Doing Frictionless: the Work of Being Digitally Connected

This talk will report on a study within the User Centric Networking project. UCN is an ‘in the wild’ technology deployment seeking to smooth over some of the seams within and between digitally-mediated practices, practices which increasingly span both multiple spaces and multiple devices. As the distribution of these practices becomes more complex, gaps between online and offline become smaller but seemingly more consequential, as expectations of connectedness proliferate.
At the heart of the project is a network engineering effort to better coordinate the technical and the social – to make more legible the actor to the network, and network to the actor – so as to recognise gaps ahead of time and deploy means to counter them. To this end, the study itself will consist of a combination of traditional ethnographic methods to capture the rhythms and routines of participants’ daily practices, combined with monitoring software on their Internet-enabled devices. This software will log their online activities, as well as their movements whilst carrying the device.
The talk will focus on these seams – points of disjuncture between human, device and infrastructure – and the work of actors to bridge them in coordinating, maintaining and extending their digitally-mediated social worlds. Attention will be given to the tasks which must be undertaken in order to participate in this ostensibly ‘frictionless’, ‘always on’ existence. In drawing attention to the socially and physically situated doing of ‘being online’, the talk will highlight the sociotechnical foundations of digital networks.

Development capital in free and open source software

A striking feature of the software industry is a willingness on the part of many developers to share apparently valuable information, ideas, expertise, and even products without charge. Outside the industry, the most visible of these are consumer-level open source software projects. But those are only the tip of a vast iceberg that comprises not only the wider field of open source software (most of it usable only by IT professionals) but also the proliferation of online tutorials, free books, programmer blogs, and contributions to wikis and Q&A sites that have accreted around technologies such as programming languages, libraries and software frameworks. One of the key spokespeople of the open source movement famously described open source as a ‘gift culture’ in which participants compete for prestige (Raymond, 1999: chapter 3). This suggests that software developers share in order to display what this paper terms ‘development capital’: intangible assets or resources enabling them to gain the esteem of their fellows and thereby also social and economic advantage. I will argue that such an approach can help both to make sense of the often bitter inter-group rivalries that characterise the culture of the software industry (i.e. because development capital associated with a particular tool appreciates or depreciates in value depending on the extent to which the tool is used), and to address the chronic problems of exclusion and inequality that the software industry presents, despite its often utopian rhetoric (e.g. by making sense of recruitment practices and the cultural assumptions they embody).

Divisions of labour in crowdsourced films

The production of culture in the creative industries is enabled by conventions guiding all aspects of the artistic production from the division of labour to audience and genre expectations (Becker, 2008 [1982]). Over the past decade, new production models have begun emerging vis-à-vis networked technologies, harnessing global online networks of volunteer contributors (Benkler, 2006). The rise of these participatory cultures and peer production models has led scholars grounded in critical traditions to call for increased attention to questions of exploitation of digital labour in the cultural domain (e.g. Arvidsson & Colleoni, 2012; Banks & Deuze, 2009; Fuchs, 2010; Kleemann et al., 2008; Terranova, 2000, 2004).

Drawing on a multiyear digital ethnography of an online filmmaking community, this paper accounts for the realisation of four crowdsourced films produced by geographically dispersed volunteers (professionals and amateurs) collaborating without established conventions to guide the cultural production. Specifically, the paper demonstrates that the divisions of labour underpinning these productions are constituted by a typology of five distinct participant orientations, and subsequently account for the implications of these on the circulation and generation of value (incl. social and symbolic capital). In doing so, the presentation contributes to our understanding of contemporary networked production, while providing nuance to debates on what constitutes exploitation in crowdsourced culture.

