Online interactional vandalism

October 5, 2009 at 3:49 pm 3 comments

| Gabriel |

In the 1999 AJS article “Talking City Trouble” (which is reproduced in revised form as a chapter in Sidewalk), Mitch Duneier and Harvey Molotch take an ethnomethodological/conversation-analysis approach to understanding what they delicately call “attempt to initiate conversations” but what Dave Chapelle more simply calls “hollerin at bitches.” What they show is that the practice is often much more sophisticated than just yelling out something like “damn, look at that ass.”

The marginal men they studied had complex strategies for leveraging basic etiquette such that it would be rude for women to refuse to flirt with them. Most of the women did still refuse to flirt with the men, but the point is that the men’s overtures had been crafted as facially polite, putting the women between an interactional rock and a hard place. For example, when a man comes up and starts playing with your dog, then asks you an innocuous question related to the dog, you are denying his citizenship and humanity to refuse to answer, even though you know no good can come of talking to this guy. Since demanding that a woman flirt with you is itself rude (especially, let’s face it, when the woman has a much higher social status), the authors refer to this normative jujitsu as “interactional vandalism” in that the men are using interactional norms to get something that they normally have no right to expect out of an interaction.

Anyway, I was reminded of this when I recently got a message “from” a friend and colleague asking me to sign up for Feed Share / InfoAxe, a “service” that shares your browser history with your friends (which strikes me as the worst idea since the ice-cream glove). This was not really a personal invitation from my friend and colleague, but an instance of social spam.

We’re all used to getting messages in broken English offering to sell aphrodisiacs or fake rolexes or trying to rope us into a 419 con to launder the assets of some imaginary embezzler or tyrant. Most of us have learned to delete these messages at an almost precognitive level. Another sort of message that we are increasingly used to is “so and so has added you as a friend” messages from LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. Now these are messages that you cannot simply delete but must deal with. One way to deal with it is to accept the friend request. Another is to do what I usually do and write back a brief message to my friend along the lines of “I’m not accepting the friend request but that’s only because I’m not interested in the service, so please don’t take it as an insult.” Either way, my friends and colleagues (as compared to some random con artist) have a right to expect that I will reply to them.

The message I got from Feed Share played up this sense of obligation in several ways. First, it was not addressed “from” Feed Share but “from” my friend and colleague, which is why I opened the message. Second, the body of the message contained several lines framing the pitch as being less about whether I was interested in their horrible service than about acknowledging the strength of my connection to my friend and colleague. “Is [name here] your friend?” and “Please respond or [name here] may think you said no :( ” This struck me as very compelling and if I didn’t have a blanket preference to avoid those kind of services I might have clicked the “yes” button, because, yes [name here] is my friend, and I certainly don’t want [name here] to think [I] said no :(.  In contrast, I don’t even remotely contemplate whether I would like the business opportunity of helping some tinhorn dictator launder his assets. This is what makes social spam so invidious, it plays against our sense of mutual obligation. If it becomes common enough, I’m just going to reflexively delete stuff like this and assume that my friends got phished and I don’t need to read the message, let alone apologize for not wanting to join them on some crappy service.

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3 Comments

  • 1. Elizabeth  |  October 9, 2009 at 8:43 pm

    I think most such social scam occurs because someone stupidly enters their email password into a service, and is then fairly horrified and humiliated when they realize everyone they know has gotten one of these emails. I think you can delete with impunity.

  • 2. More online interactional vandalism « Code and Culture  |  April 14, 2010 at 4:45 am

    […] few months ago, I wrote about social spam, where the spam somehow tries to exploit your personal connections. I recently saw two new […]

  • […] I have previously complained about “social” features that automate how you share information, especially when such features are opt-out rather than opt-in. For instance, I was not enthusiastic about Skype “mood messages” giving your friends and colleagues a play-by-play of what music you listen to, nor was I enamored of a product that would share your browser history. […]


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