Source: Above the Law
Last week, a survey of 1,300 incoming freshman at Harvard University found that 42 percent of respondents had cheated on a homework assignment or problem set before starting at Harvard. This study lead to countless editorial pieces with provocative titles such as “Welcome to Harvard, Cheaters of 2017” and “More Incoming Harvard Students Have Cheated On Their Homework Than Had Sex.” However, what the study and related articles did not discuss was how “cheating” was defined both for those conducting the survey and those responding; how technology has complicated the definition of “cheating;” and if academic institutions as well as the larger social structure needs to rethink academic ethics in today’s changing and advancing digital society.
Last week, NPR ran a series on American public libraries. The series immediately filled me with a sentimental wave of nostalgia. One of my earliest memories is packing up my teddy bear and a sack lunch and driving to the Lincoln Township Public Library for their annual Teddy Bear Picnic. I also remember taking a writing workshop at the library in second or third grade, which lead to my first publication, “Friends of the Sea.” As an undergraduate, I spent countless hours at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago studying or perusing the library’s extensive collection of foreign films. And a staff member at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square helped me navigate the IRS website when income tax forms first transitioned from a paper to online format.
The NPR series was more than just interesting. It led me to start to think about the ways the public library has been important in my life. In addition, I started to consider what libraries teach all of us about functioning in society. Are public libraries a hidden social institution?
Source: Huffington Post and the Nu Project
In the past weeks, I’ve focused on the normative beauty expectations that govern women’s bodies and bodily habits. I was excited to see a recent article at the Huffington Post on one Minneapolis photographer’s attempt to challenge those norms. Matthew Blum, assisted by his wife/partner, has begun the Nu Project (warning: website NSFW), a multipart photography project in North and South America, in which he attempts to document real women’s nude bodies. All volunteers, the “models” represent a spectrum of bodies—different ages, shapes, weights, heights, skin colors, breast sizes and so on. Although Blum admits that he hasn’t fully achieved the diversity he envisions—relying on volunteers means he can’t seek out the “type” of women missing from the project—the photos do present a variety of bodies. As he explains the project, “The things that I had seen either used models with typical model bodies or average people who were made to look extremely unimpressive. I figured there was a way to treat women (of any size/shape) like models and photograph them beautifully, respectfully without a lot of sexual under or overtones” (quoted from HuffPost). Projects like this may encourage more women to appreciate their bodies, and because Blum refrains from sexualizing the women, the presentation resists objectification. Blum reports that many of the volunteers say participation has helped them see themselves as beautiful.
But do projects like this produce social change? That is, do they actually challenge our deeply held beliefs about beauty? And what happens when we consider representations of stigmatized male bodies? (more…)
Google is a behemoth of an organization. Most everyone is familiar with its search engine (to the point where “Google” is a now a verb), and of the top 25 most-visited web sites in the world 6 are Google-branded, including YouTube. The company makes much of its money by selling targeted advertisements through its AdWords service, and has been wildly successful doing so. But Google has been busy with some interesting projects that fall outside its traditional role as search engine. One in particular should be of interest to sociologists: Google Fiber, a fiber-optic based Internet service very different from current offerings.
By some measures, the United States is an incredibly wired nation. One way to discern this is the number of devices connected to the internet. Since each device connected to the internet gets a unique address, called an IP (internet protocol) address, the number of IP addresses assigned within an area, say the United States, is a measure of how many devices are connected to the internet. The tech savvy among you will note this measure is far from perfect since multiple devices can share an IP address (e.g., two computers sharing the same wireless router), and you would be right. Nevertheless, the United States accounts for 146 million of 666 million total IP addresses worldwide – nearly 22%.
Anita Sarkeesian. Source: Feminstfrequency.com
AUTHOR’S WARNING: This post, and especially the links leading from it, contains images and language that some readers may find offensive or unsettling.
Anita Sarkeesian is clever, eloquent, and seemingly fearless, but the recent fame she has achieved is not entirely pleasant. With a B.A. in communications from California State University, Northridge and a Master’s degree in social and political thought from York University, Sarkeesian is thoroughly knowledgeable and aptly qualified for her role as media critic and feminist activist. She uses her blog, Feminist Frequency, as one vehicle to further her research interests of “race, gender, sexuality, class and ability in popular culture.” Yet if you visited her (vandalized, and since fixed) Wikipedia page on June 5th or 6th, you would see her described not as a “feminist media critic,” but “an entitled nigger” (Sarkeesian is Armenian) and “hooker.” Comments on her YouTube channel and blog label her a “feminazi,” among other vitriolic insults.
