Sociology Virtual Communities Paper Suggested Worksheet

Preparation to Write the Paper:Spend 5 weeks+ (approximately 5 hours a week) engaging and initiating with a virtual community. Your goal is to immerse yourself as much as possible in a virtual community (either one that you already have some experience with or a new one) to investigate what being a part of such a community is like. This is like doing ethnography and participant observation in a virtual space. Take notes about people’s reactions to you and the social interactions that occur in such a community. Reflect on your own experiences, feelings, and interactions.

You may create social experiments (without harming anyone) or observe other people’s interaction in the virtual community. You may even conduct interviews (virtually) with people that you meet. And look for connections from your experience to the readings, lectures, and themes from the course.

NOTE: Please follow basic ethical guidelines when conducting research, especially if you decide to do some social experiments or conduct interviews. If you have any questions, please ask me.

Write a 6-8 page paper where you (1) MAKE AN ARGUMENT about the nature of virtual communities and/or social media based on your data you collected from your experience with the virtual community that you chose. Please state your argument clearly in the first page (or paragraph) of the paper.

For example, “In this paper, through participant observation in the sub-Reddit gaming community, I argue that limitations in interactivity prevent the development of strong ties, but using social media to promote and advertise more interactive and engaging events have the potential to create a vibrant, diverse, and vast blended community.” This thesis is very specific in terms of the argument and theories that it will interact with, as well as some of the qualities that it tries to prove. It is also general in that it implies an argument that goes beyond just Reddit (and could be applied to other similar communities). The paper tries to prove that 1) interactivity is a crucial component to developing strong ties over social media, 2) but strong ties are possible and supported through social media, and 3) that these ties are diverse and come from specific forms of engagement that social media can support.

After making your argument clearly, (2) PROVIDE EVIDENCE FROM YOUR DATA as well as (3) UTILIZE AT LEAST TWO READINGS FROM THIS CLASS to make your case. Please provide detailed and specific examples from your participant observation. This means talking about specific interactions and observations. Describe an interaction. What did you post/say? How did they respond? How does this interaction prove your thesis/argument? How do readings (at least 2), theories, and concepts from this class also support your interpretation of your evidence? In other words, how do the readings prove your argument? Conversely, if what you find somehow contradicts the findings in readings, provide more evidence and explanations to show how and suggest why you observed such a difference.

As with the disconnect paper, your interactions with the readings are CRUCIAL and should be the CENTER of the paper. In other words, choose to make an argument that interacts with at least 2 readings in the course. You likely could make MANY arguments with the data you found, but choose something that will allow for deep interaction with the class readings and let that be the focus of your thesis.

My suggestion on how to approach gathering data for this paper:

Step 1: Spend the first week doing some basic exploration and learning about the virtual community you have joined–try to become a member of that community during this time. Note things that stand out to you and you find interesting. Ask yourself meaningful questions about the community you are participating in.

Step 2: Once you feel like you have a good grasp of the community, review key themes that we have been discussing in the course. Review the syllabus (looking ahead as well as behind where we are in the course) and look for readings and topics that you think are relevant and interesting to your virtual community. Choose at least 2 readings that you think will be good to engage with in your paper as it relates to your virtual community.

Step 3: Go back to your virtual community and gather more data. This time, do not just do general exploration, but rather focus on the key themes, concepts, and ideas that appear in those 2 readings you chose and gather more data surrounding those readings. Ask yourself key research questions that relate to those readings about your virtual community and try to find data that will help you answer the research question

A simple example: Can you make strong ties on the Internet? Several readings on the syllabus asks this question in different ways. You could ask the same kind of question of your virtual community. In step 3, you would do deliberate, targeted interactions to try to answer this question in regards to your virtual community.  Then, when you go to write your paper, you would use the readings to help you compare and contrast the data you discovered and whether or not it is possible to make strong ties in your virtual community and discover why it is or isn’t.

1. What kind of virtual community works for this paper? (this is repeated from your proposal assignment)

A virtual community that has a visible, discernible boundary where you can identify members clearly is generally the kind of virtual community that will work for this. So that means saying “Facebook” might be simply too large, but identifying a subgroup on Facebook (like a Facebook Group) would likely work better. For Twitter or Instagram, this could be a hashtag or communities that revolve around a specific person, theme, etc. Look for subgroups rather than overly large communities with unidentifiable boundaries.

Blended communities (communities that are partially virtual and partially offline/face-to-face) work as well, as long as a relatively large portion of interaction takes place online. This would include things like dating apps, Meet Ups, and other communities that have a predominately online interaction space but has a significant physical component as well.

You are welcome to do a virtual community that you have been a part of for awhile–my only concern is that if you are too close to the community, it could blind you to interesting things to notice, simply because you are too close to the culture of that community. You should pick something that interests you, but something new could also be beneficial for this assignment.

One suggestion is to look for niche virtual communities. These are sometimes on random websites, fan pages, forum spaces, reddit subgroups, etc. and are not always found on massively popular and mainstream social media websites. Some of the most interesting virtual communities are more specific and more hidden. These communities can be relatively small, as long as there is daily engagement so that you can plug yourself in and really get to know people.

The virtual community should also have a social media space that allows you relatively meaningful engagements. In other words, if you did some kind of gaming community, look for specific spaces to engage with a set group of people. This could be a guild, discord site, fan page, resource guide/community, etc. Just playing the game will not work as you probably have fairly limited access to engagements and gathering data.

2. I don’t see a reading that really fits with what I want to talk about in my paper. Can I draw on outside readings?

The short answer is no. This is NOT a real research paper. Unfortunately, I don’t have the resources or guidance to feel comfortable unleashing you all to go online to do independent research. Instead, I think of this project more as an introduction to virtual community research that uses simple, flexible research methods as a way to introduce you to the field–perhaps in the future, you can build off of what you do in this class.

As a result, you are only graded on readings that are found on the syllabus. This MAY limit the scope of what you can talk about (see above suggestions on how to approach gathering data for this paper). If there is a course concept that appeared in lecture but I did not assign on the syllabus, you ABSOLUTELY can use this reading if you get approval. Please come talk to me as soon as possible to get permission and a copy of the reading that pertains to the course concept and you can use that in your paper and it will count towards your usage of two readings.

Note: Under the Files section of our bCourses site, in the folder title “Readings” there is a folder of

“Extra readings”

that are okay to use for the virtual community paper. You might want to check there first to see a reading has already been approved and added to that folder.

