Every student is expected to read and come to class prepared to discuss each required text.

  • Roots and visions of social cyberspace January 13

  • Imagining Community  January 20

  • Virtual community and real life January 27

  • Identity and presentation of self February 3

  • Social Networks February 10

  • Social capital February 17

  • Collective action February 24

  • Public sphere March 3


Roots and visions of social cyberspace January 13

Why does knowing where social media come from matter in the present moment?

More than most technologies, the historical origins of computer-mediated communication have something to say to those who are thinking about their own future in today’s and tomorrow’s always-on, media-everywhere world. Around  a billion people use chat rooms, mailing lists, BBSs, instant messengers, social network services, newsgroups, multiplayer games, wikis, blogs, microblogs, video sharing sites to establish and maintain social relationships and organize collective action. Knowing that this medium grew from the dreams of a small number of visionaries whose goal was mass empowerment is useful today if you want to know what is being done to your future as state and commercial interests vie for control of the global infosphere. It also helps to be able to examine in the leisure of retrospect where today’s realities fall short of the dreams of yesterday’s visionaries. This history isn’t finished. Those who are interested in influencing forward progress would do well to take a look backward.


Licklider, J. C. R., & R. W. Taylor. (1968). “The computer as a communication device,” (PDF) Science and Technology, April, 1968. Republished in SRC Research Report 61, Digital Equipment Corporation, 1990. (Starts on Page 21 of the PDF)

You hear that the Internet originally started as a U.S. Defense Department project, but that doesn’t tell much of the story. In the wake of Sputnik, the 1957 Russian satellite that traumatized U.S. beliefs in its technological superiority, the Advanced Research Projects Agency was created, and an MIT scientist was hired to run the small “Information Processing Techniques Office.” At that time, the communications giant (ATT) and computing giant (IBM) weren’t interested in futuristic ideas about computer graphics, interactive computers, and digital communication networks. But Licklider believed that computers and humans could think together in new ways. Licklider and Robert Taylor, his young research director, were smart enough to realize that when their programmers were spending their time sending each other messages about their favorite science fiction writers, they weren’t goofing off — they were inventing a new medium. And fortunately, those in charge of building the foundations of what was to become the Internet had a far-reaching vision, far beyond the borders of their military-industrial funders. To what degree are we living in the utopia they predicted? In what ways has reality fallen short?

Douglas Engelbart, Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework, SRI 1962. pp 1-41 (instructor’s highlighted version)

If you want to know where it all started, you have to start with a young electrical engineer who started looking for a better way for people to solve the 20th century’s problems and hit upon the notion that computers and television screens could be hooked together to make tools for amplifying human thought and communication. It took him ten years until J.C.R. Licklider, another believer in the possibility of designing mind-amplifying machinery, began to fund his work. This paper is fundamental. It’s about how humans think together, not just about a new kind of computing. You don’t have to read the whole thing. But as you read the first 40 pages, keep in mind that Engelbart was starting from scratch, explaining to a world in which the computer business and computer scientists saw computers as strictly meant for scientific computation and business data processing. In 1968, in San Francisco, Engelbart and his team demonstrated a new method of using computers that introduced most of the components of today’s personal computers — the mouse and point-and-click, word processing, hyperlinks, multimedia communication — in a demonstration that has come to be known as “the mother of all demos.” The film of the original demo is available as a Youtube video.

Fred Turner, “Where the counterculture met the new economy: the WELL and the origins of virtual community” Technology and Culture, Volume 46, Number 3, July 2005, pp. 485-512

If you think the creators of the tools you use today, from your laptops to the Web, were all crewcut engineers and venture-capitalist-funded entrepreneurs, you need to know what Stewart Brand, the communes of the 1960s, and the Whole Earth Catalog had to do with the origins of the Web. I’ve read and heard many years of theories about the significance of the Well as a pioneering virtual community, an event that I participated in and documented myself, and Fred Turner’s ideas about network forums and network entrepreneurs seem to me to exactly capture the mix of  altruistic idealism and pragmatic self-interest that infused the spirit of the early Wellites. If Gemeinschafft and Gesellschaft (next session!) are ways to look backward at the way people reacted to the social changes enabled and forced by industrial technology, network forums and network entrepreneurs are potentially useful lenses for looking forward. Turner’s critical eye is good at finding the points at which idealism failed, and figuring out why — without forgetting that without the failed idealists, the successes that surround us wouldn’t have happened. (Also see this link to online version of 1968 Whole Earth Catalog and this link to online version of 1994 Millennium Whole Earth Catalog) (a related article by a different author, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Virtual Community Discourse and the Dilemma of Modernity — for those who really want to delve into this historical transition).

Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” The Atlantic Monthly, August, 1945 (instructor’s highlighted version)

As a young sailor in the Philippines,  awaiting the expected invasion of Japan, radar operator Doug Engelbart saw a copy of the August, 1945 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Vannever Bush, who was in charge of the  USA’s wartime scientific effort (including, among other things, the Manhattan Project and the creation of the first electronic digital computer), was concerned about the need for new information tools for the postwar world. In this visionary essay, written decades before the invention of the transistor, Bush imagined a machine that used telephone connections and specially marked paper cards and microfilm to create an extension of the human mind, which he called “the Memex.” A few years later, as an electrical engineer in California, when Engelbart started thinking about using computers for group problem-solving, he knew from his experience as a radar operator that complex patterns could be painted with light on cathode ray screens — which led to the device you are using to read this text. A case of prophetic futurism that got the big ideas right — hypertext, in this case — even if his guesses about technical implementation were way off. I wouldn’t say that this text is as necessary as Engelbart or Licklider, but if you want to see where they got their inspiration, it’s a good read — like an old science fiction story that came true.

J.C.R. Licklider, Man-Computer SymbiosisIRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics, volume HFE-1, pages 4-11, March 1960   (instructor’s highlighted version)

A vital link between Vannevar Bush’s Memex and Douglas Engelbart’s thinking machines was J.C.R. Licklider’s 1960 vision of a future in which “human brains and computing machines will be coupled together very tightly.” Just as Bush saw in his own work as a grand coordinator of applied research the need for better information-navigation techniques in order to make practical use of the knowledge that scientific specialties had started producing at a prodigious rate, Licklider saw in his own work as a scientist the need for better information-navigation techniques “in order to get into position to think.” When the US Defense Department started the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA — now DARPA) in reaction to the Soviet launch of the Sputnik artificial satellite, a small and not very central office looked toward future information processing techniques. Because of his previous work as a psychoacoustician on the design of the SAGE air defense system, MIT scientist Licklider had longstanding ties with Defense Department research funders, and his 1960 paper made him the ideal director of the IPTO. Licklider subsequently funded Doug Engelbart, Ivan Sutherland (who invented computer graphics and graphically-controlled computers), and hired Bob Taylor (who became director of Xerox PARC’s Computer Systems Laboratory in the 1970s) and many others who went on to create what was first called interactive computing, then personal computing, and the research network that scaled beyond the inventor’s initial visions to become today’s Worldwide Web.

Web-Brain Mindmap of Roots and Visions of Augmented Social Cognition by Howard Rheingold.

