Digital life is real life

From Superconnected, Chapter 1:

Internet connectedness is a reflection of the ways in which social factors like socioeconomic status, educational background, race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, etc., play out in the physical world. This is because the online, digital world is not a separate entity from the offline, physical world. It is part of it.

Online activity can make more visible and amplify concerns, problems, and divisions that are part of social life in physical space, and it can raise concern about new issues, too. But the digital world is in every way real and is deeply integrated with everyday lived experiences and with the future of our societies—and ourselves—which makes it critically important to examine and understand.

Though obstacles remain to worldwide digital access and to the full realization of the potential of these technologies for all, the internet and digital media still afford tremendous opportunities for social connectedness and social change. They have become embedded in nearly every facet of modern life, including cities, cars, home appliances, lighting and heating products, and health and lifestyle monitoring.

In all kinds of spaces, from the global to the local and everything in between, individuals and their communities and societies have become interconnected, their lives dramatically affected, their environments increasingly saturated with technology. So in the end, the title of this book seems appropriate . . . because to an extent previously unimagined, and with the almost unlimited potential for further integration, the world has indeed become technologically and socially superconnected.

What is techno-social life?

Human experience is at the same time technologically infused and highly social. Life is techno-social in the fullest sense of the word.

In this book, and in all my work, I hyphenate the word to call equal attention to both the technological and the social and their equivalent importance in the examination and understanding of modern life. The technological and the social are in intimate interaction, constantly influencing one another. Both sides of the hyphen are equally important and central to the study of life in the digital age.

My new book Superconnected explores the techno-social in a wide-ranging way, from the micro to the macro — from the urges individuals can feel to stay in near-constant contact with friends online, to the ways that social media is utilized by groups, organizations, and governments.  Contrary to fears that political and civic engagement is dying or dead in modern life, it remains very much alive. Social media routinely prompts face-to-face interaction, and encourages political participation.

Of course, reaching out to others on social media is not the same as doing so face-to-face, and can induce what has been called slacktivism or hashtag activism — the substitution of talking about doing something (especially on social media) for actually doing something face-to-face. But using social social media to organize collective efforts can be quite productive indeed, and the most effective movements blend online and offline efforts.

Social life – living in tandem with others, in relationships, in families, in communities – is among the aspects of people’s lives most profoundly changed when information and communication technology enters the equation.  By bringing people into one another’s awareness, allowing them to discover commonalities, and providing the means by which they can contact one another, the internet and digital media contribute mightily to the “techno-social life” that Superconnected explores.

The digital prompts the face-to-face

One of my most important research findings is that digital tech use prompts, rather than deters, face-to-face interaction. It provides us with tools that we employ to make it more likely to occur, not less. This contradicts early fears and worries that the digital would somehow supplant the face-to-face — worries that many still hold. But a large body of research now indicates that the more people use the internet and digital media, the more social contact they have with their existing friends (see Chapter 7 in Superconnected for citations and more on this).

As this chapter details and makes clear, email, social media, and mobile phones provide easy, convenient, cost-effective means for people to remain in contact and to arrange dates to get together physically. Internet users’ social networks tend to be more diverse than those of non-internet users, allowing them to remain in contact with multiple social circles. Users of social media sites tend to have more close relationships than non-users, with Facebook users in particular (and especially frequent Facebook users) more likely to have close connections and core confidants than those who do not use the site. And such relationships are generally sustained through a combination of online and offline interactions, each of which can complement the other and even occur simultaneously.

Research also indicates that people most often select their online friends from their face-to-face social circles. Internet users tend to stay in better touch with their neighbors than non-internet users and to form more local ties. People who use social network sites to learn more about people they know offline often feel more a part of their offline communities and are more likely to bring those whom they know face-to-face onto their online social networking sites.

At the same time, long-distance friends and family use social media and text messaging to stay in touch. This makes it more likely that they will remain socially tied over time and get together face-to-face in the future. And it permits a community to persist when its members can no longer meet face-to-face or when the community no longer exists geographically.

There’s lots more on this topic that goes against the grain of conventional wisdom in Chapter 7 of Superconnected.


More reviews of Superconnected

Thanks so much to these fine scholars for recommending my new book Superconnected. Longer reviews to follow once it’s out (which should be very soon)!

