Facebook’s greatest accomplishment may be a massive change in the scale of human interaction

Facebook certainly did at least one thing: it gave users connections to more individuals than humans have ever had before.

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The giants of the social web—Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram; Google and its subsidiary YouTube; and, to a lesser extent, Twitter—have achieved success by being dogmatically value-neutral in their pursuit of what I’ll call megascale. Somewhere along the way, Facebook decided that it needed not just a very large user base, but a tremendous one, unprecedented in size. That decision set Facebook on a path to escape velocity, to a tipping point where it can harm society just by existing…

The on-again, off-again Facebook executive Chris Cox once talked about the “magic number” for start-ups, and how after a company surpasses 150 employees, things go sideways. “I’ve talked to so many start-up CEOs that after they pass this number, weird stuff starts to happen,” he said at a conference in 2016. This idea comes from the anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who argued that 148 is the maximum number of stable social connections a person can maintain. If we were to apply that same logic to the stability of a social platform, what number would we find?

“I think the sweet spot is 20 to 20,000 people,” the writer and internet scholar Ethan Zuckerman, who has spent much of his adult life thinking about how to build a better web, told me. “It’s hard to have any degree of real connectivity after that.”

In other words, if the Dunbar number for running a company or maintaining a cohesive social life is 150 people; the magic number for a functional social platform is maybe 20,000 people. Facebook now has 2.7 billion monthly users.

For much of human history, social interaction included only a relatively small number of people. The interactions occurred in a small geographic space. Some exchange in terms of news, trade, and people happened but not on the fast, global scale of which we are accustomed to today.

Facebook and other social media companies allow users access to thousands, if not millions, of users. Even as users have some choice about these connections, the possibilities are unprecedented. If humans found it daunting in the nineteenth century to encounter growing big cities (and early sociologists looked to explain the massive social changes connected to urban society and interaction), how do we comprehend all of the possible interactions today?

Some research suggests that even if users could access all these connections, they do not necessarily do so. Do Facebook users or Twitter users or other social media users regularly interact with people they do not know or do they primarily stick to people they know and/or known sources? Actually stepping across boundaries may be easier in the social media realm but they are still boundaries.

Does this suggest that humans cannot interact with global communities? Or, is this interaction not possible on an individual level and instead needs to be mediated through institutions, such as mass media or governments or corporations? Facebook’s experiences may just be helping people think about how to broaden connections without overwhelming those involved.

Bringing McMansion critique to TikTok

McMansionHell was a web favorite when it launched. Now criticizing McMansions works on TikTok:

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TikTok user @cyberexboyfriend is every realtor’s worst nightmare.

On his account, which boasts 32,000 followers and counting, he hosts a popular series in which he tears apart random McMansions he finds on Zillow.

It all started on Nov. 3, when @cyberexboyfriend posted a video captioned “roasting homes on Zillow.”…

Easily the funniest and most viral video in the series to date is the one in which @cyberexboyfriend critiques a $675,000 four-bedroom home, also located in Mckinney, Texas.

It is easy to criticize McMansions. They can have cartoonish features, ranging from turrets to garish facades to oversized garages to odd proportions. Much effort is put into their facades with less attention paid to other sides of the home. The interior may have some questionable choices. In an era of hot takes, social media, and concerns about housing and inequality, a quick skewering of a McMansion draws attention.

On the other hand, these real estate listings are for real homes. Numerous American communities, often wealthier suburbs, have McMansions. And at least a few people are willing to buy them.

Does this approach to McMansions help more people avoid purchasing such homes, either because the social stigma is potentially higher or because they are alerted to the problems with McMansions? Or, does it reinforce existing views people have about McMansions?

I have suggested before that if people had to choose between modernist homes and McMansions, they might choose McMansions. Those who criticize McMansions publicly are not likely to live in or near such homes. If you are against McMansions, you might also have concerns about sprawling suburbs and instead prefer denser suburban communities and cool styles like midcentury modern, interesting ranch homes, or older more traditional styles.

