Dating and the coming and going of parlors

Skimming through a conservative take on dating in the modern era, I ran into a part involving the physical spaces where couples interact:

As a result, courtship morphed into dating, with couples venturing from family parlors and front porches to dance halls and, yes, the proverbial back seat. The parlor courtship rituals had been, of course, dependent on one’s family actually having a home with a parlor. As a result of the industrial revolution, families increasingly lived in tenements and apartments that lacked such amenities, so the shift was as much forced by the demographic shifts in the U.S. as by changes in cultural mores.

I could quibble with the details and take interest in the larger issue. Regarding the parlor, I would guess that many Americans in the 1800s into the 1900s did not have access to a parlor. This formal living room was part of a larger home of a wealthier family. Until then, many people lived in a single room or a limited number of rooms where it would be a waste to have a formal entertaining space that could have only a single use. This was true in rural settings – think of the first dwellings in the Little House on the Prairie books – and cities – apartments and limited space. The parlor/living room was linked to the middle-class and the single-family home, something that became part of a consistent American Dream in the early 1900s and became more accessible to more Americans in the 1920s and then the 1950s. And the parlor lasted only so long: living rooms are on the way out with more emphasis on using kitchens and great rooms for social spaces.

The larger issue is worth pondering: how do physical spaces shape relationships and vice versa? Spaces matter for relationships to form and develop. The ideal that developed in the 1800s emphasized a nuclear family dwelling in a private home. Additionally, the middle-class private home was viewed as the domain of women. Thus, intimate relationships moved to this setting. With the invention and then spread of the automobile, people could pursue relationships in cars as well as more easily access other locations. Urbanization likely had a similar effect: by putting people into close proximity with more people and more spaces, couples could easily access more than just the family dwelling. Today, dating can take place in an online realm and the privacy of bedrooms, possibly bypassing any public settings.

“We don’t lie to our search engine. We’re more intimate with it than with our friends, lovers, or family members.”

Wired has an interesting excerpt from a new book Data and Goliath:

One experiment from Stanford University examined the phone metadata of about 500 volunteers over several months. The personal nature of what the researchers could deduce from the metadata surprised even them, and the report is worth quoting:

Participant A communicated with multiple local neurology groups, a specialty pharmacy, a rare condition management service, and a hotline for a pharmaceutical used solely to treat relapsing multiple sclerosis…

That’s a multiple sclerosis sufferer, a heart attack victim, a semiautomatic weapons owner, a home marijuana grower, and someone who had an abortion, all from a single stream of metadata.

Web search data is another source of intimate information that can be used for surveillance. (You can argue whether this is data or metadata. The NSA claims it’s metadata because your search terms are embedded in the URLs.) We don’t lie to our search engine. We’re more intimate with it than with our friends, lovers, or family members. We always tell it exactly what we’re thinking about, in as clear words as possible.

The gist of the excerpt is that while people might be worried about the NSA, corporations know a lot about us: from who we have talked to, where we have been, who have interacted with through metadata and more personal information through search data. And perhaps the trick to all of this is that (1) we generally give up this data voluntarily online (2) because we perceive some benefits and (3) we can’t imagine life without all of this stuff (even though many important sites and social media barely existed a decade or two ago).

The reason I pulled the particular quote out for the headline is that it has some interesting implications: have we traded close social relationships for the intimacy of the Internet? We may not have to deal with so much ignorance – just Google everything now – but we don’t need to interact with people in the same ways.

Also, this highlights the need for tech companies to put a positive spin on all of their products and actions. “Trust us – we have your best interests at heart.” Yet, like most corporations, their best interests deal with money rather than solely helping people live better lives.

More rural residents, businesses don’t have local banks to borrow from

A new study suggests fewer rural Americans have local banks who they can interact with and borrow from:

Increasingly, bank branches are headquartered in distant urban areas – and in some cases, financial “deserts” exist in towns with few or no traditional financial institutions such as banks and credit unions. That means that local lending to individuals based on “relational” banking—with lenders being aware of borrowers’ reputation, credit history and trustworthiness in the community—has dropped, according to a Baylor study published in the journals Rural Sociology and International Innovation.