Digital Music Consumption in the era of Big Data & Data Analytics: A Theoretical Approach for Examining Music Recommender Systems as Sociotechnical Cultural Intermediaries

As the rate and scale of digital data accumulation continue to outstrip all expectations so too
we come to depend increasingly on a variety of technical tools to interrogate these data and
to render them as an intelligible source of information. In response, on the one hand, a great
deal of attention has been paid to the design of efficient and reliable mechanisms for big data
analytics whilst, on the other hand, concerns are expressed about the rise of ‘algorithmic
society’ whereby important decisions are made by computational agents of which the majority of the population has little control. This paper aims to bridge these two debates working through the case of music recommender systems. Whilst not conventionally regarded as ‘big data,’ the enormous volume, variety and velocity of digital music has seen the growth of recommender systems, which are increasingly embedded in the everyday music consumption of individuals. These systems help consumers navigate the expanding cultural field in order to discover interesting and relevant music, whilst enabling content providers to market goods more intimately. Combining Bourdieu’s theoretical perspectives with Actor Network Theory’s insistence on the relational ontology of human and non-human actors, we draw on empirical evidence from the social science and computational literature on recommender systems to argue that music recommender systems should be understood as a new form of sociotechnical cultural intermediary. In doing so, we aim to define a broader agenda for better understanding the social role of the computational tools designed to manage big data.

Levelling the playing field? Tackling digital inequality of young people through a home Internet access scheme

Technological solutionist discourses that are shaping public policy suggest: digitised public services are cheaper and more efficient; the future of education is digital; and digital entrepreneurialism and silicon zones are a fast track to prosperity. Online social networks are said to enhance our wellbeing, increase our civic and political engagement, and improve our job prospects. Yet, digital inequality persists. This study has mobilised academics, three secondary schools, an ISP, and a city council to provide a selected group of thirty digitally excluded or disadvantaged young people with a free laptop, free access to the Internet at home, and support with developing their digital skills for two years. We used data collected during visits to family homes, workshops and tutorials in schools, and interviews with stakeholders to critically evaluate the scheme’s efficacy and outcomes. Where good intentions have met messy social reality the project has opened a portal into the complicated lives of these young people. There are successes; the scheme has changed the lives of some families. Simultaneously, however: the way the project is funded and managed; the way structural inequality produces competing priorities and exigencies for the schools and families involved; the young people’s shifting needs and investments in the project; norms and anxieties about youth and technology; and wider attitudes to poverty have all combined here to show the digital revolution is generating new exclusionary mechanisms that are amplifying rather than alleviating social inequality.

The politics and practices of anonymity in the darknet

The politics and practices of anonymity in the darknet Internet technologies have created the ability to interact with many others in an anonymous mode. Early libertarian conceptions saw the severing of offline and online identities as freeing humans from the weight of real world restraints and oppressions. Lately there has been a social and political turn towards considering anonymity as personally malign. We challenge that perspective using a study of how trust is built and interactions are maintained within the darknet, the set of relay systems and encryption protocols that disguise the origin, destination and/or the content of internet traffic. It is a setting where identity is necessarily obfuscated and those involved presume the possibilities for deceit to be high. We interviewed darknet users and analysed discussion forum threads for a major darknet market. Darknet users face challenges in in terms of how they maintained anonymity, and ensuring reliable market exchanges when users cannot be identified and traced. We distinguish practices of denial – maintaining technical personal untraceability – from those of deniability – maintaining social and legal anonymity. Rather than being a source of mistrust and deceit, for the most part these practices were central to maintaining a viable market. We use our case to challenge the representation of anonymity as inherently deceitful or harmful and to highlight the emerging politics of anonymity as an area where sociology can contribute.

Digital Health/Digital Capitalism One Day Conference CfP 4th July 2016

Digital health-digital capitalism logo - 2

Digital technologies have had a profound impact on the ways in which people live their lives, relate to one another and think about themselves and their capacities. This event will bring together scholars who are interested in the impacts of the digital on ideas and practices of health and the workings of capitalist economies and how the two come together.

The generation and management of vast amounts of health data has been enabled through digital means. In particular this has enabled fine grained analysis of particular types and groups of people in relation to a diversity of factors. Private and profit making enterprises have become increasingly involved with personal health data through partnerships with health services and the generation of new kinds of data through commercial devices apps and websites.

