Posts tagged ‘ethnomethodology’

The Passively Monitored Self and the Death of a “Backstage”

| Gabriel |

Practical advice will follow, but first a rant.

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.

It’s not as if I’m an introverted recluse either. I have a blog and I correspond pretty actively by e-mail, but the difference is that in these media I actively and deliberately control the flow of information rather than having the prestigious, shameful, and indifferent aspects of my personality and behavior all indiscriminately broadcast to my alters.

I have a fantasy in which Mark Zuckerberg is weeping in his garden when he overhears some neighbor children saying “take and read.” He looks up and notices an old copy of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life sitting on the table. Tolle lege Mr. Zuckerberg, tolle lege.

Barring such an epiphany, I wouldn’t be surprised if next year’s Facebook Developer’s Conference includes announcements that American Standard is going social to automatically let your friends know when you use the toilet. Or perhaps Vivid will automatically tell all your second cousins and old friends from high school what pornography you’ve purchased. Or Gap brands could let all your friends know what size pants you wear. Visa could post a status update giving the vendor, address, and dollar value every time you buy anything. Because, really, everything’s better when it’s social regardless of whether it’s humiliating or just pointless information overload. It’s a brave new world of web 2.0 social media integration!

Anyway, I was most recently aggravated by Spotify which (like most things nowadays) defaults to over-sharing. Spotify describes this to NPR as “Freeing people from the hassle of actively sharing songs they like [which] will help keep people engaged in their friends’ listening habits without effort.” Some of us prefer to have this “hassle” because the alternative is an uncensored view of our listening habits. As I wrote when Apple added its “Ping” social feature to iTunes:

As a cultural sociologist who has published research on music as cultural capital, I understand how my successful presentation of self depends on me making y’all believe that I only listen to George Gershwin, John Adams, Hank Williams, the Raveonettes, and Sleater-Kinney, as compared to what I actually listen to 90% of the time, which is none of your fucking business.

Anyway, the worst thing about Spotify freeing you from privacyhassle is it does so by default and it’s difficult to opt-out. You can edit your profile to suppress playlists, but by default they are all revealed and even if you suppress them, new ones created thereafter are revealed. Worse, editing your profile provides no way to suppress “Top Tracks” and “Top Artists” (at least in the Mac client version 0.6.1). After a fair amount of searching (and coming very close to deleting my account entirely), I discovered that it’s fairly easy to totally suppress all of this through the client’s preferences. Just go to the “Spotify” menu and choose “Preferences . . .” then scroll down and uncheck these boxes:

You may now return to the dignity of crafting a public personae that is only loosely coupled to your backstage behavior. Enjoy.

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September 27, 2011 at 4:29 am 4 comments

Towards a sociology of living death

| Gabriel |

Daniel Drezner had a post a few months ago talking about how international relations scholars of the four major schools would react to a zombie epidemic. Aside from the sheer fun of talking about something as silly as zombies, it has much the same illuminating satiric purpose as “how many X does it take to screw in a lightbulb” jokes. If you have even a cursory familiarity with IR it is well worth reading.

Here’s my humble attempt to do the same for several schools within sociology. Note that I’m not even to get into the Foucauldian “whose to say that life is ‘normal’ and living death is ‘deviant'” stuff because, really, it would be too easy. Also, I wrote this post last week and originally planned to save it for Halloween, but I figured I’d move it up given that Zombieland is doing so well with critics and at the box office.

Public Opinion. Consider the statement that “Zombies are a growing problem in society.” Would you:

  1. Strongly disagree
  2. Somewhat disagree
  3. Neither agree nor disagree
  4. Somewhat agree
  5. Strongly agree
  6. Um, how do I know you’re really with NORC and not just here to eat my brain?

Criminology. In some areas (e.g., Pittsburgh, Raccoon City), zombification is now more common that attending college or serving in the military and must be understood as a modal life course event. Furthermore, as seen in audit studies employers are unwilling to hire zombies and so the mark of zombification has persistent and reverberating effects throughout undeath (at least until complete decomposition and putrefecation). However race trumps humanity as most employers prefer to hire a white zombie over a black human.

Cultural toolkit. Being mindless, zombies have no cultural toolkit. Rather the great interest is understanding how the cultural toolkits of the living develop and are invoked during unsettled times of uncertainty, such as an onslaught of walking corpses. The human being besieged by zombies is not constrained by culture, but draws upon it. Actors can draw upon such culturally-informed tools as boarding up the windows of a farmhouse, shotgunning the undead, or simply falling into panicked blubbering.

Categorization. There’s a kind of categorical legitimacy problem to zombies. Initially zombies were supernaturally animated dead, they were sluggish but relentlessness, and they sought to eat human brains. In contrast, more recent zombies tend to be infected with a virus that leaves them still living in a biological sense but alters their behavior so as to be savage, oblivious to pain, and nimble. Furthermore even supernatural zombies are not a homogenous set but encompass varying degrees of decomposition. Thus the first issue with zombies is defining what is a zombie and if it is commensurable with similar categories (like an inferius in Harry Potter). This categorical uncertainty has effects in that insurance underwriters systematically undervalue life insurance policies against monsters that are ambiguous to categorize (zombies) as compared to those that fall into a clearly delineated category (vampires).

