Can we expect an authenticity backlash after report of fake online followers?

“The Follower Factory” in the New York Times details how many public figures and social media users purchase followers.

The Times reviewed business and court records showing that Devumi has more than 200,000 customers, including reality television stars, professional athletes, comedians, TED speakers, pastors and models. In most cases, the records show, they purchased their own followers. In others, their employees, agents, public relations companies, family members or friends did the buying. For just pennies each — sometimes even less — Devumi offers Twitter followers, views on YouTube, plays on SoundCloud, the music-hosting site, and endorsements on LinkedIn, the professional-networking site.

The actor John Leguizamo has Devumi followers. So do Michael Dell, the computer billionaire, and Ray Lewis, the football commentator and former Ravens linebacker. Kathy Ireland, the onetime swimsuit model who today presides over a half-billion-dollar licensing empire, has hundreds of thousands of fake Devumi followers, as does Akbar Gbajabiamila, the host of the show “American Ninja Warrior.” Even a Twitter board member, Martha Lane Fox, has some.

At a time when Facebook, Twitter and Google are grappling with an epidemic of political manipulation and fake news, Devumi’s fake followers also serve as phantom foot soldiers in political battles online. Devumi’s customers include both avid supporters and fervent critics of President Trump, and both liberal cable pundits and a reporter at the alt-right bastion Breitbart. Randy Bryce, an ironworker seeking to unseat Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, purchased Devumi followers in 2015, when he was a blogger and labor activist. Louise Linton, the wife of the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, bought followers when she was trying to gain traction as an actress.

Devumi’s products serve politicians and governments overseas, too. An editor at China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua, paid Devumi for hundreds of thousands of followers and retweets on Twitter, which the country’s government has banned but sees as a forum for issuing propaganda abroad. An adviser to Ecuador’s president, Lenín Moreno, bought tens of thousands of followers and retweets for Mr. Moreno’s campaign accounts during last year’s elections.

The incentives to do this are high: not only can these purchased followers act on the behalf of the purchaser, media accounts regularly highlight the number of friends or followers a user has. These counts are one of the important social markers of status online. If you are not actively trying to boost these counts by multiple means, you are falling behind.

If so many public figures then have purchased followers, then will we see an authenticity backlash? Imagine a scenario where Twitter or LinkedIn offers a special badge that all of your friends and followers are authentic people. Or, public profiles will include an estimate of how many followers are actual users. Then, it is not only about how many followers you have but rather how many are “real” people. The irony may be that even if you have “real” followers, the sort of interactions you have with them in the online realm can be quite different than offline interactions.

Would the public care to have such metrics? News of paid followers has been available for years. (For example, see earlier posts here and here.) Would they act differently toward certain users or profiles if they knew where they came from? In a world full of paid or compensated online reviews, fake followers, and who knows what else (targeted Facebook ads? Google search results just for you?), perhaps we are already past the point of no return.

Plans for a temperature controlled, 48 million square foot indoors “city” in Dubai

The building boom in Dubai continues with plans to build a massive indoor city:

united arab emirates’ vice president and prime minister, sheikh mohammed bin rashid has announced the world’s first temperature controlled city to be constructed in dubai. the vast 48 million square foot project, entitled ‘mall of the world’, will contain the planet’s largest shopping mall and an indoor theme park covered by a retractable glass dome that opens during winter months…

envisioned as an integrated pedestrian city, seven kilometer promenades connect the design, bringing together a wide variety of leisure, retail and hospitality options under one roof. a cultural district forms the hub of the site, with a dedicated theater quarter comprising a host of venues. the ‘celebration walk’ modeled on barcelona’s las ramblas will connect the district with the surrounding mall containing a range of conference, wedding and celebration halls.

The pictures are quite interesting. The scope of the project raises several questions:

1. At what point does an indoor space transition from being a mall to being a city? Others have proposed towns or cities within buildings (even immortalized in arcologies in SimCity). But, this development is clearly within Dubai and the comments from officials indicate it is closely tied to tourism. So, it doesn’t quite sound like a city unless you want to make it sound more impressive.

2. With the emphasis on tourism, just how authentic will this space really be? If this is just for tourists, that is a lot of space to maintain and make exciting. If it is more mixed-use and include residential units, then some genuine street life could develop. Put differently, is this a Dubai version of the Las Vegas strip or something different?

