Using the neighborhood email list for good and not ill

If many neighbors can’t get along (examples 1, 2, and 3), how do people go about making the neighborhood email list helpful?

Crime reports are a major part of why residents get in on the email list action. Like being part of a Neighborhood Watch, they feel safer knowing what’s happening outside their doors. But there’s a limit. Nashville resident Leah Newman says a woman on her neighborhood group is notorious for listening to a police scanner 24-7 and, like a court stenographer, jotting down everything she hears and relaying it. What she considers being vigilant, the rest of the community might view as overzealous…

But that frenzy—and the 400 messages batted back and forth—probably didn’t help matters. Instead, the better course of action is to exercise restraint and not get carried away posting incidents in real-time or suggesting that neighbors take matters into their own hands.

What might be the benefits?

For starters, many people simply won’t show up to an in-person meeting. Or, those who do might not feel comfortable mentioning personal gripes the way they could digitally…

Signing up for the neighborhood dispatch can also help recent transplants feel more rooted in their new community…

Elizabeth McIntyre, who runs D.C.’s Columbia Heights Yahoo group and website, also cites the powerful way these digital means can mobilize residents who are unhappy with something happening in their area…

Electronic mailing is also a great equalizer. No matter a resident’s age, education level, or technological savvy, most anyone can check and send email.

It is interesting that the article leads with the example of alleged criminal activity – what might better bind many American neighbors together than the idea that their collective quality of life (and attached property values) is threatened?

This could be a worthwhile subject for study in today’s world. There is evidence that American sociability has declined in recent decades and there are endless anecdotes of neighbors in fairly well-off to wealthy neighborhoods fighting over inconsequential things. As Baumgartner wrote in The Moral Order of a Suburb, suburbanites tend to get along by leaving each other alone and avoiding open conflict. Yet, the use of email could focus the attention of neighbors on common interests without having to get too involved with each other’s lives. At the same time, such conversations could easily get messy if there are feuding parties, differing opinions, or the typical aggressive behavior found in many online comment sections.

In the end, do such email lists enhance community life, not have much effect (since they probably aren’t very deep and focus on particular topics), or lead negative effects? Also, I would guess that the likelihood of a neighborhood email list goes up with social class.

College change: syllabi requiring students to check email every day

As technology shifts, college syllabi must as well: there are syllabi that ask students to check email each day.

How to get students, some of whom consider their school e-mail accounts so irrelevant that they give their parents the passwords, to take a look?

At the University of Southern California, Nina Eliasoph’s Sociology 250 syllabus reads: “You must check e-mail DAILY every weekday,” with boldface for emphasis…

When job offers arrive, Ratliff often has excited students turn up in her office only to realize they have forgotten a form they need to send to the company. Using e-mail to get the form or to send it apparently does not cross their minds.

“Some of them didn’t even seem to know they had a college e-mail account,” May said. Nor were these wide-eyed freshmen. “This is considered a junior-level class, so they’d been around.”

That is when he added to his course syllabuses: “Students must check e-mail daily.” May said the university now recommends similar wording…

 

The next step would seem to be having students and faculty and college staff all start using text messages or social media. However, this leads to other issues. Asking people to switch to new technologies which could then require training and practice. Privacy concerns could arise, particularly compared to more impersonal emails. There might be the argument that doing this means getting on a technology treadmill that goes faster and faster – students switch to the next big thing and everyone else must follow.

Another interesting question to ask is what kind of interaction aided by technology best leads to improved learning outcomes? Needing to communicate information is important but what exactly boosts learning? In The Dumbest Generation, Mark Bauerlein argues new technologies don’t typically boost learning even as they might improve engagement. Yet, colleges are moving to moving to more online learning. This can lead to learning at different paces, cuts down on costs, and makes classes available to more people. But, does it lead to more learning?

Social network of email between countries shows homophily between culturally similar nations

A new study of email traffic between countries finds some patterns:

The Internet was supposed to let us bridge continents and cultures like never before. But after analyzing more than 10 million e-mails from Yahoo! mail, a team of computer researchers noticed an interesting phenomenon: E-mails tend to flow much more frequently between countries with certain economic and cultural similarities.

Among the factors that matter are GDP, trade, language, non-Commonwealth colonial relations, and a couple of academic-sounding cultural metrics, like power-distance, individualism, masculinity and uncertainty…

To this point, of course, the study amounts to little more than very interesting trivia. The real conclusion comes toward the end, when the researchers posit it as possible evidence for Samuel Huntington’s controversial “Clash of Civilizations” theory. From the paper:

In this respect we cautiously assign a level of validity to Huntington’s contentions, with a few caveats. The ?rst issue was already mentioned – overlap between civilizations and other factors contributing to countries’ level of association. Huntington’s thesis is clearly re?ected in the graph presented in Figure 3, but some of these civilizational clusters are found to be explained by other factors in Table 5. The second limitation concerns the fact that we investigated a communication network. There is no necessary “clash” between countries that do not communicate, and Huntington’s thesis was concerned primarily with ethnic con?ict.

