Apple stores are not new town squares

American communities often lack vibrant public spaces but Apple stores may not be the answer:

The stores have good vibes. Everything is clean. There are no sounds of commerce. No clanging till. No specials on an aisle. No mechanical belt sliding products toward a beeping scanner. People will tell you they like your new shoes. I love Apple Stores.

But there is one problem with calling an Apple Store an Apple “Town Square”—which the company announced it’s now doing at Tuesday’s iPhone event. Namely, the Apple Store is a store and not a town square…

And most surreally, a dominant problem for democracy at this moment is that truly public space doesn’t exist on the internet you access through your phone.

Internet platforms, as John Herrman has argued, merely masquerade as democratic spaces. But they are not. They are private, as private as an Apple Store.

This is a regular issue that pops up: private retail or office space that often functions as public space is not truly public space. If you conduct activities that are not conducive to business, whether in an Apple store, a McDonald’s, the cavernous lobby of a hotel, a shopping mall, or even a landscaped area outside a business but that it is on private land, you can be removed from that space. These private spaces that allow people of different backgrounds to gather and interact can still be very valuable – see the concept of “third places,” an idea that Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has discussed. Granted, there are restrictions on what you can do in public spaces as well but your activities are much more limited in private spaces.

Sociologists and others have asked for decades how American communities might develop more public spaces. The Internet was one space that offered new opportunities for democracy and public interaction. Alas, much of that early fervor has decreased as the Internet is dominated by major corporations and online discourse is often not very enlightening or civil.

Avoid public wi-fi

Here is a helpful reminder:

And finally, don’t forget for one minute that public Wi-Fi is dangerous.

This one illustration is humorous:

Evan, now 11, programmed fake Wi-Fi portals and took them to food courts shopping centers across the Austin, Texas, area and waited to see how many agreed to some pretty outrageous conditions. For the love of free internet access, they’d have to give their OK for the Wi-Fi owner to do things like “reading and responding to your emails, monitoring of input and/or output, and ‘bricking’ of your device.”

More than half of the shoppers shown these terms accepted them.

I like that this the article ties this issue to shopping malls. This might primarily be due to this time of year when plenty of people are out purchasing gifts. However, it also works because shopping malls are about as close as we get as Americans to public spaces. Where else can you regularly go for a safe environment to be around other people to do one of the ultimate American activities (consume)? While this article reminds us that the mall may not be so safe, is it odd that Americans tend to think of it as a safe place? And if malls want to keep attracting people (who then spend money), shouldn’t they do something about protecting their wi-fi?

I see an opportunity for either malls or security firms: ensuring that your public wi-fi experience is a good one.

The Internet and social media can help us see more small things but the bigger picture is still fuzzy

On one hand, the Internet and what comes along with it allows us unprecedented access to what is going on in the world. Information galore. Bypassing the traditional gatekeepers of the media. Access to millions of stories we might not have otherwise seen or heard.

On the other hand, it is a glut of stories and information. The social media feeds just keep going. The 24 hour news cycle of cable TV news is now an up to the second compendium of events big and small. There is a lot to take in. Some of the research I’ve done with the social media use of emerging adults suggests some have a hard time keeping up with it all. What should we pay attention to?

Going forward, I fear the extra information we now have – an unprecedented amount in human history – isn’t helping as much as it might. This is the case for at least four reasons. First, even though we have more information, we still don’t have all the information. As Max Weber once said, social life is so complex that it is difficult to imagine even social scientists understanding all aspects of social phenomena. Second, we’re not necessarily good as humans or trained well in how to process all the information. Certain things catch our eye – for example, such as information that agrees with what we already think (confirmation bias) – while we see others but they don’t register at all. Third, there is simply too much. Perhaps humans were not made to think at this scale; for much of human history, we lived in relatively small settings and had close relationships with people who were pretty similar to us. See Dunbar’s Number as an example of how the limits of humans comes up against friends and followers on social media.

