SocImages has a Tumblr where all of the posts that pop up here (and more) get re-posted and go all over the internet. And a few days ago it gave me this post.

While I was working on the page, I saw a really interesting example of the kind of thoughtlessness that happens when designers aren’t thinking about all their potential users. Here’s a screenshot of what I encountered; it’s a timeline of all the things that had happened on the page in reverse chronological order, except the very top line, which is the interesting part. It reads:

SCREAM: You’ll never see it coming. TONIGHT.

Here’s a screenshot:5

As a female and, more importantly a woman-on-the-internet, my first gut reaction was that I was going to have to forward it to the FBI. You see, it’s an ad for something on MTV — and I realized that in the 2nd second — but, in the 1st second, I thought it was someone threatening to kill me.

I don’t mean to be overly dramatic about this. Even in the 1st second, my reaction was more well, hell than omg I’m gonna die, but I do wonder whether the ad managers at Tumblr or MTV ever considered the possibility that this way of advertising might be genuinely scary to someone, even if just for a second. I wonder if the managing team has anyone on it who is also a woman-on-the-internet. Or anyone who’s job it is to specifically think about the diversity of their users and how different strategies might affect them differently.

One doesn’t have to be routinely subject to threatening comments and messages to have the reaction I did. I could be someone who just left an abusive partner, someone who’s been attacked before, a witness in a criminal trial, a doctor who performs abortions or, christ, a black preacher in the South. Or maybe just someone who doesn’t appreciate an advertisement that, through an intended double meaning, implies that I, personally, am about to be attacked. That’s not funny, or fun, to everyone.

This kind of thing seems to happen all the time. Another example might be the Nikon camera feature, designed to warn you if someone blinked, that thinks Asian people have their eyes closed; the HP face-tracking webcam that can’t see black people; the obsessive health-tracking app that can’t be deleted off your iphone, even if you have an eating disorder; or the fact that it seems to track everything except menstrual cycles, making female-bodied people invisible.

This is one of the arguments for why businesses need diverse staff. Greater diversity — especially if everyone is explicitly given permission to raise issues like these — would make it far more likely that companies could avoid these gaffes and make products better for everyone.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

5By Tim Peckham.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

There was a great article in The Nation last week about social media and ad hoc credit scoring. Can Facebook assign you a score you don’t know about but that determines your life chances?

Traditional credit scores like your FICO or your Beacon score can determine your life chances. By life chances, we generally mean how much mobility you will have. Here, we mean a number created by third party companies often determines you can buy a house/car, how much house/car you can buy, how expensive buying a house/car will be for you. It can mean your parents not qualifying to co-sign a student loan for you to pay for college. These are modern iterations of life chances and credit scores are part of it.

It does not seem like Facebook is issuing a score, or a number, of your creditworthiness per se. Instead they are limiting which financial vehicles and services are offered to you in ads based on assessments of your creditworthiness.

One of the authors of The Nation piece (disclosure: a friend), Astra Taylor, points out how her Facebook ads changed when she started using Facebook to communicate with student protestors from for-profit colleges. I saw the same shift when I did a study of non-traditional students on Facebook.

You get ads like this one from DeVry:

2 (1)

Although, I suspect my ads were always a little different based on my peer and family relations. Those relations are majority black. In the U.S. context that means it is likely that my social network has a lower wealth and/or status position as read through the cumulative historical impact of race on things like where we work, what jobs we have, what schools we go to, etc. But even with that, after doing my study, I got every for-profit college and “fix your student loan debt” financing scheme ad known to man.

Whether or not I know these ads are scams is entirely up to my individual cultural capital. Basically, do I know better? And if I do know better, how do I come to know it?

I happen to know better because I have an advanced education, peers with advanced educations and I read broadly. All of those are also a function of wealth and status. I won’t draw out the causal diagram I’ve got brewing in my mind but basically it would say something like, “you need wealth and status to get advantageous services offered you on the social media that overlays our social world and you need proximity wealth and status to know when those services are advantageous or not”.

It is in interesting twist on how credit scoring shapes life chances. And it runs right through social media and how a “personalized” platform can never be democratizing when the platform operates in a society defined by inequalities.

I would think of three articles/papers in conversation if I were to teach this (hint, I probably will). Healy and Fourcade on how credit scoring in a financialized social system shapes life chances is a start:

providers have learned to tailor their products in specific ways in an effort to maximize rents, transforming the sources and forms of inequality in the process.

