Category Archives: software studies

Social media platforms have become really huge. They have very large numbers of users, who share very large numbers of messages, images, videos, and so forth. They have a whole lot of spare cash, either from advertising revenue or from IPOs. They have not only become an intrinsic part of interpersonal communication and of the way we inform ourselves, but much of what news organizations report nowadays seems to be about who tweets what to whom with what effect. The controversy around how Facebook editorializes the newsfeed and trending topics is only the latest indicator for the enormous imprint on the circulation of information and ideas the company now has. The European Commission has recently launched a public consultation on the role of platforms, in reaction to two reports by the German and French governments on the topic.

One of the key terms in all of this is “transparency”. Often this concerns moments of decision-making such as ranking, filtering, pricing, suggesting, and so forth. And often the debate focuses on the role of algorithms vs moments of human discretion (the opposition is problematic in many ways, but that’s another topic). Demands for transparency then focus on “opening the black box” and Facebook’s recently published guidelines fit into this framework. But there is another aspect to transparency that is less often evoked, which concerns the question “what is actually going on in these platforms?”. This goes beyond the question of algorithms to include the very communicational makeup of these systems (interfaces, functions, etc.) and, even more importantly, the concrete results of large masses of users actually integrating these technical elements into their practices. Transparency, in that sense, is not simply concerned with knowledge about the system’s design, but with the ways users and technical infrastructure form an integrated whole that produces specific outcomes in terms of circulation of information and ideas. One way to understand this integrated whole a little better is empirical research, whether it happens on the micro level in the form of ethnography, on the meso level around specific issues, or on the macro level in the form of large statistical aggregations. Empirical research is, ultimately, the only way to understand what the editorializing (which includes the full design of the service, not just filtering) of Facebook and other companies actually means in terms of outcomes or effects.

But empirical research on large online platforms is getting more and more difficult. Last year, Facebook removed a number of functions from their API, and research applications like Netvizz lost a part of their capacity to produce transparency by giving researchers the means to do (a certain kind of data-driven) empirical research. The latest case is Instagram. Already a year ago, the company announced that every application would have to go through a permission review to be allowed to continue. My own Instagram Hashtag Explorer (which I renamed to Visual Tagnet Explorer – VTE – to conform to the app guidelines which prohibit the use of the company name) has been relying on API data to help researchers understand how people use Instagram to produce visual and textual accounts of issues, events, places, companies, and so forth. After submitting the app for review, I today received notification that the application was denied. A detailed description of the tool and a screencast that attempted to connect the tool – in not totally absurd ways I think – to the “accepted use cases” were not good enough to yield any more commentary than this:

Instragram Permission Review

Now, we can lament about lost programming time (it wasn’t much fortunately) and research projects that will run into trouble, but the real problem, I think, connects to the question of transparency as I framed it above. Sure, a little script would never have solved the problem how to understand platform dynamics, but it was a little step on the ladder. There are certainly other means to do research and even data-driven research will be possible through scraping. But I wonder how far ethnographic studies, for example, are able to address questions concerning macro effects. And I wonder how sustainable and scalable scraping is. Sure, we can play the cat and mouse game with automatic bot detection and evolving interfaces, but is this going to produce the large window on these platforms we need to really understand them in terms of their effects on publicness? Maybe I’ll make some changes to VTE and submit it again, even though I have basically no feedback to go on. Maybe it will pass. But the larger problem will remain.

What is needed, I think, is something different. Yes, data retrieval, even by academic researchers, raises concerns about privacy. But privacy is not the only legitimate political aspiration, here. What, indeed, about publicness? What about the need to know about stuff in order to make democratic decisions? How to even begin to think about regulation if real outcomes are getting more and more difficult to assess? This is why I want to iterate an argument that I already tried to make during the EC’s public consultation: we need a legal framework to guarantee at least some access to API data, at least for some people. It is certainly nice that companies start research collaborations, but these fit of course into a sanitized view on their services. We therefore need, I think, something that is able to express the public’s legitimate interest to know “what’s going on” and access to API data is, in my view, a more promising avenue than the forms of purely technical or operational transparency that are often discussed. Fair use principles, for example concerning copyright, exist in academia because there is a belief that research that is not beholden to corporate interest performs a function in public life that is worth protecting. Can we imagine something similar with API data? A legally protected means to do research into these platforms? To find a compromise between privacy and publicness, we would have to find a way to distinguish between “disinterested” research and other applications. But technically, everything is in place. The APIs are there, even if they are closing down after their utility for growing the ecosystem has expired and selling data to analytics companies is becoming a revenue stream. The tools are in place and the researchers are starting to understand how to use them in useful ways. Compared to the daunting legal battles around antitrust measures, it’s almost banal to make this a reality.

Even if this idea proves to be a pipe dream, I think that we have to widen the debate around the values to take into account when criticizing the role of platforms in public life. Privacy is important, but public understanding of outcomes is as well.

When it comes to digital methods, one of the basic conundrums one encounters is the ambivalence between platform and practice. To phrase it in basic terms: are outcomes genuine human practice or simply artifacts of the platform’s affordances? There are different ways to approach this problem conceptually and I would go as far as saying that it is a false problem, since I do not think that there is something like unmediated human practice in the first place. The fact remains, however, that we may want to focus on one or the other for various reasons. My own interest lie squarely in understanding the technical dimension and this post introduces an approach to studying the algorithms at work in social media platforms with the help of digital methods.

While a number of scholars have recently been engaged in attempts to reverse engineer relevant algorithms, the objects I am interested in are clearly too complex and dynamic to reproduce the decision mechanisms involved – which, in any case, are probably in constant movement due to machine learning components being part of the larger procedure. My goal is actually more basic and the approach I want to present is largely descriptive in the sense that it does little more than propose a way to talk about the outcomes of algorithmic work, in this case of ranking mechanisms. By “talk about”, I first mean graphically and quantitatively, but the goal, in fact, is quite qualitative. While I have real sympathies for the desire to describe artifacts considered to be the apogee of exactness in exact terms, I think that we need to explore other directions as well. In any case, we constantly examine and analyze phenomena in ways that do not require formal descriptions. We can study the NY Times’ editorial decisions – which involve a lot of ranking and appreciation of value – in ways that do not include building a formal decision model and still make interesting observations. Maybe it is time to see how methods for describing social phenomena can be used to describe formal mechanisms and not the other way round. What I have in mind does not go very far in this direction, but it embraces description as its methodology.

To make this idea more plastic, I take YouTube (YT) as my example and focus on YT’s search ranking. When looking for the keyword [syria], for example, YT returns an ordered list of videos. How can we talk about the produced rankings, here? One way would be to look into the factors YT itself communicates as relevant or turn to SEO blogs to gather attempts to identify the central variables. This is certainly interesting, but we could also just look at the results themselves. Using the YouTube Data Tools (YTDT), I have been collecting daily rankings for a number of keywords over the last months, [syria] being one of them. This file contains the data for five days. The rows are videos ordered by result rank and there is also a viewcount for each video. The file looks like this:

Five Days of Syria Rankings

A very basic way to start making sense of these results is to visualize them. To help with this, I built a small tool, RankFlow, which is explicitly designed for analyzing rankings over time. Here is a screenshot of a visualization of the data (click for larger image):

RankFlow of YouTube Rankings

Every column is a day of videos and each column is ordered by result rank. The height of each block encodes the viewcount variable as logarithm (to compress the vast differences in viewcount) while colors (from blue to red) indicate the unprocessed viewcount. The video with the highest viewcount actually only appears at rank 15 on the fifth day. What can we learn from such a basic visualization? First, absolute viewcount is obviously not the main ranking criterion. Second, rankings change quite a lot; between the second and the third day, for example, seven videos fall out of the top 15 and the video that comes in first on day three is again gone on day five. Third, there are a number of videos in the top ranks that have surprisingly low viewcounts. What I take from this case – and others I have looked at – is that YT probably uses a predictive ranking model that calculates something like a “chance to find an audience” metric (e.g. based on channels’ previous videos), places the video in the rankings, and – if it does not catch on – removes it again quite quickly (the top video on the first day is good example for a video that does catch on). This is in stark contrast to the “authoritative” rankings on Google Search that change much less frequently and tend towards something like a stable consensus. On YT, the ranking mechanism seems to “care” much more about quick turnover, newness, and serendipity. Looking at a simple RankFlow can give us a pretty good idea what is happening with a specific query and looking at a number of them can lead us to a more general assessment about output dynamics.

A second approach to describing ranking follows a direction that uses an algorithm to talk about another algorithm’s output. The problem with the above visualization is that it quickly gets very complicated to read and summarize when we start adding columns. But information scientists have been working on ways to produce quantitative measures to describe changes in rankings. On the bottom of the above visualization, you can see a number that tries to measure the changes between each two day pairs. There are many such measures available, but the one I found most intriguing came from a 2010 paper by William Webber, Alistair Moffat, and Justin Zobel. This was the one metric I found that would a) work with ranked lists where elements are not necessarily the same for each list (i.e. a video present on one day is no longer there on the next day), b) take into account changes in rank, not just presence or absence of an element, and c) attribute more value to changes at the top of the list than changes happening at the bottom. Rank-Biased Overlap (and its metrical form, Rank-Biased Distance) does just that. The RBD value between two days thus interprets changes in rank in a particular way and it condenses its interpretation into a single value. The higher the value, the more change. This is, of course, a reductionist gesture, but if we understand how the metric reduces, it can be extremely helpful to make sense of the “changiness” of rankings in a context where we have a lot of data. The algorithm (equation 32 in the paper, the “calc_rbo” function in my implementation) is not simple, but if you take some time to compare the visualization to the RBD values, you can get a basic feel for how it reacts to changes in rankings. This opens the door to more “macro” appreciations of changes in ranking and, interestingly, to comparison between platforms. A high average RBD value would indicate a tendency to fluctuate, a low value a preference for stability.

Both of these examples do not allow us to reverse engineer the actual algorithm(s) in question, but we need to get comfortable with the idea that this is not going to be an option in most cases anyways. Systematic description, however, allows us to still say something about the structure and dynamics of outputs and gives us an idea of the character or temperament of a ranking mechanism, for example. This post is just a starting point that I hope to turn into something more substantial in the future, but I hope it shows how relatively simple techniques can be employed to make potentially interesting findings.

I have recently added a new feature to the netvizz application: page like networks. This is basically a simple “like crawler” for like relationships between pages on Facebook. It starts with a seed page, gets all the pages liked by it, then gets their likes and so forth. Well, because the feature is new, I’m limiting crawl depth to two, in order to see how many resources are needed. In this post, I’ll quickly go over an example to show what one can do with this, but also to discuss a number of questions related to network analysis and visualization as such.

