Second Edition of Superconnected!

I’m excited to announce that I’m working on a second edition of Superconnected! It will contain new sections on accuracy, misinformation and “fake news”; the “dark web” and the “deep web”‘ and the machine-human connection. I’m also updating all data and statistics and including dozens of new research findings and examples.

I’ll also be adding lots of new content on this blog in conjunction with the second edition, including lecture slides and discussion questions for each chapter.

If you have a suggestion for a new or revised topic that should be included in the second edition, I’d love to hear from you at mary.chayko@rutgers.edu!

The new second edition of Superconnected should be out in early 2018, in time for course adoption in Fall 2018. I’m also getting great feedback from general, non-scholarly audiences.

Till then, feel free to grab the first edition!

Chapter 10 and Podcast 10 from Superconnected

This chapter looks at the future — or, more accurately, the possible future — of living in a world in which digital connectedness is so prevalent.

 

 

The rise and proliferation of the internet, digital media, and ICTs represent the potential for individuals to live richer lives, but also those that are more closely scrutinized and surveilled. As we have seen, the harnessing of collective knowledge and superconnectedness yields infinite possibilities, but the outcomes are unclear, unsure. There are infinite possibilities, which can be daunting and overwhelming or exciting and freeing.

Upcoming generations of digital connectors will likely find digitality in and of itself to be neither daunting nor confusing. Children and young adults growing up in a technology-rich environment have several advantages: comfort and practice in interacting and building social worlds online; agility in moving among online and offline spheres; considering as default that which occurs in digital spaces to be very much “real.” They tend not to have a problem seeing the online and offline as enmeshed. Soon, children in tech-rich communities and societies will have always known a world in which it was so. When that time arrives, what will be lost? What will be gained?

Individuals will always be challenged to create cohesive identities and communities and to understand the workings of both. In the modern technological world, people are, and will remain, superconnected. The thoughtful, strategic, shrewd use of the internet and digital technology can help people better manage their techno-social lives and create a future filled with rich, diverse experiences.  To do this, they – we — must become and remain educated and literate about techno-social life.

The internet and digital media provide countless opportunities for involvement in the process of making and shaping and critiquing and improving technology, the world around us, and our own lives. Passive consumption of technology and of changes that have been decreed by others inevitably leads to feelings of weakness and hopelessness. Individuals need to feel some control over their lives, and democracies require that people have a voice and control. If we outsource technological expertise and decision-making to others, we give them control over all the aspects of techno-social life discussed in this book. We give others control over our lives.

So I invite you again, as I did when we began our exploration of techno-social life in Chapter 1, to take its lessons and explore those issues most relevant to your life and to those whom you care about. Network. Speak. Create. Remix. Act. Use the technologies at your disposal, and those to come — including those that you, yourself, make — to shape the kind of world you want to live in. Connect with others who believe as you do. Use the internet, digital media, and face-to-face gatherings, in combination, to build and sustain those connections. With curiosity, creativity, and a critical mind  – all of which I hope this book has helped you to develop — there are almost no limits to the journey you can take and the difference you can make in your own, superconnected, techno-social life. 

 

 

Chapter 9 and Podcast 9 from Superconnected

In this chapter, a number of the benefits and downsides of superconnectedness are explored: our constant availability to one another, the convenience of the tech, fun and play and entertainment, multitasking and the attention span, stress and information overload (including FOMO), emergencies, dependency and addiction, and health and moods. In the end, I conclude that one of the subtlest influences of living in a tech-rich society is, simply, the feeling of being “plugged in” — not just to one another, but to society.

 

 

Human beings need to feel at home in the world. We need to feel that the world will not change too dramatically, too suddenly, too unexpectedly. Even the most solitary among us need to feel “plugged in” to the world around us. For humans are social animals and cannot develop mentally, emotionally, or physically if they do not have regular sources of interaction and a sense of connection to and understanding of the world around them.

Being “plugged in” can be a satisfying, rewarding feeling. It can also an ongoing challenge, as contexts collapse and multiple audiences must be attended to and selves are constructed in these complex visible spaces. But most importantly, being “plugged in” can provide us on a very deep level with the comforting feeling that we are not alone. Some people assume that internet and digital media use “makes” us feel more alone. But the research does not bear this out. The research, including much that I conducted myself, overwhelmingly indicates that internet and digital media use help people feel and be more connected with others. This includes connections that strong and those that are weak – and those that eventually migrate offline, along with those that do not.

