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The mystery behind a group of electoral maps

by Eszter Hargittai on October 23, 2016

Yesterday, when I was going through my Facebook feed, I saw several people in my network post a copy of the map below. (As far as I could tell, 9-10 people in my network had shared it, I figure this from the fact that I saw two and then saw a link “8 shares” or “8 more shares” below them.) To clarify, the images I saw were posting the map without the question that I overlaid on it. I am not posting the original so as not to perpetuate what I think is likely misinformation circulating. As a point of comparison, it is very rare that that many people in my FB network post the same thing, or at least FB doesn’t seem to suggest it often. Three of the people who posted it were academics, one works in the policy realm, all work on Internet-related topics. I mention that simply to note that people of all sorts may be prone to spreading online what seems like factual information without necessarily knowing its source. (See below for more on why I don’t know who the other people were, a bit of a mystery in and of itself.)

Seeking source for group of electoral maps

As far as I can tell, there is no source listed on the image. My searching led to all mentions of it linking to the same image-sharing site, one that as far as I know is associated with people sharing images on Twitter. There are lots of mentions of it on Twitter. But scrolling all the way to the end doesn’t clarify (not on my list of results anyway) who may have been the person to share it on Twitter first since the first link I see actually uses a Facebook short URL. (I guess that could have been the person, but there is nothing to confirm it. There seem to be all sorts of FB links on that person’s Twitter feed that no longer exist.)

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PSA: ATM skimmers

by Eszter Hargittai on June 28, 2016

I suspect – hope – many have heard of ATM scammers, people who try to get information about your card while you are withdrawing cash from an ATM. I will usually look at a machine to see if it looks like someone has tampered with it and I always use my other hand to cover the one entering the PIN. Perhaps that’s silly, but it’s not much of an inconvenience and it’s routine for me now. But as far as I know, I have never encountered an actual ATM skimmer, thankfully.

A security expert happened upon one during his travels recently and captured it on video. In addition to reading his account of it, I highly recommend a careful look at this image from another observer who breaks down very carefully how some components of the ATM (most importantly the section next to where you insert the card) was different from the adjacent ATM that did not have a skimmer. That is likely where the camera resided. In addition to the skimmer, there is usually a camera nearby that captures your motions entering the PIN (if I am understanding this correctly, but do correct me if I am wrong), which is why I tend to cover my hand (and have noticed that now some machines supply some coverage themselves). Snopes has pictures of another version, an older model.

I found the video interesting as I find actual examples of such things helpful thus this public service announcement. Hopefully no one here has related experiences, but if you do, please share.

Exploring your surroundings through GPS-based games

by Eszter Hargittai on June 18, 2016

Would you like to learn more about your home town? How about a new angle to exploring your travel destinations? GPS-based games – or treasure hunts – are great for this! It is an increasingly popular genre with several options. I myself have experiences with geocaching, Munzee, and Ingress. They are all games that depend on technology while also requiring that you get up and move around. Each is somewhat different (I’ll explain some of the differences below), but on the whole focuses on physical movement and exploration. Even if you are not that keen on getting on board, I recommend reading the details below so that you know what the cool kids are up to these days. Or the geeks.

Wearing my researcher hat, I find these games fascinating, because they are a great example of how decisions that the creators of the games make – often technical elements that certainly have alternatives to their current state – influence game play and community interaction. I’ll leave those reflections for another time, for now I will provide an introduction to each with the hopes that you get inspired to try at least one of them.

I started geocaching seven years ago (it has been around for 16), have been playing Munzee for about four (that started five years ago), and Ingress for a bit less than two (that’s been around since 2013). Each of these games, in their various ways, has inspired me to learn more about where I live as well as places I visit. They can be played occasionally or on a daily basis. They can be a completely solitary endeavor or can inspire lots of social interaction. I have seen them each appeal to people of varying ages across the globe. They each offer a wonderful adventure. I hope you’ll consider giving at least one of them a try! (If you are ready to jump in and are wondering which one has the lowest barriers to entry, my vote goes to Munzee.)

