Originally posted at Montclair Socioblog.

A girl takes a selfie, posts it to Instagram, and waits. She doesn’t have to wait long – a minute or two – before the likes and comments start rolling in. “Gorgeous,” “So pretty OMG,” “Stunning,” “Cutest.”

You can see why people might look at this and think: narcissism. You can see why they might think that new technologies – Instagram, cell phones (self-phones?) – have made kids today the most narcissistic generation in history.  In an earlier post, I expressed my skepticism about that claim. And, if we can generalize from an episode of This American Life last November, the selfie-Instagram-comments syndrome is not about narcissism – seeing yourself as standing shiningly above everyone else. It’s about fitting in – reading the social map, finding where you stand, and maybe changing that place.

Here is a slightly edited-down excerpt of the first part of the show. As Ira Glass says, if you have teenage girls in your life, you’re probably familiar with this. I don’t and I’m not, so I found it fascinating listening. (When the girls were reading their comments, I thought one of the girls, Jane, was saying “Hard eyes,” and I couldn’t imagine why that was a compliment. Turns out, she was saying “Heart eyes.”) Here’s Ira Glass’s distillation:

They want comments from other girls. This is not about sex. It’s not about boys. It’s about girls, and friendship. And it’s very repetitive – the same phrases, over and over.

All these moves – the posting, the commenting and liking – have a meaning that girls know intuitively but that must be decoded for outsiders like me and Ira.



Ira Glass: These comments are a very specific language that tells the girls all kinds of things.  And a lot of the meaning in the comments has nothing to do with the actual words. . .  It’s about who is doing the commenting . . .  Liking a photo means something totally different from commenting. You comment with someone you’re close to or someone you want to get close to.

Ella: It’s definitely a social obligation, because you want to let them know, and also let people who are seeing those, that I have a close relationship with this person, so close that I can comment on their pictures, like, this is so cute, or, you look so great here.

Jane:  Especially because we, like, just started high school, so we’re meeting a lot of new people. So you would comment on someone’s photo who you’re not really super close with or that you don’t know really well. And it’s sort of a statement, like, I want to be friends with you, or I want to get to know you, or like, I think you’re cool.

If someone that you don’t know very well commented on your photo, you – it’s sort of like an unspoken agreement that you have to comment back on their photo. Like when you’re making new friends, if they comment on your photo, you comment on their photo.

It’s hard to find narcissism or vanity in any of this. The girls are not preening, not basking in their triumphs, not nursing an ego wounded from some social slight. They are reading a constantly changing sociogram or network model of their world.



Ira Glass:  They’re only three months into high school, so there is a lot at stake right now.

Julia:  One of my, like, best friends posts a selfie. Maybe this isn’t, like, healthy. But I might go through the comments and see who she’s, like, really good friends with, just ’cause we’re in high school and there’’s that sense of jealousy between everyone.

Ira Glass:  Do you have people who you’re jealous of?

Jane: Yeah.

Julia:  Yeah. I definitely would. I go through, like, the comments that people see– like that people say, and like, I see what other people have said to other people.

Jane:  Yeah.

Julia:  Just to see, like, the whole– like, the whole social like map.

Jane:  Looking, mapping out your social world, seeing who’s with who, who’s hanging out with who, who is best friends with who.

Julia:  If you didn’t have it, like, I feel like I’d be missing so much. And it would just –

Jane:    Because you wouldn’t see what other people were saying. A lot goes on.

Ira Glass:  Well, no, that’s, I feel like, the thing that I’m understanding from this conversation, is like – it’s actually like, you’re getting a picture of your entire social world and who’s up and who’s down and who’s close to who, and it’s like you’re getting a diagram of where everybody stands with everybody else.

Jane:  Yeah.

Ella:  Yeah.

Jane:  Definitely. Definitely.

Ira Glass: As it changes in real time, every day, every 10 minutes.

Ella: Yeah.

Jane:  Yeah. Everyone can see it.

Julia:  It’s crazy.

