Discover more from New_ Public
🖊️ New_ Public Co-director Talia Stroud on Researching Platforms🗒️
An interview with the lead researcher of our new digital platform report
This week we launched our new research, an update to our 14 signals for flourishing digital public spaces. With new data from July 2020, our report is a sophisticated snapshot of what life is like online for billions of people around the world trying to navigate the coronavirus pandemic on social, search and messaging platforms.
The upshot? We found that platforms saw increased use around the world, user expectations for platforms were largely consistent before and during the pandemic, and the performance of each platform was still quite poor. None of the six popular platforms we focused on (Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Google, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube) had a majority of users saying they performed ‘well’ on any particular signal.
But academic research is often so much more than just top-line takeaways. There are tons of nuances: what’s different in different countries? What specific effects are the pandemic having? That’s why I wanted to talk to Talia Stroud, co-director of New_ Public and director of the Center for Media Engagement. Talia conducted this research with Tamar Wilner, Marley Duchovnay and Caroline Murray, and she has been a driving force in our development of the signals and our continued research using them. If there’s one person who can help us contextualize the signals in the pandemic, it’s Talia. Let’s dive in to our conversation:
Josh Kramer: You spent a long time working with experts and developing the 14 signals. Now that you have a little distance, how are the signals holding up?
Talia Stroud: It’s been funny – since we’ve been developing the signals, I now see them all of the time. When I’m on social media, for instance, I find myself reflecting on how the signals are or are not present. So on a personal level, I see lots of evidence that the signals hold up. I also think that the consistency of feedback we received when doing our research pre-pandemic and amidst the pandemic is a testament to the staying power of many of the signals.
Why did you decide to revisit the original signals research? What's different this time?
The coronavirus pandemic represented a moment when many people had to live digitally more than they ever had before. We thought that this might change people’s thoughts about what’s important – and how well the platforms function. In practice, we found more stability than change. It doesn’t matter whether people are in a pandemic, they still want flourishing digital communities, and the platforms have room for improvement.
How has the coronavirus changed users' expectations of their search, social and messaging platforms?
Most surprising to me was that users’ expectations haven’t changed that much. The biggest changes we found were upticks in the percentage of people thinking that it’s important for platforms to help communities recover after a crisis – not surprising in the middle of the pandemic! But even with the upticks during the pandemic, it’s still not rated as highly as other signals. I think that platforms may have an unrealized potential to make a positive contribution during periods of crisis.
We also saw slight increases in the percentage of people saying that it’s important for platforms to help people become informed citizens. There were a few declines – slightly fewer people, for instance, thought that it was important for the platforms to keep people’s information secure. It’s hard to know what to make of this – it could be that people have a relatively fixed number of things that they consider important and if another category goes up, one must go down.
Many Americans primarily think about how digital platforms work in the US. What kinds of things have you learned by surveying users from around the world? What's most surprising?
This is definitely not a U.S. issue – groups around the world are working on issues related to digital life. In our own cross-national surveying, I’ve been struck by several things. The first is that the fundamentals aren’t that different. Across 20 countries of surveying and five of focus grouping, people have related aspirations for their digital lives. The second is that underneath this, there’s variability. Although people seem to agree on the basics, which signals are ranked as most important varies across countries and platforms.
Every platform performed below 50% on every signal, meaning that less than half of respondents thought the platform performed well on the signal. How should we understand this? Does that mean that every platform is failing at the signals?
It definitely shows that the platforms have room for improvement on the signals. With that said, it’s unlikely that any platform would ever have 100% of its users agreeing that it’s doing a good job on any signal. But certainly the percentages could be higher.
What are some of the under-the-radar but interesting results of the study?
What people wrote about their experiences during the pandemic was really telling. People reported connecting with their friends and family in new and meaningful ways thanks to technology. They used the platforms to find pandemic information and were concerned about misinformation. It really was amazing to hear people’s thoughts about how the platforms played a role in their lives during the pandemic.
I love that this research isn't just critical of what's wrong, but that it also offers hope for the future, and practical takeaways that can be implemented now. Please take a moment to expand on one of the pieces of advice for platforms you feel strongly about:
Platforms could think about how to highlight actionable ways that individuals could help people in their communities. So many people want to do things to help others, and the platforms could do more to help fulfill this desire, especially during difficult times like the pandemic. Some communities developed ad hoc ways of doing this – during hurricanes here in Texas, some communities repurpose Google Sheets to help get information about community needs. Maybe there’s a creative, safe, and secure way to connect people to their neighbors and get them what they need.
Turns out we weren’t the only ones this week to put out a report about tech platforms during the pandemic. We were really interested to read U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s unprecedented advisory about health misinformation, and pleased to see a lot of overlap between it and our 14 signals. In this Twitter thread, we explore some of the common themes between our research and the advisory.
A sampling of some of the best thinking about things on the internet and internet-based things in the physical world
“‘What the Robot Saw’ is a live, continuously-generated, robot film, curated, analyzed and edited using computer vision, neural networks, and contrarian search algorithms.”
“For nearly as long as YouTube has existed, people have been lamenting the phenomenon of ‘YouTube voice,’ or the slightly exaggerated, over-pronounced manner of speaking beloved by video essayists, drama commentators, and DIY experts on the platform.” (Vox)
“This is not a memorialization ... Dead Startup Toys are not a resurrection, to be sure, but perhaps they are a form of necromancy: we celebrate their pale shadows, deprived of their original context.”
“Contact tracing, both manual and automated, still isn’t delivering desperately needed results at scale.” (MIT Technology Review)
“Online tools became vital outlets for maintaining an open dialogue with residents, understanding their community’s unique and changing needs, and moving forward with existing local projects. Now, over a year in, the progress made has us all wondering: when the doors of our town halls open again, will we still meet online?” (Apolitical)
“Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society (BKC) is launching an ambitious three-year “pop-up” research initiative, the Institute for Rebooting Social Media.”
“The hanko has shackled Japan to the old paper system. Needing to physically stamp things disincentivizes people from ever digitizing documents since it’s only a matter of time until you’d have to print any given document back out just so it can be stamped.” (99% Invisible)
“Since the mid-2000s, agent banking has emerged as a strategy to improve financial inclusion in many Global South countries.” (Rest of World)
We’re still running our survey on the future of this newsletter and New_ Public as a whole. So, please, if you have a few minutes, fill out our brief (10 minutes or less) survey, which contains a couple of new questions for 2021. Thank you!
On the Radio
“I hope that the digital world in which my kids grow up in is one where they feel connected to a bunch of communities, where they’re valued, where they’re seen, where they’re valued not just for the content they produce but who they are in relation to others. And that they also have some power in that situation, that they have some agency ... When you form better digital public spaces, and you start to form trust, you start to see a bit more of the humanity in other people.”
- Co-director Eli Pariser on the newest episode of the TED Radio Hour
Meet your newsletter staff! I’ll be introducing myself along with New_ Public’s newest member, Wilfred Chan. We’ll talk about where we’re coming from, what we’re interested in, and where we’re planning to go in this space.
Whiteboarding our Metaverse,
Design by me
New_ Public is a partnership between the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin, and the National Conference on Citizenship, and was incubated by New America.