We examine the implications of the use of digital micro-working platforms for scientific research. Although these platforms offer ways to make a living or to earn extra income, micro-workers lack fundamental labour rights and ‘decent’ working conditions, especially in the Global South. We argue that scientific research currently fails to treat micro-workers in the same way as in-person human participants, producing de facto a double morality: one applied to people with rights acknowledged by states and international bodies (e.g. Helsinki Declaration), the other to ‘guest workers of digital autocracies’ who have almost no rights at all.
Estoy muy emocionada y feliz de empezar un ciclo de charlas en Chile, principalmente en Santiago y Talca, con Antonio A. Casilli este mes de enero. Agradezco mucho a la Embajada de Francia en Chile, al Instituto Francés de Chile, y a la Fundación Teatro a Mil por esta oportunidad maravillosa. Gracias también a Juana Torres Cierpe y a Francisca Ortiz Ruiz por su ayuda en contactar con colegas, amigos y estudiantes de Chile.
Empezaremos por una charla titulada “Plataformas digitales, trabajo en línea y automatización tras la crisis sanitaria”, que tendrá lugar el día lunes 16 de enero a las 12:00 hrs en la sede de la CUT (1 oriente # 809, Talca). En esta charla presentaremos nuestras investigaciones sobre el fenómeno del micro-trabajo fuertemente precarizado que se desarrolla en las plataformas digitales. Agradezco mucho a la profesora Claudia Jordana Contreras y a la Escuela de Sociología de la Universidad Católica del Maule por la organización de este evento.
El martes 17 enero 2023, 11:00, hablaré de “Inteligencia artificial, transformaciones laborales y desigualdades: El trabajo de las mujeres en las plataformas digitales de ‘microtareas” en el Instituto de Sociología de la Universidad Católica y con el Quantitative and Computational Social Science Research Group. Gracias a Mauricio Bucca que ha organizado este evento. Estaremos en la Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Campus San Joaquín.
El martes 17 por la tarde (a las 17:000 hrs), hablaré de “Ética de la inteligencia artificial y otros desafíos para la investigación sobre redes sociales” como parte de la Escuela de Verano del Centro de Investigación en Complejidad Social, Universidad del Desarrollo. Agradezco a Jorge Fábrega Lacoa y sus colegas para la organización.
El viernes 20 de enero 2023, a las 10:00 hrs, Antonio y yo hablaremos juntos de “El trabajo detrás de la inteligencia artificial y la automatización en América Latina” en un taller internacional organizado por la Universidad de Chile – con Pablo Pérez (gracias por la organización!) y Francisca Gutiérrez, sala 129, FASCO, Av. Ignacio Carrera Pinto 1045, Ñuñoa.
Sigue un evento organizado por el Instituto Francés, “La noche de las ideas”:
On 3-5 November 2022, I was at the department of Sociology of National and Kapodistrian University of Athens (NKUA) for the 5th INDL conference “Features and Futures of Digital Labor”. The conference was co-organized by us (the DiPLab project at the Polytechnic Institute of Paris) together with the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Labor Institute of the General Confederation of Greek Workers.
The INDL (International Network on Digital Labor) project started as ENDL (the “E” standing for “European”) 5 years ago with an inaugural meeting in Paris. Since then, it has expanded internationally, and its members organized larger conferences in Paris (2019), Toronto (2019), Milan (2020, online), and Edinburgh (2021, online). INDL’s conference in Athens was the first in-person meeting since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The key idea behind the creation of INDL, and the organization of these conferences, is that digital labor is central to the digital transformation of society. Despite its pervasiveness, though, the ways it is inscribed in the current organization of production and the state remain elusive. Different fields of the social and economic sciences, political theory, law, and philosophy have attempted to capture its distinctive attributes. The group’s initiatives contribute to this conversation by mapping the new working environments and fostering dialogue around the nature of digital work and the possible futures that academic research may help bring about.
