Category Archives: culture

obsessively recording and sharing our vacations

At Blogher yesterday, the issue of “addiction” emerged in the keynote. A woman in the audience noted that she twitched for the first day of vacation because she desperately wanted to tweet the things she was seeing and witnessing, like the bald eagle flying by. On stage, the conversation turned so that we talked more generally about being able to take a technology free vacation, but I want to address the tendency to tweet the things we see directly for a moment.

It seems as though humans absolutely LOVE to 1) record the minutia of their lives; 2) (over-) share the details of their experiences. And for some reason, each new technology seems to get used by people to do precisely this. I really wouldn’t be surprised if we found a cave painting that outlined what the dwellers ate for breakfast. So why are we so offended when people use the internet to do this?

Let’s talk about that vacation for a second. Why is it so wrong that people tweet their experiences when it seems to be so right that they spend their vacations stuck behind their fancy new camera recording every moment? Personally, I’m more frustrated by those trying to capture the perfect shot than those who mull over the perfect 140 character version of the event before quickly pumping it into their iPhone. Those behind the camera are far less present than those mulling over the language to express the moment. Yet, somehow, we accept one as the epitome of the vacation while the other is a rupture of it. Why is this?

Then there’s sharing. Sharing recordings of vacation events is also not particularly new. Sure, usually those who were vacationing waited until AFTER the vacation to share, but that was more a matter of practicalities. If you needed to get the film processed, you had to wait till you got home. But sharing events is a part of bonding, whether its an oral accounting of those events or a sharing of the recordings of it. One value of sharing records is the ability to share in a way that goes back to that time period.

For example, my grandfather has this brilliant album from the early 1940s when he first came to the States to train American pilots for the war. I’m fascinated by what he recorded – and what he didn’t. The album is filled with images of 1940s Georgia and Texas, young British men goofing off before facing their most harrowing hour back in Europe. (My grandfather was a bomber pilot; he lost most of his friends and was shot down himself.) What I particularly love about this album is his little drawings, the white pencil on black background that makes it clear that he put this album together to really record this period in time, a period that he thought would be his only trip to America. I can page through this album forever.

We like when people share their records. Until we don’t. Cuz we also know that there is the notion of Too Much. There are only so many baby photos you can take of a baby that’s not related to you before you scream Too Much. There are only so many home videos that you can take until you scream Too Much. And there are only so many vacation photos you can take until you scream Too Much.

Y’see… the ease with which we can record and share today means that there are too many people around us who push our Too Much limits. There was something beautiful about only being able to photograph 24/36 images on the entire vacation. I can stomach 24/36 images of anyone’s vacation. But who in their right mind thinks that I want to sift through 1000s of photos just because they were able to take them? Hrmfpt I say.

Can we please have a moment of silence for the power of constraint? Kthx. The issue with recording and sharing in contemporary society is that is far far far too easy to go overboard. This is where we struggle to find balance. Just because you can share every detail doesn’t mean you necessarily should. Just because you can record every moment of your day doesn’t mean you should. Part of the problem is that the technology doesn’t force you to think about your audience. When your mother brings out the photographs of your childhood, she can watch you squirm when you’ve had enough (usually after the third photo). She may ignore you, but she knows. But what does it mean that we are unable to see – and thus able to ignore – our audience online? When people bitch about folks sharing what they ate for breakfast, they’re noting that this kind of sharing of minutia is clearly ignorant of the annoyed audience in preference for the ability to record everything.

We keep building technologies that allow us to do what we like to do better, faster, more efficiently. The practices of recording and sharing are not new and we seem to love technologies that aid in these practices. As for vacation… well, recording and sharing vacations are also not new even if the newfangled technology allows us to do this better, faster, more efficiently. And, personally, I’m totally with the audience member who expressed the need to put away the technology (including the camera!) and be in the moment. But I should also take a moment to highlight that there are very good psychological reasons for wanting to record and share our vacations.

The processes of recording and sharing help make things “real” by expanding their significance in our lives. These are tools to aid us in building memories. We forget most moments in our lives, but when we record and share, we take the steps to solidify these memories. Vacation is a luxury and it’s (usually) filled with happy times that we want to remember. So when we record and share, we seek to keep these memories close. I cannot fault people for wanting to do this (especially in a country where people get so little vacation on average). I understand the desire to just be present on vacation, but I also understand why people are so determined to lock down these memories and contribute positive stories to the information flow of their friendships. I can’t fault them for this, even if I’d prefer that we all took a break and just enjoyed the moment. So before we mock those who are documenting their memories through the crazy new technologies, let’s also recognize that this is just one in a long line of recording and sharing tools. And, I would argue, not the most annoying one yet.

