Why I’m Going on the Academic Job Market

I believe my best contribution to a flourishing internet is through public-interest research and teaching in a university setting

As society discovers the power and risks from digital communications, how can democracies manage this power for the common good?

After years of working on this question, I believe my own best contribution to a flourishing internet is through public-interest research and teaching in a university setting. This year, I’m going on the academic job market in search of a department willing to welcome and support this long-term endeavor. In this post, I explain my reasons and outline the kind of departments I’m seeking.

I’ve written this post partly to explain to community partners and advocates why I’m spending so much time looking for an academic job, partly to help me find the right department, and partly as a record for other pragmatically-focused students thinking about your research careers.

Planning future research from my office in the Princeton Psychology department this spring

Advancing and Sustaining a Flourishing Digital Society

I strongly believe, after years of research and tech industry experience (CV), that we urgently need to handle a central dilemma about our digitally-connected society:

  • ongoing, sustainable progress toward a flourishing internet (and tech industry) will depend on actionable research about the social effects of tech products and the outcomes of our collective ideas for managing online behavior (I’ve written about this here and here)
  • unless we remake the tools of research for democracy, our best efforts will create and entrench authoritarian power (see here)

Getting digital governance right will take decades and will require comprehensive effort by social movements, professional groups, and research organizations–just as with food safety and environmental management. Having studied how democracies learned to manage other powerful industries, I think we need at least three things that won’t happen on their own:

  • an ecosystem that includes industry-independent research and accountability
  • research methods(design, ethics, statistics) that are reliable, widespread, routine, accountable, and directed by the public interest
  • skilled and principled researchers, managers, and advocates to take upcoming roles in civil society, government, and industry

In the coming years, I plan to support the ecosystem of independent research by growing the nonprofit I founded (CivilServant) and by innovating on the legal and financial building-blocks for other tech accountability research organizations. Even if we do build this ecosystem, it will be harmful or ineffective unless we create more accountable, ethical research methods and train people who can do research in the public interest. That’s why I’ve decided to pursue an academic career–to make long-term advancements on how we test digital products and policies, and to train students who can support evidence-based progress on the social outcomes of digital technologies.

Getting digital governance right will take decades and will require comprehensive effort by social movements, professional groups, and research organizations

CivilServant: Citizen Behavioral Science for a Flourishing Internet

In one year, CivilServant has developed from my dissertation project into a growing nonprofit. Thanks to the communities who work with us, our parent organization Global Voices, and the amazing team I hired this year, CivilServant has:

We have developed new studies on:

  • Protecting communities from algorithmically-directed harassment
  • Protecting communities from purposeful attempts at disruption
  • Managing playfully disruptive (but not harmful) behavior in large-scale discussions that have time-sensitive goals
  • Detecting alleged phone addiction potentially caused by automated A/B tests
  • Detecting and mitigating risks to freedom of expression from automated content moderation

We are also working to extend our community networks and research infrastructure to Wikipedia, Twitter, and mobile phones. In parallel, we’re developing trustworthy procedures for industry-independent research, including:

  • Transparent, accountable, and consent-driven research procedures
  • Conflict of interest policies for CivilServant and our collaborators to protect the credibility of our research

Along the way, CivilServant has received financial support from the AI Ethics Initiative, the Templeton World Charity Foundation, and the Mozilla Foundation, as well as event support from the Tow Center, the MacArthur foundation, and the Knight Foundation. Thanks!

As I grow, manage, and fundraise, I’m setting the groundwork for CivilServant to take one of two directions in the fall of 2019: (a) pursue a wider mission while continuing to inter-link with my academic work, or (b) merge with the research lab I start if I take an academic job.

Academic Goals for the Next Five Years

With the right department, I believe it’s possible to create a highly fruitful combination of research, teaching, and public interest work. As a junior professor, I can pursue a focused set of research questions while also broadening who conducts public-interest research about online behavior.

Over the next five years, I plan to carry out field research that develops and validates social theory by creating systems and testing practical attempts to create change in three areas where I am already doing research:

  • Behavior change in groups and networks (especially in relation to conflict, prejudice, and civic participation online)
  • Interdependencies of human and machine behavior (focusing on software that detects behavior and intervenes in public discourse)
  • Citizen behavioral science (remaking large-scale behavioral research to be publicly-accountable to democratic societies)

You can read more about my research agenda in my draft research statement. While my pragmatic focus makes me a bit different from scholars who are centrally committed to their discipline, the high stakes motivate me to go deep on these questions. We often mis-estimate the potential influence of research, but scatter-shot, overly-influential research can also be dangerous. That’s why I plan to do extended, ongoing work on these long-term questions. It’s also why I’m looking for departments that value well-crafted, systematic efforts to grow understanding over time.

Managing the social impacts of digital technologies will require ongoing work worldwide by many thousands of people with skills that we are still inventing. That’s why I’m also committed to teaching and outreach. As an educator, I enjoy supporting student growth and contributing to society through the students who I train. I also enjoy improving how I and others teach by developing open educational resources (learn more in drafts of my teaching statement and diversity statement).

Putting It Together

This year, I’m applying widely in search of a department where this vision for research, teaching, and public impact can flourish. I’m paying close attention to positions in information schools, communications, computer science, business schools, policy schools, and a few traditional departments in the social sciences. The job search will take a lot of time, so I’ll be slower than usual to respond to emails and may have to say no to some opportunities. Thanks for your patience!

Years before most universities admitted women, Ellen Swallow Richards (top left) trained hundreds of women as chemists in pioneering public safety research. This photo features some of MIT’s earliest women students.

When making big decisions, I often look to history for inspiration. Universities have often played a key role in society’s ability to manage and govern new technologies. At the best of times, universities have also broadened the public’s role in the issues that shape our lives.

For example, Ellen Swallow Richards built the MIT women’s lab in the 1870s and used it for pioneering sanitation research, prompting the first U.S. sewage treatment plants. She also trained hundreds of women chemists who weren’t allowed to attend university. In the 1940s, Hugh DeHaven developed early crash test experiments at Cornell, decades before auto safety regulation. In both cases, academics worked at the nexus of social movements, industry, and government, doing key scientific groundwork and training a generation of researchers to develop common protections we rely on every day.

I can’t promise that my work will be as beneficial or influential as Richards or DeHaven, but I can see the need for similar work in our era of digital communications. With the right academic department and partnership with those who work alongside CivilServant, I’m hopeful that we can make substantial progress toward an internet that is better for everyone, and one that works for democracy. Here goes!