces the notion of plastic methods, methods that are not solid, and methods that can monitor change. Urs Gasser calls for methods that can learn themselves. Sandvig notes that the pace of science is different than the pace of the web. Can scientific methods keep up with the pace of the web?

Switzerland 2010

Eszter Hargittai and Christian Sandvig at the workshop

  1. “cultivating.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2010. Merriam-Webster Online. 17 May 2010 <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cultivating>[]
  2. “cultivated.” WordNet Search. 2010. 17 May 2010 <http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=cultivated>[]
  3. Helmond paraphrased by Sandvig[]
  4. Helmond paraphrased by Sandvig[]
  5. banned implies that you cannot access Twitter but your Twitter activity is actually ‘frozen’ until your rate limit is over[]
  6. Tuesday evening, thanks to some help from a trio of Scroogle users, Brandt was able to replicate his setup via another page – google.com/search – by adding an extra parameter (“&output=ie”) to the url. “It appears that both methods,” Brandt says, meaning the old and the new, “amount to the same thing.” Metz, Cade, ‘Scroogle scrapes back to life’, The Register, 2010 [accessed 17 May 2010].[]