10th Anniversary of OII’s DPhil in Information, Communication & the Social Sciences

It was a real honour today to speak with some of the alumni (a new word for Oxford) of the Oxford Internet Institute’s DPhil programme. A number came together to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the DPhil. It began four seemingly long years after I became the OII’s founding director in 2002. So while I have retired from Oxford, it was wonderful to return virtually to congratulate these graduates on their degrees.

The programme, like the OII itself, was hatched through four years of discussions around how the Institute (which is a department at Oxford University) should move into teaching. Immediately after my arrival we began organizing the OII’s Summer Doctoral Programme (SDP), which was an instant success and continues to draw top doctoral students from across the world who want to hone their thesis through an intensive summer programme with other doctoral students focused on Internet studies. The positive experience we had with this programme led us to move quickly to set up the DPhil – and four years is relatively quick in Oxford time.

As I told our alumni, the quality of our doctoral students has been largely responsible for the esteem the OII was able to gain across the university and colleges of Oxford. That and the international visibility of the OII enabled the department to later develop our Masters programme, and continue to attract excellent faculty and students from around the world. th-1

I am certain the OII DPhil programme has and will continue to progress since I left Oxford in 2014, such as in adding such strong faculty as Phil Howard and Gina Neff. However, I believe its early success was supported by four key principles that were part of our founding mission:

First, it was anchored in the social sciences. The OII is a department within the Division of Social Sciences at Oxford, which includes the Law Faculty. In 2002, but even since, this made us relatively unique given that so many universities, particular in the USA, viewed study of the Internet as an aspect of computer sciences and engineering. It is increasingly clear that Internet issues are multidisciplinary, and need a strong social science component that the social sciences should be well equipped to contribute. Many social sciences faculty are moving into Internet studies, which has become a burgeoning field, but the OII planted Internet studies squarely in the social sciences.

Secondly, our DPhil emphasized methods from the beginning. We needed to focus on methods to be respected across the social sciences in Oxford. But also we knew that the OII could actually move the social sciences forward in such areas as online research, later digital social science, and big data analytics as applied to the study of society. The OII did indeed help move the methods in the social sciences at Oxford into the digital age, such as through its work on e-Science and digital social research.

Thirdly, while it is somewhat of a cliché that research and teaching can complement each other, this was always the vision for the OII DPhil programme. And it happened in ways more valuable than we anticipated.

Finally, because Oxford was a green field in the areas of media, information and communication studies, with no legacy departments vying to own Internet studies, we could innovate around Internet studies from a multi-disciplinary perspective. And we found that many of the best students applying to the OII were multidisciplinary in their training even before they arrived, and understood the value of multidisciplinary, problem-focused research and teaching.

As you can see, I found the discussion today to be very stimulating. My 12 years at Oxford remains one of the highlights of my career, but it is so much enhanced by seeing our alumni continue to be engaged with the institute. So many thanks to Dame Stephanie Shirley for endowing the OII, and the many scholars across Oxford University and its Colleges, such as Andrew Graham and Colin Lucas, for their confidence and vision in establishing the OII and making the DPhil programme possible.

Remember, the OII was founded in 2001, shortly after the dotcom bubble burst and at a university that is inherently skeptical of new fields. Today the Internet faces a new wave of criticisms ranging from online bullying to global cyber security, including heightened threats to freedom of expression and privacy online. With politicians worldwide ratcheting up attacks on whistleblowers and social media, claiming undue political influence, threats to the Internet are escalating. This new wave of panic around the Internet and social media will make the OII and other departments focused on Internet studies even more critical in the coming years.



The 2016 US Presidential Election and the Institution of the Presidency

One of the classic works on the governance of England is Walter Bagehot’s (1867) The English Constitution. He observed that through the evolution of its unwritten Constitution entailed two critical but separate components, the ‘dignified’ and the ‘efficient’. The former exercised symbolic power and was represented by the monarch, who did not have effective power but could capture the imagination and support of the public. The efficient component was represented by Parliament and the Prime Minister, who had the power to effect change. The modern Prime Minister of Britain in the 21st century retains this role in getting the work of government done, but has also become more ‘presidential’ in the American sense, but embodying more of the symbolic roles of the state. Nevertheless, despite contention, a far more educated public, and access to information about anything everywhere, Queen Elizabeth remains the major symbolic head of state, helping to maintain the legitimacy of the government. th-3

In the US, the founders had combined these dignified and effective components in the Office of the President. The US President represents the state in formal international ceremonies, such as in laying wreaths with the Queen or her representative, as well as being the chief executive and Commander of Chief on the nation’s military.