Digital capitalism has produced new approaches to work and profit generation. Human bodies are now intensively digitised due to the (self) tracking and monitoring conducted by commercial enterprises. New digital ways of working have freed some workers from the office while increasing the amount of time and attention they are expected to dedicate to work tasks and the length of time spent sedentary. The productivity and activity levels of some workers are closely monitored leading to increasing physical and psychological stress.

Questions addressed at this event will include but not be limited to:

  • How has the digital changed the ways in which bodies and health are understood, managed and experienced?
  • How does the management of health data by commercial enterprises (public-private partnerships and sharing and collaborative websites such as PatientsLikeMe) impact on health outcomes and peoples’ engagement with themselves, others and their health and bodies?
  • In what ways are digital technologies affecting work practices which themselves impact on wellbeing, physical and mental health?
  • How has the blurring of work and non-work life through an “always on” digital culture created new health problems and new potential strategies for managing health?
  • What can existing theories tell us about the changes brought about by digital health and digital capitalism? What theoretical innovations are needed?
  • Does the commercial monitoring of health and wellbeing (through areas as diverse as corporate wellness initiatives and telehealth) enable greater freedom and stimulation for healthier lives or intensify surveillance?
  • What potential is there in digital management of health and work for increasing or decreasing existing health inequalities or producing new ones? Will the digital divide transfer to these arenas or be minimised?

If you would like to talk at this one day event please send a title and abstract of no more than 250 words to Chris Till by Monday 15th February 2016. Registration will open 1st March.

The event will take place on Monday 4th July, 2016 at Leeds Beckett University.

This BSA Digital Sociology Group and BSA MedSoc Yorkshire event is supported by a grant from Leeds Beckett University.

Twitter research: what’s holding sociology back?

I often hear it said that Twitter offers researchers unprecedented opportunities because it provides qualitative data at a quantitative scale. Twitter provides, to download and analyse for free, data that used to be ethically challenging and expensive to obtain: yet sociology, with a few notable exceptions, has been very slow to exploit it. This is by no means is an exhaustive list, but it’s telling that it’s compiled by a leading social media scholar and, out of 267 articles, it includes 1 paper published in Sociology. Why does this matter? Aside from debates about sociology’s future in the digital age, Twitter research is poorer for the absence of sociological scholarship.

In Margret Archer’s words:

“Everything has a context and that context was developed before whatever problem the researcher is looking at developed. There is no such thing as decontextualized action or situation-less action. So, we’ve got to theorize somewhat about the structural context in which things happen and how it came to being.”

Yet, there’s far too much Twitter research that problematically cauterizes Twitter from its social structural contexts. It’s almost inconceivable that social concerns, such as misogyny on Twitter, can be adequately addressed without reference to structure; and consequently agency and culture. In short, Twitter is ripe for empirically informed sociological scholarship. The tools are available here (along with tutorials and a helpful community of experts); we just need to apply our sociological imagination to using them.

“Ethnographies & Health” An early-career workshop

1st–2nd October, 2015 LSHTM, London UK Keynote speaker: Dr. Tiago Moreira, Durham University Discussants: Prof. Judy Green & Dr. Simon Cohn, LSHTM

Workshop details:
‘Ethnographies & Health’ is organised by Sarah Milton, Emma Garnett, Joanna Reynolds and Judy Green, and will take place at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, 15-17 Tavistock Place, London WC1H 9SH on 1stand 2ndOctober, 2015.

We envisage a small workshop (20-25 presentations) and prior to the workshop we will organise a buddying feedback system, whereby delegates will be asked to read in advance the paper of another delegate. At the workshop itself, delegates will be asked to briefly comment on their buddy’s paper, before opening up the floor for further questions. The sharing of these short papers will help ensure that it is a productive and supportive experience for everyone involved.

The workshop is supported by a Workshop Support Grant from the Foundation for the Sociology of Health and Illness (

Abstract submission:
Please send abstracts (max. 400 words) to by June 31st, 2015. We will inform you by email notification if your abstract has been accepted by 31stJuly, 2015. If your abstract has been successful, we will ask you to submit a short written version of your paper in advance of the workshop (mid September), to be shared with another delegate as described above.