This may ultimately come down to taste in single-family homes based on social class, access to resources, and experiences with different kinds of communities. While political polarization in the suburbs is real, polarization by home style could be present alongside it.

64% of Americans “say social media have a mostly negative effect on the way things are going in the country” – but does this mean individual users will leave?

Pew Research recently released a new report on how Americans view social media’s effects on the country and politics. Here is one of the takeaways from the report:

This chart moves beyond many of the other takeaways which suggest majorities of Americans are skeptical about the intertwining of social media companies and politics. The responses to this particular question suggests the effect of social media is beyond politics: it affects “the way things are going in the country today.”

Since the other questions are about politics and government regulation, it is a little hard to know exactly what this means. Is it bad for young people? Families? Communities? Education? Public spaces? Physical health? It takes up a lot of time? Social media is too powerful compared to other institutions that should be leading the way?

All of these could be very interesting to explore. But, it is also worth examining how this question about social media and the direction of the country is related to the social media use of individual users. Does this mean that more people are not participating in social media? Are accounts being deactivated or deleted? Are people curtailing their time on social media? Is there interest in and movement toward more conversation outside of social media?

One finding of research I have conducted with sociologist Peter Mundey is that young adult social media users can articulate some of the problems with social media. And they modify their social media behavior to try to avoid negative interactions.

But, this does not necessarily mean that they drop out of social media or do not join in the first place. These young adults could also explain the advantages of social media, particularly the ability to maintain connections with people. Some of the connections may not always require effort but they are available. Other connections, say with family and close friends, are worth engaging in through social media. Plus, if they are not on social media, they might be missing out on social connections and events that are hard to access in other ways.

This might lead to a bit of an impasse. Americans think social media and politics is not a good mix. Social media could be bad for the country. But, withdrawing completely from social media might be a lot to ask. In many ways, it could work for individuals, particularly through providing connections to people and information.

Perhaps individual users will continue try to find ways to do both: engage with social media on a limited or focused basis. Or, avoid politics on social media. Maximize the good portions, minimize the negatives. Participate at arm’s length.

Only time will tell. Social media has had a meteoric rise but it is not guaranteed to last. Social media platforms can evolve. New opportunities can arise and social conditions are dynamic. We need to continue to look at how users engage social media. And if we see a steady trend of users leaving social media platforms, that will be worth noting.

Time travel to the words that arrived with McMansion in 1990

According to Merriam-Webster, the word McMansion first appeared in 1990. What words came with it? From the Time Traveler in 1990:

This is an interesting list of terms that have now existed for thirty years. Like the McMansion, these refer to newer phenomena that either did not exist prior to 1990 or did not have a reason to be named.

But, just because terms were introduced does not necessarily mean that they were used at the same rate over time. Using Google NGram Viewer, here are some of the terms in comparison:

Take out the tech terms – World Wide Web and spam – and now some of the patterns regarding other social phenomena are more clear:

Since this covers books, there might be a lag compared to other sources. For example, my own analysis of the use of the term McMansion in the New York Times and Dallas Morning News found the term had higher rates of usage from roughly 2005 to 2008 (and then plateaus, just as it does with book usages several years later). But, it also takes some time for terms to be used widely. Indeed, three of the five terms above steadily rise in usage.

Given the time travel back to 1990, it might be hard for any new words to compete with computer or Internet related terms. The introduction and spread of the Internet shaped many aspects of society. At the same time, new understandings of sexuality and relationships are pretty influential as well. Perhaps thirty years is not enough to judge the impact of these words just yet.

Online real estate shift during COVID-19 reinforces the private nature of American homes

The ways in which COVID-19 has pushed more real estate activity online – virtual tours, making offers without physically seeing a home – doubles down on the private dimensions of residences in the United States. Here is my argument:

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Already, Americans tend to see their homes as castles, refuges from the outside world, spaces where they can do what they want, settings in which they tend to their immediate family and consume a lot of media, financial investments for their future. Add this to suburbs devoted to homeownership and driving and the home is truly a private place.

