Tag Archives: media

Selfie culture, tourism, and the challenge of the authentic self

Just kidding — who would give a blog post a title like that?

The author on vacation.

The author on vacation.

Our family vacation this summer, to London and Paris, was my first since the Year of the Selfie Stick (which is this year). This is also the year in which 59% of “millennials” (only 40% of whom understand that they are millennials) answered “yes” when asked whether the phrase “self-absorbed” describes “people in your generation overall”?


At Admiralty Arch, London

I can’t add much nuance to the theory of selfie culture, which has already taught me a lot. For example, I learned on NPR that vanity isn’t vanity if it’s part of constructing your “personal brand” — so it’s OK to edit your selfies:

“I think that while a lot of people find it easy to say, ‘Well, you’re taking a photo of yourself, and you’re posting it online for people to sort of rate.’ I could see how that superficially looks like vanity,” she says. “At the same time, I think that it really gives a lot of the younger generation a platform to express themselves without being incredibly harshly judged — because the selfie is such a casual form of expression, no one is going to expect you to look absolutely perfect.”

What interested me is the intersection of artificiality and authenticity that the selfie brings to the experience of tourism. Taking 1,000 pictures of yourself in order to post just the right spontaneous look is the normal business of personal brand construction. It creates a presentation version of yourself. It’s an expected form of inauthenticity, just like most people expect you won’t post pictures of your kid crying at her birthday party.

But when you’re a tourist, selfies are about authenticity. They’re the picture that proves you were really there — and really in that mood at that moment that you were there. As the culture studies journal Forbes Leadership put it:

In the age of social media, authenticity for Postmoderns is characterized by a consistency and continuity between their online personas and their lives in the real world. The more congruence there is between the two, the more authentic the Postmodern appears to be.

You can’t have that unless the famous thing is clearly visible behind you. Which produces the endlessly entertaining spectacle of tourists taking and retaking selfies with every different expression and pose in front of popular monuments and attractions.


At Buckingham Palace.

Social media is social. We share pictures and updates with real people. Even when you’re alone, you’re not alone on social media. Which I think is great. But like the person staring at his phone through dinner, it seems antisocial when you do it publicly. The selfie-takers are alone in their Instagram bubbles in the middle of a sea of other people.


At Buckingham Palace.

And when you’re going in for the money shot — say, the Eiffel Tower at sunset — you can’t afford to mess around. It seemed like these people were oblivious to me setting up for a shot of them from 10 feet away. (Also, like driving, it seems that operating the selfie stick in different-sex couples is the man’s job.)

At the Eiffel Tower.

At the Eiffel Tower.

Or, in this case, the daughter totally not noticing that her parents are collapsing from boredom while she works up her umpteenth Buckingham Palace selfie.


I have nothing against all this. (Our story is that every moment of the vacation was deliriously fun, and we have the pictures to prove it.) Having a good time seeing new people and things without hurting anyone is what I love about tourism.


Still, it’s funny that people go to such trouble to get the perfect picture of themselves — creating at least a moment that is artificial — in their quest for an image of authenticity. What would this picture mean if I weren’t really in Paris, contemplating all there is to contemplate in exactly that spot?


As affirmed by the behavior of thousands of people crowding around to take pictures of famous paintings, perfect reproductions of which are available online for free, it has to be real or it’s nothing. A lie.


The fake-smile selfie is a lie, too. I guess it’s just not a very important one.

One disappointing thing, though, is that suddenly the ritual of strangers asking each other to take their pictures is disappearing. That was a nice part of tourism, because it involved strangers smiling at each other.

Note: Help yourself to these photos, which are in this Flickr folder.


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Sex ratios as if not everyone is a college graduate

Quick: What percentage of 22-to-29-year-old, never-married Americans are college graduates? Not sure? Just look around at your friends and colleagues.

Actually, unlike among your friends and colleagues, the figure is only 27.5% (as of 2010). Yep, barely more than a quarter of singles in their 20s have finished college. Or, as the headlines for the last few days would have it: basically everyone.

The tweeted version of this Washington Post Wonkblog story was, “Why dating in America is completely unfair,” and the figure was titled “Best U.S. cities for dating” (subtitle: “based on college graduates ages 22-29”). This local news version listed “best U.S. cities for dating,” but never even said they were talking about college graduates only. The empirical point is simple: there are more women than men among young college graduates, so those women have a small pool to choose from, so we presume it’s hard for them to date.* (Also, in these stories everyone is straight.) In his Washington Post excerpt the author behind this, Jon Birger, talks all about college women. The headline is, “Hookup culture isn’t the real problem facing singles today. It’s math.” You have to get to the sixth paragraph before you find out that singles means college and post-college women.

In his Post interview the subject of less educated people did come up briefly — if they’re men:

Q: Some of these descriptions make it sound like the social progress and education that women have obtained has been a lose-lose situation: In the past women weren’t able to get college educations, today they can, but now they’re losing in this other realm [dating]. Is it implying that less educated men are still winning – they don’t go to college but they still get the pick of all these educated, more promiscuous women?

A: Actually, it’s the opposite. Less educated men are actually facing as challenging a dating and marriage market as the educated women. So for example, among non-college educated men in the U.S. age 22 to 29, there are 9.4 million single men versus 7.1 million single women. So the lesser-educated men face an extremely challenging data market. They do not have it easy at all.

It’s almost as if the non-college-educated woman is inconceivable. She’s certainly invisible. The people having trouble finding dates are college-educated women and non-college-educated men. By this simple sex-ratio logic, it should be raining men for the non-college women. Too bad no one thought to think of them.

Yes, the education-specific sex ratio is much better for women who haven’t been to college. That is, they are outnumbered by non-college men. But it’s not working out that well for them in mating-market terms.

I can’t show dating patterns with Census data (and neither can Birger), but I can show first-marriage rates — that is, the rate at which never-married people get married. Here are the education-specific sex ratios, and first-marriage rates, for 18-34-year-old never-married women in 279 metropolitan areas, from the 2009-2011 American Community Survey.** Blue circles for women with high school education or less, orange for BA-holders (click to enlarge):


Note that for both groups marriage rates are lower for women when there are more of them relative to men — the downward sloping lines (which are weighted by population size). Fewer men for women to choose from, plus men eschew marriage when they’re surrounded by desperate women, so lower marriage rates for women. But wait: the sex ratios are so much better for non-college women — they are outnumbered by male peers in almost every market, and usually by a lot. Yet their marriage rates are still much lower than the college graduates’. Who cares?

I don’t have time to get into the reasons for this pattern; this post is media commentary more than social analysis. But let’s just agree to remember that non-college-educated women exist, and acknowledge that the marriage market is even more unfair for them. Imagine that.***

* I once argued that this could help explain why gender segregation has dropped so much faster for college graduates.

** It was 296 metro areas but I dropped the extreme ones: over 70% female and marriage rates over 0.3.

*** Remember, if we want to use marriage to solver poverty for poor single mothers, we have enough rich single men to go around, as I showed.

A little code:

I generated the figure using Stata. I got the data through a series of clunky Windows steps that aren’t easily shared, but here at least is the code for making a graph with two sets of weighted circles, each with its own weighted linear fit line, in case it helps you:

twoway (scatter Y1 X1 [w=count1], mc(none) mlc(blue) mlwidth(vthin)) ///

(scatter Y2 X2 [w=count2], mc(none) mlc(orange_red) mlwidth(vthin)) ///

(lfit Y1 X1 [w=count1], lc(blue)) ///

(lfit Y2 X2 [w=count2], lc(orange_red)) , ///

xlabel(30(10)70) ylabel(0(.1).3)


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That Sunday New York Times Style section trend piece

Just folks trying to survive their divorces.

Just folks trying to survive their divorces.

Does it matter which one?

