Capturing life in a two minute window for social media – or for research

The increasingly popular social media platform BeReal gives users a two minute window in which to post each day:

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Founded in January 2020, BeReal is advertised as “an authentic, spontaneous, and candid social network.” It’s an app that sends all users a notification at a seemingly random time in the day and gives them two minutes to post a photo from their front- and back-facing cameras, capturing the scene around them right at that moment. Users can always post late—though the app will then tell on them—but they can’t see what their friends have posted until they do.

BeReal co-founder Alexis Barreyat’s professed goal in creating the app was to foster “genuine” interactions online, the company said in marketing materials, “in response to a feeling that current social apps are doing everything else but connecting us with our friends and family.” But the real conceit here is that most of the time, you’re probably doing something incredibly mundane like studying or running errands, so the app deglamorizes our lives as seen on Instagram.

Without getting into whether it is possible long-term to have a social media platform that operates this way, I had another thought when reading this description: this sounds like a research protocol. Researchers are examining a particular topic, they ask participants to download an app, and at a random time each day the participant is asked some questions. Indeed, I have read about a research project that did something very similar. And it led to good data and published work.

In general, I am in favor of methods that help us better get at what people do as part of normal life or when they are alone. It is one thing to ask people to report on these times or to observe people doing these things. It is another to stop them briefly in the moment to report what they are doing and/or experiencing.

Researchers would need a lot of participants to collect meaningful data. Or, perhaps they would check in randomly multiple times a day. Imagine an research aggregator app that would allow people to respond quickly to multiple projects daily. However this ends up working, I suspect pushing the research closer to what people are doing in the moment could only help us get at what happens moment to moment in life.

Forming social norms in the metaverse

Moderators are on the front lines in developing social norms for the metaverse:

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These norms reveal how moderation is complicated by trying to map the social conventions of the physical world onto virtual reality. If you covered yourself in purple body paint and showed up at an in-person medical conference, you’d probably be asked to leave. At a metaverse medical conference, the other attendees wouldn’t even bat an eye. This relaxing of certain social norms leads people to test the bounds of acceptable behavior, and moderators in some cases have to decide what crosses the line. For instance, new users will often pat strangers on the head, an interaction that would be strange and a little invasive in real life. Educators in VR tries to discourage people from doing this, though it seems to fall into a gray area of rude but not totally offensive. The same goes for pacing excessively around a room, walking through other users, or fidgeting too much with your controllers, which can cause your VR hands to distractingly bounce around. “People don’t get it at first because a lot of people come into VR from a gaming platform, so they don’t fully grasp the fact that behind every avatar is a person,” said Myer. During one of the events I moderated, VanFossen asked me to message an attendee to step back because he was a little too close to the speaker and invading her personal space. I needed the nudge: It’s hard to tell how close is too close in the metaverse. It’s not like you can feel the other person breathe.

To account for these gray areas, Educators in VR calibrates the strictness of the moderation based on the type of event. Parties are a bit more laissez-faire, while group meditation sessions have a zero tolerance policy where you might be removed simply for moving around the room too much. “I was very much against zero tolerance until I started witnessing what that meant,” said VanFossen of meditation events. “People are there for a reason, whether this is their daily thing, they have a crap stressful job, they need a break, or they have mental health issues.” Moderation levels also differ by platform—AltspaceVR tends to be stricter because it’s targeted at professionals, while VRChat is known for anarchy.

It remains to be seen how moderation will work at scale as the metaverse accelerates its expansion. At the moment, developers don’t seem to have a good answer. AltSpaceVR has been trying to put moderation tools into the hands of its users and also has staff on hand to help with particularly volatile situations. Meta has similarly relied on users themselves to block and report troublemakers in Horizon Worlds. Yet if tech companies succeed in their grand ambitions to get billions of people to inhabit the metaverse, maintaining it is going to take an immense amount of time and energy from a countless number of people who have to make tough, nuanced decisions minute by minute. As VanFossen said, “It’s the most disgusting, frustrating, stress-inducing, headache-inducing, mental health–depleting job on the planet.”

Social interactions and spaces require social norms. People appreciate knowing how to act and how they will be treated. Without them, chaos or anarchy or worse ensues

Enforcing social norms is an important matter. In many situations, the norms are communicated and enforced in less explicit or informal ways. People see what is happening and respond similarly or they have a general idea of how to behave. In other situations, the norms need to be explicitly addressed, perhaps through formal guidelines or enforcers who step in when needed.