Click around this mindmap and note that you can click on links to launch websites linked from the map. Hierarchies and networks are intertwingled. Use the links at the top (“roots and visions,” “networks and cultures,” “visionaries,” “pioneers”) to reorient yourself.

History of the Internet — 8 minute animated documentary explaining the inventions from time-sharing to filesharing, from Arpanet to Internet.

Video: First hand account of countercultural origins of cyberculture (also part two).

John Coate talks about how his experiences on a commune in the 1960s led into his experiences as one of the first employees of The Well, a pioneering virtual community. Coate later also founded the first major newspaper website in the west, the San Francisco’s Examiner’s Gate.

Video: Commune: A Documentary about Black Bear Ranch

“this is the first, and as far as I can tell, the only documentary portrayal of the 1960s counter-culture as it actually existed. It is a sympathetic portrayal, completely devoid of the usual condescension, contempt, and hindsight revisionism.

This is not a film about clothes or rock music. It is a film about people of serious intent who were willing to go the distance and who devoted their lives to one another in a large family of their own making. “Commune” is an important American historical document and must be seen by anyone wishing to understand what on earth was going on in this country during the late 1960s to mid-1970s.”

Howard Rheingold Virtual Communities, Whole Earth Review, Winter, 1987. (PDF)

This is the reprint of the original article that coined the term “virtual community,” as far as anyone since has been able to tell. It’s clearly the voice of a younger and more enthusiastic participant in an online social scene six years before the Mosaic browser made the World Wide Web the hot new technology of the 1990s. If you want a chance to interrogate the author of a primary source text, here’s your chance.

Howard Rheingold, (1985) “Xanadu, Network Culture, and Beyond,” Tools for Thought. Available online.

Howard Rheingold, (1993) “The Heart of The Well,” from The Virtual Communityavailable online.

Howard Rheingold, (1993) “The Loneliness of a Long-Distance Thinker,” from The Virtual Communityavailable online.

Video of Well party, 1989, Part 1 and Part 2

John Markoff, (2005) What The Dormouse Said excerpt available online

Imagining Community  January 20

 What is community? Why does the question continue to matter?

“What do we mean by community?” is the kind of generative question that leads to more fundamental questions (who is “we,” for example, and do “we” get to define what community means to us or do we have the normative power to try to enforce others to adhere to our definitions, for another example.)

It makes sense, while embarking on our own inquiry into the effects of social media on our lives and societies, to touch upon the centuries-old  sociological discourse about community.


Ferdinand Tonnies, excerpts On Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft (see also this summary)

Tonnies is a giant in the field of sociology — but reading him is absolutely a matter of eating your spinach. Here’s what you really need to know: He came up with a term for a close, intimate group, like a family: Gemeinschafft. (The German mein tips you off about the personal nature.) In this kind of a group, members have a “shared will,” such as in a religious group. And a different kind of community — more like the ones we’re studying in this class: Gesellschaft. This might be a company, or even a city. (Perhaps sell can help remind you of a company.) In a Gemeinschafft community, traditions, intimate relationships and even an equal distribution of labor keep people close. These kinds of groups might be said to “remind you of who you are.” In a Gesellschaft community, self-interest draws separate individuals together, for paychecks, or social services. Individual will is the rule here, and so these groups are fluid. This kind of group might reflect who we are always in the process of becoming, if you will. Tonnies wrote about this stuff in 1887 — long before social networking online, but at a time of explosive changes in both the technologies available (from steam engines to telegraphs) and the social practices (from urbanization to industrialization). In fact, questions about community — the kind of lives together that people want, hope for, and attempt to construct — have been intertmingled deeply with questions about technology for at least two centuries. And Tonnies is the starting point for understanding these contrasting types of communities. Previous students, forced to slog through Tonnies 19th century prose, understood the conceptual reasons for starting with Gemeinschafft and Gesellschaft as working ideas for grappling with community, but emphatically agreed that this was not one of those instances where you lose the essence of the work by not going to the primary source. This is the best condensation of his ideas that I have found. (Imagine the worst examples.)

Barry Wellman, An Electronic Group is Virtually a Social Network

Barry Wellman is one of those scientists who was smart enough and fortunate enough to find himself at an intersection of old ideas and new, technology-enabled social forms: as a sociologist, he had been studying social network theory long before the Internet came along and transmuted “social network” from sociological jargon into a description of services like Facebook. He was one of the first social scientists to recognize that existing knowledge about human social networks was both applicable to and likely to be changed by the advent of ubiquitous, always-on personal communication networks. As a traditional sociologist, he situates the long argument about technology and community by summarizing the ways Tonnies, Weber, Marx analyzed community formation — and critiques some of the assumptions that people have been making recently, regarding the nature of virtual communities. Not only does he distill with some verve the literature about community and its virtualization, and contribute his own theory to the Internet-enabled varieties of social community — Wellman was one of the first to go beyond armchair theory about cyberculture to conduct empirical research. In Wellman’s case, he serves as not only an interpreter of the long debate about community, showing how centuries after the deaths of the original sociological theorists, their ideas can be used as lenses to examine the social, economic, political impacts of the advent of the wireless web in everyone’s pocket — he also shows us real data to use to begin to make practical sense of the theories.

Lee Rainie & Barry Wellman, “Networked Individualism: What in the World is That?” (brief blog post)

This brief post explains succinctly the notion of “networked individualism” that relates to the shift from group-centric to network-centric relationships.

Ray Oldenberg, The Great Good Place , Chapters One and Two (READER ONLY)

The notion that your Facebook wall or my virtual community or their chat room is, in some way, a “place,” has been one of the pillars of early theory about life online and remains a dominant metaphor in discourses about computer-mediated communication. Oldenberg wasn’t writing about virtual communities, but about the question of social places in people’s lives — the home (the “first place” in Oldenberg’s Gemeinschaft), the office, the factory the school (“second places”) and the playgrounds, cafes, taverns, bowling greens that serve as what Oldenberg claims to be an essential “third place.”

David de Uguarte, “A very brief history of the meaning of ‘community.’” (web page)

The links are worth reading, too.


Video: “Well (virtual community) Party — 1989) Part One (10:54) and Part Two (07:30)

Video: “Is YouTube a Community?” (2007)

These two impromptu video ethnographies, 18 years apart, directly ask the participants in online fora whether they believe that what they do is worthy of the name “community.”:

Video: Neil Postman on Cyberspace, 1995

Media and technology critic, the late Neil Postman, voices his second thoughts about the medium that was just beginning to emerge in 1995 — Netscape had not gone public, Google wouldn’t even exist for four more years, the dotcom era had not started, and most people connected to the Net with a slow modem.

Ronald E. Rice, James E. Katz, Sophia Acord, Kiku Dasgupta, Kalpana David, (2004), “Personal Mediated Communication and the Concept of Community in Theory and Practice,” in P. Kalbfleisch (ed), Communication and Community, Communication Yearbook 28, Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp 1-10.

This paper is a great, short, contemporary account of the ways scientific and scholarly theories and observations regarding community have reacted to the emergence of computer-mediated-communication, touching base with traditional theories but moving the discussion forward through the considerable empirical work that has been done in recent years.

Robin Hamman, Introduction to Virtual Communities Research and Cybersociology Magazine Issue Two

Robin Hamman was an early student observer and scholar of cyberculture, spent recent years as a maker of cyberculture with the BBC New Media division, and has both a scholarly social science background and a long history of direct participation in online discussion. His definition of community is succinct.

Nick Yee, “The Demographics, Motivations, and Derived Experiences of Users of Massively Multi-user Online Graphical Environments

Online survey data were collected from 30,000 users of Massively Multi-User Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) over a three year period to explore users’ demographics, motivations, and derived experiences. Not only do MMORPGs appeal to a broad age range (Mage ! 26.57, range ! 11–68), but the appeal is strong (on average 22 hours of usage per week) across users of all ages (r ! –.04). An exploratory factor analysis revealed a five factor model of user motivations—Achievement, Relationship, Immersion, Escapism, and Manipulation—illustrating the multifaceted appeal of these online environments. Male players were significantly more likely to be driven by the Achievement and Manipulation factors, while female players were significantly more likely to be driven by the Relationship factor. Also, the data indicated that users derived meaningful relationships and salient emotional experiences, as well as real-life leadership skills from these virtual environments. MMORPGs are not simply a pastime for teenagers, but a valuable research venue and platform where millions of users interact and collaborate using real-time 3D avatars on a daily basis.

 Virtual community and real life January 27

Virtual community and real life, attention, multitasking, and the interpenetration of our worlds

In what ways do our online social activities change our lives, relationships, communities? When we multitask at our desks, in our cars, at the dinner table, what effects are our actions having, in the aggregate, on social cohesion — and our individual ability to learn, make our way from place to place, socialize? As we enter the second decade of the totally mobile social network, shall we pause to think about what changes in our lives might be more beneficial than others — and consider what control we have over our communication practices, design of technologies, values? Nobody really knows. But that doesn’t mean there is no empirical evidence nor a lack of opinion. In order to form your own opinion of what is healthy and what is destructive for yourself, for others, for our entire society, it helps to look at what some of the more thoughtful critics and scientific observers of the always on lifestyle have to say.


 E.M. Forster, “The Machine Stops” (available online)

This novella was written in 1909, about a future in which humans are physically isolated, automatically cared for, and linked by universal communications. And then, one day, the machine stops.

Cathy Davidson, “Collaborative Learning for the Digital Age,” Chronicle of Higher Education, August 28, 2011 (available online)

Davidson speaks eloquently in counterpoint and rebuttal to the “distractionists” who claim that life online is fragmenting attention, shallowing out culture, and that multitasking is evil.

Rebecca Solnit, Diary, August 29, 2013

Did the world change around 1995? What did we lose when we gained smartphones, social media, and the always-on life? Solnit is one of the most thoughtful of those who voice second thoughts about the digital lifestyle.

Mark Oppenheimer, “Technology Is Not Driving Us Apart After All,” New York Times Magazine, January 17, 2014

Several bestsellers and many New York Times Op-Ed pieces claim that use of social media is causing alienation and social isolation. This article about the work of sociologist Keith Hampton is about actual evidence to the contrary.

Henry Jenkins, “How Second Life Impacts Our First Life,” blog posting, (available online)


Christine Rosen, (2008) “The Myth of Multitasking,” The New Atlantis, Spring, 2008. (available online)

Christine Rosen has talked to the neuroscientists, and she’s convinced that the efficiency and necessity of multi-tasking is a delusion. She presents the scientific evidence in support of her argument: “Then again, perhaps we will simply adjust and come to accept what James called “acquired inattention.” E-mails pouring in, cell phones ringing, televisions blaring, podcasts streaming—all this may become background noise, like the “din of a foundry or factory” that James observed workers could scarcely avoid at first, but which eventually became just another part of their daily routine. For the younger generation of multitaskers, the great electronic din is an expected part of everyday life. And given what neuroscience and anecdotal evidence have shown us, this state of constant intentional self-distraction could well be of profound detriment to individual and cultural well-being. When people do their work only in the “interstices of their mind-wandering,” with crumbs of attention rationed out among many competing tasks, their culture may gain in information, but it will surely weaken in wisdom.”

Stowe Boyd, Christine Rosen Joins The War on Flow. (available online)

Somebody has to speak for flow — “distraction” is a pejorative way of looking at something that can be very fruitful

Tim Cole, “In Praise of Distraction,” thefuturesagency.com, December 16, 2014 (available online)

Wait! By trying to medicate, educate, retrain today’s multitaskers are we really doing the human race a disservice at a time when we need “network management” as a life skill?

Howard Rheingold, Is Multitasking Evil, or Are Most of Us Illiterate? Brittanica Blog, December 8, 2009, (available online)

The instructor’s take on the attention/multitasking debate — maybe we don’t know what we are doing, and maybe we can learn to use attention more effectively in a mediated environment.

 Interview with Cliff Nass, PBS Frontline, December 1, 2009 (available online)

Stanford’s Cliff Nass  has done some foundational research on multitasking and task efficiency.

Keith Hampton, “How Technology Makes Us Better Social Beings,” Smithsonian.com, July 11, 2011 (available online)

So much discussion about virtual community and real life is armchair speculation. Here is a short piece about Keith Hampton, a sociologist who actually uses empirical research to probe these questions. If interested, he has a large number of papers online.

Cory Doctorow: The Curious Case of Internet Privacy, Technology Review, June 6, 2012 (available online)

Boing-Boing blogger and science-fiction author Cory Doctorow isn’t some old curmudgeon but one of the movers of geek culture. He asks us to reconsider the bargain we’ve made online, trading privacy for info and services.

Walter Kirn, (2007), “The Autumn of the Multitaskers,” The Atlantic Monthly, November, 2007.  (available online)

I’m a multi-tasker. My daughter, a Stanford graduate who works at Google, is a multitasker. But I have to accept the evidence that doing multiple tasks at once often degrades the quality of performance on each one — in the case of driving an automobile, dangerously so. Kirn marshals an impressive body of empirical data to at least provoke some serious questioning about whether multitasking is more obsessive-compulsive than productive. And this is The Atlantic Monthly — the writing isn’t dry and academic.

Junco, Reynol and Cotten, Shelia R., A Decade of Distraction? How Multitasking Affects Student Outcomes (September 13, 2011). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1927049

The proliferation and ease of access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as Facebook, text messaging, and instant messaging has resulted in ICT users being presented with more real-time streaming data than ever before. Unfortunately, this has also resulted in individuals increasingly engaging in multitasking as an information management strategy. The purpose of this study was to examine how college students multitask with ICTs and to determine the impacts of this multitasking on their college GPA. Using web survey data from a large sample of college students at one university (N = 1,839), we found that students reported spending a large amount of time using ICTs on a daily basis. Students reported frequently searching for content not related to courses, using Facebook, emailing, talking on their cell phones, and texting while doing schoolwork. Hierarchical (blocked) linear regression analyses revealed that using Facebook and texting while doing schoolwork were negatively associated with overall college GPA. Conversely, emailing was positively associated with college GPA. Engaging in Facebook use or texting while trying to complete schoolwork may tax students’ capacity for cognitive processing and preclude deeper learning, while emailing may be directly related to learning. Our research indicates that the type and purpose of ICT use matters in terms of the educational impacts of multitasking.

Werner Herzog’s 35 minute video about texting and driving. (available online)

John Barlow, Sven Birkerts, Kevin Kelly, Mark Slouka (1995) “What are we doing on-line,” Harper’s.  (available online)

Description copied from article:

“We become what we behold,” Marshall McLuhan wrote in 1964. “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.” The medium beheld with the most interest in McLuhan’s day was television. Now, thirty years later, we have shaped for ourselves a new communications tool the millions of networked computers that make up the Internet. It is a medium that is both like television–in that it involves people staring at glowing screens, sharing experiences, real and imagined, over vast distances and unlike television–in that it is decentralized, interactive, and based on the written word.Although considerable attention has been directed to the superficial aspects of the on-line world–its entertainment value, its investment opportunities, its possible abuse by child pornographers and drug runners–little has been said about how this tool we are shaping is, in turn, shaping us. To answer that question, Harper’s Magazine turned to four observers of the Internet and asked them to consider the message of this new medium.The following forum is based on a discussion that took place this spring in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Paul Tough, a senior editor of Harper’s Magazine, served as moderator.

Instructor’s list of resources about attention, multitasking, and backchannels. (available online)

Neil Swidey, “The End of Alone,” The Boston Globe, February 8, 2009, (available online)

What do we trade for our constant connectedness?

Harmut Rosa on social acceleration and time, 8 minute video (available online)

Bers, Marina: Virtual Communities of Care: Online Peer Networks with Post-Organ
Transplant Youth
(find this title in list of papers)

Video: Shirky Interview: Can Privacy Exist on the internet? http://www.switched.com/2007/11/05/can-privacy-exist-on-the-internet/

“Internet Addiction: Metasynthesis of 1996-2006 Quantitative Research” Byums et. al., (available online)

Howard Rheingold, Prezi on Attention in the Presence of Screens8 minute narrated video of that Prezi

Identity and presentation of self February 3

Why study identity and representation of self online? Who to study? How to study ourselves.

Digital culture  grows from the activities of humans who use computers for social communication — hence the term “social media” to refer to a range of online activity. The power of this new tool and its  level of impact derives from the human-computer interface where human and computational capabilities meet. Engelbart, Licklider, and others deliberately changed the computer side of the human-computer equation, redesigning the way existing digital technology was used in order to make it more useful as a mind-tool for entire populations.

Turn the lens of the computer human interface around and look through it the other way, focusing on yourself rather than your tool: What happens to your mind, your sense of self, your ways of representing yourself to others, when you spend a significant portion of your time interacting with other people exclusively through the mediation of text messages, IMs, blogs, microblogs, blog comments, wikis, chats, forums, mailing lists, Facebook walls, multiplayer games, avatars in virtual worlds, tags on pictures, shared videos? Examining the ways we mediate our relationships in real life today means looking at how our sense of who we are might be changing. It also means looking  at ourselves from the outside, inquiring about the ways we as individuals signal to others who we think we are, noticing what kinds of signals we use in different situations, and self-observing our own vigilance for the social signals presented to us by others. This is where reflection is possible. Notions about digital bodies and online presence are not theories about history or architecture, these are about how you, the student,  might be shaping who you are through your media practices.

Reflection, many students have reported, has not been a heavy part of previous assignments through their schooling. Opinion, knowledge, memory, argument, yes. But not a lot of reflective exercise. In this context, I suggest that reflection means trying, through your blog and/or your personal wiki page, to articulate your own personal observations of the media phenomena we are studying with our texts.  This is an opportunity for students to use your learning journals to record your personal reflections about how the use of the media we are studying actually feel like to use, how their use enables or prevents you and others from thinking or feeling one way or another. One week of a syllabus or one quarter of a school year are not sufficient for introspection to yield a structured and tested theory of who you are online — but asking and reflecting first, before turning to the texts, can be rewarding. The same questions that you come up with after a period of reflection are addressed by the texts. Fortunately, we have the ideas of theorists like Goffman and the  long-term empirical observations of Sherry Turkle to provide empirical counterpoint to introspection. And in the present generation of social scientists, we have the work of (soon to be Dr.) danah boyd, a trained anthropological observer and theorist of youth behavior via social network services who has thought, written, and conducted research about exactly these questions.

If you want to get a handle on what you and your contemporaries are going through and will continue to go through if you continue to spend more of your time online, it will help to know what these thinkers believe they have discovered in regard to the symbolic wherewithal of human identity and presentation. Go ahead and find your own paths through them. Follow the questions that are important in your own use of Facebook MySpace, World of Warcraft, YouTube, Gaia Online or Twitter — or whatever social media you and your peers are using. Why should an instructor lay down the path for you? You’re smart enough to find the path for yourself, and to teach others. Here are the instructor’s annotated opinions regarding the most likely texts. Each teaching team will select four hours of readings from this list to assign to the entire class to read for the week prior to that team’s session. If a team or individual wants to add and/or substitute a text or even a theme category, it is possible, but must be justified to the instructor.


Jessica Vitak (2012) “The Impact of Context Collapse and Privacy on Social Network Site Disclosures,” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, available online

From Goffman to Facebook, Vitak not only puts her finger on one of the most significant psychosocial changes triggered by online social networking, she uses empirical study to probe important but somewhat nebulous concepts such as privacy, presentation of self, and social capital.

Howard Rheingold (1995) “Mind-to-Mind with Sherry Turkle,” Salon Magazine  available online

I interviewed Turkle for one of the first issues of Salon — a speculative inquiry into  the psychological possibilities for the future of the elementary school students of 1995 — today’s college students.

danah boyd, 2007, “Incantations for Muggles: The Role of Ubiquitous Web 2.0 Technologies in Everyday Life,” available online

danah boyd is an acute and scientifically rigorous observer of cyberculture ( who does not capitalize her name). Like me, she is also an active participant. Unlike me, she grew up with the Net. She has been participating in and observing the growth of Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook from their very beginning, and has spent the last two years travelling around North America, talking to teenagers about their use of social network services, as part of a research program into young people’s use of digital media use, sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation. She sees the online world through the eyes of a digital native, and with the acuity of a trained observer.

Bernie Hogan, (2011) “Real Name Sites Are Necessarily Inadequate for Free Speech,” Blog Post available online

Contemporary debate about real name policies at Facebook, Google+ that raises issues of identity, privacy, the public sphere

Jay M Keehn (2013), “From face-work to Facebook: revisiting self-presentation in the age of Connectivism,” (available online — scroll down to see this article)

This article succinctly summarizes Goffman’s theories on the presentation of self (see the entry in Recommended Readings below) and illustrates, in a thorough literature review, how it has changed in the world of online social networks.

Scott Rosenberg (2012) “How to Be Yourself,” 5 minute video available online

I  cringe at the one  sexist slide in this brief presentation. But the rest of the content is valuable.


Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life , Introduction and Chapter One, (pp 1-50)

One person who anticipated many of the issues relating to self-representation online was Erving Goffman, whose work predated the Internet by more than a decade. Although he isn’t talking about gender deception in an online chatroom, Erving Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Every Day Life is the classic and foundational work for anybody thinking about the way people use symbols to convey impressions, and inadvertently give off signals that are studied by others — the way we present ourselves in daily life. Tonnies, Weber, and Marx were concerned with the grand social narratives of urbanization and industrialization. Goffman chose a microscope instead of a telescope to look at human behavior: How does a waiter behave differently in the kitchen and in front of the clients, and why? What signals are sent and received to denote this difference? How do we try to compose our masks, online and offline? And how do we interpret the masks presented to us by others, online and offline. Goffman isn’t about cyberculture, but he gives us a language for understanding the subtexts around sitting in a chair, walking into a room, participating in a university classroom — subtexts that come in handy when trying to make sense of online behavior. Here are some Wikipedia entries that can help with Goffman: impression management, “front stage” and “back stage” behavior. And here is an excellent 28 minute podcast (download by right-clicking — control-clicking on the Mac — and “save link as”)

Noah Short Short Cuts, (2013)

“In a story that plays out entirely on a teenager’s computer screen, Noah follows its eponymous protagonist as his relationship takes a rapid turn for the worse in this fascinating study of behaviour (and romance) in the digital age.”

Christine Rosen (2007) “Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism, The New Atlantis available online

Fredrik de Boer, “there you are” (January 25, 2014) available online

“Being embedded in written language has consequences. The most glaring, to me, is that the process of self-creation which we all undertake becomes necessarily more explicit and more obvious when everything is always mediated through language.”

Joseph B Walther, “Social Information Processing Theory: Impressions and Relationship Development Online,” available online

Walther has been studying online behavior for a long time. A great, empirically based, update on Goffman

C. D. Hermelen, (2013) “I am an object of Internet ridicule. Ask me anything.” (blog post) available online.

An interesting, intense, and complex story of unintentional online presentation of self — presentation of yourself by others who don’t know you.

Alice Marwick’s papers

Alice Marwick, danah boyd’s colleague at Microsoft Research, Cambridge, specializes in issues of identity and presentation of self in online social networks. For those who want to dive deeper, check out her publications. Here is one abstract: “People create profiles on social network sites and Twitter accounts against the background of an audience. This paper argues that surveying content created by others and looking at one‘s own content through other people‘s eyes, a common part of social media use, should be framed associal surveillance. While social surveillance is distinguished from traditional surveillance along three axes (power, hierarchy, and reciprocity), its affect and behavior modification is common to traditional surveillance. Drawing on ethnographic studies of United States populations, I look at social surveillance, how it is practiced, and its impact on people who engage in it. I use Foucault‘s concept of capillaries of power to demonstrate that social surveillance assumes the power differentials evident in everyday interactions rather than the hierarchical power relationships assumed in much of the surveillance literature. Social media involves a collapse of social contexts and social roles, complicating boundary work but facilitating social surveillance. Individuals strategically reveal, disclose and conceal personal information to create connections with others and tend social boundaries. These processes are normal parts of day-to-day life in communities that are highly connected through social media.

danah boyd, Making Sense of Privacy and Publicity

boyd’s 2010 keynote for the South By Southwest Conference would be a required reading if students had the time to read that much. If practical issues of privacy and publicity for everybody who uses digital media today interests you, this text will be extremely useful.

Fred Stutzman, What Google Could Learn from Goffman

Karen Sternheimer, “Social Networking Sites and Social Theory,” Everyday Sociology, March 19, 2009

Elias Aboujaoude, The Dark Sides of our Digital Self, September 4, 2011

“The thesis of Aboujaoude’s book is that the world wide web can have a very profound affect on our sense of self. In fact, it can cause a kind of “digital divide” between our digital self, how we often think and behave online, and our offline self, how we often think and behave in face-to-face, “real world” interactions.

Aboujaoude has observed this divide in many of his own patients who engage heavily in online behavior – anywhere from creating fakes profiles on dating sites to impulsive online shopping to delusional thinking about reality (to the point where individuals begin to consider the reality of virtual worlds likeSecond Life and World of Warcraft more real than their lives offline).”

danah boyd, 2006. “Identity Production in a Networked Culture: Why Youth Heart MySpace.” American Association for the Advancement of Science, St. Louis, MO. February 19.available online

Oh Crap, My Parents Joined Facebook — the name says it all (available online)

Julian Dibbell, (1998). A Rape in Cyberspace. In My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World (pp. 11-30). New York: Henry Holt and Company. available online

This one never fails to stir up heated conversation. It has all the elements of an exciting read for this subject area– people actually feeling “raped” by words, entire online communities stirred up by transgressive behavior, great writing about the ways in which people use symbols to construct imaginary worlds and virtual relationships. You could use Goffman, Turkle and boyd’s terminology to inquire into why and how the “rape in cyberspace” did or did not happen — and when we get to social dilemmas and collective action, the tension between Mr. Bungle and the LambdaMoo community could serve again as a vivid case study.

Here are a raft of other resources. Students are encouraged and to annotate your own additions to the list: Use the instructor’s annotations as a suggested model and keep foremost in mind the question: WHY should these texts be considered candidates for that precious four hours of reading prior to class?

Social Networks February 10

Social Networks

Social networks have existed as long as we’ve been humans — in fact, the ability to socialize is a large part, maybe the most important part, of what distinguishes homo Sapiens from other primates. And at least since the advent of writing, we’ve used external symbol-making technologies to extend, strengthen, manipulate our social networks. However, since the telegraph began to wire the world, and the telephone and the Internet made it possible for most people in the world to communicate with most other people, online social networks have taken on particular significance.


Barry Wellman, “Physical Place and Cyber Place: The Rise of Personalized Networking,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 25 (2001), Special Issue on “Networks, Class and Place,” edited by Talja Blokland and Mike Savage. available online.

Wellman et al  point out a small fact of contemporary life: making a telephone call in the wired age meant making a connection with a place, but making a phone call in the wireless age means making a connection with a person. Now that so many people are able to carry instant access to their social networks in their pockets, what do we know about how they think about themselves, about where they are, about what “where” means? Does the historical shift from virtual communities to personal social networks, what Wellman calls “networked individualism” mean that we are not just seeing new literacies, but new kinds of people who regard themselves in new ways, especially in relationship to their social ties?

Summary of social network theory (available online)

This very short and clear summary can give you the fundamentals of social network theory and social network analysis in a few minutes. Also see this short summary of SNA.

danah boyd, “Information Access in a Networked World” Talk presented to Pearson Publishing, Palo Alto, California, November 2, 2007. (available online)

When she wrote this, boyd (no caps in her name) was a graduate student doing an ethnography of her own cyberculture:

Youth are growing up in a society shaped strongly by networks. Networks of information, networks of people, networks of objects. Networks themselves are not new, but the role that they play is more significant now than in the past. Much of this has to do with technology because technology has made networks essential.

To understand youth’s interactions with information today, you need to understand the networks in which youth inhabit. You also need to situate their information activities within those very networks.

 Barry Wellman and Lee Rainie, “The New Social Operating System of Networked Individualism,” (available online as PDF)

This is the introductory chapter of a 2012 book by sociologist Barry Wellman and Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life survey project. Empirically based, it takes a sanguine view of the changes technology is making in human social relations.


danah boyd, “Friends, Friendsters, and Top 8: Writing community into being on social network sites” First Monday, volume 11, number 12 (December 2006), (PDF available online,HTML version also available)

An anthropologist in training who is native to the culture she studies. The rites and customs boyd sees today’s youth inscribing on their social network sites ought to be familiar to any MySpace/Facebook user today. As she says in her abstract: ““Are you my friend? Yes or no?” This question, while fundamentally odd, is a key component of social network sites. Participants must select who on the system they deem to be ‘Friends.’ Their choice is publicly displayed for all to see and becomes the backbone for networked participation. By examining what different participants groups do on social network sites, this paper investigates what Friendship means and how Friendship affects the culture of the sites.” Who could resist this combination of social science and daily life in the social cybersphere of friending and “Friends,” networks and publics, digital bodies? boyd is her generation’s answer to Goffman — an acute observer of the larger significance of everyday life, but to boyd, everyday life is not, as it was to Goffman, how you act when you get in an elevator, but how you act when someone attempts to “friend you” online.

Maria Konnikova, “The Limits of Friendship” (about the “Dunbar Number), (available online)

John Edward Terrell, Termeh Shafie, Mark Golitgo, “How networks are revolutionizing scientific (and maybe human) thought,” Scientific American Blogs, December 12, 2014 (available online),

Kramer, Guillory, & Hancock, Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks (available online)

Brian Solis, The Ties that Bind Us – Visualizing Relationships on Twitter and Social Networks (available online with instructor’s highlighting)

Shiv Singh,  Social Networks and Group Formation

Video: “Think Before You Post”  (available online)

A cautionary tale about boundaries, offline and online.

FaceBook in Reality — another short, humorous video, pointing out conflicts between FaceBook “friending” and real-life friendship (available online)

Facebook Manners and You — yet another short, humorous video about Facebook and relationships (available online)

Rob Stein, “Happiness can Spread Among People Like a Contagion, Study Indicates,” Washington Post, December 5, 2008, P A08 (available online

Peter Worisky, “Instant-Messagers Really Are About Six Degrees from Kevin Bacon,” Washington Post, August 2, 2008, p A01. (available online)

The upside of the digital panopticon is a wealth of data: By analyzing billions of sms messages, researchers recently confirmed Stanley Milgram’s legendary “six degrees of separation” experiment.

C.G. Lynch, “Facebook Etiquette: Five Dos and Don’ts” CIO.com, 2008  (available online)

Planning ahead for your professional life, you need to think more deeply than deleting drunken party photos. Especially since Facebook “can create an uncomfortable overlap between your personal and professional life.”

Farhad Manjoo, “The End of the Echo Chamber: A study of 250 million Facebook users reveals the Web isn’t as polarized as we thought,”Slate, January 17, 2012, (available online)

Caveat: the study referenced in this article was commissioned by Facebook. Nevertheless, it offers a tantalizing rebuttal to Sunstein’s (Republic.com) and Pariser’s (The Filter Bubble) fear that online social networks are becoming echo chambers in which people only receive information from sources they agree with. 

Valdis Krebs, “Your Choices Reveal Who You Are: Mining and Visualizing Social Patterns,” (Book Chapter) available online.

What you “like” how long your mouse lingers over an icon, which websites you visit, who you follow on Twitter, your Facebook friends, and much more add up to digital profiles of you that can predict intimate details of your sexuality, political opinions, social class, using traditional social network analysis, supercharged by big data collection, made understandable through data visualization.

Social capital February 17

Social Capital: How do people use trust and networks to get things done?

How do people manage to create institutions for collective action, from choral societies to democracies, without relying on laws, contracts, or hierarchies?  Whether and how can the relationship between person-to-person communications, networks of reciprocity, and norms of trust that Putnam discusses be facilitated — or not — online?  If the public sphere is about the relationship between citizen-to-citizen discussion and the workings of the State, social capital is about the relationship between networks of ordinary people and their ability to get things done in their daily lives. At the intersection of human psychology, networked communication media, and political economics, the study of social capital is another inquiry where theory has its pragmatic effects on daily life: you get what you want or you are left out, you are able to count on others and they upon you (or not), good information and ideas flow toward and away from you (or not), depending on how much social capital your networks possess, and upon your facility at tapping into it.


Robert Putnam, (1993) Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, Princeton University Press, 1993, pp 121-181. (READER ONLY) (summary available online but DO read the original text)

I wrote this summary, so I freely quote it here. This book got me jazzed about what kind of positive benefits people might reap from online communication: if the fate of the public sphere is still in question, it’s certainly clear that all sorts of groups — including dangerous ones — are able to create and tap into social capital in a networked era in ways they weren’t able to deploy before. Robert Putnam and his colleagues had the opportunity to assess the structure and dynamics of social capital when the Italian government instituted a new regional level of government — a natural experiment that enabled Putnam’s team to conduct multi-decade surveys and statistical measures of multiple dimensions of citizen satisfaction, and to compare those levels of satisfaction with different ways or organizing social life. As I summarized Putnam for The Cooperation Project:

When the Italian government created regional governments in 1970, a multi-decade study of levels of citizen satisfaction with these new institutions revealed that regions with norms of trust and reciprocity derived from centuries of horizontal voluntary association were both economically and politically more successful than regions that lacked dense networks of civic association and relied on patron-client relationships rather than horizontal citizen associations: “Some regions of Italy, we discover, are blessed with vibrant networks and norms of civic engagement, while others are cursed with vertically structured politics, a social life of fragmentation and isolation, and a culture of distrust. These differences in civic life turn out to play a key role in explaining institutional success.”

Civic communities are bound by horizontal relationships of reciprocity among citizens, not vertical relations of authority and dependency. “Fabrics of trust enable the civic community more easily to surmount what economists call ‘opportunism,’ in which shared interests are unrealized because each individual, acting in wary isolation, has an incentive to defect from collective action.” Participation in civic organizations trains people in cooperation skills and strengthens a sense of shared responsibility. Citizens who belong to many different groups tend to moderate their attitudes as a result of their exposure to group interactions. These groups don’t have to be political: choral societies and soccer clubs knit people together socially and culturally, but the bonds of trust and social networks serve as effective vectors for economic and political activity.

In regions that lack networks of civic engagement and widespread norms of trust and reciprocity, citizens have to resort to hierarchy and force to resolve conflict, but even hierarchical law enforcement organizations prove less effective with a mistrustful citizenry. “Light-touch” government in more civic regions works better because it is aided by willing cooperation and self-enforcement among citizens.

Manuel Acevedo, (2007, “Network Capital: an Expression of Social Capital in a Network Society,” The Journal of Community Informatics, Vol 3, No 2 (available online)

The abstract shows how this short article ties together social networks, online social networks, and social capital: “This article deals with an emerging type of social capital which is labeled as ‘network capital’. It is formed from collaborative practices emerging from e-enabled human networks. It is proposed that network capital is a specific type of social capital in the Network Society, and that it holds significant value for the advancement of human development around the world. “

Steven Johnson, “Where do good ideas come from?” Four minute animated talk, summarizing Johnson’s book. Available online

Johnson’s book (lively and well sourced – highly recommended) transcends the cliche of the individual innovator and shows the ways in which innovation depends on a form of social capital — the networks of people and ideas that innovators learn from and build upon.

Jyri Engstrom, (2001) “Sizing up Social Capital” in _ Engeström, Y. (ed.) Activity Theory and Social Capital. Technical Reports 5, Center for Activity theory and Developmental Work Research, University of Helsinki 2001., Available Online

The notion of social capital harbors hidden assumptions — including the core idea that human relationships can be equated to capital. Engstrom does a great job of summing up the literature and arguments about social capital and trying to anchor it in the reality of what we know today about the ways human behave online and off. Engstrom is an interesting young sociologist who also created a social media company that was acquired by Google, and has said some interesting things about “social objects.” (For more, if you want, see recommended text below, a video of Engstrom)

Paul Resnick, (2007) “Beyond Bowling Together: Sociotechnical Capital” HCI in the New Millenium, edited by John Carroll. Addison-Wesley (available online)

If we could educate communication engineers in what is known about the characteristics of social capital, would it be possible to design online media to generate, enable, or facilitate the creation, dissemination, growth, health of social capital? Resnick’s question could have profound effects if future generations of sociotechnologists take Resnick’s work further (as his students are already beginning to do).

Jyri Engstrom, (2008) Nodal Points (the Web and Beyond) (Video available online)

Engstrom introduces “social objects” and “social peripheral vision” as intriguing and potentially powerful concepts for seeing how tagging is a social activiity and how presence indicators like buddy lists enable people create new social forms that are not unrelated to social capital. Is there something more profound than Facebook applications going on with the evolution of social media?, Engstrom asks

Ronald Burt, “Social Origins of Good Ideas,” pp 2-10, 34-41 available online

People who furnish sparse connections between networks that are themselves densely interconnected are essential elements to humankind’s “six degrees of separation” global social metanetwork. Such people who bridge what Burt called “structural holes” in a seminal paper on The Social Capital of Structural Holes (PDF), are what popular author Malcolm Gladwell calls “connectors.”In this paper, Burt offers a theory that such people, because of their position at the intersection of social networks, are able to get and spread good ideas more effectively than others. The second part of this paper details the empirical research; the first part, which the non data-inclined will find more readable, is about how good ideas spread through social networks.

Tara Hunt, “Why and How to Build Social Capital Online”42 minute podcast (available online)

Hunt’s book,  The Whuffie Factor, wasn’t published in time for the reader. Hunt, aka “@missrogue” on Twitter and blogger HorsePigCow, adopts Corey Doctorow’s term “whuffie” in her book about how to  increase social capital by the ways and whos of your online socializing. Hunt certainly walks the walk. Here she talks the talk. It’s not scholarship or sociology, but if you could say that the cyberstreet has a voice, Hunt speaks in its tongue.

Online Technical Support Forums Build Social Capital

Ellison, N., C. Steinfield and C. Lampe (2007) “The Benefits of Facebook “Friends:” Social Capital and College Students’ Use of Online Social Network Sites”, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12 (4).available online

 Instructor’s del.icio.us links tagged “social_capital”


Collective action February 24

Collective action

Digital networks are not important because of their physical capacity to transmit on and off signals very rapidly, but because those signals are the building blocks of symbols that humans use to persuade, inform, and organize other humans into joining or refraining from collective action. The term “collective action” may be dry, but the mysterious magic than enable homo sapiens to use symbols to organize group activities like hunting or agriculture is what distinguished our ancestors from the other scrawny primates on the savannah, surrounded by much more powerful, much swifter, much better armed predators. “Collective action” is the term sociologists, political scientists, and economists use to describe the human capability to organize group activities to produce something that individuals could not produce on their own — from hunting and gathering to dams to democracies. Although this might seem far removed from the questions posed by digital networks, our species might be in for another leap into an entirely different level of complexity and way of life, depending on how we use digital networks to collaborate in new ways and on new levels. In that regard, a generative question is: In what ways do communication media and practices influence the capability to organize collective action?

The “social dilemma” is another term of art in the social sciences to describe the situations that inevitably arise from the tension between self-interest and collective gain, when, in Peter Kollock’s words “individual rationality adds up to collective irrationality,” when acting in one’s self interest ends up damaging or failing to provide for the interests of everybody. In recent years, such diverse but pressing pragmatic problems as the human population explosion and the possiblity of thermonuclear war attracted scientists from very different disciplines to pursue inquiries regarding collective action — what empirical evidence can be gathered about the forms of human cooperation and the barriers to it, and what pattern does the data reveal?  Robert Axelrod was concerned about the strategic gameplaying involved with thermonuclear strategy during the cold war, and also curious about why cooperation evolved in a competitive Darwinian environment, so he asked people to program cooperation games that computers could play. Between them, Ostrom, Axelrod, and Kollock could define the foundation for a new interdiscipline of cooperation studies.


Garrett Hardin, (1968) “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science, 162 (1968):1243-1248. available online

This is the foundational paper for the modern study of the commons (and modern students of the commons would say that Hardin is not referring to a commons, which is managed in some way by a community, but to an open access common pool resource). Looking ahead to the 21st century from the late 1900s, Hardin foresaw disaster in the way the human population was doubling, and more, with each succeeding generation. He referred to the way common grazing grounds have been overgrazed when individual farmers, unrestrained by regulation or property rights, added more and more animals to their flocks until the common meadows became overgrazed and unusable. Isn’t global climate change a commons problem? Ostrom and other modern theorists react to Hardin. This short paper should be read by anyone who wants to understand issues of human collective action — but no reader should stop with Hardin, whose gloomy assumptions have been shown by others to be something other than inevitable. See also this .jpg of a mindmap about issues arising from this article

Elinor Ostrom, (1990) Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp 1-28 (READER)

By all means, read Ostrom’s introduction, and get the whole book if the subject of the commons, and how to manage it, interests you — but Ostrom’s scope is wide. She wants to know how groups of people overcome barriers to collective action and why they fail to overcome them. The whole book is slow going, because the author operates on so many levels of abstraction, but if nothing else, read the instructor’s summary (available online). Ostrom asked of Hardin’s gloomy prophecies the question any scientist should ask: is it really true that humans will inevitably despoil any common resource? Looking and thousands of records, ancient and modern, of human use of shared watersheds, fishing and hunting grounds, forests and grazing lands, Ostrom found that a significant portion of communities found ways to override basic social dilemmas, by constructing systems of norms and self-policing social contracts. Ostrom is getting at something deep — can humans learn to be more cooperative through our culturally constructed institutions than our biological heritage as competitive creatures naturally affords?

Robert Axelrod, “Three Conditions for Human Cooperation.” (available online)

Axelrod’s book is fundamental. Here is a short summary (available online). Thinking about cooperation, evolution, game theory, and computer simulation led him to use what has since become the e. coli of cooperation studies, the computer-simulated interated prisoner’s dilemma game, a strategy game that probes the ways human react when given the choice between assured self interest and potential but not guaranteed benefits of cooperation. Axelrod’s “Three Conditions” brings the gist of his research to a practical level that can then be used as a lens for looking at collective action online: what are the most important conditions for ensuring cooperation among strangers in a competetive environment.

Peter Kollock, “The Economics of Online Cooperation: Gifts and Public Goods in Cyberspace,” in Smith and Kollock, Communities in Cyberspace, (available online.)