And then Astra Taylor and Jathan Sadowski’s piece in The Nation as a nice accessible complement to that scholarly article:

Making things even more muddled, the boundary between traditional credit scoring and marketing has blurred. The big credit bureaus have long had sidelines selling marketing lists, but now various companies, including credit bureaus, create and sell “consumer evaluation,” “buying power,” and “marketing” scores, which are ingeniously devised to evade the FCRA (a 2011 presentation by FICO and Equifax’s IXI Services was titled “Enhancing Your Marketing Effectiveness and Decisions With Non-Regulated Data”). The algorithms behind these scores are designed to predict spending and whether prospective customers will be moneymakers or money-losers. Proponents claim that the scores simply facilitate advertising, and that they’re not used to approve individuals for credit offers or any other action that would trigger the FCRA. This leaves those of us who are scored with no rights or recourse.

And then there was Quinn Norton this week on The Message talking about her experiences as one of those marketers Taylor and Sadowski allude to. Norton’s piece summarizes nicely how difficult it is to opt-out of being tracked, measured and sold for profit when we use the Internet:

I could build a dossier on you. You would have a unique identifier, linked to demographically interesting facts about you that I could pull up individually or en masse. Even when you changed your ID or your name, I would still have you, based on traces and behaviors that remained the same — the same computer, the same face, the same writing style, something would give it away and I could relink you. Anonymous data is shockingly easy to de-anonymize. I would still be building a map of you. Correlating with other databases, credit card information (which has been on sale for decades, by the way), public records, voter information, a thousand little databases you never knew you were in, I could create a picture of your life so complete I would know you better than your family does, or perhaps even than you know yourself.

It is the iron cage in binary code. Not only is our social life rationalized in ways even Weber could not have imagined but it is also coded into systems in ways difficult to resist, legislate or exert political power.

Gaye Tuchman and I talk about this full rationalization in a recent paper on rationalized higher education. At our level of analysis, we can see how measurement regimes not only work at the individual level but reshape entire institutions. Of recent changes to higher education (most notably Wisconsin removing tenure from state statute causing alarm about the role of faculty in public higher education) we argue that:

In short, the for-profit college’s organizational innovation lies not in its growth but in its fully rationalized educational structure, the likes of which being touted in some form as efficiency solutions to traditional colleges who have only adopted these rationalized processes piecemeal.

And just like that we were back to the for-profit colleges that prompted Taylor and Sadowski’s article in The Nation.

Efficiencies. Ads. Credit scores. Life chances. States. Institutions. People. Inequality.

And that is how I read. All of these pieces are woven together and its a kind of (sad) fun when we can see how. Contemporary inequalities run through rationalized systems that are being perfected on social media (because its how we social), given form through institutions, and made invisible in the little bites of data we use for critical minutiae that the Internet has made it difficult to do without.

Tressie McMillan Cottom is an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University.  Her doctoral research is a comparative study of the expansion of for-profit colleges.  You can follow her on twitter and at her blog, where this post originally appeared.

Mr. Draper, I don’t know what it is you really believe in but I do know what it feels like to be out of place, to be disconnected, to see the whole world laid out in front of you the way other people live it. There’s something about you that tells me you know it too.

Mad Men, Season 1, Episode 1

The ending of Mad Men was brilliant. It was like a good mystery novel: once you know the solution – Don Draper creating one of the greatest ads in Madison Avenue history – you see that the clues were there all along.  You just didn’t realize what was important and what wasn’t. Neither did the characters. This was a game played between Matt Weiner and the audience.

The ending, like the entire series, was also a sociological commentary on American culture. Or rather, it was an illustration of such a commentary. The particular sociological commentary I have in mind is Philip Slater’sPursuit of Loneliness, published in 1970, the same year that this episode takes place. It’s almost as if Slater had Don Draper in mind when he wrote the book, or as if Matt Weiner had the book in mind when he wrote this episode.

In the first chapter, “I Only Work Here,” Slater outlines “three human desires that are deeply and uniquely frustrated by American culture”:

(1) the desire for community – the wish to live in trust, cooperation, and friendship with those around one.

(2) the desire for engagement – the wish to come to grips directly with one’s social and physical environment.

(3) the desire for dependence – the wish to share responsibility for the control of one’s impulses and the direction of one’s life.

The fundamental principle that gives rise to these frustrations is, of course, individualism.

Individualism is rooted in the attempt to deny the reality of human interdependence. One of the major goals of technology in America is to “free” us from the necessity of relating to, submitting to, depending upon, or controlling other people. Unfortunately, the more we have succeeded in doing this, the more we have felt disconnected, bored, lonely, unprotected, unnecessary, and unsafe.

