Tag Archives: social networks

Detecting Social Media Bullshit: A Sociologist’s View

Social media “gurus” abound these days. Which ones are worth listening to and which ones are bullshitters?

Philosopher Harry Frankfurt exposed bullshitters in his famous essay “On Bullshit.” The liar knows what the truth is and cares very much about concealing it. The bullshitter, on the other hand, doesn’t care what the truth is and has no compunction in stretching it.

The same goes for social media “gurus.” Those that care what about rigourous examination of the social may be wrong, but at least they take great pains to analyze the phenomenon. Those that don’t care about systematic, theoretically informed social inquiry are interested only in stretching or shaping their own agendas.

How can you tell the difference?

Here are a few signs you’re dealing with a social media bullshitter.

  1. They skate over the tension between structure and agency: The tension between structure and agency is an age-old sociological debate. Social media bullshitters somehow miss this very important point. They often argue that implementing social media or social business design will somehow evaporate decades or even centuries of organizational structures. If your social media guru tells you that adding social media and stirring will create equality, harmony, and profits, begin to question them. If, on the other hand, they tell you that your organization does not live in a vacuum, and that your social media will be integrated in people’s existing lives with their existing economic, technological, and ethnically grounded experience, then they may be onto something.
  2. They use the same social research methods every time: A classically trained sociologist is trained in both qualitative and quantitative methods. They are designers in the sense that they have expertise, which they draw upon selectively, according to the research question. Social media bullshitters, on the other hand, likely have a common stock of tools that they use repeatedly, regardless of the nuance of the research question. If their answer is always, “do a focus group,” or always, “do a survey,” then question them.
  3. They see no paradoxes. Ever: Sociologists are constantly grappling with paradoxes. Weber’s famous paradoxical finding was that bureaucracies are both efficient and inefficient. They work wonders building and managing railroads, for example, but they result in horrible catastrophes like the Challenger disaster. Weber explained this paradox by arguing that rationality, or the rule of rules, is an “iron cage,” that keeps us safe but enslaved. If your social media guru claims there will be no paradox, nuance, or ambiguity, question them.
  4. They don’t know what social capital really is: Social capital is not something one can measure in terms of bank balances. It was the creation of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (come to think of it, the bullshitters wouldn’t know that either). Social capital is something one develops by being in a particular social location. I may go to an exclusive boarding school. My social capital is my network of well-off friends. Social capital is a particularly important concept when thinking about social media. Bourdieu noted that those in lower economic classes explicitly reject items they consider “above their station.” This means that luxury or “top of the line” is not always your best approach.

The bottom line is this: social media bullshitters have no knowledge of social theory or methodology. Trust a person who provides no easy answer, who carefully selects their research method, and who understands complex concepts.

Do you have more signs of being a social media bullshitter? Please share them here!

How can an organization design social capital?

New research finds that there are seven key factors that promote social capital. In his book, Unanticipated Gains, Mario Luis Small did an ethnography of New York daycare centres. What he finds may surprise you: daycare centres are great “brokers” for social capital. I describe his findings on the Social Capital Value Add blog:

Small argues that actors get involved in networks in particular ways that are structured by the organizations themselves. What are the effects of organizational involvement on social capital? And how can organizations nurture the development of social capital?

Read the entire post.

Data-driven social interaction: The difference between analogue and digital part III

Data-driven social experience is an entirely new manner of social interaction, one that obscures our emotional connections to people. Data makes social relationships visible, knowable, and countable in unprecedented ways. But it does not — and cannot — convey the emotional experience of social interaction. I’ve already discussed how digital technologies transform text and time. Now I want to explore how “data” transforms social experience.

Take the notion of the “social network.” Most people (especially those that read blogs!) think these synonymous with Web sites like Facebook. Truth be told, social network analysis has existed for almost a century. We’ve all heard the term “six degrees of separation,” but most of us don’t know that was coined by none other that Stanley Milgram, of the “shock experiments” fame, when he tracked letters mailed around the world.

Social networks are exceedingly difficult to know from a quantitative perspective. We all live inside social networks but we have a very hard time knowing how these networks are constructed. We may know, for example, that our friend Jeff is friends with another one, Sarah, but we don’t know if Sarah knows Jeff’s partner Sam. Social network analysis is a set of methods designed to learn exactly that.

Now imagine your social network, as it is represented on Facebook (what, you’re not on Facebook?). Below is an image from Visual Complexity that renders a social network visibly but also very easily, simply by mining the data inherent in Facebook’s structure:

from Visual Complexity

from Visual Complexity

Note how we instantly and easily know how institutions are connected, and through which people. Previously, researchers would have to conduct extensive and expensive surveys to get these data. Now these data are easily calculated and visualized by anyone with access to a social network online.

Some people are talking about this visualization as a piece of intellectual property. Alex Iskold on Mashable, for example, asks “Who owns the social map?” I go further and ask, “What does it mean that our social world is mappable?”

Our social world is now infiltrated by masses of data. These data inform us about the structure of our interactions with others in ways that we could not recall correctly if asked. Suddenly we can now see our social world reflected back to us, punctuated by¬† institutions, and social structures. When we see our social network through the eyes of data, we see the names of organizations, or the institutional affiliation of the people. We do not “see” the emotional experience that created our connections in the first place.

Suddenly, we may think we really are not that close with Jeff, because his partner Sam is really not friends with anyone I know. I can also see that Sarah and I have very few friends in common, which may lead me to think I don’t have much of a future friendship with her.

Those data crowd out the qualitative, embodied experience of the laughs I shared with Jeff and Sam at their cottage last summer. Those data obscure the fact that Sarah and I shared 3 long months as call centre employees together, a time that bonded us forever. A data-filled social world is one that masks the visceral, emotional experiences of face-to-face interaction.

