Reconsidering social media and Internet use after an online-filled COVID-19

The Internet and social media were critical tools for many during COVID-19 with uses ranging from connecting with family and friends to work to activism to going to school. As COVID-19 winds down, does this mean we should reconsider how much time we spend with these technologies? Here is one conclusion:

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Two years ago, I was deleting and undeleting my Instagram account, begging every expert I could find to tell me exactly how to live healthily with the internet in my pocket. In 2021, to do the same would seem a little silly. Netflix’s subscriber growth may be slowing, and Tinder videochats may soon fall out of favor, but it’s hard to imagine that a Great Offlining is really in the cards. Instead, we could be heading for a Great Rebalancing, where we reconfigure how we do our work and how we organize our time on the internet. We’ve grown more aware of how we rely on one another—online as well as off—and of the tools we have or could build for responding to a crisis. The biggest tech companies’ accrual of power remains one of the most serious problems of my lifetime, but I no longer talk about the internet itself as if it were an external and malignant force, now that I’ve lived in such intimate contact with it for so long.

I’m sure I’ll change my mind about everything I’ve just said, but sometimes you just need to time-stamp the moment. Going back through my essays from 2019, I was struck by how easily I had misremembered what the cultural conversation was about back then. Jenny Odell never argued that people should go offline completely. Rather, she told me that deleting your apps or throwing your phone in the ocean would represent a failure to recognize that “we actually really need something like social media.” The desire to go online is human, and “there’s nothing wrong with that part.” We just have to keep reminding ourselves why we’re doing it.

I think it is always a good idea to ask this question about many things with which we spend this time: how important is this to me? Is my time use what I want or did I just fall into this pattern? For better or worse, sometimes it takes a drastic change or crisis to ask this question. It is one thing to use a computer for work or browse social media, another to be on Zoom for hours because you cannot be in the office or go to school. If COVID-19 offers people the opportunity to step back and think again about what they want to do with their time, that would be good.

And I would hope that many would say they do not need social media or the Internet as much as they did in the past year. There are many worthwhile things to do, ranging from movement and exercise, reading, pursuing a non-work project or hobby, playing a game, interacting with the people around you, among other options.

More broadly, it is relatively easy to slip into particular time patterns during the day that may or may not be desired. The average American watches 4+ hours of television a day; is that planned and/or desired or does it just happen? Do people take the time they want to eat or not? Is work more time-consuming that people want? If you add up all of these hours across days, weeks, months, and years, it can be shocking to see how much is spent on certain activities. If people have priorities in what they want to do in life, it should be evident in their time use.

(On the other hand, I do not think it is that useful to micromanage your time to the level some have. I recently read about someone famous who scheduled their day in five minute increments in order to make sure things got done. There is a level of attention and time needed to do this that I would not find worthwhile.)

People using localized social media for an edge in searching for homes

Scroll through local Facebook or Nextdoor groups and there is a more common request these days: does anyone know of an upcoming listing for a 4 bedroom home in a desirable neighborhood? Or, perhaps a three bedroom townhome or house for rent at a reasonable price?

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It is hard to know how many good leads are generated by such posts. They often ask for DMs. Generating more competition for such housing is probably not the goal – though landlords or sellers might be interested in drumming up more interest (also evidenced by pictures of homes soon to be on the market). The more direct interaction cuts out some of the middle actors.

Judging by the posts I have seen, the housing needs seem to be present. Even with economic instability during COVID-19, homes in desirable neighborhoods and communities have held their value or increased in value. The housing supply is limited. At least a few people have looked to move out of cities to quiet suburbs. Stories of bidding wars abound. Finding places at reasonable rents is hard.

I could imagine some broader partnerships between the socials and real estate websites. Imagine a special Zillow add-in to your Twitter feed or a Realtor.com bonus for Instagram. All of the real estate websites are competing and so are the social media platforms; which one can truly integrate real estate into their daily feeds beyond the posts of individual users? Say you are looking for a home with particulars and the social media plug-in can alert you to matches and you can get an exclusive bidding window; potential buyers could feel they get an in and realtors might like the added competition among buyers ready to spend.

All of this might matter less if there is more housing supply in the future. Yet, if real estate is truly so lucrative because there is only so much land in the first place, why wouldn’t it permeate even social media.

Love and mass transit in 2021

Combine online dating and a love for mass transit and what do you get?

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As a single person wandering through the world, it can be difficult to find someone who loves all the right things: parks, subways, bike lanes, human-scale buildings, high-density housing, debates over the ideal length of a city block. Even on a dating app, you can’t always tell from a profile who might be thinking, behind their smile, I hate cars.