Professor Edwin Lin
Soc. 167- Virtual Communities and Social Media
Virtual Communities Paper Suggested Outline
***NOTE: All length suggestions are JUST suggestions! Of course, depending on your
project and writing style, lengths of sections will turn out differently. This is
perfectly expected, but DO consider why you spend more or less space explaining
something. Ask yourself: (if too long) do you need all this information? (If too short)
are you being clear enough?
Also, just because you followed the structure below does not suddenly mean you get
an A on the paper. Content matters. Analysis matters. The outline, however, is meant
to give you an idea of what is expected and provide support for how to write in a
structures, purposeful, and logical way.
I. Introduction (1/2 – 1 page)
A. Background/Opening (1-4 sentences)
1. Introduces the focus of the paper
2. Grabs reader’s attention
3. Provides any necessary information needed to understand the thesis
B. Thesis (1-2 sentences)
1. Clearly states argument/position of the paper
2. “In this paper, I argue that the features and design of medical forum
community websites, specifically WebMD, encourage openness and
sharing, but in a way that prevents the creation of sustainable strong
II. Method (1 page)
A. Background Information (2-3 sentences)
1. Brief description of the virtual community you engaged in
2. Any details that are important and might come into play later on in your
analysis (draw your reader’s attention to it now)
B. What Did You Do? (2-4 sentences)
1. Specific details about what you did. DO NOT just say you spent 2 weeks
engaging in the community. This is obvious and meaningless (assume
your reader knows the assignment instructions).
2. Focus on the things you did that MADE IT INTO THE PAPER. Ignore things
that you did but you will not discuss in the paper as evidence.
3. “I spent hours observing forum interactions, specifically around parents
asking about their children’s rare and strange symptoms. I also posted my
own thread asking for advice imitating a concerned parent, and kept
asking questions and updating my thread over the course of two weeks.
As a follow-up, I also tried to send private messages to people who
responded to my thread to see if I could create deeper bonds and
interactions with them.”
III. Data and Analysis (4-6 pages)
A. Introduction (1 – 4 sentences)
Professor Edwin Lin
Soc. 167- Virtual Communities and Social Media
1. Introduce to the reader in a clear fashion what you will be arguing and
proving in this section
2. “In this section, I prove two key findings that put together affirm this
paper’s argument that WebMD encourages sharing and openness, while
at the same time discourages sustainable strong ties. First, I will show
using Baym’s (2010) aspects of social media that WebMD’s interactivity
and features result in very private details being shared, yet an inability to
create lasting strong ties. Second, I will then argue that Tufekci’s (2010)
theory is altered in the WebMD space such that Seek and Ye Shall Find
simply does not work.”
B. Claim or Argument #1 (2 pages)
1. Claim or Argument: Explain what it is that you are going to prove in this
first subsection—it should line up with what you told us in the
introduction of the Data and Analysis section
2. Evidence #1: After presenting the claim, provide the first piece of
evidence or your first point that proves your claim/argument
a. Analysis: explain what the evidence shows and why it is a convincing
interpretation of the evidence; this is where you might integrate some
of the readings (to prove that your analysis makes sense, for example,
or to contrast it from what was found in the readings).
b. Connect: connect your analysis back to your claim and/or your
overarching thesis. What does this prove and why does it matter?
3. Evidence #2: Present more evidence that proves your claim
a. Repeat as with Evidence #1
C. Claim + Evidence #2 (Repeat above)
D. [Claim + Evidence #3, if necessary (Repeat above)]
IV. Conclusion (1 page)
A. Quick and Brief Summary
1. Recap the most important findings and arguments and proof that you
2. Highlight, if necessary, some of the bigger and more important things you
believe you found and have proven
B. Extension
1. Why does what you found matter? Why is it interesting or important?
2. Suggestions: what kind of further research could be done? And/or what
kinds of changes should people (or governments, or whoever) make as a
result of what you discovered?
New Media & Society
Cellphones in public: social interactions in a wireless era
Lee Humphreys
New Media Society 2005; 7; 810
DOI: 10.1177/1461444805058164
The online version of this article can be found at:
Published by:
Additional services and information for New Media & Society can be found at:
Email Alerts:
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new media & society
Copyright © 2005 SAGE Publications
London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi
Vol7(6):810–833 [DOI: 10.1177/1461444805058164]
Cellphones in public:
social interactions in a
wireless era
Annenberg School for Communication, University
of Pennsylvania, USA
Cellphones provide a unique opportunity to examine how
new media both reflect and affect the social world. This
study suggests that people map their understanding of
common social rules and dilemmas onto new technologies.
Over time, these interactions create and reflect a new
social landscape. Based upon a year-long observational field
study and in-depth interviews, this article examines
cellphone usage from two main perspectives: how social
norms of interaction in public spaces change and remain
the same; and how cellphones become markers for social
relations and reflect tacit pre-existing power relations.
Informed by Goffman’s concept of cross talk and Hopper’s
caller hegemony, the article analyzes the modifications,
innovations and violations of cellphone usage on tacit
codes of social interactions.
Key words
cellphones • mobile phones • public space • social
interaction • wireless technologies
New technologies such as wireless communication devices are
currently at the center of both scrutiny and fascination. As mobile phone
subscriptions continue to rise, questions are raised about the effects of these
new communication technologies. How do these technologies change
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Humphreys: Cellphones in public
people and their social relations? Some have suggested that mobile phones
‘affect every aspect of our personal and professional lives either directly or
indirectly’ (Katz and Aakhus, 2002: i).
While important research has been done on looking into the effects of
cellphones, one should not overestimate the effects of new technologies
(Katz and Aakhus, 2002). Rather than follow a technological deterministic
research agenda, Williams (1990) suggests understanding the societal context
in which a technology is produced as a means of understanding its function
in society as well as its reflection of society. By focusing only on the effects
of technology one can misunderstand the greater social and cultural context
that it reflects.
Much research has examined how communication technologies reflect the
social and cultural world in which they are situated. Fischer (1992), Hopper
(1992), Katz (1999), Pool (1977), Sarch (1993) and Umble (1996) all
provide interesting examinations of the social uses and effects of the
telephone. This research provides a great jumping-off point for examining
cellphone usage. In Marvin’s (1988) analysis about the introduction of
electricity and the telephone in the late 19th century, she argues that
communities use new technologies to try and solve old problems of
managing time and space in communicative relationships. In that process,
users of new technologies alter customary social distances among citizens. To
manage the anxieties that result from these shifts, they must invent new
conventions of social trust appropriate to these new technologies. Similarly,
Zuboff (1984) suggests that technological innovations do not lead to discrete
effects, but instead alter the social and organizational fabric of our world.
The effects of new technologies are not direct, but negotiated through
people’s construction and use of them.
This study aims to build on this body of literature by showing that new
media, in particularly cellphones, are quickly surrounded by common social
rules and dilemmas. New technologies provide a new place for people to
work out these problems and socialize in ways with which they are already
familiar. Over time, these interactions create a whole new social landscape.
Therefore, in addition to research on new technologies, one can look to
research on social interaction to understand how people use cellphones.
Researchers such as Goffman (1963, 1971), Grice (1972), Hopper (1981,
1992), Maynard and Zimmerman (1984), Shimanoff (1980) and Sudnow
(1972), provide analyses for the way in which people interact and behave in
social contexts. This study applies specifically Goffman’s (1963) and Hopper’s
(1992) work on normative roles for social interaction to cellphone use in
order to gain a greater understanding of this new social landscape arising in
a wireless era.
Goffman and Hopper each offers us nuanced understandings of norms for
social interaction that are applicable to this study. In order to make sense of
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New Media & Society 7(6)
how wireless technology might change social interaction in public spaces,
first one must understand social interactions in public spaces before the
introduction of such technology. Goffman’s (1963) observations of behavior
in public spaces provide insights into the norms for social interaction.
Specifically, he offers models for normative behavior in public spaces.
Goffman’s insights provide a starting place from which to explore the social
uses and effects of cellphones in public.
While Goffman offers models for normative behavior in public space,
Hopper (1992) suggests tacit social rules for traditional telephone use. Using
Hopper’s models of normative behavior for telephone conversations as a
base, one can explore what happens when phones are no longer as
geographically confined to private spaces. Hopper offers a starting place
from which to analyze phone use in public spaces. Together, Goffman and
Hopper provide models for understanding the introduction of cellphones
into public spaces – specifically, how the technology may influence
normative social interaction, as well as how traditional landline phone use
may change when phones can be used in more public contexts.
Others have offered insights into the uses and effects of new wireless
communication technologies. In his book Machines that Become Us: The Social
Context of Personal Communication Technology (2003), James Katz and others
explore the relationship between personal communication technology and
social control, suggesting that there is a complex interplay between fashion,
the body, social groups and such technology (see also Katz and Aakhus,
2002). Katz argues that the fear of technology taking over society is
ultimately misplaced and such beliefs neglect the human agency involved in
using personal communication technologies. In addition, Mizuko Ito’s
research on Japanese youth and mobile technologies has broadened and
deepened our understanding of the cultural and social uses of mobile
phones. She has discussed mobile technology as it relates to fashion,
liberation from parental control and social organization for Japanese
teenagers (2003a, 2003b). As a cultural anthropologist, Ito’s ethnographic
methodological approach helps to contextualize her findings within Japanese
youth culture.
Over a year-long project (2002–3), I conducted observational fieldwork and
interviews to try to understand how people use cellphones in public spaces.
The observations and interviews mainly took place in restaurants, cafés,
theaters, bars, parks, libraries, student centers, airports, train stations and on
trains and on the street. Field observations were conducted on average twice
a week for one to three hours over the course of the year. These were
conducted mostly in Philadelphia, New York City and Raleigh, NC. The
day of week and time of day was altered so as to get a more representative
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Humphreys: Cellphones in public
sample. In addition to these field sessions, shorter observations were
conducted in targeted areas. People were observed just outside of places
where cellphone use is socially prohibited, such as theaters or lecture halls.
In these cases, people were observed sometimes before the event, during
intermission or as they exited the building. Throughout the project, such
instances would be observed three to four times a month in addition to the
