Online etiquette: the fork and the iPhone

By Nicole Pangborn

In his recent New York Times article, Frank Bruni discusses the world of “instant expression” and “immediate audience” that we have come to know all too well in the digital era. He contrasts this world — of 140-character real-time updates and instant Facebook statuses — with the world of his mother, where it used to be common advice to “count to ten before you speak”. Making a reference to the recent Twitter gaffe of a prominent PR executive (in which she lost her job after tweeting a distasteful joke about being white, and therefore not having to worry about AIDS on her trip to Africa), Bruni claims that today, speed has overtaken sense, and nuance has simply “exited the equation”. When quickness is what matters most, complex and intricate ideas are nearly impossible to circulate widely. Bruni makes the case that our biggest challenge in the new year will be to learn how to take advantage of our new technologies while simultaneously avoiding the loss of complexity of thought.


When I read Bruni’s article over the winter break, I was immediately reminded of Norbert Elias, one of the theorists we studied in our first year Classical Theory course. In his most famous work, The Civilizing Process (1939), Elias describes the role of new technology (e.g., the fork) in the historical shaping of social behaviors (e.g., table manners). He also emphasized the effects of such technology on the more internal processes that mold how members of society think and feel about such behaviors. Broadly, he poses the question: to what extent do we create the technology that is inspired by our behavior, and to what extent is our behavior then a product of that technology? This got me wondering: what would Elias say about the effects of social media and digital technology in our era, and how might they fit into larger historical processes?

It seems to me that digital technology fulfills our natural need for connection and association. But after a need is fulfilled by a new technology, that technology in turn shapes behavior (either by stigmatizing or commending practices). In the rapid-fire online world, slow deliberation — long, drawn out argumentation, infused with complexity of thought — is quite frowned upon. This distaste for slowness in many ways forces us to want to read, express, and think more quickly, even when the subject matter might actually call for a more complicated solution. The aversion is particularly strong within the Silicon Valley startup communities, where adjectives like “simple”, “fast”, and “elegant” reign supreme for investors. One might imagine that if simplicity is such a priority for these startups, who are largely responsible for introducing future technologies, the cycle could continue: web-based platforms for connection in the future could very well be focused on even more rapid-fire, simplified communication.

For now, though, because this technology has pushed us to frown upon slow deliberation, it has then also allowed us to approve some other behaviors that we might have disapproved in the past. When our need for instant gratification is combined with the fact that the Internet keeps us physically removed from our audience, acting on impulses — even to the point of rudeness — becomes almost acceptable. In this new type of social space, we don’t have to physically face the person(s) we are speaking to, and we can lash out without reaction or consequence. For instance, it’s considered completely “okay” to start a heated political battle in, say, the comment section underneath a friend’s Facebook link. There is barely enough space to properly argue through such a medium, and perhaps because of the loss of a more nuanced discussion, such fights often devolve into misunderstanding, coarse name-calling, and heat-of-the-moment insults, which are then etched in digital stone for all the world to see (and remember).

So, it seems (to me at least) that the ideas we have about what is socially “okay” have changed at the hands of the Internet. Whaddaya think, readers? What might the message boards and posts of the future look like? (Please feel free to discuss in the comment section!)


“Getting intimate” online

By Sharon Cornelissen

Most of our urban public interactions with strangers are not particularly intimate, except perhaps when being pressed way-too-intimately against anonymous bodies in the subway during rush hours. Even then we try to maximize personal space such as through the unspoken rule of maintaining distance when picking seats on transit. We also like to play with our phones, which helps us to avoid catching the eyes of others. This seems to have replaced the role that newspapers once played.


Online we relate to strangers quite differently. Consider the popular blog Humans of New York, which has over 2 million followers on Facebook alone. The blog is a collection of snapshots of urban strangers, accompanied by a short personal story or wisdom shared by the individual portrayed. Below is an example of a picture posted on January 9, 2014:


“What was the saddest moment of your life?”

“When my mother died.”

“What’s your fondest memory of your mother?”

“When I was 13 years old, I had an accident and was in a body cast for 6 months. I couldn’t even sit up. She would come in my room everyday, turn up the radio, and sing in my ear.”

Two days later, the post had already received over 65,000 likes on Facebook and more than 800 comments. Reading through 100 comments, 16 out of 100 commenters said the post made them cry, 19 people addressed the unnamed person in the picture directly (addressing him as ‘dude,’ ‘honey,’ ‘sir’ or ‘my friend’) and 38 mentioned their own mother and shared a fond memory. One user left the following comment:

The worst moment of my life, was also when my beloved mom passed away, just a few short months ago… I’m glad you have strong, wonderful memories of your mother… it’s a sad club, the “No Mom” club, but I truly believe that we are a testament to our mother’s strength and love and I know I will live well in her memory. XOXO to you, sir!

How are our online interactions with strangers different from offline interactions? Why do these commenters seem to identify so readily with this stranger? What is the nature and depth of this form of online intimacy, and on what basis is it established?

