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The Truth of Trolls

Ladies, that guy who put his hand on your bum after a few drinks, and then apologizes several days later saying it was the alcohol, is lying.  He wanted to do it while sober.  Only the alcohol made it easier to ignore social norms and repercussions.  In reality, it is when he is sober that he is lying!  He was more truthful when the whiskey sours lowered his inhibitions.

And so it is with the online environment.  Several online media outlets, such as NPR and Huffington Post, have banned anonymous comments because they tend to be vitriolic and disrespectful – especially to women.   But there is truth in these comments because social norms are weakened and inhibitions are lowered.

Trump and the Trolls
Pollsters, politicians, and prognosticators were blindsided by Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election.  As was I.  However, I can remember speaking to a colleague about Trump, back when he was one of several candidates vying to be the Republican nominee.  I distinctly remember saying to her that the Trump campaign is more viable than people think.  Trump, in my view, was speaking to a disgruntled electorate.

My views at that time were informed by some research I had done on White Nationalist (now called the alt-right).  I had explored a collection of websites, blogs, and podcasts that had several organizing themes.  First was the idea that America should be a white nation, and that non-whites and non-Christians were inherently antithetical to the values and success of the country. Second, the influx of non-whites had already been detrimental.  Since America began becoming less white, the argument went, the economy and international position of America had deteriorated.  Third, this weakening of white Christian America was organized and led by a band of Marxist elites – primarily Jewish.   I could see at that time that if one removed the distasteful veneer of overt racism from these ideas – for example, removing Jewish and replacing it with Washington – they were very appealing to working class white voters.  These groups were articulating ideas that if expressed in public, would mean they would be excoriated and ostracized.  In this way, they were speaking a truth that could only be expressed online.

I could not (and still can’t) quantify how many different voices were in these spaces, but my idea is that it is much more than mainstream America would like to admit.  I believe this because on every anonymous space where comments are allowed I see these themes.  We have given a name to the people who post these types of comments – trolls.  These trolls are dismissed as being mindless, racist, misogynistic, and nativist.  That may be true.  But their opinions are genuine – not people just trying to get a rise out of someone else.

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And this is why I was a bit more prepared for Donald Trump than most.

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The Abstraction of Amnesty

President Obama will announce some kind of executive action on immigration tonight (11.20.2014).  Congress has been twiddling their thumbs as it were, and something needs to be done.  The talking heads are all saying that he will support some sort of amnesty or at any rate make it easier for illegal immigrants to work legally. Maybe a fine will be levied, documents can be printed, and everyone can get on with things.

My reading of the various polls out there is that Americans are generally against executive action but for creating a path to citizenship.  Not surprisingly, though, the issue breaks along partisan lines. Republicans are against action and path, while Democrats tend to be for action and for path.

My own opinion is that the administration is well within its authority to act on immigration. But, in no way should the President use his authority to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants.

Many will argue that the President is making a political calculation. Amnesty or something like it would wed Hispanics to Democrats like the Civil Rights Act wedded blacks to Democrats. Of course there is some truth to this.

But I also believe that the administration sees this as benefitting America, as being the right and just thing to do. They can come to this conclusion because they live in world where illegal immigration is an abstraction, a mélange of journalistic accounts, pivot tables, and ideas cultivated in Ivy League graduate classes. They may have a different conclusion if they actually lived in the world that is affected by illegal immigration.

Let me explain…

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Meditating for a Sociocentric Network

Social networks can be understood in two basic ways – sociocentric or egocentric. In the first way, the focus is on looking at an entire collection of people and how they are connected.  The focus can be on how well connected the group is, or how healthy the connections are within the group.  The second way, the egocentric way, is to analyze a network as it relates to any one individual; who he or she is connected to, and how many.  The focus here is on how well a person’s connections help them achieve their goals – how much benefit they can extract out of their networks, as it were. These two ways of thinking about social networks were developed by the 1930’s.

Our digital environment, coming years later, clearly favors one way over the other. The digital environment places great emphasis on individual networking. When we think social network we are thinking about “my” or “your” social network…not “our”.  We own our social network and it is designed to benefit us. 

The social media has been coded that way. It is entirely possible that social networking sites could have been coded such that they connected groups instead of individuals. Think – you could have lived in a world where you register with your families account, or your schools, or city’s. That was certainly possible. But instead when you join a social network it is all about you – your posts, your likes, your friends.

In somewhat of a paradox, the social network brings us together while allowing us to stay apart (the premise behind Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together). It is also the reason why most people prefer to text or email than talk on the phone – they can communicate without the burden of emotion and connection with others. Ultimately, social media allows us to extract as much as we can from others, without giving of ourselves. We use others as tools to satisfy our own urges.  Scientists can explore social networks sociocentrically, but most people will understand it as egocentric.