But if this is exactly the sort of partner—or friend or fling—you’re looking for, there is a solution: Join the wildly popular Facebook meme group and leftist community NUMTOTs (“New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens,” which isn’t really just for teens) and request access to its private spin-off group, NUMTinder. With about 8,000 members living mostly in North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia, NUMTinder is a makeshift dating environment for those who consider liking public transportation to be a core part of their personality, or those for whom a lack of interest in urban planning is a deal breaker. Almost everyone in the group posts at least one selfie with a bike or a subway entrance, to demonstrate their commitment to the lifestyle, and when a new member introduces herself, it’s not uncommon for her to brag about the fact that she doesn’t have a driver’s license. (A second spin-off group, called NUMThots, is for sharing the spiciest seminudes that Facebook’s content moderation will allow. But transit-themed!)

The primary advantage to online dating is that it expands a person’s options beyond geography and their immediate social network to a much broader pool of people who can be filtered by particular traits. In this case, limit the pool to people who care about mass transit and those with that interest can search for partners.

While this may seem strange to the general public, is it really any different than numerous other likes people care about? Just as a comparison, plenty of people like cars or specific cars. At races, car events, clubs, and more, people with these interests could come together. Or, take people who regularly watch trains. Through different communities, these people could meet up and interact. The primary difference is that more Americans might like cars than mass transit.

A final thought: I imagine this group might be more useful in and around cities with a lot of mass transit. Of course, it could also be helpful in other places where few people even think about mass transit because it is not as present.

Facebook continues to claim it is about “meaningful social interactions”

Members of Congress questioned leaders of social media companies this week. In contrast to what legislators suggested, Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook has one particular goal:

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Focusing on the attention-driven business model seems to have been a coordinated strategy among the committee’s Democrats, but they were not alone. Bill Johnson, a Republican from Ohio, compared the addictiveness of social platforms to cigarettes. “You profit from hooking users on your platforms by capitalizing off their time,” he said, addressing Dorsey and Zuckerberg. “So yes or no: Do you agree that you make money off of creating an addiction to your platforms?”

Both executives said no. As they did over and over again, along with Pichai, when asked straightforwardly whether their platforms’ algorithms are optimized to show users material that will keep them engaged. Rather than defend their companies’ business model, they denied it.

Zuckerberg, in particular, suggested that maximizing the amount of time users spend on the platform is the furthest thing from his engineers’ minds. “It’s a common misconception that our teams even have goals of trying to increase the amount of time that people spend,” he said. The company’s true goal, he insisted, is to foster “meaningful social interactions.” Misinformation and inflammatory content actually thwarts that goal. If users are spending time on the platform, it simply proves that the experience is so meaningful to them. “Engagement,” he said, “is only a sign that if we deliver that value, then it will be natural that people use our services more.”

Zuckerberg has said this for years; see this earlier post. Facebook and other social media platforms have the opportunity to bring people together, whether that is through building upon existing relationships or interacting with new people based on common interests and causes.

Has Facebook delivered on this promise? Do social media users find “meaningful social interactions”? The research I have done with Peter Mundey suggests emerging adult users are aware of the downsides of social media interactions but many still participate because there is meaning or enough meaning.

I suppose it might come down to defining and measuring “meaningful social interaction.” Social interaction can take many forms, ranging from carrying on social media mediated relationships through simply viewing images and text over time to less personal interaction in commenting on or registering a reaction to something like hundreds of others to direct interaction to people through various means. Is a negative response meaningful? Does a positive direct interaction count more? Can the interaction be more episodic or is it sustained over a certain period of time?

One possible path: ask for the evidence of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat users (among others) having meaningful interactions alongside evidence of how these platforms count and measure capturing attention. Another: ask whether these companies think they have succeeded in creating “meaningful social interactions” and what they would cite as markers of this.

Does social media make your life better?

It is a simple question. It may not have an easy answer.

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As I teach undergraduate students ages 18-22, the topic of social media comes up. It may be during a class break when many go to their smartphones. It may be during conversations about social interaction or the media or technology. It may be in discussing my research in this area. According to psychologist Jean Twenge, these students would be right in the iGeneration that grew up with iPhones and smartphones. They are often immersed in social media.

