Social media reveals ongoing American tension between the individual and community life

A cultural historian who examined differences in loneliness between the 19th century and today comments on a larger tension in social interaction:

Sean Illing

In the book, you say that the “new American self” is torn between individualism and community, between selfishness and sociability. Can you explain what you mean?

Susan J. Matt…

While constantly uploading selfies could be understood as selfish, deep down what’s often motivating it is a longing for affirmation from one’s community. What you’re looking for when you post all this stuff is for your friends and family to like you. Right? And that’s a very sociable and communitarian instinct.

And lots of bloggers we interviewed said the same thing. It’s not just Facebook and Twitter, where we’re looking for the “Likes” or the thumbs-ups or the hearts. Bloggers told us they wanted to express themselves, but it only meant something to them if other people liked it.

So the tension between individualism and communitarianism is a longstanding one in American life. And it’s playing out anew in social media, as people try to get their individual voices out there while seeking the affirmation and approval of others.

Three quick thoughts:

1. Seeking affirmation is not necessarily a bad thing. In a face-to-face social interaction, isn’t each participant hoping that the other people respond favorably? This involves the concept of the “generalized other” and “impression management” in sociology: we act in certain ways because we anticipate how others will respond to us.

2. This tension plays out in numerous ways in American history. Two examples come to mind. First, the desire for small town life yet wanting the excitement and opportunities of cities (so meeting in the suburbs). Second, the desire to not be compelled to act in certain ways yet supporting local government and voluntary associations.

3. Another angle to take regarding this issue is whether smartphones and social media are separate phenomena with unique consequences or whether they follow in the line of other mass media technologies and exacerbate existing issues.

With opposition to Google’s Toronto smart neighborhood, larger questions about powerful corporations, tax breaks, and public-private partnerships

Plans in Toronto for Google’s major development have hit multiple stumbling blocks:

As in New York, where fierce opposition to Amazon led the online retail giant to cancel plans to build a second headquarters in Long Island City, a local movement here is growing to send Sidewalk Labs packing. Their concerns: money, privacy, and whether Toronto is handing too much power over civic life to a for-profit American tech giant.

The #BlockSidewalk campaign formed in February after the Toronto Star reported on leaked documents indicating that Sidewalk Labs was considering paying for transit and infrastructure on a larger portion of the waterfront. In return, it would seek a cut of the property taxes, development fees and the increased value of the land resulting from the development — an estimated $6 billion over 30 years…

Separately, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association is suing the city, provincial and federal governments to shut down the project over privacy concerns. Michael Bryant, the head of the group, said Trudeau had been “seduced by the honey pot of Google’s sparkling brand and promises of political and economic glory.”…

Micah Lasher, the head of policy and communications for Sidewalk Labs, said providing more details about the business model for Quayside and plans for data governance earlier would have helped allay many concerns. But he also said the business model remains uncertain.

Any major development or redevelopment project in a major city can run into issues. But, there seem to be at least three larger concerns at play here:

  1. Google and the role of tech companies. The public may be more suspicious of these corporations today compared to ten years ago when all the technology seemed rather magical. Issues of privacy and power matter more today.
  2. Tax breaks may not be the answer they once were in cities and metropolitan areas in order to attract corporations and developers. Residents and local leaders may ask why Google, a very wealthy corporation, needs any tax breaks. And, if the tax breaks are not provided, will Google take its smart city development elsewhere?
  3. This might signal larger issues with public-private partnerships. For at least a ten years or so now, these have been hailed as a way to move forward in many cities: both the local government and the developers chip in to get things done with benefits to both sides. But, do such deals turn over too much control or too many of the benefits to the private side rather than spreading the benefits to the residents and the community?

It will be interesting to see how local political and business leaders handle this: can they afford to let the project die or go elsewhere?

Perhaps the long-term answer for companies like Google is to follow the lead of Disney and Celebration, Florida and create whole communities rather than entering in messy situations in already-existing communities.

Why the study of social media and the study of suburbs goes together

Two days ago, I presented a talk titled “Screens, Social Media, and Spirituality: Technology and Religiosity Among Emerging Adults.” In this particular talk, I drew upon my work work with co-authors analyzing social media. While this is one of my research areas of interest, I am also a scholar of suburbs. How do these two areas go together?

