Monthly Archives: March 2010

You in? (UPDATED 4/12/12)

Flickr photo by Timothy Hamilton

Yahoo is trying to spark random acts of kindness around the world through the 600 million people who are part of the Yahoo “community.”

They ask people to visit and post online status messages describing their good deeds, inspiring others to reciprocate and amplify their actions.

They call their effort “You In?” since they encourage those doing good deeds to add this to the end of their posts.  For example, “I just dropped off a coat from my closet at a homeless shelter, You In?” or “I paid the toll fee for the car behind me, You In?” The messages appear in that poster’s Yahoo! status and can be shared via social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace. Visitors can also see an interactive global map on the campaign’s website at

Given that the effort encourages altruism, it is ironic that Yahoo! seeded the program by giving $100 to early participants.

The program builds on the “Pay It Forward” concept (serial reciprocity); and there was already an on-line version of Pay it Forward developed called The Giving Game.

Nick Christakis and James Fowler in their book Connected have an interesting experiment to test altruism and the “pay it forward” concept.  But for example, in an experiment they conducted of “paying it forward”, 120 individuals who didn’t know each other were paired off for five rounds of cooperation games involving groups of 4 people each. They never encountered the same individuals.  Individuals could decide how how much to share of an initial pile of money and then all groups were told what others had done, the individuals were reshuffled into new groups 4 more times and this process was repeated.  They found that for every extra dollar that a person (call him/her A) gave in round one to members of A’s group (call them B), those Bs gave twenty cents more in round 2 to their new groups (we’ll call these individuals C).  Then the C individuals each gave five cents more in round three.  This was true even though it was not reciprocity since B’s generosity was to new strangers as was C’s, since the groups were reshuffled.  Since each B individual and C joined three new individuals in the next round, there was a multiplicative impact of A’s generosity of $1.00 to generate an additional $1.05 of generosity in future rounds.  Here the multiplier was restrained by the survey design that had groups of 4, but in principle it is possible that a higher multiplier might be found depending on the group size.

Notable Acts of Kindness under the Yahoo! effort:

– “I traded in a $100 bill for 100 one-dollar bills and wrote a note on each that read: ‘Please take this dollar bill, add one dollar bill, and pass it on.’”

– “I helped an 85-year-old neighbor bring her Xmas decorations down from the rafters — all 12 boxes!”

– “I helped an elderly lady carry her groceries to her car.”

– “I am baking Christmas cakes to share with friends in need of help.”

– “I dropped off supplies at the local Humane Society and at the local women’s shelter.”

Millennials, Religion and Civic Engagement

[cross posted on American Grace blog)

Flickr photo by Echobase

American Grace co-author David Campbell appeared on a Pew-sponsored panel called Portrait of the Millennial Generation with Neil Howe, Andy Kohut and Judy Woodruff, among others. Allison Pond, research associate at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, discussed some of Pew’s findings re Millennials and religion. Millennials, in comparison to earlier generations, according to Pond, are  less likely to pray, less likely to assert that religion is important to them, just as likely to believe in heaven/hell or in the afterlife, and more likely to tinker with religion (finding ways to cobble together a spiritual life although they are less connected to religious institutions).

As David Campbell points out on the panel:

If you look over the long haul from the ’60s to the ’70s, you do see a slight increase in the overall percentage of Americans who were evangelicals, and much of that growth was concentrated among young people.

That, however, ceased to be the case over the last 10 or 15 years. You have seen evangelical churches remain on the American landscape. And anyone who has been to the Saddleback Church in California or the Willow Creek Church in Chicago — these are massive megachurches — will know what I mean. It’s not that Millennials are streaming out of these churches, but they’re not being attracted to them the way that young people were in the past. That suggests to me that there’s an opening for religious entrepreneurs to somehow reach that segment of the population. They haven’t yet done so, and evangelicalism as it exists today does not seem to be reaching them.

