“[O]ne of a sociologist’s prime traits is extreme nosiness”

A public sociologist describes how she interacts with what others say online about her opinions:

They say you should never read below the line after you publish an article in the public domain. Yes, but what if you’re a sociologist? You have to read the comments – it’s your job to know how society reacts to a particular viewpoint. Besides, one of a sociologist’s prime traits is extreme nosiness. So I look. My favourite comment came after I had written in a national newspaper about being a working-class academic and living on a council estate: “Where is her child’s father?” a reader demanded. That was just class – in every sense of the word.

Nosiness or someone who likes observing other people and social interactions? When sociologists describe what makes them tick (or at least how this is written in textbooks for Introduction to Sociology), people watching or a curiosity about social behavior is typically invoked. This could happen through reliable and valid data (in its more scientific and publishable forms) or through eavesdropping, seeing with your own eyes, and even acting within social situations (see breaching experiments as an example). Sometimes this is described as a sociological imagination. Such interest in the actions of others could be interpreted as nosiness, particularly if social norms are violated, but I hardly think reading online comments counts: reading such comments is observing actions taken in the public domain.

The culture wars have moved online

The culture wars may be raging most furiously in a new space and this has consequences:

The culture wars may have changed, but that doesn’t mean they’re over. Nowhere is this more clear than on the internet. Hartman’s culture wars were fought in national magazines, peer-reviewed journals, cable news shows, and in the halls of Congress: all venues with some degree of gatekeeping. Today, a broader swath of self-proclaimed culture warriors can engage in comment sections, on blogs, and on Twitter, where the #tcot hashtag is filled with echoes of earlier flashpoints. Whether the internet is simply a new, more broadly accessible forum for old debates about the meaning of America, or whether it is facilitating a new kind of culture war altogether, is not entirely clear. Nor are online spaces any less susceptible to the imperatives of capitalism than any other part of American culture. But if the culture wars are over, no one told their most energetic partisans: on this new frontier, the battle rages on.

If this is the case, it has altered the culture war landscape in multiple ways:

1. Increased the speed of battle. Now, new issues can pop up all over the place through text and videos on multiple platforms. Who can keep up with it all?

2. The old gatekeepers – traditional media like television, newspapers, and radio as well as politicians – have to scramble to keep up. This means they may race to the bottom or endlessly cycle through everything to stay relevant.

3. The culture wars don’t have to be about big issues but rather can be a larger series of micro battles. There may be no big “culture war” but rather an endless number of skirmishes involving small numbers of participants.

4. Anyone can participate with the possibility of being part of a larger conversation behind their smaller sphere. However, it is hard to know which of these skirmishes might blow up.

Curbed readers push change to “mansion” from “McMansion”

Curbed Chicago reports that Frank Thomas’ former home is for sale and two readers in the comments section successfully for labeling the home a “mansion” and not a “McMansion”:

CurbedChicagoComments

I agree! The home has the size and features of a real mansion (and was owned by a legitimate celebrity athlete):

Thomas built the 25,000 square foot home in the mid-’90s at a cost of around $8 million. It first hit the market in 2000 for $11 million and Thomas ended up selling it in 2003 to a real estate developer for $7.95 million. However, in 2012, Bank of America filed a foreclosure suit on the developer and took possession of the home earlier this year. In its excessive nature, the home features a basketball court, home gym, beauty salon, bar area, and a home theater with a marquee that reads “Hurtland Theaters”.

I wonder if a dedicated team of commenters could push for such changes across the Internet. Yet, it is difficult for news sites to resist the lure of invoking the connotations of McMansions in a clickbait headline.

Reminder to journalists: a blog post garnering 110 comments doesn’t say much about social trends

In reading a book this weekend (a review to come later this week), I ran across a common tactic used by journalists: looking at the popularity of websites as evidence of a growing social trend. This particular book quoted a blog post and then said “The post got 110 comments.”

The problem is that this figure doesn’t really tell us much about anything.

1. These days, 110 comments on an Internet story is nothing. Controversial articles on major news websites regularly garner hundreds, if not thousands, of comments.

2. We don’t know who exactly was commenting on the story. Were these people who already agreed with what the author was writing? Was it friends and family?

In the end, citing these comments runs into the same problems that face web surveys done poorly: we don’t know whether they are representative of Americans as a whole or not. That doesn’t mean blogs and comments can’t be cited at all but we need to be very careful of what these sites tell us, what we can know from the comments, and who exactly they represent. A random sample of blog posts might help as would a more long-term study of responses to news articles and blog posts. But, simply saying that something is an important issue because a bunch of people were moved enough to comment online may not mean much of anything.

Thankfully, the author didn’t use this number of blog comments as their only source of evidence; it was part of a larger story with more conclusive data. However, it might simply be better to quote a blog post like this as an example of what is out on the Internet rather than try to follow it with some “hard” numbers.

Is YouTube a future “hub for national discourse”?

Online video has the potential to be social video:

Hurley’s launch comes as his prior startup YouTube itself becomes more collaborative under owner Google. YouTube this past fall opened a 41,000-square foot studio in a former Los Angeles aircraft hangar, where amateur video producers can work with one another and use professional-grade equipment. YouTube is also working to make its comment section more socially sophisticated, with more real names and higher-quality feedback.

Design software company Autodesk, meanwhile, placed a $60 million bet on social video last summer when it acquired mobile video startup Socialcam. And Amazon has roughly 45 projects in the pipeline at Amazon Studios, its 2-year-old effort at crowdsourced interactive filmmaking.