Regardless, if this all is completed, it would be a sight to behold.

Sociologist on “grassroots [support] for hire”

A sociologist discusses his new book about grassroots support that can be bought:

These are consultants that mobilize mass support on behalf of paying clients, and they can be distinguished from conventional insider lobbyists in that they rely less on direct contact with policymakers and more on the activation of third parties. A plurality of them are nonpartisan, and the rest are a roughly even split between those affiliated with the Democrats or Republicans. Their activity is generally unregulated by federal lobbying laws, and so it’s fair to see them, as Tom Edsall does, as “unlobbyists.” They use a wide range of strategies: some that political professionals are well known for using (targeted recruitment for sending letters/e-mails to policymakers, advocacy ads encouraging participation) and some that are less widely recognized (‘intercepts’ that stage seemingly unplanned interactions with legislators, creating third-party or ‘front’ organizations for clients’ causes, ghostwriting blogs, or even helping to stage protest demonstrations)…

Our everyday image of grassroots participation sees it as unprompted, spontaneous, and driven by the authentic moral concerns of local communities rather than by instrumental concerns about gaining resources or political power. Of course, the sociologists and political scientists who study advocacy know that this image has always been something of a myth. Effective organizing generally requires effective organizations, and those organizations need funding, staff, and some degree of structure.

When corporations and other interests hire public affairs consultants to organize on their behalf, what they are doing is often following the script of citizen advocacy: locating sources of public support, studying the opposition, searching out strategic alliances and points of political leverage, and trying to frame their arguments persuasively.  But there are certainly some key differences: the consultants usually have better data, significant funding, and the backing of a heavyweight client. A disadvantage, on the other hand, is that they need to operate with a light touch such that their efforts aren’t discounted as inauthentic “astroturf” (i.e. ersatz grassroots)…

Putting the issue of astroturf aside, an important finding in the book is that the targeting strategies of these consultants have significant consequences. In aggregate, these consultants are reaching out to and mobilizing many millions of Americans every year on behalf of their clients.  These consultants need to turn out numbers for their clients, and so the rational strategy is to target those most likely to acquiesce to their requests, namely, people with a history of political engagement and who are strong political partisans.  Of course, these are the groups that are already overrepresented in the political process, so selectively mobilizing these groups is amplifying inequalities in participation and representation.

This sounds like it raises lots of interesting questions about social movements and what gets counted as “authentic” or not. Large-scale social movements that get many members to physically act are quite rare so it is not surprising that different firms and organizations would want to generate more grassroots activity. Yet, as the author suggests, there is a line where we question the motivations of those organizing or participating in social movements. Are they acting for the right reasons? Are they protesting because there is a legitimate grievance or are they doing it because they are self-interested or getting some kind of renumeration? Should social movements only originate with the public and non-profits (which is practically its own industry these days) or is it okay if corporations and governments also try to get people involved on their behalf? It would then be interesting to look at where Americans draw this symbolic boundary between authentic and inauthentic social action. Perhaps the line would tend to get drawn more harshly for causes you don’t personally agree with as much…

There are some interesting parallels here with action online regarding social movements. If you sign an online petition or like a group or cause, have you become part of the movement? A recent study suggests more private forms of slactivism can lead to deeper engagement with social movements while more public displays don’t do as much. And then what about all of those fake Twitter followers that can be purchased for different causes, whether furthering fame, status, or political interests? While many people may not be aware of the number of less-than-active Twitter accounts, I suspect the public would see these kinds of support as more inauthentic.

Don’t settle for “McMansion” style wood molding

McMansions are often critiqued for their big features but their style may also trickle down to smaller features like wood moldings:

THE UNSUNG HEROES of traditional home interiors, wood moldings are key pieces in the jigsaw puzzle that is a complex room. Originally made from marble or plaster, they’ve been part of the classical-decorating toolbox since ancient times. But although everyone from the Germans to the Greeks had the know-how to wield the crowns and ogees of their day, it took the much-copied French to elevate the light-and-shadow effects of moldings to new and singular heights.