If you look at the individual –a girl posting a selfie and reading the laudatory comments – you see a personality trait, narcissism. But the behavior that looks like narcissism is really an aspect of the social structure (girls’ friendships networks) and the institution those networks are embedded in (school).

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

Modern journalism is reliant on the idea of objectivity. Even when truth is elusive, if journalists write a balanced story, they can be said to have done a good job.

But what if a story doesn’t have two sides? Sometimes journalists continue to write as if they do, as they did in regards to human caused climate change for a decade. Other times they do so wholly disingenuously, counterposing authoritative voices against ones they know carry no weight with their audience, as they did and still do with coverage of female genital cutting. At still other times, they abandon objectivity altogether, counting on a national consensus so strong that no one could possibly accuse them of being biased, as many did after 9/11.

I think this is the source of some of the discomfort with the media coverage of this election.

What does a journalist do when the editorial board of the Washington Post calls one candidate a “unique threat to American democracy”; the New York Timescalls him a “poisonous messenger” appealing to “people’s worst instincts”; the Houston Chronicle’s calls him “dangerous to the nation and the world,” a man that should “make every American shudder”; and the far-right National Review’s calls him a “menace”? What does a journalist do when conservative newspapers like the Dallas Morning News call him “horrify[ing]” and endorse a Democrat for president for the first time in almost 100 years? Is this still the right time to be objective? Is this a 9/11 moment?

I suspect that journalists themselves do not know what to do, and so we are seeing all of the strategies playing out. Some are trying hard to hew to the traditional version of balance, but covering asymmetrical candidates symmetrically makes for some odd outcomes, hence accusations of false equivalence and misinforming the public. Some are counting on a consensus, at least on some issues, assuming that things like constitutional rights and anti-bigotry are widespread enough values that they can criticize Trump on these issues without seeming partisan, but it doesn’t always work. Still others are aiming down the middle, offering an imbalanced balance, as when journalists reference the support of David Duke and other white supremacists as their own kind of dog-whistle politics.

Meanwhile, readers each have our own ideas about whether this election deserves “balanced” coverage and what that might look like. And so do, of course, the thousands of pundits, none of whom are accountable to journalistic norms, and the millions of us on social media, sharing our own points of view.

It’s no wonder the election is giving us vertigo. It is itself out of balance, making it impossible for the country to agree on what objectivity looks like. Even the journalists, who are better at it than anyone, are failing. The election has revealed what is always true: that objectivity is a precarious performance, more an art than a science, and one that gains validity only in relation to the socially constructed realities in which we live.

It’s just that our socially constructed reality is suddenly in shambles. Post-truth politics doesn’t give us a leg to stand on, none of us can get a foothold anymore. Internet-era economic realities have replaced the news anchor with free-floating infotainment. Political polarization has ripped the country apart and the edifices we’ve clung to for stability—like the Republican Party—are suddenly themselves on shaky ground. The rise of Trump has made all of this dizzyingly clear.

We’re hanging on for dear life. I fear that journalists can do little to help us now.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

How are media sources from opposing sides of the political spectrum covering the election? Most of us have no idea. We live in a media “bubble,” one in which we usually only consume “friendly” material: news and opinion from outlets and commentators who share our lean.

At Facebook, employees followed a sample of 10.1 million users who publicly identified their political leanings. They then looked at the forces that created the bubble: (1) “ideological homophily,” the degree to which friends shared the same leanings; (2) Facebook’s algorithm, feeding you things it thinks you want to see; (3) and click-through behavior, which links were ignored and which attracted interaction.

They concluded that “individuals’ choices played a stronger role in limiting exposure” to politically diverse content than did their algorithm. (You can get the data yourself here.)

At the Wall Street Journal, you can take a look at these different media bubbles side-by-side. They frame the data as what you might see in your Facebook feed if most of your friends identify as “very liberal” or “very conservative.” More broadly, what the data represents is the use of Facebook data as an insight into the bigger media bubbles we all live in both on- and off-line.

Here’s the first four results for posts about “Barack Obama”:


On the left you have a critical article about Obama’s light treatment of private prison corporations, but also a headline calling Donald Trump a “douchebag.” On the right you have a link to a video “banned by Obama himself” which purports to out him as an Islamist and a communist and a headline that says that Obama “gave into Sharia law.”

Liberal-leaning and conservative-leaning headlines and updates related to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton read like this:

Liberal: “Clinton surges past 270 electoral votes…”

Conservative: “After Leading by 18 Points — Hillary’s Lead Over Trump Shrinks to Margin-of-Error”

Liberal: “Reagan’s Son Says His Dad Would be ‘Humiliated’ by Trump”

Conservative: “FBI Caves: Will Hand Over Notes from Clinton Interview”

Liberal: “Fox News is the Origin Story of Trump’s Bigotry”

Conservative:”Hillary Mobilizes Illegal Army”

Liberal: “Brian Stelter Blasts Sean Hannity for Spreading Conspiracy Theories Regarding Clinton’s Health”

Conservative: “Trump Releases Bombshell Report Linking Obama and Hillary to Rise of ISIS”

You get the picture.

It’s interesting that the narrative of America being a united country is so widely promulgated by both liberal and conservative sides alike. If the politicians really want us to come together (and I doubt they do), the media isn’t helping. Granted, these are the extremes, but the sources on the side I oppose look like delusional conspiracy hubs to me, whereas I recognize many of the outlets on the side to which I lean. To me, those are “good” news sources, ones I count on. Presumably someone on the other side would feel the same about theirs and be equally horrified about mine.

The stories these different sources tell are not compatible. The “very liberal” and “very conservative” side are two wholly different worlds. It’s no wonder each side has such a difficult time understanding the other. I fear what it means about the future of our democracy.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Signaling white supremacy.

On the heels of the Republican national convention, the notorious KKK leader David Duke announced his campaign for the Louisiana Senate. On his social media pages, he released a campaign poster featuring a young white woman with blonde hair and blue eyes wearing a gray tank top decorated with American flag imagery. She is beautiful and young, exuding innocence. Atop the image the text reads “fight for Western civilization” and included David Duke’s website and logo. It does not appear that she consented to being on the poster.

When I came upon the image, I was immediately reminded of pro-Nazi propaganda that I had seen in a museum in Germany, especially those depicting “Hitler youth.” Many of those posters featured fresh white faces, looking healthy and clean, in stark contrast to the distorted, darkened, bloated, and snarling faces of the targets of the Nazi regime.



It’s different era, but the implied message of Duke’s poster is the same — the nationalist message alongside the idealized figure — so it wasn’t difficult to find a Nazi propaganda poster that drew the comparison. I tweeted it out like this:

Given that David Duke is an avowed racist running on a platform to save “Western” civilization, it didn’t seem like that much of a stretch.

Provoking racist backlash.

I hashtagged it with #davidduke and #americafirst, so I can’t say I didn’t invite it, but the backlash was greater than any I have ever received. The day after the tweet, I easily got one tweet per minute, on average.

What I found fascinating was the range of responses. I was told I looked just like her — beautiful, blue-eyed, and white — was asked if I hated myself, accused of being a race traitor, and invited to join the movement against “white genocide.” I was also told that I was just jealous: comparatively hideous thanks to my age and weight. Trolls took shots at sociology, intellectuals, and my own intelligence. I was asked if I was Jewish, accused of being so, and told to put my head in an oven. I was sent false statistics about black crime. I was also, oddly, accused of being a Nazi myself. Others, like Kate Harding, Philip Cohen, and even Leslie Jones, were roped in.

