Tag Archives: social media

Why Trump?

Trump photo: Michael Vadon; THR composite

Trump photo: Michael Vadon; THR composite

Why Trump? The commentary class is rightly obsessed with the question. In the New York Times, Thomas Edsall provides a socio-economic explanation, highlighting the anger of a shrinking middle class. In the New Yorker, David Remnick offers a “coming home to roost” argument, noting how Trump is “the beneficiary of a long process of Republican intellectual decadence.” The comedian Louis CK weighed in with this: “[He] is a messed up guy with a hole in his heart that he tries to fill with money and attention. He can never ever have enough of either and he’ll never stop trying. He’s sick. Which makes him really really interesting.” John Oliver says it’s because the word Trump is a brand that invariably connotes power.

Insightful explanations. But they don’t directly account for the essential feature of the Trump phenomenon: the unnerving way the man’s rhetorical vulgarity drives his ascendency. Consider a brief hit list of Trump’s brashest moves. On national television, he said that Megyn Kelly, a Fox News reporter, had “blood coming out of her whatever”; he mocked Marco Rubio as “little Marco”; he said John McCain was “not a war hero” (because he was captured); and he characterized Mexicans crossing the US border as “rapists.” But it’s on Twitter where Trump has best streamlined the art of the insult, reducing McCain to a “dummy,” Bernie Sanders a “wacko,” Glenn Beck a “mental basketcase,” Frank Bruni a “dope,” Jeb Bush a “pathetic figure,” Karl Rove a “total fool,” Cokie Roberts “kooky,” and Frank Luntz a “clown.” That’s a very small sample.

My students—budding historians—tell me exactly what budding historians are supposed to say: It has always been like this. And in a way they’re right. Go back to the Early Republic and consider how Burr, Adams, Hamilton and the like went after each other. It was vicious. Adams was the worst. He famously called Hamilton “the Bastard brat of a Scotch peddler”; Paine’s Common Sense, a “crapulous mess”; and Jefferson’s soul, “poisoned with ambition.” But the difference with Trump is that, unlike past political mudslinging, his insults are divorced from political reality. Trump isn’t hissing out insults to underscore his political position, or to denigrate the political position of another. He’s doing it to bully for the sake of bullying. Trump issues taunts apolitically, all over the place (against Republicans and Democrats), and with abandon. He’s often compared to a third grader on a playground. But, honestly, that’s not fair to third graders, most of whom seem to understand that you don’t behave that way. Continue reading

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Dispatches from Today’s Youth Culture: New Uses and Abuses of Social Invisibility

freaks geeks cool kidsFrom 1997–99—just before social media erupted on the scene—I studied American teenagers and reported the results in Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids (2004). Fifteen years later, I did a follow-up study to see what changes have occurred in teenage culture. I will highlight some of the findings and their implications in a series of short essays. The first considered how technology and social media have created new struggles to gain social visibility. This one  focuses on how these technologies have enabled new kinds of social invisibility.

You can read all the essays in this series here.

In previous generations students often conducted illicit communications by passing paper notes. This was a risky business; adults could often spot such behavior and confiscate the note and even make it public. Cell phones and text messages have made such communications harder to detect and police. Students claim that popular teenagers send a message every five to ten minutes. No student of earlier days could get away with passing that many paper notes. Today’s teenagers are nearly unanimous in reporting that students generally ignore the rules intended to discourage cell-phone use:

  • “Matt said the existence of these rules does not actually stop his friends or any other students from using their phones.”
  • “… Julie’s group does not usually follow the rules about technology use …”
  • “Alex said there were no strict rules governing cell phone use in school. He said some teachers will attempt to implement no texting rules in class, but they rarely are followed by students.”

One teacher attempted to deal with the problem by allowing students to have a couple of two- minute phone breaks during his fifty-minute classes. This apparently reduced the texting during other times in the period.

These new forms of communication create a whole additional realm of discourse that occurs simultaneously with classroom activity. Of course students have typically talked and gossiped during lunch periods, between classes, and in other blocks of  “free time,” but calling, texting, and messaging are now becoming a 24/7 activity. It is unclear whether this actually affects how well students master the curriculum. Continue reading

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Dispatches from Today’s Youth Culture: Social Visibility

freaks geeks cool kidsFrom 1997–99—just before social media erupted on the scene—I studied American teenagers and reported the results in Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids (2004). Fifteen years later, I did a follow-up study to see what changes have occurred in teenage culture. I will highlight some of the finding and their implications in a series of short essays. This first focuses on how digital technology and social media have accentuated the “struggle” for attention and social visibility.

You can read all the essays in this series here.

 

With the widespread adoption of mobile phones and tablets, social media (e.g., Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and Snapchat) have become a central feature of contemporary society. Teenagers were eager adopters of the new media. This has changed their culture and behavior: Social visibility through social media became more important and face-to-face interaction less so. Such media have tended to increase the size of social networks and hence made social visibility more difficult. In a village or small school everyone is known and has a status. In much larger settings many people are socially invisible; they become “nobodies.”

Teenagers have multiple motivations for their use of social media, but a concern about their status with other peers is certainly central—and social visibility is a prerequisite to such status. A college student from Colorado reports: “At my high school [social media were] a very big deal. Certain students were either Twitter or Instagram “famous” because they had a lot of followers. The amount of favorites or likes … received could determine their popularity.”

A different college student describes her high-school experience:

There were the star athletes, the dance team captain, the talented singer, the class comedian, the guy who threw parties every weekend, the girl who was arrested twice, and the girl who sent racy photos to the entire JV lacrosse team. Those who stood out from the crowd, no matter how they got the attention, were those deemed popular [italics added].

The Colorado student indicates that teenagers are well aware of social visibility as a prerequisite for status:

It was … easy for the popular crowd to advertise what they were doing at all times because they could simply post a picture or tweet and everyone would automatically know about it. Students who weren’t friends with the popular crowd knew [of] their activities, drama, and friends…. The things that people would post on twitter and Instagram tended to be topics for gossip.

A student from Southwest Virginia is explicit about the importance of technology and social media in the concerns about visibility:

[T]he more outgoing students invested more time … in keeping in touch with their friends, social networking, and focusing on building relationships…. Electronic communication played a crucial role in this constant communication.… [I]t was utilized more often than face-to- face interaction. In an average class, a “popular” student seemed to check their phone or send text messages about once every five to ten minutes.

A student from New Jersey gives a similar account:

Instagram was definitely the most important reason to have an iPhone, with Twitter at a close second. The “popular” clique was the most active on social media.… [T]hey had to prove … how much fun they were having at all times. Partying with excessive amounts of alcohol was their favorite hobby to broadcast. Their parties would be small and exclusive and half of the time at the party would be spent taking pictures to post on Instagram. Four girls would each post the same picture within minutes of each other [and] numerous other pictures that showed how “drunk-and-in-love-with-each-other” they were. The captions would always be very boastful, such as “My friends are better than your friends”. Soon the entire news feed would be consumed with pictures solely from this one party.

The struggle for visibility is not limited to teenagers. We see this struggle for visibility in “reality TV,” when people subject themselves to all kinds of stressful situations and share their romantic conflicts, their addictions, the neglect of their children, and other behaviors that put them in a bad light. Couples take videos of themselves having sex and post these online. Making visible intimate, weird, or bad behavior is a way to become known; anything seems preferable to being an unknown “nobody.”

A parallel phenomenon seems to be occurring in politics. With more than a dozen Republicans candidates running for president, the real struggle is to grab the most attention—and the winner so far is Donald Trump, who has no political experience or qualifications, but a long history of highly visible behaviors running from unorthodox to scandalous.

Other aspects of the new teenage culture that give us insight into broader changes will be described in subsequent essays. You can read all the essays in this series here.

Murray Milner, Jr. is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Senior Fellow at IASC. His most recent books are Elites: A General Model (2015), and Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids: Teenagers is an Era of Consumerism, Standardized Tests, and Social Media, 2nd Edition (2015) from which this essay is drawn.

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An Interview With Alan Jacobs

Poster for The Karate Kid (1984). Image from Snack to the Future.

Poster for The Karate Kid (1984). Image from Snack to the Future.

Over at The Infernal Machine, Chad Wellmon has been hosting a discussion of Dr. Alan Jacobs’s “79 Theses on Technology.” Jacobs also held a seminar here at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture to discuss his theses. We sent him some questions about his project, and he graciously took the time to answer them.

The Hedgehog Review: You’ve written seventy-nine aphorisms, or “theses for disputation,” on the Internet and technology more generally. Why this form? What does it open up about this particular topic?

Alan Jacobs: The form of the presentation—theses for disputation, as opposed to, say, an academic article—arises from a combination of humility and laziness. Humility because the disciplines relevant to the human experience of digital technology—psychology, sociology, theological anthropology, computer science, interaction design, neuroscience, behavioral economics, etc.—are so wildly varied that no one can possibly master (or even have an adequate familiarity with) them all, so that it makes sense to present one’s ideas as open to dispute or refutation. Laziness because I don’t have the time or energy to support all these ridiculous claims, and therefore will escape accountability by saying “I’m just interested in what you people think.”

THR: Thesis 1: “Everything begins with attention.” Every time I read this I go “hmmm…everything?” so I will ask: Everything?

AJ: Well…yes. If we’re thinking technology and personhood, and especially technologies of knowledge, in a context in which few if any technologies are definitively mandated—most of us could get jobs that did not involve the use of a computer if we really, really wanted to—then the best place to begin, I think, is by asking where my attention is going and why it’s going there.

THR: Thesis 26: “Digital textuality offers us the chance to restore commentary to its pre-modern place as the central scholarly genre.” A platform like Medium seems to be attempting to do just this, though on a popular level rather than a scholarly one. Is this representative of the direction you are hoping online publishing will go?

AJ: No. On Medium, commentary is definitely secondary. You don’t see the comments unless you specifically choose to click on them, and even then only the comments that are explicitly approved by the author. Medium is an extremely author-centered technology. (I understand why the designers took that direction, especially given that toxic wasteland that almost all comment threads have become. But still.) Continue reading

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Mirror, Mirror

"All is Vanity" by C. Allan Gilbert. Wikimedia Commons.

“All is Vanity” by C. Allan Gilbert. Wikimedia Commons.

In the second episode of UK horror anthology series Black Mirror, we’re given the story of Bingham Madsen, who lives in the future of the Internet of Things. Every surface is an interactive screen, even the walls of his apartment, and every screen is playing advertising, pornography, or talent show-style entertainment. Eventually, Madsen snaps, plotting to get onto the talent show that almost everybody watches and kill himself on television.

He succeeds at getting on television, but after he delivers himself of an angry rant, one of the judges offers him a show of his own. By the end of the episode, Madsen has been wholly incorporated into the system he despises, which packages his angry rants alongside the rest of its entertainments. The system can be “won,” he learns, but it can’t be beaten. It certainly can’t be changed. If anything, Madsen’s ranting has done nothing but make the rest of the populace more complacent.

It’s a story that functions not only as a wry comment on Black Mirror itself—which is steeped in contempt for technology and for modern media culture—but also on the career of its creator, Charlie Brooker, longstanding British television critic and crank. Brooker’s own rants about modern media ran on the BBC, first on his show Screenwipe and later on How TV Ruined Your Life.

While Black Mirror is, in one sense, old news—this episode ran in 2011—its recent addition to Netflix has caused the show to gain a new wave of attention. If you feel dubious about technology—and who doesn’t?—Black Mirror is a cathartic show to watch, at first. But it’s full of a sense of its own irrelevance: Even if you understand the various mechanisms that push you this way and that in your life, and even if you can explain these mechanisms to others, it won’t do you any good. You’re still stuck. There’s also no possibility here that we can use our new technological platforms in a counter-cultural way.

Whatever will happen to us, the show claims, as we grow more attached to our devices—whatever it is, it’s already happened. All that’s left is to experience, if not enjoy, the ride. How, then, ought one understand a television show that informs you repeatedly that it’s a waste of your time? Continue reading

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Portrait of America’s Young Adults: Wary but Optimistic

According to a Pew Research Center survey, 55% of Millennials have posted a selfie on a social media site, compared with 24 percent of Gen Xers; 9 percent of Boomers; and 4 percent of the Silent Generation.

Generational snapshots sometimes confound us in the ways actual photographs do. The players in a team photo taken right after losing to their perennial cross-town rival are inexplicably smiling. Why? Well, it turns out they barely lost to a team from whom they’d expected a thorough trouncing.

A similar mystery arises from the recent survey of the Millennial generation, the cohort of young American adults who today range in age from 18 to 33. According to the Pew Research Center’s report, “Millennials in Adulthood,” these Millennials are relatively detached from religious and political institutions, are dealing with greater economic challenges (high levels of student debt, unemployment, and stagnant wages), are less inclined to rush into marriage, and are more prone to distrust other people than were the young adults of the three preceding generations.

YPEW social trends graph: Millennials Upbeat about Their Financial Futureet for all those indicators suggesting a fundamental wariness toward the world, the Millennials are curiously optimistic about their future, more so than the members of the three previous generations of Americans, the Baby Boom, Generation  X, and the Silent Generation.

Pew doesn’t offer explanations for this seeming disconnect, though it does conjecture that the racial diversity of the Millennials—the most racially diverse generation in American history, thanks largely to the influx of Asian and Hispanic immigrants–has something to do with their lack of social trust.  (“A 2007 Pew Research Center analysis found that minorities and low-income adults had lower levels of social trust than other groups,” the report notes.)

Pew also speculatates that the social and political turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s made the Boomers as young adults more pessimistic about the future than today’s Millennials are. If so, it’s interesting to note that economic insecurity may be less troubling to young adults than those other kinds of instability.

Still, apart from the absence of that negative factor, where does the striking optimism of the Millennials come from? Why are they more optimistic than the Silent Generation that came before the Boomers and also more optimistic than the Gen Xers who came after the Boomers?

Two possible answers: first, the very factor possibly contributing to low levels of social trust—namely, the fact that many of the Millennials are immigrants, or the sons and daughters of immigrants—may account for their resilient optimism. To these young Americans, the future still looks brighter than it did in the countries they or their parents came from. They cling to the American Dream more easily than do those Americans who have seen the dream gradually lose its promise.

The other possibility: young Americans are optimistic because they derive support and solace not from traditional institutions like churches and neighborhoods but from the virtual worlds they frequent and even at times seem to inhabit. (“They have taken the lead,” Pew notes, “in seizing on the new platforms of the digital era—the internet, mobile technology, social media—to construct personalized networks of friends, colleagues and affinity groups.  They are ‘digital natives’—the only generation for which these new technologies are not something they’ve had to adapt to. Not surprisingly, they are the most avid users.”) While digital communities may be “weak,” in terms of levels of commitment and affiliation, they represent worlds of seemingly limitless possibility, including the entrepreneurial possibilities associated with the new, and particularly social, media.

Can such optimism endure?  Only the next generational snapshot will tell.

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Compared to What?

Rows of people at the movie on their phonts

(credit: iStock)

Rutgers University professor Keith Hampton, profiled in a recent New York Times Magazine article,  challenges the claims of fellow social scientists such as MIT’s Sherry Turkle that digital technologies are driving us apart:

Hampton found that, rather than isolating people, technology made them more connected. “It turns out the wired folk — they recognized like three times as many of their neighbors when asked,” Hampton said. Not only that, he said, they spoke with neighbors on the phone five times as often and attended more community events. Altogether, they were much more successful at addressing local problems, like speeding cars and a small spate of burglaries. They also used their Listserv to coordinate offline events, even sign-ups for a bowling league. Hampton was one of the first scholars to marshal evidence that the web might make people less atomized rather than more. Not only were people not opting out of bowling leagues — Robert Putnam’s famous metric for community engagement — for more screen time; they were also using their computers to opt in.

For Hampton, what debates and research about the effects of digital technologies on our lives so often lack is historical perspective.

We’re really bad at looking back in time,” Hampton said, speaking of his fellow sociologists. “You overly idealize the past. It happens today when we talk about technology. We say: ‘Oh, technology, making us isolated. We’re disengaged.’ Compared to what? You know, this kind of idealized notion of what community and social interactions were like.” He crudely summarized his former M.I.T. colleague Sherry Turkle’s book “Alone Together.” “She said: ‘You know, today, people standing at a train station, they’re all talking on their cellphones. Public spaces aren’t communal anymore. No one interacts in public spaces.’ I’m like: ‘How do you know that? We don’t know that. Compared to what? Like, three years ago?’

Although the merits of Hampton’s particular study can be debated, he makes an important point when he asks simply, “compared to what?” Those who make arguments about technology’s deleterious effects on our ability to converse with one another, to pay attention, or to read closely usually presume some way that we ought to talk to each other, that we ought to attend to a given object or event, or that we ought to read.

And maybe these critics are right; perhaps we ought carry on in the ways they presume we should. But appealing to history to make these normative claims is a much trickier move.  History is fraught and full of bad conversation, distraction, and poor readers.

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