What are your information needs? (Knight Commission seeks feedback)

What information do Americans need to accomplish the personal goals and to be effective citizens in our democracy? How are they getting their news and information? And what would they do to improve the quality of news and information available to them?

For the last year, the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy has been meeting in an effort to identify the information needs of communities in a local geographically-driven democracy, assess how and whether those needs are being met, and recommend steps to improve the fulfillment of those needs.

We have now prepared a draft intro of our report. Now the Commission, in partnership with PBS Engage, is seeking public input from citizens across the nation from Tuesday April 21 – Friday May 8, 2009. If this topic matters to you (and it should), could you please click on over to PBS and share your thoughts. In addition to seeking feedback about our draft, we want to know:

I hope you’ll take the time to contribute your thoughts on this matter. We are hoping to help push folks in power to think about how society is shifting and how we can leverage this moment in time to enhance democratic life.

“Elsewhere, U.S.A.” by Dalton Conley = FABULOUS

It is not that often that I find myself cheering “Yes! Yes!” as I read a book, but Dalton Conley’s “Elsewhere U.S.A.: How we got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, Blackberry Moms, and Economic Anxiety” made me do precisely that. As a result, I feel the need to urge you to go and buy this book. He has captured an essence that we all know, but grounded it in a way that really helped me put two and two together at a time when we’re all trying to work out what the hell is happening to our society. He hits a nerve in a way that helps you see what’s right in front of you.

If you don’t know Dalton Conley, he’s a brilliant sociologist at NYU who is mostly known for his work on race (“whiteness” in particular). [If you’re a geek, you’re probably more familiar with his partner Natalie Jeremijenko.]

In Elsewhere, U.S.A, Conley starts by painting two portraits – one of Mr. and Mrs. 1959 and one of Mr. and Mrs. 2009. Using broad strokes, he highlights the differences in lifestyle between the educated, white collar families of those two different eras. From there, he weaves us through a discussion of changes in the economic, social, and corporate levels. Mixing enticingly delicious prose with sociological theory (conveyed in a unbelievably accessible manner), Conley starts mapping out changes that have taken place and how they’ve panned out.

For example, he explains why the upper classes have become so insecure and anxious about their jobs, resulting in the first point in history where the wealthier you are, the more you work. A good quote on that one: “This constant fear of being exposed, cut out, or outsourced, and thereby having one’s ‘capital’ rendered valueless, is the principal pathos of the era.” Conley investigates how two-income households have created new pressures, forcing families to work harder to keep up. He examines how technology has helped us work harder, more often, and everywhere instead of relieving burdens.

Moving from the tax code to the dinner party, he also looks at how “leisure” is being blurred with work in new ways and how people in the upper echelons invest in social activities in an effort to maintain status at work. This gets into a broader notion of networking and how being social is key to having high status. “Whereas in the industrial epoch, the ability to cloister oneself off from the hoi polloi was a mark of power; in the post-industrial, networked economy, being surrounded by as many people as possible, all seeking your attention, is the ultimate manifestation of rank.”

While the focus of the book is on the upper classes, Conley introduces the working class as a backdrop, noting how some of the upper class dynamics have altered working class culture. He examines the shift in power between the employee and the employer, using relations like the nanny and mother as a way of looking at how traditional structures of power and status maintenance have broken down. But he also looks directly at how the structure of poverty has changed. “Poverty in a post-industrial economy is less about the ability to meet basic material needs and more about the lack of control over life choices and the personalized humiliation that the poor experience in their work lives.”

Anyhow, “Elsewhere, U.S.A.” is chock full of good information that’ll make you think about the lifestyle we live and how it shapes and is shaped by modern society. Plus it is written in such a fun way that it’s hard to put it down. For many of those who read this blog, this book is a tremendous social critique of your (and my) lifestyle. I cannot recommend this book enough. (I especially recommend reading it while on a plane or otherwise living the “elsewhere” lifestyle… then it’ll really hit a nerve.)

Note: Neither Conley nor his publisher or agent or anyone else asked me to do this review or know that I’m doing it. I wrote this post purely because I think that this book is a MUST READ.

post-Prop 8: seek an education-based reversal, not a legal challenge

I am proud to be an American, but utterly ashamed to be a Californian. Although I knew that Proposition 8 would be close, I still can’t accept that Californians voted to cement discrimination into the state constitution. We have a long history of discrimination in this country. As Anil points out, it wasn’t that long ago when people from different racial backgrounds were forbidden to marry. I realize that in a decade or two, we will look back with horror at the time when Americans thought it was right to treat people differently based on who they loved. I have to smile when I think of Jon Stewart’s coverage of “traditional marriage” in the middle ages. What is the idyllic model that people have in their heads wrt marriage? The Hollywood produced romantic comedy? Are all relationships that don’t live up to that dream invalid?