Network analysis and visualization (NAV) has made quite an entry into social science and humanities research circles over the last couple of years and the hype has contributed to the dominance of the network concept in new media studies and beyond. This dominance has been rightfully criticized and the pretty pictures of points and lines have received their fair share of disparaging commentary. While there are many questions and problems related to NAV, a lot of the criticism I have read or heard is superficial and lacks both understanding of the analytical gestures put forward by NAV and literacy of the diagrams one encounters so frequently now. Concerning the latter point, the main error is to consider the output of network visualization first and foremost as an image; with Barthes, I would suggest to look at them as denotative rather than connotative, as language or code more than image. This means that successful use of a network diagram requires reading skills and knowledge of the production apparatus. In their absence, well, every diagram looks likely the same.

To tease out something truly interesting from a graph – the mathematical representation of a network – a lot is needed and many, many mistakes can be made. But much like statistics, NAV is a powerful tool if handled with care. Let’s consider the following gephi diagram (data available as a .gdf file here, click for larger image):


This is the visualization of a network of 370 pages on Facebook with every node a page and every link an act of “liking”. Keeping with the topic of a recent data-sprint we had with our New Media and Digital Culture MA students about Anti-Islamism, I took the “Stop Islamization of the World” page as starting point and crawled two steps into the network. The result is a quite striking web of pages that clusters – at least according to gephi’s modularity algorithm – quite neatly into four groups. In purple, we find a group of pages (122 nodes) that are explicitly focused on countering Islam; in green – and very well connected to the first group – there is a “defence league” cluster (79 nodes), basically a network of strongly islamophobic street protest groups; in red, we see a group of sites associated with Israel (145 nodes); finally, in turquoise, a much smaller and eccentric group (24 nodes) that could be called “tattoo cluster” dedicated to getting ink done. Because pages do not necessarily reciprocate liking, this is a directed graph, i.e. every link has a source and a target. The curve of the links encodes this direction: a link that bends clockwise in relation to a node is an outgoing link, counter-clockwise is incoming. In this diagram – and in all that follow – node size is a simple count of inlinks.

How does one read something like this? What does it mean? At first glance, a like crawl starting with an islamophobic page results in a large number of pages related to Israel. But what kind of entanglement is this? I think that this question cannot be answered intelligently simply by looking at a single projection of the graph as a diagram. Besides a healthy distrust of the data (why this seed? why not others? how does crawl depth affect the result? are there privacy settings in place? etc.), any non-trivial network needs to be investigated from different angles to even begin understanding its structure. As I have tried to show elsewhere, different layout algorithms flatten the n-dimensional adjacency matrix into two-dimensional diagrams in quite different ways, each bringing particular aspects of the graph structure to the foreground. But there is much more to take into account. In the above diagram, we can easily spot nodes that are bigger than others, meaning that they receive more likes. (side node: it really helps to download all images and flip through them with a decent image viewer – all networks have exactly the same size and layout, only the color changes) Can we conclude that “United with Israel” and the “Isreali Defense Forces” (both 55 inlinks) are the most important actors in this network? And what would “important” then mean? Let’s start with Google’s definition and apply PageRank to our network using a heat scale (blue => yellow => red, click for larger image):


This is quite striking. We start with an Anti-Islam page and end up with the Isreali Defense Forces as the node with the most authority. Now, as I have tried to show recently, PageRank is a complicated beast and far from a simple measure of popularity. Rather, one can think about it as a complex flow of status along links that is highly dependent on topological positioning. Who links is at least as important as the number of links – and because status is passed along, the question of who does not link is crucial. Non-random networks are generally strongly hierarchical and PageRank exploits these asymmetries to the fullest. Let’s investigate further by looking at our network in aggregate form:


Already, a certain disequilibrium becomes visible here: while the Anti-Islam and Defence League clusters are liking back and forth in roughly equal manner, both like pages in the Israel cluster a lot more than they are liked back. But the disequilibrium is certainly not strong enough to simply diagnose a case of non-reciprocated affection. This would have been too easy. To further qualify the graph structure, we need to be able to say more about who links and who does not link. Let’s leave the force-based layout for a moment and look at the network in yet another way (click for larger image):


Here, I have not only arranged nodes on a line, grouped by clusters and ordered by inlink count, but I have also colored links according to their target. This means that we can very well see (on the hi-res image at least) into which cluster individual nodes are linking and even get an aggregate picture of relationships between groups. A nuanced account begins to emerge by looking at the linking practices of the top 10 pages: in the purple anti-islam cluster, page 1,2,4,6,7 and 9 link to the red israel cluster; in the green defence league cluster, 5 and 8 do so as well. But in the Israel cluster, only page 8 and 10 link to the former two. We can thus further qualify the disequilibrium mentioned above: in additional to a mere imbalance in numbers, we can observe a disequilibrium in status; high status nodes from the extremist clusters link to the Israel group, but the latter’s top pages do not like back. This explains why PageRank concentrates on the IDF page: it receives a lot of status, but does not feed it back into the network. If Facebook can stand in for the mapping of complex socio-political relationships – which it probably cannot – we could argue that the “official” Israel is clearly reluctant to associate with islamophobic extremism. But then, why is there a network in the first place? What holds it together?

Let’s start by looking at the most prolific likers in our network. The next diagram (click for larger image) shows the nodes with the highest outlink count:


Here, we see the most active likers, but we also notice that the page with the most likes (“We Stand With Israel – Siotw”) is quite small, which means that other pages do not like it very much. A better way to look at network cohesion in terms of structural positioning is thus to use a measure called betweenness centrality (click for larger image):


Betweenness centrality is often interpreted as close to the notion of bridging capital, i.e. the capacity of an actor to connect different groups. Because betweenness centrality is calculated by looking at the placement of nodes on the shortest paths in a network, it is not simply the heaviest linkers that are being put to the front here. However, some of the heavy linkers remain indeed important and if we take away “We Stand With Israel – Siotw”, a large number of the likes from the Israel cluster to the other two evaporate. The heavy linkers are indeed important for holding the network together.

But we also see the rise of a very interesting node, “Stand for Israel”. While it receives likes from apparently neutral pages such as “Visit Israel”, it is the top Israel cluster page to link into the Defence League cluster, to the “United States Defense League” page to be precise. While “Stand for Israel” announces on their page that “Violent, obscene, profane, hateful, or racist content will be deleted and offenders blocked from the page without notice” (and this indeed seems to be the case), they do like a page that is full of exactly that. That’s playing the role of a broker. In a sense, we can look at like patterns to produce actor descriptions.

What emerges through this still very superficial exploration – I made a point of not looking at the pages themselves as much as possible to focus on a pure NAV approach (which would be quite absurd in an actual research project) – is a set of rather complex relationships between pages that needs to be examined in different ways to even begin to make sense of. The diagrams, here, are not means to communicate findings, but artifacts that become truly salient only by combining, juxtaposing, and narrating them in combination. They are somehow less explanatory than in need of explanation. Let’s look at a final diagram to add yet another perspective (click for larger image):


Here, the heat scale encodes “like_count”, i.e. the number of times a page has been liked by Facebook users, not other pages. Suddenly, the picture flips completely. Albert Einstein and Tattoos lead the pack, but in the middle of the network, two nodes stand out, giving us further clues about how our clusters connect to larger political elements: “Tea Party Patriots” and “Being Conservative”.

Again, I would be very hesitant to make any claims based on the NAV of a set of Facebook pages and how they like each other, in particular in a context as sensitive as this one. Nonetheless, I hope that it becomes clear from this quick example that NAV provides means to investigate a network through multilayered and nuanced explorations of structural patterns that are simply not visible to the naked eye. And this is only a small subset of the many analytical gestures afforded by NAV. In my view, there certainly is an inflation of network diagrams and there are many limits to analyzing phenomena through formalization as points and lines. But much like the case of statistics, the often problematic use of formal techniques should not mean that we have to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

While I am still somewhat of a beginner in NAV, if there is one thing I have learned, it is that we should see network diagrams as specific projections or interpretations of the graph, as slices that interrogate data in particular ways, and that multiple such perspectives are needed to actually produce a picture.

The New York Times is not only a very good newspaper, it is also a really, really interesting archive that provides search access to all articles since 1851 via a pretty nice API. I’ve been meaning to play with it for some time, but things were extremely busy this year. But yesterday, I had some time in the evening and looked into the system a little bit and wrote a couple of scripts to try out some quick ideas.

While the API has all kinds of interesting things – in particular access to the Times’ controlled vocabulary – I am most interested in the article archive and the different possibilities to explore it. Understandably, the API does not provide the full text of articles; but it does search in the full text and for every found article it delivers quite a number of interesting things. Here is an example of what the returned data for a query (“guantanamo bay”) looks like:

While there are many things to go with, I found the manually attributed (and controlled) keywords to be particularly interesting. So I decided to explore and visualize how a particular subject evolves over time inside of this classificatory structure. Because the request rate for the search API is quite generous (10/s, 10K/day) I wrote a short PHP script (grab.php) that grabs this metadata for every article corresponding to a given search query. It simply downloads the data and stores it in a bunch of JSON files. A second script (analyze.php) then parses these files and creates a simple CSV file that can then be visualized with something like R (which I started working with some weeks ago, much easier than I thought, lots of fun).

With the help of the amazing ggplot2 library in R, using “guantanamo bay” as query, I quickly got a first result (click for larger image):


One can quite easily see that Guantanamo Bay was discussed in the 1990s in terms of immigration, asylum, and similar terms, while the current frame (terrorism, etc.) appears just after 9/11. While this script (bubbles.R) provides overview, a second one (bubbles_numbers.R) provides a combination of bubbles and numbers (click for larger image):


There is certainly much more interesting stuff to do with this data (e.g. different types of normalization, taking into account word count and page number, etc.) and I’ll hopefully come back to this in more detail in the future. In the meantime, all scripts can be found here.

Update June 2, 2013:

I’ve added a network export feature to the scripts on github. Generated network files are not limited to subject tags, but include people, organizations, locations, and creative works (e.g. books or movies). If two tags appear on the same article, a link is created and the more often they appear together, the stronger the connection. Here’s a quick visualization, made with gephi, of the most common people (red), organizations (green), and locations (blue) for the query “climate change” (click for larger image):
climate change network

One of the reasons I started to develop the netvizz application, was to get better insights into how Facebook envisions exchange of data and functionality with third party developers. From the beginning, I was quite amazed how much data a third-party app could actually get from the platform – not only about the users that actually install an app, but also about their friends and the groups they are members of. I hope to provide a systematic account of what I’ve learned at some point in the future. But today, I want to discuss a particular element in some more detail, the “read_stream” permission.