But even in a more general and diffused sense, people feel that they are part of a larger whole when they go online. Spending time in online “hangouts,” playing games or visiting social media sites, or simply emailing in a friend or colleague, we are reminded of the huge net of people that surround us all.  “Just as the individual’s deprivation of relationship with his significant others will plunge him into anomie,” sociologists Peter Berger and Hansfried Kellner explain, “so their continued presence will sustain for him that nomos by which he can feel at home in the world” (1964:7, emphasis added). To sense, even vaguely, the continued presence of others in the world and one’s connectedness with them helps people feel more securely rooted in the world around them and provides a deep and real feeling of societal continuity.

All of us desire what sociological theorist Anthony Giddens called ontological security – “the confidence or trust that the natural and social worlds are as they appear to be” (1984:375). A world that were to experience constant disruption, its sands shifting constantly beneath our feet, would be too difficult to bear. We require some kind of continuity and sameness from day to day. Taking part in techno-social life online can provide this kind of constancy, for it (and at least some others with whom we are connected) is always, dependably, there. It is a kind of gift that a tightly connected society gives to its members — the means to feel plugged in, superconnected, part of a whole.

This sense of continuity and security persists even when we are offline. We do not need to check our phones constantly to know that friends and family are out there and that our connections and networks and communities, for the most part, persist. To be sure, it is highly satisfying to check in with friends and family nonetheless; to feel their presence and the sense of security that, ideally, they confer. This is something people want to experience and verify regularly. But in a very real way, we carry these others with us wherever we go, making ontological security in the modern technological age truly a portable, mobile phenomenon. As Kate Fox said in the quote on the first page of this chapter, “Carrying your social support network in your pocket, you’ll never walk alone” (2001).

“Carrying” others with us, mentally, when we are not physically together, predates online connectedness. We have always been able to think about and retain memories of other people in our minds (see Chayko 2002 for many examples of this). We do not need to be literally plugged in, connected by technology, to feel connected. But technology – and remember, technology can be understood broadly to indicate a wide range of tools and techniques and means of connecting people – allows us to facilitate and reinforce these feelings at any time. It connects us to one another and to the networks and communities in which we are a part. It allows us to become superconnected.

Chapter 8 and Podcast 8 from Superconnected

We say that something is an institution when it is foundational, functional, long-lasting, large-scale, systemic. It has been around a long time and it seems like it may always be. Social institutions provide a society with structure and order and give its members a framework within which to make their social connections and communities. They are so critical to helping a society (and its members) function that all societies “contain” some social institutions; mostly, the very same ones that we examine in this chapter: the family, business and the workplace, health care, religion, education, politics and governing, the criminal justice system, and the media. And each of these has been strongly influenced by technological developments over time, with the internet and digital media in particular playing a very strong role, which I why I call them the techno-social institutions.

 

 

 

This brief excerpt from the book focuses on the rapidly changing institution of “the media.”  The mass media, which include print media like newspapers, magazines, and books and electronic media like television, radio, and movies, are increasingly thought of, collectively, as constituting a social institution. In recent years, the internet and digital media have begun to be included among the mass media when the role of the media as a social institution is included.

While the government exerts substantial control over the mass and digital media in many countries worldwide, in democratic societies, the media institution is considered separate from the institution of governing. It is organized as a market, not a state, system, and is expected to be controlled and staffed by professionals who should seek to be accurate, impartial, and informative. While political power and the media intersect in different ways in different societies, American media and news reporting are often looked to, globally, as an example of the free and independent press. This independence has been compromised, though, by the media’s domination by a small number of conglomerates.

A conglomerate exists when a set of companies that may not necessarily be similar to one another are owned by the same larger company. This has happened with mass and digital media companies across the globe, as most of them have become owned by certain parent companies. In 1996, the Telecommunications Reform Act was passed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), allowing radio and television stations in different regions to be owned by the same company and paving the way for continued deregulation in which a relatively small number of corporations could own more and more media organizations.