Instead, more individuals launching small businesses are relying on relatives, remortgaging their homes and even drawing from their pensions—all of which are risky approaches, said lead researcher Charles M. Tolbert, Ph.D., professor and chair of the department of sociology in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences.

But for the 30 percent who obtain loans through the traditional lending method, that approach also can be very challenging, according to the research article, “Restructuring of the Financial Industry: The Disappearance of Locally Owned Traditional Financial Services in Rural America.”

Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation statistics showed that from 1984 to 2011, the number of banking firms in the United States fell by more than 50 percent—to just under 6,300—while the number of branches almost doubled, to more than 83,000, according to researchers’ analysis of data from the FDIC’s national business register. For the study, Baylor researchers partnered with the U.S. Census Bureau Center for Economic Studies.

I’m sure financial institutions would argue it is not as profitable to locate in more rural areas that do not generate as much business as denser areas. It would be interesting to look at the exact figures from financial institutions in rural areas: are they not profitable at all or are they just less profitable?

However, how essential are financial institutions to local economies? The same argument might be made about hospitals: they provide essential services even as they are not as profitable in rural areas. (I would guess people would probably rate health care as more important than credit access but both are important for communities.)

The article hints at another aspect of this change: fewer banks in rural areas means fewer relationships between lenders and residents. While forming relationships may take time, couldn’t they be better for business in the long run? Prioritizing efficiency and profits over people may be good for the bottom line and shareholders but it is the sort of approach that seems to have turned off a good number of Americans to large banks.

 

What a sociologist learned about giving Christmas gifts from Middletown

Middletown (Muncie, Indiana) holds a special place in American sociology though the findings of two 1970s studies (ASR and AJS) about giving Christmas gifts based on the community are not as well known. Here are a few selections from the two articles:

“The 110 respondents in the sample gave 2,969 gifts and received 1,378 gifts, a mean of 27 given and 13 received. Participants in this gift system should give (individually or jointly) at least one Christmas gift every year to their mothers, fathers, sons, daughters; to the current spouses of these persons; and to their own spouses. By the operation of this rule, participants expect to receive at least one gift in return from each of these persons excepting infants…Gifts to grandparents and grandchildren seem to be equally obligatory if these live in the same community or nearby, but not at greater distances. Christmas gifts to siblings are not required.

Parents expect to give more valuable and more numerous gifts to their minor children and to their adult children living at home than they receive in return. This imbalance is central to the entire ritual. The iconography of Middletown’s secular Christmas emphasizes unreciprocated giving to children by the emblematic figure of Santa Claus, and the theme of unreciprocated giving provides one of the few connections between the secular and religious iconography of the festival-the Three Wise Men coming from a distant land to bring unreciprocated gifts to a child.”…

“Most of Middletown’s gift giving occurs between close kin…the pattern it displays shows up the two principal points of stress in the contemporary American family. The first point of stress is the insecurity of the spousal relationship. Viewed cross-culturally, the contemporary American family is unusual in exhibiting a very high level of interaction between spouses while permitting easy, almost penalty-free divorce at the initiative of either spouse at any point in the life cycle. Since divorce is always more than a remote possibility in a Middletown marriage, the relationship with affinal relatives [in-laws] is always a little uneasy.

The individual message [of a gift] says, “I value you according to the degree of our relationship” and anticipates the response, “I value you in the same way.” But the compound message that emerges from the unwrapping of gifts in the presence of the whole gathering allows more subtle meanings to be conveyed. It permits the husband to say to the wife, “I value you more than my parents” or the mother to say to the daughter-in-law, “I value you as much as my son so long as you are married to him” or the brother to say to the brother, “I value you more than our absent brothers, but less than our parents and much less than my children.” These statements, taken together, would define and sustain a social structure, if only because, by their gift messages, both parties to each dyadic relationship confirm that they have the same understanding of the relationship and the bystanders, who are interested parties, endorse that understanding by tacit approval.”

This is not the first time the media has discussed these studies but I do give credit for actually let the sociological studies speak for themselves. However, there should be a demerit for titling the web page “Christmas gift exchange: The anthropological rules beneath it.” This is based on sociological studies – these disciplines are not the same thing!