Munzee is a treasure hunt where the goal is to find QR codes, those little squares of black-and-white code (or lighter-color and darker-color code) that have popped up in countless places. There are millions of QR codes out there that have nothing to do with Munzee, of course. To know where you can find QR codes that concern the game, use the free app (or look on the site’s map) and use the app to capture the code once you have found it. These codes were placed by fellow players. Munzee leaves it up to the community to populate an area with game pieces.

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by Eszter Hargittai on June 8, 2016

A friend I saw today is not ready to celebrate, because he doesn’t want to jinx it. I, however, am very much in a celebratory mood and wanted to mark the important occasion here.

Ezra Klein does a nice job reflecting on Hillary Clinton’s political savvy. While the following is not a new revelation, it is important to continue pointing out: the gendered nature of elections is stacked against women in so many ways, it is hard to appreciate. It is exhausting just to think about it, never mind come up against it day in and day out, year after year, and still manage to garner so much support. Bravo, Secretary Clinton!

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Required reading

by Eszter Hargittai on June 5, 2016

Everybody needs to read this. I’m in awe of the author for having written something so powerful, important and eloquent. No skimming or scanning, read every word.

It may be the age of big data, but since big data tend to come from those who are already using digital media, such data sets tend to lack information about non-users and those who don’t engage in certain activities online. I make this case in detail about data derived from social network sites in my paper called Is Bigger Always Better? published in the ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.* That paper mainly focuses on those who are already connected, but even among Internet users, I find that data derived from social media tend to bias against the less privileged and the less skilled as such folks are less likely to be on those sites. This is a problem when more and more studies about social behavior and potentially policy decisions are made based on information that automatically excludes certain populations.

Today (3/31/16) the US Federal Communications Commission votes on broadband subsidies for low-income households. Yes, making home broadband more affordable is likely a necessary condition for getting more Americans online. However, it is not sufficient. My colleague Ashley Walker and I analyzed data from an FCC study administered in 2009 on both users and non-users, finding that people who are more concerned about their personal data being stolen are more likely to be non-users, results that hold true when controlling for other potentially related factors such as age and education. The issue here is not about price, it’s about privacy concerns. Other research I and others have conducted (some of it reviewed here*) shows that lack of Internet skills is often an impediment to using digital media and using it in ways from which people may benefit. Again, it’s not simply core infrastructural access that’s a problem.

Why are Ashley and I using data from 2009? Because shockingly no federal agency has collected nationally-representative data about Americans’ Internet uses since then. The Census used to be in the business of gathering such data, but at this point it only does so about very basic connectivity questions. The approach seems penny-wise and pound-foolish. Sure, gathering such data is expensive, but it is a drop in the bucket compared to spending over $2 billion dollars on broadband subsidies without having sound evidence on how that will actually improve a more diverse group of Americans using the Internet in helpful ways.

I also have a piece on Huffington Post about all this.

[*] If you can’t access it, feel free to send me a note for a preprint copy.

Did that really happen?

by Eszter Hargittai on March 24, 2016

From a scientific perspective, wow. From a where-could-this-go perspective, whoa.

The making of a popular photo app

by Eszter Hargittai on March 4, 2016

On Wednesday, I had the great fortune to attend the closing keynote at the annual CSCW conference given by Mike Krieger, co-founder of Instagram, a photo-sharing site now owned by Facebook, but still operating largely independently, at least from the user’s perspective. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Instagram now has 400 million active users (75% outside the US) sharing 80 million photos and videos daily. Those are some serious numbers folks. And while they require considerable technical chops, I am glad Mike spent his time at CSCW talking about the design elements and human-computer interaction aspects. I share some nuggets below. (I failed to take notes so I’m skipping all sorts of info, sadly, and welcome corrections/additions in the comments.)