longer field sessions. Typically these observation sessions did not last longer
than 15 minutes at a time. Further, people were observed in areas of high
mobility, such as airports, train stations and on trains and on the street.
These observations occurred two to three times a month and lasted between
15 minutes and three hours at a time. In these contexts, often it would be
possible to observe subjects only for a few moments before they hurried on
their way through the airports or train stations. In the other environments,
such as cafes or libraries, it was possible to observe the same people for
longer periods of time, although seldom longer than an hour. Over the
course of the study, observation was conducted and field notes made on
approximately 500 subjects using and responding to cellphones.
In addition to observations, interviews were conducted in order to check
the responses of the interviewees against the observations and to try to
understand how people make decisions about cellphone usage in public
spaces. A convenience sample of 12 participants was recruited from an
undergraduate communications course at a large northeastern university. The
undergraduate students were all given extra credit in their class for their
participation in the study. Additionally, six participants were approached in a
train station or outside a coffee shop. These six interview subjects ranged in
age from approximately 25 to 60. (Photos were used also to explain the
findings. See the Appendix for a discussion of the use of photographs in this
Cross talk
Goffman’s (1963, 1971) extensive work regarding the social landscape and
normative behavior in public spaces is helpful in understanding how and
why people use cellphones in public. According to Goffman, there are two
types of individuals in public spaces: people who are alone and people who
are with other people. ‘Singles’ and ‘Withs’, as Goffman calls them, are
treated and thought of differently by others in public. For example, Singles
are much more vulnerable to contact from others and may be judged more
harshly than Withs. Goffman suggests that in the worst case scenario, Singles
may be seen as having something wrong with them for not being able to be
in a With – potentially seen as not having friends nor being sociable.
People compensate for being alone and feeling vulnerable in these
situations by using self-defense mechanisms to justify their singular presence
in public spaces. ‘Singles, more than those who are accompanied, make an
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New Media & Society 7(6)
effort to externalize a legitimate purpose and character, that is, render
proper facts about themselves easily readable through what can be gleaned
by looking at them,’ (Goffman, 1963: 21). For example, Singles may read a
newspaper, drink a cup of coffee or otherwise seem occupied in order to
avoid being approached or appearing as if they do not have any business
being in the public place. In this way, such acts not only legitimize their
presence but can also act as involvement shields against intrusion from
Occasionally, however, a With may be left alone while their partner uses
the bathroom or leaves to do something else for a moment. In these
situations, the With may seem to be alone. This opens the individual up to
being susceptible to a Single’s vulnerabilities. In this case, a defensive
measure would be to counter any approach by saying, ‘I’m with someone’
(Goffman, 1963: 23). Another instance when a With might feel socially
vulnerable is when their partner participates in what Goffman refers to as
‘cross talk’. This is a conversation where ‘one member of a With
momentarily sustains exclusive talk with someone who is not in the With’
(p. 25). This may result in the other person in the With feeling awkward
and exposed.
As a result of cross talk, the With not engaged in conversations has a
couple of options to avoid feeling awkward. He can try to occupy himself
by looking at a menu or eating dinner. According to Goffman, in the latter
case the individual’s secondary activity is a defense mechanism against social
vulnerabilities. If one thinks of a ringing cellphone within a dyad as
analogous to a third person intruding on a With, cross talk becomes a useful
concept with which to explore cellphone use in public spaces and its effects
on interpersonal relationships.
Using cross talk as a model, this article examines cellphone use from two
main perspectives: (1) how people conform to familiar rules of social
interaction in US public spaces; and (2) how people break rules of social
interaction in public space. Two people are engaging in an exclusive
interaction when an outsider interrupts the interaction to engage one of the
persons in exclusive conversation. As opposed to a third person physically
approaching a With, a ringing cellphone indicates a third person intruding
upon a With. Rather than physically approaching the dyad, a cellphone call
to a person engaged in a face-to-face interaction may lead to social anxiety
on the part of the person left out of the phone interaction. During this
stage people engage in a number of self-defense mechanisms to alleviate the
anxiety and vulnerability of suddenly becoming a Single and feeling left out.
An important deviation from face-to-face cross talk first occurs when the
phone rings and the owner must decide how to handle it. This negotiation
will be discussed at length later as it relates to social relations and power.
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Humphreys: Cellphones in public
Responses to cellphone calls
Throughout the observations it was noted how people respond to their
partners receiving cellphones calls. If the person did answer the cellphone
and engage in a new exclusive interaction, the former With often exhibited
some anxiety or annoyance at becoming a ‘Single’. It was possible to
observe new Singles engaging in a number of activities to alleviate some of
the vulnerability and unease (see Figures 1 and 2 for examples). These
• Figure 1 Sitting at an outdoor café, the person on the right talks on his cellphone while the
person on the left looks around at the people walking by
• Figure 2 While waiting at the train station, the person on the left talks on her cellphone.
The person on the right drinks her coffee and looks around
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New Media & Society 7(6)
include reading a menu or a book, drinking their water or coffee, eating
their food, looking out the window, studying the scrabble board, looking at
other people and playing with their own cellphones. Although people
sometimes played with their own cellphones, people rarely made a call.
Most often they seem to be checking to see if their phone is on or off, or
checking their messages. However, three respondents indicated that they
would make a cellphone call themselves if their friend was on the phone for
a while. ‘If it’s a long conversation I’ll call somebody or find someone else
to talk to. But I’d feel kinda silly just standing around’ (Subject 14).
People often feel awkward when their former partner is engaged in an
exclusive interaction. As a result, people often engage in activities to bide
their time until their partner gets off the phone. This behavior is illustrated
in Figures 3 and 4 where the person on the phone talked for so long that
her former partner eventually got up and went over to other people she
knew. In Figure 3 the girl on the left is talking on her cellphone while the
girl on the right is looking out the window. In this situation, the person on
the right is still engaging in an alternate activity (looking out the window)
while waiting for her friend. In Figure 4, taken a few minutes later, the girl
on the right has left to talk to others nearby while the girl on the left has
not seemed to move much.
This kind of behavior can be seen also when people are walking together.
When two people were observed walking together with one of them on the
phone, most of the time the non-caller walked slightly ahead as though
• Figure 3 At a café doing work, the person on the left talks on her cellphone while the
woman on her right stars out the window
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Humphreys: Cellphones in public
• Figure 4 After a few minutes, the woman on the right gets up and leaves without the
cellphone talker taking much notice
leading the two. The person on the phone also often had his or her head
tilted down as if trying to create privacy (see Figure 5).
Goffman identifies these actions as defense mechanisms against social
vulnerabilities; however, there seems to be an additional reason why
someone would engage in these activities. A person might want to help
create a ‘private space’ in which his partner can have a conversation. By
engaging in distracting activities such as reading a menu, it gives the
• Figure 5 The woman on the right walks slightly behind and chats on her cellphone with her
head down. Her friend on the left walks ahead as they make their way through the
train station.
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New Media & Society 7(6)
impression that one is not eavesdropping on the cellphone conversation.
This also relates to Goffman’s (1963) term ‘civil inattention’ which refers to
how middle-class Americans maintain order and avoid socially inappropriate
interactions with others in public spaces.
Listening in
Despite social rules against eavesdropping, observations and interviews
indicate that eavesdropping was a fairly common practice among people
whose partners were on their cellphone. Several respondents confessed to
listening to their friends’ cellphone conversations. For example:
Interviewer: If your friend got a call and she talked to the person, what do
you do when she’s on the call?
S12: I listen intently to see what they’re talking about. [laughs] Um, I don’t
know. It’s kinda an awkward situation. You’re just kinda like there and you’re
not really sure if you’re supposed to be listening or not. But I mean, I guess
it if were my friend, I would listen and if it weren’t my friend, I would still
listen out of curiosity [laughs] but pretend that I’m not listening.
By pretending that she is not listening, the respondent is acknowledging
the social norms of privacy and civil inattention. Somewhere we are taught
that we are not supposed to listen to conversations in which we are not
People are more likely to listen openly if they know both people on the
call or if the conversation is about them. During the observations, people
were seen actively listening to their partner’s conversation when their
partner was talking about them or what the two were doing. Some
respondents openly admit listening to their friends if they know the person
on the other end. This is illustrated in Figure 6. The man on the phone was
talking about where they were and what they were doing. This gives the
man sitting next to him liberty to listen openly to the call. As with listening
to a call from friends, when one is connected to the conversation (either by
topic or social relations) it grants the freedom to listen. In the field, such
active listening was contextually dependent and did not occur as often as
people not listening or at least pretending not to listen.
Goffman (1971) suggests that when telephone calls interrupt face-to-face
interactions, often physical bystanders will feel alienated by the intrusion of
the call. Similarly, respondents reported feeling ‘annoyed’ or ‘put off ’ when
their friends’ would chat on their cellphones. One respondent was aware
that his behavior might be considered rude and made an effort to appease
the person physically present:
Depending on whom I’m talking to, I don’t really make eye contact with the
person who’s there. I think I tend to do that intentionally I guess because in a
way it makes it, the call, seem really important and that I’m paying attention
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Humphreys: Cellphones in public
• Figure 6 The man on the left talks on his cellphone about where the two men are and
what they are doing as the man on the right conspicuously listens in
to that. Even if it isn’t that important, I think that I would probably still not
make eye contact with the other person, so they don’t think that I’m just
blowing them off, chatting away on my phone. (Subject 10)
Sometimes, however, callers engaged both the person on the other end
and the person with whom they were at the time. This brings us to a fourth
stage of cellphone cross talk which is significantly different from face-to-face
cross talk.
Dual front interaction
One of the limitations of interacting over the phone is the lack of visual
cues though which people can communicate information. When someone is
physically present, one can communicate verbally as well as nonverbally