At this point, I’m struggling with what to do about Prop 8. Anyone who has seen my claustrophobia in crowds understands why protesting isn’t functional for me. I signed (and encourage you to sign) the petition to re-open Prop 8. But that’s not that satisfying.

I’m also struggling because I don’t believe that legal action is the best recourse. When I was in college studying Roe v. Wade, I reached the conclusion that the Supreme Court did a huge disservice to women. Let me explain. At that time, each state was slowly working to legalize abortion. People were coming around to the idea, one at a time. The liberal states went first, but it was gaining momentum. And then the Supreme Court stepped in and declared it legal. The result was hugely divisive. Those who hadn’t come around to it began to reject the Court. Others decided that they should build up anti-choice lawyers to invade the court. Rather than happening naturally and with the support of the masses, the Court’s involvement created a dangerous socio-political divide that we live with today.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Prop 8 is pure discrimination and should be declared unconstitutional. That said, I worry that a legal fight stemming from California will create another Roe v. Wade situation. I was hoping that California would be a leader in this, just like Massachusetts. But it’s going to be ground zero for the fight. I just think that we need to fight it on cultural grounds, not on legal grounds.

I think that we need to spend the next year convincing those around us that this is discrimination. I think that everyone – gay and straight – needs to start conversations about what it means to be in a same-sex loving relationship. I’m not interested in trying to convince people that their churches should accept same-sex marriage. I’m interested in helping people understand that church marriages are not the same as state marriages. And that when it comes to the state, it’s of utmost importance that there’s no discrimination. The Catholic Church is more than welcome to discriminate wrt marriage. They already do. You can’t get married in a Catholic church if you’re not Catholic. But the state should not be discriminatory, especially when so many rights and freedoms and economic benefits are afforded to married couples.

I still loathe marriage as an institution. I’m still resentful over the baked-in, state-supported misogyny that I witnessed as a child. That said, I recognize (and benefit from) the privileges it affords and I strongly believe that it should be available to everyone everywhere who is in a loving relationship and wants to make that lifelong commitment.

So what’s the right move? How do we create an education movement and not a protest or legal movement? How do we turn hearts and minds? I have to admit… I *loved* the anti-discrimination ads that came out of the No on 8 campaign. How do we continue to fund information-based advertisements and get them in front of those who are in favor of denying freedoms to some? In other words, no more ads on Comedy Central, but a lot more on Fox and the channels that those who favored 8 are most likely to watch. How do you create a movement to change the hearts and minds of Californians? Let’s reintroduce the ballot measure next year, but in the meantime, work to convince people that this was the wrong decision. If we take this route – and not the legal route – I think that we will be able to do far more good in the long run.

Oprah, Senate Bill 1738, Child Porn, and Pedophiles

When I first learned that Oprah was doing a show on internet predators, I was wary. Her site emphasized a list of rules for kids centered around “don’t talk to strangers” and centered around the language of “Internet sex predators” and linked to Dateline’s very problematic show. I was concerned that she might use her stature to further ongoing myths about online predation. Oprah proved me wrong. Her show wasn’t talking about internet predators in the sense most people do (although her website reinforces myths); her show focused on the connection between internet child pornography and physical molestation in communities.

Her show detailed the very real and very horrific child porn industry and the ways in which the content being produced continues to grow more and more graphic, especially as live videos are made of young children (often the man’s child) being molested and harmed based on requests by child porn consumers. An investigator detailed the ways in which child molesters use child porn to normalize their abuse of children that they know. Oprah repeatedly emphasized that most children know their molesters and that the real risks for molestation are very local – family members, neighbors, community members. The experts she brought in were very knowledgeable and clear about what they didn’t know. For example, the investigator made it clear that we simply don’t know the causality relations of consuming child porn and molestation but that data suggests that there is overlap a decent percentage of the time and that there is no doubt that large numbers of children are harmed in the making of this content. Three teenagers and their parents discussed one of their neighbors who was convicted of drugging and molesting them and at least 5 other of his daughter’s friends. This molester was found through his child porn consumption and investigators found videos of him molesting these girls. Although each of the three girls had their doubts about their friend’s dad, none of them knew that they were being molested while drugged until the videos were found.

The Internet connection is interesting in all of this. The investigator made it very clear that the Internet allows him to trace the networks of potential child porn distributors, but he simply does not have the resources to follow up on all of the leads. Oprah emphasized that only 2% of leads are ever followed. Although a few pot shots are taken at the Internet for enabling distribution, there’s an implicit message that the Internet is actually enabling investigators to get a better handle on the problem. That said, because of lack of resources, they simply cannot do anything about the issue. Oprah leverages this point to drive home an action item: call your Senators to ask them to pass Senate Bill 1738, the “PROTECT Our Children Act.” Unlike other bills meant to stop the Internet, 1738 focuses on providing resources for investigators, FBI, prosecutors, and other elements of law enforcement to investigate, prosecute, convict, and sentence molesters, partially through the channels of child pornography distribution.

Of course, 1738 is introduced by Biden and Obama (and Clinton) so there are questions of partisanship and I’ve heard rumblings that McCain introduced a similar bill. And there are questions of how much money should be spent. Unfortunately, I can’t really suss out what’s happening in the Senate around this bill. Why hasn’t it been passed? Is it all a matter of politics or are there real issues? Are there things in the bill I should be worried about? I read what I thought was the final text and it seems completely sane to me but maybe I’m missing something.

Still, at the end of the day, I have to commend Oprah for a very real and non-sensational portrait of one aspect of the child molestation issue. I’m also very thankful for her very practical realism about the Internet in this issue. The Internet is undoubtedly allowing easier access to child porn, but it is also allowing investigators to get at guys who show no other markers of their molestation. And I agree with the solution 100%: more funds for law enforcement and much higher penalties for molesters.

[Note: the emphasis on this show was the graphic child porn in which children are clearly abused or harmed in the making of content intended for distribution. There are other classes of child porn which are more complicated and require different prevention mechanisms. For example, porn that is the product of teens and tweens creating nude photos or sex videos of themselves or their friends, whether distributed intentionally or not, is a different class of child porn. The harm in these cases is not often in the making of the content, but the ways in which it gets distributed. Additionally, there are huge issues about how teens and tweens are getting validated or seeking validation by peers through such self-portraiture.]

Dionysus and the Amethyst Initiative

Across the United States, dozens of higher education leaders have signed on to the Amethyst Initiative. It’s a fascinating approach. The signers aren’t committing to a stance, but rather asking American society to begin an informed and unimpeded debate on the 21 year-old-drinking age. It’s a controversial topic and it hit the airwaves in controversial style. Merely trying to cover the story touched a nerve across the country and countless media channels dedicated air time to the debate, if only to dismiss the initiative. Still, a conversation began.

In 1984, the United States passed a bill that required States to institute a 21 minimum drinking age in order to receive full federal highway funds. Many States had age limits before this, but this bill effectively federalized a drinking age and restricted alcohol purchasing to those 21+. The drinking age has a long and sordid history, wrapped up with Prohibition, moral reform, and age consciousness.

Anyone who tries to tell you that something magical happens for everyone at the age of 21 that makes youth brains capable of moderate consumption at that age is full of shit. The drinking age is not about psychology, no matter how many reports appear to “prove” otherwise. The drinking age is first and foremost about social control. We tried to prohibit everyone from drinking and when that failed, we went about trying to oppress the population that could be controlled. Like all other acts of Prohibition in this country, the minimum drinking age stems from a set of moral values projected onto a population as a means of control.

While the age limit is about social control, there is no doubt that alcohol is a dangerous drug. The chemical effect can damage the body in all sorts of ways and alcoholism is a very real addiction with costly repercussions. Binge drinking can be deadly and, even when it’s not, it can cause severe long-term damage. Alcohol doesn’t just affect the imbiber – alcohol affects everyone around the drinker. Drunk driving is a leading cause of death, alcohol destroys families, and a large percentage of domestic violence incidents involve alcohol. Alcohol abuse is linked to depression, poverty, violence, health problems, and all sorts of societal “ills.” Alcohol is one of the most dangerous and most abused substances out there. That said, people like it.

Let’s assume that the age-limit prohibitionists meant well since most moral reformers do (especially when the law runs counter to economic profitability). Even laws passed with the best of intentions can result in dire side effects. The Minimum Drinking Age is one of those laws. Like other abstinence approaches, this law set in motion a series of social and cultural factors that actually magnifies abusive acts. I want to briefly map out some factors at play and then discuss how the combination of them is outright deadly.

1) Alcohol is a marker of status. Youth desire adult vices because they desire the status and freedom that they symbolize. The more that adults tell youth that they are not old enough or mature enough to imbibe (… have sex, drive, stay out past midnight, etc.), the more imbibing becomes a desirable act. So long as alcohol is seen as a status symbol of maturity, it is consumed in excess by those seeking any means of being validated as mature. The harder it is to get, the more status it confers.