What sounds unique about the situation discussed above is (1) the social space is relatively new, (2) unfamiliar to a lot of people, and (3) is still in flux because of #1 and #2 plus ongoing changes. The moderators are trying to step in and they are creating the norms as they go. If the metaverse becomes more popular, the norms will solidify as the space and the proper behavior becomes more known.

Is Twitter more like a town square or a city full of different neighborhoods?

Finding the right spatial metaphor for Twitter might help reveal what the social media platform does best:

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In Musk’s mind, “Twitter serves as the de facto public town square,” and as such, it should be a place where people are able to speak their minds. This metaphor seems slightly off, though. Yes, for people like Musk it’s a place to have debates they think are important for humanity; people with millions of followers are often the people who think what they’re saying is most important. But for the rest of Twitter—some 229 million daily users—it’s more like a metropolis. People have neighborhoods they stick to; sometimes they go out and talk with friends, sometimes they watch from their windows, sometimes they talk up strangers in a park. Most of these aren’t the kind of world-changing conversations Musk seems to want to have, but they’re just as vital.

As someone who studies cities and suburbs as well as social media, a few thoughts:

  1. The idea of a “town square” seems quaint in a mass society. At the scale of a society like the United States, is there really a single place where everyone can come together? This may have better fit an earlier era of mass media – such as the opening decades of television – or for particular events – the mass viewership of the Super Bowl – but generally does not apply when a country has over 300 million residents.
  2. A “town square” would seem to fit better in a smaller community or neighborhood. The capacity of a town square would be limited. What would the equivalent be in a big city: a plaza? A main thoroughfare or major park where people gather for rallies or protests?
  3. On social media, many users friend or interact with people they know offline. Twitter is a little different model since you follow people but a sustained follow can lead to understanding the other user more. The platforms are not generally set up to interact with random users nor do many users choose to do that.
  4. The goal of participating in durable social media communities is also what Facebook is pushing these days. Even as the early years of the Internet offered potential to connect with anyone in the world, many users found people with like interests and spent a lot of time there. If this is indeed more like city neighborhoods, what then connects the central plaza or town square to all the neighborhoods? How much flow or interaction is there back and forth?

Chicago is a global leader in data centers

The Chicago region is a world leader in data centers:

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The Chicago area is tied with Atlanta as the fourth-largest data center market in the world, behind Northern Virginia, Silicon Valley and Singapore, according to a new study by Cushman & Wakefield. The study cites low cost of land, a robust development pipeline and lower power costs than most large data centers as advantages for Chicago.

The study also notes that Chicago-area sites come with “sizable incentives,” a factor that helped bring Facebook/Meta to DeKalb.

In 2019, Illinois created the Data Center Investment Program, offering an exemption from state and local sales and use taxes for companies that invest at least $250 million and create 20 new operational jobs in a data center. The program also requires the data center to be carbon-neutral.

In other words, there is money to be made by putting data centers in the Chicago region.

But, what do data centers offer back to the community? They might sit in buildings that the public does not know are data centers. They may not offer that many jobs; the data center under discussion in DeKalb in the article cited above is a more than 2.3 million square foot facility on 505 acres that will employ 200 people. They are getting tax incentives.

Of course, this is the way the development game is played in the United States. If these deals are not cut, companies will claim they will go elsewhere and they can find more favorable conditions elsewhere. The new data center will end up in Iowa or a “business-friendly climate.” The tech companies are desired by many communities so they will get good offers.

More positively, part of Chicago’s strength over the decades is its position in key infrastructure. The center of important railroad routes. Busy airports. The convergence of commodities from the whole Midwest. The creation of financial instruments. And now data centers.

As technology changes, municipalities change their ways to capture tax revenue

More Americans are streaming television and movies. This means municipalities need to reconsider cable taxes. Here is one example from the Chicago suburbs:

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Village trustees Monday voted 4-2 to approve the 5% entertainment tax as part of its upcoming budget. The tax would take effect July 1.

Village officials budgeted $25,000 in revenue from the new tax, which would tack 77 cents onto a standard monthly Netflix subscription costing $15.49 or 15 cents to an Amazon video rental costing $2.99.

“This is a modern version of the original telecommunication tax,” Village Administrator Erika Storlie said, adding that the village has seen a decrease in taxes collected from cable subscribers as more people drop cable television in favor or streaming services…

Chicago adopted an entertainment tax charging 9% on streaming services in 2015. In March, a judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by Apple Inc. challenging the tax. Though Apple’s complaint was dismissed, the judge left the door open for Apple to file an amended complaint.

Evanston, where Storlie served as city manager before coming to East Dundee, has charged a 5% entertainment tax on streaming services since October 2020.

Several thoughts about this:

-This is a relatively small tax in this community: the story above suggest its will generate $25k in revenue. Even in a small suburb, the money this generates will only do so much?

-I could imagine the argument that infrastructure is required to provide streaming services and taxes like these would help communities cover these costs. (I could also imagine – very faintly – the logic of a vice tax to limit the hours upon hours that Americans spend in front of televisions and screens…but limiting television watching via taxation seems somehow un-American. )

-I do not recall seeing much about public discussions of such taxes within communities. Is the tax so small that it does not attract much attention? Do residents not have a compelling argument against a streaming tax?

-Entertainment taxes are sometimes used for visitors or more public activities such as tickets for sporting events or theater shows. A streaming tax is aimed more at residents than visitors.

Many municipalities need consistent tax revenue streams as they look to provide services and balance budgets. This is one way to help achieve that goal.

Another downside of the information age: dealing with endless spam

People today have access to so much information, including spam:

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The average American received roughly 42 spam texts just in the month of March, according to new data from RoboKiller, an app that blocks spam calls and texts…

There were more spam calls last month than in any of the previous six months, per YouMail’s Robocall Index

Spam emails rose by 30% from 2020 to 2021, according to a January report from the Washington Post…

There was an unprecedented increase in social media scams last year, according to data from the Federal Trade Commission. Many scams were related to bogus cryptocurrency investments.

As the article notes, it keeps going in part because the spammers are successful enough. Yet, it would be worth also seeing the bigger picture: how much time and mental effort is expended fighting off spam efforts? Even if the majority of people relatively quickly discard the emails and texts or even just glance quickly at them and then ignore them, what does this all add up to?

The glut of information we all face, some positive and some negative, requires time and mental space. Just to push it aside requires a choice. We may think it does not affect us – I have heard many people say the equivalent of “advertising does not affect me” – but it does.

Could we envision a future world where we only get the firehose of information that we truly want and discard all the rest? Imagine the echo chambers or media bubbles possible today plus the technical means or financial means to only get all that we want to handle? I am not sure how advertising or alternative viewpoints might fit into all of this but I would guess there would be at least a few people willing to pay a lot to achieve this state.

Another reason Americans need McMansions: to fit their giant TVs!

You need a large room to fit the biggest televisions:

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What’s the biggest TV you can buy? If we’re talking about conventional televisions, the TCL 98R754 is a staggering 98-inches wide. But if you’re willing to consider a laser or short-throw projector TV, Samsung’s The Premier is capable of showing a screen up to 130 inches. But unless you live in a cavernous McMansion with 18-foot cathedral ceilings and a sprawling layout, you won’t be able to get them to fit in your living room, let alone be able to take full advantage of their features.

How can I know if an 85-inch TV will fit in my room?

The best way to find out is to measure (in inches) from where the TV will be wall mounted or placed on a stand to where you will be sitting, and then divide that measurement by 2. If your couch is anywhere from 150 to 170 inches (12.5 to 14 feet) from the TV, an 85-inch screen will be an almost perfect fit. You can, of course, go a bit bigger (if possible) or smaller depending on what your budget is and what is available from each brand. But a screen that is too big can overwhelm your space and even cause motion sickness while one that is too small will make it feel cavernous and force everyone to crowd around in order to see.

Put together the hours of TV Americans watch each day on average plus their tastes for big houses and the cycle continues: people need a large house to fit their large TV which leads to needing a bigger TV which leads to a bigger house…

Presumably, there is some limit to how big a television can or should be. Perhaps this is about the ability to see what is happening on the entire screen. Perhaps rooms truly can only be so large. Perhaps screen technology will be replaced by an entertainment chip in glasses. Or, people might get tired of important rooms in their house being dominated by a gigantic screen.

On the other hand, perhaps this helps signal a shift away from homes leading with their garages – the so-called “snout houses” – and instead leading with a giant screen. Imagine walking in the front door and the major room is devoted to the biggest possible screen. The screen is something to show off and impress visitors with. Homes could even be designed so that the outside would make clear the giant screen and the room it sits in.

The coming of the “embodied internet”

Can you have both a physical body and operate in a virtual world? Perhaps so in the coming metaverse:]

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Billionaire Zuckerberg is betting his company’s future on the metaverse but is keen to make it a collaborative project, describing it as an “embodied internet”…

“We believe the metaverse may be the next generation of the internet — combining the physical and digital world in a persistent and immersive manner — and not purely a virtual reality world,” the report says.”

A device-agnostic metaverse accessible via PCs, game consoles, and smartphones could result in a very large ecosystem.”

Some might see the “real world” and “online world” as disconnected realms. I have argued for using “online” and “offline” spheres because I think they are quite connected in terms of social relationships and networks.

The metaverse has the potential to further link realms. The embodied aspect is interesting to consider; how much will the offline body move in sync with the online body? How much further will we move beyond guiding an avatar around an online platform with a mouse or keyboard? And what potential is there to truly meld online and offline experiences at the same time?

I wonder how much this embodiment can happen in the metaverse as compared to other technological options. For example, Google Glass and similar options offered the opportunity to overlay data on top of what a person was seeing and experiencing. Or, Pokemon Go put video game characters in an offline map and reality.

Social isolation and anomie during COVID-19

One possible explanation of the weird behavior of people during COVID-19 draws on the work of sociologist Emile Durkheim:

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The pandemic loosened ties between people: Kids stopped going to school; their parents stopped going to work; parishioners stopped going to church; people stopped gathering, in general. Sociologists think all of this isolation shifted the way we behave. “We’re more likely to break rules when our bonds to society are weakened,” Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist who studies social disorder, told me. “When we become untethered, we tend to prioritize our own private interests over those of others or the public.”

The turn-of-the-20th-century scholar Émile Durkheim called this state anomie, or a lack of social norms that leads to lawlessness. “We are moral beings to the extent that we are social beings,” Durkheim wrote. In the past two years, we have stopped being social, and in many cases we have stopped being moral, too.

“We’ve got, I think, a generalized sense that the rules simply don’t apply,” Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, told me. In some places, he says, police arrested fewer people during the pandemic, and “when enforcement goes down, people tend to relax their commitment to the rules.”

This perspective is interesting to consider alongside the millions who did follow national and local guidelines regarding masking and behavior. A lot of attention has been paid to those refusing to comply but many did; does the weirdness stand out even more because of this?

To take the Durkheim reference further, he thought the breaking of the rules and the subsequent reaction and sanctions could help reinforce the original rules.

I might add to the list of explanations in the article the influence of smartphones and social media. These could matter in multiple ways. First, the weird behavior can easily be recorded by others. People may have been weird in the past but was there such a visible record of that behavior? Second, the people with the weird behavior may be recording and sharing their own behavior. Overall, what may have been more private behavior in the past or actions limited to a relatively small set of people or closely connected set of people are no longer kept from a broader audience.

Religion, work, and Silicon Valley

A new sociology book looks at how a number of Silicon Valley leaders embraced religion as they also created a unique work culture:

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Author and sociologist Carolyn Chen calls this philosophy “techtopia,” where “people find their highest fulfillment in the utopian workplace.”…

Chen’s research subjects are almost all men, and most are white or Asian. Eighty percent had moved from places outside Silicon Valley, marooned there without the support structures of family, friends or community. Chen describes them as “far from home, alone, young, impressionable.” Work is their only outlet to fill in the “meaning” gap…

While Silicon Valley may be the epicenter of experimental self-improvement (just check out how many tech workers fast or microdose psychedelics to achieve greater clarity or productivity), the “work as religion” philosophy has spread across the country. According to Chen, almost every Fortune 500 company has some kind of religiosity baked into its corporate structure — from inspiring mission statements to charismatic leaders — and many companies have actively gone “spiritual” to drive up the bottom line.

For the past 40 years, the workplace has successfully unseated religious institutions as a primary meaning maker, right after family, according to a recent Pew survey. High-income employees work longer hours than ever and are less likely to consider themselves religious, writes Chen. People who don’t have any religion — “religious nones” — have tripled in the past quarter century. At the same time, corporations have changed their strategies, using new incentive structures like gain sharing and stock options to bring people into the corporate “family.”

Going back to the early days of sociology, is the Silicon Valley marriage of religion and work more like:

  1. Marx’s suggestion that religion is a tool used by the capitalists – who own the means and modes of production – to distract workers from the reality that they are being exploited.
  2. Weber’s idea that religious ideas could transform economic systems; is this less about religion being connected to work and more about religion fundamentally changing work?
  3. Durkheim’s argument that people will no longer need religion as humans embrace a brotherhood of people and progress.

There might be some merit to all of these. If humans are meaning-making creatures, they will continue to make meaning – and ultimate meaning – in the midst of their day-to-day realities. Yet, since we are right in the middle of this transformation, it is not certain that it will necessarily continue. Do American workers like the idea that work is the primary meaning-maker?