While these questions merit more attention, one of the interesting features of HoNY is the eye-contact between viewers and subject. The prolonged eye-contact with the unnamed stranger represents a contrast to everyday urban interactions in which a person’s gaze is usually averted. The connection is established for at most a fleeting moment. In the essay Sociology of the senses: Visual interaction Simmel analyzed the unique significance of eye contact in social interaction. He argued that it establishes a temporary union between humans and represents perfect reciprocity:

By the glance which reveals the other, one discloses himself. By the same act in which the observer seeks to know the observed, he surrenders himself to be understood by the observer. The eye cannot take unless at the same time it gives (Simmel 1921: 358)

HoNY plays with this experience, the sense of mutual disclosure and openness we associate with it: see also viewer’s reactions to Marina Abramovi’s artwork. HoNY enables viewers to see and meet the eyes of strangers, without being seen seeing. The pictures offer viewers a glimpse into urban strangers’ eyes and minds. The frozen-in-time prolonged glance we can sustain with the strangers of HoNY creates a sense of intimacy and exposure: exactly the sense of exposure we seek to avoid or minimize in everyday interactions with strangers in public settings.

So what explains the seeming contradiction between our ease of ‘getting intimate’ online and our everyday avoidance of intimate interactions with strangers offline? The mediated form of eye contact that HoNY facilitates gives us a hunch. In contrast to Simmel’s description of eye contact as perfect reciprocity, the intimacy of HoNY is largely one-way traffic. HoNY offers viewers ready-to-consume intimate moments with anonymous New Yorkers. While viewers leave behind strikingly moving and personal comments, which hints at the intimacy HoNY creates for some, this online way of relating remains transient and anonymous. One could say HoNY facilitates the intimacy of the onlooker and enables a type of online voyeurism into the eyes and minds of strangers.

I, sociologist: Artificial Intelligence and the future of Sociology

By  Andrew Ledford

A long time ago, in a Galaxy far, far away and 2 B.K. (2 years before kids), my wife and I were weekly movie-goers.  We would pretty much go to see just about anything.  These days, 10 P.K. (10 years post-kids), the opportunity doesn’t come that often so we are pretty selective with what movie is “baby-sitter worthy.”  The most recent movie we saw was Spike Jonze’s “Her” starring Joaquin Phoenix in the not-so-distant future as a lonely writer who falls in love with his Operating System (OS). 

Her It is a quirky movie that has great appeal in how natural the relationship is portrayed.  For those who have not seen it yet, it is    absolutely “baby-sitter worthy.” 

In seeing “Her” and considering my newly found field of Sociology, I began to wonder if we are truly in the dawn of a new age for our discipline.  The type of AI as depicted in Her is different from the current program that “learns” your preferences on the Internet (which is slightly sinister), but rather true AI that can independently think, communicate, and most importantly reason without human influence.   This is considerably more advanced than what has been discussed in previous sociology conferences such as the one hosted by the National Science Foundation in May 1993. This conference looked at AI only in terms of “intelligently searching and analyzing data.”One of my colleagues upon reading the first draft of this post suggested that I not get too “sci-fi” with my concept of social interaction with machines but I believe that is exactly the point of this concept and the necessity it entails.

         Once the technology is there for AI to exist (as described earlier), the time it will take to surpass human capabilities will most likely be short considering the incredible capacity for simultaneous calculations and an extensive database of knowledge.  This is not just my opinion either but a consensus of an eclectic group at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University.  As fantastical as the name implies, the Future of Humanity Institute has been deliberating over the existential risk facing mankind once AI “comes online.”  Scientists, mathematicians and philosophers come together to work through what happens when we aren’t the smartest beings on the planet anymore. In November, I attended a lecture by Oxford University Philosophy Professor, Nick Bostrom, whom is also the founding Director of the Institute. The lecture was truly awe-inspiring when considering the term  “the fate of humankind” was being tossed around like we were on the ground floor of the Manhattan Project.

As the Institute would argue, when, not if, AI surpasses human capability and becomes a “being” that can reason and interact with humans, it will be critically important to examine the interaction between the human race (now for the first time as a member of the “rational being” unit of analysis) and AI machines.   To do this, an AI sociologist will have to be a stellar programmer (e.g., Python is the first language they learn and then English), and the real dilemma will then be whether it would even be possible to study machines that are vastly superior in intellect. Will they let us?  One can conclude that studying a superior “being” might be similar to playing chess with a vastly superior player and wondering what their next move might be.  The challenges for human sociologists in understanding the reasoning of a machine might be even more difficult.   Assuming that the superior intelligence of AI will allow us to examine and study it, is it also possible that AI will begin to examine us?  It is not hard to imagine that there is the potential for AI to become sociologists of the human race as well in a desire to work alongside their creators.

They will be smarter, more efficient, and most likely have an ability to eliminate bias altogether, which their human counterparts cannot do.  Its quite possible that a machine would not have to disassociate itself from its own SES, country of origin or education.  Would it necessarily have the characteristics of the programmer that created it?  Would it be possible for the AI, assuming it does surpass human capability to then remove this characteristic altogether?  There are more questions than answers with this concept as the technology still doesn’t exist but it can become quickly unnerving.    It is not hard to imagine that an AI sociologist (the machine version) will be able to study human-to-human interaction better than a human sociologist will.

        Back to current day— it is an exceptional time to be a sociologist with the modern tools that are already bringing down many barriers to better sociological study than was possible even 10-15 years ago.   The advent of true AI likewise poses exciting new opportunities for this field.  Whether we are the examinees or the examined however, AI sociology requires serious contemplation and most importantly,  involvement from the sociological community in  discussions on the advent of this technology,  lest we find ourselves in the position of trying to play catch up with a more intelligent being.   At that point, even John Connor won’t be able to save us.