At this writing, six corporations in the United States– Disney, Viacom, News Corp/20th Century Fox, Time Warner, Comcast, and CBS – act as conglomerates, controlling 90% of what is read, watched or listened to via the media. As recently as 1983, fifty countries owned the same percentage of television and radio stations, magazines, newspapers, movies studios, and the like. These media conglomerates even own some sports teams and theme parks. It has been estimated that 232 media executives control the information diet of 277 million Americans (that’s one media exec to 850,000 subscribers (Lutz 2012). In other countries, there is a similar concentration of the media in different corporations or, in some cases, political parties.

This concentrated consolidation of media ownership is often critiqued as detrimental to the free and open exchange of information so important to a democracy.  The potential exists for fewer points of view to be expressed as the dominant corporation sets standards of tone and content. It is also important to keep in mind that many media organizations are for-profit ones, with their main objective to make money, rather than to educate or to serve the public interest. Dominant points of view may not be contested and censorship can result as these corporations favor special interests and profits over newsworthiness. The quality and diversity of the information that is shared becomes, in effect, sacrificed for standardization, a charge often made in a globalized culture.

Journalism and and news dissemination have changed dramatically with the advent of the internet and digital technology, especially social media. Journalists and news organizations today work within a 24/7 news cycle. That is, they are expected to provide newsworthy information to a public around the clock. 24-hour cable news networks and online news sites are examples of this. While all-news radio stations have existed for decades, this relatively recent innovation in television (the first all-news cable network was CNN in 1980), transformed the process of news gathering and dissemination, since much more product is required to fill that much time and space. It is also endemic upon media outlets to entice viewers and readers to their product, as many of them are profit-making organizations that need audiences to survive.

In addition, the dissemination of news, once solely the task of journalistic entities, now increasingly takes place by people without journalistic training, resulting in the proliferation of media aggregation sites and even less formal information-oriented blogs. It can be quite difficult to ascertain the source and credibility of the information  found in these varied digital spaces. And as recently as 2012, nearly as many U.S. consumers have followed the news on such sites (29%) as on traditional news outlets (36%) Only about 10% of Americans turn to social media as their primary or sole news source, however (Mitchell, Rosensteil, and Christian 2012).

While many consumers of aggregated news appreciate the ease and convenience of obtaining a variety of sources of information in one place, the practice can be seen as exploitation – even theft — of the original work of others. It has also weakened traditional journalistic organizations and the industry as a while. In 2011, hundreds of U.S. newspapers ceased publication, while news aggregators were on the rise. Media diversity has been reduced, and misinformation can be easily amplified.

Digital and mass media have begun to assume some of the functions that other institutions have traditionally met. Via the media, people become educated, practice their religions, amass health and fitness information, elect candidates, follow and influence and become influenced by the practices of politicians and governments, and come together as families. These media are, therefore, a primary way that people learn about and come to understand how each of the other social institutions operate. And as we have seen in the U.S. presidential election of 2016 and the social media- (and Twitter-) fueled rise of Donald Trump, it is a powerful one indeed.

Chapter 7 and Podcast 7 from Superconnected

Students are telling me that chapter 7 is their favorite in Superconnected. I guess that’s to be expected: it’s the one focusing on relationships, and that means friendship, dating, flirting, sex, and other things that make life fun. As the book does at every turn, though, it looks at the downside of such things along with the upside: the conflicts and problems that interpersonal relationships bring to our lives. Keeping in mind that digital relationships are not necessarily bound by some of the limitations inherent in the physical world, this chapter also looks at their lifespan — their ability to transcend physical life and death.

 

 

Social connections and relationships often outlast and outlive the physical. This has always been the case. In hearing stories of people who lived before us (such as ancestors or historical figures), or seeing photos or videos, we can feel a connection to them. In my research, which is excerpted throughout the book, many of the people I interviewed told me of deep connections with long-deceased family members, some of whom they’d never met, as in:

 

My great-grandmother – there’s a giant picture of her in my mom’s house. Everyone’s always telling me we look alike and that I’ve got some of her traits…I’ve heard a lot of stories about her. And yeah, I feel connected to her.