To introduce the matter, a couple of points concerning the Facebook APIs as such: every application written by a third-party developer requires a logged in user and this user defines the “scope” of data access the running instance of the application can get – remember that applications are generally used by many users, so the data gleaned from individual scopes can be combined. Applications have to explicitly ask for permission to access certain items and Facebook provides extensive documentation on the permission system, the profile properties, and a set of extended permissions. Users are asked to grant these permissions when they first start an app. This is the permission dialogue for netvizz:

Netvizz currently asks for the following permissions: user_status, user_groups, friends_likes, user_likes, and read_stream. When installing, you cannot refuse individual elements that are not considered “extended permissions”, only decide to not use the app at all. The user_status is actually superfluous and will be removed in the next iteration. The user_groups permission is needed to access group data and both _likes permissions are used for netvizz’ like network functionality.

Now, working on a couple of new features over the last months, I started to get more interested in posts because they have probably become the closest thing to a “carrier of publicness” on the Facebook platform. I was quite amazed how easy it was to extract large numbers of users and (some) of their data from pages – both likes and comments users make on post on or by pages are in principle up for grabs. When doing some housekeeping recently, I noticed that some of the “engagement” metrics netvizz had provided for users’ friends in earlier versions were either broken or outdated and I decided to simply count the number of likes and posts friends make to replace the older metrics. I expected to only be able to read likes – through the friends_likes permission – and public posts. This was indeed true: in the beginning, all I got were public posts. Because I could get much more data through the Graph API Explorer, a developer sandbox that asks for all permissions by default (which can be changed, a great way to explore the permission structure), I discovered the read_stream permission.

The read_stream permission is presented by Facebook in the following way: “Provides access to all the posts in the user’s News Feed and enables your application to perform searches against the user’s News Feed.” It is a so-called “extended permission”, the developer doc noting that “Extended Permissions give access to more sensitive info and the ability to publish and delete data”. And, indeed, when asking for read_stream in netvizz, I suddenly got access to many more posts made by my friends, mostly going from “none” to “a lot”. From what I could gather after some random testing was that I basically got access to all of the activities from my friends that would show up in my newsfeed, without the “top stories” filter. Because many things have the status of “post”, I could get a rather detailed (and timestamped) account of what my friends are doing on the platform. You can check out your own “posts” feed by following this link into the Graph API Explorer. Because comments and likes by users who you are not friends with on posts by somebody you are friends with also show up in your news feed, the read_stream permission allows to capture their activity as well. Facebook seems to be aware of this: because read_stream is an extended permission it gets its own permission dialogue and can actually be skipped:

This is a good thing, but the wording seems a bit sparse: “Posts in your newsfeed” actually translates to “a minute account of your friends’ activities”. Granted, buried in the privacy settings is an option that allows us to modify more generally what information we share with the apps other people use, and these are the default settings:

It’s the “Activities, interests, things I like” option that allows the read_stream permission to work its magic. The people I am friends with on the platform are generally a rather privacy conscious bunch, but I could get the posts from most of them.

This is not a privacy scandal of any sort, measures are in place, but one can still make a couple of points:

  • Apps as means for data capture are clearly not discussed enough. For serious data collection, however, going through the API is clearly the way to go and we need to pay more attention to this.
  • Again and again: defaults matter. As seen above, the data available to apps used by friends is quite extensive with default settings.
  • Again and again: language matters. The read_stream permission dialogue is certainly not explicit enough. Also: why is “app privacy” not in the privacy tab here?
  • When we log into a third party site with our Facebook login, we are basically running an app. May be worth pondering what data we are shipping over.

Exploring APIs as important actors in the privacy debate and beyond is crucial. It’s often complicated work, though, and I hope that the developer community can help with that work a bit. It would be highly useful, I think.

Before moving back into media studies, I taught programming at various levels for quite a number of years. One of the things that always struck me, in particular at the beginner’s level, is how little my attempts to find different metaphors, explanations, ways of approaching the subject and practical exercises changed about a basic observation that would repeat itself over the years: some people get it, some don’t. Some students seem like they are born to program, while others cannot – even after long hours of training and no lack of trying – write even the simplest piece of functional and useful code.

Arstechnica has posted a really interesting piece relaying a Q&A on Stack Exchange on this exact topic: “can everyone be a programmer”? Amongst the different resources cited is a link to a paper from 2006 by Saeed Dehnadi and Richard Bornat from the School of Computing at Middlesex University that basically confirms the “double bump” so many programming teachers observe year after year (a lively discussion of the paper is here). What really struck me about the paper was not so much the empirical outcome though, neither the fact that a relatively simple test seems to yield robust results in predicting programming aptitude, but rather a passage that speculates on the reasons for the findings:

It has taken us some time to dare to believe in our own results. It now seems to us, although we are aware that at this point we do not have sufficient data, and so it must remain a speculation, that what distinguishes the three groups in the first test is their different attitudes to meaninglessness.

Formal logical proofs, and therefore programs – formal logical proofs that particular computations are possible, expressed in a formal system called a programming language – are utterly meaningless. To write a computer program you have to come to terms with this, to accept that whatever you might want the program to mean, the machine will blindly follow its meaningless rules and come to some meaningless conclusion. In the test the consistent group showed a pre-acceptance of this fact: they are capable of seeing mathematical calculation problems in terms of rules, and can follow those rules wheresoever they may lead. The inconsistent group, on the other hand, looks for meaning where it is not. The blank group knows that it is looking at meaninglessness, and refuses to deal with it.

