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.

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!