Archive: Apr 2008

I wrote this for my personal blog, but thought it might be of interest here, seeing as this blog is partially about introducing new technology to people. Twitter, if you haven’t heard is a new “microblogging” service: you’re limited to 140 characters and the interface is designed to make posting and replying to others’ posts as simple as possible. I decided to try it out and here’s my response:

I’ve been using Twitter for a little over a week now. For a long time I was hesitant to sign up. While Twitter had lots of hype, the hype was all within a pretty narrow circle: sure, all the internet celebs on TWiT each week love Twitter, but they’re in the crowd using Twitter. Nobody I knew used Twitter and it seemed like the kind of thing that’s only useful if you know lots of people using it. But both the geek and the sociologist in me were interested in it, so when one friend signed up, I decided to give it a go.

My first response to Twitter, and I think the first response of many people, is “Why would anyone care what I’m doing minute to minute?” There’s definitely some vanity involved in Twittering, but not really that much more vanity than is involved in the human experience generally: Twitter is basically an extension of our capacity for gossip and our curiosity about others. We all gossip to some degree (some people think it’s even the key to our evolution as linguistic creatures), even if it’s the simple “So what’s new?” kind of catching up we do everyday with virtually everybody we see regularly.


Eric Alterman’s article in the current New Yorker, Out of Print: The death and life of the American newspaper, describes the Huffington Post’s editorial process:

The Huffington Post’s editorial processes are based on what Peretti has named the “mullet strategy.” (“Business up front, party in the back” is how his trend-spotting site BuzzFeed glosses it.) “User-generated content is all the rage, but most of it totally sucks,” Peretti says. The mullet strategy invites users to “argue and vent on the secondary pages, but professional editors keep the front page looking sharp. The mullet strategy is here to stay, because the best way for Web companies to increase traffic is to let users have control, but the best way to sell advertising is a slick, pretty front page where corporate sponsors can admire their brands.”

I’m posting this for two reasons: 1) it’s hilarious, 2) we’re actually having conversations about this right now about (Not that we’ve called it the “mullet strategy” — though we will now!) With the magazine, we have to be really careful and selective about what makes the cut, so it’s so tempting to go in the complete opposite direction for the web and just throw every idea imaginable up on the web. As web editor, I’m pushing strongly for our website to not become the trash can of Contexts: where ideas not good enough for the magazine go to die. On the other hand, this is a pretty interesting way to think about managing community websites, funny imagery and all.

I just got back from the Midwest Sociological Society meetings in St. Louis this past weekend. The theme of the meetings this year was “Making Sociology More Public.” Obviously, this is relevant to what we’re doing at Contexts, so I attended several of the sessions on the subject, including an excellent talk by Mario Luis Small and a session with reporters from the Belleville News-Democrat newspaper, a manager from KDHX 88.1 FM and the news director from News20 television.

This last session was particularly interesting as much of the discussion centered around how, on the one hand, sociology is a broad field where people study almost anything, but, on the other hand, any given sociologist is likely only comfortable speaking authoritatively on a very narrow topic. Additionally, the usual suspects came up in discussions of presenting scholarly research to the public: the media wants short sound bites with strong, unambiguous statements of fact. Yet we have qualifications, caveats, probabilities, etc.

I tried to pull together a couple of clear lessons from the weekend’s activities for sociologists who want to have more of a public voice: