Think about the last time you were stopped in standstill traffic that seemed mercilessly frozen, with no end in sight. As the minutes ticked by, you were in the midst of a shared experience that dozens and maybe even hundreds of strangers were also having. When the traffic picked up again, however, it’s likely you left without knowing anything about them as people.
Or maybe not.
The highway can seem like a place that’s devoid of social interaction, aside from occasional honking, signaling or hand gestures. Yet, it has its own version of social media, according to Walter Goettlich, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Kansas.
The Twitter or Facebook of the road? Bumper stickers.
Goettlich knows bumper stickers well: He trekked more than 10,000 miles on U.S. interstates in the eastern half of the U.S. researching their use and drivers’ reactions to them.
His research challenges a popular social theory that highways are examples of “non-spaces” that people move through without really making connections, Goettlich said.
“It’s a question of how you define a social interaction, basically,” he explained.
Does a social interaction have to involve a face-to-face conversation? Ever since the telephone was invented, the answer has been “no.” And with the rise of social media and other ways of connecting remotely, our definition of what it means to interact with others is evolving.
Goettlich’s work, which he presented this year at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Montreal, Canada, focuses on the relationship between what he calls the “writer-car” that displays a bumper sticker and the “reader-car” that contains the driver and passengers who read that bumper sticker.
Whether we give it much thought or not, we choose bumper stickers because we want other people to read them. What we decide to stick on our cars goes deeper than mere decoration.
“If no one reads a bumper sticker, why would anyone put it on a car?” Goettlich said. “Writing in public places is meant to be read.”
Today, those messages are even more personal. With companies like CafePress and Zazzle offering “create-your-own” bumper sticker options, the trend is shifting from mass-produced stickers to customized ones, Goettlich said.
When bumper stickers are mass produced, manufacturers have to appeal to a wide swath of folks in order to make a profit. Customization allows people to introduce their own ideas–no matter how quirky–into the sticker conversation.
It also adds another dimension to the interaction between the writer-car and the reader-car: the ability for “call and response,” Goettlich found.
Here’s an example: You know the stick figure families that were popular for a while? Goettlich has seen bumper sticker responses to those that feature dinosaurs eating a stick figure family or that say “I don’t care about your stick figure family.”
We analyze bumper stickers through one of three lenses: labeling, affective or puzzle, Goettlich found in his research.
Labeling means that we read someone’s bumper sticker and associate the message on the sticker–and the person who’s sending the message–with a pre-established value system we hold, according to a news release about the research. For example, one person who was interviewed for the study saw a New York Yankees sticker and assumed the driver of the writer-car was arrogant.
This can lead to “a re-enforced set of stereotypes,” Goettlich said. It’s the reason many news outlets don’t allow their employees to affix political bumper stickers to their cars—our bumpers can be seen as an extension of ourselves.
The affective mode of interpretation involves an emotional response. In one case, a reader saw an “I ♥ WATERBOARDING” sticker and became so infuriated that he couldn’t stand to be behind that car any longer. Even though the road was packed, he sped around the writer-car without looking at the other driver, he told Goettlich.
We use the puzzle mode to understand stickers that don’t activate our value associations or strong emotions. When readers enter the puzzle mode, they might even look to other resources, such as social media and internet searches, in an attempt to identify a sticker’s meaning.
That continued search for meaning after the fact is a huge part of social interaction between drivers of writer-cars and reader-cars. Goettlich himself once saw a sticker with a reference he didn’t understand until he re-watched “Back to the Future” –six months after he saw the sticker.
Goettlich believes today’s bumper sticker culture reflects a changing political landscape.
An uptick in customized bumper stickers (and T-shirts, too) can be expected when “there’s a feeling that peoples’ voices aren’t heard at a national or structural level,” he said.
“People put what they want on their cars… (as a) sign to the rest of the world.”
When tensions rise between groups—Republicans and Democrats, for example—the number of political bumper stickers, including call-and-response ones, might also increase.
With so many sticker options available, and tools that allow us to create our own, we can turn our bumpers into our own forums for expressing ourselves on topics ranging from gender equity to government spending. We can cultivate a public-facing persona, just like we do on social media.
Because most people who see our bumper stickers won’t have the opportunity to ask us what exactly we’re trying to convey, if our messages are unclear, they’ll be left to guess or assume their meaning and how they fit into who we are, Goettlich noted.
Much like your social media behavior, your real self is tied to what you passively put out into the world. If you’re driving someone else’s car and it’s decked out with bumper stickers, as the driver, you’re the one telegraphing those messages. Other drivers won’t know the bumper stickers were chosen by someone else.
Bumpers can be a blank canvas that we can paint with our thoughts, passions and belief systems. If we choose our messages wisely, they can spark connections researchers once didn’t know existed.
Rachel Crowell is a Midwest-based writer exploring science and math. Rachel lives in Iowa with Delilah, a golden retriever a stranger once called “the cutest thing in America.” Outside of STEM topics, Rachel welcomes writing opportunities on everything from art to finance. Follow Rachel on Twitter at @writesRCrowell. Reach Rachel at [email protected]