Archive for the 'Research' Category

Are Rural People Meaner?

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

(or: Is Online Gossip a Question of Locale or Scale?)

I’m quoted in this morning’s New York Times Story, In Small Towns, Gossip Moves to the Web, and Turns Vicious. This came about because I’ve done some recent research on social media and rural communities (citations below), including a long-term ethnographic study of social media use in rural Native American communities in California and (with Eric Gilbert and Karrie Karahalios) a study of rural vs. urban use of social networking sites.

Here’s the story in a nutshell: In case you aren’t aware of the web aggregator (, it is a portal site owned by newspaper companies that provides a “home page” for every city and town in the US.  That page consists of a feed of local news, presumably generated algorithmically, mixed in with weather, polls, and–critical for our story today–a forum.

Topix forums have become the online place to be for some small towns.  Unlike social media sites such as Google Plus and Facebook, which have pursued a policy of only allowing real names online, the Topix forums allow anonymous posting.

The result is a cesspool of gossip, with posts that have titles like, “People to Stay Away From.” That thread consists simply of a list of the real names of people in Pearisburg, VA that the poster, a “Mr. Kickass,” doesn’t like. The NYT piece included some examples but they chose tame ones.

A normal Topix small-town board includes a purported attempt to out a gay man, accusations that so-and-so has AIDS, a diatribe against miscegenation, public shaming of “bad parents,” announcement that this or that person is a crackhead, and more.  All of these posts are anonymous.

Yes, it looks like Topix is transforming gossip. Just as the Internet has transformed buying airline tickets, is making gossip more efficient. It’s now easier to reach a larger number of people, and (a terrible side effect), indexing by search engines means that an impermanent medium like gossip can now stay online indefinitely to haunt you forever. And I agree that gossip can ruin lives. There are problems.

Yet it’s not clear to me that these are rural problems. I agree that rural people are different from urban people. They are in aggregate more likely to be older, less mobile, poorer, and less educated. And we know that rural people use the Internet differently from urban people.

But remember that Juicy Campus scandal about three years ago (NYT: College Gossip Leaves the Bathroom Wall and Goes Online)? This was a new online forum that allowed anonymous posting, and it filled up with scandalous gossip about sex and drugs (well, mostly sex). It ruined lives. That was a scenario but the locale wasn’t small-town America, it was the University of California, Duke, and Yale.

Chris Tolles, the Topix CEO, is quoted in the Times article linking the situation on the Topix forums to the Hatfields and McCoys. C’mon, Mr. Tolles. Give us a break. At least he didn’t mention Deliverance.

I think the formula is:

anonymity + a defined community (scale) = gossip

Rural doesn’t appear in that equation.

Champaign-Urbana, where I live, is a small town, but it is too big to fit most definitions of a rural area. I think it would be great if all of the gossips, racists and bigots lived on farms somewhere far away from me, but I just don’t think that’s the case. (For more on this, see Mary Gray’s excellent book.)

The situation as a whole reminds me of early efforts to spread the telephone to rural America a century ago (see Fischer’s excellent research). Then, CEOs of telephone companies often refused to build in rural areas because they thought that rural people were all poor and stupid. All of the major telephone company CEOs lived in big cities, and they were sure that rural folks, if given a telephone, would be too dumb to use it, would complain a lot about it, and would probably only play banjo to each other anyway.

I don’t think rural people are meaner.

[This post was cross-posted to the social media collective. -CS]

[Thanks to Kristen Guth for thinking of the Juicy Campus comparison.]


Further reading:

Sandvig, C. (2012). Connection at Ewiiaapaayp Mountain: Indigenous Internet Infrastructure. In: L. Nakamura & P. Chow-White (eds.) Race After the Internet. New York: Routledge. (link to proofs)

Gilbert, E., Karahalios, K. & Sandvig, C. (2010). The Network in the Garden: Designing Social Media for Rural LifeAmerican Behavioral Scientist, 53 (9): 1367-1388.


There’s More to Internet Freedom

Sunday, March 6th, 2011

(or, Is Google the new United Press Syndicate?)

Over at the Huffington Post I have a new blog post co-authored with Dan Schiller that tries to flag the current and timely Internet Freedom / Free Flow of Information / Right to Connect debate with a little more context. Here it is:

Free Flow of Information and Profit
by Dan Schiller and Christian Sandvig

(Photo tweeted from Cairo’s Tahrir Square by @richardengelnbc
click to enlarge)

In at least some sense it is a response to Monroe Price’s earlier post, “Clinton’s ‘Long Game’ Advancing Internet Freedom,” as well as Ethan Zuckerman’s reaction to Clinton’s 2011 Internet Freedom speech.

HuffPo made it a “Featured Post!”  Woo!

But there are no comments.  Boo! I think we used too many big words.

This photo is from Richard Engel of NBC.  Translation is supposedly “thank you / facebook / youth of Egypt.”

Internet Innovation: The Big Read

Monday, August 30th, 2010

(or: An Internet and Innovation Reading List for You.)

Recently I’ve been ginning up a reading list about the title given in this blog post, and I wondered if I could try to crowdsource some of this bad boy. If you had a semester and you wanted a graduate-level someone to learn all of the basics and some of the more advanced and interesting stuff about the broad topic “the Internet and innovation,” what would you tell them to read?

[The preview image for the
"History of the Internet"
video by Melih Bigil.]

Read the rest of this entry »

Technology Studies Needs Both Priests and Missionaries

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

(or: Your technology may be political, but who cares?)

I am a longtime admirer and participant in the intellectual crossroads known as Science and Technology Studies (STS). I first read Langdon Winner‘s “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” and he changed my life.  In my first job I had the chance to organize a conference around my own research interests, and my choice for the keynote was Steve Woolgar (“Laboratory Life,” “The Machine at Work,” “Science, The Very Idea,” “Virtual Society?”).

My intellectual links to STS were formed in  graduate school but I continue my involvement in an STS program now as a faculty member.  I really enjoyed the last 4S conference, where I presented some of my recent work, and I’d like to think it was well received.  I say all this to introduce this post because I want to emphasize that I feel like an STS insider.

In the last few weeks I’ve had a conversation like the one I’ll describe below with three other STS insiders, so I thought I’d share it.  Tell me if I’m crazy.

[Click to enlarge -- original photo by lawprier on flickr]

If you’ve read any STS, you know by now that STS scholars typically make arguments of the form: “What you thought was technical is actually political!” Read the rest of this entry »

The Slowest Dial is Mexico City

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

(or: When Systems Are Engineered, Who Gets the Best Addresses?)

In a project I’ve been working on about addressing systems in communication infrastructure (excited yet?), I’ve been telling people that early phone numbers were organized in part around the time it took to dial them on rotary telephones.

[a rotary dial -- click to enlarge -- photo by zen on flickr]

You see, youngsters, the weighted dial on a rotary telephone requires a fixed amount of time to dial each number.  It’s about one second per ten values so that the amount of time goes up as the number goes up, with one being the fastest number to dial (about a tenth of a second or 1 click) and zero being the slowest (about one second or 10 clicks).  These time estimates don’t include moving your fingers around, mind you.

You could say, who cares?  But if you add up all of the seconds required to dial and multiply by all of the phone calls, that’s a lot of seconds people spend dialing those nines and zeroes.

Read the rest of this entry »

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