While a single explanatory strategy like this is certainly not enough, I must admit that I have rarely read something about teaching programming that comes as close to my own experience and intuition. It was always my impression – and I have discussed this in great length with some of my peers – that programming requires a leap of faith, an acceptance of something that contradicts many of the things we have learned from our everyday experience. When programming, we are using words to build a machine and because the “meaning” of software is expressed through the medium of functionality, the words we write are simply not expressive in the same way as human language.

Over these last years, there has been a debate in software studies and related fields about the linguistic vs. functional dimension of “code”, and I have always found this debate to be strangely removed from the practice of programming itself (which may actually be a goal rather than an omission), perhaps simply because I have always seen the acceptance of the meaninglessness – in terms of semantics – of programming languages as a requirement to be a programmer. This does not mean that code does not have meaning as text but, to put it bluntly, if one cannot suspend that belief and look through the code directly into the functionality it produces, one cannot be a programmer. This is also the reason why I am so skeptical about the focus on code and the idea that scholars interested in software have to “learn how to write code”. Certainly, programming languages, development environments, etc. structure the practice – they open certain doors and close others, they orient and facilitate – but in the end, from the perspective of the programmer, the developer who actually builds a program the true expressiveness of software is behind the code; and when developers discuss the different advantages and disadvantages of various programming languages, they are measuring them in terms of how to get to that behind, how they allow us to pierce through their formalism, their meaninglessness to get to the level of expression we are actually speaking on: functionality.

This is the leap of faith that I have seen so many students not be able to commit to (for whatever reason, perhaps not the least my incapacity to present it in a way they can relate to): to accept the pure abstract performative formality of the words you are writing and see the machine behind the text. Because for those who program – and they are certainly not the only ones who have the right to speak about these matters – the challenge is to go through one kind of language (code) to get to another kind of language (function).

The example discussed in the paper – and used as a test – is telling:

int a = 10;

int b = 20;

a = b;

I do not know how many times I have tried to explain assignment. One of the tricks I came up with was the “arrow to the left” idea: a = 10 does not mean that a is equivalent to 10 but that the “=” should be a “<=” that puts “what is on the right” into “what is on the left”. In my experience – and the paper fully confirms that – not every student can get to a functional understanding of why “a” contains the value “20” at the end of this script. Actually, the “why” is completely secondary. “a = b” means that you are putting the value for b into a. You’re doing it. Really. Really? I don’t know. But if you want to write a program you need to accept that this is what’s happening here. You don’t have to believe in it; formalism is about the commitment to a method, not an ontology. Let go of the idea that words mean something; here, they do something.

Software is not “linguistic” because source code has meaning – it may very well, but to write a program you have to forget about that – but because functionality is itself a means of expression. Despite the many footnotes I should add here, it is the capacity to be able to express the meaningful through the meaningless that makes a programmer. We have to let go a little of the world as we know it, in order to find it again, but in a different way.

This implies a very specific epistemological and even psychological stance, a way of unveiling the world in a certain manner. The question why this manner is apparently not everybody’s cup of tea may be a fruitful way to better understand what it actually consists of.

Edit: slides

On Thursday, I will be giving a talk at the “The Lived Logics of Database Machinery” workshop, organized by computational culture, which will take place at the Wellcome Collection Conference Centre in London, from 10h to 17h30. I am very much looking forward to this, although I’ll be missing a couple of days from the currently ongoing DMI summer school. This is what I will be talking about:

ORDER BY column_name. The Relational Database as Pervasive Cultural Form

This contribution starts from the observation that, in a way similar to the computational equivalence of programming languages, the major types of database models (network, relational, object-oriented, etc.) and implementations are all able to store and manage a very large variety of data structures. This means that most data structures could be modeled, in one way or another, in almost any existing database system. So why have there been so many intense debates about how to conceive and build database systems? Just like with programming languages, the specific way a database system embeds an abstract concept in a set of concrete methods and mechanisms for specifying, accessing, and manipulating datasets is significant. Different database models and implementations imply different ways of “thinking” data organization, they vary in performance, robustness, and “logistics” (one of the reasons why Oracle’s product succeeded well in the enterprise sector in the 1980s, despite its lack of certain features, was the ability to make backups of a running database), and they provide different modes of interaction with both the data and the system.

The central vector of differentiation, however, is the question how users “see” the data: during the “database debates” of the 1970s and 1980s the idea of the database as a set of tables (relational model) was put in opposition to the vision of the database as a network of records (network model). The difference between the two concerned not only performance, flexibility, and complexity, but also the crucial question who the users of these systems would be in the first place. The supporters of the network model clearly saw the programmer as the target audience for database systems but the promoters of the much simpler relational model and its variants imagined “accountants, engineers, architects, and urban planners” (Chamberlin and Boyce 1974) to directly interact with data by means of a simple query language. While this vision has not played out, according to Michael Stonebreaker’s famous observation, SQL (the most popular, albeit impure implementation of Codd’s relational ideas) has indeed become “intergalactic data-speak” (most packages on the market provide SQL interfaces) and this standardization has strongly facilitated the penetration of database systems into all corners of society and contributed to a widespread “relational view” of data organization and manipulation, even if data modeling is still mostly in expert hands.

