Love and mass transit in 2021

Combine online dating and a love for mass transit and what do you get?

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As a single person wandering through the world, it can be difficult to find someone who loves all the right things: parks, subways, bike lanes, human-scale buildings, high-density housing, debates over the ideal length of a city block. Even on a dating app, you can’t always tell from a profile who might be thinking, behind their smile, I hate cars.

But if this is exactly the sort of partner—or friend or fling—you’re looking for, there is a solution: Join the wildly popular Facebook meme group and leftist community NUMTOTs (“New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens,” which isn’t really just for teens) and request access to its private spin-off group, NUMTinder. With about 8,000 members living mostly in North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia, NUMTinder is a makeshift dating environment for those who consider liking public transportation to be a core part of their personality, or those for whom a lack of interest in urban planning is a deal breaker. Almost everyone in the group posts at least one selfie with a bike or a subway entrance, to demonstrate their commitment to the lifestyle, and when a new member introduces herself, it’s not uncommon for her to brag about the fact that she doesn’t have a driver’s license. (A second spin-off group, called NUMThots, is for sharing the spiciest seminudes that Facebook’s content moderation will allow. But transit-themed!)

The primary advantage to online dating is that it expands a person’s options beyond geography and their immediate social network to a much broader pool of people who can be filtered by particular traits. In this case, limit the pool to people who care about mass transit and those with that interest can search for partners.

While this may seem strange to the general public, is it really any different than numerous other likes people care about? Just as a comparison, plenty of people like cars or specific cars. At races, car events, clubs, and more, people with these interests could come together. Or, take people who regularly watch trains. Through different communities, these people could meet up and interact. The primary difference is that more Americans might like cars than mass transit.

A final thought: I imagine this group might be more useful in and around cities with a lot of mass transit. Of course, it could also be helpful in other places where few people even think about mass transit because it is not as present.

Does social media make your life better?

It is a simple question. It may not have an easy answer.

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As I teach undergraduate students ages 18-22, the topic of social media comes up. It may be during a class break when many go to their smartphones. It may be during conversations about social interaction or the media or technology. It may be in discussing my research in this area. According to psychologist Jean Twenge, these students would be right in the iGeneration that grew up with iPhones and smartphones. They are often immersed in social media.

In two research studies (one from 2015 looking at 18-23 year olds and one from 2020 looking at 23-28 year olds), Peter Mundey and I examined how emerging adults interacted with social media. The vast majority participated. But, they also expressed reservations ranging from privacy issues to negative interactions to new demands on their. On one hand, they enjoyed maintaining connections to people and described participation as necessary to keeping up with people. On the other hand, it would be hard to not participate at all as it is connected to multiple life domains.

My sense from this data is there is not a total endorsement of social media from emerging adults. Their responses are differentt from singing the praises of the positive benefits of social media. And when I ask my students the question in the title – “does social media make your life better?” – it can provoke some thinking.

Perhaps this is a good question for many people to ask. It could be a more domain-specific question: is social media good for our national political life? Does social media encourage spiritual growth? Does social media promote learning? Or, it might be better as a larger question: does social media improve the lives of its users? This is at least a question worth pondering and then acting in response to the answer.

Searching for well-presented weather forecasts; example of Weather Underground

Finding good and well-presented weather forecasts can be difficult. What provider supplies accurate information? Use a widget, app, or website? And who puts it together best on the screen? I have settled on Weather Underground because they present data in this format when you look at the ten day forecast:

This is a lot of information in one graphic. Here is what I think it does well:

  1. The top still provides the basic information many people might seek: conditions and high and low temperatures. A quick scan of the top quickly reveals all of this information.
  2. The amount of information available each day is helpfully shown in four sets of graphs below the header information. I do not just get a high and low temperature; I can see this over an hourly chart (no need to click on hourly information). I do not just get a notice about precipitation; I can see when rain or snow will fall. I do not just get a summary of wind speed; I can see if that wind speed is consistent, when it is rising or falling, and the direction.
  3. Connected to #2, it is easy to see patterns across days. Will that rain continue into the next day? Is the temperature spike or drop going to last? The longitudinal predictions are easy to see and I can see more details than just the summary info at the top.
  4. Also connected to #2, I can see how these four different paths of data line up with each other at the same days and times.