Around the world, myriad workers perform data tasks on online labour platforms to fuel the digital economy. Mostly short, repetitive and little paid, these so-called ‘micro-tasks’ include for example labelling objects in images, classifying tweets, recording utterances, and transcribing audio files – notably to satisfy the data appetite of today’s fast-growing artificial intelligence industry. While casualization of labour and low pay have attracted sharp criticisms against these platforms, they appear gender-blind and accessible even to people with basic skills. Women with care or household duties may particularly benefit from the time flexibility and the possibility to work from home that platforms offer. So, are these new labour arrangements gender equalizers after all?
In a new paper co-authored with Marion Coville, Clément Le Ludec and Antonio A. Casilli, we demonstrate that this new form of online labour fails to fill gender gaps, and may even exacerbate them. We proceed in three steps. First, we show that legacy inequalities in the professional and domestic spheres turn platform-mediated micro-tasking into a ‘third shift’ that adds to already heavy schedules. Both working fathers and working mothers experience it, but the structure of the other two shifts affects their experience. Looking at their time use, it turns out that men dedicate long and uninterrupted slots of time to each activity: their main job, their share of household duties, leisure and micro-work. They tend to do all micro-tasks in a row, usually at night after work or in the morning before starting. Instead, women have more fragmented schedules, and micro-work during short breaks, here and there, eating into their leisure time. This is one reason why they earn less on platforms: they have short slots of time available, so they cannot search for better-paid tasks, and just content themselves with whatever is available at that moment.
Second, we submit that the human capital of male and female data workers differ, with women less likely to have received training in science and technology fields.
Third, their social capital differs: using a position generator instrument to capture workers’ access to the informational and support resources that may come from contacts with people in different occupations, we show that women have fewer ties to digital-related professionals who could provide them with knowledge and advice to successfully navigate the platform world.
Taken together, these factors leave women with fewer career prospects within a tech-driven workforce, and reproduce relegation of women to lower-level computing work as observed in the history of twentieth-century technology.
This week, I was pleased and honoured to give a keynote speech at wonderful EUSN2021 (European Social Networks 2021) conference. The event was originally planned in beautiful Naples, but was unfortunately moved online because of pandemic-induced uncertainties.
In my talk, I endeavoured to reconcile the tradition of research on social and organizational network analysis – in which I have been trained, and which constitutes the specialism of most participants to EUSN conferences – with the nascent literature on digital platform labour. Indeed, organizational network studies have shaped my (and many other colleagues’) understanding of how social ties and structures drive collective action and shape its outcomes. However, contemporary computing technologies breed novel sociabilities and organizational modes that disrupt established practices and knowledge. In particular, the emergence of digital platforms as market intermediaries constitutes a puzzle for network researchers. These emerging organizational structures loosen individual-organization links, fragment production processes, individualize sub-contracting, extend competition beyond the local level, and threaten jobs with AI-fuelled automation. My question then is: in these environments where isolation dominates and collaboration fades, how do social networks operate, if at all? And how can we, as researchers, apprehend them?
In my talk, I discussed how digital platforms, and the transformations of work processes they trigger, challenge some of the key tenets of organizational network analysis. Yet there is still much to learn from this tradition, and the limited overlaps with the nascent literature on platforms reveal facets that neither of them, alone, could capture. This analysis also confirms that overall, technology-enabled platform intermediation restrains sociability and limits interactions, but specific cases where networking has been possible highlight the fundamental advantages it brings to workers.
On this basis, I outlined directions for future research and policy action.
Many thanks to the organizers who still did a wonderful job despite the online-only mode, and to all attendees for inspiring questions and feedback.
Fueled by increasingly powerful computing and visualization tools, research on social networks is flourishing. However, it raises ethical issues that largely escape existing codes of conduct and regulatory frameworks. The economic power of large data platforms, the active participation of network members, the spectrum of mass surveillance, the effects of networking on health, the place of artificial intelligence: so many questions in search of solutions.
Social networks, what are we talking about?