The goal of this contribution is to examine this “relational view” in terms of what Jack Goody called the “modes of thought” associated with writing, and in particular with the list form, which “encourages the ordering of the items, by number, by initial sound, by category, etc.” (Goody 1977). As with most modern technologies, the relational model implies a complex set of constraining and enabling elements. The basic structural unit, the “relation” (what most people would simply call a table) disciplines data modeling practices into logical consistency (tables only accept tuples/rows with the same attributes) while remaining “semantically impoverished” (Stonebreaker 1993). Heterogeneity is purged from the relational model on the level of modeling, especially if compared to navigational approaches (e.g. XPath or DOM), but the “set-at-a-time” retrieval concept, combined with a declarative query language, affords remarkable flexibility and expressiveness on the level of data selection. The relational view thus implies an “ontology” consisting of regular, uniform, and only loosely connected objects that can be ordered in a potentially unlimited number of ways at the time of retrieval (by means of the query language, i.e. without having to program explicit retrieval routines). In this sense, the relational model perfectly fits the qualities that Callon and Muniesa (2005) attribute to “powerful” calculative agency: handle a long list of diverse entities, keep the space of possible classifications and reclassifications largely open, multiply possible hierarchies and classifications. What database systems then do, is bridging the gap between these calculative capacities and other forms of agency by relating them to different forms of performativity (e.g., in SQL speak, to SELECT, TRIGGER, and VIEW).
While the relational model’s simplicity has led to many efforts to extend or replace it in certain application areas, its near universal uptake in business and government means that the logistics of knowledge and ordering implied by the relational ontology resonate through the technological layers and database schemas into the domains of management, governance, and everyday practices.

I will argue that the vision of the “programmer as navigator” trough a database (Bachman 1973) has, in fact, given way to a setting where database consultants, analysts, and modelers sit between software engineering on the one side and management on the other, (re)defining procedures and practices in terms of the relational model. Especially in business and government sectors, central forms of management and evaluation (reporting, different forms of data analysis, but also reasoning in terms of key performance indicators and, more generally, “evidence based” management) are directly related to the technological and cognitive standardization effects derived from the pervasiveness of relational databases. At the risk of overstretching my argument, I would like to propose that Thrift’s (2005) “knowing capitalism” indeed knows (largely) in terms of the relational model.

one of Moreno's famous sociograms

I am currently writing a paper to submit to the new and very exciting journal computational culture on the use of graph theory to produce “evaluative metrics” in contexts like Web search or social networking. One of my core arguments is going to be that the network as descriptive (mathematical) model has never stood in opposition to the notion of hierarchy but should rather be seen as a conceptual tool that was used in different fields (e.g. sociometry, psychometry, citation analysis, etc.) over the 20th century to investigate structure and, in particular, to both investigate and establish hierarchy. This finally gave me an excuse to dive into Jacob L. Moreno’s opus magnum Who Shall Survive? from 1934, which not only founded sociometry but also laid the ground work for social network analysis. This is one of the strangest books I have ever read, not only because the edition from 1978 reveals the author as a deeply Nietzschean character (“Actually, I have written two bibles, an old testament and a new testament.“), but also because the sociogenic therapy Moreno proposes as an approach to the “German-Jewish conflict” puts the whole text in a deeply saddening light. But these aspects only deepen the impression that this is a fascinating book, really one of its kind.

Interestingly, Moreno also discovered what we would now call “power-law dynamics in social networks”. One of the applications of his “sociometric test” – basically a “who do you like” type of questionnaire – in a small American town named Hudson came to the following result:

After the first phase of the sociometric test was given the analysis of the choices revealed that among a population of 435 persons,23 204, or 46.5%, remained unchosen after the 1st choice; 139, or 30%, after the 2d choice; 87, or 20%, after the 3rd choice; 74, or 17%, after the 4th choice; and 66, or 15%, after the 5th choice. (Moreno 1934, p. 249)

Moreno's comparison of distributions

This means that 15% of the population was not mentioned when the interviewees were asked which five people in the community they liked best. While this does not make for a particularly skewed distribution, Moreno transposes the result on the population of New York city and adds a quite tantalizing interpretation:

There is no question but that this phenomenon repeats itself throughout the nation, however widely the number of unchosen may vary from 1st to 5th or more choices due to the incalculable influence of sexual, racial, and other psychological currents. For New York, with a population of 7,000,000, the above percentages would be after the 1st choice, 3,200,000 individuals unchosen; after the 2nd choice, 2,100,000 unchosen; after the 3rd choice, 1,400,000 unchosen; after the 4th choice, 1,200,000 unchosen; and after the 5th choice, 1,050,000 unchosen. These calculations suggest that mankind is divided not only into races and nations, religions and states, but into socionomic divisions. There is produced a socionomic hierarchy due to the differences in attraction of particular individuals and groups for other particular individuals and groups. (Moreno 1934, p. 250f)

By looking into the history of the field, I hope to show that the observation of uneven distributions of connectivity in real-world networks, e.g. the work by Hindman and others concerning the Web, are certainly not a discovery of the “new science of networks” of recent years but a virtual constant in mathematical approaches to networks: whenever somebody starts counting, the result is an ordered list, normally with a considerable difference in value between the first and the last element. When it comes to applications of sociometry to sociology or anthropology, the question of leadership, status, influence, etc. is permanently in the forefront, especially from the 1950s onward when matrix algebra starts to allow for quick calculations of different forms of centrality. Contrary to popular myth, when Page and Brin came up with PageRank, they had a very wide variety of inspirational sources to draw from. Networks and ranking had been an old couple for quite a while already.

