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National Endowment for the Humanities recognizes ASU team for humanities research

The Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics team conducted interviews with TikTok creators for social media algorithm research

A screenshot of a zoom panel with four feminine-presenting Black individuals.

Clockwise from top left: Amelia Som, Bobbi Miller, Dani Lalonders and Kenidra R. Woods during a Lincoln Center "Experiences on TikTok: Black Creators" panel that took in 2022.

August 22, 2023

In the first-ever round of grants awarded for the National Endowment for the Humanities' Dangers and Opportunities of Technology program, a project team at the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics was recognized for its humanities research on social media algorithms.

The award is part of more than $41.3 million in grant awards the National Endowment for the Humanities has announced to support 280 humanities projects across the U.S.

The project directors — Sarah Florini, associate director; Liz Grumbach, manager of digital humanities and research; and Erica O’Neil, research program manager — are collaborating with the Online Content Creators’ Association to conduct interviews with creators on TikTok.

“It’s hard to overstate how impressive and important this collaborative work is for our ongoing research at Lincoln, and for scholarship on the ethics of technology more broadly,” said Gaymon Bennett, director of the Lincoln Center.

The team’s interest in TikTok originated in early 2020, when Florini and Grumbach became intrigued by how the TikTok algorithm seemed especially effective at sorting users into/out of solidarity networks. Building on this curiosity, Florini and Grumbach initiated a series of collaborations with the Online Content Creators’ Association over the past two years, including a series of panels hosted by the Lincoln Center last year that focused on the experiences of marginalized content creators.

“Content creators, especially those from historically underrepresented communities, deeply feel the impacts of algorithmic rules and norms from content curation and opaquely defined moderation, as we’ve seen from users like Ziggi Tyler,” Grumbach said. “Especially on TikTok, but also other social media platforms, it’s often the creators that reveal the inner workings of the algorithmic black box, and they do so through experiential knowledge.”

Their collaborators from the Online Content Creators’ Association, who have been a part of the project since 2021, are a creator-led advocacy group with the goal of improving labor conditions for online content creators, and represent more than 700 TikTok users. T.X. Watson, longtime collaborator on the project and a creator of educational content on TikTok, will join the team as the primary researcher from the association.

Florini, Grumbach and O’Neil aim to combine users’ experiences and folk theories about the platform’s algorithm with academic research and analysis.

“Many creators are actively engaged in ad hoc research to understand and make sense of algorithmic content curation and moderation," said Florini, who is also an associate professor of film and media studies in the Department of English. "We not only want to record what content creators know, but how they come to know it. What are their strategies for investigating the platforms they use?”

“This project is important because it takes community-based understandings of algorithms as a starting point for co-creating a shared vocabulary across university-community partnerships,” Grumbach said. “We hope that it will serve as a model for future ethical and care-based collaborations with social media creators and users.”

The award from NEH will propel their ongoing project into 2024, with work beginning in earnest in October 2023. The Lincoln Center is one of only two groups at ASU recognized in this round of NEH award announcements.

“We believe that collaborative research that includes people with a variety of expertise, both inside and outside academia, is the most powerful way to understand the social media platforms that are increasingly shaping our society," Florini said. "We are grateful to the NEH for recognizing the potential of this research and supporting our work.”

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