To wit: This week Snapchat co-founder Evan Spiegel sat down with The Verge to show off a new Snapchat feature called “stories,” which allows users to create and share with friends a compilation of images that lasts up to 24 hours. Along the way, Spiegel adroitly dropped some sociological theory into the mix. But rather than just citing one of the popular social scientists (say, Duncan Watts, Robin Dunbar, or Nicholas Christakis), whose names one typically invokes as a matter of course in these situations, Spiegel did one better. He cited Snapchat’s own staff sociologist…
Snapchat actually has its own sociology researcher on staff, Nathan Jurgenson, made famous for “The IRL Fetish,” an essay on the augmented reality of our digital lives.
“He invented a concept called ‘digital dualism’—something our company is fascinated by,” says Spiegel. “It’s the notion that people conceptualize the world into online and offline, which makes for a lot of very awkward experiences.”
That Snapchat would carve out a position on its small but growing team for a social theorist makes perfect sense. Against all odds, sociology is suddenly en vogue. These days, few things are more chic in the social media business than casually explaining how the hypotheses of some obscure, academic sociologist (Stanley Milgram, Elihu Katz, Paul Lazarsfeld, etc.) explains, for instance, why one cat video went viral on a social network and not another (see Peretti, Jonah).
All of which is threatening to turn the acquisition of living, breathing sociologists into a newfangled status symbol of sorts. After all, any two-bit, wannabe startup can decorate its offices with a foosball table or a Kegerator. It takes a certain level of moxy, on the other hand, to trick out your staff with a proprietary sociologist.
Sociologists as “newfangled status symbol[s]”? This might be a bit overstated. Still, why not? If many of these tech companies are creating products intended to facilitate social interaction, why not employ sociologists who have been thinking about these issues, can collect data about, and analyze the experiences of users? Sociologists could work well in business settings to help firms understand what is currently happening and develop new ideas.
Perhaps what sociologists really need to happen in order to break into this field is for a few sociologists themselves to develop apps and social media platforms. Imagine some entrepreneurial sociologists who have some coding and/or business background putting together a viable platform based on sociological theories and principles. Why couldn’t this happen?