Fourth, and this is where my sociological perspective particularly comes in, it is difficult work to connect individual level data – what we might call microsociology – with larger societal trends – macrosociology. Take this example: we see a post of involving a person with particular traits leaving no tip for a waitperson which they have posted on social media. Unfortunately, such negative interactions happen frequently. But, are we to take this single example as just an attempt to point out a wrong done by a single customer or does this one event reflect on an entire people group? Or, is a serious weather event on the other side of the world (one we would have had little knowledge about even a few decades ago) evidence for climate change or for deniers? When we are immersed in so many small events and their immediate interpretations, how are we to form big picture understandings of patterns? It requires us to step back and try to make sense of it all rather than simply slotting each small event into our existing heuristics.

Our capacities to deal with all of this information may improve in coming years as it becomes the new normal. Or, some may go another direction – though it is hard to imagine – where they retreat from this information overload. Either way, we’ll need to figure out ways to help everyone see the broader patterns so we all don’t lose the forest for the tees.

Your McMansion is so big, you need a wifi mesh

Coming soon to a McMansion near you: a wifi mesh from Google.

Google Wifi is available for pre-order in the US at retailers like the Google Store. A single Wifi point retails for $129, and covers homes up to 1,500 square feet. The three-pack, at $299, covers homes up to 4,500 square feet. Google Wifi ships on December 6th, just in time for fast Wi-Fi for all of your holiday guests.

All the Wifi points are connected to each other. Data can take several paths toward its destination — and Google uses their Network Assist technology to ensure that Google Wifi points always choose the fastest route from your device to the internet. This means that you get faster Wi-Fi speeds for things like streaming and gaming.

Because it would defeat the purpose of having an impressive McMansion if you and your guests couldn’t enjoy a wonderful wifi experience…

I’m waiting to see more McMansions and regular homes build around the all-important wifi as the central feature. Forget all of this about open concept living, great rooms, separate spaces for men, women, and the kids; homes should start with great wifi and build around that. With the Internet of Things supposedly just around the corner, this may happen soon.

UPDATE 11/20/16 at 1:16 PM: This is no joke. I keep hearing Comcast ads pushing their faster Internet. The reason you need it? So all of your holiday guests can do all they need to do on the wifi at the same time. Aren’t all those holiday guests supposed to be interacting or spending time together as a family?

Internet headlines and stories present a disconnected world; a pitch for sociology

Whether you read headlines on the Google News page or the Drudge Report or the front page of Yahoo, Internet headlines and stories tend to provide very small slices of reality. Want to see the actions of a happy cat? How about the strange actions from someone with mental illness? What one C-list celebrity did last night? The inane “gaffe” from the campaign trail earlier today? Put all of these headlines together, some serious and many not, and what do you get? It is difficult to get a broad, cohesive view of the world from Internet stories. They can provide more information than people in the past ever had and let us know how many different people around the world live. Even good stories on websites devoted to more in-depth news present numerous topics. Yet, because of their fleeting, diversionary, and never-ending nature, they don’t add up to much. As a reader, how am I to put all the pieces together?

It is debatable how much better other forms of media do in delivering broader context and the bigger picture. Media forms composed of images – TV, films – have moved toward incredibly quick editing so that scenes rarely last more than a few seconds. Written forms – newspapers, magazines – have a reputation for deeper storytelling. Yet, this all assumes that a good number of citizens take the time to read such materials and understand them.

Perhaps this is where we don’t just need media or digital literacy; we need ways to put all the information together and keep the big picture in mind. What is underlying all these stories? What are the patterns in society? Why do these stories get attention and others do not? Sociology can help: you need to know the broader context, the powerful institutions at work in society, how information is created and sold, and the large-scale social trends. One story of an amazing animal tells us nothing; having tens of thousands of such tales might. Reading multiple stories about the Panama Papers might be interesting but we need to know how this intersects with all sorts of social systems (such as governments and corporations) and processes (such as social class and globalization).

It is too easy to get caught up in the quick accumulation of news and information without stepping back and trying to comprehend it all. We are good now at dispensing information but having difficulty digesting. We need frameworks in which to put the new headlines and stories. We need time to consider how this new information might affect us. All of this takes time and effort on the part of individuals – perhaps it is just easier to let all the information wash over us. But, even if we must do this at times, having a sociological perspective that sees social structures and forces and asks for empirical evidence could help us all.