According to Michael Simon, a New York-based interior designer and expert in French architecture and decorative arts, ever since the first appearance of boiserie (or carved wood paneling) in 14th-century French churches, “the country’s carved moldings achieved subtleties and nuances unseen in neighboring countries.” This mastery continued through the 17th century, by which point the craft had “trickled down to the nobles and the bourgeoisie.” France’s gift for molding is still admired today…

4. Consider going vintage: To avoid the McMansion effect that can result from using stock, injection or plastic molding, comb estate sales and shops that specialize in antique variations. Note, however, that most reclaimed moldings were bespoke-crafted for a specific home. You’ll likely need to recruit a millworking shop to make them fit your interiors’ needs.

So a good home requires antique wood molding? How many people today really have that?

The key here seems to be that McMansions on the whole are viewed as fake. The styles and designs they try to imitate simply can’t work because these styles can’t be purchased from Home Depot. To be authentic, the home owner needs to have a proper sense of style as well as the acumen and money to find the correct pieces of wood molding. Sure, it probably is a lot more work (or at least money) but it helps lead to a more “real” home set apart from mass produced tract homes.

Preserving “authentic” spaces can lead to more “contrived and uniform places”

While I haven’t read the book, I was intrigued by this one paragraph that describes sociologist Sharon Zukin’s argument in her recent book Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Spaces.

Sharon Zukin’s Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places signals its ambivalent relationship to Jacobs’s work in its subtitle, which both echoes Jacobs and argues with her legacy. Zukin’s argument is that Jacobs’s city is as much an artificial construct as any other, and that its imposition on living cities has tended to create mummified museums of urbanism rather than vibrant and authentic centres of human life: above all, it has unleashed the wave of middle-class-friendly gentrification that has made the special into the commonplace, the characterful into the bland, the human into the corporate. It seems that the more people insist on authenticity and individuality, the more contrived and uniform places become. Zukin uses New York to illustrate the problem: if you don’t know the city, you will definitely be at a disadvantage, as she wanders through streets and districts providing a sometimes illuminating, sometimes irritating commentary showing the ways in which the city has lost — or rather sold — its soul.

Authenticity: something that many people want but it is hard to find in places and perhaps even harder to maintain.

This reminds me of some ideas I’ve run into in recent years. One ASA presentation I saw a few years ago addressed this very issue by looking at a neighborhood that was just on the edge of gentrification in Chicago. This means the neighborhood hadn’t quite yet been overrun by wealthier, white residents but it had enough artists and wealthier residents to be clearly on the rise. The argument was that soon this place was going to tip into gentrification, meaning the true grittiness of the neighborhood would be scrubbed away as people moved in looking for “authentic” urban living.

Additionally, you could argue that wanting to preserve authenticity is behind many NIMBY efforts. Once having moved into a place, residents want to preserve what they liked in the first place, sometimes going so far that it seems like they wish they could have frozen that place in time. In these cases, residents are often fighting against outsiders and trying to promote their own vision of an authentic neighborhoods. In the end, few, if any, places can really be frozen in time except maybe corporatized spaces like Main Street U.S.A. at DisneyWorld. Places change and might go through cycles when they are authentic and then become inauthentic.

So how exactly do you get authentic places? This particular reviewer doesn’t like Zukin’s suggestion that government should help guide this process. I might chime in that government in the past has been known to promote its own interests or the interests of wealthy businesspeople over residents. At the same time, if we leave everything up to an unfettered market, authentic spaces tend to get commodified, taken over by wealthy residents, and influenced by corporations. I would guess that Zukin prefers to have places where residents have a say in what happens in the neighborhood, that everything isn’t decided by outside forces and that government can act as a referee to look out for the interests of current residents.

A reminder: there are plenty of people who have a stake in whether a place is authentic or not and this complicates everything.

The racial disparities in the Chicago blues scene

An article in a series about the blues in Chicago explores how the white, downtown clubs are thriving while the older, black clubs on the south and west sides are struggling:

Two clubs, two worlds, one music: the blues. That’s how it goes in Chicago, a blues nexus crisply divided into separate, unequal halves. A sharp racial divide cuts through the blues landscape in Chicago, just as it does through so many other facets of life here, diminishing the music on either side of it.

The official Chicago blues scene — a magnet for tourists from around the globe — prospers downtown and on the North Side, catering to a predominantly white audience in a homogenized, unabashedly commercial setting. The unofficial scene — drawing mostly locals and a few foreign cognoscenti — barely flickers on the South and West sides, attracting a mostly black, older crowd to more homespun, decidedly less profitable locales.

