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!

The Superconnected Podcasts

As Superconnected was going to press, I began to think about what else I could produce to help spread the word about the book and provide some extra content and value to readers and adopters. While voicing a video for the program that I direct at Rutgers School of Communication (SC&I), the Digital Communication, Information, and Media minor (here’s that video) — it hit me: why not a series of podcasts?

I truly enjoy teaching, and research, and writing, but deep down, I’m a radio person. I’ve worked at many NJ and NY radio stations, including WHDA, WMGQ, WMTR, and the old, classic, no-longer-with-us WNEW in New York. I’ve been a disc jockey, producer, news reader, and copywriter. I’ve been a voice-over announcer for local and national products and organizations (and now, my own educational programs)! Podcasts seemed a natural outgrowth of that.

I decided on a series of short, informative podcasts, in an attempt to try and keep listeners’ attention! I also decided to record a podcast for each chapter, to enhance it with a short overview of its major themes, some additional information and context, and an excerpt from each.

My first efforts were underwhelming, actually. I wasn’t able to achieve the sound quality I had hoped for by recording them on my computer. The quality was a little disappointing to this radio pro!

As is often the case at my university, it was Rutgers to the rescue. I called colleague Mike Pavlichko, station manager at WRSU, Rutgers’ student-operated radio station, and he graciously offered a studio for me to record in and his expert assistance. That very week, a spent a morning recording the podcasts. It felt great to run a board again to facilitate the recording, and the sound was studio quality — exactly what I’d wanted.

I hope you’ll enjoy spending a few minutes from time to time checking out the podcasts, and/or assigning them to students to listen to, and will let me know what you think of them! All ten can be found on the “Podcasts” page.

My research for Superconnected

I’ve been conducting face-to-face and electronic (email) interviews for over 25 years in an attempt to learn all that I can about the experience of digital connectedness. To date, I have conducted over 200 in-depth, semi-structured multi-phase interviews and over 75 shorter surveys, in which I ask such questions as:

  • How are relationships at a distance formed and maintained? By which mechanisms and with what effects?
  • How does technological portability and mobility influence the nature of the social connections and groupings that are formed and maintained online?
  • What are the social dynamics of digital and online groupings?
  • How are individuals affected by their online experiences? do online and offline activities and experiences intersect and overlap (or fail to) in digital users’ everyday lives?

A sampling of excerpts from these interviews are shared in Superconnected from time to time to illustrate relevant points. They appear primarily in chapters that focus on themes with which my prior research has been most concerned: the social dynamics and implications of the online experience (Chapters 3 and 9), and the nature of the identities, connections, and communities formed in internet and digital media use (Chapters 6 and 7). While my methods are qualitative, illustrative of social forms but not generalizable to a population, I always seek to interview individuals who are as demographically diverse as possible on the basis of such social factors as gender, race, age, level of education, and occupation. Overall, my interview subjects skew female, white, and under 30.

In all my writing, and especially in this book, I examine an enormous array of related research, writing, conversation, and debate. I bring together together and synthesize ideas, understandings, and findings from such relevant fields as sociology, psychology, communication, information and media studies, and computer science. To do so reflects my deep interest in and instinct for interdisciplinarity, which I bring to all my research, writing teaching, and academic program development.

This wide range of literature and disciplines is reflected in all the topics discussed in Superconnected. While my approach concentrates on technology-rich, information-intensive North American societies, with application to tech-rich information societies globally, I sought and included, and the book speaks to, many studies of lower-tech societies across the globe as well. The result is an overview of techno-social life drawing on a wide variety of perspectives and findings, focusing on communities and societies that are characterized by a steady flow of communication technology and information, while contrasting this with lower-tech life.

Additional information on my methodological approach and specifications of my interview methodology can be found in first chapter of Superconnected and in greater detail in the appendixes of my books Portable Communities and Connecting.

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.