Communication in the Digital Age

COMM 1255 <2022-FA> Office hours Content
TU/FR 9:50–11:30am
Snell Lib 017
TU/FR at 15:30+ and/or email for scheduler
Prof. Reagle, <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 & 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 partaking in class and group discussions, participating in class exercises, and sharing and relating what we learn to the larger world.

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.

We sometimes use devices in class as part of an activity, but the default policy is for gadgets to be silenced and put away. 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.

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, without rounding. For example, 870 is a B+; 869 is not. Due dates are included in the schedule.

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.

Please review the grading scale, participation assessment, and writing rubric.


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:


Sep 09 Fri - Are you tech-savvy?

Welcome! We introduce ourselves, cover class logistics, and consider if digital natives are tech-savvy. We also try to put this concern about “digital natives” in context. Come to class prepared to discuss the readings and complete the two small assignments below.

  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?

Sep 13 Tue - Markdown

Complete the assignment below using the boyd essay as a provocation. For example, you might write a paragraph in response, linking to the essay, using some formatting, and perhaps embedding a related image/meme. 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.

REQUIRED: Go to HackMD and create your wiki.

  1. Sign in by creating an account or using an existing social media account. You could use Dropbox and easily backup/export your work there.
  2. Create a new note entitled “Home Page.”
  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.
  6. Make sure all three of your pages have their share options , set Read to Everyone and Write to Owners.

This isn’t graded and doesn’t count toward your five reading responses, but I will give you feedback. Email me your assignment no later than 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 (e.g., something like this).

Sep 16 Fri - 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. 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. )

Sep 20 Tue - How the web works

Identify something about the web 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.)

Sep 23 Fri - 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 & 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. Link to your new note from your homepage and make sure you set: share/readable:everyone. 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 as a reading response 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 page first created (i.e., the oldest version)?

Email me your assignment no later than 90 minutes before class: include HackMD in the subject, include the <link> to your page, followed by the markdown.

Sep 27 Tue - Learning

We learn about the science of learning.

Sep 30 Fri - Filtering and fake news

Had everyone in the country learned and used “crap detection” skills, would we be so affected by “fake news” and media manipulation, or would we end up in filter bubbles?

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. Link to your new note from your homepage and make sure you set: share/readable:everyone. Remember, in your email to me, include HackMD in the subject, include the URL to your page, followed by the markdown. Engaging the readings is a part of this assignment, so you can’t count it toward your response 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. (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.

Oct 04 Tue - Cooperation

Why do we cooperate, and when and why do we fail to do so? How might the concepts you read about apply to what we see online?

Oct 07 Fri - Social networks

Oct 11 Tue - Haters

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

Oct 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 so everyone can self-quiz.

Oct 18 Tue - Exam

Remote (on Canvas:Quizzes:Exam), open notes, 60 minutes.

Oct 21 Fri - Gender, communication, & contribution

How does gender figure into digital communication, participation, and contribution? These reading juxtapose empirical findings on gender differences in online communication with arguments about who builds the platforms. “Open Source” is software that is freely available to modify and distribute, like Wikipedia but for code. It’s how the web was developed, and is the core of many apps, like Android, Safari, and Chrome. In 2017, James Damore was fired from Google for sharing a memo about the company’s gender gap and ideological conformity.

DUE: First set of five reading 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.

Oct 25 Tue - Shaped

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

Oct 28 Fri - TikTok, fakes, and appropriation

What is the relationship between identity, authenticity, and appropriation? (This is a previously student-requested topic.)

DUE: Essay proposal, see assignments.

Nov 01 Tue - Finding someone & living alone

How has digital communication changed the relational landscape?

Nov 04 Fri - Ads & social graph background

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

Nov 08 Tue - Manipulated

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

Nov 11 Fri - NO CLASS

Nov 15 Tue - Online ads & 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. Link to your new note from your homepage and make sure you set: share/readable:everyone. 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 on Chrome/Firefox and AdGuard on Safari.
  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.

Nov 18 Fri - Algorithmic discrimination

Why and how do algorithms exhibit biases (intentional or otherwise)?

Nov 22 Tue - 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. Link to your new note from your homepage and make sure you set: share/readable:everyone. 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.

Nov 25 Fri - NO CLASS

Nov 29 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.

Dec 02 Fri - Authenticity, work, & influence

We continue our discussion of authenticity by way of critiques of influencers.

Dec 06 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.

Dec 09 Fri - TRACE

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

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