It all began when Sarkeesian posted a video to Kickstarter, a site that crowdsources funding for creative projects. The project, “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games,” which is not yet completed, will “explore, analyze and deconstruct some of the most common tropes and stereotypes of female characters in games.” She asked for $6000 to fund the project; she received $158,922, threats of death and rape, and international media attention.
For years, we have been deluged with stories about the dangers of online social media. But in the last several months, a new kind of story has suddenly swept the mainstream media and the blogosphere alike. This new type of story highlights burgeoning discontent amongst the user-base of social media sites and, at least implicitly, questions whether mass exhibitionism on social media is just a faddish blip on the cultural radar.
For example, recent articles discuss how high school students have grown cautious and are adopting pseudonyms to avoid having their profiles examined by college admissions committees. More broadly, social media is being problematized for its infinite capacity to absorb attention, which makes it, at minimum, a potential distraction, and, at worse, an object of obsession. Most prominent, however, is the issue of privacy. We know that Facebook continues to expose more and more details about us, while they have made it increasingly complex to adjust our privacy settings.
What are we to make of the media’s newest infatuation: Does 2010 really mark a major turning point in the history of the Internet? While an answer to this question would be speculative at best, a more manageable, and decidedly more empirical, question lies at its core: Is there a real mass movement afoot to reduce or terminate exhibitionism on social media, or is the media imposing a sort of baseless, top-down narrative on the millions of people who have integrated social media into their everyday lives?
The new norms of exhibitionism and copious self-documentation have been regular talking points on Sociology Lens over the past year. Consider Nathan Jurgenson’s posts, our digital culture of narcissism and facebook, youtube, twitter: mass exhibitionism online, as well as my own recent post, The Queer Politics of Chatroulette.
It now seems truer than ever for many social media users (particularly, teenagers and young adults) that “If you’re not on MySpace [and/or other social media sites], you don’t exist.” Moreover, the pervasiveness of documentation throughout virtually every aspect of our daily lives has led us to start living for the documents, rather than the documents simply reflecting some aspect of our lives. Today, we must always behave as if our actions will be preserved forever and for all to see (because, most likely, they will). In the world of social media, there is no longer a “back stage” as Goffman once observed. As far as we know, there is always an audience watching our every move with rapt attention, ready to applaud or jeer at any second.
I argue that we should view this “will to document” (as Jurgenson has described it) as a new kind of habitus. Habitus (according to Bourdieu) means simply “dispositions [that are] acquired through experience.” It explains behavior that is neither hard-wired into our biology, nor simply a manifestation of conscious and rational decision-making. Success in this hyper-surveilled, hyper-documented world is wholly dependent on acquiring a set of practices that produce both a highly-visible and favorable image of oneself. (more…)
As media became truly massive in the middle of the 20th century, many theorists discussed the degree to which individuals are powerless -e.g., McLuhan’s famous “the medium is the message.” In the last decades, the pendulum of dystopian versus utopian thinking about technology has swung far into the other direction. Now, we hear much about the power of the individual, how “information wants to be free” and, opposed to powerful media structures, how the world has become “flat.” The story is that the top-down Internet was “1.0” and now we have a user-generated “Web 2.0”. The numbering suggests the linear march of increasing democratization and decreasing corporate control.
The pendulum has swung too far.
I have tried to argue elsewhere (here and here and here) that Web 1.0 and 2.0 both exist today, sometimes in conflict, other times facilitating each other. On this blog, I have noted that sometimes “information wants to be expensive” and how the iPad marks a return to the top-down as opposed to the bottom up. Zeynep Tufekci and I have a paper under (single blind) review that discusses the iPad as the return of old media and consumer society by way of Apple’s Disney-like closed system.
Steven Johnson recently wrote a powerful op-ed in the New York Times titled “Rethinking the Gospel of the Web” that makes a similar argument. He portrays Apple’s closed system as incredibly innovative, stating that “sometimes, if you get the conditions right, a walled garden can turn into a rain forest.”
