Helen Kennedy joins world leading digital experts at Facebook HQ for social research 'un-conference'

Image of 'Hack' sign at Facebook HQProfessor Helen Kennedy was recently one of a small number of digital experts from around the world to be hand-picked to attend an exclusive social research event at Facebook’s headquarters in California, USA.

Helen, Professor of Digital Society, was invited to attend the Social Science FOO (Friends of O’Reilly) Camp at Facebook’s headquarters in Palo Alto, organised by Facebook, O’Reilly Media and Sage publications. The event saw around 200 of the world’s leading thinkers from social science, social media and technology companies come together to discuss the future of social research in the age of big data over three days.

Unlike most conferences, the three-day event, also referred to as an ‘un-conference’, did not have a pre-set agenda. Instead, attendees developed the programme throughout the event. Helen and Swedish colleague Christian Christiansen hosted a session on how digital companies, such as Facebook, can take better account of what their users think about what such companies do with user data. (Read Helen's recent blogpost, following on from the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, about what users think about what companies do with their data) here.

Helen commented: “Throughout the event, a lot of people asked what Facebook wanted to get out of the event. My assessment is that Facebook is being blamed for everything that is going wrong in the world at the moment – fake news, Russian infiltration of US and UK politics, and so on. It’s a social problem; it’s not a technical problem that technologists or scientists can fix.

“Facebook were invested in finding out more about what social scientists know, and what they’re thinking about and researching. I think Facebook’s have lost trust, their standing in society is not strong and they want to build this back up again.”

Alongside a small selection of global social scientists, the event was attended by leading digital figures including Facebook’s Head of Research and Chief AI (Artificial Intelligence) Scientist, along with guests from Amazon and Google.

Sessions held covered fake news, data ethics and Facebook’s civic engagement work. Facebook’s accessibility team also hosted a session on how they are working to make Facebook more accessible to users with disabilities.

Helen said: “There is a simplistic notion that social media companies are evil, all about profit and money making. Media organisations are actually more complicated than that, made up of individuals who have morals and ethics of their own, and that’s something I’ve written about in the past, for example in my book Net Work: Ethics and Values in Web Design. It’s part of a broader debate about media and cultural industries that takes them seriously and tries to understand them as complex organisations.

“Social media can be problematic forces in the world, but they’re not just that. It’s too naïve and simplistic to see it that way. Visiting Facebook HQ and finding out about the diversity of what they do was useful in that way.”