The egocentric social network is a nice complement to our post-industrial times. We live in an age of abundance, where concerning oneself with the group is no longer needed. You don’t need the direct help of others to satisfy your most basic genetic drives any more. Someone with a reasonable income can purchase any number of gadgets and contraptions to allow herself to not ask anyone for help. To be sure, we are dealing with a hollowing out of our middle class in the US – but make no mistake, this feeling of not making it is based upon an elevated standard of consumption and acquisition.  The US’s poor are doing about as well as some other countries’ middle classes.  This is mainly due to abundance – we have produced so much wealth as a society that government has been able to tax and build strong social safety nets and support systems.  Thus, up and down the class structure, people have access to computers, the Internet…and yes, social networks.

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Black Barbershops, Korean Greengrocers, and The Long Tail of Market Segments

When I try to explain the notion of the digital environment to people, I start by contrasting it with the physical environment.  The physical environment is the world of brick and mortar, flesh and bone.  Whereas the digital environment  is made up of symbols and meanings  – text, music, videos, and data.  These two worlds are distinct, with different rules governing them.  But they are connected, as people move back and forth between them, importing and exporting norms and understandings.   This way of thinking about the digital environment makes it fun for the sociologist, because she can use all the ideas and tools developed to study the physical and apply them to the digital.

A few weeks back, I had a minor adventure.  I got three haircuts in the span of 20 days.  I found it difficult to find a barber who could give me the trim I wanted.  Consequently, I have very little hair left (a bit of a concern, because at my age there is a real possibility that the hair will not grow back).   Once the shock of my buzz cut went away, I became aware of the fact that all of those barbershops were black owned and operated businesses.  Indeed, I have never gone into a non-black owned barbershop.  Now that I think of it, I’ve never gone to a family funeral that was not conducted by a black owned and operated funeral home.

Brick and mortar businesses owned by minorities and immigrants are common components of the American economy.  They tend to be local and they tend to fill a very specific niche – take the Thai nail salon, the Korean greengrocer, the Indian convenience store…or the black barbershop (unfortunately, there are not enough black owned businesses…but that is a different issue).

A question we can ask ourselves is whether the pattern of immigrants and minorities owning niche businesses in the world of brick and mortar reconstitutes itself in the world of bits and bytes…

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Redskins and Darkskins: The Power of Symbols

Over the past few years pressure has been building on Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, to change that team’s name.  This pressure has been brought on by a wide array of people and groups.  Sports journalists Bill Simmons and Peter King have boycotted the name, as has news host Rachel Maddow.  The Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation from California bought airtime to play the ad “Proud to Be”:

Most recently, the United States Patent Office has revoked the trademark of the team’s name because:

“the term ‘Redskins’ was disparaging of Native Americans, when used in relation to professional football services, at the times the various registrations involved in the cancellation proceeding were issued.”

As I was listening to the ins and outs of this story on talk radio, I found myself saying, “What’s the big deal?” “This isn’t hurting Native Americans in any material way.” “Here are the thought police again.”  “The government has no right to interfere in the business of the Washington Redskins.”

And then yesterday, as I was getting off the elevator in my apartment building,  I spoke to a couple to my right, then turned to my left to do the same to a young girl.  She quickly averted her eyes and looked down when my face turned towards hers.  Then I remembered why many Native Americans would want this name changed.

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Bewildered and Befuddled Masses

In The Pacific War, Saburo Ienaga (1913 – 2002) chronicles the culture and institutions of Imperial Japan during the years 1931 (the year Japan declared war on China) until 1945 (they year they surrendered to the United States to end WWII).  One takeway I got from reading this book was the power of national identity.

From the early 1850’s until the end of WWII, Japan’s institutions monopolized thought and content production.  A national identity – who they were, where they had come from, and where they were going, had been forged for their citizens.  Through government censoring, the Japanese developed  a common understanding of the reasons for Japanese aggression.  Schools taught their young that one of the greatest honors was to fight and die in war for their Emperor.  Ienaga, who experienced this era firsthand, gave examples of school book lessons that taught grammar through stories of bravery on the battlefront.  In these same books, other ethnic groups and races – especially the Chinese – were portrayed as inferior, needing to subdued, and then led by a superior Japanese race.  The books and essays that the government allowed to be printed explained Japan’s colonization of China, Korea, Indonesia, and other countries in Far East Asia as benevolent attempts to wrest them out of white, European hands.  Newspapers told stories of Japanese success on the battlefield, and ignored the failures.  Even as the Japanese Empire shrunk and the US militarily won victory after victory, the citizens, Ienaga writes, believed that Japan, its military, and its Emperor would win the war.

The narrative constructed by the Japanese authorities was cohesive, compelling, and agreed upon by most of the population (they had no choice, dissenters were dealt with harshly).  But the population had little knowledge of what was actually happening.  Japan’s colonization had nothing to do with protecting poor Asian countries from Western domination.  It was all about extracting resources.  The Japanese military was quite good, and punched way above its weight, but attacking the US was foolhardy and the Japanese were bound to be overwhelmed by American materiel.

Digital Age America is the exact opposite of Imperial Era Japan.  Where Japanese shared a national identity built on an information monopoly, Americans are wading through a welter of information with no way of understanding it.

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