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?

Americans talk differently about faith online

Pew reports that religious faith is expressed differently online compared to offline:

But according to a new report from Pew, the way people talk about their faith online actually is different from how they talk about it in real life. In a nationally representative survey of more than 3,200 Americans, only 20 percent said they had “shared something about [their] religious faith on social networking websites/apps” in the past week. Twice as many said they had talked about faith in person within the same period.

Although people from different religious backgrounds reported different levels of what one might call faith-sharing, this relationship between on- and offline sharing was roughly the same across Christian denominations and the religiously unaffiliated: Twice as many people talked about their religious beliefs offline vs. online…

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this is that there’s hardly any variation among age groups: People younger and older than 50 were nearly equally likely to say they’d talked about their faith on social media within the last week. That’s remarkable for two reasons: In general, younger Americans are less religious than older Americans, and they’re also much heavier users of social media. Across two demographics who think about both faith and the Internet very differently, the mores of talking about God online seem to be similar.

This survey doesn’t say much what those mores are. But it does suggest that people like talking about their religious beliefs face-to-face more than they do online—or, perhaps, they’re more willing. Broadcasting your faith to all your Facebook friends is a very public act, and religion is a very personal thing; it may be that people feel more comfortable discussing God in communities that exist offline, like youth groups or book clubs. These spaces can feel much less vulnerable: It’s possible to know exactly who will hear you and maybe even have a sense of how they’ll respond. On Facebook or Twitter, that’s impossible.

Having conducted research in this area as well as having been online quite a bit in the last decade or so, I’m not surprised. I remember noticing this in the early days of Facebook. At that point, I believe certain information like your religion was more prominently featured on your profile. A number of my online friends – people of faith from a variety of institutional contexts and often with relatively high levels of education – tended to complicate their religious listing as if “Protestant” or “Christian” wasn’t individualized enough.

I don’t know that people are afraid of judgment when talking about faith online or through social media; we know that people talk about all sorts of other personal things. Perhaps this is all evidence of the increasing privatization of religion. You can participate in the public sphere of the Internet as long as you generally keep broad declarations of faith to an acceptable level. There might be some judgment but it maybe goes even further to indifference or embarrassment for such a user. You might be able to get away with more within certain circles – like white evangelicals who share their faith more online – but it wouldn’t be as welcomed within other online networks and sites.

That said, the figures still suggest some decent levels of religious activity online with roughly 20% sharing about their faith regularly and 46% regularly seeing things regarding the faith of other users. Faith isn’t dead online even if it doesn’t quite match offline activity.

 

Younger American adults looking for “print-like” news on their tablets and mobile devices

Derek Thompson discusses new data from Pew that suggests young adult Americans are looking for “print-like” experiences when reading online news:

But a new report from the Pew Research Center (pdf) suggests that, when it comes to reading the news on mobile devices, young people aren’t so different. First, they use their tablets and smartphones to read the news at nearly identical rates to 30- and 40-somethings. According to Pew, between 30 and 50 percent of practically every demographic, except seniors, uses mobile phones and tablets to read news — whether it’s men or women, college-educated or not, making less than $30,000 per year or more than $75,000. All told: Thirtysomethings and fortysomethings are just as likely as teens and twentysomethings to use their smartphones and tablets for news…

Here’s another surprise. Young mobile readers don’t want apps and mobile browsers that look like the future. They want apps that look like the past: 58% of those under 50, and 60% of Millennials, prefer a “print-like experience” over tech features like audio, video, and complex graphics. That preference toward plain text “tends to hold up across age, gender and other groups.” Pew reports: “Those under 40 prefer the print-like experience to the same degree as those 40 and over.”

While this report suggests different age groups consume news in similar ways, even with differences in video watching and how much news they share, I wonder if they get the same things out of their reading. Are they reading different kinds of stories? On different websites? Are they reading the same volume of news stories? Physically reading the screen in the same way? Reading the news with the same purposes? Retaining the same information? Wanting to read “print-like” news with similar devices means something but I suspect there could still be some major differences between these groups.

Making money online by tracking consumers

The Wall Street Journal starts a series on what companies are doing to track consumers to make money online. Some of the common tactics:

The study found that the nation’s 50 top websites on average installed 64 pieces of tracking technology onto the computers of visitors, usually with no warning. A dozen sites each installed more than a hundred. The nonprofit Wikipedia installed none.

Tracking technology is getting smarter and more intrusive. Monitoring used to be limited mainly to “cookie” files that record websites people visit. But the Journal found new tools that scan in real time what people are doing on a Web page, then instantly assess location, income, shopping interests and even medical conditions. Some tools surreptitiously re-spawn themselves even after users try to delete them.

These profiles of individuals, constantly refreshed, are bought and sold on stock-market-like exchanges that have sprung up in the past 18 months.

If you are using the Internet, expect that people are “watching” you and trying to figure out how to make money off of you.