5 books that have influenced how I think about online interactions

In a series of 3 posts, I’m sharing some books that I’ve found useful on the topics of community management, online interactions, and leadership and team culture. In this post, I recommend 5 books that cover various aspects of how we behave online from different types of interactions to how structures influence our activities and more.


1. “It’s complicated” by danah boyd

I really enjoyed danah boyd’s dissection of the various beliefs about how teenagers use social networks – indeed, it was probably my favourite book of 2014. But it’s not simply an internet explainer/debunking of scare stories for the worried parent. Yes, each chapter addresses a topic of potential misunderstanding – from online identity, to privacy, to the naive belief that the internet is a great leveller. But, boyd frames many of her arguments in relation to the 4 affordances of online networks – the behaviours that the various online tools make possible.  I enjoyed considering persistence, visibility, searchability and spreadability as key factors in sharing content online – and have started a series of my own musings about these affordances.

Context collapse is the other big idea that has been picked up from the book. It occurs when people comment on content that they may technically be able to see, but which was not meant for them to publicly interact with e.g. your mum commenting on the photos of the party you went to last night.

2. “Reclaiming Conversation” by Sherry Turkle 

Turkle is probably best known for her book “Alone together” which is the result of her years of work interviewing adults and children about their relationship with technology and how that compares to human-human interactions. “Reclaiming Conversation” builds on that to look at the ways in which technology is changing our ability to converse with ourselves and each another – from algorithms in health apps that help us to construct narratives and make decisions about our lives, to our ability to the avoid of apologies and other difficult conversations at the push of a button. Full of examples from Turkle’s years of interviews – many of which would make great deeper conversations of their own to explore.

3. “Society and the Internet – how networks of information and communication are changing our lives” 

This collection of short essays, edited by two members of the Oxford Internet Research Institute, considers a wide range of studies of the Internet – from our relationship to our online profiles to the role of social media in journalism. There are also chapters on the economics of attention (and implications for advertising) as well as sections on big data.

Society and the internet

The most interesting chapters for me focused on digital democracy – including whether the Internet has been used successfully to engage voters in discussions about politics. One chapter considered the importance of personal networks in the success of online petitions, noting that for the two UK government sites studied, a petition lived or died in the first 24 hours after it was posted (where living or dying is defined as being on track to obtaining the minimum number of signatures required for Downing Street to issue an official response about the petition’s topic).

Another chapter analysed the promises made by the UK coalition government to use the Internet as a tool to encourage political debate, concluding that there is a lack of places for genuine deliberation online. Instead, the favoured route to gathering public opinion is aggregation e.g. via petitions, upvoting or hashtags that cluster individuals with similar opinions. However, aggregation does not provide an opportunity for participants to exchange, discuss and modify their beliefs.  How we create forums for deliberation is a topic I keep returning to in my musings about how we use online spaces productively.

4. “Sharing our lives online – risks and exposure in social media” by David Brake

Brake starts by detailing the various potential harms from posting online and then moves to consider scholarly perspectives on what motivates us to share, as well as what is different about social media compared to offline interactions. This includes the concepts of time and memory online. A good companion to danah boyd’s “It’s complicated”.

5. Jane Jacobs – “The death and life of great american cities”

I read this classic during my “sabbatical” when I was exploring various aspects of community – including developing an interest in urban planning and how that contributes to local community formation. One of the things that’s stuck with me from Jacobs’ text is the importance of streets as the core units of a city and the various things (mixed usage allowing eyes on the street at multiple points during the day; a clear delineation between public and private spaces etc) that contribute to their role. There’s a lot of similarities with how newsfeeds work in social networks – which led me to think a bit about “eyes on the digital street” and what it means to look after our shared social spaces (discussed a bit here).


5 thoughts on “5 books that have influenced how I think about online interactions

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