AIM away messages and a “basic form of social liberty”

AIM away messages provided a way for users to show that they were not available:

Photo by Porapak Apichodilok on Pexels.com

Sometimes you had to step away. So you threw up an Away Message: I’m not here. I’m in class/at the game/my dad needs to use the comp. I’ve left you with an emo quote that demonstrates how deep I am. Or, here’s a song lyric that signals I am so over you. Never mind that my Away Message is aimed at you.

I miss Away Messages. This nostalgia is layered in abstraction; I probably miss the newness of the internet of the 1990s, and I also miss just being … away. But this is about Away Messages themselves—the bits of code that constructed Maginot Lines around our availability. An Away Message was a text box full of possibilities, a mini-MySpace profile or a Facebook status update years before either existed. It was also a boundary: An Away Message not only popped up as a response after someone IM’d you, it was wholly visible to that person before they IM’d you.

Messaging today, whether through texting or apps, does not work the same way:

Catapulting even further back into the past for a moment: Old-fashioned phone calls used to, and sometimes still do, start with “Hey, you free?” Santamaria points out. “You were going to tell me if you could talk before we started the conversation.” There’s a version of this today—someone might preface their message with “Not urgent, respond when you can,” for example—but for the most part, we just send the text message without consideration, Santamaria says. Interruption is the default.

The ability to walk away from communication and the demands it makes on a person struck me as similar to one of the three “basic forms of social liberty” humans had before settling in cities and large societies. Anthropologists David Graeber and David Wengrow say the second form was “the freedom to ignore or disobey commands issued by others.” Text messages, emails, and messages in apps create a pressure for someone to respond. To not have these digital “commands,” one practically not use apps and devices.

Is this the freedom we have traded to use social media, the Internet, and smartphones? People can unplug but it is difficult to do that and still participate in regular social life today. Saying no to messages or refusing to respond will likely not garner many friends or close connections. And related to the first form of freedom, “the freedom to move away or relocate from one’s surroundings,” the messages and apps can follow us anywhere there is Internet access or cell coverage.

These platforms succeed by encouraging messaging and connections. But, what if a basic human freedom is the one to say no to that interaction when desired?

Forming social norms in the metaverse

Moderators are on the front lines in developing social norms for the metaverse:

Photo by Jessica Lewis Creative on Pexels.com

These norms reveal how moderation is complicated by trying to map the social conventions of the physical world onto virtual reality. If you covered yourself in purple body paint and showed up at an in-person medical conference, you’d probably be asked to leave. At a metaverse medical conference, the other attendees wouldn’t even bat an eye. This relaxing of certain social norms leads people to test the bounds of acceptable behavior, and moderators in some cases have to decide what crosses the line. For instance, new users will often pat strangers on the head, an interaction that would be strange and a little invasive in real life. Educators in VR tries to discourage people from doing this, though it seems to fall into a gray area of rude but not totally offensive. The same goes for pacing excessively around a room, walking through other users, or fidgeting too much with your controllers, which can cause your VR hands to distractingly bounce around. “People don’t get it at first because a lot of people come into VR from a gaming platform, so they don’t fully grasp the fact that behind every avatar is a person,” said Myer. During one of the events I moderated, VanFossen asked me to message an attendee to step back because he was a little too close to the speaker and invading her personal space. I needed the nudge: It’s hard to tell how close is too close in the metaverse. It’s not like you can feel the other person breathe.

To account for these gray areas, Educators in VR calibrates the strictness of the moderation based on the type of event. Parties are a bit more laissez-faire, while group meditation sessions have a zero tolerance policy where you might be removed simply for moving around the room too much. “I was very much against zero tolerance until I started witnessing what that meant,” said VanFossen of meditation events. “People are there for a reason, whether this is their daily thing, they have a crap stressful job, they need a break, or they have mental health issues.” Moderation levels also differ by platform—AltspaceVR tends to be stricter because it’s targeted at professionals, while VRChat is known for anarchy.