To start, the sociological study of the Internet and social media has connections to the study of communities and places. Barry Wellman is a good example of a scholar who studied communities and then the Internet. Both social spheres have logics that connect people: communities tend to rely on geographic proximity while Internet and social media networks rely more on choosing connections and common interests. (There are other lenses sociologists could use to join the two topics: materiality – think smartphones and single-family homes; narratives about science and progress; consumption.)

Both social media and suburban areas rely on narratives of choice made by users or residents while both ave deeper forces pushing people toward those choices. In social media, people do not pick platforms at random nor are the platform’s development and popularity random. What people users connect to is not random; existing social ties matter as do factors like fame, influence, and power. Similarly, Americans may often argue they made it to the suburbs through their own efforts but decades of government policy as well as cultural ideology has privileged the suburban way of life.

One might argue that social media is relatively placeless. Users can communicate with any connected friend or follower from any place and at any time. Compared to social interaction bounded by proximity, technology offers unprecedented access without a need for a tie to a place (outside of a need for some sort of Internet connection). But, this placelessness is also a critique regularly leveled at American suburbs where the regularly repeating of features can make it appear all to be similar. See an example of this argument. (I tend to disagree as suburban communities can have very different characters, just as different social media platforms and interactions can feel different even if they all all fall into the same broad categories of social life.)

Finally, the profound implications for communities and broader society by both phenomena – particularly mass suburbanization after World War II and social media after the founding of Facebook plus the quick popularity of smartphones – are hard to ignore. It isn’t just that more Americans moved to suburbs; this had ripple effects on many places (including every major city), industries (think cars, fast food, big box stores, etc.), and government policy. It isn’t just that people now spend some time on social media; the shift to different kinds of relationships means we have to think afresh about how community works.

Reminder: “Twitter Is Not America”

A summary of recent data from Pew provides the reminder that Twitter hardly represents the United States as a whole:

In the United States, Twitter users are statistically younger, wealthier, and more politically liberal than the general population. They are also substantially better educated, according to Pew: 42 percent of sampled users had a college degree, versus 31 percent for U.S. adults broadly. Forty-one percent reported an income of more than $75,000, too, another large difference from the country as a whole. They were far more likely (60 percent) to be Democrats or lean Democratic than to be Republicans or lean Republican (35 percent)…

First, Pew split up the Twitter users it surveyed into two groups: the top 10 percent most active users and the bottom 90 percent. Among that less-active group, the median user had tweeted twice total and had 19 followers. Most had never tweeted about politics, not even about Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s meeting with Donald Trump.

Then there were the top 10 percent most active users. This group was remarkably different; its members tweeted a median of 138 times a month, and 81 percent used Twitter more than once a day. These Twitter power users were much more likely to be women: 65 percent versus 48 percent for the less-active group. They were also more likely to tweet about politics, though there were not huge attitudinal differences between heavy and light users.

In fancier social science terms, this suggests what happens on Twitter is not generalizable to the rest of Americans. It may not reflect what people are actually talking about or debating. It may not reflect the full spectrum of possible opinions or represent those opinions in the proportions they are generally held throughout the entire country. This does not mean that is no value in examining what happens on Twitter, but the findings are limited more to the population that uses it.

In contrast, the larger proportion of Americans who are on Facebook might appear to suggest that Facebook is more representative of the American population. But, another issue might arise, one that could dog social media platforms for years to come: how much content and interaction is driven by power users versus the percent of users who have relatively dormant accounts. I assume leaders of platforms would prefer more users become power users but this may not happen. What happens to any social media platform that has strong bifurcations between power users and less active users? Is this sustainable? Facebook has a goal to connect more people but this is unlikely to happen with such disparities in use.

This is why discussing or confirming trends seen on social media platforms might require more evidence from other sources or longer periods of time to verify. Even what might appear as widespread trends in social media could be limited to certain portions of the population. We may know more about smaller patterns in society that were once harder to see but putting together the big picture may be trickier.

 

A preview of my upcoming talk on social media, emerging adults, and religiosity

Ahead of my participation in the “Emerging Adults: Formation for Mission” conference taking place soon on the Wheaton College campus is an interview regarding my talk:

I would describe the use of social media by emerging adults as a mix of excitement and resignation. A vast majority of emerging adults participate. They describe learning about relationships they already have, connecting with friends and family, seeing pictures, sharing jokes.