Not all the grass-roots places are dying as quickly as the music room at the Water Hole. Some, such as Lee’s Unleaded Blues, on the South Side, attract a small but steady crowd on the three nights it’s open each week.

But how long can this go on? How long can a music that long flourished on the South and West sides — where the blues originators lived their lives and performed their songs — stay viable when most of the neighborhood clubs have expired? How long can a black musical art form remain dynamic when presented to a largely white audience in settings designed to replicate and merchandise the real thing?

Lots of interesting history. Additionally, the conversations about authenticity and tourism are intriguing: why doesn’t Chicago promote its music and culture more and would a major push in this direction water down the product?

It would probably be very interesting to talk to Chicago and suburban residents about blues music. How many of them know its an available option and if they do know this, how many would choose it over other entertainment activities? How many students in the region know that the blues has such a rich history in Chicago? How many colleges teach about American music (blues and jazz and their contributions to the development of rock ‘n’ roll) as opposed to classical music? How much does like for the blues cut across racial lines? Is the blues most acceptable to educated whites (in more sociological terms, cultural omnivores)?

From former suburban home to authentic home to be restored

What happens to suburban homes that were once on the outskirts of the big city? One writer describes the 1927 rowhouse she and her husband bought in Jackson Heights (part of Queens, New York City) and their plans to restore it:

Friends warn me this will be a lifelong endeavor. But my husband and I have always preferred houses with some history in them (this is our fifth, and maybe last, transaction). I suspect it’s a rejection of my New Jersey McMansion rearing.

To get a better sense of this house’s past, I turned to Daniel Karatzas, an agent with Beaudoin Realty Group and the local historian. He wrote the book, “Jackson Heights – A Garden in the City,” which sits on our coffee table. Well, it used to. Now it’s in storage.

Our house, Karatzas told me, was designed by Robert Tappan, “one of those unsung architects” who helped develop the neighborhood into a slice of suburbia just a few miles from midtown Manhattan.

“It wasn’t like Frank Lloyd Wright,” says Karatzas. “They were building traditional styles that would appeal to upper middle-class families. They used vernacular architecture. … Tudor, French, Georgian. That made it seem the houses had been there longer than they had.”

The houses on my block first sold for between $24,000 and $28,000. If he had to liken it to a modern-day phenomenon, Karatzas said, our 1920s house might have once been considered like “those McMansions in New Jersey.”

A couple parts of this stick out to me:

1. This neighborhood was once a suburb of New York City. While the home is now 80+ years old, it is still more of a suburban setting. According to this brief history of Jackson Heights, the community was built primarily after World War I, which would have been during a large wave of suburbanization.

Suburban homes generally get a bad name, both today and historically for being relatively cheaply made and looking all the same. Perhaps this is epitomized by the 1962 song “Little Boxes” by Malvina Reynolds – here are the opening lines:

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.

There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And yet, with age, some suburban homes can become the sort of authentic homes that people desire. This house has history but it is suburban history. While the realtor suggests this home was probably like a McMansion of the 1920s, the writer is interested in restoring and rehabilitating this home, gold-metal cabinets in the kitchen and all.

2. The primary comparison made is between this new purchase and the McMansion the writer grew up in New Jersey. We don’t quite know why this writer disliked this New Jersey upbringing but it is clear that this new home has more character than that home did. She also suggests that her father is likely puzzled by her decision to move back to Jackson Heights: “Sometimes, I suspect my decision to settle in Jackson Heights puzzles him, since he worked so hard to get out and buy a house in the suburbs.” While one generation viewed a move to the suburbs as a good thing, some people in later generations see a move back to city life (though this is somewhere between city and suburban life) as desirable.

Does this mean that the sort of suburban homes that people now call McMansions may one day be authentic and the sorts of places that others will want to restore? This idea perhaps assumes that Americans will continue to move further and further out from the center of metropolitan regions and then the older suburban homes will age and no longer be on the fringes. What is the long-term fate of McMansions: will they fall apart? By co-opted for other uses (like perhaps being subdivided into multiple units)? Become desirable reminders of the past? Become teardowns themselves and the land put to other uses?