Presentation Materials for Twitter Adoption in U.S. Legislatures at #SMSociety 2016 Conference

The following are links to supporting materials for the presentation “Twitter Adoption in U.S. Legislatures: A Fifty-State Study” made to the 2016 International Conference on Social Media & Society on Wednesday, July 13 at Goldsmiths, University of London.

1. Free full-text access:

ACM DL Author-ize serviceTwitter Adoption in U.S. Legislatures: A Fifty-State Study

James M. Cook
SMSociety ’16 Proceedings of the 7th 2016 International Conference on Social Media & Society, 2016

2. Download Powerpoint Presentation Slides from presentation

3. Abstract: This study draws theoretical inspiration from the literature on Twitter adoption and Twitter activity in United States legislatures, applying predictions from those limited studies to all 7,378 politicians serving across 50 American state legislatures in the fall of 2015. Tests of bivariate association carried out for individual states lead to widely varying results, indicating an underlying diversity of legislative environments. However, a pooled multivariate analysis for all 50 states indicates that the number of constituents per legislator, district youth, district level of educational attainment, legislative professionalism, being a woman, sitting in the upper chamber, holding a leadership position, and legislative inexperience are all significantly and positively associated with Twitter adoption and Twitter activity. Controlling for these factors, legislator party, majority status, partisan instability, district income, and the percent of households in a state with an Internet connection are not significantly related to either Twitter adoption or recent Twitter use. A significant share of variation in social media adoption by legislators remains unexplained, leaving considerable room for further theoretical development and the development of contingent historical accounts.

Please feel free to review these materials before or after my presentation. I look forward to your comments.

Social Limits are Real: they can End (or Save) your Life

(cross-posted in revised form from an ongoing column for the Kennebec Journal)

Part I: No Limits?

As part of my work in social media research, I follow the Twitter accounts of Maine’s elected officials, studying patterns in their public communications.

I wasn’t surprised to see graduation messages from Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, in my feed this month; ’tis the season, after all, and local officials are regularly invited to speak.Maine State Representative Justin Chenette writes, "The only limitations, are the ones we set for ourselves

“The only limitations, are the ones we set for ourselves.”

“You can achieve anything you set your mind to.”

Ideas like these are commonly asserted: during the first half of the month of June 2016, the phrase “no limits” was posted to Twitter at a rate of more than 100 times per hour. That’s understandable.  The idea of no limits in life, of a plain of possibilities open wide before us, is a hopeful idea. It’s an inspiring idea.  It’s a popular idea.

Unfortunately, it’s also an incorrect idea.

Don’t believe me? Allow me to issue two challenges. If there really are no limits in life, try:

• Heading to Baxter State Park here Maine, then walking straight through the base of Mount Katahdin.

• Jumping so high into the sky that you launch yourself into orbit, without assistive technology.

No matter how much you wish, no matter how hard you try, you can’t accomplish these acts. We are all limited by laws of physics. Due to electromagnetic repulsion, you can’t walk through rock. Your legs just can’t generate enough kinetic energy to overcome the force of Earth’s gravity. Ignoring these limits can kill you.

Just as there are laws of physics, there are social laws that set limits in society. Consider the following image of a social network, in which circles represent people and lines represent relationships between them:

A spcial network of minority blues and majority reds

As you can see, there are two groups of people in this network: reds and blues. Sociologist Peter Blau considered the rate of “outgroup association” (the percent of all relationships by group members to people outside the group) and discovered a law: that smaller groups have a higher rate of outgroup association than larger groups.

The reds in the network have five relationships, two of which are to non-reds. 2/5 = 60 percent. The blues in the network have 10 relationships, two of which are to non-blues. 2/10 = 20 percent.

Go ahead, add and subtract as many ties from this network as you wish. You can’t make the pattern go away. It’s an inescapable law.

So what? Why does this social law matter? Stop thinking about reds and blues and start thinking about numerical minorities: women in male-dominated corporate boardrooms, immigrants in native-born communities, or black people in majority-white America. Due to math alone, no matter how much you wish it to be otherwise, such minorities will have contact with majority members more often than majorities have contact with minorities.

Because of this pattern, minority groups must devote more energy to knowing the habits of two cultures just to get by. The stakes for failure can be high. A woman who ignores male culture in the boardroom can lose a job. An immigrant who can’t speak the language loses business. When northerner Emmett Till whistled at a white woman in the South, he lost his life.

This is one social law, one inescapable limit among many in society. A sense of limitless potential may feel good to this year’s crop of graduates, but if that feeling is untempered by a reality check, the outcomes can be disastrous.