On a later panel that same day Scott Keeter et. al. discussed differences between the Millennial Generation and earlier generations on abortion (more pro-choice) and religiosity (less religious).   And one questioner alluded to Pew’s findings that Millennials much more strongly believe that  “Houses of worship should express views on social and political issues”, to which Andy Kohut observed that these differences have to be interpreted in light of Millennials growing up in a context of greater separation of church and state than previous generations.

[In other discussions on the morning panel and afternoon panel there was a discussion of Millennials and community engagement.  For our  (Robert Putnam’s and my) take on this, see “Still Bowling Alone?” in the January Journal of Democracy.]

Some of findings to come in American Grace are consistent with Pew’s findings and some appear to differ. Stay tuned.

Location location location

Location-tracking services on the Internet (like Loopt or Foursquare) offer internet users the opportunity to find other friends or would-be friends who are nearby.  They are a technologically more sophisticated version of the Craigslist post that my colleagues Robert Putnam and Lewis Feldstein featured in Better Together (“I’ll be washing clothes shortly at 25th and Clement….[A]nyone like to join me for a game of backgammon while the clothes spin?”).

But one Achilles’ Heel of such efforts is users inadvertently disclosing private information that perhaps they shouldn’t. One site, trawls live Twitter posts (tweets) to share publicly which users are away from home, in a tongue-in-cheek effort to get users to be more circumspect.  [PleaseRobMe notifies the careless tweeters as well.]

Please Rob Me: The Dangers Of Location Based Services

Analysts expect that use of such mobile social applications will rise. With the ubiquity of smart phones and users’ rising comfort with applications that use location-based awareness, to recommend local restaurants, to automatically purchase an item displayed in a window by pointing one’s phone at it and clicking (application is in development), they will also become more comfortable using their location for social applications.

As the Economist notes: “Foursquare, which celebrates its first birthday on March 13th and now covers most big cities around the world, rewards people who register their presence at (or check in to) a particular café or restaurant most often with the title of Mayor. That, in turn, can sometimes entitle them to, say, a free coffee or pizza. On Gowalla, another start-up, users are encouraged to collect as many digital souvenirs as possible by visiting various venues in a city.

“Corporate behemoths also have designs on the location-based market. Last year Google launched a service called Latitude that allows friends to track one another’s movements. The search giant’s recently unveiled (and much-criticised) social-networking service, Buzz, also allows users to tag messages with information about their location. Nokia has bought online-mapping and mobile-networking businesses in recent years to reinforce its offerings. Many observers think Apple has plans to offer geo-targeted advertising on its iPhone. In January the firm snapped up Quattro Wireless, which specialises in advertising on mobile handsets.”

In many of these applications, the act of “checking in” doesn’t involve much of any social capital.  I can announce that I am at the Starbucks at 95th and Broadway, but unless it spurs other acquaintances or friends to come join me, there is no social capital built from checking in.  If we simply monitor where our friends have been frequenting, but this could spur mere voyeurism.  Foursquare tries to encourage interaction by having users get pings when friends or strangers are nearby; in this sense Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley said it enables one to “see through walls” and “around corners.”  Crowley learned from his Dodgeball effort that “not everyone wants to meet strangers”.  They are now allowing developers to create APIs that use the Foursquare for a dating tool or just to meet their good friends or to create Mashups that map their friends’ social patterns.

Regardless of its social capital promise, there is still lots of potential for mining this private information, not just to advertise new products to consumers.  The Center for Democracy & Technology, a privacy think tank, criticized corporate  privacy policies of many such providers and said that the U.S. government needs to play a role.  Some industry self-regulation is occurring: for example, Loopt reminds users that their location is shared with others, permits posting of fake locations, and trolls its postings for any suspect signs that private information is being abused.  In many cases, the younger generation — the “Net Generation” that Jonathan Palfrey describes in Born Digital — have very different conceptions of privacy and use the Internet much more seamlessly, for example creating a custom video where older generations would have written a note or an essay.