Most of those adjectives could apply to Don Draper at this point. In earlier episodes, we have seen Don, without explanation, walk out of an important meeting at work and, like other American heroes, light out for the territory, albeit in a new Cadillac. He is estranged from his family. He is searching for something – at first a woman, who turns out to be unattainable, and then for… he doesn’t really know what. He winds up at Esalen, where revelation comes from an unlikely source, a nebbishy man named Leonard. In a group session, Leonard says:

I’ve never been interesting to anybody. I, um –  I work in an office. People walk right by me. I know they don’t see me. And I go home and I watch my wife and my kids. They don’t look up when I sit down…

I had a dream. I was on a shelf in the refrigerator. Someone closes the door and the light goes off. And I know everybody’s out there eating. And then they open the door and you see them smiling. They’re happy to see you but maybe they don’t look right at you and maybe they don’t pick you. Then the door closes again. The light goes off.

People are silent, but Don gets up, slowly moves towards Leonard and tearfully, silently, embraces him. 3

On the surface, the two men could not be more different. Don is interesting. And successful. People notice him. But he shares Leonard’s sense that his pursuit – of a new identity, of career success, of unattainable women – has left him feeling inauthentic, disconnected, and alone. “I’ve messed everything up,” he tells his sometime co-worker Peggy in a phone conversation. “I’m not the man you think I am.”

The next time we see him, he is watching from a distance as people do tai-chi on a hilltop.1b

And then he himself is sitting on a hilltop, chanting “om” in unison with a group of people. At last he is sharing something with others rather than searching for ego gratifications. 1c

And then the punch line. We cut to the Coke hilltop ad with its steadily expanding group of happy people singing in perfect harmony. 2A simple product brings universal community (“I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company”). It also brings authenticity. “It’s the real thing.” Esalen and Coca-Cola. Both are offering solutions to the frustrated needs Slater identifies. But both solutions suffer from the same flaw – they are personal rather than social. A few days of spiritual healing and hot springs brings nor more social change than does a bottle of sugar water.It’s not that real change is impossible, Slater says, and in the final chapter of the book, he hopes that the strands in the fabric of American culture can be rewoven.  But optimism is difficult.
So many healthy new growths in our society are at some point blocked by the overwhelming force and rigidity of economic inequality… There’s a… ceiling of concentrated economic power that holds us back, frustrates change, locks in flexibility.

The Mad Men finale makes the same point, though with greater irony (the episode title is “Person to Person”). When we see the Coke mountaintop ad, we realize that Don Draper has bundled up his Esalen epiphany, brought it back to a huge ad agency in New York, and turned it into a commercial for one of the largest corporations in the world.

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog and Pacific Standard.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Flashback Friday.

I’ve posted about the use of apparent discounts as a marketing tool and about the rise of the shopping cart. Since I’m on a little marketing-related posting trend, I figured I might as well post about restaurant menus. New York Magazine recently provided an analysis of menus and how things such as placement, images, and so on influence purchases.

Here’s the menu analyzed in the article:


Some of the most interesting elements numbered on the menu:

1. Pictures of food on menus are tricky. They can convince people to buy a dish, but more expensive restaurants don’t want to be associated with low-cost places like Denny’s or Applebee’s. In general, the more expensive the restaurant, the less likely there are to be images of food, and if there are, they’re drawings, not color photos. And, apparently, the upper right corner is where customers’ eyes go first, so you need to make good use of that section.

2 and 3. You list something expensive (like a $115 seafood dish) in a prominent spot to serve the same function as a “manufacturer’s suggested retail price” on a sales tag at a retail store: to set an anchor price that makes other prices look like a bargain in comparison. The $70 seafood dish listed next to the $115 one seems way more reasonable than it would have it listed without the comparison anchor price.

5. Listing dishes in a column encourages customers to skim down the list, making it more likely that they’ll be focusing on the column of prices rather than the dishes themselves, and will pick from among the cheapest things on the menu. If the dish names are connected by a line of dots or dashes to specific prices, this is even more pronounced.

8. Restaurants often use “bracketing”:

…the same dish comes in different sizes. Here, that’s done with steak tartare and ravioli — but because “you never know the portion size, you’re encouraged to trade up,” Poundstone says. “Usually the smaller size is perfectly adequate.”

Notice the same things I mentioned in my post about meaningless discounts: high prices used to set an anchor that makes everything else look cheap and an emphasis on apparent savings to distract the customer from how much they’re spending.

And the bracketing thing is marketing genius: the larger portion is usually just a little bit more expensive, so the customer is likely to focus on the fact that the additional amount is actually a bargain, but you usually have very little information about how much bigger it actually is.