In two research studies (one from 2015 looking at 18-23 year olds and one from 2020 looking at 23-28 year olds), Peter Mundey and I examined how emerging adults interacted with social media. The vast majority participated. But, they also expressed reservations ranging from privacy issues to negative interactions to new demands on their. On one hand, they enjoyed maintaining connections to people and described participation as necessary to keeping up with people. On the other hand, it would be hard to not participate at all as it is connected to multiple life domains.

My sense from this data is there is not a total endorsement of social media from emerging adults. Their responses are differentt from singing the praises of the positive benefits of social media. And when I ask my students the question in the title – “does social media make your life better?” – it can provoke some thinking.

Perhaps this is a good question for many people to ask. It could be a more domain-specific question: is social media good for our national political life? Does social media encourage spiritual growth? Does social media promote learning? Or, it might be better as a larger question: does social media improve the lives of its users? This is at least a question worth pondering and then acting in response to the answer.

Sherry Turkle on the loneliness of our current era

Sherry Turkle has studied human-technology interactions for decades. As she releases a new book about her own life, Turkle summed up our current situation:

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That’s where I think [Victor] Turner [the cultural anthropologist who talks about “liminal spaces”] is so helpful. In the betwixt and between moments—these liminal moments—when the old rules don’t count anymore, and the communities the people belong to break down. That’s where we are now. We’re alone. We thought we identified with a certain kind of Americanness, and now, no. The communities we belonged to don’t make sense to us the way they did before. Organizations we belonged to we now see, well, that might’ve been a racist organization. Things are up for grabs. I saw that in May of 1968, and I see that now. That’s a moment of deep loneliness, and deep anguish. And I think we’re going to come out of this and really have an opportunity to create new kinds of bonds and new kinds of friendships and new kinds of affiliations. We’re so yearning for each other, and the boundaries that we usually put up with each other are much more permeable. And I think that there’s a possibility for very deep connection. That’s my good news story. I think when we emerge, we’re going to look at each other and say, “Well, what are we going to do next?”

The development of mass media, television, computers, the Internet, and social media have contributed to feeling alone. At the same time, trust in institutions has declined, people are engaged less in communities, individualism and autonomy are prized, and inequality is visible.

As Turkle asks, is the answer in more technology? Chat bots? Robots living among us? Friendlier social media? Or, a return to embodied interactions and engaging other humans? In her earlier work, Turkle describes the differences in interactions people have with technology opposed to people. She describes some of that again earlier in the interview:

He wanted my comment: Why are all of these people talking to Replika in the middle of the pandemic? They’re all using it as a friend, as a therapist, this thing where you’re talking to a machine. So, not to be a spoilsport, I decided to see what’s up. So I go online and I make a Replika. I make as nice a Replika as I can possibly make, and I said, “I want to talk to you about the thing that’s most on my mind.” It says, “Oh, absolutely.” So I say, “OK, well, I’m lonely. Can you talk to me about loneliness? I’m living here alone. I’m managing, but I’m lonely.” It says, “Oh, absolutely.” So I said, “OK, well, what do you know about loneliness?” And she says, “It’s warm and fuzzy.”

I thought, this is too stupid. This must be a bug. But I got back to the New York Times reporter and I said, look, if you want to talk about your problems, if you’re lonely, if you’re fearing death—you really have to talk to somebody who has a body. It has to be somebody with some skin in the game. Pretend empathy is not what people need right now. And pretend empathy is what it is. If we just give our children and ourselves pretend empathy, we’re in risk of losing our sensibility for how important the real thing is. I think that’s a big danger. That we get so enamored with what machines can do that we forget what only people can do.

COVID-19 presents an opportunity to reassess these patterns. And the common prediction seems to be that people will very much enjoy interaction again after COVID-19 fades away. But, how long will this last? Will we try to return to pre-COVID normal or dig deeper to restore human connections? In a society enamored with technology, it can be hard to imagine this path back even in the wake of a global pandemic.

Facebook’s greatest accomplishment may be a massive change in the scale of human interaction

Facebook certainly did at least one thing: it gave users connections to more individuals than humans have ever had before.

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The giants of the social web—Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram; Google and its subsidiary YouTube; and, to a lesser extent, Twitter—have achieved success by being dogmatically value-neutral in their pursuit of what I’ll call megascale. Somewhere along the way, Facebook decided that it needed not just a very large user base, but a tremendous one, unprecedented in size. That decision set Facebook on a path to escape velocity, to a tipping point where it can harm society just by existing…

The on-again, off-again Facebook executive Chris Cox once talked about the “magic number” for start-ups, and how after a company surpasses 150 employees, things go sideways. “I’ve talked to so many start-up CEOs that after they pass this number, weird stuff starts to happen,” he said at a conference in 2016. This idea comes from the anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who argued that 148 is the maximum number of stable social connections a person can maintain. If we were to apply that same logic to the stability of a social platform, what number would we find?

“I think the sweet spot is 20 to 20,000 people,” the writer and internet scholar Ethan Zuckerman, who has spent much of his adult life thinking about how to build a better web, told me. “It’s hard to have any degree of real connectivity after that.”

In other words, if the Dunbar number for running a company or maintaining a cohesive social life is 150 people; the magic number for a functional social platform is maybe 20,000 people. Facebook now has 2.7 billion monthly users.

For much of human history, social interaction included only a relatively small number of people. The interactions occurred in a small geographic space. Some exchange in terms of news, trade, and people happened but not on the fast, global scale of which we are accustomed to today.

Facebook and other social media companies allow users access to thousands, if not millions, of users. Even as users have some choice about these connections, the possibilities are unprecedented. If humans found it daunting in the nineteenth century to encounter growing big cities (and early sociologists looked to explain the massive social changes connected to urban society and interaction), how do we comprehend all of the possible interactions today?

Some research suggests that even if users could access all these connections, they do not necessarily do so. Do Facebook users or Twitter users or other social media users regularly interact with people they do not know or do they primarily stick to people they know and/or known sources? Actually stepping across boundaries may be easier in the social media realm but they are still boundaries.

Does this suggest that humans cannot interact with global communities? Or, is this interaction not possible on an individual level and instead needs to be mediated through institutions, such as mass media or governments or corporations? Facebook’s experiences may just be helping people think about how to broaden connections without overwhelming those involved.

Bringing McMansion critique to TikTok

McMansionHell was a web favorite when it launched. Now criticizing McMansions works on TikTok:

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TikTok user @cyberexboyfriend is every realtor’s worst nightmare.

On his account, which boasts 32,000 followers and counting, he hosts a popular series in which he tears apart random McMansions he finds on Zillow.

It all started on Nov. 3, when @cyberexboyfriend posted a video captioned “roasting homes on Zillow.”…

Easily the funniest and most viral video in the series to date is the one in which @cyberexboyfriend critiques a $675,000 four-bedroom home, also located in Mckinney, Texas.

It is easy to criticize McMansions. They can have cartoonish features, ranging from turrets to garish facades to oversized garages to odd proportions. Much effort is put into their facades with less attention paid to other sides of the home. The interior may have some questionable choices. In an era of hot takes, social media, and concerns about housing and inequality, a quick skewering of a McMansion draws attention.

On the other hand, these real estate listings are for real homes. Numerous American communities, often wealthier suburbs, have McMansions. And at least a few people are willing to buy them.

Does this approach to McMansions help more people avoid purchasing such homes, either because the social stigma is potentially higher or because they are alerted to the problems with McMansions? Or, does it reinforce existing views people have about McMansions?

I have suggested before that if people had to choose between modernist homes and McMansions, they might choose McMansions. Those who criticize McMansions publicly are not likely to live in or near such homes. If you are against McMansions, you might also have concerns about sprawling suburbs and instead prefer denser suburban communities and cool styles like midcentury modern, interesting ranch homes, or older more traditional styles.

This may ultimately come down to taste in single-family homes based on social class, access to resources, and experiences with different kinds of communities. While political polarization in the suburbs is real, polarization by home style could be present alongside it.

64% of Americans “say social media have a mostly negative effect on the way things are going in the country” – but does this mean individual users will leave?

Pew Research recently released a new report on how Americans view social media’s effects on the country and politics. Here is one of the takeaways from the report:

This chart moves beyond many of the other takeaways which suggest majorities of Americans are skeptical about the intertwining of social media companies and politics. The responses to this particular question suggests the effect of social media is beyond politics: it affects “the way things are going in the country today.”

Since the other questions are about politics and government regulation, it is a little hard to know exactly what this means. Is it bad for young people? Families? Communities? Education? Public spaces? Physical health? It takes up a lot of time? Social media is too powerful compared to other institutions that should be leading the way?

All of these could be very interesting to explore. But, it is also worth examining how this question about social media and the direction of the country is related to the social media use of individual users. Does this mean that more people are not participating in social media? Are accounts being deactivated or deleted? Are people curtailing their time on social media? Is there interest in and movement toward more conversation outside of social media?

