Chapter 4 and Podcast 4 from Superconnected

This chapter takes a closer look at how information is shared in a superconnected society, and the impact of widespread sharing on the way we live and create and shop and take ownership of things — even our own privacy. It includes sections on crowdsourcing, which is when a group, instead of an individual, takes on a task, the ownership of online content, and the way that power is wielded in digital spaces. Both vertical (or asymmetrical) and horizontal (or social) surveillance are explored. And the interesting phenomenon on “liking” and “following” others online is given close scrutiny.

 

 

In a very real way, we are taking part in an economy when we are online — an economy predicated not solely on finances but on attention, or what’s sometimes called “eyeballs.” In this attention economy, “attention is the real currency of businesses and individuals,” business and management professors Thomas Davenport and John Beck explain (2001:3). In an atmosphere in which attention is relatively scarce and much desired, attention can take on some of the attributes of a monetary instrument. “Those who don’t have it want it,” Davenport and Beck continue. “Even those who have it want more…People work to preserve and extend what they already have” (2001:3).

Online attention can take the shape of a simple glance at a photo or a more active step: a “like,” a follow, a share, a comment. But attention is also a two-way street. In exchange for accumulating “likes” and “follows,” it is generally expected that one will like and follow in return, though not necessarily in an even one-to-one exchange. It has become social media etiquette to provide attention to others in exchange for their attention, and to prove that you have done so by liking, favoriting, retweeting, or following the other account. Such “proof” that one has the attention of others can be measured in the number of likes or comments a post receives on Facebook, or in the number of retweets or followers attracted on Twitter, etc. When relationships transacted on social media prove to be one-way, or lack reciprocity, un-friending or unfollowing can result.

This is, indeed, a kind of economic system. Attention is attracted as something shared is acknowledged online. A kind of compensation follows in the form of likes and follows and comments. More tangible rewards like social connections, jobs, and money can even follow. Other rewards are intangible but can be profound in their impact – approval, confidence, happiness, the feeling that one is special or even loved — or, conversely, hurt, ignored, rejected, or left out. That deeply human needs and desires can be met in digital environments is another reason for the growth and popularity of the internet and digital media, and especially social media.

Attention online is subject to “increasing returns.” That is, the more one has of it, the easier it is to get more. The most well-known celebrities attract attention no matter what they do; in fact, they are followed by photographers called “paparazzi.” There is an appetite or market for information about them and thus more and more such information is generated all the time. They continually receive attention (and “likes” and “follows”) almost no matter what they do. To succeed in such an economy, it helps to create or remix attention-getting content and then to rapidly capitalize on bursts of attention as soon as they occur. This is why one can see the same attention-getting topics covered repeatedly, over and over and over again, in the mass and digital media.

It is difficult to avoid becoming embedded in a cycle of liking and being liked, following and being followed, etc., in the digital attention economy, because to have others pay attention to us, and for us to form connections as a result, is a very human need and desire. When someone pays attention to us, we feel noticed, and we feel alive. As we see so often throughout Superconnected, it is often deeply-felt human longings and needs that are at the heart of digital activities.

 

Chapter 3 and Podcast 3 from Superconnected

This is one of the most original of the chapters in Superconnected. Many of the book’s chapters report how research in fields from sociology and psychology to communication, media studies, and information science can come together to explain how the digital world operates. While this chapter does that too, it features my own research on how people experience the digital. This is a line of research in which I specialize.

First, the chapter provides some background for the concept of the sociomental — the way in which spaces and bonds can be interpersonal and social yet be “housed” firmly in the mind. It examines various ways that digital “space” can be conceptualized, including the “community” and the “network,” and explains how digital environments are created and experienced as completely real, intersecting reading with the face-to-face, as described in this podcast.

In my own qualitative research, I interviewed over 200 people on the experience of being online — what it feels like, what it “does” for them. I found that is common for time spent online to have an intimate, emotionally rich dynamic. Intimacies and emotions are exchanged profusely and nearly instantaneously online. In fact, they serve as a kind of “glue” for the relationships that form there. This “emotional glue” is especially important in the absence of the “physical glue” that face-to-face interaction can provide.

Digital environments and the experiences created in them can be extremely, perhaps surprisingly, intimate. As social creatures who desire interpersonal closeness, human beings are highly creative in finding and forging intimacy, including in digital settings. While a wide variety of types of relationships can form online, spanning the spectrum of human intimacy, even the most fleeting of relationships can be highly intimate when those involved disclose a great deal about themselves and feel that they have come to understand much about the other person as well. It is this kind of personal disclosure and understanding, and the positive progression of a relationship (even if it does not turn out to be especially long term) that render it intimate and meaningful. As offline, short-term relationships can still be highly durable.