 

Depicted via video, audio, and photos, individuals can remain visually and cognitively present even after they are physically gone. Digital technologies can increase this sense of presence in unique ways. Holograms provide the illusion of movement through space. Through digital editing, musical duets have been sung with people who have passed away. Images can be spliced into an existing photo or video or movie to make it seem as though people are physically together when they may have been separated by many years. While intellectually it may be understood that someone who has been digitally depicted is no longer alive, the experience can be genuine and resonant and deepen and enhance bonding. The same processes that helps us feel connected to people who live many miles away, then, can help us feel connected to the deceased.

The dead also live on on the internet and in social media. While individuals were once sequestered in funeral parlors and gravesites after their deaths, social media and digital technologies have helped to reposition death as a more visible, even social, event. Internet and social media platforms enable user profiles to be reworked to form ongoing memorials and to gather publics together as mourners around them (Berlant 2008). Blogs and websites are set up as a repository of photos and testimonials. Funeral homes have created online spaces for memories to be shared.

Those who have died are not only remembered and spoken of but often spoken to on social media, demonstrating the desire to keep the memory of the deceased alive and even the desire to remain in some kind of contact with him or her. Social media sometimes seems to have a kind of “airborne” quality that may encourage the feeling that the deceased can be somehow “reached” across time and space. Though this is obviously a purely emotional response, it can still provide comfort in a very difficult and transitional time. As another of my interviewees related:

 

I witnessed and participated in my first electronic memorial service. People gave loving testimonial after testimonial about how this dear woman had helped them in their time of need, how she touched their lives, how much they would miss her and glad they were that her suffering was over..in spite of the fact that they had never met her! This woman’s impact was legendary and most of the people she helped with her messages of support and love, never knew how ill she really was….I will never forget the impact that memorial service had on me…..as I read the messages on the screen I literally cried. I am not sure who I was crying for — the woman who had died or the people who expressed how wonderful she was and how much she had meant to them.

 

As such a testimony indicates, even those who have never been met face-to-face can be grieved for, and this grief can expressed, via digital technology.

The deceased can be digitally reimagined as an audience with whom one can “interact.” Messages may be directed to those who have passed away, sometimes on memorial sites that persist for many years, even indefinitely. Photos and videos of the deceased are widely shared and spread. Those who may be unwelcome can intrude on the open online memorial; different audiences or contexts can also come into contact, initiating “context collapse” even after death (Marwick and Ellison 2012). Social media, then, can provide a kind of channel by which the dead can remain in physical space and where it can feel like we are encountering them and experiencing a type of interaction with them.

In all these ways, and many more to come, what it means to be present to one another, and in interaction, is changing. Truly, the human lifespan has in effect become digitally expanded.

We see the flexibility, the malleability, of many aspects of social life, throughout Superconnected.

Chapter 6 and Podcast 6 from Superconnected

In this chapter of Superconnected, things get personal. We look at how individuals create and express their individuality, their personalities, their selves. Topics include socialization — the “twin,” simultaneous processes of becoming a member of society and an individual — the performance of the self, growing up online and offline, and the extension of socialization and self-development throughout adulthood and even into older age.

 

 

Of particular concern to me has always been how people approach developing and expressing themselves in situations in which they are socially or personally marginalized or threatened. People are not equally empowered to express aspects of themselves online, however, without fear of harassment or danger. When a person or a group is marginalized or threatened in some way, identity and self development take on new dimensions. It is all too common to see discrimination occur on the basis of such social characteristics as race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, age, physical and intellectual ability, and any of a number of other factors. This happens both online and offline, and can strongly impact an individual’s self-expression.

If the internet offers “a unique opportunity for self-expression,” as psychologist John Bargh and his coauthors claim, “then we would expect a person to use it first and foremost to express those aspects of self that he or she has the strongest need to express” (2002:34).  An individual may form social connections online on the basis of characteristics that are not in the societal mainstream. People with non-dominant backgrounds and  lifestyles can discover unique avenues and spaces for self-expression and connection online that help them deal with offline challenges. They may find friends and communities that give them a feeling of safety  or even use the technology to share information they might otherwise be reticent to share.

At the same time, we must keep in mind that low-income and non-dominant individuals, particularly youth, are at increased risk for harm and harassment in public and private spaces, online and off. They are frequently surveilled by adults, peers, and institutions. They seek spaces that afford freedom of expression, interest-based communities, and privacy. When online, they may actively resist the ways mobile and social media are intended to be used and configured and may create their own norms and carve out spaces in which they can feel comfortable; spaces that can be considered their own. Of course, spatially separated members of dangerous or destructive groups can also use digital technology to find one another, gather digitally and physically, and cause harm; certainly we see this with ISIS and other terrorist groups.