It remains to be seen how moderation will work at scale as the metaverse accelerates its expansion. At the moment, developers don’t seem to have a good answer. AltSpaceVR has been trying to put moderation tools into the hands of its users and also has staff on hand to help with particularly volatile situations. Meta has similarly relied on users themselves to block and report troublemakers in Horizon Worlds. Yet if tech companies succeed in their grand ambitions to get billions of people to inhabit the metaverse, maintaining it is going to take an immense amount of time and energy from a countless number of people who have to make tough, nuanced decisions minute by minute. As VanFossen said, “It’s the most disgusting, frustrating, stress-inducing, headache-inducing, mental health–depleting job on the planet.”

Social interactions and spaces require social norms. People appreciate knowing how to act and how they will be treated. Without them, chaos or anarchy or worse ensues

Enforcing social norms is an important matter. In many situations, the norms are communicated and enforced in less explicit or informal ways. People see what is happening and respond similarly or they have a general idea of how to behave. In other situations, the norms need to be explicitly addressed, perhaps through formal guidelines or enforcers who step in when needed.

What sounds unique about the situation discussed above is (1) the social space is relatively new, (2) unfamiliar to a lot of people, and (3) is still in flux because of #1 and #2 plus ongoing changes. The moderators are trying to step in and they are creating the norms as they go. If the metaverse becomes more popular, the norms will solidify as the space and the proper behavior becomes more known.

Is Twitter more like a town square or a city full of different neighborhoods?

Finding the right spatial metaphor for Twitter might help reveal what the social media platform does best:

Photo by Deva Darshan on Pexels.com

In Musk’s mind, “Twitter serves as the de facto public town square,” and as such, it should be a place where people are able to speak their minds. This metaphor seems slightly off, though. Yes, for people like Musk it’s a place to have debates they think are important for humanity; people with millions of followers are often the people who think what they’re saying is most important. But for the rest of Twitter—some 229 million daily users—it’s more like a metropolis. People have neighborhoods they stick to; sometimes they go out and talk with friends, sometimes they watch from their windows, sometimes they talk up strangers in a park. Most of these aren’t the kind of world-changing conversations Musk seems to want to have, but they’re just as vital.

As someone who studies cities and suburbs as well as social media, a few thoughts:

  1. The idea of a “town square” seems quaint in a mass society. At the scale of a society like the United States, is there really a single place where everyone can come together? This may have better fit an earlier era of mass media – such as the opening decades of television – or for particular events – the mass viewership of the Super Bowl – but generally does not apply when a country has over 300 million residents.
  2. A “town square” would seem to fit better in a smaller community or neighborhood. The capacity of a town square would be limited. What would the equivalent be in a big city: a plaza? A main thoroughfare or major park where people gather for rallies or protests?
  3. On social media, many users friend or interact with people they know offline. Twitter is a little different model since you follow people but a sustained follow can lead to understanding the other user more. The platforms are not generally set up to interact with random users nor do many users choose to do that.
  4. The goal of participating in durable social media communities is also what Facebook is pushing these days. Even as the early years of the Internet offered potential to connect with anyone in the world, many users found people with like interests and spent a lot of time there. If this is indeed more like city neighborhoods, what then connects the central plaza or town square to all the neighborhoods? How much flow or interaction is there back and forth?

“There’s a human tendency to accept people are who they say they are”

As the story unfolds of two men in Washington, D.C. who successfully acted as Homeland Secutrity agents, here is one explanation for how they were able to keep it going:

Photo by Savvas Stavrinos on Pexels.com

The fact that Secret Service, NCIS, and even DHS personnel were apparently fooled about the authenticity of Taherzadeh and Ali doesn’t actually surprise experts in the field. There’s a human tendency to accept people are who they say they are.

A cynic might say that this makes people an easy mark. Some people will take advantage of the willingness of others to trust them. This is part of the reason spam and scams work: people might not be the most discerning, particularly when the pitch looks viable.

Yet, this giving people the benefit of the doubt increases sociability, cooperation, and trust in the long run. Not everyone will take advantage of you. Humans like to be liked and work with others. Humans are social creatures whose social relationships and networks enable them to do things far beyond what the might accomplish as individuals (read more about this in Connected).

Directly confronting someone about suspicions we may have of them also is a risk. It introduces conflict and an opportunity for both the questioner and the other to be uncomfortable. As we practice impression management, we generally want to avoid losing face. Ignoring a text or email is relatively easy to do; the stakes are higher when the other person is in front of you.

This does not necessarily mean that security agencies should not have structures and/or actors who try to counter these human tendencies. But, the task may be very difficult in light of how humans want to behave.

The coming of the “embodied internet”

Can you have both a physical body and operate in a virtual world? Perhaps so in the coming metaverse:]

Photo by Bradley Hook on Pexels.com

Billionaire Zuckerberg is betting his company’s future on the metaverse but is keen to make it a collaborative project, describing it as an “embodied internet”…

“We believe the metaverse may be the next generation of the internet — combining the physical and digital world in a persistent and immersive manner — and not purely a virtual reality world,” the report says.”

A device-agnostic metaverse accessible via PCs, game consoles, and smartphones could result in a very large ecosystem.”

Some might see the “real world” and “online world” as disconnected realms. I have argued for using “online” and “offline” spheres because I think they are quite connected in terms of social relationships and networks.

The metaverse has the potential to further link realms. The embodied aspect is interesting to consider; how much will the offline body move in sync with the online body? How much further will we move beyond guiding an avatar around an online platform with a mouse or keyboard? And what potential is there to truly meld online and offline experiences at the same time?

I wonder how much this embodiment can happen in the metaverse as compared to other technological options. For example, Google Glass and similar options offered the opportunity to overlay data on top of what a person was seeing and experiencing. Or, Pokemon Go put video game characters in an offline map and reality.

Social isolation and anomie during COVID-19

One possible explanation of the weird behavior of people during COVID-19 draws on the work of sociologist Emile Durkheim:

Photo by Joshua Miranda on Pexels.com

The pandemic loosened ties between people: Kids stopped going to school; their parents stopped going to work; parishioners stopped going to church; people stopped gathering, in general. Sociologists think all of this isolation shifted the way we behave. “We’re more likely to break rules when our bonds to society are weakened,” Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist who studies social disorder, told me. “When we become untethered, we tend to prioritize our own private interests over those of others or the public.”

The turn-of-the-20th-century scholar Émile Durkheim called this state anomie, or a lack of social norms that leads to lawlessness. “We are moral beings to the extent that we are social beings,” Durkheim wrote. In the past two years, we have stopped being social, and in many cases we have stopped being moral, too.

“We’ve got, I think, a generalized sense that the rules simply don’t apply,” Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, told me. In some places, he says, police arrested fewer people during the pandemic, and “when enforcement goes down, people tend to relax their commitment to the rules.”

This perspective is interesting to consider alongside the millions who did follow national and local guidelines regarding masking and behavior. A lot of attention has been paid to those refusing to comply but many did; does the weirdness stand out even more because of this?

To take the Durkheim reference further, he thought the breaking of the rules and the subsequent reaction and sanctions could help reinforce the original rules.

I might add to the list of explanations in the article the influence of smartphones and social media. These could matter in multiple ways. First, the weird behavior can easily be recorded by others. People may have been weird in the past but was there such a visible record of that behavior? Second, the people with the weird behavior may be recording and sharing their own behavior. Overall, what may have been more private behavior in the past or actions limited to a relatively small set of people or closely connected set of people are no longer kept from a broader audience.

Sociology and “milling” online

When unusual or bad events occur, how do people respond? They go online to try to make sense of it all:

Photo by San Fermin Pamplona on Pexels.com

I don’t know what to make of all this, and I doubt if there is anything to be made. But the behavior on display is, if nothing else, a product of a lack of sense. It’s the agitated, aimless buzzing of the type of crowd that gathers in the aftermath of some bewildering catastrophe. Social scientists have a name for this mode of chaos: They call it “milling.” We are all just chattering away in restless and confused excitement as we try to figure out how to think about what’s happening. We want to understand which outcomes are most likely, and whether we might be obligated to help—by giving money or vowing not to share misinformation or learning the entire history of global conflict so as to avoid saying the wrong thing. We are milling.

The word comes from the mid-20th-century American sociologist Herbert Blumer, who was interested in the process by which crowds converge, during moments of uncertainty and restlessness, on common attitudes and actions. As people mill about the public square, those nearby will be drawn into their behavior, Blumer wrote in 1939. “The primary effect of milling is to make the individuals more sensitive and responsive to one another, so that they become increasingly preoccupied with one another and decreasingly responsive to ordinary objects of stimulation.”