The downside is this: there is often limited community and civic engagement. Neighbors get along by pleasantly or passively leaving each other alone. Private spaces are very distinct from public spaces and public spaces where a true diversity of people might actually mix, whether a shopping mall or a library, are relatively rare. Trust in institutions is low and participation in community groups has declined.

Putting homes for sale on the Internet just further reduces the community or neighborhood element of a residence. If you look at enough real estate pictures, you see some patterns: lots of interior shots but limited images of how the residence interacts with surrounding spaces or what may be just down the street. For example, you may get a shot of a backyard but it is often facing the rear of the house, not out into the neighborhood. Or, you might get a pleasant image of the downtown of a community or a local park or a common room within an apartment building without much sense of how those spaces are used.

This is similar to how HGTV often shows homes. There may be sweeping shots of a neighborhood or location but the focus is always on the single housing unit. The interior and its features are the focus. The neighborhood or surroundings do not matter unless it has to do with proximity to work or family or to note the character of surrounding buildings (which is often connected to property values and the perceived niceness of the location).

There are some tools that could help potential homebuyers check out the neighborhood and community. A virtual house tour could be followed by a Google Street View drive through the nearby blocks. Instead of just relying on walkability and school scores on real estate websites, a potential buyer could go to local websites or message boards to try to get a sense of community life. Yet, any of these Internet attempts pale to talking to people in the community and experiencing the surrounding area. People should make some efforts to get to know their community before they consider moving there.

Seeing homes and residences as commodities that can be evaluated solely through the Internet downplays civic life or at least pushes it into the background. Divorcing a home from its surroundings can be done but it is impoverishing in the long run for property owners and communities. When we emerge from a COVID-19 pandemic, I hope the online aspect of real estate does not hamper efforts to rebuild community and social life when such work is sorely needed.

Anticipating reading a heavy, expensive, detailed book

Having recently heard of Recording the Beatles: The Studio Equipment and Techniques Used to Create Their Classic Albums, I am now looking forward to reading the book.

Several thoughts on the book that at this point I have only flipped through quickly:

  1. Even working in academia where I am used to tracking down books and sources, this is an unusual book in several ways. It is heavy. It is an odd size. And it is expensive: copies on Amazon go for $600+.
  2. While the book is unusual, it has an impressive level of detail. Much has been written about the Beatles and I have read a number of these books. But, how many people are interested in the recording techniques and extensive information on equipment and actions in the studio? This appears to be a great source for those interested.
  3. This is the sort of text that is difficult to reproduce digitally. Sure, it could all be hyperlinked and the graphics could be made interactive or could be videos. But, to have a comprehensive source like this to hold and flip over provides a particular kind of experience.
  4. At the same time, popular and scholarly writing on The Beatles regularly cites their studio techniques as part of their magic. Not only did they write great songs and play together well; they harnessed and challenged the existing technology available at the time to do big things. While the technology and options may seem quaint now, it was a factor in their success.
  5. One of the enduring questions about The Beatles and other successful artists is what exactly came together in their work. Technology played a role but I assume this book will also offer insights into the human interactions and efforts. As many have noted, The Beatles were more than just four group members: there was a team around them that both helped and challenged them. Technology may have enabled or constrained but the group dynamics matter.

With USPS Informed Delivery, I can see my bills and junk mail sooner

I recently signed up for Informed Delivery with the United States Postal Service. In theory, this is a cool service as you can preview your mail and packages earlier in the day. Each morning, I get an email with scanned images of my coming mail.

Yet, my experience with it is not that fun. I get to see the pieces of mail I do not like – bills and junk mail – ahead of them arriving in my mailbox. Thus far, I have not seen an exciting piece of mail ahead of time. I can look forward to the latest politician who wants to send me a glossy flyer

This is not the fault of the USPS. I need to get involved in streams of more exciting mail. But, it also hints at what the mail is used for now: personal letters and cards can go via email, packages largely go through deliveries to doors rather than mailboxes, and what is left is largely less interesting.