2) Moderation of enjoyable and high status activities must be learned. Humans naturally moderate (a.k.a. avoid) unpleasant experiences but they also naturally seek out pleasant ones. For many, alcohol consumption is enjoyable. To complicate matters, risk taking and the status that it affords is desirable. Illegal alcohol consumption combines these two elements. It is naturally pleasurable and excessive use of hard-to-obtain substances affords status in many circles. Moderation runs counter to this. Moderation is typically learned through personal exposure to the unpleasantries of alcohol or the shift in its status amongst a person’s social circle.

3) Age segregation makes learning to moderate harder. Age segregation means that status is conferred locally. Each new cohort goes through the ropes of alcohol consumption with few guides who have learned the costs and side effects. More problematically, age segregation means that status is local. Youth validate each other’s consumption as a marker of adulthood and there aren’t adults who have gone through the hells of abuse to curb the status structures. Thus, youth are socialized into a culture where massive consumption is highly regarded.

4) Abstinence programs make education and guidance impossible. We know that youth start drinking in high school, but there’s a general “don’t ask, don’t tell” mindset at play. Schools that provide quality information are viewed as “encouraging” bad behaviors. Instead, schools are required to tell students of the horrors of alcohol while youth are simultaneously witnessing adult consumption. The hypocrisy of these messages is well recognized and youth end up dismissing all of the abstinence material as inaccurate.

University settings are by-far the worst configuration possible for this dynamic. Youth leave home, attaining one marker of adulthood, only to find an age-segregated social world with pressures to live up to the images of “cool” adulthood set in motion by mass media. They are no longer accountable to their parents and they desperately want to be validated by their peers. Universities are discouraged from educating underage students about alcohol and so there’s tremendous amounts of winking taking place in lieu of proper dialogue. Abuse runs rampant and is further magnified by the status that it affords from being risky in an age segregated community. Underage drinkers drink in private where their intake is not monitored rather than drinking in age-mixed public spaces where social pressures discourage genuine abuse. Youth aren’t socialized into drinking like adults, but rather drinking like media’s image of adults. Youth are afraid to seek help when they’ve gone too far because what they’re doing is illegal. Talk about a recipe for disaster.

Yes, youth make dumb decisions. But so do adults. Alcohol abuse is not just a problem for youth; millions of adults have problems with alcohol. Many adults with problems developed their habits as youth where their consumption was underground. They never had someone guiding them and no one ever realized that they had gone too far… until much later. The brain is like a power law – it grows most rapidly in the womb and slows as we get older. There is no magic age where it stops learning, but learning does get harder. Youth habits die hard, but lessons learned in youth also stick stronger. Holding off the possibility for abuse is certainly desirable, but if it means the difference between slowly ramping up and going from 0 to 60 in under a second, guess which is more likely to result in an accident?

I’m glad to see a debate raging on this topic. I think that it’s absolutely critical. My research with youth has led me to believe that the 21-minimum is deadly. I think that it encourages greater abuse than other scenarios. If I were given a magic wand to change the laws regarding alcohol, here’s what I would do:

1) Children may drink alcohol in private residences at any age when their parent or guardian is present.

2) Youth may apply for an alcohol permit starting at the age of 16. A mandatory education course and test (perhaps online) is required for getting this ID. With this ID, youth 16-17 can purchase alcohol in public when accompanied by an adult 21+ and those 18-20 can purchase alcohol in public by themselves.

3) No one under-21 can drive with even one iota of alcohol in their system. Consequences include fine, community service, permanent loss of alcohol permit, and multiple year license suspension.

Will this make alcohol abuse go away? No. That said, I believe that it would drastically reduce it. Changing the laws in this way will encourage parents to actually begin conversations about alcohol with their children rather than avoid the topic. I feel as though such an approach would mean that youth ease into alcohol and learn its limits while in an environment with older adults. By the time that youth hit college, alcohol would not hold the same level of allure. It would not be a marker of freedom in the same way. It would allow educational approaches to come into play. And it would allow what is underground to come above ground and reach a healthier state.

I know that many folks out there support reducing the age limit because, well, “they do it anyhow.” There’s no doubt that there’s a lot of underage drinking going on, but this isn’t just about legitimizing what is. We need to build safety structures in place, structures that allow youth to come of age in a healthy way. That’s not what exists right now. Thus, when youth head off to college, they drink their freedom to excess and the damage is palpable. If we’re going to curb that, we need to be more honest with ourselves about where alcohol stands in the cultural consciousness. We need to realize that you don’t learn to drink from a tap when all you know is a fire hydrant. And we need to recognize that imparting knowledge is more effective through socialization than pamphlets.

