The Confederate Flag is lowered at the South Carolina state capitol building. Elvert Barnes, Flickr CC.
The Confederate Flag is lowered at the South Carolina state capitol building. Elvert Barnes, Flickr CC.

 

After flying over the South Carolina state capitol for 54 years, the Confederate flag was lowered on the morning of Friday, July 10. Before it was removed from the statehouse, the flag and products bearing its image were also eliminated from the store shelves and online marketplaces of major retailers, including WalMart, Amazon, Sears, and Ebay. The flag’s sudden withdrawal from publicly visible spaces public and private was sparked by a bevy of activism in the wake of the June 17 massacre of worshippers at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, but complaints about the flag are not new. Why was this push to remove it from prominent display venues successful, when so many others had failed?

Sociologist Brayden King told the San Francisco Chronicle that the important of online media to the way companies make decisions today was central. Corporations who pulled Confederate merchandise from sale were more concerned with their brands’ images on Facebook and Twitter and with investors’ impressions of their management than with being politically correct or doing the right thing. Drawing on findings from studies he published in 2007 and 2013, King said that “Business is always responding to consumer demand and what might be reputational issues as well. If a company isn’t able to quickly resolve the turmoil, then investors may start thinking that the management isn’t very good.”

King argues that social media “makes these issues salient by being a megaphone for activists, and it serves as a large public forum for information.” By linking social issues with companies’ online reputations and managerial competencies, online media may be accelerating the attachment of concrete financial ramifications to cultural debates that corporations may have previously wished to stay out of.

social meaning of moneyThe rise of mobile payment apps like Venmo has made it much easier to, say, split a dinner tab, but this convenience comes along with worries about security and privacy. Further, could companies’ use of personal information about payments to target advertising reveal compromising details about our personal lives?

Venmo, for instance, is explicitly “not just a mobile payment app”—it’s also a social media platform that broadcasts its users’ payment activities to their friends. Cameron Tung discusses some of the implications in Slate. Mobile sharing of payment information helps us attach social meanings to financial transactions, and $100 spent in a restaurant is not the same as $100 spent on a phone bill. Sharing details about whom we’re paying and when opens our financial activity to social scrutiny. Don’t want your spouse or partner to know about the fancy dinner you had last weekend? Better not pay with Venmo.

To support this point, Tung cites Princeton sociologist Viviana Zelizer’s work on payments and social ties. We should think about each monetary transaction, according to Zelizer, as a gift, an entitlement, or compensation: “each one corresponds to a significantly different set of social relations and systems of meanings. People making payments use a number of earmarking techniques to distinguish those categories of social relations and meanings from each other.”

When Zelizer wrote about Christmas bonuses, for instance, she found that whether employers and employees thought about bonuses as gifts, compensation, or entitlements had a profound effect on the relationships between bosses and workers. Mobile payment platforms allow us to attach similar meanings to everyday transactions, broadcasting these meanings to our friends. As we consider the privacy and security implications of convenient mobile services, we also need to think about their cultural implications. Though we might want to use sharing apps strategically to cultivate particular online personas and identities, we may not always be able to predict how others’ will attach meanings to our payments.

Much of 2014’s sporting news happened off the court or outside the stadium. As described by Dave Zirin in The Nation’s “Why 2014 Will Be Remembered as the Year the Sports World Turned Upside Down,” incidents involving sports figures’ off-the-field conduct created a new era of public accountability and showed social media’s ability to effect change. The article quotes Dr. Harry Edwards, a UC Berkeley sports sociologist:

I’m not sure that institutionally, this nineteenth-century institution of sport is really organized to handle, in this modern age of real-time communication, the kinds of concerns that are going to come up. I just don’t think that they’re organized or developed to absorb and handle the situations we’re going to be confronted with.

As, say, fans saw NFL player Ray Rice punching his partner (now wife) in an elevator and heard NBA owner Donald Sterling hurling racist epithets at his girlfriend, the news spread like wildfire online. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Rice after security footage went viral, despite the fact the NFL leadership, including Goodell, had turned a blind eye to domestic abuse in its ranks many times before. Similarly, Sterling, a billionaire with a long history of racist comments in his 30 years of basketball ownership, was this time disgraced, forced into selling his team as pressure mounted via social media mobilization.

As Edwards told Zirin, “[W]e’re moving into utterly uncharted waters and again, I’m not sure that these nineteenth-century institutions can function within a twenty-first-century cultural and technological context, without utterly changing their structure, management and, in some instances, even their goals.” Sport may look quite different in the coming years—and sports sociologists will have definitely have to keep their eyes on the ball.