Part 2: Deadly Friendships

Sociology’s laws are subtler than the laws of physics, but they’re no less deadly.

For another example of sociological laws and their consequences, let’s consider Feld’s Law. Twenty-five years ago, sociologist Scott Feld demonstrated that on average, your friends have more friends than you do. This sounds impossible, but it’s true.

To show you what I mean, we’ll look at another social network.  In this network, circles indicate people and lines indicate friendships between them:

A simple social network used to demonstrate Scott Feld's maxim regarding friendship among friends.

Some people in this network, like Carol, have more friends than others, like Hal.  Popularity and unpopularity is a normal part of human social life.

Also, some members of this network are friends with very friendly people; Don’s friends have 3.5 friends of their own on average (Carol with 4 friends, Ed with 3). On the other hand, the average friend of Carol has just 2.25 friends (Al, Betty and Don with 2 friends each, and Gina with 4).  That sort of variation shouldn’t be too surprising either.  But as Feld found, things get strange when we consider the overall trend.

Take a look at the table below, which shows the results for each person as well as the overall average for all people. The average person in our network has 2.5 friends. The average person’s average friend has 2.9 friends. That’s exactly the sort of result that Feld’s law predicts.

A table adding up friends, friends of friends, and averages for each of these in a social network.

Go ahead, draw your own social networks and do the math for yourself. You’ll find that Feld’s law holds true for almost any network you can think of. That’s odd, but why should you care?

One reason to care is that Feld’s law explains that feeling many of us have that we’re less popular than our friends. Odds are, you’re right. Don’t take it personally; it’s just the way societies work.

Another reason to care is that Feld’s law is also true for any relationship in which people share something with one another. People share needles in the opiate epidemic facing not just the state of Maine where I work but significant swaths of the North American continent more broadly. People have shared sexual relations since the dawn of humanity. These kinds of sharing can also share deadly viruses like AIDS, hepatitis B and syphilis.

If you’re thinking of sharing a needle, Feld’s law tells us that on average, the people you share needles with share needles with more people than you do. Feld’s law tells us that on average, the people with which you have unprotected sex have unprotected sex with more people than you do. This means that even if you share a needle just once, even if you have unprotected sex just once, your chances of catching a killer virus are disproportionately high.

Understanding invisible social laws are crucial for getting by in life because they provide guides for safe and unsafe behavior, just as physical laws guide us while we climb a mountain or skirt a rooftop. When you support research to uncover sociological laws, the benefits aren’t abstract. Understanding how society works can save a life — and that life could someday be your own.

Feeling Like a Fraud in the First Year of College (and why that’s OK)

When I ask students in their first year of college how they’re doing, I often get a pained look in response. it’s common for students to feel a bit (or maybe a whole lot) like they don’t fit, even like they’re a fraud, not a “real student.” Do you ever feel that way? Well, here’s a confession: I felt that way myself when I got started as an undergraduate student, and it took me some time to shake that feeling. It turns out that this kind of feeling is absolutely normal and even a kind of standard part of getting used to a new role. As Erving Goffman explains in his dramaturgical theory of social interaction (Goffman 1959), we are all in a sense playing roles on a public stage, trying to pull off our scenes, trying to remember our lines. Difficulty in performing a role like that of student doesn’t mean you’re a bad human being — it just means you need to be patient with yourself and give yourself a bit of time to practice your new role before you can feel like you’ve truly nailed it. I share my thoughts on this subject in the video below:

William Shakespeare shared this sentiment in two of his plays:

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”
– Macbeth

“All the world’s a stage,
and all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.”
– As You Like It

Goffman would agree with the second quote, but disagree heartily with the second quote. For Goffman, the lines we deliver and the successful scenes we accomplish in interaction signify a great deal. Indeed, the whole point of our strutting and fretting our hour upon the stage is to learn how to signify to one another. An undergraduate’s role in the first year is hard, because a college or university education involves a whole new way of signifying what matters, how it matters, and how we know what matters.

The bottom line? Feeling like a fraud in the first year of the undergraduate experience is not just normal; it’s actually OK, a sign of growth, a sign that you’re extending yourself into a new role. As the popular slogan goes, you just have to “fake it till you make it,” to keep practicing the new role until you get the part down well. A die-hard dramaturgist might say that there’s really no difference between someone who perfectly impersonates a success and an actual success.

Just keep practicing, keep pretending until the pretense becomes real. You can do it.

Reference

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Random House

New Lesson Plan: Frame Alignment Operations in Political Testimony

I’m really excited today to roll out my second lesson plan for the political transparency website Open Maine Politics. OpenMEPolitics.com has been mashing together census, social media, newspaper and legislative data for some time now, and now it’s time for me to turn my attention to education. As a professor of social science, I have a vision of political data as a source for learning about issues of representation, gender, framing, and social network formation — but up to now it’s all been in my own head. Sharing lesson plans for undergraduate university students (and upper-level high school students) is a labor of love.

So, I’m glad to introduce Lesson Plan Two: Frame Alignment Operations in Political Testimony, complete with:

  • References to Erving Goffman’s and David Snow’s theoretical work on frames and frame alignment!
  • Examples drawing from obscenity laws and Lenny Bruce on trial!
  • Primary Source Documents for students to find frames: testimony on bills before the Maine State Legislature!
  • An Interactive Padlet where students can post their findings!

Oh, what fun. Give it a whirl, and if you like the gist of it, please feel free to use the lesson plan in your own work with students (a nice link for attribution is all I need.)

Conformity as a Sociological Variable (Video)

In my experience, most undergraduate textbooks treat conformity as a constant psychological feature.  These textbooks typically note how uncanny it is that researchers Solomon Asch and Stanley Milgram were able to manipulate their subjects into agreeing with a majority in making a statement that was obviously untrue, or into apparently shocking people to death. My, my, aren’t people such conformists, the standard treatment concludes.

The standard textbook treatment of conformity is neat, tidy and dire, but I believe it is misguided in two aspects. First, conformity is not a constant in Asch’s and Milgram’s studies. Some people do conform to expectations, but very importantly others do not. Conformity is a variable. Second, if conformity is a dependent variable, the independent variables in the Asch and Milgram studies are NOT psychological, and so the label of “psychological experiment” is inappropriate. At best, the experiments are social psychological, and the action here is all in the social. The individual-level psychological distress expressed by subjects in Asch’s and Milgram’s experiments was to no avail. What predicted conformity or non-conformity was the structure of the social situation engineered by the experiments.

In short, the conformity experiments involve sociological explanations for what appears to be a psychological phenomenon. If conformity is a sociological outcome involving independent variables of social structure, then understanding the elements of social structure that impact conformity is vitally important for the individual who wishes to avoid conformist pressures or for the social engineer who wishes to manufacture consent. The video below, produced for an Introduction to Sociology class at the University of Maine at Augusta, presents those independent variables and considers their relevance to micro- and macro-level questions of social living.

Interested in the Milgram and Asch experiments to which I refer here?  Check out these references to learn more:

Asch, Solomon. 1951. Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgment. In H. Guetzkow (ed.) Groups, Leadership and Men. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press.

Asch, Solomon. 1955. “Opinions and Social Pressure.”  Scientific American 193(5): 31-35.

Milgram, Stanley. 1965. “Some Conditions of Obedience and Disobedience to Authority.”  Human Relations 18:57-76.

Milgram, Stanley. 1974. Obedience to Authority.  New York: Harper Collins.

School Shootings and the Thomas Theorem: Real in their Consequences

“If men define situations as being real, then they are real in their consequences.” — W.I. Thomas and Dorothy Swain Thomas, 1928, The Child in America

The Thomas Theorem is a staple of sociological insight, asserting that beliefs have a force of their own, whether those beliefs are factually accurate or not. If people believe something to be true, and act on the basis of that belief, then that belief can have observable consequences in the world, even when a belief is false.

As a case in point, consider our beliefs about the risk to children from school shootings. A regular Gallup Poll of the parents of school aged children shows that a significant portion of Americans with school-aged children have consistently expresed fear for their children’s safety in school, and that the share of parents expressing such fears has increased in recent years:

Gallup Poll Question: Thinking about your oldest child, when he or she is at school, do you fear for his or her physical safety?

We are particularly worried about our children being shot and killed by aggressors packing guns. A typical Facebook discussion not only characterizes the current level of school shootings as “too many” but asks, “How many more innocent people are going to die before they actually do something worthwhile to stop this?” Tennessee resident Kali asks, “Are our children safe at school? School shootings are everywhere with no school exempt. Where or what security measures have been taken to ensure our child’s safety?”

In American culture, we believe that our children are at significant risk in school. But at the same time that parents’ concern runs high, the actual count of children killed in school shootings runs low and, if anything, sunk even lower in recent years. As the latest report of the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows, the in-school homicide rate in 2010-2011 was 0.00002 percent, which means a child’s chance of being killed in school was 1 in 4.5 million.