The Ancient Greeks believed that the amethyst quartz would prevent intoxication. The goddesses stepped in to help Amethystos ward off the intoxicated Dionysus. It is now our time to step in and help create structures that help youth have a healthy relationship with an otherwise unhealthy substance.

cultural sustainability

cultural sustainability

Since Davos, I’ve been thinking about cultural sustainability. This isn’t a term that I heard there, but one that I wish that I had.

These days, when people in business talk about sustainability, they mean environmental sustainability. Traditionally, the environment was an externality that was ignored. More and more, with the conversations of “carbon neutral,” people are starting to think about what it means to environmentally sustainable. At the same time, a company can be environmentally sound and completely destroy local economies and other aspects of culture through their moves.

To me, the idea of “cultural sustainability” is about companies whose actions offset the consequences of their presence (or disappearance). For example, when large companies abandon cities that they’ve been in for years and where the entire city revolves around them, their move has a HUGE culturally destructive force. How do they offset this in a functional way? How does this get considered to be an externality that needs to be factored in? (It used to be through layoff benefits and pensions that kept going no matter what… this is no longer viewed as critical.) Large companies who come into a town and put out of business a variety of different local merchants have another kind of culturally destructive practices. This is why the conversations around Wal-Mart get so heated: capitalism vs. cultural sustainability.

When companies were smaller and local, there were pressures put upon them to be good local citizens. They invested in the towns where they were present and operated as key actors in creating culturally sustainable systems. It was normal for a company to help out with a local school event because education made sense for the company because it meant better employees. As companies get bigger and bigger (and “globalized”), there’s less pressure to be invested in the culture. Even if there was, what culture should they invest in when they’re so big? Mostly, big companies give back to communities for PR purposes.

There are numerous points of pressure placed on companies right now to be environmentally sustainable, but this is not the only kind of sustainability that matters. That said, there are lessons to be learned. For a long time, the conversation tended to devolve into capitalism vs. environmental sustainability. More and more, folks are saying BOTH and finding ways to make that work. How do we do this with cultural sustainability? What pressure points need to be put into place where culture is evaluated as an externality in the models that economists draw up?

Overprotective parenting and bullying: Who is to blame for the suicide of Megan Meier?

Many people have asked me why I have not addressed the Megan Meier story that broke over the last month. I admit that I’ve been extremely bothered by the stories and the implications of an adult bullying a child through mediating technology. That said, I suspected that the press wasn’t telling the full story. Like all coverage of horrible events, the press focused on what made the story juicy rather than trying to paint a complicated picture of what led to the event. I grew up in a town where a teen murder captured everyone’s attention (and turned into a made-for-TV movie). It took years and uncountable appeals before we had a decent picture of what actually happened and, during that time, the stories on the street were far different from what the press was covering. Thus, I wanted to wait until I knew more.

For those who are not familiar with the Megan Meier story, let me create a brief overview of what has been commonly covered in the press. Megan (13, St. Louis) had a MySpace profile when a cute boy “Josh” (16) begins courting her. All is well until Josh breaks up with her online by sending cruel messages about how she hurts her friends, is fat and a slut, and “the world would be a better place without you.” Shortly after reading this, Megan commits suicide. Josh turns out to be a fake profile created by Lori Drew, the mother of one of Megan’s former friends. Police investigate, no charges are filed.

Because the story taps into every parent’s worst fear and the paranoia over the internet, the press have been saying all sorts of things. Yet, never was there a response from the woman who admitted to creating Josh, most likely because she was forbidden from speaking out as police work out whether charges are to be filed. Then, this morning, I learned that someone who identifies as Lori Drew posted an explanation on a blog called “megan had it coming”. Given the title of the blog, I had serious doubts that this was legitimate but upon reading the post, I think it actually might be.

(Update: Lori Drew’s lawyers have said that Drew is not the writer of the blog. Thus, what follows is an interpretation of what an unknown person purporting to be Lori Drew said and should be taken with a grain of salt. The broader discussion of parenting today is still relevant.)

What we learn is that Lori viewed her acts as protective of her child who she believed was the victim of Megan’s dark side. She thought she was teaching Megan a lesson and never imagined the consequences of her efforts to give Megan a taste of her own medicine. Because of earlier incidents involving her daughter, she had no love for Megan and no respect for Megan’s parents who she felt were unable to see the dark side of their daughter. Step into this mother’s shoes and it’s easy to understand her logic and why, from her POV, she took the steps that she did. At the same time, her perspective signals some absolute failures in American society, our ability to rationally communicate, and Lori’s inability to imagine potential costs of her decisions.