As old-timers here may recall, I am a big photo enthusiast and was a huge Flickr fan for quite some time. More recently, however, I have started getting into Instagram and now use it daily. Having thought about how these services differ and how I ultimately ended up using Instagram so much more these days than Flickr, it was a real treat to hear the brains behind the service share many of the conversations and decisions that went into making it what it is today. It was genuinely interesting to learn about the many aspects that he and his collaborators discussed and continue to ponder as they enhance the app.

In the first few minutes Mike shared some of his background, including his failure to get a paper into CSCW during his early days. I mention that as a reminder that people should not take the occasional setback too seriously.

Mike and his co-founder Kevin Systrom had worked on an earlier app called Burbn. The Atlantic has a few notes on this. This was the era of check-in apps so they focused on check-ins, but the app barely took off (we’re talking no more than about a thousand users). The aspect of the app that seemed to appeal to folks most was its photo-sharing capability. So they set out to focus on that primarily.
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Today’s WTF moment brought to you by the legal department

by Eszter Hargittai on February 8, 2016

There are plenty of absurd trademark cases out there, but I feel like this one is hitting new levels of crazy.

It [Delaware North] even trademarked the phrase ‘Yosemite National Park’ for use on T-shirts, pens and mugs, making one wonder why a private company should have exclusive rights over the name of a national treasure.

This LATimes story has the context.

Democrats need to choose a real candidate not a symbolic one

by Eszter Hargittai on January 26, 2016

Paul Starr has an excellent piece on why Democrats need to vote for Hillary Clinton in the upcoming primaries. I have no doubt that some of you who have other views will want to chime in, feel free. I just ask that you read the whole piece first and address points made in it rather than engaging in general hand-waving so as to improve the chances of a meaningful exchange.

A few quotes, but I recommend reading the full piece.

I have a strange idea about presidential primaries and elections: The purpose is to elect a president.

And I have a strange thought about primary voters: They have a choice between sending the country a message and sending it a president. That is a choice Democratic voters in Iowa and New Hampshire ought especially to be weighing with the first caucuses and primary only days away.


Republicans and conservative media have been outdoing each other in their denunciations of Hillary Clinton. They will hardly believe their good fortune if Sanders turns out to be the Democratic candidate. A campaign against a 74-year-old socialist senator from Vermont writes itself. For a change, the right-wing media would not have to make anything up.


Sanders tells us that the political system is rotten and corrupt. But anyone who believes that government is rotten and corrupt has to be worried about making it more powerful, especially in a way that has such personal effects as health care does. This is the contradiction at the root of Sanders’ rhetoric.

Read the full piece.

In praise of unconferences

by Eszter Hargittai on January 25, 2016

Depending on your profession, you likely go to conferences regularly, anywhere from annually to every few months. One aspect of conferences is that they are relatively predictable. They usually have a set schedule that is known to attendees ahead of time. While there may be the occasional session that surprises or an unusual hallway conversation that is unexpected, these are rare. So what if you want to be surprised? Where can you go if you want to be pushed out of your comfort zone? What is a good venue for learning about something far afield from your expertise? Cue a well-organized unconference.

Unconferences are meetings that don’t have a set agenda until participants show up and create one. There is a structure to the timing of sessions, but attendees fill up the grid with whatever topic they deem of interest for a session at the beginning of the in-person meeting. Then participants decide which sessions they want to attend. And if it turns out that they are not enjoying where they are, the law of two feet means that they are welcomed to get up and leave to find another group or activity.

For the past several years, I have had the great pleasure of attending ORDCamp, an unconference held in Chicago in January made up of some extremely creative people (many of whom are from the area, but a good chunk of whom fly in from various parts of the US and beyond, in January to Chicago, yes). ORDCamp is the brainchild of Brian Fitzpatrick (former Googler, more recently founder and CTO of Tock) and Zach Kaplan (founder and CEO of Inventables). Attendance doesn’t cost anything to participants, but it is by invitation only. Google and Inventables have been footing the bill with lots of people and organizations pitching in to provide food, drinks, gadgets to try out, lots of supplies for various sessions, and an embarrassment of riches in the swag bag box.