In response to these kinds of calls, Hardwire Armor Systems LLC has been marketing bulletproof whiteboards to schools. Its 18×20 model is meant to be used as a standard handheld whiteboard, but features handles on the back and is designed to protect a teacher facing a school shooter from “multiple magazines of ammunition from handguns or shotguns without ricochet or injury.” The most basic 18×20 bulletproof whiteboards Hardwire offers costs $399 — $383 more per whiteboard than a standard whiteboard of the same size.

Is this extra expenditure in every classroom worth it? Hardwire Armor Systems LLC says so, and offers glowing testimonials from students like 9th grader Tori Barros to explain why:

“Recently, there has been a lot of heartbreaking and frightening news about school safety. School is a place to think and be safe. The thought that someone can just walk into my classroom and take my life away is terrifying. My father says, ‘We can’t predict the future, all we can do is be best prepared for uncertain events.’ No one has a crystal ball that can tell us if a bad person is coming to our school. But knowing that Hardwire is providing my classmates and I with the protection that may someday save our lives is a huge relief.”

Some schools are buying.

In comparison to the 1 in 4.5 million risk that a child will be killed in school during a year, in any year 1 out of 60 thousand schoolchildren aged 5-14 die from heart attacks. If a 1 in 4.5 million risk is enough to place a bulletproof whiteboard in every classroom, is a 1 in 60 thousand risk enough to place a defibrillator in every classroom? Although defibrillators are being bought by schools, they’re being placed at the rate of just 1 or 2 per sprawling school, not within arm’s reach of a teacher. Why, when the risk of a student dying from heart disease is 75 times as great as the risk of a student dying from a school shooting? The answer is that we have collectively decided to pay more attention to some childrens’ deaths than others. Measured in terms of our focus on the issue in the media and measured in terms of our efforts to implement a solution, the death of a child from a shooting is more socially meaningful to us than the death of a child from a heart attack.

Even if we ignore other causes of child deaths and limit ourselves to child murders, we can still ask why school shootings attract as much attention as they do. After all, children are killed in much greater numbers in other contexts. Indeed, as the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ recent report shows, only 8 out of every 1,000 child murders occur in the context of school:

Where are children typically killed? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gathers information on child homicides from 17 states in the U.S. using its National Violent Death Reporting System, and the results can be browsed suing the CDC’s Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (also known as WISQARS). During the last year for which data is available (2011), the following are the places where children were murdered:

Place of Injury Percentage
All 100.00%
House, apartment, including driveway, porch, yard 47.32%
Residential institution, including shelter, prison <3%
Transport area: public highway, street or road 27.13%
Transport area: other, including inside motor vehicle 8.52%
Recreational area, cultural area or public building <3%
Commercial area (non-recreational), including medical service area, farm, industrial or construction area 3.47%
Natural area/countryside 4.42%
Other specified place, including school, sports or athletics area 3.47%
Unknown 3.47%

 

If nearly half of all murders of children take place inside the home (many times more than take place in school), then shall we invest in bulletproof doors or suffocation-safe pillows? If more than a quarter of the murders of children occur on the street, then mightn’t we consider detachable bulletproof street signs as a security option?  Such solutions sound absurd to our ears, but these absurdities are an artifact of how we define the situation: if we were strictly interested in preventing the greatest number of child murders, we might want to consider in-home or on-street changes much more seriously than we consider in-school changes.  The fact that we devote our concern to security in schools despite the relative safety of schools tells us that our concern is a consequence of the way we construct social reality and the stories we tell about danger.  The stories we tell, based on our out-of-proportion beliefs, have real consequences: as teachers hoist bulletproof whiteboards in their classrooms, children die in their homes.

The Paradigm that isn’t in your Introduction to Sociology Text

The first chapter of the Introduction to Sociology textbook I teach with today is not very different from the first chapter of the Introduction to Sociology textbook I read as an undergraduate student in the 1980s. In text after text, there’s a nod to Marx, Weber and Durkheim (followed by a sniff at Comte). An identification of historically unrecognized founders such as Jane Addams and W.E.B. Du Bois follows. Then there’s a reference to C. Wright Mills and the “sociological imagination” before the big finish: an identification of the “big three” paradigms of sociology. These are without variation identified as functionalism, symbolic interactionism, and conflict theory.