I suppose this could be a case where someone would read this and say this is all obvious. Isn’t sociology just common sense? Yet, even these small excerpts reveal some interesting findings. Physical distance matters, particularly when you get beyond the nuclear family. Additionally, Caplow notes that gift-giving between spouses is laden with meaning that can either support or undermine a marriage. While I suspect the kinds of gifts exchanged in the late 1970s might have shifted today, Caplow found money could generally be given one-way from older family members to younger family members, but not in reverse.

Considering all the hoopla surrounding Christmas in the United States and elsewhere around the world, it is a little surprising more sociologists don’t study Christmas behaviors and patterns…

Portraying the Internet in stories on-screen

A look at the new movie The Fifth Estate highlights the difficulties of portraying Internet action in film:

“[It’s] almost like going back to the basics of silent filmmaking – you are going to do some reading in this,” Condon told WIRED about his use of the cyber-visuals. “The question is: How to make that as immersive as possible. I think one of the things about a dramatized version as opposed to some of the very very good [documentaries] – Alex Gibney’s was wonderful – is that this is meant to give you an experience of, a sense of what it was like to be in the room.”Ok, sure. But does the room have to be a metaphorical representation of the internet when the actual apartments/cafes/hacker spaces where the WikiLeaks team worked suffice? Probably not. In fairness, there is one moment when the aforementioned fake office is shown going up in flames as Domscheit-Berg (played by Daniel Brühl) deletes troves of WikiLeaks files that is poignant, even if a bit much, but simply showing the disappearing files got across the same message. And there is more than enough drama in the hurried scenes set in hacker conferences, the radical underground world of Berlin’s Tacheles, and the newsrooms of the world’s most prestigious newspapers to go around — dramatizing online chat doesn’t feel necessary…

But that doesn’t save it from the trap that has plagued modern cyber-thrillers from Hackers to The Net. The internet — and documents and troves of data it transmits and contains — are not characters. They don’t have feelings or personalities, and it’s hard to make drama out of what happens on them.

The Social Network is one of the few films to do it well, and even though it took its own liberties; the amount of time we actually spent watching Mark Zuckerberg program was minimal and it managed to depict the internet and tech culture in a way that didn’t induce the sort of eye-rolling from tech-savvy viewers that Fifth Estate likely will. While the film ostensibly took place in the world of Facebook, it sidestepped the pitfalls of the online thriller by never taking its gaze off of the sometimes funny, sometimes brilliant interactions between Mark Zuckerberg and his cofounders and partners (“A million dollars isn’t cool, you know what’s cool? … A billion dollars.”) The Fifth Estate attempts to do the same with Assange and his cohorts, but it gets muddled in explaining things and introducing unnecessary characters and loses its way. It’s a shame.

So The Social Network used the Internet as a prop in order to tell more common stories about human relationships, specifically the difficulty a young man has in building strong relationships with females. In this way, the star of the film is not really Facebook – it is the people involved in its making. People don’t have to care about or know about Facebook at all to know the familiar contours of a film about relationships. I’m also reminded of how The Matrix tried to show an always-on, connected data source: a screen of scrolling numbers and bits, representing information. But, again, that trilogy didn’t spend much time in those scenes and instead told a familiar story about oppressed people – and a chosen one – fighting back.

While this is an interesting analysis, how exactly could a film display the Internet without relying more on relationships? What would be a proper cinematic portrayal of the Internet?

Quick Review: Catfish

Perhaps we could consider the movie Catfish a companion to the more publicized film The Social Network (reviews from Brian here, Joel Sage here): both films consider the effects that Facebook and other digital technologies have on our world. But while The Social Network was a stylized retelling of the founding of Facebook, Catfish covers the lives of more ordinary people as they use these technologies to search for love. Here are a few thoughts about this film:

1. The story revolves a guy, Nev, from New York and a girl from Michigan, Megan, who build a relationship built around a Facebook friendship, IM chats, text messages, and phone calls. Both parties are looking for love though why they are doing this ends up being the plot twist of the film.

1a. I think what makes this film work is that Nev is an appealing character. Even though he hasn’t met Megan in the early stages of the film, he falls hard and ends up giggling and swooning like a teenager. But when things turn out to be more complicated than this, he still finds a way to make sense of it all.