The human need and desire to form intimate relationships is so strong that it happens all the time online, often without great difficulty. Mobile and social media play a big part in this. Since many people take cell phones with them wherever they go, they can use small bits of time to check in on others and/or provide updates, whether by Facebook or Twitter or some other social media platform. Interestingly, this is how intimacy tends to develop face-to-face as well – in the small, everyday moments of connection as much as in grand gestures and experiences. And with a device with which to connect and network always at one’s side, it has never been easier to remain in constant contact with others, even a large number of others, and to find that intimacy has developed, sometimes quite unexpectedly and swiftly.

The emotions that arise in digital environments are those that sociality inspires in all of its forms. Feelings of warmth, belonging, intimacy, even excitement are commonly generated online. Fear, anger, and disgust are elicited as well. A surge of emotion often arises when two or more people feel that they “click,” whether online or offline

I have termed these emotional surges “the rush of human engagement” because they are generated in and by the human engagement so often sought and found online. In my research many described it exactly that way — as a “charge” or a “rush.” People told me of crying real tears when learning of a tragedy online, experiencing a surge of excitement upon getting good news or receiving just the right text at the right time, becoming angered or enraged when someone places a negative comment on one’s blog, or becoming downright giddy when an online exchange becomes flirtatious or romantic. These waves of emotion can provide “a rush that I really can’t explain,” as one online connector described it to me.

This “rush” of excitement can be similar to the rush one gets from drugs, sex, gambling, chocolate, and other things that activate the pleasure centers in the brain. As this woman whom I interviewed told me, “Sometimes when I get back to my room I just move the mouse and go to my favorite site and check my profile, and it’s like someone has left me gold or something!”

These feelings can be so strong and satisfying that to obtain them is often central to people’s desire to use digital technology, and social media in particular.

Chapter 2 and Podcast 2 from Superconnected

Chapter 2 of Superconnected provides a brief history of communication technology, the internet, wireless connecting, social networking and social media sites. It focuses on how users and their worlds are impacted and changed when they use these social technologies.

 

Social networking is a major concept in this chapter. I trace a bit of its history and discuss its relevance to our lives today. A bunch of individuals (or groups, or organizations) can be said to be networked when they are connected or tied together such that they have some relationship to and influence over one another. To consider them networked is to be able to trace and chart the many ways, some subtle and even invisible, that this takes place.

Online social networking is often described as one of the most recent applications of the internet and the web, but it actually pre-dates both. The first computerized interpersonal social networks arrived in the mid-1970s. They had great historical significance in terms of facilitating the exchange of messages among physically separated people, and there was an incredible sense of excitement that accompanied their use in those early years. The feeling of being part of a grand social experiment, a pioneer on a brand new frontier, was frequently invoked among those developing this new kind of social interaction in those not-so-distant times. They seemed to sense, correctly, that they were at the vanguard of a revolutionary form of sociality.

1970s systems that allowed people to become networked together included EIES (Electronic Information Exchange System), a teleconferencing network that included very early versions of online educational courses; Community Memory, which used hardwired terminals in various neighborhoods near Berkeley, CA to allow people to submit and respond to questions; PLATO, developed at the University of Illinois, which allowed people to share “notes” (at first education-oriented), play games, chat, and network, and eventually spread these messages around the world; and the Computerized Bulletin Board System, originating in Chicago intended from the start to be accessible to the larger public through dial-up access. In these early days, it could take days or even weeks for a response to appear!

In the 1980s, larger, more broad-based networks that allowed for widespread discussions, like Usenet and the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), began to attract devoted followings. Their spirit — the idea that the internet could be highly social – began to permeate the common consciousness.

These early networking systems were important not only because the technology that would connect people online was proving to work but, very importantly, because of the strong and real sense of community that was invariably the by-product whenever they were established. Those who communicated via these online networks very often came to feel bonded — like members of a community or “club” in which they were genuinely, often deeply, engaged. It was, for sure, a new way to initiate sociality. Early pioneers on what John Perry Barlow called the “electronic frontier” were showing everyone else that time spent online could come to have a social, communal quality that was real and meaningful. Soon, this quality would practically be synonymous with the internet.

Chapter 1 and Podcast 1 from Superconnected

Chapter 1 of Superconnected introduces the reader to key concepts and understandings regarding the techno-social nature of our everyday lives. Here’s the podcast associated with the chapter (it’s also on the Podcasts page), and some thoughts on these issues, below.