When I made the transition to graduate school and started reading and listening to professional sociologists, I noticed immediately that the phrases “functionalism,” “symbolic interactionism” and “conflict theory” were not being used in journal articles, conferences, colloquia or seminars. When I asked my graduate advisors whether they considered themselves to be functionalists, symbolic interactionists or conflict theorists, they’d raise their eyebrows and say, “well, really I’m not any of those things.” It’s not as though functionalists, symbolic interactionists or conflict theorists never existed. Rather, these divisions were identified in the middle of the 20th Century as a handy way of summarizing the then-current fault lines of the discipline. Despite the fact that sociologists have largely moved on from these conceptual categories in their work, there seems to be a reluctance upon the part of textbook publishers to let go of the “big three.”

Some change has been creeping in. Perhaps the largest innovation over the last quarter century has been to occasionally add reference to postmodernism as an alternative fourth paradigm. Unlike the other three terms, the term “postmodernism” does make a major appearance in modern scholarship, as the following graph showing the occurrence of the paradigmatic phrases in the Google Scholar database of publications shows:

Occurrence of the Phrases Postmodernism, Conflict Theory, Functionalism and Symbolic Interactionism in the Google Scholar database from 2000 to 2013

The presence of “postmodernism” in Google Scholar search results should perhaps not be taken as an indication of the presence of “postmodernism” in the sociological literature, since postmodernism is an intellectual movement reaching far into the humanities. Similarly, the relative presence of “functionalism” may be overstated in this graph since functionalism also describes an intellectual movement in architecture and linguistics. Still, the presence of postmodernism appears considerable, and possibly explains the movement’s new inclusion in sociology texts.

Bringing the Networks In

I’ve brought this up before, but I’d like to make a current case for bringing the study of social networks into the mix of paradigms in an Introduction to Sociology course. Social network analysis is a field centered in sociology that doesn’t fit neatly into any of the three classic 20th Century paradigms identified in introductory textbooks. It isn’t macrosocial like conflict theory or functionalism (although work related to it has macrosocial implications), and while it deals with the nature of interaction social network analysis largely eschews the study of symbols, expectations and meanings that is of central importance to symbolic interactionism. Instead, social network analysis draws from graph theory, matrix algebra and theories about groups to focus on the structure of communication and affiliation outside the individual, primarily at a micro- to meso-social level. Although some pounce on the word “analysis” to suggest that the study of social networks is only methodology, the contention that the structure of social relations represented by networks has consequences for individuals, groups and societies involves a strong and distinct image of society that creates a basis for the creation of social theory. That’s what a paradigm is. The distinctiveness and conceptual clarity of network analysis gives it the potential to stand along symbolic interactionism, conflict theory, functionalism and postmodernism in an introduction to sociology text.

The case for social network analysis as a paradigm worth inclusion is bolstered by pure volume. Let’s add Google Scholar counts for “social network analysis,” a movement in sociological study that is largely left out of introductory sociology textbooks. In contrast to “postmodernism” and “functionalism,” the phrase “social network analysis” leads to a restrictive search, leaving out “social networks” references that don’t contain analysis and “network analysis” references that don’t feature the modifier “social.” The phrase “social network analysis” pretty much guarantees that results will fall within the social science and probably underestimates the actual volume of scholarship on the subject. This creates what’s called a conservative test of the presence of social network sociology. Here are the results with “social network analysis” added in:

Occurrence of Paradigmatic Phrases, including "Social Network Analysis," in Google Scholar Database from 2000 to 2013

At the turn of the 21st Century the relative presence of “social network analysis” was nothing remarkable, but for the past six years “social network analysis” has outperformed the three classic sociological paradigmatic phrases by an increasingly large margin, even when restrictively phrased. In the year 2013, “social network analysis” outperformed “postmodernism” for the first time.

Google Scholar is a very handy (and widely replicable) way of assessing the volume of scholarship for a subject, but the tool cannot easily filter by discipline. On the other hand, the University of Maine at Augusta Library’s physical and online collection of books and journals is more limited in breadth than Google Scholar’s database in contents but allows results to be filtered by discipline.

Social Science Publications in the UMA Library Collection Published since 2000 Featuring these Phrases...
Social Science Publications in the UMA Library Collection Published since 2000 Featuring these Phrases...

As you can see, these results indicate the same pattern: since the year 2000, new publications in the social sciences mentioning social network analysis have strongly surpassed publications mentioning the three classic paradigms, approaching the number of publications in the social sciences for “postmodernism.” Last year, the number of new publications for “social network analysis” in the university collection surpassed those for “postmodernism” as well.

Introductory textbook authors, pick up those pens. There are a number of audacious social facts in the network paradigm worth sharing.