Attendance at the workshop will be limited to those whose abstracts have been accepted. Lunch and refreshments will be provided on both days, and there will be a networking and social event on the evening of the 1stOctober. There will be no attendance fee, and five small bursaries of £75 will be available as contributions towards travel and accommodation costs for delegates with limited funding for attending workshops. Please indicate when you submit your abstract if you wish to be considered for a bursary and why.

Buying Medicine from the Web: understanding the risks

by Lisa Sugiura (@lisa_sugiura)

Following the recent tragic death of Eloise Parry from ‘diet pills’ she purchased online, there has been a flurry of media attention highlighting the risks of buying medicine from the Web. However this is not a new issue. The dangers of purchasing medicines online have been reported over the past decade in: harrowing media cases; in governmental campaigns; and, to a lesser extent, in academic studies. The Guardian article Should I buy prescription drugs over the internet?’ Sunday 26 April 2015 reports that: the majority of prescription medicines available to purchase online are fake, substandard or unapproved; that one in four GPs have treated patients for adverse reactions to medicines bought online; and that it is illegal for UK based websites to sell prescription medicine unless they are registered pharmacies. We, as consumers, are told that the main things we need to be concerned with are: whether medicines are counterfeit; whether they are safe to consume; and whether or not they are being sold legally. Except it is not that simple. These ‘risks’ are presented in the rhetoric of online medicine purchasing but are not fully explained or disentangled from the confusion over what is legitimate or illegitimate when obtaining medicine from the Web.

In the first instance, ‘counterfeit medicine’ is an ambiguous term. Although debates over counterfeit medicines have been ongoing for almost the same length of time that medicine has been available to buy online, there is still no universal definition as to what they are (Attaran et al. 2012). The Guardian article refers to fake, substandard and unapproved medicines, and all have been associated with the counterfeit medicine trade. Often these terms are used interchangeably. However, they are distinct from each other and placing them all under the same umbrella implies that they share the same deficiencies. Fake medicines are: deliberately and fraudulently mislabelled with respect to identity and/or source; may include the wrong ingredients or inactive ingredients; or have imitation packaging. Substandard medicines are those that do not meet the legally required quality specifications of a country’s regulations (for example, here in the UK the sale and provision of medicine is controlled by the Medicine Act 1968, which is now encompassed within the Human Medicines Regulations 2012) due to the quality of the raw ingredients, or (unintentional?) errors in manufacturing or handling. Unapproved medicines mean that they have not been registered. They do not have the obligatory legal authorisation (of a country’s regulators) to be imported or sold in a particular country. Such medicines are often untested and so their safety and efficacy are unknown.

It is clear that when considering counterfeit medicines there are issues related to the deliberate intention to mislead, which are distinct from contrasting production methods in different countries, but, from a patient perspective, not all counterfeit medicines are dangerous to health. Whilst some are undeniably dangerous containing illicit substances or are ineffective, others provide legitimate treatment. The quality of medicines is also conflated with commercial and economic interests. Counterfeiting can occur with both branded and generic medicine products and this has financial implications for pharmaceutical companies. A brand name is a name given to a drug by the manufacturer. The use of the name is reserved exclusively for its owner. Alternatively a generic medicine is a pharmaceutical product, usually intended to be synonymous with a brand product, which is manufactured without a licence from a company and marketed after the expiry date of the patent or other exclusive rights. They are marketed under a non-proprietary or approved name rather than a proprietary or brand name. Generic medicines are frequently as effective as, but much cheaper than, brand name medicines. Because of their low price, generic medicines are often the only medicines that the poorest can access.