 

 

 

Human beings are inherently social. That is, we gravitate toward one another to fulfill many of our needs, including safety, shelter, sustenance, companionship, and love.  Left to our own devices, cut off from one another, we would be underdeveloped intellectually and emotionally. We would be much more vulnerable to danger. The world is better faced in the company of others.

People’s tendency to form connections and bonds with one another, and to live life to a great extent in concert with others, is called sociality, and a great deal of this can be accomplished via digital technology. To form social ties and bonds, people must coordinate their actions, and even their thoughts and emotions, with others. To do this, they must locate and get to know one another and determine the extent to which interpersonal similarities, commonalities, and synergies exist. And it is not necessary to be physically face-to-face with another person for all of this to occur.

As technology mediates between and among people, it facilitates the flow of information from person to person and from network to network. This allows people to discover the kinds of commonalities that can inspire social connectedness. Contrary to what some assume, the use of internet, digital, and mobile technologies do not tend to deter face-to-face interaction. Rather, they prompt face-to-face interaction, making it more likely to occur. This is a consistent finding, backed up by study after study, that seems counter-intuitive to some. But it is a key fact in the study of techno-social life.

By enabling more and more people to form and maintain social connections, and even to make dates to get together physically, the use of digital technology has had an overall positive impact on sociality. Some people get to know others better when their contact with them is primarily digital as opposed to face-to-face. Distance can enhance closeness. Mobile media use allows contact and connectedness to made nearly any time, any place; people can be available to one another much of the time and engage in frequent interactions that make the relationship hardier and more likely to be continued face-to-face.

Moreover, those who use the internet and digital media most often are those who stay in closest contact with their friends face-to-face. They use the technology to check in on friends and family members and post updates so all can remain “in the know.” They use the tech to arrange get-togethers. They are more likely to have close relationships and confidants, and to form local, neighborhood relationships, than non-internet users, too. The internet and digital media use make it much easier to make and maintain social contacts and relationships, both online and offline. At the same time, significant risks and dangers exist online, as in every interpersonal setting.

Given the human desire and need for togetherness, and the ability of technology to serve as an interpersonal mediator, it makes sense that people would turn to technology to bring them together so they can experience sociality, even (or especially) when they are separated by space and time. Doing so has become a routine use of the internet and digital media and explains much about the tremendous expansion and popularity of these technologies.  Accordingly, individuals in technology-rich communities and societies tend to live techno-social lives.

Superconnected from the Start

If you’ve adopted Superconnected for your fall course on internet and/or digital impacts — thank you! If not, and you’d like to consider it for an upcoming semester, you can check it out for free on the Sage Publications site. You’ll find sample chapters and a link to request a free review copy: https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/superconnected-the-internet-digital-media-and-techno-social-life/book239425.

I’d also encourage you to check out the podcasts on the “Podcasts” page, above. They each contain an overview of the chapter and a representative excerpt. They would be great to assign to students as supplementary chapter material, and may help the text come alive in a new way. You can tell students that I am a professional radio announcer and recorded the podcasts in a studio, and that my career in radio explains a lot about my fascination with social bonding via media.

When I was a full-time radio announcer during and just after college, I noticed a fascinating phenomenon. I felt deeply connected to my listeners. And when they called in to make a song request over the phone, or I met them at a concert or event, I could tell that many of them felt the same way. I felt that we had created a community that mattered to us, even if some or most of us had never met face-to-face and likely never would.

Years later, I decided to shift my focus from radio to higher education, but I never forgot the strength and power of these media-facilitated relationships and communities. I knew that physical co-presence was not sufficient, or in many cases even necessary, to initiate and maintain what I was beginning to call “communities of the mind.” And when a new thing called the internet started making inroads into every facet of our lives, I had a feeling that the phenomenon would translate to the online, digital world.

I was right.

They say timing is everything. Becoming a sociologist and a researcher at the time when the internet began exploding in popularity was the most fortuitous timing imaginable. Intrigued by the experiences people were having online, and sensing that many of these experiences would be real, relational, communal,  and highly consequential, great research opportunities — and my whole career, really — followed.

And almost everything I’ve learned along the way is reflected in the multidisciplinary, broad-based, foundational nature of Superconnected.

If you do choose to check it out, I hope you (and your students) enjoy it! I wrote it, mostly, for them — for my own students and for my own children. Click around this blog and feel free to share the podcasts and posts with students or others. And please let me know how it’s received!