In sum, I think Weather Underground does a great job of showing a lot of information in an easy-to-decipher format. This may be too much information for many people, especially if you want quick information for now or the next few hours. But, if you want to think about the next few days and upcoming patterns, this one graphic offers a lot.

Bambi, technology, and avoiding death

An excerpt from Sherry Turkle’s new book recalls a conversation about how technology could help us move beyond death and attachment to people:

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What was wrong with Bambi? Every kid sees Bambi. Marvin’s response has stayed with me for half a lifetime: “Bambi indoctrinates children to think that death matters. Someday we will conquer death by merging with computers. Such attachments—Bambi’s attachment to his mother, for example—will be unimportant. People need to learn to give that stuff up.” I knew Marvin to be a loving father and husband. But in his mind, attachment would only be an impediment to progress in a world where people and machines evolved together.

Marvin Minsky died in 2016. But I’m still fighting his idea, now more than ever part of the cultural mainstream, that it is good to have devices that can wean us from our dependency on one another. For Marvin, the burdens that come with human bonds were unnecessary and inefficient because an engineering solution was on the horizon—we are ultimately going to mate with machines or evolve into machines or become one with machines.

These ideas are seductive. Of course we want technology to bring us sharper wits and a cure for Parkinson’s. We like the idea that some kind of artificial intelligence can help monitor the safety of isolated elders. And then we are caught short. There is a red line—one I have seen so many people cross. It’s the line when you don’t want children to get attached to their mortal mothers because they should be ready to bond with their eternal robot minders. It’s the line where you take your child as your experimental subject and ignore her, registering her tears as data. It’s the line you cross when one of your classmates commits suicide by jumping out a window and you joke about the laws of physics that were at work in his descent. It’s the line you cross when you know that the car you manufacture has a design flaw and a certain kind of impact will kill its passengers. You’ll have to pay damages for their lives. What is the cost of their lives in relation to that of redesigning the car? This is the kind of thinking that treats people as things. Knowing how to criticize it is becoming more pressing as social media and artificial intelligence insert themselves into every aspect of our lives, because as they do, we are turned into commodities, data that is bought and sold on the marketplace.

At the very moment we are called to connect to the earth and be stewards of our planet, we are intensifying our connection to objects that really don’t care if humanity dies. The urgent move, I think, is in the opposite direction.

The idea of progress through technology is fairly ingrained in the American consciousness. But, is this the sort of progress people want? Death – and social interaction – comes to all people and leaning it these features in life might just lead to better lives.

At the end of this section, Turkle appeals to the environmental movement to help people back toward conversations about social interactions, empathy, and death. It would be interesting to see who from different arenas would be interested in joining a movement back toward empathy and human understanding. Numerous religious traditions? Humanities scholars? Proponents of democracy? People who own small businesses? There is a chance here to make common cause across groups that may be further apart on other polarizing issues.

Sherry Turkle on the loneliness of our current era

Sherry Turkle has studied human-technology interactions for decades. As she releases a new book about her own life, Turkle summed up our current situation:

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That’s where I think [Victor] Turner [the cultural anthropologist who talks about “liminal spaces”] is so helpful. In the betwixt and between moments—these liminal moments—when the old rules don’t count anymore, and the communities the people belong to break down. That’s where we are now. We’re alone. We thought we identified with a certain kind of Americanness, and now, no. The communities we belonged to don’t make sense to us the way they did before. Organizations we belonged to we now see, well, that might’ve been a racist organization. Things are up for grabs. I saw that in May of 1968, and I see that now. That’s a moment of deep loneliness, and deep anguish. And I think we’re going to come out of this and really have an opportunity to create new kinds of bonds and new kinds of friendships and new kinds of affiliations. We’re so yearning for each other, and the boundaries that we usually put up with each other are much more permeable. And I think that there’s a possibility for very deep connection. That’s my good news story. I think when we emerge, we’re going to look at each other and say, “Well, what are we going to do next?”

The development of mass media, television, computers, the Internet, and social media have contributed to feeling alone. At the same time, trust in institutions has declined, people are engaged less in communities, individualism and autonomy are prized, and inequality is visible.