Despite these concerns about privacy, innovation in this area surges ahead.  See for example “Wearable Sensor Connects Would-be Strangers” or “Hyperlocal Communication“.  We’ll keep you notified of interesting developments in this space as they evolve.

See a video interview of Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley (1/27/10) and the genesis of mobile social applications.

Read the Economist’s “Follow Me” (3/4/10) and “The Net Generation, Unplugged” (3/4/10), the latter of which cites a Pew Center report to suggest that the NetGeneration may be as interested in “broadcast[ing] their activism to their peers” as getting involved politically themselves via this digital medium.

Tough days for the weight-challenged

Nick Christakis and James Fowler been pressing the argument that obesity is contagious through social networks in their new book Connected. [Great recent short interview of co-author James Fowler on Colbert, a distillation of this book in the Prospect’s  “Let’s All be Friends“, and earlier blog posts here.]

Mohammed and Saddam. Click image to expand.

Now Slate magazine has a fascinating 5-part series by Chris Wilson  on how the US used  social networks to capture Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Who was “ground zero” in the capture, one degree of separation from Saddam?  His bodyguard, known by the Allies as the “fat man.”

So the conclusion from Christakis is not only do your fat friends make you overweight (although Slate doesn’t chalk up Saddam’s chubbiness to his bodyguard), but now that overweight friends can also get you assassinated?

Youth voting only up among non-whites in 2008, seniors still far more likely to be heard

Flickr photo by Indigo Jones

I previously reported Current Population Survey data that showed that the youth voting turnout was up from 2004 to 2008 and that non-whites voted at record rates in 2008.  I just saw the intersection of these two trends: e.g., breakouts of voting turnout by ethnic group and then within ethnic group by age.

The bottom line is that the increase in youth turnout in 2008 was all concentrated among non-whites.  For 18-29 year old (non-hispanic) whites, voting was essentially flat; for 18-29 year old blacks, voting rates increased from 2004-2008 by 18%, for young Hispanics (18-29) by 15% and for young Asians voting rates increased by 26% in just one presidential election from 2004 to 2008!  I haven’t seen these further broken out by education but my hunch is that a disproportionate share of this may be among more well-educated non-whites, based on CIRCLE’s report on this.

For a picture of these trends (not the VTAG), click on this link. CPS Voting Turnout 2004-08 by age and ethnicity

Moreover, if one looks across age groups, one sees in general that the voting increases were much more concentrated among 18-29 year olds; blacks were the only racial group where voting turnout rates increased from 2004 to 2008 among all age cohorts.

Finally, voting turnout age gradients [VTAG] (the rate at which 65+ folks in that racial group vote relative to 18-29 year olds) closed in all racial groups other than whites.  For whites, voting rates remained some 40% higher for 65+ year olds (or a VTAG gradient of 1.4).  Among blacks, the voting turnout age gradient declined from 1.34 to 1.17 (i.e., 65+ year old blacks still are 17% more likely to vote than 18-29 year old blacks), for Hispanics the VTAG  declined from  1.61 to 1.38 and the voting turnout age gradient essentially disappeared among Asians, going from 1.41 to 1.05 from 2004 to 2008.

While these trends are certainly good news from the perspective of reducing the biases in our democratic system, they still leave a system heavily biased towards senior concerns.  If seniors are 60-80% more likely to vote than 18-29 year olds, it is little wonder that AARP has such power and that our national policies distort the benefits of what is paid out to seniors versus what is invested in younger Americans.  [Interestingly, this parallels David Willetts’ intergenerational equity argument in The Pinch that I was explaining the other day.]  Of course, these voter gradients (distortions in voice) need to get to 1.0 and the groups have to be of similar size to stop these inter-generational distortions.  And among whites (who are still represent three-quarters of the voting ranks), seniors are still voting 40% more frequently than young adults.  So we still have a long way to go.