Much to my dismay, parenting today seems to require absolute belief that you’re child is the best child ever. Many parents think that their child can do no wrong and, thus, are unable to hear critiques of their own children. In some ways, it’s not surprising… people have fewer kids (who are mostly wanted thanks to birth control), inhabit single family homes, and live in a nurture-centric world where their children reflect on them at every level. Doubting one’s child means doubting oneself.

The result of our child obsession is that parents are overprotective. They want to cushion their children from every scratch and get involved in every incident that makes their children feel emotional or physical pain. This is precisely what causes parents to call schools when their child gets a B or ring up other parents when something mean is said on the schoolyard or other symptoms of “helicopter parenting.” Children are not encouraged to struggle through the feelings of pain and hurt and find a solution; instead, parents are expected to get involved and fix it and most enter the ring voluntarily. In these environments, there’s no social solidarity amongst parents and parents are unable to hear criticism about their child. Instead, such critiques are viewed as attacks and are used as weapons when parents want others to control their children their way.

Reading between the lines, I get the sense that Megan was emotionally all over the place (for whatever reasons – an actual issue or just plain puberty). She was struggling to negotiate friendships and she had a mean streak when she was depressed. She wasn’t the cool kid and she was struggling to fit in and made poor judgments about how to handle friendships. She wanted someone to love her and make her feel cool and important. Frankly, it seems like pretty normal middle school tumultuousness, but we live in a culture that can’t accept rough edges. Maybe meds would’ve stabilized her, maybe her self esteem would’ve improved without the braces, or maybe and most importantly, it was just a matter of time. But as anyone who was not that cool in school can tell you, middle school sucked. It’s ground zero for learning how to negotiate social interactions and many mistakes are made. This is when bullying and boy/girl-dynamics and other dramas really come to the forefront. It’s awful, it’s hell. Yet, the responsibility of a parent of a tween is not to try to fix all painful situations, but to teach their child how to negotiate them responsibly. This is much harder than fixing things and it’s challenging for Type A parents who desperately want their kids to turn out OK. But no good comes of kids not learning coping mechanisms and relying on parents to fix every social issue.

While I understand Lori’s desire to protect her child and her feeling of helplessness for not being able to do anything, it’s not clear to me from her story that she focused on giving her daughter much agency. Instead, she felt as though she was responsible for fixing it. Here is where I think she made a mistake.

Deceiving children is problematic to begin with, but doing so by tapping into their emotional weaknesses is outright deadly. At a gut level, Lori knew that she could capture Megan’s attention by creating a male character that showed interest. In other words, Lori knew how to manipulate Megan’s attention and emotions. She capitalized on that knowledge, self-justifying it as responsible parenting. She knew how to have the “perfect” relationship with Megan, to gain her trust. This is knowledge that adults have because we’ve had our mistakes and learned how to negotiate social interactions. The reason that Megan’s relationships were so fraught was probably not because she was evil but because she and her peers were struggling with how to appropriately interact with one another. It’s clear from Megan’s reaction to Josh that she was fully capable of positive interactions in a social context not strife with miscommunication and the confusion of school status. If she were truly as messed up as Lori assumed her to be, she would not be capable of this.

In my opinion, by choosing to “teach her a lesson,” Lori acted in a manner that was both ethically and morally inappropriate. Revenge is foolish in every context, but adults should never take revenge on children, regardless of how much those children upset them. This is an abuse of power. Furthermore, it signals to Lori’s daughter that revenge is an OK response to being hurt. Whatever happened to “turn the other cheek”? For a Christian society, we don’t do a good job of upholding basic Christian values.

While Lori believes that her act of verbal maliciousness is equivalent to Megan’s meanness to other kids, she’s wrong. Kids can definitely be cruel and it definitely hurts, but it’s embedded in a larger context about the struggles for status and popularity, the social context of the broader peer group, and, generally, reciprocal bad treatment. As much as parents want to believe that other kids are mean to their child but their child is innocent, this is rarely the case. There is usually build up and a lot of back and forth before an incident that we’d call “bullying” takes place. Bullying rarely happens out of the blue – it’s situated in a larger context of social drama and hurt. By pretending to be a love interest when sexuality is burgeoning and having a significant other is a valued status marker, Lori was not simply operating as another peer. Furthermore, by building her trust, Lori consciously made Megan vulnerable. Even if she did not realize it, the trust built in such a context far exceeds the trust between most peers at that stage, and thus made Megan more vulnerable to Josh than Lori’s daughter was to Megan. Capitalizing on that trust and swiftly and cruelly rupturing that bond was a truly horrible act of abuse.