Twitter coverAlthough some research emphasizes the negative impacts of social media on well-being, a recent Smithsonian article highlights a specific benefit: social media platforms allow individuals to connect across thousands of miles. Further, despite anecdotal evidence, social media usage does not actually result in higher stress for users.

Dhiraj Murthy, sociologist and author of the book Twitter, told the Smithsonian Magazine about how social media lets people keep up with friends and family members, whether it’s communication about big events such as births or weddings, or every day things like food or funny cat videos. By fostering a sense of connectedness, Murthy says, this communication can reduce stress and increase happiness.

Still, Murthy warns, “Increased social awareness can of course be double edged.” Connectedness can mean feelings of stress, sadness, or anger when the interactions relate to death, job loss and other heavy topics. This means it’s the content viewed on social media, not social media itself that affects stress levels.

While the relationship between social media and stress is complex, many such studies focused on heavy users, Murthy says. In general, the common perception of most social media users as gadget-addicted stress cases doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. 

Busy schedules coupled with near constant access to technology contribute to people becoming more social via social media. While sharing a cup of coffee takes coordination and time, a quick scroll through an album or a post about a promotion allows users to participate in communal behaviors that benefit mental health. If the trick is focusing on the good content without ignoring the bad, it seems our online interactions are an awful lot like the in-person ones.

Photo by J.K. Califf via Flickr.com
Photo by J.K. Califf via Flickr.com

In this era of social media, increasingly, our lives are being lived on the internet. Advertisers are taking note and mining our status updates and internet searches for information about our personal lives, targeting online advertising to our interests and identities.

Janet Vertesi, an assistant sociology professor at Princeton, has attempted the impossible: she tried to hide her pregnancy from the internet. It’s a lot harder than it sounds. Jezebel.com details her attempt to keep information out of the hands of advertisers while also explaining how this phenomenon is affecting women.

The tiniest bits of information, an Amazon order or an internet search, contribute to the web of data that companies are buying to target individuals. Data about pregnant women is fifteen times more valuable to companies than information about the average person, as parenting has increasingly become a consumer market. (See previous Citings about the economic investments of parenting and the luxury market for baby goods.)

In order to keep her pregnancy a secret, Vertesi and her husband paid for everything in cash or gift cards, asked their friends and family to keep all news off social media, and even searched for baby products using private browsing. The steps they took to avoid discovery could be seen as ‘suspicious.’ They even ended up paying cash for gift cards to spend online, a strategy that can trigger alarms when the prices get higher.

Jezebel.com discusses her experience saying, “In short, if you want to hide your pregnancy from big data, you’ve got to operate like a drug dealer.”

One concerning factor is what this means for pregnant women. Pregnancy status can be very personal and women can choose not to divulge their pregnancy for a wide range of reasons. If pregnancy is no longer private, what is?


The controversial New York Post cover, cropped so as not to show the victim, nor the word DOOMED (all caps in the original). Image via nypost.com.

On a busy bridge in Detroit during a traffic jam, Deletha Word was pulled from her car by Martell Welch, whose car she had sideswiped. In view of more than forty people, former football-player Welch savagely beat Word, tearing off her clothes. Welch jumped off the bridge to escape her attacker and subsequently drowned. When I heard this story on the evening news back in 1996, I was horrified that not one of the many onlookers attempted to stop Word’s attack or to pull her from the river (she initially survived the fall, but couldn’t swim). I will never forget my first introduction to the “Bystander Effect,” the social phenomenon in which individuals are less likely to intervene to help someone in distress if there are other people nearby.

The Bystander Effect was highlighted again recently as a result of the notoriously-tactless New York Post’s front-page publication of photographs of a man about to be killed by an oncoming New York City subway train. The man had been pushed onto the tracks after an altercation was struggling to get back onto the platform. Facing criticism for photographing the man’s death, rather than helping pull him from the tracks, the photographer has defended himself in the media. He’s said he could not have gotten to the victim in time to save him, but by taking photos—thus causing his camera’s flash to go off and possibly alert the driver of the train—he hoped to help. Plus, many other people were closer to the man, but did nothing to pull him up.

Arguably, social media has exacerbated the Bystander Effect. Tim Knapp, a sociologist at Missouri State University, commented in an article about the NYC incident, “Now everyone can be a journalist and some times, at the expense of being a good Samaritan.” That is, no longer are onlookers passive observers who “do not want to get involved” or risk their own personal safety; now many bystanders film or photograph the incidents in which they fail to intervene.