For decades, the preservation of the dignified role of the President as head of state has been a matter of debate. Television news was said to reveal so much about the President that it was impossible to maintain any myths about a President’s leadership (Meyrowitz 1985). Every foible, stumble, illness of a President is in the news for all to know. This transparency has a very positive role, such as undermining the potential for a president to become too powerful if shielded from the public accountability. However, it may also undermine the ability of the government to maintain the support and trust in the government that was delivered by the symbolic Chief of State.

It is obvious where I am going with this rendition of Bagehot’s perspective on the components of governance. Whomever you support for President, there must be some concern over whether the institution of the Presidency will be reduced dramatically by the revelations of the 2016 primaries and presidential campaigns. Will we, or have we, lost the dignified role of the Presidency? Maybe this is good and appropriate in a modern democratic state, but these trends are likely to generate far more discussion in the wake of the 2016 elections, whomever is elected. In whom will we entrust the dignified role of the Presidency? Perhaps this dignified role has been antiquated by modern forms of democratic governance, but the lack of trust in government, and the candidates for office, are likely to keep this debate alive.



Bagehot, W. (1867), The English Constitution.

Meyrowitz, J. (1985), No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. Oxford University Press.

Just Pick Up the Phone

Can You Pick Up the Phone?

I’ve written about the lost art of writing with a pen. Now I feel like there is a need to explain in plain English that when you are having difficulties communicating via email or other electronic messaging systems that you can use the telephone, what you may know as your mobile.

Seriously, people never use their landline phones. And people increasingly do not use their mobile phone as a phone. Years ago, I had a speaker from Seattle, Washington, giving a talk in Oxford, and she told everyone to leave their phones on. Her argument was that no one would actually call during her talk, because people are using their phones for texting and for accessing the Internet and social media – not for talking to other people. And no one called.

This is a telephone
This is a telephone

This trend raises its head in a number of ways. For example, I keep receiving emails from colleagues, particularly administrators, who raise issues I want to discuss with them. Well, as you might guess, they do not list their phone numbers on their email, not to mention their office location. They cannot imagine that someone would want to call them, or visit their office to speak face-to-face, or they do not want to encourage such behavior. I managed to get the phone number of an administrator that practices this art of hiding from the phone and found that he not only fails to answer his phone, but also has no message on his answering service – so I do not even know if I have called the right person or phone.

Email is great. Don’t misunderstand me. I started emailing in 1974, and then we had to call a person to tell them we just sent them an email. I guess now we have to email someone to say we plan to call them. But when email fails, such as in trying to choose a restaurant or organize a meeting, think about actually talking to your colleague. It is easier and will save multiple emails.

So here is my advice, whether or not it has been solicited:

First, put your phone details on your email and blog or Web site. Be accessible.

Second, leave a message for those who call you when you are unavailable.

Third, when communication is not working, just pick up the phone.

In conclusion, it is important to remember that no media is always superior. You need to choose the right medium for the occasion. That will need to be the topic for another blog.

A Virtual Professor: Putting Herself in the Hands of Others

The Department of Media and Information at Michigan State University had one of its (now) annual retreats on a beautiful Friday in the clubhouse of a local golf course. One of our faculty members, Professor Carrie Heeter, was in San Francisco, but she worked with colleagues to create a means for her to participate virtually. Her explanation of the approach and how she experienced the day might be very useful for others experimenting with blending virtual participation into real meetings.

They used Zoom, a video service like Skype or Google Hangouts, to connect Carrie in San Francisco to an iPad mounted on a portable stand, and to a laptop, both present in the retreat room. Essentially, the laptop on the stand became Carrie’s virtual presence in the room.

As Carrie wrote, when the retreat moved into about 6 breakout groups, someone in Carrie’s group ‘agreed to “take care of” Carrie’.  As Carrie put it: ‘When Jeremy [Bond] took care of me, he actively turned the iPad to face whoever was speaking. It was amazing. It felt like I was right there at the table, but also weird to not be turning my physical head, while I was virtually looking all around. I also felt bad that he was working so hard thinking about what I was seeing.’

They planned to use a Mini-jam box speaker/microphone to enable Carrie to be heard by the larger group, but it did not work on the day. So it was hard to hear Carrie speaking when we were assembled as the whole group. However, she could hear others very well, even in the big group. Carrie notes: ‘we used the Zoom chat and I would type, then my caretaker would speak for me. A few times I wrote on a piece of paper and held it up to the camera. When I went to lunch I used the share screen function of Zoom to show a word document with big letters saying GONE TO LUNCH BE BACK SOON. I also occasionally Texted room participants. … I used the spotlight function of Zoom to control which of the three window’s was the main one on the iPad.’

Professor Robby Ratan took the table and stand to the flip chart in discussing the notes from his breakout group. Carrie noted: ‘When Robby took notes for our breakout session; he went to Share My Screen mode, which meant I couldn’t use my computer. But I could see really well.’