Mary Chayko’s Superconnected is an indispensable,interdisciplinary guide to the complexities of life in the digital age. Engagingly written and masterfully covering a wide range of essential and nuanced topics, it is a unique text that is ideal for any reader who wants to know how our current techno-social condition emerged and the promises and pitfalls of living in it. An outstanding text that deserves to be adopted across the disciplines. — Evan Selinger, Professor of Philosophy, Rochester Institute of Technology, and author (with Brett Frischmann) of the forthcoming Being Human in the 21st Century

In Superconnected, Mary Chayko gives the reader a grand tour of the digital world. From history to hypertext, from the web to wireless, from cognition to community, from proxemics to participation to power, from the self to sharing to surveillance, from romance to rights and from group to globalization…it is all here to be enjoyed in her insightful work. — Rich Ling, Shaw Foundation Professor of Media Technology, Nanyang Technological University, and author, Taken For Grantedness

Superconnected is captivating in its approach as it dispels old myths and provides new insights into the functioning of a digital society. No other text provides such in-depth and thought-provoking coverage of such a wide range of issues, weaving together theory and on-the-ground examples, and local and global understandings, of how the internet and digital media/technologies have radically transformed many aspects of modern life.– Anabel Quan-Haase, Associate Professor of Sociology and Information and Media Studies, University of Western Ontario, and author, Technology and Society

Writing in a clear and lucid style, Mary Chayko explores the impact of internet and digital media on many aspects of our lives, examining issues ranging from friending and liking to surveillance and global inequalities.  The book is highly readable, an ideal text for undergraduate students as well as the general public who are interested in such topics. — Shanyang Zhao, Professor of Sociology, Temple University


The reviews are in!

Some early blurbs are in for Superconnected: The Internet, Digital Media, and Techno-Social Life — due to be published on or about March 6. Thanks so much to my fine colleagues for the time and care they took reading and reviewing my work. More to come soon!

Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. From kids to seniors, we are the greatest generations: communicating, networking, and creating information and media constantly and collaboratively. In this lively, wide-ranging book, Mary Chayko tells you how and why we are the most superconnected society ever. — Barry Wellman, Professor of Sociology, University of Toronto (retired), co-director, NetLab Network, and author (with Lee Rainie), Networked

Dr. Mary Chayko provides a splendid tour of how social media came to be, what they are used for today, and what they are doing for and to us. Clearly written, Superconnected makes a fine introduction to the subject for students and general readers alike. — James E. Katz, Feld Family Professor of Emerging Media, Boston University, and author (with Michael Barris and Anshul Jane), The Social Media President

Mary Chayko has crafted a most remarkable work in Superconnected. Rarely have I seen a writer at such ease in identifying and explaining both the essential techno-social building blocks of information and communication technologies and the rich, fascinating behaviors associated with them. Sharing and surveillance, emotion and presence, hacking and activism, crowdsourcing and accountability, friending and dating, multitasking and stress — these are just a few of Chayko’s inspired and informed topics. The work of a topnotch scholar and master teacher, Superconnected is inviting and compelling, friendly and challenging, unique and vital. It is the book I have been waiting for — perfect for any undergraduate class on information and communication technologies. — Christena Nippert-Eng, Professor of Informatics, Indiana University, and author, Islands of Privacy

Superconnected is a provocative, thoughtful and thorough examination of the contemporary digital state of affairs. It will educate, provoke and inspire readers to form new perspectives on the consequences of new media in everyday life. — Steve Jones, UIC Professor of Communication, University of Illinois – Chicago, and editor, New Media and Society

Superconnected is on its way!

It takes a long time  to birth an academic book, especially one that’s research-packed. But after several years (and not too many tears), I’m proud to announce that Superconnected: The Internet, Digital Media, and Techno-Social Life will be published by Sage in early March 2016.

Superconnected is a truly interdisciplinary primer on living in a digital society. I bring together research from sociology, communication, psychology, information science, media studies, and other relevant fields, to take a look at digital life and connectedness from a number of points of view. The  books begins with the important insight that just because the title of the book is Superconnected, we shouldn’t assume that the whole world is digitally connected. There are places in the world, such as much of southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, in which internet access, computers, and even electricity
are seriously scarce. About a quarter of the world’s population does not have
regular access to electricity, and although cell phones have penetrated the
developing world to a much greater extent than computers, they are used in
much more limited ways than they are in more technologically developed
areas, and owners are often hindered by inconsistent internet access, unreliable
service, and the inability to regularly charge their phones.

