Communication in the Digital Age


COMM 1255 SEC01
Office hours Content
TU/FR 9:50 - 11:30 am
Richards Hall 325
TU appointments starting at 12:00
Joseph Reagle, Ph.D., <j.reagle>
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 web protocols, 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 digital natives tech-savvy?);
  4. exercise practical digital competencies (e.g., filtering email, writing web pages, and assessing your digital footprint);
  5. compellingly write in both a short-form online venue and longer-form academic format;


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: you will be engaged in class and group discussion and exercises.

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 ⌘+f. You can open links in new tabs with ⌘+click. We will also make use of Google Docs. In emails I often use markdown syntax 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 accommodation for a religious obligation or disability, speak with me before it affects your performance. Do not plead afterward. Instead, beforehand, 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. Handwritten notes can lead to better learning, but this is also an issue of focus and respect. 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 to perform tasks such as looking things up or taking collaborative notes.

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 term. This is converted to letter grades based on thresholds.

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 an 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 connect past learning with the present.
  6. have a winning attitude. They have the determination, initiative, and self-discipline to succeed.

Also see the participation and writing rubrics.


Many links are found through-out this syllabus (remember, ⌘+f is your friend), but I’ve gathered some of the most important ones below.


Most reading can be found online, including a book of mine from which we read a few chapters. I recommend you get a copy of Hacker’s Guide in print because it is so handy, but it is not required as I also provide a writing tips handout.

Most readings are linked to from this page, if not check . I specify the chapter (ch=) or pages (pp=) to read for selections.


Jan 07 Tue - Are you tech-savvy?

Welcome! We introduce ourselves, cover class logistics, and consider if digital-natives are tech-savvy.

  1. Bring a mnemonic that connects your name with a memorable image: “Imagine me …” I could say: “Imagine Prof. Reagle being chased by beagles.”
  2. Use the readings 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 10 Fri - Markdown

Read the following short essay and complete the assignment below. Bring a device to class.

Wiki tutorial

A wiki is an easy-to-create website using a lightweight syntax—such as markdown—for specifying images, links, and headings. Markdown is simple text, easy to read and write, supported by many editors, and can be mixed with HTML when needed (such as to embed a Youtube video). It’s used on sites including Reddit and Tumblr.

REQUIRED: Go to HackMD and create your wiki.

  1. Sign in by creating an account or using an existing social media account. If the latter, I recommend Dropbox as you can easily backup/export your work there.
  2. Create a new note entitled “Home Page” and in the share options , set Read to Everyone and Write to Owners.
  3. Read about markdown syntax (or watch a video tutorial). Copy the markdown from my homepage into your page and edit it to make it your own.
  4. Press + to create a note for your “Wiki tutorial.” Reflect on the reading above while using headings, links, images, and videos. (Remember to use a blank line between paragraphs.)
    1. Copy the URL of this page, go back to your home page, and make a link to it.
  5. Similarly, create and link to a page for your first set of reading responses.

This isn’t graded and doesn’t count toward your five reading responses, but I will give you feedback. Email me your assignment 90 minutes before class: include hackmd in the email’s subject, in its content, include the <link> to your page, followed by the markdown of the page.

Jan 14 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 send an email with ‘hackmd’ in the subject and the and markdown following the directions above. )

Jan 17 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 due by the middle of the semester.)

Jan 21 Tue - Crap detection

Many people are not aware of the power available to them in Web searches nor how to evaluate the information they encounter. I’m asking you to use advanced search techniques and reflect on the credibility of online information.

Web search and evaluation

REQUIRED: Review the instructions above and create a hackmd note using the power of the Web (headings, links, embedded images, etc.) to show me your searches and results as appropriate while engaging with the readings. For example, this link shows the results of searching for “Joseph Aoun” from January 1st to April 30th in 2014, excluding pages on

  • Google Search
  • Web credibility
  • Wikipedia evaluation
    • A version of the “Joseph Reagle” Wikipedia article stated (a) I worked at the World Wide Web Consortium and (b) my book Good Faith Collaboration was “bestselling.” How does these claims relate to the policy of Wikipedia:Verifiability? Would you suggest any changes to the page?
    • According to its history, when was this article first created?

Email me your assignment 90 minutes before class: include hackmd in the subject, include the <link> to your page, followed by the markdown.

Jan 24 Fri - Fake News

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

Jan 28 Tue - Learning

We learn about the science of learning.

Jan 31 Fri - Filtering

Filter and label your email

REQUIRED: Review the instructions above and create a hackmd note with a screenshot of your new filter while engaging with the readings on the same page.

  1. Review this video on Creating Filters with Gmail.
  2. Create a GMail label for our class list (neu-cda).
  3. Find and select a message from our class email list.
  4. Click the (more) button in the upper right, then Filter messages like this.
  5. Enter your filter criteria in the appropriate field(s) (e.g., Subject = [neu-cda]). Click Create filter
  6. Select your options:
    1. Select Apply the label.
    2. If you don’t want it to appear in your inbox you can Skip the Inbox, but make sure to check the label/folder occasionally. You can edit Gmail filters via the (settings).
  7. click Create filter and once done, take a screenshot of the filter for embedding.

Remember, in your email to me, include hackmd in the subject, include the <URL> to your page, followed by the markdown.

Feb 04 Tue - Cooperation

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

Feb 07 Fri - Social networks

Feb 11 Tue - The Dark Web

What is the Darknet and the two technologies (Tor and Bitcoin) it is dependent on? We have two introductory readings and a story.

Feb 14 Fri - 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.

Feb 18 Tue - Exam

Feb 21 Fri - Contribution & Gender

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

Feb 25 Tue - Manipulated

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

DUE: Essay proposal

Feb 28 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.)

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.

Mar 03 Tue - NO CLASS

Mar 06 Fri - NO CLASS

Mar 10 Tue - 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?

Ad blocking

REQUIRED: Review the instructions above and create a hackmd note with screenshots of a webpage with and without ad blocking while engaging with the readings on the same page. In this assignment I want you to learn how to install an ad blocker and experience what it is like to browse a saner Web. Whether you continue to use it is up to you!

  1. Install a Web browser ad blocker and review some of your favorite sites. I use UBlock Origin, which can be installed in Chrome, Firefox, Safari, & Edge.
  2. Take a before and after screenshot of a site that demonstrates the difference.

Note: if Northeastern rejects your email as spam because of discussion of ads, you may send your email to me at my personal address.

Mar 13 Fri - Finding someone & living alone

How has digital communication changed the relational landscape?

Mar 17 Tue - NO CLASS

Canceled for move out.

Mar 20 Fri - Shaped

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

Mar 24 Tue - Algorithmic discrimination

Guest: Christo Wilson

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

Mar 27 Fri - Privacy

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

Privacy footprint

REQUIRED: Review the instructions above and create a hackmd note with some of the results of your self-stalking (via links or screenshots) while engaging with the readings on the same page. You might be surprised by what is revealed in your public online footprint, but so much more can be had for a fee. You don’t have to document everything, just the interesting highlights.

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.

Mar 31 Tue - 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 activity.

Apr 03 Fri - Gendered work

We continue our discussion of authenticity and return to our discussion of gender by way of work.

Apr 07 Tue - Bemused

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

Apr 10 Fri - Haters

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

Apr 14 Tue - Pushback

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

DUE: Reading responses. Please send me the <URL> of your responses page 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.

Apr 23 - TRACE

DUE: Evidence of TRACE completion due at 12:00 ET.

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