Knowledge is power! And now you know.

Originally posted in 2009.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Flashback Friday.

Yesterday I went to Marshall’s to take some photos for this post and overheard a conversation between a teenager and her mother that perfectly illustrated what I was planning on posting about. The teen pulled her mom over to look at a purse she wanted for Christmas. It was $148, but she was making a case to her mom that it was actually a great buy compared to how much it would have been at the original price, which, as she pointed out to her mom, was listed as $368.

Ellen Ruppel Shell discusses this topic at length in Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. Here’s a relevant photo I took:

It indicates that you are getting a great deal by shopping at Marshall’s compared to the original price of the item.

Except that is not, in fact, what they are saying. Look at the image again: the wording is “compare at…” The tags do not say “marked down from” or “original price” or “was.” There is a crucial difference: when you are told to “compare at,” the implication is that the shoes were originally $175, making them a super steal at $49. The “manufacturer’s suggested retail price” (MSRP) gives you the same info.

But as Shell points out, these numbers are largely fictional. Marshall’s is not actually telling you that those shoes were ever sold for $175. You’re just supposed to “compare” $49 to $175. But $175 may be an entirely meaningless number. The shoes may never have been sold for $175 at any store; certainly no specifics are given. Even if they were, the fact that a large number of them ended up at Marshall’s would indicate that many customers didn’t consider $175 an acceptable price.

The same goes for the MSRP: it’s meaningless. Among other things, that’s not how pricing works these days for big retail outlets. The manufacturer doesn’t make a product and then tell the retailer how much they ought to charge for it. Retailers hold much more power than manufacturers; generally, they pressure suppliers to meet their price and to constantly lower costs, putting the burden on the suppliers to figure out how to do so (often by reducing wages). The idea that manufacturers are able to tell Macy’s or Target or other big retailers how much to charge for their items is ridiculous. Rather, the retailer usually tells the manufacturer what MSRP to print on the tag of items they’ll be purchasing (I saw some tags at Marshall’s where it said MSRP but no price had been printed on it).

So what’s the point of a MSRP on a price tag, or a “compare at” number? These numbers serve as “anchor” prices — that is, they set a high “starting” point for the product, so the “sale” price seems like a great deal in comparison. Except the “sale” price isn’t actually a discount at all — it’s only a sale price in comparison to this fictional original price that was developed for the sole purpose of making you think “Holy crap! I can get $175 shoes for just $49!”

The point is to redirect your thinking from “Do I think these shoes are worth $49?” to “I can save $126!” This is a powerful psychological motivator; marketing research shows that people are fairly easily swayed by perceived savings. A sweater we might not think is worth $40 if we saw it at Banana Republic suddenly becomes worth $50 if we see it at Marshall’s (or T.J. Maxx, an outlet mall, Ross, etc.) and are told it used to sell for $80. We focus not on the fact that we’re spending $50, but on the fact that we’re saving $30.

And that makes us feel smart: we’ve beat the system! Instead of going to the mall and paying $368 for that purse, we hunted through the discount retailer and found it for $148! We worked for it, and we were smart enough to not get conned into buying it at the inflated price. Shell describes research that shows that, in these situations, we feel like we didn’t just save that money, we actually earned it by going to the effort to search out deals. When we buy that $148 purse, we’re likely to leave feeling like we’re somehow $220 richer (since we didn’t pay $368) rather than $148 poorer. And we’ll value it more highly because we feel like we were smart to find it; that is, we’re likely to think a $148 purse bought on “sale” is cooler and better quality than we would the identical purse if we bought it at full price for $120.

And stores capitalize on these psychological tendencies by giving us cues that seem to indicate we’re getting an amazing deal. Sometimes we are. But often we’re being distracted with numbers that seem to give us meaningful information but are largely irrelevant, if not entirely fictional.

Originally posted in 2009.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Flashback Friday.

Behold, the taken-for-granted, unexceptional shopping cart:

Until last week I had never truly thought about shopping carts. I mean, I occasionally notice one stranded in an unexpected place, and as a kid I loved the occasional chance I had to push one a bit and then jump on and race down an aisle. But last week I started reading Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell, and it turns out that the story of the shopping cart is fascinating!

So, way back in the day, stores weren’t like they were today. You went in and there was a long counter and you had the clerk show you the wares. If you’ve read some Jane Austen or Laura Ingalls Wilder, you’ve undoubtedly come across a scene where a clerk is showing someone bolts of cloth. That’s how things worked: almost everything was behind the counter; you told the clerk what you were interested in and they showed you your options. You haggled over the price, decided on a nice gingham, the clerk wrapped it for you, and off you went. Most retail outlets worked more or less along these lines (think of a butcher, for instance).