Here is a sampling (super trigger warning for all kinds of hatefulness):

1011 12 13 14

It’s not news that twitter is full of trolls. It’s not news that there are proud white supremacists and neo-nazis in America. It’s not news that women online get told they’re ugly or fat on the reg. It’s not news that I’m a (proud) cat lady either, for what it’s worth. But I think transparency is our best bet to get people to acknowledge the ongoing racism, antisemitism, sexism, and anti-intellectualism in our society. So, there you have it.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Democratic members of the US House of Representatives sat in on the floor of the House, demanding recorded votes on gun control measures. Rep. John Lewis (Georgia) made the speech that launched the effort, and was framed at the center of most of the photos; after all, he has an unrivaled record for participating in such efforts that dates back to the sit-in movement of 1960.

Click image to watch the video:


They’re grandstanding, hoping to the play to the crowd by violating the norms and rules of the House where, under normal circumstances, a member of the minority party can’t do much on matters of policy. Appealing to the public is their best shot to get a vote, but it’s not a very good one; and it’s extremely unlikely that anything gun control advocates in the House want could win majority support in that body. The members sat on the floor in the well of the House, likely the most comfortable surface Rep. Lewis has ever protested on, without much fear of arrest or violence. The presiding officer, always from the majority party, adjourned the session, turning off CSPAN’s cameras – seeking to deny Democrats the audience they seek. But the protesters are livestreaming on a variety of social media. It’s not quite so easy to control the flow of images and information anymore.

The Democratic revolt in the House is yet another response to the mass shooting in Orlando, which once again reminded Americans – and their representatives – that it’s very easy for dangerous people you don’t like to get powerful weapons. The sit-in is also an attempt to escalate the political conflict and make more of the generally fleeting moment of public attention that follows such a tragedy. We’ve all seen it many times before: a mass shooting captures public attention and sets the agenda, but only briefly, and a familiar political ritual plays out: Advocates of gun control hold vigils and make speeches; advocates of gun rights mostly stay silent on matters of policy, and offer thoughts and prayers for the victims and their families. And the moment passes.

In normal political life, when  everyone isn’t talking about guns all the time, the gun rights side of the debate enjoys a substantial advantage, particularly visible in the National Rifle Association, which deploys more money, more active membership, and calls upon more well-positioned allies than its opponents, who come and  go. Gun control advocates have been “outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered, outplanned” (to quote Hamilton).

Since the tragic massacre of school children in Newtown, Connecticut, gun control advocates have been building organizations and  an infrastructure for action. They have been better able to exploit the moment of a massacre, and less willing to allow their opponents to stall until concern passes.

Last week, Senator Chris Murphy, who previously represented Newtown in the House, staged a filibuster of sorts in the Senate, monopolizing the floor while standing, not sitting, and talking about the need for action. In the upper house, a Senator can hold the floor as long as he can stand and talk. Most Democrats, and a couple of Republicans, joined Senator Murphy for part of 15 hours, offering sympathetic questions and taking up some of the talking. The leadership agreed to hold votes on four gun control bills, and Murphy stopped talking. The next day, the Senate rejected all of them.

Movement on policy? Not so much, and not so fast, but all of this sets up further contest in the November elections.

Meanwhile, other advocates are prospecting another strategy that operates with different rules and on an alternative schedule. Parents of some of the massacred students at Sandy Hook Elementary School have filed a product liability suit against Remington Arms, the company the  manufactures and markets the AR-15 Bushmaster, the weapon used in the mass murder. (See Evan Osnos’s report at The New Yorker.) By pursuing their argument about deceptive marketing, they hope to publicize the workings of the arms industry, contributing to a political debate that’s only slowly emerging. America offers many outlets for people to try to organize for change, none of them very easy or fast.

Nothing gun control advocates have tried has affected national policy for more than twenty years. As public concern and political resources grow, however, they keep trying to innovate new approaches, hoping that something works before the next time.

David S. Meyer, PhD, is a professor of sociology and political science at the University of California, Irvine. He blogs at Politics Outdoors, where this post originally appeared, and where he offers comments on contemporary events informed by history and the study of social movements. 

Vox released the following figure this month, illustrating the results of an analysis by social media analytics company Crimson Hexagon. Excluding neutral stories, it shows the percentage of positive and negative media coverage for the final five candidates in the presidential primary. Clinton has received the most negative coverage and the least positive coverage.


