LeeAt this point everyone is undoubtedly aware of the school shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, though I am certain the method by which we came across the news varied. Some of us were notified of the event by friends with fingers closer to the pulse, and still more of us learned about it first-hand through a variety of content aggregation platforms, such as Reddit.

I would hazard that the majority of people learned about it first and foremost through social media;  primarily Facebook or Twitter. I certainly did. A friend first told me about it through Facebook Messenger, and almost immediately after she did, I started to see articles trickling into my newsfeed in the background of my Messenger window. And the moment that happened I shut my Facebook tab down, despite the fact that I compulsively, addictively, have it open almost all the time.

Facebook, when taken on the whole, is a fantastic way for people to compare each others’ lives and share pictures of kittens and children, but when it comes to a tragedy, the platform is woefully inadequate at allowing its users to parse and process the gravity of events as they unfold. It is a thorough shock to a system that thrives on irreverent links and topical memes, and when faced with an item that requires genuine reflection and thought, it is often simpler – indeed, even more beneficial – for users to turn their heads until the kittens may resume. more...

Zombie cyborg
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The New York Times editors, as Claude Fisher wrote yesterday, “have their meme and they will ride it hard.” That meme is Sherry Turkle, the MIT psychologist that has built a cottage industry (a far away disconnected cottage on the shores of Cape Cod no doubt) around pathologizing the bad feelings people get when everyone around them are on their phones. Fisher does a really supurb job of laying out what is wrong with this latest round of Turkle fanfare so you should go read his piece on his blog, but I want to draw out and add to one point that he makes about the “death of conversation” being an evergreen topic for decades.

I have an article coming out in First Monday in about a month but there is a section that I want to quote from just because I think it is especially relevant to this issue of conversation, attention, and their vulnerability to new technologies. The article argues that online/offline states should be seen as social relationships among groups and not the binary states of an individual. To that point I show how cultural, political, and economic reactions to railroad lines mirror the experiences we have with the Internet today. What follows is a small section about what sorts of social and cultural effects were attributed to railroads: more...

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Image Credit

I’d like to offer a friendly rebuttal to Jenny Davis’ recent essay in which she argues against the use of trigger warnings in favor of other signifiers of content that may cause people to relive trauma in unproductive ways. Davis proposes “an orientation towards audience intentionality among content producers, content distributors, and platform designers” as a potential path out of the mire of trigger warning debates, such as ending the use of clever titles that mask potentially disturbing content or doing away with autoplay. I think we can all agree that autoplay needs to go. Seriously, please stop forever.

I agree with Davis that trigger warnings don’t do enough; they often fail to take into account the wide variety of trauma triggers and leave content producers and distributers in the position of mind reading to predict what content will be triggering for whom. But the same argument can be made for nearly every social convention designed to mitigate harm. Laws against hate crimes will be unevenly enforced, warnings on labels will leave out chemicals not yet known to be harmful, and seatbelts will not prevent all automobile accident deaths. Yet the fact that someone will consume more than three alcoholic drinks per day while taking ibuprofen does not spur vigorous debate around the utility of the warning.

We put up with half measures all the time, in nearly every facet of social life. So why are trigger warnings so divisive, as Davis rightly points out? She compares the use of trigger warnings to picking a fight, but who fired the first shot? If using a trigger warning on content is a political decision, and I agree that it is, what are its politics? Davis argues that trigger warnings tell “a contingent of consumers to go screw.” But why are trigger warnings read that way by so many people? To my mind, there is nothing obviously offensive about writing “TW: anti-black violence” at the beginning of an essay or before an item on a syllabus. There is no clear reason why someone might read that phrase and be so turned off to the content itself that they refrain from reading it—unless, of course, they have experienced some trauma that gives them cause to.

Trigger warnings often spur disagreement that descends into a discussion of the warning itself, rather than the content. But what causes this divisiveness in the first place? I believe that trigger warnings are divisive because they suggest that we are responsible to each other to foster an environment of mutual respect, because they demand that we empathize with individuals in ways that, as Davis points out, we cannot predict or imagine. This responsibility and act of empathy is absolutely counter to the dominant neoliberal paradigm of individual responsibility and unmitigated competition that informs so much of our social imaginary. The idea that your pain might be, at least in part, my fault because I failed to do something as basic as type a few extra words in a syllabus is anathema to a culture that expects us all to train ourselves to be savvy consumers with bootstraps made for pulling.

Davis argues that trigger warnings often turn into “a self-congratulatory monologue” and, as with so much of progressive politics, she is absolutely right. She also argues that there is a slippery slope lurking on the horizon in which all content will be tagged with so many trigger warnings that they simply become noise; again, I agree. These are problems to contend with, but they are not so insurmountable that we have to dispose completely with the trigger warning as a tool which is limited, but still useful. Self-congratulatory monologues are unavoidable, but not a problem inherent to trigger warnings. Useful content often proliferates to the point of being mere noise but, frankly, I don’t see that happening any time soon with regard to trigger warnings. They are still very rarely used in mainstream news outlets, classroom syllabi, or literary works.