But if you were a shop owner interested in keeping prices down, this situation might be less than ideal. It required a lot of clerks, and experienced clerks who knew all the goods and could be trusted to set an acceptably profitable price for them, too.

Eventually retailers, including F.W. Woolworth, tried putting more products out on display in the store so customers could help themselves. Some customers liked the ability to pick items off the shelves directly, but more importantly, you didn’t need as many clerks, and certainly not such highly-paid ones, if their job was mostly reduced to ringing up the purchases at the register.

Of course, this presents a new problem: how are customers going to carry all their purchases around the store while they make their selections? Well, a basket they could carry over an arm would work. But these baskets had a downside: they didn’t hold much and they quickly got heavy.

As Shell notes, in 1937 a man from my home state of Oklahoma, Sylvan Goldman, came up with a solution. He owned the Humpty-Dumpty grocery store chain (I still remember Humpty-Dumpty!). He and a mechanic he hired came up with a cart on which two shopping baskets could be suspended. And thus the shopping cart — or, as Goldman named it, the “folding basket carrier” — was born. As Goldman suspected, people bought more when they didn’t have to carry a heavy basket on their arm. The folding basket carrier was advertised as a solution to the burden of shopping:


The only problem was…people didn’t like the new contraptions. From a 1977 interview (via):

I went into our largest store, there wasn’t a soul using a basket carrier, and we had an attractive girl by the entrance that had a basket carrier and two baskets in it, one on the top and one on the bottom, and asked them to please take this cart to do your shopping with. And the housewive’s, most of them decided, “No more carts for me. I have been pushing enough baby carriages. I don’t want to push anymore.” And the men would say, “You mean with my big strong arms I can’t carry a darn little basket like that?” And he wouldn’t touch it. It was a complete flop.

Goldman eventually had to hire attractive models to walk around the store pushing the carts to make shopping carts seem like an acceptable or even fashionable item to use.

Over time the basic design was changed to have a single basket, with a flat shelf on the bottom for large items. The baskets could also then “nest” inside each other (instead of being folded up individually), reducing the amount of space they required for storage.

The Baby Boom ushered in the final major design change, a seat for kids:

Notice in the illustration above how small the cart is compared to what we’re used to today. I remember as a kid going to the local grocery store, and the carts were quite small; eventually a big warehouse-type grocery store came to the nearest city and their baskets seemed gigantic in comparison. Because obviously, if people will buy more if they have a cart instead of a full arm-carried basket, they’ll buy even more if they have a bigger cart — not just because there’s more room, but because it seems like less stuff if it’s in a bigger cart. Restaurants discovered the same principle — people will want bigger portions if you give them bigger plates because it visually looks like less food and so they don’t feel like they’re over-eating.

Without enormous carts, Big Box discounters and wholesale club stores couldn’t exist. You can’t carry a box of 50 packages of Ramen noodles, 36 rolls of toilet paper, a box of 3 gallons of milk, enough soup for the entire winter, and a DVD player you just found on sale around without a huge cart.

So there you have it: labor de-skilling + marketing – stigma of feminine association + Baby Boom + profits based on increased purchasing of ever-cheaper stuff = the modern shopping cart!

I love it when I learn totally new stuff.

Originally posted in 2009.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Flashback Friday.

In an NPR segment, Professor Daniel Pauly discussed overfishing of the world’s oceans. In particular, populations of popular fish such as cod and bluefin tuna have dropped significantly (the increased global desire for sushi having a major impact on tuna).

So what’s a fishing industry to do as it becomes harder to find fish? Of course, they can go farther out into the ocean, or fish deeper into it, looking for populations of popular fish that haven’t been overharvested yet, and they did that. The other option? Switch to species of fish that haven’t been heavily fished yet, usually because they weren’t popular.

As a result, Pauly points out that in the past decade we’ve seen a number of formerly unpopular fish rebranded in an effort to make them seem more palatable.

So, for instance, the “slimehead”…


…becomes the “orange roughy.”

And the “Patagonian toothfish”…


…is now the “Chilean sea bass” (which was subsequently depleted).

It’s a great example of rebranding; what’s especially interesting to me is that the reason for it is the collapse of so many popular fish populations. The fishing industry has to convince people to eat fish that were previously unappealing because it has largely destroyed the basis of its own existence.

Originally posted in 2009. For a different example of rebranding fish, see our post on PETA’s Sea Kitten campaign.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.