But those who have been targeted or harmed due to socially marginalized aspects of their identities can also use the same digital technologies to find one another, rally, and support one another. In the process, their group identities can be bolstered and their individual identities strengthened and extended into new directions. For those who have experienced such struggles, this can be so supportive as to be life-saving. When sociologist Douglas Schrock and his fellow researchers studied an online support group for transgendered and cross-dressing individuals, they found friendship, joy, and elation. Members had discovered a place where they could connect with one another, feel comfortable and safe, and share their stories with one another. Doing so “was very cleansing,” one participant said. “I was amazed, it was like I broke through a shell… It’s almost like I had come home” (2004:66).

For people who are part of marginalized groups, prejudice and discrimination are an ongoing concern. Diminished societal power offline translates to life online. But in the possibility to reach one another and create communities that may become safe spaces, opportunities to forge solidarity can be found and created. In some cases, barriers to interaction can be lifted, self-expression can be enhanced, and collective organization to improve status and circumstances can be enabled.

Chapter 5 and Podcast 5 from Superconnected

In Chapter 5, processes and implications of the truly global nature of superconnectedness take center stage. It becomes apparent early in the chapter that inequalities within and between large-scale societies are a very big part of the picture. Social stratification and inequality, cultural divides, and the problems of discrimination, war (including cyberwarfare), and hacking are all discussed in this chapter. Some impacts of global digital activity are also presented, including the formation and spread of social movements and activism via social media, and the rise of citizen journalism, which has also influenced the growing problem and awareness of “fake news.”

 

 

Digital technology has made it easy to create websites and stories which have the appearance of credibility but contain fiction, not fact (i.e. “fake news”, though some use that term simply to refer to news with which they disagree.) The use of social media has it made it easy to create and spread information and disinformation. Most anyone can now post content that may be seen as the “news of the day,” not just trained journalists. News and information are now frequently spread by what are being called “citizen journalists, ” who perform some of the tasks that journalists have traditionally done, but without their training.

Citizen journalism can also provide a voice for people in societies in which the mass media are not independent of the state or where freedom of the press is limited. In such areas, citizens have special motivation to use social media to share and stay abreast of the news. In China, for example, where the media are state-controlled, mobile telephony is the least regulated media space, and provides an opportunity for citizens to become informed about, and inform one another about, current events, often using social media .

Non-journalists have most likely not been trained, either in schools or in professional situations, in professional journalistic techniques. They are not, for example. required to obtain multiple credible sources verifying the accuracy of an item before publishing it, and they may not be concerned about the ills of plagiarism. They may not verify the veracity of facts. Professional news organizations have such standards. They are incorrect sometimes, too – they may be in a hurry to be fast (or first) telling a story, relying on sources that may be wrong or absent, or more interested in the attention-getting (and financially lucrative) aspects of the story than the facts. But information provided by professional journalists and news organizations is generally considered to have the edge in accuracy and believability as compared to citizen journalists or bloggers.

Not always, though. The competition for an audience among newsmakers sometimes results in the making of critical errors that soil, if not denigrate, the product itself, which is, to a large extent, the facts – the truth. News outlets may end up getting the facts wrong in a desperate desire to be first with the story. The product then becomes not only the information being conveyed but the reputation of the news outlet itself. A decline in a news organization’s reputation for fairness and accuracy, and perhaps in news broadcasting in general, can benefit the smaller-scale citizen journalist, who can appear to the general public as just as, if not more, trustworthy.

In their crowdsourced coverage of an event, citizen journalists can make unique and important contributions to a story, and can help amplify the voices of those without power or a free press. But the rise and spread of fake news requires all of us to evaluate the credibility of what we read and see on almost a continual basis. One of the best ways to do this is to do a quick check verifying the source of the information you see. Who produced it? What are their credentials? Look for a longstanding media institution with a strong journalistic history, an academic or well-known research institution, or individuals with some experience on the topic, when possible, and keep your antenna up to detect, and treat appropriately, bias in its many forms.