Opposed to the current orgy of writing about the powerful agent/consumer, Free, democratization, revolutionary potential, flat worlds and so on, let’s remember how structures and top-down corporate control remain important:
- access is still unequal
- how people use the web is unequal, something I’ve discussed as the post-structural digital divide
- the “revolutions” of Wikipedia or open source are basically knowledge or software being produced by a few white men to now being produced by a few more white men (revolutionary this is not)
This world is not flat, and if the success of Apple is any indication, it is not getting any flatter. ~nathan
On this blog, I typically discuss the intersection of social theory and the changing nature of the Internet (e.g., using Marx, Bourdieu, Goffman, Bauman, DeBord and so on). In a chapter of the new third edition of the McDonaldization Reader edited by George Ritzer, I argue that what we are seeing is a general trend towards the deMcDonaldization of the Internet.
The shift from a top-down centrally conceived and controlled “Web 1.0” to a more user-generated and social “Web 2.0” is a shift away from the dimensions of McDonaldization as Ritzer defines the concept. For example, a corporate-generated website that does not allow user-generated content is paradigmatic of Web 1.0. The site is produced efficiently by few individuals, making it predictable, controllable and relatively devoid of outside human input. Web 2.0, alternatively, is not centered on the efficient production of content [I've made this argument previously]. User-generated content is, instead, produced by many individuals, making it much less predictable –evidenced by the random videos we come across on YouTube, articles on Wikipedia, or perhaps the best example is the downright capricious and aleatory experience of Chatroulette. The personalization and community surrounding social networking sites are hard to quantify and make the web far more humanized. Thus, Web 2.0 marks a general deMcDonaldization of the web. Examples of these points are further illustrated in the chapter.
This conclusion also counters the thesis that McDonaldization is something that will only continue to grow – opposed to the “grand narrative” that Ritzer (and Weber before him) put forth.
Finally, further consideration needs to be given to the various ways in which Web 2.0 remains McDonaldized, rationalized and standardized. Many of the sites that allow for unpredictable user-generated content do so precisely because of their rationalized and standardized -and thus McDonaldized- underlying structure. In many ways, our Facebook profiles all seem to look and behave similarly. The rationalized and standardized structures of Web 2.0 seem to coexist comfortably with irrational and unpredictable content they facilitate. ~nathanjurgenson.com
In the ten days following the earthquake that devastated Haiti’s capital, Americans used text messaging to donate over $30 million. Text messaging has been prominent in the news as of late. Candidate Obama shocked supporters by announcing his vice presidential pick using this new medium. In 2008, Nielson reported that the average teen sends a whopping 2,272 messages a month. A new term, “sexting,” entered popular usage following several high profile cases of teens being expelled or even charged with distribution of child pornography. The Pew Internet and American Life Center reported in 2009 that 15% of teens ages 12-17 received sexually explicit images of people they know. Texting has proven the most dangerous common distraction to drivers. The first images of the plane that crash-landed in the Hudson were uploaded to the Web from the cell phone of a passenger on a nearby boat. The incident was also Twittered by a survivor. Then, of course, there were the protests to the recent Iranian elections, which used personal mobile communication devices to subvert state-run media.
Each of these incidences share a common theme: traditional practices were supplanted in favor of a new set of behaviors associated with mobile communications. That’s the what, but as a social theorist, I suggest we also ought to consider the why. I think Zymgunt Bauman, a remarkably prolific octogenarian sociologist, has a lot to offer us here. Bauman famously speaks of “liquid modernity” where traditional social structures are melting away and fading ambiguously into one another. He argues that things which are liquid, flowing, and mobile tend to undo things which are rigid, solid, and stable.
Mobile communication networks increasingly provide concrete examples supporting Bauman’s theory and Haiti is only the latest instance. The cell phone has made transferring money more immediate, more flexible, and simpler than even the credit card. People need only reach into their pockets for a device which is already profoundly integrated into their lives and dial a few numbers. Within seconds, the transaction is complete and money has flowed from one node in the network to another. The power of such fluid networks is that, with minimal cost in time and money (most were $10 contributions) to individuals, enormous resources can be mobilized. The political implications of this new fluid and hyper-networked reality should not be lost on us.
“Mobile giving to help Haiti exceeds $30 million” by Suzanne Choney
“Teaching and Learning Guide for: Social Implications of Mobile Telephony: The Rise of Personal Communication Society” by Scott W. Campbell and Yong Jin Park