Carrie joined the retreat at 6am California time, and was “at the retreat” for 7 hours.

The departmental secretary, Heather Brown, carried the portable stand and tablet downstairs and outdoors for a photo of the retreat participants. I’ll post the photo here. As Carrie describes it: ‘When Heather carried me down the stairs and out onto the lawn, there was a visceral feeling of being carried.’ You can see Professor Heeter on the tablet in the front row of the photo, but in another use of virtualization, Carrie had to Photoshop her picture onto the tablet’s screen. Nevertheless, the WiFi was quite good at the retreat center, and even out onto the grass, letting Carrie virtually participate in the photo session, even if invisible [due to the bright sun] in the photo without the touchup on Photoshop.

Photo of Retreat Participants and the Virtual Professor
Photo of Retreat Participants and the Virtual Professor

Carrie’s evaluation of the experience is also useful. She argued: ‘That it “worked” is due in part to the good will, tolerance, and helpfulness of physically present folks, and to the resolve of all of us to make it work. The iPad on the stand was much better than being on someone’s laptop. It was more like having my own place at the table and in the room.

Connecting through both the laptop and the iPad provided continuity (when the iPad turned off or needed to be recharged) as well as providing a second window on the meeting.’

Carrie concludes with a fascinating observation: ‘I was very much in people’s hands — they would raise and lower me to choose the height.’

Professor Carrie Heeter
Professor Carrie Heeter

A Plea to Moderators of the US Presidential Debates

A Plea to Moderators of the US Presidential Debates and their Media Organizations

Lessons can be learned from this year’s primary debates and applied to enhance the value of the forthcoming US Presidential Debates, beginning on September 26th, 2016. The major lessons include the following:

  1. Moderators should aim to generate a debate between the candidates, and not move towards a series of interviews with the individual candidates. This was a problem with the primary ‘debates’. Ask questions that both candidates can respond to and debate.
  1. Put the candidates in the center of the discussion. It has been said that the moderator should not be the news coming out of the debate. The best moderator will be the one who can pose questions that will engage the candidates in an exchange among themselves and not a back and forth with the moderator.

    Kennedy and Nixon in Debate
  1. Voters depend on the debates for information about the candidates and their views on the issues. The issues are those of domestic and foreign policy, not what she said or he said about the other. By focusing on the issues, the moderators have an opportunity to make the debates more valuable to voters, and that will be the test of the quality of these debates, not how entertaining, smart, informed or combative the moderator might be. The moderators are not running for office.

CNN argued that moderation of NBC’s “Commander in Chief Forum” with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump “exposed the many weaknesses of the moderator-driven format.” Actually, all of the primary debates, including those produced by CNN, proved this point quite dramatically. So, please set up a debate between the candidates rather than moderator-driven interviews.

The public can monitor whether the media organizations and their moderators follow this advice by critically viewing the debates on September 26, October 4 (Vice Presidential Candidates), October 9, and October 19.

Trigger Warnings, Safe Spaces, and Reporting Your Research

On the anniversary of 9/11, and in light of the many recent stories about completion of the 9/11 memorial for Flight 93, I was reminded about my experience in reporting research on this tragedy, when I should have probably given a warning so that members of the audience might have avoided my talk.


Of course, it is well known that Flight 93 crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, killing all onboard, and inspired much writing and even movies about the heroic efforts of those onboard to stop the hijacking. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I was struck by the reported use of wireless communications, cell phones and in-flight phones, in this disaster, as well as at all the crash sites, such as calling their families to say “goodbye”. So much was reported that I worked with a student to collect as much publicly available information as possible about the use of wireless phones at all the crash sites during the 9/11 tragedy. Our paper was published* and is available online on SSRN.

I spoke about my study at a few conferences and events in the year following 9/11, and for the first and last time in my career, I experienced individuals leaving during my talk in tears. I hadn’t appreciated the degree that discussion of the events on 9/11 would be so upsetting to individuals who had lost friends or family or had personally experienced events on that day. Perhaps academics can distance themselves from events through their studies. Study of the events was one way I felt I could respond, as an academic.

But I am reminded of those upset by my talks in the aftermath of 9/11, well before the concept of a trigger warning or safe space was a public issue. Perhaps this is a different issue, and in every case, the circumstances are often very different, but if I were to do a talk today, in an analogous situation, I would probably make an effort to warn students, who might not want to listen. I don’t think that would be coddling, but an opportunity to avoid exposing any individual to unwanted reminders of something that could be traumatizing.

*Dutton, William. H. and Nainoa, Frank (2002), ‘Say Goodbye … Let’s Roll: The Social Dynamics of Wireless Networks on September 11th’, Prometheus, 20(3): 237-45.