Student Team: Reflections on Digital Engagement and Internet topics
This podcast is part of the UCIL Digital Society course from the University of Manchester running in 2021/22 semester 2. The story it relates to is hosted on Medium and concerns the Digital Engagement and Internet topics.
In this podcast the Library Student Team reflect on your comments so far.
ST1: Hi, I’m George from the Library Student Team
ST2: And I am Sara, also from the Library Student Team
These past weeks, we covered Digital Engagement and The Internet. In both topics, the engagement factor played a key role with questions surrounding who we engage with digitally and how the Internet has changed the way we connect and engage with society. We enjoyed reading your insightful contributions, and we would like to share with you our own as well as explore some of your responses in a bit more detail.
What made it possible for us to engage digitally was the development of the internet. Through a timeline of events, we saw that the internet was formed out of a complex network of ideas, technologies and movements. The development of the Memex, a large device that stored, indexed and annotated a huge amount of information, in 1945, played a key role in the development of the World Wide Web. There was movement from bulky centralised computers in the 1960s to smaller ‘packet switching’ networks of computers of the 1970s onwards.
This is something that was reflected in the poll when we asked you about the technological changes in access to the internet you’d experienced in your own lifetime. A lot of you mentioned how you have experienced a ‘huge increase in accessibility’ to the internet. With the downsizing of technological devices and increased ability to own your own, it also changed how you ‘communicate with people’ as you are able to ‘access the internet almost anywhere.’ A lot of you mentioned that, increasingly, the types of technological changes ‘integrate our physical world ever more to the internet’, with examples including the voice-activated Alexa, something which is now prevalent in most households.
When the internet was first conceived, it was designed to house communities of experts and activities and to be used for non-commercial purposes with a cost to usage. In the modern day, the internet has become a more prevalent part of our lives and we engage digitally now more than ever. It has blurred the lines between analogous and digital engagement as technology is often used in offline environments. Some examples include asynchronous (live) versus asynchronous (delayed) communication, video recorded lectures, podcasts, face-to-face conversation and emails. There are certain factors which do affect engagement between people, and some of these are more common/have more impact in digital or analogue. We asked you how — if at all — is digital engagement between people different from analogue and why you think this is the case.
Many of you highlighted the fact that digital engagement lacks the “real” and personalised communication that analogue engagement, such as face-to-face discussions, has, because digital “removes the importance of body language and social skills from human communication, making it less representative of natural conversation”. What struck us was the theme of accessibility which a few of you reflected on. Engaging with digital content is so easy due to its ability to spread easily and its accessible nature, as well as give us “greater dopamine hit”. However it is much easier to “hide”, redact and delete who you are through a screen. This linked well with our discussion about the dangers of using the internet, including the ability to be anonymous and, therefore, the power to share viewpoints without repercussions. Many of you pointed out that, whilst this “can have its benefits by giving people confidence to raise awareness for positive outcomes, on the whole anonymity is dangerous. It gives people the power to be whoever they want behind a screen. This promotes cyber-bullying, grooming, catfishing” and other major threats.
One of you posted that the “essence of being human is removed from digital engagement” and that “Digital allows us to be ‘detached’ in a way as it’s not as ‘real’ as analogue”. Some of you reflected that analogue is much more “lively” and “stimulating”, while others prefer the freedoms and advantages of the digital. You reflected that the digital “gives us more choice — you can choose who, when and how to engage.”.
We also compared the importance of the analogue and the digital, during and post the COVID-19 pandemic. Many students relied on digital engagement while away from family and friends. We asked you to reflect on how you used the internet to connect to the wider society during lockdowns. The widespread consensus was that you used the internet for ‘everything and anything, for work and for play’. The great expanse of the internet has expanded into the social, financial, academic and leisure lives we lead, with some of you noting that ‘the internet is omnipresent’ in your lives.
With the rise of artificial intelligence, Meta and virtual reality, there is a push towards a merge between on and offline worlds. We discussed “taking it offline”, noting how technology factors in engagement between people in a ‘private’ or ‘offline’ setting. We noted that home technology can record our ‘offline’ engagements and give companies more access to information about us than our emails. We posed the question whether you think our analogue engagements are being recorded too. 20% of you said yes and 63% of you said you have experienced this. A minority of you said no and not sure. One student commented that the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma” is very relatable to this content, and we strongly agree. Companies such as Google have explained that they record our digital activity to enable them to understand what we say when using digital tools like voice search. Nonetheless, the reality remains that our private lives are under surveillance.
When we do things online, we don’t only engage with people but also with things including websites and brands. It reflects one of the key ideas from John Perry Barlow about what the internet should be as a ‘humane and fair’ ‘civilisation of the Mind in Cyberspace’. We made a quick poll about whether you engage more with people, organisations, or both. The majority of you answered by choosing ‘people’, while 14% said you engage with organisations more. On the other hand, 20% of you voted for engaging with both similarly, and 6% were unsure. Your votes to this question may have been influenced by how you define and view ‘engagement’. You may have linked this with your personal experiences, with both people and organisations. It is worth noting that organisations work through people. Interactions with them are effectively interactions with people, and that may be why the level of engagement with people is high. Some of you questioned the extent to which it is useful or relevant to have access to the immediate share of all information.
Oftentimes, companies use our digital footprint to advertise to us products or services tailored to our personal circumstances. We wanted to know therefore what you think of targeted advertising. Your views were much more divided on this than the previous questions. 34% of you said that targeted advertising is not useful at all and that you don’t like it. One of you pointed out ‘do we really need to see millions of beauty influencers selling dieting products every single day?’ On the contrary, 28% of you find it useful while 20% consider it to be useless even though you are okay with it. The remaining 18% of you had views other than those specified in the poll.
Your divided opinion supports the view that targeted advertising is not strictly a good or a bad thing. However, from the posts on the value of the internet and its relation to advertising, some of you mentioned your concerns about how ‘too much information and communication leads to non-stop advertising, private life’s intrusion, or any kind of information theft.’ Based on your discussions and ideas in the posts, we think that there are still larger discussions to be had about what we want for the future of the internet and its usage in online and offline environments.
This brings us to the end of our review for Digital Engagement and the Internet. We discussed the history of the internet and how we use it to engage with each other, with things and with brands. We also discussed marketing in a digital society and the ways in which digital engagement generates data as well as how this data is used and how technology affects the offline world. Thank you for engaging very actively with this session and for sharing your ideas and reflections! Reading them was a great pleasure, and we hope to hear from you again next week! Thank you for listening.