Mark van Vugt, “Triumph of the Commons: Helping the world to share,” New Scientist, August 2009  (available online)

Andrea Saveri, Howard Rheingold, Kathi Vian, Technologies of Cooperation, a report for Institute for the Future, 2003 (available online).

Mancur Olson (1965), The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups, (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1965), pp 1-52  (summary available online)

Summaries of Key Texts from Cooperation Commons (available online)

Gavrilets S, Duenez-Guzman EA, Vose MD (2008) “Dynamics of Alliance Formation and the Egalitarian Revolution”. PLoS ONE 3(10): e329 (available online)

Howard Rheingold, “Way New Collaboration” (18 minute video from TED) (available online)

Bimber, B, B., Flanagin, A.J., and C. Stohl. (2005) Introduction and Conclusions – Reconceptualizing Collective Action in the Contemporary Media Enviroment.  In Communication Theory 15 (4).

Jessica Levine (2012) “What a “Human Flesh Search” Is, And How It’s Changing China” (available online)

Collective Action Toolkit (2012) (available online)


Public sphere March 3

The public sphere: community, media, and self-governance

Without liberty, all other questions are moot. Neither philosophy or science are much help in a cell, or a tyranny. So it makes sense to include in our inquiry a look into the relationships between cyberculture and political power.  The historically recent emergence of populations that more-or-less govern themselves through parliaments or constitutions was designed to be a bulwark against the twin dangers of the tyrant and the mob; the popular revolutions of the 18th century were very much based on literacies. Subjects of rulers became citizens of democracies, entitled to life, liberty, and the due process of law — which they argued about in public, through Committees of Correspondence and Federalist Papers. But how can democracy work in practice? How do the beliefs, acts, interests of ordinary citizens influence the creation and execution of laws and policies that make governance possible? In theory, the “public sphere” is where free and informed citizens engage in rational, critical debate about taxes and wars, and through what came to be known as “public opinion,” to influence, even shape the decisions of policy-makers. In this centrally important sense, publics constitute a special variety of community, growing out of communications that are somehow essential for democracy to work.  Media and discussion are central to the public sphere. Arguably, the most important question about virtual community is about whether online discussion can or does improve the health of democracy. The nature, control, and health of the public sphere have been contested vigorously since people asked how democracy actual works. Enlightenment philosophes John Locke and Thomas Jefferson set forth the new idea that commoners could use systems of laws and social contracts  to govern themselves through parliaments and constitutions. At the beginning of the 20th century, the young journalist Walter Lippmann, in his book, Public Opinion, questioned the premise that the uneducated and easily misled masses could actually work the machinery of industrial-era American society without messing it up. Elites of experts, Lippmann insisted, not publics, are how modern democracies must be governed. Inhis review of Lippmann’s book, and his own book on The Public and Its Problems, the older educator, philosopher, political activist John Dewey challenged Lippmann’s argument. If the population of a free country is not informed enough to govern itself, then journalism must become a serious profession. And if that population is not educated enough, what it needs is a free public education system. In the middle of the 20th century, political philosopher Jurgen Habermas laid out the theory of the public sphere in democracy that has been cited and contested ever since; Habermas warned that the rise of paid public relations professionals (a profession invented by Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud) and the mass media threatened to distort and manipulate public opinion beyond recognition. Today, the ideas of Enlightenment philosophes, American intellectuals, and European theorists are being put to a radical test. The outcome of today’s political and economic battles for control of citizen expression and enterprise online will determine how much liberty individuals might have and how much control the 21st century equivalent of monarchs and aristocracies might succeed in wielding.



Pieter Boeder, Habermas Heritage: the future of the public sphere in the network societyFirst Monday, volume 10, number 9 ( September 2005)

If you are serious, read Habermas. Wikipedia has a good introduction to his work. Good luck — to say he isn’t easy reading isn’t adequate. And Habermas has not had anything substantial to say about the fate of the public sphere in the emerging era of many-to-many media. A wealth of literature has begun to accrete around the question of how the Internet has changed the public sphere; fortunately, Pieter Boeder has done the work for us, weaving together a literature review and his own opinion into a good, short, contextual foundation for discussions about the possible shape of the digital public sphere. Contention over this subject is very much alive, and technosocial developments that could affect the outcome are in the daily news, from the “Macaca” video on Youtube that changed the balance of power in the U.S. House of Representatives, to the call by the South Korean government to regulate Internet speech to prevent “infodemics.”

Cass R. Sunstein, “The Daily We: Is the Internet really a blessing for democracy?.” Boston Review, October 20, 2003 available online

What if all this access to information that digital networks afford has an unintended side-effect of amplifying polarization? What if the proliferation of sources of news, opinion, pseudo-news, rumor, and propaganda means that we each now have the power to pay attention only to the people we agree with? Sunstein cites disturbing empirical data about the tendencies of like-minded groups to make more extreme decisions than groups which include a wide range of opinion. Is the Web the people’s printing press, an echo chamber, or a combination of both? If Sunstein is right, can anything be done about this tendency?

Why the public sphere matters in the Internet age (13 minute video by Howard Rheingold)

I made this video when my digital journalism students asked why I was requiring them to read about the emergence of publics in 18th century England

 Ethan Zuckerman, “What Ancient Greek Rhetoric Might Teach Us About New Civics,” dmlcentral.net, November 29, 2012. available online.


Phil Agre, The Practical Republic: Social Skills and the Progress of Citizenship

Whether you are a person in power, a person trying to put someone in power, a person trying to influence those in power, or a powerless person trying to make your way in society, your effectiveness depends on your ability to communicate. Social skills, Agre argues — the ability to use speeches or blog posts to advocate and persuade — are essential to succeeding in a democracy. A scholar of political and social issues when the Internet came along, Agre has been a canny observer of technosocial change from the beginning of the digital revolution. He brings the issue of the social sphere to the level of individual human communication, and shows the connections between theories of the public sphere and modes and media of communication.

Mark, Whipple, “The Dewey-Lippmann debate today: Negotiating the Divide Between Participatory and Elitist Models of Democracy”  Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Hilton San Francisco & Renaissance Parc 55 Hotel, San Francisco, CA,, Aug 14, 2004 (available online)

Do we need better, smarter elites? Or would better journalism and education serve democracy better? The debate that Dewey and Lippmann initiated in the 1920s is very much alive today. Whether you know it or not, your received political opinion about the professional news media, the capabilities or lack of capabilities of the American public, the place of public education is undoubtedly derived from either Dewey’s participatory or Lippmann’s elitist model. Now that media scholars like Henry Jenkins are writing about “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century,” the issue of participation in media production brings teenage music mashup artists, net neutrality activists, and educators into the debate.

Evgeny Morozov, “Texting Toward Utopia,” Boston Review, March-April, 2009 (available online)

This article reviews with a critical eye some of the claims regarding the role of the Internet in promoting democracy.

Yochai Benkler et. al., “Social Mobilization and the Networked Public Sphere: Mapping the SOPA-PIPA debate,” July 19, 2013 (available online)

Democratic Deliberation and Mobilization on the Internet

David Jennings, “Why the net won’t turn us all into social isolationists” (contra Sunstein) (available online)

Jessica Clark and Paul Aufderheide, “Public Media 2.0: Dynamic, Engaged Publics” (available online)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *