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Posts Tagged ‘internet’

In a number of posts over several years, I have expressed skepticism that the new e-technologies of the last couple of decades have had the deep effects on social life that much of the media–and a few academics–assert. The best evidence is that: no, the internet and smart phones did not make people lonelier, did not impoverish human conversation, did not bring a new epoch of political revolution, etc. Despite the media trope that the global web has turned everything inside out, the human fundamentals remain pretty constant.

Yet, my rebuttal does not mean that the new e-communications technologies have had no consequences. They probably have made important differences (although the data are thin), differences similar to those generated by a “technology” that is several thousand years old: the city. Cities enable all sorts of people out in the “long tails” to aggregate into “critical masses,” fostering subcultures for nearly everything from esoteric music to terrorism.

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Long Story of the “Long Tail”

A recent article in Wired reported on the estimated 100,000 workers around the globe who risk their sanity culling the perverse, grotesque, horrific stuff that some people post on social media – child sexual abuse, close-ups of accident victims, self-mutilation, and the like. That there are circles of people who post such content and yet larger circles who presumably enjoy looking at and trading such content reminds us of the down-slide on the Internet’s “long tail.”

The “long tail” notion, argued in the early 2000s by then-Wired’s editor Chris Anderson, is that the internet allows businesses to make money even on products valued by an extremely tiny proportion of consumers. Sellers aggregate enough of those rare customers to make marketing to them profitable. Netflix, Anderson wrote, is a good example: “It doesn’t matter if the several thousand people who rent Doctor Who episodes each month are in one city or spread, one per town, across the country … What matters is not where customers are, or even how many of them are seeking a particular title, but only that some number of them exist, anywhere.” The same logic applies to producers and audiences of perverse contents.

At the same time, the Internet sustains niches for what most would consider positive activities, such as hobbyists trading tips, seekers of relatively rare sorts of mates finding one another (as in Jdate and FarmersOnly dating), fans of rarely-recorded world music discovering tracks, and sufferers from “orphan” diseases finding support and advice.

This “long tail” phenomenon – the good, the bad, and the very ugly – seems to be creating a new society. Except that we have been there before.

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All Tech Is Social

The flood of new devices, apps, and gadgets raises the recurrent worry about what these things, individually or in ensembles, are “doing” to us, how they are “impacting” us. Technology critic and MIT professor Sherry Turkle, for instance, argues that “technology doesn’t just do things for us. It does things to us, changing not just what we do but who we are.” In a similar vein, the legal scholar Tim Wu, who focuses on media and technology, warns that the Internet is psychologically overloading us.

This metaphor of impact obscures the evolution of each personal technology as it enters widespread use, misconstruing the implications for our personal lives and psyches. It implies that a technology hits, pushes, smashes us. Meteors impact the earth; missiles impact a target; bats impact a baseball. But in what meaningful sense does an electric light or a cell phone, literally or metaphorically, impact us?

We better understand the role of technologies if we think about how we use them and how that use changes over time….. [Read the rest of this post on the Boston Review’s BR Blog here.]

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Cell Phone Science

My attention was recently drawn to the topic of cell phones and not just because … hold on a sec … um, no messages … of the phone sitting next to my keyboard, but because I was reading two books … wait, what’s the ball score? … No change … where was I? …. oh, yeah, two books – Rainie and Wellman’s Networked and Doron and Jeffrey’s The Great Indian Phone Book – and a few other items on the topic. Cell phones have spread across the globe faster and deeper than any other technology. Understanding why and with what consequence is a new frontier in social science research.

The mobile or cell phone emerged around 1980; almost no one had one. As late as 2000, there was about one cell phone subscription for every 12 human beings in the world; this year, there is about one subscription for every single human being. This must mean something. The latest Sunday New York Times Book Review presented the intriguing thoughts of many novelists on the question of what the advent of internet devices did to story-telling. The new technologies have blown up a number of plot lines – hero stranded, boy and girl unable to re-find one another, mysterious stranger comes to town, and so on. Get on your phone! Send a text! Google him! What’s the problem?

Some interesting and perhaps unexpected findings are coming out of research into the sociology of cell phones. One finding is that, however cell phone obsessed we think we are … um, did I just hear a buzz? Is that for me? … Americans are mobile laggards.

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Marriage is ancient and universal. But even in the short history of the United States, who, when, where, how and why we marry has varied significantly. For instance, Americans began marrying across racial lines at noteworthy rates in just the last couple of generations. Also, the typical age at which Americans  marry has fluctuated up and down and up in the last century and a half. Even where people married – at home, in churches, or in public spaces – has varied. On the other hand, the desire to marry and the expectation that we will marry has not changed that much. (Previous posts on these points are here, here, here, and here.)

c. 1910 (source)

How we find whom to marry has also changed substantially in recent generations. Now, in the last decade or two, we have entered yet another, new era of meeting and mating: the Era of Internet Courtship. Although many people have asserted that coupling up via the Internet was the “new thing,” only now do we have a solid study that really shows us what is happening, how the Internet is becoming the new site of meeting and mating.

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American Ties (III)

It may be hard to believe, but a generation ago you could be in touch with another person only by speaking face-to-face, by letter, or by a telephone hard-wired to a fixed line – no conversations while walking down the street, no texting, no IM-ing, tweeting, etc. These days it seems hard keep out of touch with people. For many of us, especially those who actually once used telephone booths and penned invitations, the new technologies obviously must have altered social life, must have changed people’s relationships with one another. But did they?

Social scientists who try to measure just what, if anything, the e-technologies changed in people’s social lives, however, require some hard evidence. And the evidence we have in hand – so far, at least – reveals a much less dramatic history.

(Disclosure: This is the last in a series of posts that draw from my new book, Still Connected: American Families and Friends since 1970. This post covered friendships and this post discussed family ties.)

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