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Talking to Bots: Symbiotic Agency and the Case of Tay

In 2016, Microsoft launched Tay, an experimental artificial intelligence chat bot. Learning from interactions with Twitter users, Tay was shut down after one day because of its obscene and inflammatory tweets. This article uses the case of Tay to re-examine theories of agency. How did users view the personality and actions of an artificial intelligence chat bot when interacting with Tay on Twitter? Using phenomenological research methods and pragmatic approaches to agency, we look at what people said about Tay to study how they imagine and interact with emerging technologies and to show the limitations of our current theories of agency for describing communication in these settings. We show how different qualities of agency, different expectations for technologies, and different capacities for affordance emerge in the interactions between people and artificial intelligence. We argue that a perspective of “symbiotic agency”— informed by the imagined affordances of emerging technology—is required to really understand the collapse of Tay.

Neff, Gina, and Peter Nagy. “Talking to Bots: Symbiotic Agency and the Case of Tay.” Edited by Samuel Woolley and Philip N. Howard. International Journal of Communication 10, no. Special Issue (2016): 20.

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Communication, Mediation, and the Expectations of Data: Data Valences Across Health and Wellness Communities

Communication technologies increasingly mediate data exchanges rather than human communication. We propose the term data valences to describe the differences in expectations that people have for data across different social settings. Building on two years of interviews, observations, and participation in the communities of technology designers, clinicians, advocates, and users for emerging mobile data in formal health care and consumer wellness, we observed the tensions among these groups in their varying expectations for data. This article identifies six data valences (self-evidence, actionability, connection, transparency, “truthiness,” and discovery) and demonstrates how they are mediated and how they are distinct across different social domains. Data valences give researchers a tool for examining the discourses around, practices with, and challenges for data as they are mediated across social settings.

Brittany Fiore-Gartland and Gina Neff, “Communication, Mediation, and the Expectations of Data: Data Valences Across Health and Wellness Communities,” International Journal of Communication 9 (2015), 1466–1484 DOI: 1932–8036/20150005.

Book Review: Venture Labor in IJOC

Thank you Melina Sherman and the International Journal of Communication for writing and publishing a review of Venture Labor.

Many books have been written about the decline of the manufacturing-industrial society and the massive social and economic shifts that characterize the late 20th and early 21st centuries (e.g., Castells et al., 2012; Cross, 2002; Stiglitz, 2010). However, few books on this topic have focused on the social norms, values, attitudes, and individual experiences that accompany system-wide changes (e.g., Fisher & Downey, 2006; Zaloom, 2006). This latter point is the center of Gina Neff’s Venture Labor: Work and the Burden of Risk in Innovative Industries, a multifaceted study of employee risk in New York City’s Silicon Alley during the last decades of the 20th century. Neff argues that the so-called “dot-com era” and the forms of “venture labor” employees underwent as a strategy of managing risks in their jobs is best understood as a response to social, economic, and technological changes rather than the cause of them.

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