As Jeff Stein at Vox notes, there may be more negative scrutiny of Clinton compared to Sanders because she’s widely considered to be the front-runner and that might not be good for Sanders, despite the greater positive coverage, because it could mark him as a non-contender.

Being the front-runner, though, doesn’t explain why Trump has received comparably less negative and more positive coverage.

Are these numbers reliable?

Well, the numbers were generated by algorithm. First Crimson Hexagon picked news outlets to include in their analysis. They did so by choosing the outlets that generated the most conversation on social media: Washington Post, Politico, Fox News, the Huffington Post, and CNN. So, one caveat is: if you’re using social media to get your news, you’re probably getting more negative coverage of Clinton compared to the other candidates. If you’re not, you may be exposed to a different balance of stories.

Next, they ran over 170,000 posts from these outlets through an “auto-sentiment” tool. It’s a computer program they built by hiring staff to manually code and enter hundreds of thousands of stories into a database as examples. The computer then searches for patterns between the positive, negative, and neutral stories and compares those patterns with un-coded stories that it sorts, anew, into those three categories.

So, a second caveat is, if you agree with their coding procedures (and trust their coders), then you will likely feel confident with the results. Their coding procedures, as far as I can tell, are proprietary, so we don’t get to evaluate them for ourselves.

One thing you might find easy to swallow though, even if you’re a skeptic, is how little positive news there is about anybody.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

2 (1)Grab the tissues:

In his book named after the idea, sociologist Stjepan Meštrović describes contemporary Western societies as postemotional. By invoking the prefix “post,” he doesn’t mean to suggest that we no longer have any emotions at all, but that we have become numb to our emotions, so much so that we may not feel them the way we once did.

This, he argues, is a result of being exposed to a “daily diet of phoniness”: a barrage of emotional manipulation from every corner of culture, news, entertainment, infotainment, and advertising. In this postemotional society, our emotions have become a natural resource that, like spring water, is tapped at no cost to serve corporations with goals of maximizing mass consumption and fattening their own wallets. Even companies that make stuff like gum.

As examples, Meštrović describes how our dramas and comedies feed us fictionalized stories that take us on extreme emotional roller coasters, while their advertisements manipulate our emotions to encourage us to buy. Serious media like the news lead with the most emotionally intense stories of the day. Our own lives are usually rather humdrum, but if you watch the news, you vicariously experience trauma every day. A cop killed another kid. An earthquake has killed thousands. Little girls are kidnapped by warlords. Immigrants die by the boatload. Do you feel sad? Angry? Scared? Your friends do; you know because of Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Do you need a pick me up? Here’s a kitten. Feel happy.

Importantly for Meštrović, the emotions that we encounter through these media are not our own. The happiness you feel watching a baby laughing on YouTube isn’t really your happiness, nor is it your sadness when you watch a news story about a tragedy. It’s not your daughter who has treasured your tiny offerings of love for 18 years, but you spend emotional energy on these things nevertheless.

In addition to being vicarious, the emotions we are exposed to are largely fake: from the voiceover on the latest blockbuster movie trailer, to the practiced strain in the voice of the news anchor, to the performative proposal on The Bachelor, to the enthusiasm for a cleaning product in the latest ad. These emotions are performed after being carefully filtered through focus groups and designed to appeal to the masses.

But they are so much more intense than those a typical human experiences in their daily lives, and the onslaught is so constant. Meštrović thinks we are emotionally exhausted by this experience, leaving us little energy left to feel our own, idiosyncratic emotions. We lose our ability to detect our own more nuanced emotions, which are almost always small and mundane compared the extraordinary heights of grief, rage, lust, and love that we are exposed to when the news chases down the latest mass tragedy or the movies offer up never-ending tales of epic quests. Meanwhile, in consuming the emotions of others, we get lost. We end up confused by the dissolving of the boundary between personal and vicarious; our bodies can’t tell the difference between friends on TV and those in real life.