Digital social life is revealed to us in fragmented, mashed up ways. Such ways were impossible before the freely available data on social networks, data that is now so ubiquitous, we don’t even see it.

Don’t think privacy, think identity

The digital availability of social information has lead many to think it’s a crisis of privacy. It is not; it is a crisis of identity management. Designers of online profiles should think about privacy as the management of identity, which can be an easily damaged piece of social information. Users who can control access to any “stigmatizing” social information have absolute privacy.

Social theorist Erving Goffman’s work on identity can help us design better and more private online profiles. What is “stigmatizing” social information? This is the tough part: it changes depending on who is involved. For example, a teardrop tattoo may provide status inside a prison, but on the face of a defendant in a court room, it is a stigma. Goffman points out that social actors conceal “stigma symbols” in some contexts, but these become “status symbols” in other contexts.

Designers of online profiles should recognize then that what is “embarrassing” changes depending on the context. There is simply no way to predict all the possible social contexts that any given person will find themselves in, so there is no way that a designer can accurately predict a “privacy breach” of digitally available information. Hence the confusion and hand-wringing over Beacon, Facebook’s privacy-busting advertising system. Instead, designers should create a framework for users to manage their identities.

How is identity management achieved? Designers should offer users the following:

  1. Concealment tools: users should be able to disguise or conceal any single piece of social information. This means that “my interests” should be singular items that can be turned on and off.
  2. Low-burden social network filtering: some social information only becomes embarrassing in particular social contexts. Designers must allow users to sort or filter their social contacts depending on how they know them. Make this interaction easier and low burden, and users will happily sort their friends from their family, their co-workers from their acquaintances.
  3. Reduce the ability to collate social information: Goffman points out that one of the main problems for stigmatized identities is what he calls “know-about-ness.” How much access do people have to the sum total of an individual’s social information? How readily accessible is all of that information? How easily collated is it? For example, if your golf buddies can find out that you like to cook, you take Japanese rock gardening classes AND you take tap dancing on Friday nights, the sum total of that information could be stigmatizing (but only while playing golf). Good designers would make that collation difficult.
  4. Allow quick, effortless and PERMANENT erasure: We are only now learning how embarrasing a decade’s worth of personal information can be. All too often, designers make it too difficult for users to easily delete their personal information. Make password retrieval easy. Do not require people to remember ancient email addresses. Provide 1-800 number access for “identity emergencies.” And finally, put users’ social information firmly in their own hands, not on your servers.

What Designers Can Learn From Facebook’s Beacon: the collision of “fronts”

The blogosphere (and even the regular old newspaper-sphere) is alight with stories of Facebook’s online advertising flop, Beacon. What can designers learn from this flop? It’s not about privacy; it’s about the presentation of self. People have different “selves” for different places — virtual or otherwise — and designs must be consistent with these variety of selves.

Boing Boing’s Cory Doctorow posted an interesting story on InformationWeek that predicted the decline of Facebook because of its own success. He predicts that the more people that are one Facebook, the more confusing it is. Your “creepy coworkers,” your boss, and your friends you met at Burning Man are all in the same “place,” making it confusing, embarrassing and difficult for everyone.

What Doctorow is really describing is sociologist Erving Goffman’s notion of “the front.” Using the theatre as a metaphor Goffman argued that we actually “perform” multiple selves. Each place we go has a “front” that we learn to incorporate. A front has a wardrobe, a setting, a decor, make-up, a script and stage direction. We have a “front stage self” that we perform for everyone to see, a “back stage self” for only our closest intimates to see, and a “core self,” which is deeply private.

A doctor, for example, has a front that includes an office, a lab coat, a stethoscope and medical jargon. This is her “front stage” self. But when she’s talking to her best friend, she may use a “back stage self,” being less formal, not wearing a lab coat, or using less formal language. Her “core” self is secretly wishing she were a full-time marathoner, but she tells no one that.

Facebook’s Beacon didn’t work because it forces people to use multiple fronts AT THE SAME TIME. If I tag a recipe from Epicurious.com, but I broadcast that fact to friends that perceive me to be a party girl, I have a collision of fronts. If my boss demands to be my friend, I have a collision of fronts. If I rent The Notebook on Netflix, and my friends think I am a Goth, I have a collision of fronts.

Facebook’s Beacon forces its users to combine multiple selves. Goffman considers the collision of fronts to be a source of embarrassment or shame. Take, for example, the hilarious “Meeting in a Swimming Pool” gag on Just for Laughs. Swimmers have their swimming front (including a bathing suit, casual demeanour) and forced into a meeting, with its serious demeanour and fully clothed attendants. This is embarrassing.

Facebook has done the same thing by forcing its users to expose their selves to different fronts simultaneously. It is embarrassing, even shameful.

What Designers Can Learn From Facebook’s Beacon

  • Discover your users’ fronts: If you are designing a product or a virtual place, ask your potential users what they consider the character of this “place” to be. Is is a formal place? Is it a casual atmosphere? What kinds of “props” are expected here? What would be an embarrassing topic of conversation or incident?
  • Design using the theatre metaphor: Make the product consistent with that place, as if you were writing a play. Ensure that what you design is part of a script that users understand or expect.
  • Pay attention to embarrassment: If your users mention shame or embarrassment in any way, gently press them about it. Discover the character of the “collision of fronts” that is the source of that embarrassment, and, above all, avoid forcing users to feel embarrassment.

Update: The New York Times is reporting that Facebook’s lawyers have not succeeded in having documents about its founder Zuckerman removed from an online magazine. These documents are “embarrassing.”

Update (12/19/07): Mashable is reporting that FB is now allowing people to “group” their friends, but they haven’t quite mastered the collision of fronts problem.