When considering whether medicines bought online are safe to consume, it should be noted that there no reliable statistics on side effects or harms resulting from medicines bought online. In 2007 it was reported that the FDA did not have accurate figures on “adverse events” resulting from online medicine purchases (Easton, 2007). A UK survey reported that one in four general practitioners said that they had treated patients for adverse reactions to medicines bought online, while a further 8% suspected they had treated side effects of web-bought medicines (Moberly, 2009). However, the survey did not ask whether the medicines that caused these reactions were purchased abroad or from unregistered outlets, or whether the reactions were the result of fake drugs, or a failure in the instructions provided or an interaction with another medication.

Nevertheless, there have been reported deaths occurring from the consumption of counterfeit medicines bought online (Kao et al., 2009; Dondorp et al., 2004; Hanif et al., 1995). In China, during 2001, it was reported in the Shenzhen Evening News that 200,000 people were alleged to have died from consuming fake medicines (Satchwell, 2004:44; Humble, 2005). Furthermore, the harrowing case of Eloise Parry is also not unique. In 2013, a young British woman named Sarah Houston died after taking slimming pills that she had purchased from the Web. In both cases it is significant that the product taken was not sold for human consumption in the US or UK. This opens up a whole other can of worms concerning substances that escape medicine regulation provided they are not marketed for human consumption. Often they are often sold under the guise of bath salts or plant food, though the design of their packaging and marketing may suggest otherwise.

UK based websites must be registered pharmacies to sell prescription medicine, if not they can be prosecuted. These online pharmacies operate in the same manner as offline establishments, where a valid prescription procured from a doctor is needed before the medicine can be dispensed. This issue is uncomplicated when dealing with websites trading from the UK; however UK citizens can access international online pharmacies, with different medicine regulations and standards. Medicine that ordinarily requires prescription in the UK might be obtainable over-the-counter elsewhere, and less regulation might mean a reduced quality of ingredients. With no global standards to govern the online sale of medicine, domestic laws can easily be circumnavigated. Policing and control of the movement of medicines across borders is problematic. The Web allows people to view websites outside of national and legislative jurisdiction and enables access to unregulated and unauthorised substances within the home country sent from abroad.

Before the Web there were limited options for people to purchase medicine. Nowadays people can choose to undertake the traditional practice of visiting a doctor or pharmacy or go online for their healthcare needs. Given the attention that this issue has and is currently receiving, more needs to be done to deconstruct the problem of being able to buy medicine from the Web. Specifically, for people to manage the risks associated with purchasing medicine online there needs to be a clearer distinction between buying medicines from legitimate online pharmacies as opposed to illegitimate online sources.


Attaran, A., Barry, D., Basheer, S., Bate, R., Benton, D., Chauvin, J.,& McKee, M. (2012). How to achieve international action on falsified and substandard medicines. BMJ345.

Dondorp, A. M., Newton, P. N., Mayxay, M., Van Damme, W., Smithuis, F. M., Yeung, S., Petit, A., Lynam, A. J., Johnson, A., Hien, T. T., McGready, R., Farrar, J. J., Looareesuwan, S., Day, N. P. J., Green, M. D. & White, N. J. (2004). “Fake antimalarials in Southeast Asia are a major impediment to malaria control: Multinational cross-sectional survey on the prevalence of fake antimalarials.” Tropical Medicine & International Health, 9(12), 1241–6.

Hanif, M., Mobarak, M., Ronan, A., Rahman, D., Donovan, J. et al. (1995). “Fatal renal failure caused by diethylene glycol in paracetamol exlixir: The Bangladesh epidemic.” British Medical Journal, 311, 88–91.

Human Medicine Regulations 2012

Humble, C. (2005). “Inside the fake Viagra factory.” Sunday Telegraph, 21 August. Available at: http:// Inside-the-fake-Viagra-factory.html.

Kao, S. L., Chan, C. L., Tan, B., Lim, C. T., Dalan, R., Gardner, D. & Lee, K. O. (2009). “An unusual outbreak of hypoglycemia.” New England Journal of Medicine, 360(7), 734-6.

Medicines Act 1968

Satchwell, G. (2004). A Sick Business: Counterfeit Medicines and Organised Crime. Stockholm Network.