Interesting what can be done with data from more than 10 million emails.

I wonder if it is even worth doing this analysis at the country level. Isn’t this too broad? Aren’t there likely to be important patterns within and across countries that are obscured by this broader lens?

Another possible issue: is Yahoo mail a representative sample of emails or does it provide a particular slice of of email traffic? I would assume it involves more personal email as opposed to business activity.

Sociological concepts that help explain why some companies are telling employees to avoid work email at home

Some companies are telling their employees to not check their work email at home:

In recent years, one in four companies have created similar rules on e-mail, both formal and informal, according to a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. Firms trying out these policies include Volkswagen, some divisions of PricewaterhouseCoopers and shipping company PBD Worldwide.

For the vast majority of companies and federal offices, the muddying of work and personal time has had financial advantages. Corporations and agencies, unable to hire, are more productive than ever thanks in part to work-issued smartphones, tablets and other mobile technology, economists say…

“There is no question e-mail is an important tool, but it’s just gone overboard and encroached in our lives in a way where employees were feeling like it was harder and harder to achieve a good balance,” said Robert Musslewhite, chief executive of the Advisory Board, a health and education research and software-services firm.

Official numbers show just one in 10 people brings work home, according to a Labor Department report in 2010. But economists say that figure is wildly conservative because it counts only those who are clocking in those hours for extra pay.

Three sociological ideas shed some light on this:

1. This increased level of stress might be due to the mixing of the front-stage and back-stage performances of employees. Sociologist Erving Goffman wrote about these two settings, the first where we play a role, in this case as employee, and this requires emotional and physical energy. In the latter setting, we can let down our guard. Checking work email at home means this back-stage setting is interrupted.

2. This reminds me of the work by sociologist Christena Nippert-Eng on the symbolic boundaries between home and work. We place home and work in certain mental categories and so crossing these boundaries can create some difficulties. Sociologist Ray Oldenberg suggested another way around these two symbolic boundaries: we need “third places” like coffee shops and pubs where workers can relax and interact with other citizens in settings distinct from work and home.

3. A few centuries ago, more average citizens may have mixed home and work as people worked in their homes or very near by. It wasn’t until the industrial era that more employees had to travel further to their workplaces, creating a larger physical difference between home and work that also translated into more symbolic difference. Perhaps this story about email is a reminder that at this point in history we are swinging back to mixing  home and work because of technology that transcends physical boundaries.

Asking if digital technology leads to increasing loneliness

Amongst people with whom I regularly interact, this would be a good question with which to start a conversation: does recent digital technology make us lonelier or bring us closer together? A sociologist at MIT has been investigating this for years and has some thoughts:

And what’s so dangerous about a made-to-measure relationship?
People would rather text than talk, because they can control how much time it takes. They can control where it fits in their schedule. When you have the amount of velocity and volume [of communication] that we have in our lives, we have to control our communications very dramatically. So controlling relationships becomes a major theme in digital communication. And that’s what sometimes makes us feel alone together — because controlled relationships are not necessarily relationships in which you feel kinship…

So these kids yearn for attention, but then, as you said, the idea of a phone conversation is too intimate for them — they’d rather text and chat.
They feel confused. That’s why I called the book Alone Together — because they shimmy back and forth. On the one hand, they’re so together that all they can do is text. And I identify with these teenagers, because it’s the way we’re all living our lives: you wake up in the morning, and you have 500 e-mails or 100 messages, and you say, “I don’t have time to do anything but respond to this.” So your life becomes completely reactive — you don’t feel alone, but you don’t feel connected.

What you certainly don’t have time to do is experience solitude. One of the most important things that we’re really losing is the ability to just be alone in a restorative way.

It sounds like the answer is that we are both more connected and more alone than before. In the end, perhaps what will change is how society defines relationships. Right now, we have traditional understandings of relationships (they require time, commitment, etc.) alongside digital understandings of relationships (they take place when you choose and more on your terms). In fifty years or even a decade or two, what’s to say that these digital relationships won’t be the primary form of human interaction in the world?

This reminds of a recent cell phone commercial that illustrates this “alone together” idea. This particular cell phone unit has a form of Windows operating system with an interface where you can quickly see if you have any emails or Facebook news. But the commercial suggests why this is necessary is so that you can quickly return to the really important things in life. In these commercials, the technology is treated as an accessory (and perhaps even an annoyance) – but a necessary accessory since you really need to stay up to date with those emails and personal news updates.

If Steve Jobs is grouchy in his email responses, why even bother responding?

This is an interesting story: a journalism student tried to contact Apple public relations as part of an assignment and ends up getting an unhelpful response from Steve Jobs. After Apple PR didn’t respond to the student, she emailed Steve Jobs. Jobs responded but ended with this message: “Our goals do not include helping you get a good grade. Sorry.”

But it gets more interesting: Jobs apparently has a history of similar responses to others who email him. A few questions follow:

1. How many emails does Steve Jobs read a day?

2. If his responses draw comments about his “grouchy side,” why even bother responding to emails like this? How can this help Apple at all?