 

 

Terrorism, social connectedness, and the open internet

With the expansion of ways for people to communicate, spread information, and connect on the internet and social media has come a rise in the ability of people to cross digital boundaries, for good and for harm.

Nations, organizations, and all kinds of entities have digital as well as physical borders —  systems intended to provide access to one another in a group and to regulate its access to others. The open architecture of the internet has rendered digital borders relatively open and permeable even as we debate the level of permeability of physical borders. To be sure, it is a challenge to maintain boundaries, to keep outsiders from intruding, and prevent the often quite serious problems that can arise in an open system. When terrorism strikes, we often hear calls to close borders altogether.

In a time of heightened fear and polarizing rhetoric, it is important to keep in mind that the internet and social media are key elements both of terrorist radicalization and of efforts to gather intelligence against those same groups. In some cases, the same message boards that enemy groups use to amass resources are used to gather evidence against them. Digital spaces can be used for good or for ill, sometimes simultaneously.

Certainly, when digital spaces are used to harm, or are hacked into with information is re-routed or re-purposed (or destroyed or made unintelligible, as by a computer virus), the results can be devastating. Individual lives as well as critical information systems can be destroyed. Monetary systems, power grids, websites, personal information, and basically anything that is gathered, organized, and stored via computer can be affected when digital security is compromised. These computer crimes should and must be prosecuted.

Large-scale cyberattacks can take two forms: information attacks and infrastructure attacks. In the former, personal information can be retrieved, made public, and used to harm or embarrass or generate fear. In the latter, critical services can be disabled. Messages can be sent out under the ISP name of another organization, websites can be defaced, money and information can be stolen, sabotage can take place, threats can be made. Large data breaches, such as that in which the personal information of 83 million J.P. Morgan Chase customers was stolen in 2014, are becoming more common. Sony Pictures’ computers were hacked in 2014, which resulted in numerous leaks of data and included a threat of even larger-scale disruption attached to the release of the movie “The Interview,” which was temporarily shelved. In 2015, international hackers stole as much as a billion dollars from over 100 banks in 30 countries. Nearly all the major internet companies have experienced large-scale hacking. Such incidents are not only becoming more common, but their reach and impact is expanding, often across international borders. To guard against these attacks as best as possible, companies must make serious and often expensive cybersecurity investments.

Some politically motivated attacks rise to the level of cyberwarfare. These can include attacks on populations, such as the sabotage of water, health communications, transportation, the electric power grid, military systems, financial systems and the stock market. Terrorist operations now routinely coordinate their efforts via the internet, digital media, and mobile phones, even using mobile phones to detonate bombs. A nation or group’s ability to launch a cyberattack can be seen as “a continuation of a high-tech arms race that has been going on since the invention of gunpowder,” says sociologist Rudi Volti. Cyber defense is now a critical component of government operations.

The openness of the internet, however, is critical to its functioning and central to its very identity. It was preserved through each iteration and innovation that allowed it to develop as a global system of communication and connectedness. Each link in the network stands on its own; the larger network does rely on any one portion for it to work. If state or commercial  forces were to wrest control of the internet, freedom of speech, the exchange of information, and digital literacy would sharply diminish, and existing social divides (socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, national) would deepen.

An open society can never be perfectly secure. Liberty and safety exist in a necessary, if at times frightening, tension. The internet and digital and social media exist at the intersection — powerfully, profoundly connecting us, in all the terrible and glorious ways that intricate social connectedness has always wrought.

There’s much more on terrorism, crime, the internet, and social connectedness in Chapter 5 of Superconnected.

 

 

 

My interview on Magic 98.3 FM’s ‘@ Central Jersey’

I went back to my roots last week. Twenty years ago I worked as a radio announcer (disc jockey and news) on, among other radio stations, WMGQ-FM (“Magic 98.3”) in Central New Jersey. So it felt a lot like homecoming to be interviewed on the station by the renowned journalist Maggie Glynn for her Sunday morning program “@ Central Jersey.”

Maggie and I had a terrific time exploring all kinds of topics relating to the impact of digital technology, and social media in particular, on people’s everyday lives. We talked about surveillance and security, the changing nature of family life, and the relative permanence of the digital footprint in the digital era. I talked about digital communities, the power of networking (including what Wellman and Rainie call “networked individualism”), and how my research was inspired by my years in radio and the bonds I felt I had formed with my listeners. For me, at least, the half hour flew by!

If you’d like to listen to all or part of the interview, the link is right here.

Thanks, Maggie Glynn, for an interview that was part “research promotion” and part “trip down memory lane.” Any time work and fun collide like that, I’m in!