Communication in the Digital Age

COMM 1255 SEC01
Office hours Content
TU/FR 9:50 - 11:30 am
Richards Hall 226
Joseph Reagle, Ph.D., <j.reagle>
TU appointments starting at 15:30
Comm Studies, 215 Holmes Hall
Tip: Enter at 41A Leon St.


Course objectives

Digital communication is central to contemporary life and yet (or consequently) we take it for granted. Communication in the Digital Age will remedy this; at its successful completion you will be able to explain the technical basis, communicative effects, and commercial aspects of digital communication. For instance, you will learn about attention and multi-tasking, the shape and strengths of one’s relationships; you’ll learn about online ads, content, and privacy; and we’ll discuss how bias can emerge in online platforms.

Successful completion of this course enables one to:

  1. recall, compare, and give examples of key issues and theories of online communication (e.g., deindividuation);
  2. explain how the Internet & Web work (e.g., DNS);
  3. ask complex questions and have a sense of how one might address those questions (e.g., are Millennials tech-savvy?);
  4. exercise practical digital competencies (e.g., filtering email, writing markup, and assessing your digital footprint);
  5. compellingly write in both a short-form online venue and longer-form academic format;
  6. collaborate with one’s peers to improve academic performance (e.g., writing feedback).


Active learning and the Web

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” – Confucius

This is an active learning course meaning that you will be engaged with activities such as class and group discussion, participating in and designing class exercises, collaborative note-taking, and peer assessment.

We also make much use of the Web. For instance, this syllabus is a Web page that I update; I expect you to bookmark it and to follow links. (If you find a broken link or typo, let me know!) You can easily find things on this page with control-f. You can open links in new tabs with control-click. We will also make use of Google Docs. I recommend you use something like Zim, FoldingText, or Evernote to “make information your own.” By the way, in emails I often use markdown conventions and respond below your quoted (‘>’) text.

Academic policies

In short, come to class on time and with the readings and assignments completed; be respectful and willing to collaborate. There are no provisions for missed exams or late assignments.

In general, if you have an issue, such as needing an accommodation for a religious obligation or disability, speak with me before it affects your performance. Do not ask for favors; instead, offer proposals that show initiative and a willingness to work.

Academic Integrity is of utmost importance: “The promotion of independent and original scholarship ensures that students derive the most from their educational experience and their pursuit of knowledge.” Violations include cheating, plagiarism, and participating in or encouraging dishonesty. If you cheat on an exam, you will receive zero credit and be referred to the Office of Student Conduct. If you plagiarize seven or more words in a row, the same will follow.

We sometimes use devices in class as part of an activity, but the default policy is for gadgets to be silenced and put away. (As noted in my tips for note-taking, handwritten notes can lead to better learning.) If you want to use a device throughout the course, email me a device proposal with your intended usage. Device users might also be called upon you to perform tasks such as looking things up or taking collaborative notes. I can also rescind device privileges. Deviations from classroom professionalism and respect may result in dismissal from class and demerits against your grade. See full course policies for more detail.


There are 1000 points at stake over the course of the term. This is converted to letter grades on the basis of thresholds; they are not rounded.

Grading Rubric

Communication Studies courses are expected, on average, to have a GPA of no more than a 3.3 (B+); this means those receiving an A or A- are in the minority. The course rubric notes that “A” students have all of the following attributes.

  1. show mastery in assignments. Their work demonstrates impressive understanding of readings, discussions, themes and ideas. It is fluid, clear, analytical, well-organized and grammatically polished. Reasoning and logic are well-grounded and examples precise.
  2. have virtually perfect attendance. Their commitment to the class resembles that of the teacher.
  3. are prepared for class. They always read assignments and participate fully. Their attention to detail is such that they occasionally catch the teacher in a mistake.
  4. show interest in the class. They look up or dig out what they don’t understand. They often ask interesting questions or make thoughtful comments.
  5. have retentive minds. They are able to connect past learning with the present.
  6. have a winning attitude. They have the determination, initiative, and self-discipline to succeed.


Many links to my public wiki are found through-out this syllabus (remember, control-f is your friend), but I’ve gathered some of the most important ones below. As I explain in this video about tracking assignment requirements, I have high expectations and send a lot of information your way, I recommend you use something like Zim, FoldingText, or Evernote to “make information your own.”

Tip: temporarily place requirements and rubrics into your work (e.g., at the top of the response page).


Most readings are linked to from this page, if not check this zip file . However, you must acquire the following. I wrote the first book specifically for this class, and the second will be invaluable to your own writing.

Like other skills, bibliography is something you learn to do well. Technology can make it easier. NU makes RefWorks and EndNote available to students; you can also use the freely available browser-based Zotero.

Note that for selections, I specify the chapter (ch=) or pages (pp=) to read.


Jan 09 Tue - Are you tech-savvy?

Welcome! We introduce ourselves, cover class logistics, and consider if your generation is tech-savvy.

  1. Bring a mnemonic linking your name with something novel about yourself. For instance, I would say: “Imagine Prof. Reagle being chased by beagles.”
  2. Use the reading to generate a higher-order question (analysis, synthesis, evaluation) from Bloom’s taxonomy. Do you have a sense of how you would go about answering your question?

Jan 12 Fri - Markdown

REQUIRED: See the wiki assignments above; review the Markdown and wiki tutorial and create a individual Scribble page (using headings, links, images, and videos) prior to class related to the short reading. (This is a single page wiki assignment and will not count toward your five reading responses.) In your email to me, include cda-r in the subject, include the <link> to your page, followed by the markdown. Bring your device for a markdown exercise.