I’m glad that Lori is sharing her perspective and I hope that parents read it because I imagine that many can see themselves in her shoes. Yet, I hope that parents can also see why Lori’s decisions are flawed and dangerous. The critical lesson here is not about the internet, it’s about parents responsibilities in raising their children. As tempting as it is to get involved and as easily as it is to do so online through deception, parents usually need to stay out of such situations. They need to advise their children, teach them how to cope, and support them through the tumultuous times. Of course, there are examples when things go too far over the line and parents need to get involved, but it seems as though that line has been erased. Helicopter parenting is dangerous and, frankly, I don’t think that we’re going to see the full damage of it for another 10 years as this cohort enters the workforce (although Twenge argues that the narcissism part is already affecting the workplace). The biggest problem is that this needs to be done en masse. It doesn’t help to have some parents disengage while the majority of a peer group’s parents are calling the school and demanding fairness and getting involved in every childhood squabble. Parenting is hard, seeing your child hurting is hard, thinking you can fix it and choosing not to is hard, wanting your child to get every opportunity possible and yet choosing not to manipulate the system is hard. I totally understand why parents want to get involved and fix it, but such engagement can be harmful to children long-term and result in a more problematic culture more broadly.

innovation’s social externalities

In business, the economic concept of “externalities” has tremendous salience. In short, an externality is a cost that a third party must bear due to the actions of others. For example, air pollution is considered an externality of manufacturing. In theory, as protectors of the public good, reasonable governments should regulate corporate externalities through imposed taxes. (In reality…) More and more, discussion of environment externalities is a core part of business.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about another type of externalities: social externalities. In other words, effects on social life caused by policy, cultural, or business decisions. In many ways, social externalities are quite like environmental externalities – the effects are often latent. As such, the offending parties are long since gone and the solution is not to turn back to the clock but to find a new way to move forward.

Technology often creates unexpected social externalities. Take, for example, the air conditioner. Anyone who has witnessed a summer in the deep south can attest to the value of an air conditioner. In the last couple of years, I’ve heard lots of people talk about the environmental costs of air conditioning yet I almost never hear people talk about the social cost of air conditioning. It used to be too damn hot to sit around inside all day long so people used to sit on their stoop or anywhere where they might catch a breeze. They used to sit in social spaces. I remember summers on the east coast where those who couldn’t afford A/C spent hot summer days at the movie theater or any public place with A/C that they could find. Affordable A/C means a collapse of certain types of social community space.

Of course, policy can cause just as many social externalities as technology. Consider the implementation of compulsory high school in the U.S. and Europe. While we can certainly say now that schooling is a good thing (even if we devised schooling for imperial, colonial, and corporate purposes), we often fail to consider the externality of age segregation and what that has meant for so many aspects of civic and social life. We consciously devised a system that would stall growing up and now demonize children for not maturing. What a mess!

A different innovation to consider would be the automobile. Once again, we can talk about the environmental impact of modern day horses. When it comes to social externalities, we also have a decent understanding of how the automobile created suburbia. Yet, how would we think about evaluating the social costs of the invention of the automobile? There doesn’t seem to be any agreed-upon way to measure “social good” or “public happiness” or any of those other squishy community concepts (thus, the debate around “Bowling Alone”). Unless I’m mistaken, there don’t seem to be that many economists trying to work out ways of measuring social externalities (other than violence or other externalities that can then be regulated through law).

I’m concerned that our contemporary business narratives of progress often fail to reflect on the social externalities caused by innovations and organizational shifts. Of course, this is not about techno-determinism or fear mongering. We do that all too well. Propagandized mythical headlines like “Violent games make kids kill” are not what I’m talking about. I’m more interested in work like Mimi Ito and her colleagues’ studies on how youth’s lives are reorganized by the mobile phone and how not being easily accessible means being written out of social life. STS scholars and other academics are definitely researching how innovation and structure affect broader social life, but this work often fails to get out in the public. More problematically, it seems to me that business and the public think that progress is a one-directional path to the future and that we’re on that train. Why are we so invested in innovating anything that can be innovated, regardless of the consequences?

What would it take to get people to reflect on the social externalities of innovations and public policy? To consider history and reflect on what the costs might be of a particular innovation? Now that we’re curbing some of our “brilliant” ideas because we understand the economic externalities, might we reconsider some of the things we do for what the longterm social externalities might be? Of course, part of being young and innovative is to not think about externalities… I’m definitely getting old.

Choose Your Own Ethnography

For this year’s Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S) conference, I put together a paper reflecting on my methodological choices in pursuing an understanding of how youth engage with networked publics. In it, I try to lay out my decisions, my successes, and my failures. This paper is written in loving memory of my advisor Peter Lyman.

“Choose Your Own Ethnography: In Search of (Un)Mediated Life”