Communication in the Digital Age


COMM 1255 SEC01
Office hours Content
TU/FR 9:50 - 11:30 am
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 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.

I 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 control-click. We will also make use of Google Drive. 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, do not plead afterwards. 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.

Deviations from classroom professionalism and respect may result in dismissal from class and demerits against your grade. See full course policies for more detail.


NOTE: I usually discourage use of devices during class, but during COVID/NUflex they are necessary. It’ll be doubly important, then, that you contribute in person or remotely and can’t be mistaken for being distracted. Also, I think having our cameras on makes for a better experience. Feel free to turn your camera off if you need to attend to something; if you have a larger concern/issue, please let me know. Aside from the first few days of class (for students that join later) my preference is not to record our classes, but this, too, is something we can discuss and if you have a specific request or concern, please let me know.


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

I highly recommend you get a copy of:


Jan 18 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 21 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 lines above and below 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 home page and tutorial page, followed by the markdown of the tutorial page.

Jan 25 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 URL and markdown following the directions above. )

Jan 28 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.)

Feb 01 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 Engaging the readings is a part of this assignment, so you can’t count it toward your quota.

  • Google Search
  • Web credibility
    • Find a Web page of questionable credibility and apply some of the criteria discussed by Valenza and Berkley Library.
  • 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.

Feb 04 Fri - Fake News

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

Feb 08 Tue - Learning

We learn about the science of learning.

Feb 11 Fri - Filtering

Filter your email

REQUIRED: Review the instructions above and create a hackmd note with one-to-two screenshots (no more) while engaging with the readings on the same page. Engaging the readings is a part of this assignment, so you can’t count it toward your quota.

  1. Review this video on How to Create a Rule in Outlook 365; Microsoft help provides detailed instructions.

  2. Select the “Settings” gear icon ; select “View all Outlook settings” and then “Rules”.

  3. Select “+ Add new rule” and name it “NU News”.

  4. Add a condition: From includes “”.

  5. Add an action: “Move to” a “New folder” named “NU News.”

  6. Uncheck “Stop processing more rules” and check “Run rule now”; select save and dismiss the dialog.

  7. If you don’t already see a spinning circle, meaning the rule is running on existing messages, click play icon . You will soon see old “News@Northeastern” emails appearing in your new folder.

  8. Try creating another rule for yourself; for example, emails from my announcement list “neu-cda”. (Note: Only rules about senders transferred to a different folder can run on existing messages; all other rules apply to new messages only.)

Note: If the above conditions don’t apply for you (e.g., you unsubscribed from News@Northeastern), say so and create a different rule of your choice. I’m not concerned with what rules you have, or if you keep them, I simply want you to try creating one.

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

Feb 15 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.

Feb 18 Fri - Social networks

Feb 22 Tue - The Dark Web (student nominated)

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

Feb 25 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.

Mar 01 Tue - Exam

Mar 04 Fri - Contribution & Gender

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

Mar 08 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, see assignments.

Mar 11 Fri - CANCELLED

DUE: First set of five responses must be completed. 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.

Mar 15 Tue - NO CLASS

Mar 18 Fri - NO CLASS

Mar 22 Tue - 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 25 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?

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 29 Tue - Finding someone & living alone

How has digital communication changed the relational landscape?

Apr 01 Fri - Breakup

On the flip-side of dating, how do people breakup in the digital age? Gershon’s chapter is a bit dated, but that can be useful: what has changed and what has stayed the same? For more recent attitudes, skim Lenhart et al.

Apr 05 Tue - Shaped

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

Apr 08 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.

Apr 12 Tue - Algorithmic discrimination

Guest: Christo Wilson

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

Apr 15 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 activity.

Apr 19 Tue - Gendered work

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

Apr 22 Fri - Bemused

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

Apr 26 Tue - Pushback

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

DUE: Second set of five responses must be completed. 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, see assignments.

Apr 23 - TRACE

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

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