This isn’t graded, but it is required because I want to give you feedback so you are well prepared.

Jan 16 Tue - Attention

Read the chapter below and conduct the “online intention” exercise from the Attention Probes.

(Remember, you don’t have to write a response to this reading because it is not a required practical exercise; but you do have to write five responses by the middle of the term so pace yourself carefully. If you do write a response, include it on your wiki response page and email me the URL and markdown following the directions above. )

Jan 19 Fri - How the Web works

Identify something about digital communication that you would like to learn more about, or something from the reading you found confusing. Don’t get too hung up on technical details (especially about cryptography), we’ll cover everything in class.

(Again, you can write a response to this toward the five required by the middle of the semester.)

Jan 23 Tue - Crap detection

REQUIRED: See the practical wiki assignments section above and answer the questions in the Web search and evaluation assignment. Use the power of the Web (headings, links, embedded images, etc.) to show me your searches and results as appropriate while engaging with the reading. Remember, in your email to me, include cda-r in the subject, include the <URL> to your page, followed by the markdown.

Jan 26 Fri - Fake News

Had everyone in the country learned and used “crap detection” skills, would we have been so affected by “fake news”?

Jan 30 Tue - Learning

We will discuss the science of learning. Bring your computer and some concepts you’d like to remember. In class we will be installing and using software so you can complete the SRL Deck exercise due in a few weeks. You may write a response.

Feb 02 Fri - Filtering

REQUIRED: See the wiki assignments section above and integrate your thoughts on the readings below with screenshots from the “Filter and label your email” assignment into your wiki response.

Feb 06 Tue - Cooperation

Why do we cooperate, and when and why do we fail to do so? These readings are removed from the digital realm, but think about how the concepts you read about might be applicable to what we see online. (Focus on Nowack, but also have a look at the supplementary Wikipedia content.)

Feb 09 Fri - “Informed: ‘I don’t know. I gotta get the best one’”

We consider the history of review online: the stars, the engineers, the likers, the crowd, and the critic. This will set the stage for discussing manipulative and confusing comments later on.

(When’s there no prompt, summarize and engage.)

Feb 13 Tue - Gender & contribution

How does gender figure into digital communication, participation, and contribution?

Feb 16 Fri - Social networks

Due: You must turn in the SRL Deck assignment via email to the instructor 90 minutes before class. (You may, optionally, also write a reading response.)

Feb 20 Tue - Exam Review

If you do a response, craft two multiple choice questions and two short/essay questions that could appear on the exam. For each question, provide an answer/explanation, or even a mnemonic, in a section below all the questions.

Due: Please send me the <url> of your response page for assessment, following template structure. If you do a response for today, include that markdown as well, but I don’t need the markdown of all your previous responses.

Feb 23 Fri - Exam (and midpoint of semester)

Feb 27 Tue - Feedback in the age of comment

What is it like to give and receive feedback in the age of comment? How do individuals and communities cope?

Due: Essay proposal

Mar 02 Fri - Ads and social graph background

What are the main types of advertisements available online? This is relevant to our discussions of algorithmic discrimination, online manipulation, and privacy.

(Please bring Hacker’s Pocket Style Manual to class.)

Mar 06 Tue - NO CLASS

Mar 09 Fri - NO CLASS

Mar 13 Tue - Manipulated

In what ways are online reviews, ratings, rankings, and comments manipulated? What can you trust and how would you know?

Mar 16 Fri - Online ads and blockers

Knowing what we know about online advertising, should users be able to easily block ads? If so, who then pays for the free content and services we consume?

REQUIRED: See the wiki assignments section above and integrate your thoughts on the readings below with screenshots from the Adblocking assignment into your wiki response. Note: if Northeastern rejects your email as spam, you may send your email to me at my personal address.

Mar 20 Tue - Algorithmic discrimination

Guest: Christo Wilson

Do algorithms exhibit biases (intentional or otherwise) in online commerce?

Mar 23 Fri - Dating

How has digital communication changed the dating landscape? Can we trust what we see? What sort of biases emerge in people’s messaging behaviors?

Mar 27 Tue - Breakup

On the flip-side of dating, how do people breakup in the digital age? This reading is a bit dated, but that can be useful: what has changed and what has stayed the same?

Mar 30 Fri - Privacy

How concerned should we be about our privacy online? Is there anything we can do to protect it?

REQUIRED: See the wiki assignments section above and integrate your thoughts on the readings below with a few screenshots from the Privacy footprint assignment into your wiki response. (Please be mindful of your privacy in this assignment and do not share anything that weakens your privacy further, such as screenshots of your phone number.)

Apr 03 Tue - Haters

Why does digital communication give rise to such toxic behavior, including that of haters and that seen in “bully battles”?

Apr 06 Fri - Shaped

How does digital communication affect our ability to be mindful? How does it affect self-esteem; is it making us narcissistic?

Apr 10 Tue - Bemused

How can we make sense of the odd and embarrassing behavior we see online?

Apr 13 Fri - Collapsed context

What does it mean to be authentic online? Is it possible anymore to have more than one persona online?

Bring your device for a class class activity.

Apr 17 Tue - Pushback

Is online communication really so awful? Is it possible to opt-out of digital communication?

Due: Please send me the <url> of your response page for assessment, following template structure. If you do a response for today, include that markdown as well, but I don’t need the markdown of all your previous responses.

Due: Essay.

© 2013-2018 Joseph Reagle. Please reuse and share! Creative Commons License