A frequent argument against the use of trigger warnings is that they are patronizing or, as Davis says, “paternalistic.” Now, patronizing generally means condescending, imposed from above by someone in authority. But it is those who have experienced trauma that demand trigger warnings in the first place. So who is patronizing whom? I argue that it is, in fact, patronizing to assert that individuals who have experienced trauma should prioritize the annoyance, or even hostility, of those who dislike trigger warnings above their own needs regarding mental wellness.

Early in her essay Davis asserts that “we all agree that people who have experienced trauma should not have to endure further emotional hardship in the midst of a class session nor while scrolling through their friends’ status updates.” However, many of the essays arguing against trigger warnings argue exactly the opposite. For example, this much-circulated essay in The Atlantic discusses exposure therapy and argues that students with PTSD should be exposed to their triggers in a classroom setting since “the world beyond college will be far less willing to accommodate requests for trigger warnings and opt-outs.” The author fails to point out, however, that exposure therapy usually takes place under relatively controlled conditions and in increments; in other words, definitely not a classroom environment.

Thus far I’ve tried to speak from my perspective as a scholar, a teacher, and as someone who is careful about how they share content on social media. I’d like to break from that perspective briefly and, if you’ll indulge me, speak as someone who has experienced trauma. I have had entire days robbed from me in the course of reading online because an essay or video failed to prepare me for triggering content. It is not merely a question of being unsettled, sad, or disturbed. For many, whether they are diagnosed with PTSD or not, it is a question of losing bodily autonomy, of descending into a panic attack and hyperventilating until you cannot use your hands or feet. It can result in more than just lost sleep or skipped meals, but self-harming and even suicidal behavior. When I see a trigger warning, I do not feel patronized—I feel respected. I am being given the informed choice to consume or not consume content that may rob me of my piece of mind. Davis ends her essay by saying “perhaps the best way we can care for one another is by helping and trusting each person to care for hirself.” This, I argue, is exactly what trigger warnings do by design. They don’t censor content (it’s still there!), they label it in a way that those most affected by it have found, and continue to argue, is liberatory.

Britney Summit-Gil is a graduate student in Communication and Media at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She tweets occasionally at @beersandbooks.


I am sick of talking about trigger warnings. I think a lot of people are. The last few months have seen heated debates and seemingly obligatory position statements streaming through RSS and social media feeds.  I even found a piece that I had completely forgotten I wrote until I tried to save this document under the same name (“trigger warning”). Some of these pieces are deeply compelling and the debates have been invaluable in bringing psychological vulnerability into public discourse and positioning mental health as a collective responsibility. But at this point, we’ve reached a critical mass. Nobody is going to change anyone else’s mind. Trigger warning has reached buzzword status. So let’s stop talking about trigger warnings. Seriously. However, let’s absolutely not stop talking about what trigger warnings are meant to address: the way that content can set off intense emotional and psychological responses and the importance of managing this in a context of constant data streams.

I’m going to creep out on a limb and assume we all agree that people who have experienced trauma should not have to endure further emotional hardship in the midst of a class session nor while scrolling through their friends’ status updates. Avoiding such situations is an important task, one that trigger warnings take as their goal.  Trigger warnings, however, are ill equipped for the job. more...

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Image source

The ad is a fantastic invention. It has the uncanny ability to transform use value into a kind of crude exchange value. The useful or fun thing draws attention and that attention is then monetized by offering people with money the chance to put a message in front of some eyeballs. It is an exceptionally elegant solution to something that Karl Marx predicted would be a near-insolvable problem for capitalists: finding new frontiers to privatize and profit off of. Back in 2006 the Economist went so far as to proclaim that the Internet was “The Ultimate Marketing Machine.” Not only can it serve up more eyeballs than any newspaper or gridlocked highway, it provides tools to let the advertiser know if the ad was noticed. This innovation has provided a solid revenue source for everything from brand new things like social networking to very old institutions like journalism. If you invented a thing, but have no idea how to turn it into a living, the quickest and easiest way to start earning money is to slap an ad on the thing.

Maybe that’s a little flippant. Ads aren’t necessarily easy to do right. You can break or severely hobble a great new thing if you keep interrupting a person’s interaction with it. The best TV show will suck if it is punctuated by commercials every thirty seconds. You have to strike a balance and that balance is hard to find now that lots and lots of people have gotten a taste of ad-free living. And of course people have different tolerance levels. I have a hard time writing without music in the background but I absolutely cannot abide lyrics or words because I’ll actually start writing them down. So while lots of my friends put up with the free version of Spotify I have always paid for the premium version. An ad-supported Spotify would be useless to me.

Pay for the product yourself, or let advertising do its magic have been our only two choices for a long time even before the Great Magical Eyeball Corralling Device expanded the boundaries of capitalist accumulation to the most intimate moments of construction and performance of self. “Media has always compromised user experience for advertising,” writes The Verge’s Nilay Patel, “that’s why magazine stories are abruptly continued on page 96, and why 30-minute sitcoms are really just 22 minutes long.” Patel warns that anyone smaller than the likes of Apple, Facebook, and Google will become collateral damage in an all-out war to undercut each-other’s revenue streams and grow their own. “It is going to be a bloodbath of independent media.”