Still, for much of the developed world, digital connectivity impacts nearly every aspect of our day-to-day lives. From our individuals selves and identities, to our relationships and communities, to the social institutions that circumscribe our societies (family, work, government, education, religion, health care, the media), the internet and digital, social, and mobile technology have had a transformative impact. I’m looking forward to sharing these and many of the other dimensions and implications of superconnectedness in the book and on this blog, and I invite you to take a look at it on the Sage Publications website



Live-tweeting in the classroom…with a guest speaker-tweeter

One of the aspects of techno-social life that I’ll be looking at closely in my forthcoming book Superconnected: The Internet, Digital Media and Techno-Social Life is the reality of the online experience. To explore this issue in the classroom, I invited Nathan Jurgenson of the cyborgology blog to tweet “live” with my “Mediated Communication in Society” class, billing him as a special guest speaker tweeter! Here I describe what I did, why I did it, how I did it — and what happened, much of it unexpected, as a result.

I’m a big believer in using social media in the classroom, especially Twitter, as appropriate. Students generally seem to spark to it, entering willingly, even eagerly, into conversations and collaborations that often continue well after class is over. We discuss relevant topics in the timeliest of ways, posting to our class hashtag links to articles and info that we think will interest one another as soon as we come across them, day or night. Outsiders, including authors of course texts, sometimes jump into these convos, allowing us to get to know them and their ideas personally and more expansively. At some point, the time/space/personnel boundaries of the classroom fall away. The “classroom” is always open and class (i.e. learning) can take place at anyone’s desire, whim, or convenience.

My Mediated Communication class (Rutgers University, Fall 2012) has taken this premise even further. Anticipating that my students might be intrigued by his work exploring online and offline “reality” (see, for example, Digital Dualism and Augmentented Reality, The Facebook Eye, and The IRL Fetish), I asked Nathan Jurgenson if he would join our class on Twitter sometime during the semester. I had considered other modes of bringing him to class — in-person guest lecture, via Skype, etc. But, for me, the opportunity to examine the content AND form of a socially mediated reality, simultaneously, in a class predicated on the study of mediated communication, was too rich to pass up.

I proposed that we spend an hour or so live-tweeting with him. The class would be gathered physically in the classroom and he would join in from his own remote location. Afterward, the students and I would review and reflect on the experience fairly thoroughly – our engagement with Nathan and his ideas, our engagement with one another, what we learned, what we didn’t, and why. My goal was to wring as much as possible, intellectually and socially, from the exercise.

With Nathan on board, I planned and structured the event. I scheduled it for the seventh week of the semester; just past midterms — a good time to focus closely on a set of issues already identified as important. In the week prior to the live-tweet session, the students read the articles of Nathan’s linked to above, plus a selection of critiques of “The IRL Fetish” (Nicholas Carr’s The Line Between Online and Offline, Jenna Wortham’s The End of the Online World As We Know It?L.M. Sacasas’ In Search of the Real, and Alan Jacobs’ What It Means To See The World With An Eye Toward a Facebook Update). Students wrote responses to these articles on our internal course blog and discussion forum. We talked about them in the classroom. Finally, I asked students to narrow their concerns to a single question that they would ask Nathan during the live-tweet session and to a comment or two that they could post to the class hashtag to get the discussion started in the days immediately preceding Nathan’s appearance.

I looked over the students’ questions, making a few suggestions to improve clarity and avoid redundancy, but generally allowing them to ask him whatever they wanted, including about other topics beyond digital dualism and reality. I described how I envisioned the session proceeding: each student (there are 25) would get to ask at least one question of Nathan, which could be the one they’d pre-planned or one that arose organically during the chat. Follow-up questions would be encouraged and students could “jump in” on one another’s conversations with Nathan in traditional Twitter cross-talk fashion.

The weekend before Nathan’s online visit, conversation began to heat up on the hashtag:

With conversation still humming on the hashtag, the date for the live-tweet arrived. In the classroom, we got ourselves organized. I divided the class into quadrants of six or so students, each of which could take “center stage” with Nathan for about fifteen minutes of the hour. Within each group, students were to ask Nathan questions more or less one at a time, though it didn’t always work out that neatly (and when it didn’t, Nathan handled the barrage with calm fluidity). Students were permitted and encouraged to join whatever active Twitter conversations Nathan was attending to as they wished, but not to carry on separate side convos, which surely would have turned the exercise into a 25-ring circus. All were to stay engaged with Nathan’s current convos and to be prepared to ask him a question when it was their turn.