“Zoom towns” better have good Internet capabilities

“Zoom towns” are areas of the United States that are gaining residents due to people trying to move away from COVID-19 cases:

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Like a lot of other vacation destinations — the Hamptons, Cape Cod, Aspen and so on — the Truckee housing market is booming during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s up over 23% since last year, according to data from Redfin, a real estate brokerage. Truckee is part of a trend that realtors and journalists are calling “Zoom towns,” places that are booming as remote work takes off.

There are numerous ways that these new full-time residents might transform their new communities, particularly if they are people with more resources.

But one issue for these growing communities involves infrastructure: how prepared are they to host more Internet traffic? Since March, much activity has moved online: work, school, social gatherings, public meetings, etc. Are there some places better equipped to handle all of this increased streaming? Are “zoom towns” the kinds of places that have robust Internet capacity? This might not be a big problem in suburbs of major cities (such as New Yorkers headed out to New Jersey) or for people who move from major city to major city (from San Francisco to Austin) but it could be for others who head to smaller communities or vacation towns.

What the COVID-19 pandemic could do is help remind Americans of the need to improve networks that enable computer, smartphone, and tablet activity. We do not just need to maintain what already exists; this pandemic has highlighted what was already going to happen: an increased need for streaming and conducting activity online. Without good infrastructure development in this area, future opportunities may not exist. Or, particular locations or kinds of places can be harmed or left behind, leading to or growing digital divides. From rural communities to poorer communities in and around cities, residents need decent Internet speeds to live during COVID and flourish afterward.

The Twitter world versus the world of academic research

A recent conversation about Twitter and my own acknowledgement of my lack of Twitter participation pushed me to think about the differences between Twitter conversations and academic research. These rough thoughts may be obvious to many but I think they are helpful to enumerate as we think about good information and data.

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1. The speed of Twitter, and social media, is quite fast. An opinion expressed or a “story” (link/video/article/”text”) can generate a lot of feedback but the process usually happens over just a few days. In contrast, academic studies routinely take years as researchers develop good questions, collect and analysis data/evidence/”texts”, and respond to hypotheses, theories, and existing conversations while also thinking about the implications of their findings and then go through the publication process. Academic work can sometimes go quicker but that length also theoretically allows time for more reflection.

2. Posts on Twitter are limited to a certain number of characters through tweet threads or good conversation following a post can effectively convey a longer argument or set of information. Academic studies also have space restrictions – while there are indeed examples of very lengthy books or articles, journals tend to have proscribed word count or page limits depending on their audience and the format of papers – but there is more space to make and develop an argument.

3. Twitter offers more immediate feedback, possibly much more, compared to academic works. When students ask me how many people read academic studies, it is hard to know: we have citation counts (which suggest at least those citing the work read it or are familiar with it) and journal websites now often offer the ability to see how many times an article has been viewed. But, how to count students who read pieces for class or projects, researchers who access material through databases and repositories, and other means of accessing academic work? However, I would assume the viral posts of Twitter gain more readers in a shorter amount of time than almost all academic works.

4. Those with Twitter accounts can post or access tweets. Those who publish in the academic world are a small subset of the population generally with advanced degrees and specialized knowledge. Yet, the percent of the American population who engage regularly on Twitter is low.

5. Tweets are validated or not by likes, retweets, and comments made by other users. Academics have more formal processes to vet work including peer review and presentations at conferences, lectures, and colloquia plus responses from audience members. A published academic work likely has had multiple eyes on it; tweets do not require this.

On the whole, academic research involves a longer, more formal process to get to publication and information available to other academics and the public. In contrast, Twitter offers speed, quick feedback, and is easier for both readers and posters to access. Thus, when the two worlds collide – academic posting about research or Twitter users engaging with academic work – it can seem as if two worlds with different processes and rules are trying to engage. The overlap can go successfully but it does not always; the advantages each system has do not necessarily complement what the other side does well. And the two systems may influence each other: the world of Twitter may prompt academics to speed up research and/or communicate their work differently while academics participating in Twitter may engage in deeper and longer conversations since much study involves nuance and complexity.