That’s not to say that every rising online video brand has bet on social. Netflix and Hulu, for example, have both invested heavily in polished, Hollywood-style content and offer only a minimal set of social features. Viddy, a Los Angeles-area startup, has struggled in its efforts to fuse content from mass media stars like Justin Bieber with social platforms like Facebook.

But with each passing year YouTube looks like a more crucial hub for national discourse — seedbed for potent political appeals, the hinge of effective Kickstarter fundraising campaigns, and fodder for much of the sharing that goes on within networks like Facebook and BuzzFeed. And there’s both poetry and logic in the notion that Hurley, having helped democratize television with YouTube, is now trying to turn the medium into a truly two-way affair.

This is a big claim: YouTube as a “crucial hub for national discourse”? Videos do indeed become part of conversations today and there is potential here to make money but I question how often these videos lead to social or political action. What happened to Kony 2012? How about that recent video about wealth inequality in the United States? How many good conversations are had in comment sections of YouTube videos? In other words, I think there is a long way to go here.

Teaching sociology online influenced by reading student’s online comments

Sociologist Mitchell Duneier writes about how his online teaching was enriched and influenced by the comments students posted online:

My opening discussion of C. Wright Mills’s classic 1959 book, The Sociological Imagination, was a close reading of the text, in which I reviewed a key chapter line by line. I asked students to follow along in their own copies, as I do in the lecture hall. When I give this lecture on the Princeton campus, I usually receive a few penetrating questions. In this case, however, within a few hours of posting the online version, the course forums came alive with hundreds of comments and questions. Several days later there were thousands.

Although it was impossible for me to read even a fraction of the pages of students’ comments as they engaged with one another, the software allowed me to take note of those that generated the most discussion. I was quickly able to see the issues that were most meaningful to my students…

With so much volume, my audience became as visible to me as the students in a traditional lecture hall. This happened as I got to know them by sampling their comments on the forums and in the live, seminar-style discussions. As I developed a sense for them as people, I could imagine their nods and, increasingly, their critical questions. Within three weeks I had received more feedback on my sociological ideas than I had in a career of teaching, which significantly influenced each of my subsequent lectures and seminars…

Nor had I imagined the virtual and real-time continuous interaction among the students. There were spontaneous and continuing in-person study groups in coffee shops in Katmandu and in pubs in London. Many people developed dialogues after following one another’s posts on various subjects, while others got to know those with a common particular interest, such as racial differences in IQ, the prisoner abuses that took place at Abu Ghraib, or ethnocentrism—all topics covered in the lectures.

A few thoughts about Duneier’s discussion of online comments about his lectures:

1. It is good to hear that some online comments can be rewarding and constructive. It is hard to be positive about such interactions when so many online discussions involve yelling past each other. I imagine there might have been some negative or less constructive comments but perhaps people were more restrained knowing they were part of an online class. In other words, the commentators had more of a stake in the conversations.

2. I am intrigued by the idea that Duneier got more feedback from this than in “a career of teaching.” I don’t know if this says more about the potential of online feedback or the lack of feedback and interaction in a traditional classroom.

3. Could there be a way to efficiently sort through such comments? Duneier suggests he was able to see what students cared about most by looking at which threads generated more discussion. But does simply having more responses indicate a more substantive discussion?

4. I wonder at the end of this: does Duneier think teaching online is a superior or equal experience to teaching at Princeton? It certainly is different…but how does it compare?

“Electronic justice” after Vancouver riots

Some online responses to the recent Vancouver riots (see here and here) are now being called “electronic justice“:

The more than 3,000 words posted online (replicated in full below) were called an apology and it seemed a remarkable display of contrition by a young woman caught on video looting a tuxedo rental outlet, wearing a Canucks shirt and a broad grin, during Vancouver’s ignoble Stanley Cup riot. But the screed that followed dished as much justification and vitriol as self-flagellation and regret, leaving many readers cold to Camille Cacnio’s reconciliation.

It is seen as the next stage in an emerging form of “electronic justice” that has accompanied the riot. The naming and shaming came first, a time-honoured way for a community to express dismay and disgust, as people posted photos of suspected perpetrators online. It was a modern version of the medieval stocks, when an offender was held in a square for public humiliation. It seemed a suitable response: a mob exposing participants in a mob; crowdsourcing v. herd mentality.

But the extent and viciousness of the online identifications and humiliation is causing discomfort as well. Self-appointed cyber sheriffs emailed the employers, family, schools of the suspects…

Christopher Schneider, sociology professor at the University of British Columbia, calls it “vigilante justice in cyberspace…. It is a very dangerous path we’re taking. It is quite unsettling. The role of social media in this is profound.”

I’m sure this could be tied to larger discussions about online anonymity and what people are willing to do online that they may not be willing to do in person.

I’m not sure what the lesson is for the woman who posted this long apology. On one hand, it sounds like she wanted to take some responsibility. On the other hand, she simply made herself a bigger target. Perhaps we could settle on this: beware what one posts and/or admits online.

I wonder what the “employers, family, schools of suspects” did when they received news of who had been involved in the riots. Without such emails, many might not have known who was involved. But regardless of how they find out, are these collectives obligated to take action?

If this “electronic justice” is dangerous, might we reach a point where authorities crack down? Already, more websites have become much more strict about what comments they will tolerate.