When Nathan arrived online, the energy in the classroom elevated considerably. Several questions provoked immediate interest, and we were off:

We discussed the augmentation of reality…

…the online self…

…tech addiction…


…online dating…

…even how to be a more effective student.

I allowed these Twitter convos to unfold without my participation, figuring that students get more than enough of me during every other class. Instead, I acted mostly as traffic cop, keeping things moving, giving equal time to each quadrant, calling on people when necessary to make sure they got their turn and calling for a halt to new questions when too many were already in the queue. However, about twenty minutes in, something unexpected began to happen.

As the online conversations became deeper, more thought-provoking, and occasionally quite funny, I saw students begin to laugh and talk among themselves about Nathan’s ideas AND about the experience they were taking part in. These were not disruptive conversations, but respectful little sidebars that began to operate as a kind of face-to-face backchannel to the main online event. I had not predicted that something like this would happen — in fact, I had told students that they could bring ear buds to class and listen to music during what I assumed would be the quietest of all class sessions. Yet before long few if any students had their ear buds in. They seemed to want to exchange glances, gestures, and eventually words and laughter, and as they did, so did I. We were communicating both online and face-to-face, with each mode adding something to the other. I couldn’t wait to contact Nathan later to tell him that all this had been going on.

Online community, networks, and participatory culture are major concepts in this course. In this single class session we took a leap toward absorbing and internalizing these ideas and even creating such a culture ourselves. Later, I asked students to reflect on the experience. One or two students shared that they had felt a bit overloaded by the constant rush of information during the session (as I daresay many live guest-tweeters would be), though they persevered impressively and maintained that they were glad that they had taken part in it nonetheless. Nearly all students described a heightened sense of engagement with the material, with one another, and with Nathan, personally, as well. As I usually do, I had the students detail their reflections on the course blog and on the course Twitter hashtag:

One student who couldn’t attend class that day joined in from home, and discovered that

And another of our course’s authors, Evan Selinger, peeked in on the proceedings, tweeted about them, and returned to our hashtag to interact with students later in the semester:

Though the class’s sense of engagement, of learning, was palpable, I should note some important caveats. Even if I had sufficient guest-tweeters to call upon, I would not do this often during any given semester. It requires substantial course time and resources to set up, plan, run, and debrief, and I think the exercise would lose its punch and power if done too often. I also do not think this session would have worked as well with a less dextrous and personable guest-tweeter, with less provocative ideas being exchanged, and with a class that was not “into” Twitter.

I always survey each of my classes at the start to determine the level of interest and willingness of the students to use social media for class-related activities. I offer students an opportunity to opt out of social media use, to use pseudonyms online, and I require those that wish to use it to abide by a strict set of social media use policies which we discuss at great length (and which I am happy to share). I also teach all my students, ad infinitum, ad nauseum I’m sure, to use social media responsibly and professionally. In this particular class, every single student indicated from the start a willingness to use social media in the classroom, including Twitter, in new and creative ways, and to learn unfamiliar social media platforms, such as Storify, for class projects. This freed me up to imagine how to best and most productively use these media without having to worry about leaving a student behind. I’m not sure I would have proceeded with this exercise had I not had such an interested and proficient group – and, of course, such an interesting and proficient special guest-tweeter, for whom doing this had to be a challenge, but who was 100% “game”:

I think we all experienced a little “vertigo” during and after our live-tweet class session with Nathan Jurgenson, but I like to think it was well worth it. The students got all kinds of insights into critical course themes and concepts, formed connections with one another and with an early-career professional who was giving them real insight into the ways that they live, and gained a truly “hands on” perspective on mediated communication.They understood that they were participating in and helping to develop a brand new way of learning, too, and to a person they seemed to think that that was pretty cool:

But my favorite outcome was the way the face-to-face “backchannel,” and the class as a community, began, during this event, to coalesce. I can even pinpoint the moment it happened: It was when Nathan responded to a query about how he was handling the barrage of questions:

We laughed loudly in the classroom then, in collective acknowledgement both of Nathan’s wit and the ambitiousness of the learning event that we were engaged in, and creating, together.