In 1953, Leo Katz, psychologist of the measuring kind, wrote the following:

The purpose of this paper is to suggest a new method of computing status, taking into account not only the number of direct “votes” received by each individual but, also, the status of each individual who chooses the first, the status of each who chooses these in turn, etc. Thus, the proposed new index allows for who chooses as well as how many choose.

The paper this is taken from is one of the references in Larry Page’s PageRank patent

The emerging field of software studies (and micro-annexes like “code studies”) shows a remarkable interest in code obfuscation (e.g. here, here, and here), a fun practice for creative programmers that plays on the fact that source code is text and can therefore be endlessly transformed (there are also more serious uses for obfuscation, generally in situations where source code is visible by design, e.g. JavaScript on the Web). While the practice of making a program’s source code unreadable without breaking functionality is indeed a way of approaching software from a potentially revelatory angle, I am somewhat astounded by how much attention humanities scholars pay to an exercise that is diametrically opposed to what 99% of all programmers spend considerable blood, sweat, and tears on every day, namely to make their code readable.

Code obfuscation as creative and playful practice for expert programmers speaks to the humanities’ interest in the original, the artistic, the deviant, and the critical but there is a real danger of losing connection with the mundane practice of writing software, where considerable energy is spent on writing code in a way that other people can easily understand it and, perhaps even more importantly, that a programmer can understand it quickly herself when coming back to a script or module weeks or months after it was written.

As most programmers will attest, the considerable difficulty of programming lies not so much in the “programming” part but in the managing of large amounts of stuff: complex architectures that span over many modules, huge APIs and libraries that provide highly specialized functionality, programming languages with always growing numbers of comfort functions (just look at how many array functions there are now in PHP), pages and pages of (sometimes badly written) documentation, different versions of basically everything, and – of course – the large amounts of code we ourselves and the people we work with have written, not so rarely under considerable time constraints, which leads of course to less than stellar code. The logistical dimension of programming is considerable.

SVN systems, powerful IDE’s (for somebody like me who only programs a couple of hours per week, autocomplete and integrated documentation are simply a godsend), and better development methodology obviously make the task of negotiating this massive environment a lot more bearable, but these tools are not eliminating the need to read code all the time to understand what’s going on. That’s why we try to make it readable as we write it and good refactoring (going over one’s code after the functionality is implemented) treats readability as a priority. But still, every programmer I know has, at one point in time, decided to write a library or a program herself simply because she didn’t want to experience the excruciating pain of reading somebody else’s poorly written code. This is how bad things can get.

Computer Science literature (like Steve McConnell’s classic Code Complete) and the Web are full of guidelines on how to write readable code and recommendations are intensely discussed and can be extremely detailed. I would like to argue here that one can learn as much – or more – about software by looking at strategies for readability than by looking at obfuscation. Some things are rather obvious, like choosing good names for modules, classes, functions, and variables; or like code indentation, which some programming languages have even made a requirement. Good commenting seems to be rather evident as well but there are many different schools of thought on that and automated comment generation in certain programming editors has not lead to real standardization. In general, while there is certainly wide agreement on the need for readability, the persistence of differences in style makes it clear that this is largely a question of convention and therefore depends on normative agreement rather than on simply finding the “best” technique.

But what I find most interesting about the question of readability is that beyond the cited elements lurk even more difficult questions that concern the borders between readability and architecture and between readability and complexity. Ed Lippert for example writes: “Don’t write ‘clever’ code; the maintenance programmers don’t have time to figure out your cleverness when it turns out to be broken.” This points to some of the basic tensions in modern software design and engineering: while programmers learn to value elegance, efficiency, and compact code, the requirements of large teams with a high degree of division of labor and the general speed-up of hardware can make readability a higher priority than execution speed or compactness. This can also mean to not use certain obscure functions or syntactical conventions. Consider these two examples in JavaScript:

variable1 = (variable2 == 10) ? 20 : false;


if(variable2 == 10) {
  variable1 = 20;
} else {
  variable1 = false;

These two elements are functionally equivalent; the first one however is much shorter and, especially for less experienced programmers, more difficult to read and understand.

Another question concerns when and how to divide code into functions, objects, modules, etc. Dustin Boswell and and Trevor Foucher’s Art of Readable Code for example recommends to “extract unrelated subproblems” by moving the code into a subroutine. While this may be straightforward in many cases, what the “reader” needs to know to understand the code can vary a lot from one case to another. Creating subroutines can certainly help with readability (and make code more easily reusable), but it a) means that the reader has to track down the subroutines and b) may make the code more complex simply because the subroutine may take into account different use cases that have to be distinguished. While redundancy is often considered a crime, it can have benefits when it comes to readability.

The subject of readability can be (and is) discussed infinitely but what is significant from a software studies’ perspective is that the problem points to the incursion of a social and economic context into the practice of programming. Not only do we ask “what is my code supposed to do?”, but also “who is going to read my code?”, “will other people work with my code?”, “is this something I will reuse?”, “how important is execution speed?”, and so on. While studying obfuscation points to the duality of computer code as text and machine, the readability question reveals it as caught up in various contexts that have to be negotiated in the practice of programming itself. That code is executable is the technical condition for software. That code is readable is not a requirement on the same level; but it has become a major aspect to a program’s capacity to become part of an increasingly structured professional practice.