You know it from the opening paragraphs:

The women are architects, film industry executives, skin care consultants, product managers at tech companies, psychologists. They have worked in finance, publishing and television, though some had scaled back or left the work force when their children were born.

Divorce is what they have in common. Their stories are varied: the breadwinner wife whose husband’s career hadn’t quite taken off and who found comfort in an affair; the husband who never really adapted to parenthood; the wife with Ivy League degrees who stayed home with her child but lost her way in the marriage while the husband thrived in his international career.

Really. Divorce is what they have in common? How hard would it be to include a single mention of how rich and privileged these women are compared to the typical woman getting divorced? Penelope Green’s story never mentions the possibility.

Here is what a five-minute effort would have looked like:


These 10 occupations account for 25% of all women age 40+ who reported getting divorced in the previous year.

In addition, 34% of those just-divorced, 40+ women are not non-Hispanic Whites (14% Black, 13% Hispanic, 4% Asian/Pacific Islander).

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Research on teen crashes confirms that reporters selling books on phone risks hype phone risks

Using phones while driving is dangerous and should stop. But the focus on this issue distracts us from other dangers in driving (which have — you’d never believe from the news — declined rapidly in recent decades). And it distracts us from the broader danger of relying on motor vehicle transportation.

I dwell on this subject because it offers lessons beyond its substantive importance (see all the posts under the texting tag). Today’s lesson is about conflicts of interest in the news media.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety published a study of about 1,700 moderate or severe car crashes in which people ages 16-19 were driving. To identify possible causes of the crashes, they used cameras and motion sensors in the cars, and analyzed the seconds before each crash. The headline result probably should have been that 79% of the crashes occurred when teens were driving too fast. But that’s apparently not news, so the AAAFTS and all the news media reporting the story focused on the fact that 59% of the crashes showed distraction as a likely cause.

The report website highlighted the data on distractions, and that’s reasonable. One of their findings is that distractions in their survey account for a greater proportion of accidents than are reported officially — something we’ve assumed but have had trouble establishing empirically. So that’s useful. They used this graphic:


By this accounting, phones were involved in 12% of crashes, second only to interacting with passengers. But this is an artifact of the way the categories are binned. And a lot of smaller categories are left out of the figure, such as eating and drinking (2%), operating vehicle controls (3%), looking at another vehicle (4%), or smoking-related distractions (1%). (Note also that one crash can have multiple related distractions, but they don’t report the overlaps so you can’t do anything about them.)

So I redid the categories. I don’t see why eating and drinking should be a separate category from grooming, or why singing/dancing should be separate from adjusting the radio. So I made a new category called “physically doing something besides driving,” which includes eating or drinking, using an electronic device (besides phone), grooming, reaching for an object, smoking-related activity, operating vehicle controls, and singing/dancing to music. Also, for some reason their figure lists “looking at something outside the vehicle” but only includes “attending to unknown outside vehicle” in that category. I added two other types of distraction to that category, “attending to another vehicle” and “attending to person outside” — bumping up the outside distraction substantially.

Here’s my new version of their figure based on the same data (from table 13 in the report). It’s more comprehensive but uses fewer categories:


Now cellphones are fourth. So that’s a lesson about using arbitrary category collapsing and then ranking the categories. (This happens all the time with occupations, for example, where people say, “The top X occupations…” but the occupations reflect different levels of granularity.)

Anyway, back to cellphones

The New York Times reporter Matt Richtel won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on distracted driving. And he published a book — A Deadly Wandering — that tells the tragic story of a driver who killed someone while he was texting. Unfortunately, he is prone to hyping the problem of texting, which his audience is unfortunately prone to fixating on. I previously pointed out that, on the website promoting his book, his publisher uses an extremely wrong statistic, claiming that texting “continues to claim 11 teen lives per day.” He has mentioned this statistic (or its variant, that texting kills more teens than drunk driving) on Twitter, and also in media appearances. I pointed out that this number is more than all the teens killed in motor vehicle accidents, so it’s obviously baloney. I emailed Richtel about this, and he told me he would “get it fixed.” I emailed the publisher. I emailed the Times. I emailed the Diane Rehm show. No one changed anything. Cellphone crashes are like child abuse: people will believe any statistic about how bad it is and attack anyone who’s skeptical.

Of course I don’t want to minimize the problem of distracted driving, and there’s nothing wrong with telling people it’s dangerous. And it’s not my area of expertise. So I’ve only given the issue a few hours. But playing into a public hysteria about a very narrow, behaviorally-driven problem, rather than exposing the systemic problem that it reflects, is not good.

And now that Richtel is selling a book about texting, he’s got a conflict of interest — if he hypes the problem in his NYT stories, he makes more money. So here’s the NYT headline on his story:


And this is his lead paragraph:

Memo to parents: Distracted driving by teenagers is riskier than previously thought, particularly when it comes to multitasking with a cellphone.

Again, it is true the report finds cellphone distraction causes more accidents than police reports have shown — so this is not irrelevant — though, of course, even with the new accounting they still cause orders of magnitude less than Richtel’s own promotional site claims. But mentioning phones in the headline sets the NYT apart from most of the coverage of this report:

  • Washington Post: “AAA: 58 percent of teens involved in traffic crashes are distracted”
  • ABC News: “Distractions a Problem for Teen Drivers, AAA Study Finds”
  • Houston Chronicle: “Distraction a factor in 6 in 10 teen driver crashes”
  • Chicago Tribune: “Distracted driving a key contributor to teen crashes, study shows”

On my first page of Google News searches, only the LA Times also mentioned phones: “Teen drivers distracted by cellphones, talking in most crashes.”

Who cares?

Some people who are tired of me complaining about this think you can’t have too much hype about safe driving, so who cares? But the distraction matters. The evidence that phones are a fundamental cause — a social cause — of accidents and deaths is very weak, although they are certainly the proximate cause in many cases. But we don’t have randomized controlled trials to test the effects of phones. I suspect the people crashing while futzing with their phones are mostly the same people who would be crashing for some other reason if cellphones didn’t exist.

When I look at the video compilation the AAA put out to accompany their report — which mostly shows teens crashing while using their phones — I am struck by what terrible drivers they are. They look down for three seconds and drive straight off the road without noticing. In contrast, I routinely see people driving on the freeway completely absorbed in their phones — driving obnoxiously slowly but using their peripheral vision to keep going straight. They are at grave risk of an accident if something crosses their path or traffic stops, but they’re not veering all over the road. Their slow speed probably mitigates their risk of crashing. I AM NOT RECOMMENDING THIS, I’m just saying: bad drivers cause accidents, and if you give them a phone they’ll use it to cause an accident.

Did you know teen driving fatalities have fallen by more than half in the last decade? (During that time incidentally, teen suicides have risen 45%.) Did you know that, from 1994 to 2011, mobile phone subscriptions increased more than 1200% while the number of traffic fatalities per mile driven fell 36% (and property-damage-only accidents per mile fell 31%)? Don’t count on Matt Richtel to tell you about this.

And yet, of course, thousands of people die in car accidents every year in the U.S. — at rates higher than the vast majority of other rich countries. But as long as people drive, there will be bad drivers. If we really cared, we would replace individual cars with mass transit (or self-driving cars) — putting transport in the hands of computers and professionals. Nothing’s perfect, of course, but preventing car accidents isn’t rocket science, and blaming a systemic problem on the individual behavior of predictably error-prone drivers doesn’t seem likely to help.


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Vox interview on the Moynihan chilling effect

Jenée Desmond-Harris from Vox.com interviewed me about the Moynihan backlash post. The piece is here. In it she links to this blog, but not to the specific post. If you’re looking for that, it’s here.

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On Contexts: Sociology unfound

Over on the Contexts blog, I wrote a follow-up to Justin Wolfers’ piece about economists dominating the news: here it is.

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This word ‘generation,’ I do not think it means what you think it means

The people who make up these things drive me bananas.

NPR launched a new series on “millennials” yesterday, called “New Boom,” with this dramatic declaration: “There are more millennials in America right now than baby boomers — more than 80 million of us.”

The definition NPR gives for this generation is “people born between 1980 and 2000.” And it’s true there are more than 80 million of them. In fact, there are 91 million of them, according to the 2012 American Community Survey data you can get from IPUMS.org.* That’s OK, though, because there are only 76 million Baby Boomers, so the claim checks out.

But what’s a generation?

The Baby Boom was a demographic event. In 1946, after the end of World War II, the crude birth rate — the number of births per 1,000 population — jumped from 20.4 to 24.1, the biggest one-year change recorded in U.S. history. The birth rate didn’t fall back to its previous level until 1965. That’s why the Baby Boom went down in history as 1946 to 1964. Because that’s when it happened.

This figure shows the number of living people by birth year, and the crude birth rate recorded in each year, using the NPR definition of millennials (in red), compared with the baby boom (purple):


Even with population growth I reckon the people born in the years 1946-1964 might outnumber the self-promoting millennials if not for the weight of mortality pulling down the purple bars. But if the young NPR reporters want to brag about outnumbering a generation that is starting to lose its older members to old age (and who are, after all, their parents), then I guess the shoe fits.

The Baby Boom was not a generation. It was a cohort, “a group of people sharing a common demographic experience” (in this case birth during the same period). That demographic event happens to have lasted 18 years, which is unfortunate because that may have contributed to the tendency to declare “generations” of similar lengths.

The Pew Research people, who do lots of interesting work on social change that uses generational concepts, use these slightly different definitions for four generations: Silent Generation, born 1928-1945; the Baby Boom Generation, born 1946-1964; Generation X, born 1965-1980; Millennial Generation, born 1981 and later (Pew says “no chronological endpoint has been set for this group,” which is awkward because if they’re really still going, the oldest are 33 and they have children that are the same generation as themselves**). Ironic, isn’t it, that Pew constructs “Generation X” as the shortest of the four (some generation, a mere 16 years!) before declaring them “America’s neglected ‘middle child.’

Real generations rarely have starting and ending points on a population level. Populations usually just keeping having births every year in smooth patterns of increase or decrease without discrete edges, so generations overlap. Even in families it gets hard to nail down generations once you start moving horizontally; siblings born many years apart are in the same generation, but the cousins get all confused.

Meaningful cohorts, on the other hand, can be defined all over the place, such as: the people who graduated college during the Great Recession, people who introduced the Internet to their parents, and so on. These are not generations.

In 2010, when crisis was really in the air, I was on the NPR show The State of Things in North Carolina, discussing the Baby Boom (no audio online). After attempting to clarify the difference between a generation and a cohort, I offered this dramatic example of a cohort — people born in 1960 specifically:

So if you were born in 1960, graduated college in 1982, and entered the labor force in the middle of an awful recession, then managed to pull some kind of career together, got married and divorced, by the 90s it was time to be downsized already for the first time, you’re 40 in 2000, and it’s time for the dot-com bubble, you’re out of your job again, and here you are ready for your retirement, finally, you’ve been left in your own 401(k), having to put together your own pension, and of course now that’s in the tank and your house isn’t worth anything. So that insecurity and instability is really imprinted this group. We talk about the 60s, and civil rights and antiwar, and great music and everything, but that’s seeming like a long time ago now for people who are looking at retirement.

I don’t know if anyone actually had that experience, but it seems likely.

Anyway, if people really want to keep using these generation labels, and it seems unlikely to stop now given the marketing payoff from naming rights, than that’s the way it goes. But please don’t ask demographers to define them.


* This is a little different from the population estimates the Census Bureau produces, which are coded by age rather than year of birth. I use the ACS data because they report year of birth, and because it’s easier. The differences are very small.

** Thanks to Mo Willow for pointing this out.


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