One finding of research I have conducted with sociologist Peter Mundey is that young adult social media users can articulate some of the problems with social media. And they modify their social media behavior to try to avoid negative interactions.

But, this does not necessarily mean that they drop out of social media or do not join in the first place. These young adults could also explain the advantages of social media, particularly the ability to maintain connections with people. Some of the connections may not always require effort but they are available. Other connections, say with family and close friends, are worth engaging in through social media. Plus, if they are not on social media, they might be missing out on social connections and events that are hard to access in other ways.

This might lead to a bit of an impasse. Americans think social media and politics is not a good mix. Social media could be bad for the country. But, withdrawing completely from social media might be a lot to ask. In many ways, it could work for individuals, particularly through providing connections to people and information.

Perhaps individual users will continue try to find ways to do both: engage with social media on a limited or focused basis. Or, avoid politics on social media. Maximize the good portions, minimize the negatives. Participate at arm’s length.

Only time will tell. Social media has had a meteoric rise but it is not guaranteed to last. Social media platforms can evolve. New opportunities can arise and social conditions are dynamic. We need to continue to look at how users engage social media. And if we see a steady trend of users leaving social media platforms, that will be worth noting.

The Twitter world versus the world of academic research

A recent conversation about Twitter and my own acknowledgement of my lack of Twitter participation pushed me to think about the differences between Twitter conversations and academic research. These rough thoughts may be obvious to many but I think they are helpful to enumerate as we think about good information and data.

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1. The speed of Twitter, and social media, is quite fast. An opinion expressed or a “story” (link/video/article/”text”) can generate a lot of feedback but the process usually happens over just a few days. In contrast, academic studies routinely take years as researchers develop good questions, collect and analysis data/evidence/”texts”, and respond to hypotheses, theories, and existing conversations while also thinking about the implications of their findings and then go through the publication process. Academic work can sometimes go quicker but that length also theoretically allows time for more reflection.

2. Posts on Twitter are limited to a certain number of characters through tweet threads or good conversation following a post can effectively convey a longer argument or set of information. Academic studies also have space restrictions – while there are indeed examples of very lengthy books or articles, journals tend to have proscribed word count or page limits depending on their audience and the format of papers – but there is more space to make and develop an argument.

3. Twitter offers more immediate feedback, possibly much more, compared to academic works. When students ask me how many people read academic studies, it is hard to know: we have citation counts (which suggest at least those citing the work read it or are familiar with it) and journal websites now often offer the ability to see how many times an article has been viewed. But, how to count students who read pieces for class or projects, researchers who access material through databases and repositories, and other means of accessing academic work? However, I would assume the viral posts of Twitter gain more readers in a shorter amount of time than almost all academic works.

4. Those with Twitter accounts can post or access tweets. Those who publish in the academic world are a small subset of the population generally with advanced degrees and specialized knowledge. Yet, the percent of the American population who engage regularly on Twitter is low.

5. Tweets are validated or not by likes, retweets, and comments made by other users. Academics have more formal processes to vet work including peer review and presentations at conferences, lectures, and colloquia plus responses from audience members. A published academic work likely has had multiple eyes on it; tweets do not require this.

On the whole, academic research involves a longer, more formal process to get to publication and information available to other academics and the public. In contrast, Twitter offers speed, quick feedback, and is easier for both readers and posters to access. Thus, when the two worlds collide – academic posting about research or Twitter users engaging with academic work – it can seem as if two worlds with different processes and rules are trying to engage. The overlap can go successfully but it does not always; the advantages each system has do not necessarily complement what the other side does well. And the two systems may influence each other: the world of Twitter may prompt academics to speed up research and/or communicate their work differently while academics participating in Twitter may engage in deeper and longer conversations since much study involves nuance and complexity.

I do not spend much time on Twitter. It can be used effectively to quickly gather or share information. And if you follow engaging Twitter users in a particular subject area or field, there is much to be learned. I am grateful there are academics who can effectively use Twitter to engage audiences regarding their research and knowledge. But, the speed of the conversation can gloss over the depth of the issues at the heart of conversations or leave little room for the important context and background knowledge of phenomena.

(An aside: attempts to find a middle ground between such universes are worth thinking about. TED Talks seem to offer some compromises: an expert on the subject gets roughly 10-20 minutes to share out of their vast expertise. The videos are easy to follow and digest and they tend to come from people with advanced experience or education. The visual format has some appeal as opposed to text-based communication on Twitter and in academic writing. Podcasts could offer some similar benefits: there is more space for the storyteller to share but the audio cannot go on too long.)