As Turkle asks, is the answer in more technology? Chat bots? Robots living among us? Friendlier social media? Or, a return to embodied interactions and engaging other humans? In her earlier work, Turkle describes the differences in interactions people have with technology opposed to people. She describes some of that again earlier in the interview:

He wanted my comment: Why are all of these people talking to Replika in the middle of the pandemic? They’re all using it as a friend, as a therapist, this thing where you’re talking to a machine. So, not to be a spoilsport, I decided to see what’s up. So I go online and I make a Replika. I make as nice a Replika as I can possibly make, and I said, “I want to talk to you about the thing that’s most on my mind.” It says, “Oh, absolutely.” So I say, “OK, well, I’m lonely. Can you talk to me about loneliness? I’m living here alone. I’m managing, but I’m lonely.” It says, “Oh, absolutely.” So I said, “OK, well, what do you know about loneliness?” And she says, “It’s warm and fuzzy.”

I thought, this is too stupid. This must be a bug. But I got back to the New York Times reporter and I said, look, if you want to talk about your problems, if you’re lonely, if you’re fearing death—you really have to talk to somebody who has a body. It has to be somebody with some skin in the game. Pretend empathy is not what people need right now. And pretend empathy is what it is. If we just give our children and ourselves pretend empathy, we’re in risk of losing our sensibility for how important the real thing is. I think that’s a big danger. That we get so enamored with what machines can do that we forget what only people can do.

COVID-19 presents an opportunity to reassess these patterns. And the common prediction seems to be that people will very much enjoy interaction again after COVID-19 fades away. But, how long will this last? Will we try to return to pre-COVID normal or dig deeper to restore human connections? In a society enamored with technology, it can be hard to imagine this path back even in the wake of a global pandemic.

Churches and a digital divide during COVID-19

COVID-19 has pushed more churches into the digital realm but there are patterns in who is operating online and in what ways:

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“The digital divide in churches reflects the digital divide in American society more generally,” says Mark Chaves, a theologian at Duke University and director of the National Congregation Study, which has surveyed religious groups in the US since 1998. Churches with less of a digital presence tend to be located in rural areas. Their congregations are more likely to be older, lower-income, and Black. Those demographic groups are also less likely to have access to broadband, and they have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, both in health and economic outcomes. Those realities have factored into church outcomes too. A survey from LifeWay Research, which focuses on Christian ministries, found that white pastors were the most likely to report offerings that were higher than expected in the past year. Black pastors, by contrast, were most likely to report that the pandemic economy was impacting their churches “very negatively.” Churches often run on tight margins, and those impacts can have long-term effects: LifeWay Research found that a small percentage of churches have had to cut down on outreach, suspend Sunday School or small group programs, or lay off staff members. Black pastors were more likely to say they cut staff pay or deleted a church position…

For the faith sector, the acceleration of new technologies could lead to massive changes. Other industries, like media and retail, have been transformed as they progressively moved online; money, influence, and attention now converge in a small pool of winners, often at the expense of smaller outfits. Some believe churches might experience something similar. “You’re going to have the top 40 preachers that everyone listens to, and the regular everyday preacher is not going to be able to compete,” says William Vanderbloemen, a former pastor and founder of the Vanderbloemen Search Group, an executive search firm for churches. That’s not to say more niche markets couldn’t also emerge. “People will still show up to hear a message from a pastor who knows their specific community on a micro-contextual level. Like, here’s what happened in our zip code this week, and here’s how it relates to how we think of our God.”…

Chaves, who runs the National Congregation Study, says it’s too soon to know whether this year will have a lasting impact on worship practices, and what that impact would be. “Church attendance has been declining slowly for decades,” he says. “Will we see a shift if online participation stays ubiquitous? Or will it mean that more people are participating?” Some early research suggests that churchgoers are eager to get back to in-person services and worshipping together with their community. While smaller congregations, like First Baptist Church Reeltown, are unlikely to continue broadcasting their sermons on Facebook Live, other churches may find value in a hybrid model, where some people come into Sunday services and others watch from their computers.

One way to think about this is to consider the marketplace of American religion. Because there is no state-sponsored religion and there is the free exercise of religion, religious traditions and congregations can compete for people. In this competition, innovation and flexibility can help lead to increased market share. The Internet and social media are additional tools in this competition. Want to appeal to those using those mediums? You have to have a presence. Or, perhaps a group can seek others who eschew digital worship.

Using the Internet for church is not new. But, COVID-19 may have accelerated this market competition. Could churches compete without going online? Just as businesses suffered, how many churches might close because of COVID-19? Who can provide a compelling church service and other activities in online forms? Can you easily translate online viewership to attendance or membership measures? Could certain churches flourish in certain platforms while others utilize other options?

And what this means for religiosity in America is hard to know. In addition to church attendance figures, does this push Americans further down the path of individualistic and voluntaristic faith? Is church via Internet or social media really church in the same way without embodied action and sacred spaces?

How searching for houses online became sexy

With SNL poking fun at the ways people in their late 30s use Zillow to look at housing, what makes online home shopping such a current phenomena? I thought of the numerous factors that had to come together – here is an incomplete list:

SNL “Zillow”
  1. The rise of online real estate sites and apps. These have been around for years but between Zillow.com, Redfin.com. Realtor.com, Trulia.com, and more, potential sellers and buyers have a lot of easily accessible platforms. These options are now ubiquitous: people can search at any time from any location for any length of time. And now that some online listings have video tours and/or 3D models, viewers can get a good sense of what a property is like without ever getting near it.
  2. COVID-19 adds much to existing patterns. With some people interested in moving out of cities and health risks making it more difficult to see homes, online viewing may be the primary option.
  3. The SNL spoof targeted a particular age group – people in their late-30s – who might be in the middle of a housing dilemma. By this age, those interested in settling down somewhere may or may not have the resources (think school loans, unstable employment during COVID-19 and the last economic crisis in the late 2000s) to buy in the places they want. But, the browsing is free and all sorts of homes in all sorts of locations are available.
  4. The single-family home has always been an important part of the American Dream. Today, this is true and in new ways. The home is a respite away from COVID-19 and political polarization. It is an important investment as buying the right home is not just about enjoying day-to-day life; it should pay off in the future when the homeowner wants to sell and housing values have continued to rise.
  5. Americans also like to consume and compare their social status or possessions to others. With homes occupying such an important part of American mythology, these larger patterns carry over to these sectors. Browsing homes online allows for window shopping and comparisons on one of the most expensive investments. And homes are not just dwellings; they offer windows into lifestyles and neighborhoods.

Put all of these together and you get an SNL reflection on how home searching and purchasing happens today.

An on-trend Amazon HQ2

Many plans are made for large buildings in cities and metropolitan regions. Not all of them are built. But, when Amazon releases plans for their HQ2 in Arlington, Virginia, people take notice because of the company and the design.

AboutAmazon.com

The centerpiece will be the site’s fourth and tallest tower, a 350-foot structure dubbed the Helix because it will feature two spiraling outdoor walkways with trees and plants from Virginia that twist to the building’s top…

Amazon’s new campus is the latest in a growing line of outdoorsy office projects, as companies try harder to offer a pleasant work environment and appeal to eco-conscious employees.

The Helix “will be an opportunity for people to literally go on a hike in the city,” said Dale Alberda, a principal at architecture firm NBBJ, which is designing the development across the river from Washington, D.C.

Plans for inside of the building also call for plenty of greenery, along with meeting space, offices and studios for artist residency programs. “You feel like you’re in a lush garden in the middle of winter in D.C.,” Mr. Alberda said of the interior design.

As someone who teaches Urban Sociology, this is right on trend in multiple ways.

  1. It is just outside the central city of the region but within a business district. (The Washington D.C. region has some unique features due to the government buildings at the center but the multinode region is found throughout the United States.)
  2. The building has numerous green features, both visible (such as lots of trees) and invisible (planning for efficiency).
  3. The design is more whimsical and playful compared to the more common glass and steel box. The structure will certainly stand out and attract visitors just to see it.
  4. The architects and the company say it is designed with people and well-being in mind, not just efficiency or costs.

Perhaps the only trend missing is a mixed-use component where the office space is combined with residential and commercial space.

All of this is for a tech company – perhaps the tech company right now – within an industry that hundreds of American communities would love to attract. Does this building work in the same way if it is built by an insurance company or as a municipal structure?

It will also be interesting to see how this interacts with surrounding buildings – including the other planned Amazon towers – and the broader community. Amazon says the grounds will be open to the public yet how many community members will be able to take advantage.

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.