(Disclaimer: I occasionally think about how to pitch sociology to undergraduates and this is one such attempt.)

Census 2020 to go digital and online

The Census Bureau is developing plans to go digital in 2020:

The bureau’s goal is that 55% of the U.S. population will respond online using computers, mobile phones or other devices. It will mark the first time (apart from a small share of households in 2000) that any Americans will file their own census responses online. This shift toward online response is one of a number of technological innovations planned for the 2020 census, according to the agency’s recently released operational plan. The plan reflects the results of testing so far, but it could be changed based on future research, congressional reaction or other developments…

The Census Bureau innovations are driven by the same forces afflicting all organizations that do survey research. People are increasingly reluctant to answer surveys, and the cost of collecting their data is rising. From 1970 to 2010, the bureau’s cost to count each household quintupled, to $98 per household in 2010 dollars, according to the GAO. The Census Bureau estimates that its innovations would save $5.2 billion compared with repeating the 2010 census design, so the 2020 census would cost a total of $12.5 billion, close to 2010’s $12.3 billion price tag (both in projected 2020 dollars)…

The only households receiving paper forms under the bureau’s plan would be those in neighborhoods with low internet usage and large older-adult populations, as well as those that do not respond online.

To maximize online participation, the Census Bureau is promoting the idea that answering the census is quick and easy. The 2010 census was advertised as “10 questions, 10 minutes.” In 2020, bureau officials will encourage Americans to respond anytime and anywhere – for example, on a mobile device while watching TV or waiting for a bus. Respondents wouldn’t even need their unique security codes at hand, just their addresses and personal data. The bureau would then match most addresses to valid security codes while the respondent is online and match the rest later, though it has left the door open to restrict use of this option or require follow-up contact with a census taker if concerns of fraud arise.

Perhaps the marketing slogan could be: “Do the Census online to save your own taxpayer dollars!”

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. I’m sure there will be plenty of tests to (1) make sure the people responding are matched correctly to their address (and that fraud can’t be committed); (2) the data collected is as accurate as going door to door and mailing out forms; and (3) the technological infrastructure is there to handle all the traffic. Even after going digital, the costs will be high and I’m guessing more people will ask why all the expense is necessary. Internet response rates to surveys are notoriously low so it may take a lot of marketing and reminders to get a significant percentage of online respondents.

But, if the Census Bureau can pull this off, it could represent a significant change for the Census as well as other survey organizations.

(The full 192 page PDF file of the plan is here.)

What is a “digital sociology firm”?

This news story reports the sale of a “digital sociology firm” named mPathDiscovery:

Richard Neal, CIO of mPathDiscovery, described TBX as a group of investors from different industries that came together in April. The transaction will provide mPathDiscovery with access to TBX’s capital, experience and business connections.

Neal said mPathDiscovery has two employees — himself and President David Goode — and uses an array of contract employees. The company will remain in Kansas City and soon will begin looking for its first office space.

One result of the transaction has been the purchase of the “digitalsociology.com” web domain. Neal said the name had been owned by a cybersquatter who offered to sell it for a profit.

Neal said digital sociology helps companies see who is saying what, when and where about them online. The process can help companies see how marketing messages are being received by the public and analyze attitudes about competitors.

Two things strike me:

  1. So this is beyond web analytics where companies try to figure out who is visiting their site. (That industry is crowded and there are a number of ways to measure engagement with websites.) This goes to the next level and examines how companies/pages are perceived. I imagine there are plenty of people already doing this – I’ve heard plenty of commercials for site that want to protect the reputation of individuals – so what sets this company apart? This leads to the second point…
  2. What exactly makes this “digital sociology”? As a sociologist, I’m not sure what exactly this is getting at. Online society? Studying online interactions with companies? The use of the term sociology is meant to imply a more rigorous kind of analysis? In the end, is the term sociology attractive to companies that want these services?