The expression “social network” has become common, but those who use it to refer to social media as Facebook or Instagram often ignore its origin and its true meaning. The study of social networks precedes the advent of digital technologies. Since the 1930s, sociologists have been conducting surveys to describe the structures of relationships that unite individuals and groups: their “networks”. These include, for example, advice relationships between employees of a company, or friendship ties between students in a school. These networks can be represented as points (students) united by lines (links).
Before any questioning on the social aspects of Facebook and Twitter, this research shed light on, for example, marital role segregation, importance of “weak ties” in job search, informal organization of firms, diffusion of innovations, formation of business elites, social support for the sick or elderly. Designers of digital platforms such as Facebook have picked up some of the analytical principles on which these works were based, developing them with the mathematical theory of graphs (though often with less attention to the social issues involved).
Early on, researchers in this field realized that the traditional principles of research ethics (focusing on informed consent of study participants and anonymization of data) were difficult to ensure. By definition, social networks research is never about a single individual, but about relationships between this individual and others – their friends, relatives, collaborators or professional advisors. If the latter are reported by the respondent but are not themselves included in the study, it is difficult to see how their consent could be obtained. What’s more, results can be difficult to anonymize, in that visuals are sometimes disclosive even in the absence of personal identifiers.
Ethics in the digital society: a minefield
Academics have long been thinking about these ethical difficulties, to which a special issue of the prestigious Social Networks journal was dedicated as far back as 2005. Today, researchers’ dilemmas are exacerbated by the increased availability of relational data collected and exploited by digital giants like Facebook or Google. New problems arise as the boundaries between “public” and “private” spheres become confused. To what extent do we need consent to access messages that digital service users send to their contacts, their “retweets”, or their “likes” on their friends’ walls?
These sources of information are often the property of commercial enterprises, and the algorithms they use likely bias observations. For example, can we interpret in the same way a contact created spontaneously by a user, and a contact created as a result of an automated recommendation system? In short, the data do not speak for themselves, and before thinking about their analysis, we must question the conditions of their use and the methods of their production. They largely depend on the software architectures imposed by platforms as well as their economic and technical choices. There is a real power asymmetry between platforms – often the property of large multinational companies – and researchers – especially those working in the public sector, and whose objectives are misaligned with investors’ priorities. Negotiations (if possible at all) are often difficult, resulting in restrictions to proprietary data access – particularly penalizing for public research.
Other problems arise as a researcher may even use paid crowdsourcing to produce data, using platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk to ask large numbers of users to complete a questionnaire, or even to download their online contact lists. But these services raise numerous questions in terms of workers’ rights, working conditions and appropriation of the product of work. The resulting uncertainty hinders research that could otherwise have a positive impact on knowledge and on society at large.
Availability of online communication and publication tools, which many researchers are now seizing, increases the likelihood that research results may be diverted for political or business purposes. If the interest of military and police circles for the analysis of social networks is well known (Osama Bin Laden was allegedly located and neutralised following the application of social network analysis principles), these appropriations are more frequent today, and less easily controllable by researchers. A significant risk is the use of these principles to suppress civic and democratic movements.
The role of the researcher
Restrictions and prohibitions would likely aggravate the constraints that already weigh on researchers, without helping them overcome these obstacles. Rather, it is important to create conditions for trust and enable researchers to explore the full extent and importance of online and offline social networks – allowing them to capture salient economic and social phenomena while remaining respectful of people’s rights. Researchers should take an active role, participating in the co-construction of an adequate ethical framework, grounded in their experience and self-reflective attitude. A bottom-up process involving academics as well as citizens, civil society associations, and representatives of public and private research organizations could then feed these ideas and thoughts back to regulators (such as ethics committees).