Meštrović is worried about this not just on our behalf. He’s worried that it inures us to real tragedies because our hearts are constantly being broken, but only a little. When we are triggered to constantly feel all the feelings for all the people everywhere — real ones and fake ones — we don’t have the energy to emotionally respond to the ones that are happening right in front of us. His work was originally inspired by the bland global response to the Bosnian genocide in the ’90s, but applies equally well to the slow, stuttering response — both political and personal — to the refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil War and the constant news of yet another mass shooting in America. The emotional dilution that characterizes a postemotional society makes us less likely to take action when needed. So, when action is needed, we change our Facebook profile picture instead of taking to the streets.

Cross-posted at Business Insider and Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

On September 2, the photograph of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying face down on a Turkish beach circulated internationally on social media. Amid discussions of whether or not it was ethical to post, tweet, and share such a heart-wrenching image, The New York Times rightly noted that the powerful image has spurred international public attention to a crisis that has been ongoing for years. As Anne Barnard and Karam Shoumali said:

“Once again, it is not the sheer size of the catastrophe—millions upon millions forced by war and desperation to leave their homes—but a single tragedy that has clarified the moment.”

The conflict in Syria has lasted almost five years now. With more than half the population forced to leave, the United Nations reported that the Syrian conflict now represents the largest displacement crisis in the world. Over 12 million people require some form of humanitarian assistance. And almost half of those displaced are children. Like Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation that sparked Arab Spring (and, coincidentally, the current civil war in Syria), the image of Aylan, too, has the capacity to change the world. Bouazizi was not the first person to set himself alight in protest, just as Aylan was not the first child to wash ashore on Mediterranean beaches.

Indeed, those who have been following the refugee crisis over the past four years have viewed countless tragic images. But there is — for the moment, at least — something significant about this particular photograph. It could be because the image is deceptively peaceful, failing to reflect the violence that pushed his parents to flee or the family’s terrifying experience at sea that ultimately led to the deaths of Aylan, his brother Galip, and their mother Rehan. It may also be because of his clothing: red shirt, blue shorts, and Velcro sneakers. He could be anyone’s son, brother, nephew.

Aylan’s image has galvanized attention from around the world, especially the West. The public’s concern and outrage after the photo circulated on social media has already had a significant impact on the refugee crisis. This single tragedy has become the symbol of the refugee crisis in the Middle East. The image and subsequent public outcry has led to an increase in charitable donations, impacted election campaigns, and prompted the public to demand more of their governments, resulting in Western nations around the world pledging to increase the number of refugees they will take.

Although it is unfortunate that it takes something as tragic as the body of a boy lying alone on a beach to solidify public resolve, it is also an important reminder that we are, as Goffman suggested, “dangerous giants.” We have the capacity to enact change on a level that is difficult to imagine as an individual.

The graph below shows Twitter activity both before and after the photo of Aylan went viral. Tweet volume about Syria has more than doubled since the world was shown the image.  Tweets welcoming refugees from the region showed and even larger increase. And, although tweets with Aylan’s name appear to have been short-lived, perhaps the international attention they produced can be harnessed as people are forced to learn more about why this tragedy occurred and pledge support.

When we georeference and map tweets containing the hashtags #RefugeesWelcome and #AylanKurdi, we can also see how this unfolded around the world. Twitter is a crude measure of impact.  Yet, just as Barnard and Shoumali suggested, a single tragedy amidst a conflict that has led to the deaths of so many seems to have helped to capture the attention of the world. See the snapshot of Twitter activity around the world using the hashtags #AylanKurdi (green) and #RefugeesWelcome (blue) two days after the photograph went viral (below):

So, can an image of a child change the world? Typically, no. But, a powerful image under the right conditions might have an impact no one could have predicted.

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections.

Tara Leigh Tober and Tristan Bridges are sociologists at the College at Brockport (SUNY). You can follow them on at @tristanbphd and @tobertara.