through both aural and visual cues. This allows for potential communication
to occur between the caller and partner who are physically present without
the person on the other end of the phone knowing of this communication.
Several researchers have written about the concept of performing on ‘two
very different “front stages”’ when engaging in mobile phone use in public
spaces (Geser, 2002: section 5.2; Palen et al., 2000). As Goffman (1971)
suggests, people are subject to expectations both from the person on the
phone and the person with them. In some circumstances, managing the
expectations of one relationship may be detrimental to the other. As a result,
people will often engage in collusive interactions to indicate their constraints
to others.
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New Media & Society 7(6)
In the field observations, people were seen communicating nonverbally to
their physical partners. They communicated both about the cellular
interaction that was just occurring as well as their continued interaction
from before the call. People communicated frustration with the cellphone
call through eye rolling or motioning with their hands for the conversation
to hurry up. I saw people hold up their finger as if to indicate ‘Hold on, I’ll
be just a minute on the phone’. The same respondent, who would not
make eye contact while on the phone, acknowledged that he also uses
nonverbal communication to interact with people while on the phone:
For example, if my mom calls me and I don’t particularly want to talk to her
and well, I might roll my eyes to the other person so they know that I’m like,
‘Ok, let’s get off the phone already.’ And in a case like that, it’s almost for the
same reason that I don’t make eye contact before. In this case, I still want to
make the other person feel like I’m not blowing them off. (Subject 10)
Sometimes, people will need to communicate with the person that they
are physically with because it is pertinent to the phone conversation. For
example, in Figure 7 the male needed a pen and paper to write something
down. Using iconic illustrators, he communicated his need and his physical
parter obliged. She was then engaged in an interaction with him and could
actively look at him and listen to his conversation, while the person on the
other end did not have to know her presence.
At other times, people communicated about things not related to the
phone conversation. Often the person not on the phone communicated
verbally and received nonverbal responses back from their partners. For
• Figure 7 Performing on two fronts, the man on the right verbally communicated on his
phone while non-verbally communicating to the woman next him that he needed
a pen and paper
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Humphreys: Cellphones in public
example, in cafes or restaurants, several people were observed asking their
partners if they wanted coffee or dessert and the partners who were on the
phone responded with a head nod. This type of communication was
frequent because it does not indicate to the person on the other end of the
phone that the caller is engaged in any other behavior besides their
conversation. Because of the social obligations to both the person on the
phone and the person they are physically with, callers have to constantly
negotiate their social relations on two fronts. At times, the people on the
phone engaged in verbal responses to the person physically present. When
this occurred, the caller might apologize for the interruption to the person
on the other end of the phone. Occasionally, if the physical interaction
required a lot of attention or seemed like it would last a while, the caller
asked the person on the other end of the phone to hold on. Upon
returning to the phone conversation, the caller almost always apologized.
The Single or person not on the phone can communicate both verbally or
nonverbally to their partner. However, it was much easier for the caller to
communicate nonverbally to their physical partner because it disrupted their
cellphone conversation or second performative front much less than verbal
communication did.
Three-way interactions
A fifth stage of cellphone cross talk can occur, but is rarer. In this mediated
cross talk, the Single can interact with his physical partner and the person
on the other end of the phone, but interaction is dependent on the
cellphone user. In the few instances where this was observed happening, the
primary interactional focus was the cellphone conversation with the Single
trying to listen to half of the conversation and chime in whenever they
could. This type of dependency upon the cellphone user is much like the
dependency upon a translator in face-to-face interactions. Although
occasionally the person on the other end of the phone might be able to
hear their cellphone user’s physical partner, this physical partner can almost
never hear the person on the other end of the phone. Hence, the physical
partner is reliant upon the cellphone user to relay messages back when
Cross talk provides a helpful framework for understanding how people
respond to cellphone calls when in social interactions. Several factors may
constrain face-to-face cross talk while not affecting cellphone cross talk.
First, cellphone crosstalk does not have the geographic or physical
requirements of three people in the same place at the same time. Second, a
person approaching a dyad can use social cues to determine whether or not
to approach. If it looks like the dyad is deep in conversation or perhaps
arguing, the third person can decide against interrupting. A person calling
someone’s cellphone may have little idea what the person is doing at that
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New Media & Society 7(6)
moment and certainly has no immediate perceptual information of the
situation. Without physical or social constraints, cellphones permit
interruptions to social interactions more easily.
Goffman wrote about cross talk in 1963, long before cellphones made
their way into the public domain. Yet his observations about social
interactions relate so closely to wireless technology use, suggesting that
people map their understandings of common social rules and dilemmas onto
new technologies. In new contexts people rely on tacit social norms to
negotiate their social interactions; however, these new contexts can call for
new rules about social acceptability.
Caller hegemony
Robert Hopper (1992) explores how the telephone becomes a site for the
contestation of power, suggesting that a defining characteristic of telephone
conversation is the asymmetrical relationship between the caller and the
answerer on a telephone. First, the caller determines the beginning of the
interaction and the answerer must respond. That is, ‘the caller acts, the
answerer must react’ (1992: 9; emphasis added). Hopper terms this role
inequity ‘caller hegemony’. This imbalance is indicated also in the openings
of calls by the fact that callers know whom they are calling and for what
purpose, but when people answer the phone they are, for the most part,
unaware who is calling or why. The answerer is required to speak first
without knowing who is on the other end. Therefore the caller is the first
to recognize who is speaking and typically introduces the topic of
conversation. This may include inquiring about the answerer’s current
activities which, according to Hopper, may infringe the answerer’s privacy.
For all of these reasons, the caller has more power than the answerer in the
relationship. Understanding how this asymmetrical relationship translates to a
cellphone interaction, where the call recipient may know who is calling
through caller identification (caller ID), can provide insight into broad social
The necessity to answer a ringing phone is one indicator of this
asymmetrical relationship to be explored further in this study. Hopper asserts
that ‘any summoned individual may choose to ignore the [ringing phone] –
but this requires rowing against the current’ (1992: 57). The social norm is
that when a landline phone is ringing, someone will answer it. Even in an
extreme situation where someone is involved in a passionate argument with
a loved one, Hopper found overwhelmingly that people will answer their
telephone. Inevitably, the face-to-face encounter is superceded by the
mediated interruption of the summoning telephone. Such evidence of
normative telephone use can be helpful in exploring how people respond to
cellphones in public spaces.
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Humphreys: Cellphones in public
Of course, telecommunications technology has changed since the advent
of the telephone. Supplementary devices such as caller ID and answering
machines have changed the way that people use telephony (Hopper, 1992;
Katz, 1999; Sarch, 1993; Westmyer et al., 1998). Although Hopper does not
discuss caller ID, he does suggest that answering machines can help to shift
the power dynamics of a caller–answerer relationship. Answering machines
allow answerers to know who is calling and decide when they wish to
return the call, or even if they will at all. Callers are aware that this
technology is being used. Whether the answerer picks up the phone midmessage or calls the original caller back, the caller is aware that the answerer
has the power to determine the course of the call. Voicemail comes as
standard on most cellphones.
The literature surrounding caller ID has been concerned primarily with
issues of privacy (see Federal Communications Commission, 1998; Katz,
1999). Prior to answering the call, the answerer can see either the name of
the caller, the phone number from which they are calling, or ‘Caller ID
unavailable’ if the caller has signed up proactively to have his identification
information blocked. Unlike regular telephones, caller ID usually comes as
standard and free of charge on cellphones. Although landline phones may
offer a caller ID service, typically it is an added expense. In addition, caller
ID does not have to be programmed into the cellphone but is a ready
feature. Therefore, the call recipient is automatically given caller
identification information on their cellphone. Also, some caller ID devices
for landline phones are not on the handset itself, but are a completely
separate device. Therefore the proximity of the cellphone caller ID
information may suggest an additional ease of use which some standard
landline caller ID devices cannot offer. Thus, cellphones provide a unique
opportunity for understanding how people negotiate the formerly
asymmetrical power relations on the phone.
Using Hopper’s discussion of caller hegemony, one can identify
cellphones as indicators for social hierarchies. Cellphone users can use caller
ID as a way to negotiate social relations in public space. Caller ID allows
the answerer to disrupt the traditional caller–answerer power dynamic by
empowering the answerer with information with which to determine how
to handle the social situation. As Goffman noted (1971), people have social
responsibilities both to those on the phone and to those physically present.
If someone is having a face-to-face conversation with a loved one, caller ID
allows the answerer to make a judgment about whether or not to answer
the call.
In addition to the caller ID feature on cellphones, the mobility of
cellphones also suggests a potential disruption for caller hegemony. Rather
than being at home when one’s landline phone rings, a person can be
anywhere (within reasonable distance to a cell tower), doing anything when
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New Media & Society 7(6)
their cellphone rings. The difference in context (home vs public space) may
influence the formerly asymmetrical relationship between caller and
answerer. The primacy of the phone interaction may not be as strong when
one’s dominant activity is in a public space. Goffman defines dominant
involvement in an activity as that ‘involvement whose claims upon an
individual the social occasion obliges him to be ready to recognize’ (1963:
44). When one is in a public space, the social obligations of the dominant
activity may supersede the immediacy of a ringing cellphone. As such, the
caller hegemony that Hopper describes for landline phones may not translate
to cellphones in this public environment.
Disruption of hegemony
In the field, people were observed responding to their ringing cellphones.
There were four categories of responses into which people generally fell.
The majority of people looked at the caller ID then answered their
cellphones. Others looked at the caller ID and did not answer. Some people
just seemed to answer without looking at the caller ID. Some people
answered, then looked at the caller ID. For these people, it seemed as
though they were rushing to stop the phone from ringing loudly in a
relatively quiet area. By opening up the phone or pushing the ‘talk’ button,
people could stop the ringing and then look at the caller ID information to
prepare them for the call.
Most respondents who were interviewed indicated that they look at who
is calling prior to answering the phone. Some respondents said they would
answer the phone regardless of who is calling, while others said that
sometimes they will decide whether or not to answer the phone in public
based on who is calling. None of the respondents used the word ‘screen’
when discussing how and when they decide to use their cellphones in
public spaces. Nonetheless, respondents indicated they do in fact screen their
cellphone calls.
Interviewer: You mentioned that you sometimes look to see who’s calling. Do
you always do that?
Subject 13: Well, it comes up on my phone. It’ll just say. I’ve programmed my
phone so the name will come up and so whenever I pick up my phone I’ll
just see it. I don’t do it or not do it intentionally. You know, I just see it.
Which is actually kinda good because if you don’t want to talk to the
person who’s calling, you can just disregard it. Which I do sometimes
When caller ID is unavailable, however, most respondents indicated that
they would answer the phone.
Whenever a number comes up that I don’t recognize, I always answer it just
because I’m always like, ‘Oh it could be an emergency or something’.
(Subject 4)
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Humphreys: Cellphones in public
So if it’s not a number that I know, I’m usually really tempted to pick it up
[laughs]. To see, it just could be anyone then. So I usually pick it up. Cuz I
wanna see who it is. Especially if it says, ‘unavailable’, because then I can’t call
them back. (Subject 15)
Not knowing who is calling keeps the power dynamics the same as with
a traditional telephone. The answerer is at the mercy of the caller.
In addition to understanding how respondents use caller ID, the
interviews provided additional insight into how people think about caller
ID. When some respondents were asked whether or not they use caller ID,
several became defensive and indicated that it just ‘comes up’ on the phones
without them asking for it. Several respondents indicated that they were ‘not
proud’ that they use caller ID. One respondent referred to caller ID as one
of the ‘finer elements of receiving calls’. These responses indicate an
awareness that caller ID somehow changes the interaction. It seemed that
respondents were aware that the power dynamic shifts when the answerer
can know who is calling prior to answering the phone. It also seemed that
respondents thought the traditional power dynamic to be morally correct
and that to violate it is to commit a socially improper act.
Several respondents implicitly denounced a proactive use of caller ID, but
still indicated that they use it when deciding whether or not to answer.
Respondents indicated that if a cellphone call was ‘necessary’ – necessary
being determined by the context and who was calling – then it was
acceptable to answer and interrupt the interaction at hand. Most respondents
indicated that they would always answer a ‘necessary’ or ‘important’
cellphone call. However, if the answerer deemed that the call was ‘not an
emergency’ and could be easily returned at a later time, the respondent
indicated little or no guilt about letting the call go to voicemail.
It is not surprising that a disruption of caller hegemony is accompanied
sometimes by guilt or shame on the part of the answerer. Of course, this
shame can be counterbalanced by the social responsibilities that one has to
the immediate environment. In all of these circumstances, people use caller
ID on cellphones as a tool to negotiate social responsibilities.
Maintenance of hegemony
Even with caller ID, caller hegemony still exists to some degree –
sometimes answerers are still at the mercy of the ringing phone. Several
respondents indicated that they do not ‘disregard’ calls, but that they answer
with the intention of telling the person that they will call them back. For
example, one respondent indicated that she would see who it is and answer
her phone even if she did not want to talk right then. ‘If it’s my parents or
one of my good friends, then I’ll pick it up and say, “I’m out, I’ll call you
back in, like, an hour”.’ Despite the potential shift in power dynamics, some
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New Media & Society 7(6)
answerers still feel the need to answer their phones, regardless of the
situation at hand.
Interestingly, although many respondents indicated that they use caller ID,
sometimes even to screen calls, their response to someone screening them
was quite different. Several respondents said that they themselves had never
been screened despite having just admitted that they screen their incoming
cellphone calls. Some respondents admitted that they did not think or know
of a time when they had been screened, but assumed that it must have
happened at some point. When asking respondents about how they feel
about being screened, most responded negatively. One respondent equated it
to a friend rejecting them. Another indicated that it would be ‘rude’ and
that she would be ‘annoyed’. One respondent said she thought that if her
friend didn’t answer her call, the friend might be angry with her. Several
respondents initially had negative responses, but then came around to say,
‘Well, I guess everyone does it’. One respondent said, ‘I guess that since it’s
expected, then it doesn’t bother me so much’.
One respondent indicated that he does not screen his cellphone calls
when he is with other people because he does not want the people he is
with to think that he screens their calls.
If I’m with a friend who expects me to answer when they call me, then that
friend doesn’t get upset when I answer the phone when I’m with them
because they’d expect that I would. If they know I’m ignoring calls then
it gives them suspicion that when they call me I’m gonna be ignoring their
call. (Subject 2)
Respondents are remarkably aware of the power dynamics of their social
relations and will negotiate them appropriately. Overall, it was easier for
respondents playing the role of answerers to disrupt the caller hegemony in
their favor. However, when respondents play the role of caller, they expect
the traditional caller–answerer relationship to be maintained.
Besides caller ID, there are other ways in which cellphone use can disrupt
caller hegemony. Although in the fieldwork it could not be observed when
people had their cellphones switched off, the interview participants
indicated that there are some situations where they do switch off their
cellphones. Classrooms, cinemas and performance halls, among others, were
the spaces mentioned as those where people switch off their cellphones. In
such public contexts, the dominant activity supersedes the ringing
cellphone. Unlike landlines, cellphones have a power button. While one can
turn the ‘ringer’ off of a landline phone, one cannot turn the power off
unless one goes to the trouble of unplugging the telephone. The power
button on a cellphone suggests another means of disrupting the traditional
asymmetrical relationship between caller and answerer.
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Humphreys: Cellphones in public
Further evidence supports the existence of caller hegemony in cellphone
interactions. Contrary to their expectations, Palen et al. (2000) found that
incoming cellphone calls from landlines were longer in duration than were
outgoing calls to landlines. As an explanation the authors suggested that:
perhaps it is the case that the mobile phone user has less control over
managing incoming calls. Alternatively, because some mobile phone users want
to be accessible to certain other people no matter where they are, an awaited
call might be of such importance that the phone owner is willing to suspend
other activity to devote attention to it. (2000: 4–5)
Although Palen et al. do not mention the term caller hegemony, their
findings indicate further support for the imbalance of power between
cellphone callers and answerers.
Using Goffman’s work on behavior in public spaces as a basis for established
social norms, this article has examined how cellphone users understand the
social relations around cellphone use and how they negotiate these relations
in public space. Cellphones allow for communication on multiple fronts
simultaneously. However, this does not always happen and people still
engage in self-defense mechanisms when feeling socially ostracized.
The use of cellphones in public space also allows researchers to
understand better the power dynamics of social relations in face-to-face as
well as telephone interactions. Although caller hegemony still exists to some
degree, cellphones and new telephonic technologies can disrupt the
asymmetry of the traditional caller–answerer relationship. No longer are
answerers always at the mercy of callers. People also use cellphones in
negotiating their social responsibilities to their partners who are physically
present. Expectations about morally correct behavior for face-to-face and
mediated interactions can be moderated by cellphone use.
The models for normative social interaction suggested by Hopper and
Goffman offer a starting point to understand how cellphones may change
social interaction in public spaces. While cellphone use does call for
alterations to the cross talk model that Goffman offers, there was still
evidence of the vulnerability felt when one is left out of a social interaction.
Although there were signs of more active negotiation in the caller–answer
relationship, caller hegemony still exists to some degree. As such, caller
hegemony may influence the prevalence of cross talk with cellphones.
This study is a small step towards understanding the modifications,
innovations and violations of cellphone usage on tacit codes of social
interactions. It should be noted that these findings are not generalizable
beyond the places and instances observed. Rural or non-eastern US cities
may have very different cellphone usage. Also, it was not possible to observe
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New Media & Society 7(6)
the same people over a long period of time, therefore it could not be
observed how the same people use and react to cellphones in different
Further research needs to be conducted on the social uses and effects of
wireless technologies on both a macro and micro level. This study has
explored cellphone usage on a micro-behavioral level, but there is further
work to be done. Time diary studies can help us to understand how and
when people use cellphones. There is also research to be done examining
the difference in content, frequency and uses of cellphone calls and landline
telephone calls. Analyzing cross cultural differences can continue to deepen
our understanding of how technologies reflect cultural and social norms. For
example, researchers are continuing to find differences in usage in Japan, the
US and Scandinavian countries (Ito, 2003b; Katz and Aakhus, 2002).
Cultures and social norms are reflected in how the technology is
Along these lines, further research needs to be done exploring wireless
technologies on a macro level. Wireless telecommunication changes are
greatly affecting and reflecting the global marketplace. Interesting questions
arise regarding the political economy of wireless telecommunication policy
and infrastructure. Specifically in the US, regulation and spectrum issues
raise interesting questions as to the future of wireless technologies. Although
this study does not address it, market and policy influences over the uses
and effects of wireless technologies need to be examined further to get a
greater understanding of the social, economic and cultural context for these
Wireless technologies may privatize and publicize, atomize and
collectivize. This study suggests that cellphones do privatize and atomize
public spaces as cellphone users block out others nearby; however, cellphone
users can publicize their private information when they use their cellphones
loudly in public. Cellphones may allow for greater mediated contact
between persons due to their flexibility and mobility, which in turn may
lead to an overall collectivizing function in society. This study indicates that
cellphones may have differing functions and effects depending on the
context. The mobility of wireless technologies significantly differentiates
them from other technologies. Although many of these same issues arise
with wireless technologies as with all new technologies, the mobility of
wireless technologies suggests a broad context in which to witness its effects.
At the same time cellphones are, for the most part, an interpersonal
technology. Thus the interplay of micro and macro uses and effects spotlights
wireless technology as an important vehicle for exploring social interactions.
Only further research can explain how wireless mediating technology can
reflect and affect the culture that uses it.
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Humphreys: Cellphones in public
The prevalence of cellphones in society calls for a better understanding of
how this technology reflects social relations and processes as well as how it
influences them. Using current social interaction theories is helpful, but
understanding how usage of cellphones and other mobile devices deviate
from current models can generate future models of social interaction.
Recognizing and analyzing people’s agency in the usage and effects of
technology is an important step in understanding our social world. One
cannot study new technologies without exploring the social, economic,
political and cultural context in which they are situated.
Following Carey’s (2002) methodological approach, photographs have been
used here to illustrate trends which emerged from the data. Because much
social interaction is tacit, photographs become rich illustrations of behaviors
indicating themes and categories (Becker, 1974). Rather than using photos
as data, these images capture representative behaviors and themes which
emerged from my observational and interview data. Choosing to use
photographs, however, put me in an ethical dilemma concerning subject
consent. I chose not to inform people that I was photographing them prior
to taking the picture because that would have contaminated the social
process I was trying to capture. By informing people prior to taking their
picture, they might have become too self-conscious about their cellphone
usage to perform the tacit social norms I was trying to capture. Though
some would argue the sheer presence of a photographer contaminates social
processes (see Gross et al., 1988 for discussion), I tried to capture behavior
that demonstrated recurring categorical themes derived from my
observational data with the pictures.
Lisa Henderson writes specifically about Access and Consent in Public
Photography (1988). Following Goffman’s work, she suggests that people
maintain ‘normal appearances’ in public spaces. ‘The maintenance of normal
appearances needn’t imply the photographer’s concealment of himself or his
camera . . . Rather, it means he will be present but of no concern’ (1988:
94). As a photographer I never hid my camera nor did I hide the fact that I
was taking pictures. Often I would pretend I was a tourist interested in the
architecture or the landscape. Other times I would bring a decoy with me
to pose next to someone on the cellphone. Because of the nature of the
spaces, it was fairly easy to maintain normal appearances. The mobility and
anonymity in spaces such as train stations and parks made it easy for me to
blend in. As Henderson notes, the mobility of subjects also lowers the
barriers to photography:
The situation is tempered further if the person is mobile, either walking,
running or riding a bicycle. Under these circumstances photographers
anticipate that people are less likely to notice them, less likely to be sure they
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New Media & Society 7(6)
were the ones being photographed and less likely to interrupt their course in
any event. (1988: 98)
Given that I am studying mobile phones, this is certainly the case. People
were often walking while talking and seemingly oblivious to me and my
But this also raises an interesting question regarding ex-post facto consent.
The photographers Henderson interviewed indicated that it is general
practice to obtain consent after photographing if consent cannot be obtained
prior. Mobile phones raise two interesting challenges to ex-post facto
consent. First, is the fact that mobile people are difficult to photograph
(especially given the slow aperture speed of my camera). For example, it
would also be challenging after taking the photo to try to follow up with
someone who is walking away from you. The second and more important
challenge to photographing cellphones is that as a researcher I am still
subject to the constraining social norms of phone use. That is, you do not
interrupt someone when they are on the phone. I did not feel comfortable
going up to a subject who was using their cellphone and interrupting them,
explaining that I had just taken their photograph for a study on cellphones
and were they ok with it. Additionally, as Meyrowitz (1985) would suggest,
cellphone users tend to be less aware of their surroundings; therefore, asking
someone on their cellphone for their ex-post facto consent could be
startling for the subject. In certain circumstances, I could have waited until
subjects were finished with their call to approach them and to ask for
consent. However, I felt this was unnecessary given the public setting and
the innocuous subject matter I was trying to capture (see Gross et al., 1988).
The technology also allowed me certain leeway in trying to capture the
photographs. Because I was using a digital camera, I could stand further
away from the subjects I was trying to capture on film. I could then go
back on the computer and easily reframe, crop and enlarge the image with
little to no resolution loss. The image I originally captured with the camera
tells a much larger story about the social context and my photographing
process. The purpose of the photos, however, is not to demonstrate my
research process, but to capture examples of the tacit behavioral trends
which emerged from my observations and interviews. As a result, cropping
the image to illustrate particular behaviors better informs the audience of
the photo how to interpret it (see Figures 8 and 9 for an example of an
original photo and how I cropped it).
In this way, the photograph becomes a rhetorical device in the study.
Similar to quotes, photographs can serve as both evidence of our research
and as rhetorical devices used to make an illustrative point. Both quotes and
photos are the best examples of their genres, yet they also do not tell the
whole story. They are rhetorical devices that I as a researcher employ to tell
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Humphreys: Cellphones in public
• Figure 8
Original image of outdoor café with decoy and surrounding patrons
• Figure 9
Cropped image
my story and make my point. As digital photography lowers the barriers to
use for researchers, such rhetorical and ethical considerations should reflect
our ultimate responsibility to our subjects.
The author would like to thank the reviewers, Carolyn Marvin and Joseph Cappella for
their helpful suggestions and assistance. An earlier version of this article was presented to
the Communication and Technology Division at the 2004 ICA Annual Conference in
New Orleans, LO.
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New Media & Society 7(6)
Becker, H. (1974) ‘Photography and Sociology’, Studies in the Anthropology of Visual
Communication 1(1): 3–26.
Carey, J. (2002) ‘Ethnographic Approaches to Studying Media Use’, paper presented at
the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia,
PA, April.
Federal Communications Commission (1998) Rules and Policies Regarding Calling Number
Identification Service Caller ID, 16 March, FCC# DA-98–500, Docket No 91-281.
Washington, DC: Federal Communications Commission.
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© 2005 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
Humphreys: Cellphones in public
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LEE HUMPHREYS is a PhD candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication at the
University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests surround the social uses and effects of
technology. Currently she is working on her dissertation on mobile social networking.
Address: Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, 3620 Walnut
Street Philadelphia, PA 19104-6220, USA. [email:]
Downloaded from at PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIV on February 5, 2008
© 2005 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
19 Key Essays on
How Internet Is
Changing Our Lives
Manuel Castells
The Impact of the Internet on Society:
A Global Perspective
The Impact of the Internet on Society:
A Global Perspective
Manuel Castells
Wallis Annenberg Chair Professor of Communication Technology and Society,
University of Southern California
Society, Community, Individuals
The Impact of the Internet on Society:
A Global Perspective
Manuel Castells
Manuel Castells
Emiliano Ponzi
Manuel Castells
Manuel Castells is the Wallis Annenberg Chair Professor
of Communication Technology and Society at the University of
Southern California, Los Angeles. He is also Professor Emeritus
of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley; director of
the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute of the Open University
Collège d’études mondiales in Paris, and director of research
in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge.
He is académico numerario of the Spanish Royal Academy of
Economics and Finance, fellow of the American Academy
of Political and Social Science, fellow of the British Academy,
and fellow of the Academia Europea. He was also a founding
board member of the European Research Council and of
the European Institute of Innovation and Technology of the
European Commission. He received the Erasmus Medal in
2011, and the 2012 Holberg Prize. He has published 25 books,
including the trilogy The Information Age: Economy, Society
and Culture (Blackwell, 1996–2003), The Internet Galaxy
(Oxford University Press, 2001), Communication Power (Oxford
The Impact of the Internet on Society:
A Global Perspective
of Catalonia (UOC); director of the Network Society Chair at the
University Press, 2009), and Networks of Outrage and Hope
Society, Community, Individuals
(Polity Press, 2012).
At the heart of these communication networks the Internet ensures the
production, distribution, and use of digitized information in all formats.
According to the study published by Martin Hilbert in Science (Hilbert and
López 2011), 95 percent of all information existing in the planet is digitized
and most of it is accessible on the Internet and other computer networks.
The speed and scope of the transformation of our communication environment by Internet and wireless communication has triggered all kind of
utopian and dystopian perceptions around the world.
Manuel Castells
The Internet is the decisive technology of the Information Age, as the electrical engine was the vector of technological transformation of the Industrial
Age. This global network of computer networks, largely based nowadays on
platforms of wireless communication, provides ubiquitous capacity of multimodal, interactive communication in chosen time, transcending space. The
Internet is not really a new technology: its ancestor, the Arpanet, was first deployed in 1969 (Abbate 1999). But it was in the 1990s when it was privatized
and released from the control of the U.S. Department of Commerce that it
diffused around the world at extraordinary speed: in 1996 the first survey of
Internet users counted about 40 million; in 2013 they are over 2.5 billion, with
China accounting for the largest number of Internet users. Furthermore, for
some time the spread of the Internet was limited by the difficulty to lay out
land-based telecommunications infrastructure in the emerging countries.
This has changed with the explosion of wireless communication in the early
twenty-first century. Indeed, in 1991, there were about 16 million subscribers of wireless devices in the world, in 2013 they are close to 7 billion (in a
planet of 7.7 billion human beings). Counting on the family and village uses
of mobile phones, and taking into consideration the limited use of these
devices among children under five years of age, we can say that humankind
is now almost entirely connected, albeit with great levels of inequality in the
bandwidth as well as in the efficiency and price of the service.
The Impact of the Internet on Society:
A Global Perspective
Society, Community, Individuals
The Impact of the Internet on Society:
A Global Perspective
Manuel Castells
Thus, the purpose of this chapter will be to summarize some of the key research findings on the social effects of the Internet relying on the evidence
provided by some of the major institutions specialized in the social study
of the Internet. More specifically, I will be using the data from the world
at large: the World Internet Survey conducted by the Center for the Digital
Future, University of Southern California; the reports of the British Computer
Society (BCS), using data from the World Values Survey of the University
of Michigan; the Nielsen reports for a variety of countries; and the annual
The Impact of the Internet on Society:
A Global Perspective
The media aggravate the distorted perception by dwelling into scary
reports on the basis of anecdotal observation and biased commentary. If
there is a topic in which social sciences, in their diversity, should contribute
to the full understanding of the world in which we live, it is precisely the
area that has come to be named in academia as Internet Studies. Because,
in fact, academic research knows a great deal on the interaction between
Internet and society, on the basis of methodologically rigorous empirical
research conducted in a plurality of cultural and institutional contexts.
Any process of major technological change generates its own mythology.
In part because it comes into practice before scientists can assess its effects and implications, so there is always a gap between social change and
its understanding. For instance, media often report that intense use of the
Internet increases the risk of alienation, isolation, depression, and withdrawal from society. In fact, available evidence shows that there is either
no relationship or a positive cumulative relationship between the Internet
use and the intensity of sociability. We observe that, overall, the more sociable people are, the more they use the Internet. And the more they use
the Internet, the more they increase their sociability online and offline,
their civic engagement, and the intensity of family and friendship relationships, in all cultures—with the exception of a couple of early studies of
the Internet in the 1990s, corrected by their authors later (Castells 2001;
Castells et al. 2007; Rainie and Wellman 2012; Center for the Digital Future
2012 et al.).
Society, Community, Individuals
As in all moments of major technological change, people,
companies, and institutions feel the depth of the change, but
they are often overwhelmed by it, out of sheer ignorance of its
In order to fully understand the effects of the Internet on society, we should
remember that technology is material culture. It is produced in a social
process in a given institutional environment on the basis of the ideas, values, interests, and knowledge of their producers, both their early producers
and their subsequent producers. In this process we must include the users
of the technology, who appropriate and adapt the technology rather than
adopting it, and by so doing they modify it and produce it in an endless
process of interaction between technological production and social use. So,
to assess the relevance of Internet in society we must recall the specific
characteristics of Internet as a technology. Then we must place it in the
context of the transformation of the overall social structure, as well as in
Manuel Castells
Technologies of Freedom, the Network Society,
and the Culture of Autonomy
The Impact of the Internet on Society:
A Global Perspective
Given the aim of this publication to reach a broad audience, I will not
present in this text the data supporting the analysis presented here.
Instead, I am referring the interested reader to the web sources of the
research organizations mentioned above, as well as to selected bibliographic references discussing the empirical foundation of the social trends
reported here.
Society, Community, Individuals
reports from the International Telecommunications Union. For data on
the United States, I have used the Pew American Life and Internet Project
of the Pew Institute. For the United Kingdom, the Oxford Internet Survey
from the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, as well as the Virtual
Society Project from the Economic and Social Science Research Council.
For Spain, the Project Internet Catalonia of the Internet Interdisciplinary
Institute (IN3) of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC); the various
reports on the information society from Telefónica; and from the Orange
Foundation. For Portugal, the Observatório de Sociedade da Informação
e do Conhecimento (OSIC) in Lisbon. I would like to emphasize that most
of the data in these reports converge toward similar trends. Thus I have
selected for my analysis the findings that complement and reinforce each
other, offering a consistent picture of the human experience on the Internet
in spite of the human diversity.
– Institutional change in the management of the Internet, keeping it under
the loose management of the global Internet community, privatizing it,
and allowing both commercial uses and cooperative uses.
– Major changes in social structure, culture, and social behavior: networking
as a prevalent organizational form; individuation as the main orientation
of social behavior; and the culture of autonomy as the culture of the network society.
I will elaborate on these major trends.
Our society is a network society; that is, a society constructed around
personal and organizational networks powered by digital networks and
communicated by the Internet. And because networks are global and know
no boundaries, the network society is a global network society. This historically specific social structure resulted from the interaction between the
emerging technological paradigm based on the digital revolution and some
major sociocultural changes. A primary dimension of these changes is what
has been labeled the rise of the Me-centered society, or, in sociological
terms, the process of individuation, the decline of community understood
Manuel Castells
– The technological discovery of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee
and his willingness to distribute the source code to improve it by the
open-source contribution of a global community of users, in continuity
with the openness of the TCP/IP Internet protocols. The web keeps running under the same principle of open source. And two-thirds of web
servers are operated by Apache, an open-source server program.
The Impact of the Internet on Society:
A Global Perspective
Internet is a technology of freedom, in the terms coined by Ithiel de Sola
Pool in 1973, coming from a libertarian culture, paradoxically financed by
the Pentagon for the benefit of scientists, engineers, and their students,
with no direct military application in mind (Castells 2001). The expansion
of the Internet from the mid-1990s onward resulted from the combination of three main factors:
Society, Community, Individuals
relationship to the culture characteristic of this social structure. Indeed,
we live in a new social structure, the global network society, characterized
by the rise of a new culture, the culture of autonomy.
As stated above, academic research has established that the Internet
does not isolate people, nor does it reduce their sociability; it actually
increases sociability, as shown by myself in my studies in Catalonia
(Castells 2007), Rainie and Wellman in the United States (2012), Cardoso in
Portugal (2010), and the World Internet Survey for the world at large (Center
for the Digital Future 2012 et al.). Furthermore, a major study by Michael
Willmott for the British Computer Society (Trajectory Partnership 2010) has
shown a positive correlation, for individuals and for countries, between the
frequency and intensity of the use of the Internet and the psychological
Manuel Castells
But individuation does not mean isolation, or even less the end of
community. Sociability is reconstructed as networked individualism
and community through a quest for like-minded individuals in a process
that combines online interaction with offline interaction, cyberspace and
the local space. Individuation is the key process in constituting subjects
(individual or collective), networking is the organizational form constructed
by these subjects; this is the network society, and the form of sociability is
what Rainie and Wellman (2012) conceptualized as networked individualism. Network technologies are of course the medium for this new social
structure and this new culture (Papacharissi 2010).
The Impact of the Internet on Society:
A Global Perspective
The process of individuation is not just a matter of cultural evolution, it
is materially produced by the new forms of organizing economic activities,
and social and political life, as I analyzed in my trilogy on the Information
Age (Castells 1996–2003). It is based on the transformation of space (metropolitan life), work and economic activity (rise of the networked enterprise
and networked work processes), culture and communication (shift from
mass communication based on mass media to mass self-communication
based on the Internet); on the crisis of the patriarchal family, with increasing autonomy of its individual members; the substitution of media politics
for mass party politics; and globalization as the selective networking of
places and processes throughout the planet.
Society, Community, Individuals
in terms of space, work, family, and ascription in general. This is not the
end of community, and not the end of place-based interaction, but there is
a shift toward the reconstruction of social relationships, including strong
cultural and personal ties that could be considered a form of community,
on the basis of individual interests, values, and projects.
Manuel Castells
There is increasing evidence of the direct relationship between the
Internet and the rise of social autonomy. From 2002 to 2007 I directed in
Catalonia one of the largest studies ever conducted in Europe on the
Internet and society, based on 55,000 interviews, one-third of them face to
face (IN3 2002–07). As part of this study, my collaborators and I compared
the behavior of Internet users to non-Internet users in a sample of 3,000
people, representative of the population of Catalonia. Because in 2003
only about 40 percent of people were Internet users we could really compare the differences in social behavior for users and non-users, something
that nowadays would be more difficult given the 79 percent penetration
The Impact of the Internet on Society:
A Global Perspective
The key for the process of individuation is the construction of autonomy by social actors, who become subjects in the process. They do so by
defining their specific projects in interaction with, but not submission
to, the institutions of society. This is the case for a minority of individuals, but because of their capacity to lead and mobilize they introduce a
new culture in every domain of social life: in work (entrepreneurship), in
the media (the active audience), in the Internet (the creative user), in the
market (the informed and proactive consumer), in education (students as
informed critical thinkers, making possible the new frontier of e-learning
and m-learning pedagogy), in health (the patient-centered health management system) in e-government (the informed, participatory citizen), in
social movements (cultural change from the grassroots, as in feminism or
environmentalism), and in politics (the independent-minded citizen able
to participate in self-generated political networks).
Society, Community, Individuals
indicators of personal happiness. He used global data for 35,000 people
obtained from the World Wide Survey of the University of Michigan from
2005 to 2007. Controlling for other factors, the study showed that Internet
use empowers people by increasing their feelings of security, personal
freedom, and influence, all feelings that have a positive effect on happiness
and personal well-being. The effect is particularly positive for people with
lower income and who are less qualified, for people in the developing
world, and for women. Age does not affect the positive relationship; it is
significant for all ages. Why women? Because they are at the center of the
network of their families, Internet helps them to organize their lives. Also, it
helps them to overcome their isolation, particularly in patriarchal societies.
The Internet also contributes to the rise of the culture of autonomy.
These six types of autonomous practices were statistically independent
among themselves. But each one of them correlated positively with
Internet use in statistically significant terms, in a self-reinforcing loop
(time sequence): the more one person was autonomous, the more she/he
used the web, and the more she/he used the web, the more autonomous
she/he became (Castells et al. 2007). This is a major empirical finding.
Because if the dominant cultural trend in our society is the search for
autonomy, and if the Internet powers this search, then we are moving
toward a society of assertive individuals and cultural freedom, regardless
of the barriers of rigid social organizations inherited from the Industrial
Age. From this Internet-based culture of autonomy have emerged a new
kind of sociability, networked sociability, and a new kind of sociopolitical
practice, networked social movements and networked democracy. I will