They find out about events and news through social media. They search for romantic partners through social media.

On the other side, they can articulate some of the downsides of this use including a lack of focus, not spending time with people (just their feeds), and the conflict that can arise in social media. Not participating means missing key connections and knowledge that others can access. Current emerging adults have known and participated in social media all of their lives and will continue to use social media as they age beyond this life stage.

The emerging adults of today are immersed in social media, technology, and other forms of media and they bring this with them as they consider faith and church.

While there is a lot of work looking at social media or social network site (SNS) use, relatively little of it in sociology and other disciplines addresses how this activity is influenced by or influences religion. This talk will help bring together several years of research projects with my sociology colleagues Peter Mundey and Jon Hill.

Fighting discrimination in online housing ads

The Department of Housing and Urban Development and the ACLU are going after discriminatory online housing listings:

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development filed charges against social media giant Facebook on Thursday, alleging that its advertising platform violates the Fair Housing Act by allowing lenders and realtors to target Facebook users on the basis of race, gender, religion, familial status, disability, and national origin.

“Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live,” said HUD Secretary Ben Carson in a statement. “Using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face.”

According to Axios, HUD and Facebook were close to a settlement. Citing anonymous sources, the Axios report says the decision to file charges could be motivated by a desire to appear on the offensive on housing discrimination prior to Carson’s meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill next week.

The charges are somewhat surprising as Facebook just settled five similar cases with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) last week. Under the settlement, the company agreed to create a separate advertising portal for real estate listings where advertisers’ options for targeting are limited. Facebook also settled a housing discrimination case with the state of Washington last summer.

The features that make online advertising so attractive – the ability to target particular consumers rather than addressing larger populations – do not work so well in the real estate field where housing is supposed to be available to all.

This reminds me of the conclusion of American Apartheid where the sociologists suggest the necessary rules are in place to combat housing issues but the political will is lacking. If the online realm is now indeed where a lot of housing is rented or sold, then discrimination in online listings needs to be addressed when it does occur.

Add these online occurrences to the ongoing findings of audit tests suggesting differential treatment and there is likely plenty of housing discrimination still to battle. While the 1968 Housing Act banned discrimination on the basis of “refusal to sell or rent a dwelling to any person because of his race, color, religion, or national origin,” many American communities – including the suburbs on the basis of race and class – are what they are today because of exclusion.

Selling and buying a home with iBuyers

Tech actors now in the real estate business continue to try to shake up the process:

They work like this: These companies, dubbed “iBuyers,” make cash offers for your current home at an algorithmically determined “fair market price,” allowing you to take the money, buy your next home, and move out at whatever date works best for you. The transaction closes in a matter of days.

The companies then clean and fix up your old house and sell it on the open market, collecting a fee from the seller. And because the price at which iBuyers buy the house is usually not the maximum the house would fetch if it was sold traditionally, they likely make a small gain on the sale price…

Perhaps the most striking evidence of iBuyers’ influence on the real estate industry came from Keller Williams CEO Gary Keller in January. When discussing the company’s intent to launch an iBuyer program later this year, Keller told Inman “I feel like I have no choice now.”

After posting $1.33 billion in revenue in 2018, Zillow announced a three- to five-year revenue target of a whopping $22 billion, $20 billion of which was projected to come from buying and selling homes.

It will be interesting to see how much iBuyers are co-opted or acquired by traditional real estate actors or whether they will stand on their own. And will this lower costs for consumers and/or give them advantages or will it consolidate power and knowledge into different hands?

Does all of this threaten to keep moving real estate toward a commodity? This appears to be the road we are already on with the shift from thinking about American homes as places to live and anchors in a community to seeing them primarily as investments and critical parts of retirement portfolios. Imagine doing more and more of this without seeing the homes in question and with lenders and middlemen who have little knowledge of the particularities of a neighborhood or community. Algorithms can do a lot – and possibly even reveal patterns humans tied up in local details have a hard time seeing – but they may have a hard time imparting the aesthetic and lived experience of homes and locations.

Going further, iff more people are moving toward less civic engagement, more engagement with screens, and social ties primarily chosen based on family, friends, and interests (some evidence to back all of these up), perhaps it may not really matter exactly where people live as long as it is relatively close to what they want. Why would you need to visit a place or pick a specific home or neighborhood if those local ties and interactions matter little?