This is largely true, although “always” and “bloodbath” are exceedingly strong words. The Society Pages (that’s us) and The New Inquiry do not advertise on their sites. Jacobin advertises minimally and most of their advertisers are other magazines and book publishers. Wikipedia also seems to fly in the face of this narrative. It is not radical, in fact it is distinctly plausible in the here and now, to produce content with little-to-no advertising. Striking a balance between making something and making that something profitable is an issue of organizational mission, not technical ability. It is at once a design choice and a political decision. That is what I was getting at when I tweeted this last week:


Ahmed Mohamed, 14. Photo: Vernon Bryant, Dallas News.
Ahmed Mohamed, 14. Photo: Vernon Bryant, Dallas News.

On Monday, August 14, a 14-year-old ninth grade student, Ahmed Mohamed, was arrested for bringing a homemade clock to Irving MacArthur High School, his school in Irving, Texas.

Dark-skinned and a Muslim, Mohamed was clearly singled out on the basis of his ethnic and religious background. Of course, the school and police officials reject this assertion, but Mohamed’s family and many thousands of social media users aren’t buying it. The rapid, nationwide attention to Mohamed’s case provides an opportunity. Not only have charges been dropped against Mohamed, but it is unlikely that his detention and arrest will produce the negative reputation they otherwise would have. When applying to colleges, his Islamic name and the box checked indicating that he has been arrested would otherwise be cause for rejection. Instead, the details of his arrest are widely known and assessed as illegitimate. That’s great news for Mohamed, and this alone is a laudable outcome of his willingness and courage to fight this injustice so publicly while being backed up by others’ social media activism. more...


“Public sociology”, for me, has always meant teaching. I obviously don’t mean that teaching is the only legitimate kind at all times and in all places, but to the extent that I’m still a sociologist, and a public one, teaching is how I do that. It’s what I feel comfortable with. It’s what I know I can do well, and it gives me real and observable and frequently immediate results, when I get results at all. I convey all this information about an entire discipline, an entire approach to the business of everything in a single semester, I make it as coherent as I can to a bunch of – usually – total beginners, and I hope for the best.

And every semester there’s at least one student who comes up to me and says this is so weird and so cool, I never looked at anything like this before, I didn’t know you could, this is my favorite class now.



I know this is a technology blog but today, let’s talk about science.

When I’m not theorizing digital media and technology, I moonlight as an experimental social psychologist. The Reproducibility Project, which ultimately finds that results from most psychological studies cannot be reproduced, has therefore weighed heavy on my mind (and prominent in over-excited conversations with my partner/at our dogs).

The Reproducibility Project is impressive in its size and scope. In collaboration with the authors of original studies and volunteer researchers numbering in the hundreds, project managers at the Open Science Framework replicated 100 psychological experiments from three prominent psychology journals. Employing “direct replications” in which protocols were recreated as closely as possible, the Reproducibility Project found that out of 100 studies, only 39 produced the same results. That means over 60% of published studies did not have their findings confirmed. more...

Image Credit: “Spinoza in a T-Shirt” – The New Inquiry
Image Credit: “Spinoza in a T-Shirt” – The New Inquiry

While listening to a techie podcast the other day, one of the hosts, who happens to be the designer of a popular podcast app, got into a discussion about his design approach. New features in a forthcoming version necessitated new customization settings, but introducing them was complicated by a paradox he affectionately dubs the “power user problem.” He describes the problem (at 26 minutes in) as this:

If you give people settings, they will use them. And then they will forget that they used them. And then the app will behave differently from the default because they changed settings and they forgot that they changed them. And then they will write in or complain on Twitter or complain in public that my app is not working properly because of a setting they changed.

For this reason, the designer defends his inclination to keep user customization to the minimum necessary.

Through iteration, user feedback, and intuition, the designer had arrived at what seemed to him a reasonable compromise between customization and simplicity. Yet, in accomplishing this goal, the design inadvertently leaves some users, even so called power users, out of the loop. (And, in fairness to the designer, he is hardly the first to make this point.) more...

American Beauty computer prison

Otherwise productive conversations on online harassment hit a brick wall when it comes to enforcement. Community enforcement does not always work because community standards are often the reason harassers feel comfortable harassing in the first place. Appeals to external or somehow impartial moderators or enforcers might work really well, but then what do we do with the offender; especially the really bad ones that might follow through on their threats and need to be isolated or restrained in some way? This is a perennial problem of societal organization and we are just now starting to come to terms with how this old problem manifests through digital technologies. Exacerbating this issue is the state of our current law enforcement and judicial process and the renewed attention to its very basic flaws thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement and allied progressive and radical communities. It is difficult if not impossible for anyone that considers themselves left of progressive to unthinkingly prescribe police enforcement and jail time for someone that breaks the law, no matter how much we agree with that law. How then, do we deal with today’s news that a Kentucky county clerk is now in federal prison for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples? more...