Featured in The Economist: A new kind of weather

My recently published book, Political Turbulence, was referenced in a special report on technology and politics in The Economist that examined questions of democracy, data, politics, and social media.

A figure from the book was also included in a tweet and blog post by The Economist:

From the special report:

A new book entitled “Political Turbulence” come[s] to an intriguing conclusion: social media are making democracies more “pluralistic”, but not in the conventional sense of the word, involving diverse but stable groups. Instead, the authors see the emergence of a “chaotic pluralism”, in which mobilisations spring from the bottom up, often reacting to events. Online mobilisation can develop explosively and seemingly at random. …
Politics in the age of social media, the authors conclude, is better described by chaos theory than by conventional social science: “Tiny acts of political participation that take place via social media are the units of analysis, the equivalent of particles and atoms in a natural system, manifesting themselves in political turbulence.” One day, say the authors, it [might] be possible to predict and trigger such surges, in the same way that meteorologists have become good at forecasting the weather. …Read more (paywall).

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Reviewed in Science: “Important series of creatively and rigorously researched insights”

Arnout van de Rijt reviewed my book, Political Turbulence, in Science Magazine. The review, entitled “The social revolution,” states that the book

… contributes an important series of creatively and rigorously researched insights into the social mechanics of Internet-based collective action, handing researchers a new toolbox of methods and techniques in the process. …Read more (paywall)

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Political Turbulence in The Guardian

John Naughton referenced my book, Political Turbulence, in his column in The Guardian entitled, “#Twitter crisis? Not if it decides that it can be a smaller, smarter platform.”

In a thought-provoking new book, Political Turbulence: How Social Media Shape Collective Action, Professor Helen Margetts and her colleagues at the Oxford Internet Institute provide empirical evidence that social media are starting to change our politics in ways not yet appreciated or understood. Platforms such as Twitter, they write, are providing “zero-touch co-ordination for micro-donations of time, effort, and money and are replacing organisations and institutions in some areas of political life. Indeed, organisations increasingly resemble social media platforms in the way they present themselves to the public, with facilities for commenting and encouraging the sharing of content.” …Read more

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Political Turbulence in openDemocracyUK

Stuart Weir has reviewed my book, Political Turbulence, in openDemocracyUK.

A few years back I was intrigued and captivated, as a largely analogue political animal, by Paul Mason’s Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere on the revolutionary part that social media were playing in the Arab Spring and global politics. But for all the enthusiasm, anecdotes and insights, it was ultimately unsatisfying. Here now is a revelatory study, Political Turbulence, which looks more closely and systematically at why “it” – that is, significant collective action – “is kicking off”, and why, much more frequently, it doesn’t. …Read more

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Multilingualism research reported by Fusion Media

In an article entitled, “Unless you speak English, the Internet doesn’t care about you,” Fusion Media writer Kristen Brown references my research as well as that of Brent Hecht and Mark Graham. She also includes reference to the Bridge project by Meedan to crowdsource the translation of social media, for which I am on the advisory board.

Scott Hale, a data scientist focused on bilingualism at the Oxford Internet Institute, told me that user interfaces could help break down language barriers by allowing users to interact … in multiple languages at once. Allowing people to easily toggle between languages is one way to break down the linguistic silos that online life creates. …Read more

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Political Turbulence co-author in DW

My co-author Helen Margetts spoke with Deutsche Welle last week about our book, book, Political Turbulence, and a range of topics from the role of social media in mobilizations to the (lack of) sustainability of social media campaigns. An article reporting their conversation is available at http://dw.com/p/1HpSV.

Political Turbulence: we’re ‘dripping with data’ and it may make democracy better

Do social media shape collective action? Professor Helen Margetts, co-author of a new book called “Political Turbulence” says they do. By allowing us to make “micro-donations” it’s easy to join a cause. …Read more.

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Political Turbulence in Times Higher Education

Ivor Gaber reviewed my book, Political Turbulence, in Times Higher Education (THE).

“Chaotic pluralism…a new kind of pluralism, highly decentred and chaotic” is what we’re living through, if we are to believe the authors of Political Turbulence. The authors, whose disciplinary backgrounds range across political science, computational science and physics, argue that this new status quo has resulted from the intrusion, if that’s the right word, of social media into the political sphere, an intrusion that they describe as “unstable, unpredictable and often unsustainable”. …Read more

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Political Turbulence on Start the Week

My co-author, Helen Margetts, discussed our book, Political Turbulence, on BBC Radio 4. You can listen to the interview or download an MP3 from the BBC website.

On Start the Week Tom Sutcliffe talks to the American writer Jonathan Franzen about his latest novel, Purity. One of Franzen’s characters compares the Internet with the East German Republic and he satirises the utopian ideas of the apparatchik web-users. The head of the Oxford Internet Institute, Helen Margetts, counters with her research on the success and failure of political action via social media. The artist Tacita Dean laments the ubiquity of digital at the expense of film, and the financial journalist Gillian Tett roots out tunnel vision – both personal and business – in her new book on silos.…Listen now

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Multilingualism research featured in The Guardian

A recent article in the Guardian newspaper by Holly Yong surveys much research about online language divides, including my work on multilingualism and cross-language bridging:

Translation technologies offer one solution to bridging online language divides, while also opening up new markets for businesses. Although currently only available in a few languages, last year Microsoft launched the Skype translator, and both Facebook and Twitter have also paired up with Bing to offer users translation services.

Scott Hale, data scientist at the Oxford Internet Institute, argues that more could also be done to unlock the power of multilinguals online. Internet platforms he believes could be modified to make it easier for multilingual users to find content in other languages, as well as encourage them to contribute in more than one language. “Many review sites, such as TripAdvisor and Google Play, prioritise reviews in a person’s selected user-interface language or even completely hide reviews not in the user-interface language,” says Hale. Platforms like Wikipedia, he says, could allow you to search a topic in multiple language editions at the same time.

Hale also found that although only 11% of people are multilingual on Twitter, and 15% on Wikipedia, these multilingual individuals are more active, writing more tweets and creating and editing more Wikipedia content. These people, he believes, could potentially challenge the Balkanisation of information and discussion online. Whether it is translating and bringing foreign concepts into different language editions on Wikipedia, or moving breaking local news stories to new language communities and different geographies, they have the power to be influential.

Full article is available at http://labs.theguardian.com/digital-language-divide/. Some of my research is covered in the section on “Bridging the divide”.

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Design for multilinguals: Seemingly simple yet often missed

As I prepare my slides for CHI 2014, I’m struck by one implication I give for the research I will present on language and Twitter, “Allow each user to have a set of multiple preferred languages;” or, more simply:

consider bilingual and multilingual users when designing platforms

This seems super-simple and obvious as a bullet point on my slides. However, a long list of well-known platforms easily illustrates this insight is often overlooked. Since the confines of my presentation won’t allow me to look in-depth at this, I thought I would write here about one common product which I feel could be designed better for multilingual users: the Google Play Store. It is by far not the only platform, but it is a well-known platform that I use often.


Consider the app shown on the left, which I recently installed on my tablet. This is a screen shot of the app as it appears in the Google Play Store on my tablet with my user-interface language set to English.

Play tells me it has 10,000+ downloads and 3.6 stars based on 27 reviews (highlighted with a red box I added at the top). However, where are those 27 reviews? There is absolutely no indication of how I could read those 27 reviews. The web interface is even more confusing by inviting me to “Be the first to review this application.” How could I be the first to review the application if it already has 27 reviews?

As the astute reader might guess, the missing reviews are written in Japanese, which is perfectly fine since I read Japanese (and even if I didn’t I could try machine translation). However, in order to see these reviews I must switch the user-interface language of my entire tablet (or change the Language Accept parameter of my browser after logging out of my Google account and clearing all cookies). I also need to know somehow that the missing reviews are in Japanese. If I want to check if a Korean user has reviewed the app, I have to yet again change the entire user-interface language of my tablet. If I don’t want all my other apps and the system software itself to be in Japanese, I then have to yet again change the user-interface language back to English after reading the reviews.

The image below and to the right is screen shot of the app in the Google Play store after I’ve changed the user-interface language of my tablet to Japanese. Note that all the text that was previously in English (Apps, Open, Uninstall) is now in the new user-interface language of Japanese. The top area of the information is the same (3.6 stars, 10,000+ downloads), but now a new section with Reviews (レブュー) is given (which I’ve put a second red box around for emphasis).

Google Play is fully internationalized and localized on the one hand: menus are translated, the design accommodates right-to-left languages, etc. The difficulty is in how user-generated content is handled (specifically user reviews of apps). More niche apps are often reviewed in only one language in Google Play. However, reviews are grouped by the user interface language settings of users’ devices. This means that a user cannot see reviews of an app in another language without temporarily changing the user interface language of the entire Android operating system—a process that takes several minutes and affects all apps on the device.

Confusingly, apps are rated with a number of stars (1-4) averaged across reviews from all languages. This can lead to the rather odd case discussed above where the English interface shows an average rating of 3.6 stars from 27 user reviews, but then gives no indication of how the user could see these reviews. This can be particularly frustrating for multilingual users who could read the reviews in another language if the option were provided. It is further the case that some users write a review in a language different from their user interface language (e.g., a user with a Japanese UI language writing a review of an app in English). These users may think they are helping potential users in the other language, but in fact those users are very unlikely to see the review as it remains only accessible to users with the same user interface language selection as the author of the review.

So, while the bullet point on my CHI slides to “design with multilingual users in mind” seems obvious and simple, there are many common platforms that do not follow this advice (Google Play is certainly not alone). This is particularly surprising given “multilingualism…[is] the norm for most of the world’s societies,” with over half of Europe and over a fifth of the US multilingual. My work on language and Twitter and Wikipedia shows that a non-trivial percentage of users on both platforms engage in multiple languages.

As many human-computer interaction researchers gather this week for CHI in a country with a strong tradition of multilingualism, I hope that those envisioning new platforms or redesigning existing platforms will consider multilingual users specifically in their designs.

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