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Writing numbers on refugees’ arms, are you f’ing kidding me?

by Eszter Hargittai on September 3, 2015

If Hungary can forget after 25 years why a fence on its border is shameful, disgraceful, and disgusting then I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that the Czech police may forget after 70 years that marking people with numbers on their arms for identification purposes is, well, not something that should be happening. Seriously, WTF.

If you’ve been living under a rock or focusing on US media/most Americans’ FB feeds, you may not even know what’s really going on. This Human Rights Watch piece gives a helpful overview. It also points out why things as they stand don’t work.

Worth noting is this piece from Al Jazeera that makes a very good case for why commentators, very much including the mainstream media, should not be talking about refugees as though they were migrants. They are refugees escaping inexplicable circumstances and we owe them the respect to acknowledge that when we discuss their plight.

It boggles the mind that some people, or in certain cases many people, cannot sympathize with these refugees and have nothing but hatred toward them. Is it history education that has completely failed us? Where is people’s compassion? The source of significant current problems is ISIS, hardly a group with which many in Europe would sympathize. So why is it so hard for people to appreciate that these refugees need help? I guess then it is not surprising that people can’t go the extra step to recognize the potential benefits of welcoming these refugees even if they can’t get on board with the humanitarian need.

There are exceptions, fortunately. Several thousand in Iceland have petitioned their government to take in more Syrian refugees. They get it. Refugees have the potential to contribute significantly to any society. From their letter:

Refugees are our future spouses, best friends, or soulmates, the drummer for the band of our children, our next colleague, Miss Iceland in 2022, the carpenter who finally finished the bathroom, the cook in the cafeteria, the fireman, the computer genius, or the television host.

And to be sure, there are also many volunteers who are helping out on the ground across Europe. This piece has concrete suggestions for how you can help even from afar.

Images, of course, often tell the story better than words. I recommend Budapest seen on Facebook for photographs that do a great job capturing the humanity of the situation, the innocence of the children, and the brutality of the circumstances.

And one more important observation:

Travel blogging: Zürichberg

by Eszter Hargittai on July 11, 2015

I was in Zurich last week where my hosts kindly took me to a very nice restaurant on Zürichberg, a hill that offers pretty views and a peaceful environment of fields and forests. In addition to the garden restaurant of the Hotel Zurichberg, there is a terrace as well with even better views. It turns out, Zürichberg is host to all sorts of attractions: FIFA’s headquarters, the Zurich Zoo and a beautiful cemetery where James Joyce is buried (as pointed out by Daniel in his insightful reflections on Switzerland last summer).

FIFA’s headquarters greet you with three flags, the middle one proudly proclaiming “My Game is Fair Play.” It’s good that they cleared that up. I was curious to see a sculpture peeking out from behind some trees, but as we tried to enter the FIFA grounds, a security guard stopped us explaining that unless we were children playing in the soccer match nearby or their parents, we could not proceed. Nearby was a guard with a weapon as well, not a common occurrence in Zurich.

The highlight of this area for me was Friedhof Fluntern, a most charming cemetery, if that word is appropriate given the context (as aptly noted by a reviewer on TripAdvisor, “how do you rate a cemetery?”). Given the Swiss context, it is not a huge surprise that the grounds are very orderly. But there is more to it. It feels more like a garden than a cemetery. You can imagine spending time there to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. A colleague even noted that he sometimes goes there to read. The headstones move past the usual venturing into the whimsy and artistic. The cemetery is on a hill, which adds to its character. I enjoyed going from row to row trying to peek into the lives of the people buried there through their names, the dates and notes on the stones, and the little sculptures honoring them. See more of my Friedhof Fluntern photos here.