now turn to the analysis of these two fundamental trends at the source of
current processes of social change worldwide.
Manuel Castells
professional development
communicative autonomy
autonomy of the body
sociopolitical participation
personal, individual autonomy
The Impact of the Internet on Society:
A Global Perspective
Society, Community, Individuals
rate of the Internet in Catalonia. Although the data are relatively old, the
findings are not, as more recent studies in other countries (particularly in
Portugal) appear to confirm the observed trends. We constructed scales of
autonomy in different dimensions. Only between 10 and 20 percent of the
population, depending on dimensions, were in the high level of autonomy.
But we focused on this active segment of the population to explore the
role of the Internet in the construction of autonomy. Using factor analysis
we identified six major types of autonomy based on projects of individuals
according to their practices:
Since 2002 (creation of Friendster, prior to Facebook) a new socio-technical
revolution has taken place on the Internet: the rise of social network sites
where now all human activities are present, from personal interaction to
business, to work, to culture, to communication, to social movements, and
to politics.
Manuel Castells
The Rise of Social Network Sites on the Internet
Thus, the most important activity on the Internet at this point in
time goes through social networking, and SNS have become the chosen
platforms for all kind of activities, not just personal friendships or chatting,
but for marketing, e-commerce, education, cultural creativity, media and
Society, Community, Individuals
Social networking uses, in time globally spent, surpassed e-mail in
November 2007. It surpassed e-mail in number of users in July 2009.
In terms of users it reached 1 billion by September 2010, with Facebook
accounting for about half of it. In 2013 it has almost doubled, particularly
because of increasing use in China, India, and Latin America. There is indeed a great diversity of social networking sites (SNS) by countries and
cultures. Facebook, started for Harvard-only members in 2004, is present in most of the world, but QQ, Cyworld, and Baidu dominate in China;
Orkut in Brazil; Mixi in Japan; etc. In terms of demographics, age is the
main differential factor in the use of SNS, with a drop of frequency of use
after 50 years of age, and particularly 65. But this is not just a teenager’s
activity. The main Facebook U.S. category is in the age group 35–44, whose
frequency of use of the site is higher than for younger people. Nearly 60
percent of adults in the U.S. have at least one SNS profile, 30 percent two,
and 15 percent three or more. Females are as present as males, except
when in a society there is a general gender gap. We observe no differences
in education and class, but there is some class specialization of SNS, such
as Myspace being lower than FB; LinkedIn is for professionals.
The Impact of the Internet on Society:
A Global Perspective
Social Network Sites are web-based services that allow individuals to
(1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system,
(2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection,
and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by
others within the system.
(Boyd and Ellison 2007, 2)
There is a dramatic increase in sociability, but a different
kind of sociability, facilitated and dynamized by permanent
connectivity and social networking on the web.
Based on the time when Facebook was still releasing data (this time is
now gone) we know that in 2009 users spent 500 billion minutes per month.
This is not just about friendship or interpersonal communication. People
do things together, share, act, exactly as in society, although the personal
dimension is always there. Thus, in the U.S. 38 percent of adults share
content, 21 percent remix, 14 percent blog, and this is growing exponentially, with development of technology, software, and SNS entrepreneurial
initiatives. On Facebook, in 2009 the average user was connected to 60
pages, groups, and events, people interacted per month to 160 million
objects (pages, groups, events), the average user created 70 pieces of
content per month, and there were 25 billion pieces of content shared per
Manuel Castells
People build networks to be with others, and to be with others they want
to be with on the basis of criteria that include those people who they already know (a selected sub-segment). Most users go on the site every day.
It is permanent connectivity. If we needed an answer to what happened to
sociability in the Internet world, here it is:
The Impact of the Internet on Society:
A Global Perspective
Social networking sites are constructed by users themselves building
on specific criteria of grouping. There is entrepreneurship in the process of
creating sites, then people choose according to their interests and projects.
Networks are tailored by people themselves with different levels of profiling and privacy. The key to success is not anonymity, but on the contrary,
self-presentation of a real person connecting to real people (in some cases
people are excluded from the SNS when they fake their identity). So, it is a
self-constructed society by networking connecting to other networks. But
this is not a virtual society. There is a close connection between virtual
networks and networks in life at large. This is a hybrid world, a real world,
not a virtual world or a segregated world.
Society, Community, Individuals
entertainment distribution, health applications, and sociopolitical activism.
This is a significant trend for society at large. Let me explore the meaning
of this trend on the basis of the still scant evidence.
Manuel Castells
month (web links, news stories, blogs posts, notes, photos). SNS are living
spaces connecting all dimensions of people’s experience. This transforms
culture because people share experience with a low emotional cost, while
saving energy and effort. They transcend time and space, yet they produce
content, set up links, and connect practices. It is a constantly networked
world in every dimension of human experience. They co-evolve in permanent, multiple interaction. But they choose the terms of their co-evolution.
But people do not live a virtual reality, indeed it is a real virtuality, since
social practices, sharing, mixing, and living in society is facilitated in the
virtuality, in what I called time ago the “space of flows” (Castells 1996).
Because people are increasingly at ease in the multi-textuality and multidimensionality of the web, marketers, work organizations, service agencies,
government, and civil society are migrating massively to the Internet, less
and less setting up alternative sites, more and more being present in the networks that people construct by themselves and for themselves, with the
help of Internet social networking entrepreneurs, some of whom become
billionaires in the process, actually selling freedom and the possibility of
the autonomous construction of lives. This is the liberating potential of the
Internet made material practice by these social networking sites. The largest
of these social networking sites are usually bounded social spaces managed
by a company. However, if the company tries to impede free communication
it may lose many of its users, because the entry barriers in this industry are
very low. A couple of technologically savvy youngsters with little capital can
set up a site on the Internet and attract escapees from a more restricted
Internet space, as happened to AOL and other networking sites of the first
generation, and as could happen to Facebook or any other SNS if they are
tempted to tinker with the rules of openness (Facebook tried to make users pay and retracted within days). So, SNS are often a business, but they
Society, Community, Individuals
Paradoxically, the virtual life is more social than the physical
life, now individualized by the organization of work and urban
The Impact of the Internet on Society:
A Global Perspective
Thus, people live their physical lives but increasingly connect on multiple
dimensions in SNS.
Perhaps the most telling expression of this new freedom is the transformation of sociopolitical practices on the Internet.
Manuel Castells
are in the business of selling freedom, free expression, chosen sociability.
When they tinker with this promise they risk their hollowing by net citizens
migrating with their friends to more friendly virtual lands.
Ideological apparatuses and the mass media have been key tools of
mediating communication and asserting power, and still are. But the rise
of a new culture, the culture of autonomy, has found in Internet and mobile
communication networks a major medium of mass self-communication
and self-organization.
The key source for the social production of meaning is the process of
socialized communication. I define communication as the process of sharing
meaning through the exchange of information. Socialized communication
is the one that exists in the public realm, that has the potential of reaching
society at large. Therefore, the battle over the human mind is largely played
out in the process of socialized communication. And this is particularly so
in the network society, the social structure of the Information Age, which
is characterized by the pervasiveness of communication networks in a
multimodal hypertext.
The ongoing transformation of communication technology in
the digital age extends the reach of communication media to all
domains of social life in a network that is at the same time global
and local, generic and customized, in an ever-changing pattern.
Society, Community, Individuals
Power and counterpower, the foundational relationships of society, are
constructed in the human mind, through the construction of meaning
and the processing of information according to certain sets of values and
interests (Castells 2009).
The Impact of the Internet on Society:
A Global Perspective
Communication Power: Mass-Self Communication and the
Transformation of Politics
Manuel Castells
In the first decade of the twenty-first century there have been multiple
social movements around the world that have used the Internet as their
space of formation and permanent connectivity, among the movements and
with society at large. These networked social movements, formed in the social networking sites on the Internet, have mobilized in the urban space and
in the institutional space, inducing new forms of social movements that are
The Impact of the Internet on Society:
A Global Perspective
The transformation of communication from mass communication to
mass self-communication has contributed decisively to alter the process
of social change. As power relationships have always been based on the
control of communication and information that feed the neural networks
constitutive of the human mind, the rise of horizontal networks of communication has created a new landscape of social and political change by
the process of disintermediation of the government and corporate controls
over communication. This is the power of the network, as social actors build
their own networks on the basis of their projects, values, and interests.
The outcome of these processes is open ended and dependent on specific
contexts. Freedom, in this case freedom of communicate, does not say
anything on the uses of freedom in society. This is to be established by
scholarly research. But we need to start from this major historical phenomenon: the building of a global communication network based on the
Internet, a technology that embodies the culture of freedom that was at
its source.
Society, Community, Individuals
As a result, power relations, that is the relations that constitute the
foundation of all societies, as well as the processes challenging institutionalized power relations, are increasingly shaped and decided in the
communication field. Meaningful, conscious communication is what makes
humans human. Thus, any major transformation in the technology and organization of communication is of utmost relevance for social change. Over
the last four decades the advent of the Internet and of wireless communication has shifted the communication process in society at large from mass
communication to mass self-communication. This is from a message sent
from one to many with little interactivity to a system based on messages
from many to many, multimodal, in chosen time, and with interactivity, so
that senders are receivers and receivers are senders. And both have access to a multimodal hypertext in the web that constitutes the endlessly
changing backbone of communication processes.
The Internet, as all technologies, does not produce effects by itself. …

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