Neo-institutionalism. Saving humanity from the hordes of the undead is a broad goal that is easily decoupled from the means used to achieve it. Especially given that human survivors need legitimacy in order to command access to scarce resources (e.g., shotgun shells, gasoline), it is more important to use strategies that are perceived as legitimate by trading partners (i.e., other terrified humans you’re trying to recruit into your improvised human survival cooperative) than to develop technically efficient means of dispatching the living dead. Although early on strategies for dealing with the undead (panic, “hole up here until help arrives,” “we have to get out of the city,” developing a vaccine, etc) are practiced where they are most technically efficient, once a strategy achieves legitimacy it spreads via isomorphism to technically inappropriate contexts.

Population ecology. Improvised human survival cooperatives (IHSC) demonstrate the liability of newness in that many are overwhelmed and devoured immediately after formation. Furthermore, IHSC demonstrate the essentially fixed nature of organizations as those IHSC that attempt to change core strategy (eg, from “let’s hole up here until help arrives” to “we have to get out of the city”) show a greatly increased hazard for being overwhelmed and devoured.

Diffusion. Viral zombieism (e.g. Resident Evil, 28 Days Later) tends to start with a single patient zero whereas supernatural zombieism (e.g. Night of the Living Dead, the “Thriller” video) tends to start with all recently deceased bodies rising from the grave. By seeing whether the diffusion curve for zombieism more closely approximates a Bass mixed-influence model or a classic s-curve we can estimate whether zombieism is supernatural or viral, and therefore whether policy-makers should direct grants towards biomedical labs to develop a zombie vaccine or the Catholic Church to give priests a crash course in the neglected art of exorcism. Furthermore marketers can plug plausible assumptions into the Bass model so as to make projections of the size of the zombie market over time, and thus how quickly to start manufacturing such products as brain-flavored Doritos.

Social movements. The dominant debate is the extent to which anti-zombie mobilization represents changes in the political opportunity structure brought on by complete societal collapse as compared to an essentially expressive act related to cultural dislocation and contested space. Supporting the latter interpretation is that zombie hunting militias are especially likely to form in counties that have seen recent increases in immigration. (The finding holds even when controlling for such variables as gun registrations, log distance to the nearest army administered “safe zone,” etc.).

Family. Zombieism doesn’t just affect individuals, but families. Having a zombie in the family involves an average of 25 hours of care work per week, including such tasks as going to the butcher to buy pig brains, repairing the boarding that keeps the zombie securely in the basement and away from the rest of the family, and washing a variety of stains out of the zombie’s tattered clothing. Almost all of this care work is performed by women and very little of it is done by paid care workers as no care worker in her right mind is willing to be in a house with a zombie.

Applied micro-economics. We combine two unique datasets, the first being military satellite imagery of zombie mobs and the second records salvaged from the wreckage of Exxon/Mobil headquarters showing which gas stations were due to be refueled just before the start of the zombie epidemic. Since humans can use salvaged gasoline either to set the undead on fire or to power vehicles, chainsaws, etc., we have a source of plausibly exogenous heterogeneity in showing which neighborhoods were more or less hospitable environments for zombies. We show that zombies tended to shuffle towards neighborhoods with low stocks of gasoline. Hence, we find that zombies respond to incentives (just like school teachers, and sumo wrestlers, and crack dealers, and realtors, and hookers, …).

Grounded theory. One cannot fully appreciate zombies by imposing a pre-existing theoretical framework on zombies. Only participant observation can allow one to provide a thick description of the mindless zombie perspective. Unfortunately scientistic institutions tend to be unsupportive of this kind of research. Major research funders reject as “too vague and insufficiently theory-driven” proposals that describe the intention to see what findings emerge from roaming about feasting on the living. Likewise IRB panels raise issues about whether a zombie can give informed consent and whether it is ethical to kill the living and eat their brains.

Ethnomethodology. Zombieism is not so much a state of being as a set of practices and cultural scripts. It is not that one is a zombie but that one does being a zombie such that zombieism is created and enacted through interaction. Even if one is “objectively” a mindless animated corpse, one cannot really be said to be fulfilling one’s cultural role as a zombie unless one shuffles across the landscape in search of brains.

Conversation Analysis.

1  HUMAN:    Hello, (0.5) Uh, I uh, (Ya know) is anyone in there?
2  ZOMBIE1:  Br:ai[ns], =
3  ZOMBIE2:       [Br]:ain[s]
4  ZOMBIE1:              =[B]r:ains
5  HUMAN:    Uh, I uh= li:ke, Hello? =
6  ZOMBIE1:  Br:ai:ns!
7  (0.5)
8  HUMAN:    Die >motherfuckers!<
9  SHOTGUN:  Bang! (0.1) =
10 ZOMBIE1:  Aa:ar:gg[gh!]
11 SHOTGUN:         =[Chk]-Chk, (0.1) Bang!

October 13, 2009 at 4:24 am 21 comments

Online interactional vandalism

| 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.

October 5, 2009 at 3:49 pm 3 comments


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