It was too hot to proceed to the Zoo, but having later read that they have Galapagos giant tortoises, I was bummed by my decision to skip it and will be sure to visit next time I am in town.

To get to Zürichberg, take Tram 6 from Central to Zoo, which is a 2-minute walk heading east from the main train station, which is ten minutes from the airport by train. Zurich offers day tickets for its entire public transportation system. The 24 or 72-hour ZürichCARD can also be very beneficial if you plan to visit numerous attractions.

Panel on Education in the Digital Age

by Eszter Hargittai on May 15, 2015

In DC this coming Tue May 19th? If you’re interested in education and technology issues then please come hear our panel on the topic organized by Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research.

Or “I thought Science was a serious peer-reviewed publication…”

A study published today in Science by Facebook researchers using Facebook data claims to examine whether adult U.S. Facebook users engage with ideologically cross-cutting material on the site. My friend Christian Sandvig does an excellent job highlighting many of the problems of the piece and I encourage you to read his astute and well-referenced commentary. I want to highlight just one point here, a point that in and of itself should have stood out to reviewers at Science and should have been addressed before publication. It concerns the problematic sampling frame for the study and how little prominence it gets in the publication (i.e., none, it’s all in the supplemental materials).

Sampling is crucial to social science questions since biased samples can have serious implications for a study’s findings. In particular, it is extremely important that the sampling methodology be decoupled from the substantive questions of interest in the study. In this case, if you are examining engagement with political content, it is important that sampling not be based on anything related to users’ engagement with politics. However, that is precisely how sampling was done here. I elaborate below, but in sum, although the study boasts 10 million plus observations, only seen in the supplementary materials is the fact that only a tiny percentage (single digits) of Facebook users were eligible to make it into the sample in the first place. These are folks who explicitly identify their political affiliation on the site, i.e., people who probably have a different relationship to politics than the average user. They are also relatively active users based on another sampling decision, again, something confounded with the outcome of interest, i.e., engagement with political materials.

Not in the piece published in Science proper, but in the supplementary materials we find the following:

All Facebook users can self-report their political affiliation; 9% of U.S. users over 18 do. We mapped the top 500 political designations on a five-point, -2 (Very Liberal) to +2 (Very Conservative) ideological scale; those with no response or with responses such as “other” or “I don’t care” were not included. 46% of those who entered their political affiliation on their profiles had a response that could be mapped to this scale.

To recap, only 9% of FB users give information about their political affiliation in a way relevant here to sampling and 54% of those do so in a way that is not meaningful to determine their political affiliation. This means that only about 4% of FB users were eligible for the study. But it’s even less than that, because the user had to log in at least “4/7 days per week”, which “removes approximately 30% of users”.

Of course, every study has limitations. But sampling is too important here to be buried in supplementary materials. And the limitations of the sampling are too serious to warrant the following comment in the final paragraph of the paper:

we conclusively establish that on average in the context of Facebook, individual choices (2, 13, 15, 17) more than algorithms (3, 9) limit exposure to attitude-challenging content.

How can a sample that has not been established to be representative of Facebook users result in such a conclusive statement? And why does Science publish papers that make such claims without the necessary empirical evidence to back up the claims?

Can publications and researchers please stop being mesmerized by large numbers and go back to taking the fundamentals of social science seriously? In related news, I recently published a paper asking “Is Bigger Always Better? Potential Biases of Big Data Derived from Social Network Sites” that I recommend to folks working through and with big data in the social sciences.*

Full disclosure, some of my work has been funded by Facebook as well as Google and other corporations as well as foundations, details are available on my CV. Also, I’m friends with one of the authors of the study and very much value many of the contributions she has made to research.

[*] Regarding the piece on which I comment here, FB users not being nationally-representative is not an issue since the paper and its claims are only concerned with Facebook use.