I do not spend much time on Twitter. It can be used effectively to quickly gather or share information. And if you follow engaging Twitter users in a particular subject area or field, there is much to be learned. I am grateful there are academics who can effectively use Twitter to engage audiences regarding their research and knowledge. But, the speed of the conversation can gloss over the depth of the issues at the heart of conversations or leave little room for the important context and background knowledge of phenomena.

(An aside: attempts to find a middle ground between such universes are worth thinking about. TED Talks seem to offer some compromises: an expert on the subject gets roughly 10-20 minutes to share out of their vast expertise. The videos are easy to follow and digest and they tend to come from people with advanced experience or education. The visual format has some appeal as opposed to text-based communication on Twitter and in academic writing. Podcasts could offer some similar benefits: there is more space for the storyteller to share but the audio cannot go on too long.)

Internet shaming vs. shaming with silent disgust

Internet shaming is popular but is it effective? One writer suggests private shame is a better route:

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Internet-based outrage nearly always gives way, like most mob action, to what the sociologist Randall Collins calls “forward panic”—a mad dash in which individual shamers efface their own identity in the rush to attack a single individual. Last night, the object of this rush was a white woman who, in a short video clip, appeared to be threatening an innocent black bird-watcher while inadvertently strangling her own cocker spaniel. If the goal was to make her pay for her misdeeds with her reputation, her guardianship of the cocker spaniel, and perhaps her job, it was accomplished within the first 60,000 retweets; for her detractors, the subsequent 100,000 (and counting) have been pure gravy. But other tools are available—precision tools that save us from the indignity of the pile-on and allow us to spread the outrage more effectively.

Silent disgust: Have you tried it recently? The effect is potent. In his 2010 book, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah describes a two-step process by which historic moral changes swept over societies. The first is to decide that some practice (dueling, say, or foot-binding) is wrong. But that is not enough. Practices that are wrong can be honorable. Dueling, for example, was widely considered murder—but an honorable form of murder—until the real moral revolution happened and English gentlemen decided that it was wrong but also dishonorable, and the practice ended in the 18th century…

The nature of silent disgust is that you don’t hear about it. There are no viral videos of people not accepting invitations to a cookout. The lack of public shaming may seem like a disadvantage, but it is in fact an advantage—and more so now, in the era of trolling, than before. A troll is someone who gets a thrill from provoking a mob, and who prefers to provoke a mob by violating a rule that the mob holds dear. In fact, the dearer the better: that is the diseased psychology of much of public life now. Private shaming removes the transgressive joy that the troll seeks. All the confrontation happens in muttered comments, in invitations that never come, in expulsion from society without the courtesy of a notice.

And the troll, having failed, has a chance to repent, if the shaming is private. Eventually the offender notices the embarrassment of former friends—and because the disgust is silent, she can hold out hope for an equally silent restoration of social status. One day she shows up at the grocery store with a tasteful homemade mask. Or the neighbor who went to the Ozarks announces casually that he is quarantining for a couple of weeks, just to be on the safe side.

As a sociologist, the first thing that sticks out to me about the description of private shaming above is that it relies on social interactions between people who know each other or within specific communities. Internet shaming allows people far and wide to weigh in. Private shaming takes place within existing social bonds. People today may have fewer social bonds or communities but they still have some and are not just people floating around social media or the Internet without anchors to other people.

A second sociological feature of above: there is an opportunity to repent or restore those social bonds. The surrounding people or community register the disgust and then the actor has an opportunity to respond. They may still disagree with the shame they received but since it is done within existing bonds, it may be harder to completely sever the relationship.

Two other quick thoughts:

1. Shame these days is complicated. In some instances, we would not want to provoke shame, such as within children. In other instances, promoting shame is seen by many as good to prompt change.

2. If you want to read more about the earlier days of Internet and social media shaming, I recommend Jon Ronson’s 2015 book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.