Our inter-disciplinary, inter-institutional SPS seminar (Paris Seminar on the Analysis of Social Processes and Structures) has just started its second edition! Its purpose is to take stock of the debates within the international scientific community that have repercussions on the practice of contemporary sociology, and that renew the ways in which we construct research designs, i.e., the ways in which we connect theoretical claims, data collection and methods to assess the link between data and theory. Several observations motivate this endeavor. Increasing interactions between social sciences and disciplines such as computer science, physics and biology outline new conceptual and methodological perspectives on social realities. The availability of massive data sets raises the question of the tools required to describe, visualize and model these data sets. Simulation techniques, experimental methods and counterfactual analyses modify our conceptions of causality. Crossing sociology’s disciplinary frontiers, network analysis expands its range of scales. In addition, the development of mixed methods redraws the distinction between qualitative and quantitative approaches. In light of these challenges, the SPS seminar discusses studies that, irrespective of their subject and disciplinary background, provide the opportunity to deepen our understanding of the relations between theory, data and methods in social sciences.
Research on social networks is experiencing unprecedented growth, fuelled by the consolidation of network science and the increasing availability of data from digital networking platforms. However, it raises formidable ethical issues that often fall outside existing regulations and guidelines. New tools to collect, treat, store personal data expose both researchers and participants to specific risks. Political use and business capture of scientific results transcend standard research concerns. Legal and social ramifications of studies on personal ties and human networks surface.
We invite contributions from researchers in the social sciences, economics, management, statistics, computer science, law and philosophy, as well as other stakeholders to advance the ethical reflection in the face of new research challenges.
The workshop will take place on 5 December 2017 (full day) at MSH Paris-Saclay, with open keynote sessions to be held on 6 December 2017 (morning) at Hôtel de Lauzun, a 17th century palace in the heart of historic Île de la Cité.
Let us know if you wish to be panel discussant or session chair by 20 October 2017 (send to: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Acceptance notifications will be sent by 31 October 2017.
Registration is free but mandatory: speakers (and discussants and chairs) should register between 15 October and 15 November 2017, other attendees by 30 November 2017.
José Luis Molina, Autonomous University of Barcelona, “HyperEthics: A Critical Account” Bernie Hogan, Oxford Internet Institute, “Privatising the personal network: Ethical challenges for social network site research”
Antonio A. Casilli (Telecom ParisTech, FR), Alessio D’Angelo (Middlesex University, UK), Guillaume Favre (University of Toulouse Jean-Jaurès, FR), Bernie Hogan (Oxford Internet Institute, UK), Elise Penalva-Icher (University of Paris Dauphine, FR), Louise Ryan (University of Sheffield, UK), Paola Tubaro (CNRS, FR).
To understand how people form and reinforce face-to-face network ties at such an event, I fielded a questionnaire with the help of a committed and effective team of co-researchers. It is a “name generator” asking respondents to name those they knew before the OuiShare Fest, and met again there (“old frields”); and those they met during the event for the first time (“new contacts”). Participants then have to choose those among their “old” and “new” contacts, that they would like to contact again in future for joint projects or collaborations.
Interestingly, my good old pen-and-paper questionnaire still gives a lot of insight that digital data from social media cannot provide – just like a highly computer literate community such as this feels the need to meet physically in one place every year for a few days. Like trade fairs that flourish even more in the internet era, the OuiShare Fest gathers more participants at each edition. They meet in person there, which is why they are to be invited to respond in person too.
The study aims to map the collaborative economy community that gathers at OuiShare Fest, looking at how people network and how this fosters the emergence of new trends and topics.
During the event, a small team of committed and effective co-researchers helped me interview participants. We used a questionnaire with a “name generator” format, typically used in social network analysis to elicit people’s connections and reconstitute their social environment.
Specifically, we asked respondents to name people they knew before the
OuiShare Fest, and met again there (“old friends”), and people they met during the Fest for the first time (“new contacts”). Then we asked them to choose, from among the “old” and “new” they had named, those they would like to contact again with soon, for example for joint projects or collaborations.
I am very happy with the result: 160 completed interviews over three half-days! But it is still not enough: participants to the Fest were much more numerous than that, and in social network analysis, it is well-known that sampling is insufficient, and one needs to get as close to exhaustiveness as possible.