2. More broadly, the film presents a question that many people wonder about: can two people really build a lasting relationship through Facebook?  While this is an interesting question, research on Facebook and SNS (social networking site) use suggests most younger people are not looking to meet new people online. Rather, they are reinforcing existing relationships or reestablishing past relationships. And this film deserves some credit: whereas a film like You’ve Got Mail suggests that email and other electronic communication work the same way as traditional dating (and the typical romantic comedy happy ending), this film introduces some complications.

3. The Social Network seems to suggest that technology helps keep us apart. (A side note: this seems to be an argument from the older generation talking about younger generations. One thing I wonder about The Social Network: was it so critically acclaimed because it fed stereotypes that older people have about younger people? How much did the characters in this film resonate with the lives of younger film-goers?) In that film, Zuckerberg founds Facebook in order to join the in-crowd, is being sued by two people after arguments related to developing community-building websites,  and at the end, he is shown still searching for a connection with a girl he lost years ago. Catfish seems to make an opposite argument: despite the imperfect people who try to connect online, the film suggests there is still some value in getting to know new people. When Nev’s love becomes complicated, he doesn’t just withdraw or call it quits – he tries to move forward while still getting to know Megan.

4. This film claims to be a documentary though there is disagreement about whether this is actually the case. Regardless of whether the film captures reality or is scripted, it is engaging. (The presentation seems similar in tone to Exit Through the Gift Shop, reviewed here.) Have we reached the point in films where the line between what is real and what is written doesn’t matter? And should we care or do we just want a good story?

Overall, this film seems more hopeful about the prospects of Facebook and other digital technology. With a documentary style and an engaging storyline, Catfish helps us to think again about whether people can truly get to know each other online.

(This film was generally liked by critics: it has a 81% fresh rating, 109 fresh out of 134 total reviews, at RottenTomatoes.com.)

Why you should have had a Super Bowl party: to reinforce deep human bonds

A communication professor suggests that going to a Super Bowl party with friends is more than just eating food and hanging out: it is about building human bonds, particularly after tough times.

Sparks said there’s a wealth of medical evidence that human contact — particularly in social situations — can be therapeutic, reducing stress and giving people a comforting sense of belonging.

“It sounds silly in a way when we’re talking about Super Bowl parties, but I don’t think events like this should be underestimated,” Sparks said. “These are important social occasions that really have the potential to reinforce our deep human bonds. And the timing of this year’s Super Bowl is really quite nice. People are going to be wanting to come out and share stories about their experiences.”

From blizzards in the Midwest to Super Bowl parties. If people needed more reasons to have a party, this seems like a good justification.

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.

Claim: “Facebook knows when you’ll break up”

There is an interesting chart going around that is based on Facebook data and claims to show when people are more prone to break-up. Here is a quick description of the chart:

British journalist and graphic designer David McCandless, who specializes in showcasing data in visual ways, compiled the chart. He showed off the graphic at a TED conference last July in Oxford, England.

In the talk, McCandless said he and a colleague scraped 10,000 Facebook status updates for the phrases “breakup” and “broken up.”

They found two big spikes on the calendar for breakups. The first was after Valentine’s Day — that holiday has a way of defining relationships, for better or worse — and in the weeks leading up to spring break. Maybe spring fever makes people restless, or maybe college students just don’t want to be tied down when they’re partying in Cancun.

Potentially interesting findings and it is an interesting way to present this data. But when you consider how the data was collected, perhaps it isn’t so great. A few thoughts on the subject:

1. The best way to figure this out would be to convince Facebook to let you have the data for relationship status changes.

2. Searching for the word “breakup” and “broken up” might catch some, or perhaps even many ended relationships, but not all. Does everyone include these words when talking about ending a relationship?

3. Are 10,000 status updates a representative sample of all Facebook statuses?

4. Is there a lag time involved in reporting these changes? Monday, for example is the most popular day for announcing break-ups, not necessarily for break-ups occurring on that day. Do people immediately run to Facebook to tell the world that they have ended a relationship?

5. Does everyone initially “register” and then “unregister” a relationship on Facebook anyway?

The more I think about it, it is a big claim to make that “Facebook knows when you are going to break up” based on this data mining exercise.