These days, we mill online. For a paper published in 2016, a team of researchers from the University of Washington looked at the spread of rumors and erratic chatter on Twitter about the Boston Marathon bombings in the hours after that event. They described this “milling” as “collective work to make sense of an uncertain space” by interpreting, speculating, theorizing, debating, or challenging presented information.

To apply the term to the current moment may be a little sloppy—for a sociologist, milling would be the precursor to meaningful group action—but it gets across, you know, the current mood. We’re emoting, lecturing, correcting, praising, and debunking. We’re offering up dumb stuff that immediately gets swatted down. (We’re getting “ratioed,” as it’s called on Twitter.) We’re being aimless and embarrassing and loud and responding to each other’s weird behavior. “People are kind of struggling to figure out appropriate ways of responding to this really uncertain situation,” Timothy Recuber, an assistant sociology professor at Smith College, told me. Recuber, who is also the author of Consuming Catastrophe: Mass Culture in America’s Decade of Disaster, is an expert on the role that media play in what he calls “unsettled times.” And in these unsettled times, he said, we’re engaged in something like what Blumer had in mind.

The wisdom of crowds as an emergent property in the midst of uncertainty?

I wonder how this milling has changed over time. Specifically, I am thinking about spatial changes in the United States over the last century or so. Milling could work better when people live either in denser areas or small towns. This could lead to having “the public square” described above for people to gather. In a more suburban setting, where a majority of Americans now live, where would milling take place? Walking outside their house or residence might put them in contact with some neighbors but it would take some driving for many to get to a location where people might gather. Go to the shopping mall? The local library? Walmart?

If suburbanization reduced public spaces for gathering and add to this fewer people going to work during COVID-19, the online sphere offers more opportunities. The physical geography matters less when people can enter an online public square from anywhere. Now, there are numerous public squares available online with certain platforms or sites offering different opportunities and population with which to interact.

How effective is this online milling as opposed to milling in a offline location? In the offline public square, there is an embodied experience with people. The online public square is different with fewer cues from other actors and someone has to say/do something to be recognized.

The superusers of Facebook

A new study in the works examines the users who drive activity on Facebook:

Photo by Brett Jordan on Pexels.com

For more than a year, we’ve been analyzing a massive new data set that we designed to study public behavior on the 500 U.S. Facebook pages that get the most engagement from users. Our research, part of which will be submitted for peer review later this year, aims to better understand the people who spread hate and misinformation on Facebook. We hoped to learn how they use the platform and, crucially, how Facebook responds. Based on prior reporting, we expected it would be ugly. What we found was much worse.

The most alarming aspect of our findings is that people like John, Michelle, and Calvin aren’t merely fringe trolls, or a distraction from what really matters on the platform. They are part of an elite, previously unreported class of users that produce more likes, shares, reactions, comments, and posts than 99 percent of Facebook users in America.

They’re superusers. And because Facebook’s algorithm rewards engagement, these superusers have enormous influence over which posts are seen first in other users’ feeds, and which are never seen at all. Even more shocking is just how nasty most of these hyper-influential users are. The most abusive people on Facebook, it turns out, are given the most power to shape what Facebook is.

This connects to a point I have been considering for a while now: the social media activity we tend to see or hear about is often not representative of society as a whole. It depends who is on different platforms, who uses it regularly or are power users, how algorithms work to highlight particular content, and how it is all experienced by users. A social media trend may not reveal much about broader patterns even as particular conversations, sites, and pockets of activity could reveal much about smaller groups or sections.

More broadly, Facebook says it has the goal of connecting people. How do superusers fit into this? Abusive users might be able to connect people, albeit in specific ways that may not be what people generally hope for when they think of connecting. Is the goal to connect people by boosting “average” engagement rather than the users who post the most? On the flip side, how many users do not engage at all and what might effectively move them into engaging regularly?

Build a dorm where 94% of the bedrooms have no windows in order to encourage more activity in common areas

The construction of college dorms not not typically attract national attention but an unusual plan at the University of CaliforniaSanta Barbara and the architect who quit in protest did make the news:

Photo by Jou00e3o Jesus on Pexels.com

Billionaire Charlie Munger is bankrolling the design of a massive dormitory at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The $1.5 billion project comes with a major catch — 94% of the dorm’s single occupancy rooms are in the interior of the building, and have no windows.

A consulting architect on the university’s Design Review Committee quit in protest of the project, in a resignation letter obtained by CNN Business and reported by the Santa Barbara Independent…

Munger, the 97-year-old vice chairman of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, donated $200 million to UCSB to fund the dorms, with the caveat that his designs are followed. He wanted the dorm rooms to be tiny and windowless to encourage residents to spend more time outside in the common areas, meeting other students…

The rooms do have artificial windows, however, which Munger said resemble the Disney cruise ship’s artificial portholes where “starfish come in and wink at your children,” the Santa Barbara Independent reported.

The debate between Munger and the architect seems to come down to differing opinions on what the optimal residential experience is. Munger hopes that no windows would help students leave their rooms. The architect wants students to have access to natural light. Architecture often has ideas about how people in spaces should operate based on the physical surroundings. As my sociologist colleague Robert Brenneman and I argue in Building Faith, religious buildings are also built with specific experiences and behaviors in mind.

Three other factors connected to larger trends are interesting here:

  1. From what I have read, the demand for single-person rooms has increased at colleges. This provides students more private space. But, this may limit sociability and it could increase costs for everyone because more space is needed.
  2. I wonder what role smartphones play in all of this. Even with a window, smartphone use is pretty pervasive. Even with smartphone use, natural light and seeing the outside world has benefits.
  3. People with money and influence sometimes want to translate that status into physical buildings. If you have big money, you can help plan a significant building or attach your name to it. It would be interesting to see how long Munger’s name would continue to be attached to this particular building.

See an earlier post on spending a lot of time in windowless rooms.

Facebook and powerful actors

The Wall Street Journal reports on the ways powerful people interact with the platform differently compared to regular users:

The program, known as “cross check” or “XCheck,” was initially intended as a quality-control measure for actions taken against high-profile accounts, including celebrities, politicians and journalists. Today, it shields millions of VIP users from the company’s normal enforcement process, the documents show. Some users are “whitelisted”—rendered immune from enforcement actions—while others are allowed to post rule-violating material pending Facebook employee reviews that often never come.

At times, the documents show, XCheck has protected public figures whose posts contain harassment or incitement to violence, violations that would typically lead to sanctions for regular users. In 2019, it allowed international soccer star Neymar to show nude photos of a woman, who had accused him of rape, to tens of millions of his fans before the content was removed by Facebook. Whitelisted accounts shared inflammatory claims that Facebook’s fact checkers deemed false, including that vaccines are deadly, that Hillary Clinton had covered up “pedophile rings,” and that then-President Donald Trump had called all refugees seeking asylum “animals,” according to the documents.

A 2019 internal review of Facebook’s whitelisting practices, marked attorney-client privileged, found favoritism to those users to be both widespread and “not publicly defensible.”

“We are not actually doing what we say we do publicly,” said the confidential review. It called the company’s actions “a breach of trust” and added: “Unlike the rest of our community, these people can violate our standards without any consequences.”

This will likely get a lot of attention for the different approach to different kinds of users. That elite members are treated differently could get interesting in an era with an increased focus on inequality and the influence of social media.

I am also interested in hearing more about how much Facebook and other social media platforms rely on powerful and influential people. Celebrities, whether in politics, entertainment, sports, the arts, or other spheres, are important figures in society. Elite figures may not be like regular users in that they attract a lot of views and promote engagement among other users. Social media platforms want users to engage with content and elites may provide just that.

Going further, social media platforms have power users. For example, a small percent of Twitter users are highly engaged. Social media use and content generation is even across different users. Should those who generate more content and engagement operate under a different set of rules? Is having provocative users or people who push the boundaries (or even get away with breaking the rules) good for business?

This makes me wonder if there would be a market for a social media platform that puts users on a more level playing field. If we know that certain resources, statuses, and social markers lead to differential treatment, might an online platform be able to even things out?