Many of the most significant, globally impactful companies and products recently created are tied to digital communications and computational technologies – wireless networks, social networks, smartphones and big data mining applications are among them.
Despite the pervasive nature of digital communications, few academic programs actively train students to understand and effectively manage the social aspects and implications of the Digital Age.
With that in mind, University of Arizona faculty members have developed the new eSociety program, which will be offered beginning in fall 2013.
"Technology is the most important revolution of our lifetime," said J.P. Jones, III, dean of the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
"It has completely transformed the way we interact with one another, learn new things, and form communities. It’s even changed the way we govern ourselves and the forms of protest we see today. Democracy is now technologically mediated," Jones said. "And every social science discipline has a role to play in understanding these changes."
In addition to being highly marketable, particularly to students interested in pursuing careers that incorporate digital communication and social media, eSociety already has captured the eye of top-level executives. The UA program will be offered as an undergraduate degree option and a minor, and students are already being advised for admission.
"There are some universities offering programs in Internet studies that are technically driven, but there are not many looking at how information technology is changing how we behave, communicate and practice as members of society," said Pamela Coonan, the research support and enrollment manager for the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
"That's how our program is different. You have a lot of people who have the technical skills, but do not have the ability to communicate effectively and analyze the data," Coonan said. "That is what brings the information to life; understanding the social practices of what we do."
Understanding Emerging Social Interactions, Practices
Housed in the UA School of Information Resources and Library Science, or SIRLS, eSociety is interdisciplinary with a two-part intent: to provide students with both the social science and data management skills and theories necessary to engage in the world of Internet-based data and interactions.
"This degree is about society – the ways we relate to social and historical changes, enact our roles and work collaboratively," said Catherine Brooks, an assistant professor with a joint appointment in SIRLS and the communication department.
But this requires moving beyond the existing belief that information and data are merely products that can be transferred. Instead, data, especially data derived from and transferred in digital formats, are social processes, Brooks said.
"Data are laden with our philosophies of knowledge and laden with issues of identity, class and culture," said Brooks, who led the curricular development for eSociety and noted that the program would prepare students for life and work in contemporary society. "Data are more than just a thing and a product; they are laden with societal concerns."
To better understand what is driving the need for such a program requires a quick look at the evolution of companies and sites such as Pinterest and Netflix or the impact of social media on global events such as the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring of the last year.
Expertise in eSociety should lead to understandings of social media marketing or other networking skills, as well as more complex understandings about Web-users, such as their shared ideologies, typical human practices, interpretations of information or perspectives on differing modalities for receiving digitally based information.
The program is not just about teaching students how to best collect user information for the benefit of marketing.
Within the UA program, courses offered will cover topics that include social media strategies, artificial intelligence, identity in the digital realm, privacy concerns, Internet communications law, information ethics, strategies for managing a social presence and the access and barring of access to information, among others.
"Blending all of these topics is very novel and exciting," Brooks said, adding that in addition to learning how to find and analyze information, and while learning about social practices and cultural implications of digital practices, students also will learn how to manage and use large data sets.
Consider Don Fallis, a SIRLS professor, who proposed a course on knowledge in the digital world.
Fallis is an expert in the theory of knowledge and is concerned with the pervasive nature of disinformation – the intentional practice of misinforming others. Coupled with that scholarship is an interest in lies and deception.
"People giving us inaccurate information gets in the way of acquiring knowledge about the world," Fallis said.
"We have to look at the various ways in which information and information technology are affecting the ways in which we acquire knowledge," he said. "There are so many ways information technology affects our ability to acquire knowledge."
Or to forget.
Brooks noted that with the proliferation of surveillance of GPS tracking, it is increasingly impossible to be anonymous.
"Everyone might know where we are at all times. But there is the human right to forget," said Brooks, who joined the SIRLS faculty in 2012 and also serves as the school's director of undergraduate studies.
"With all of this information, we can catalog and track information on events; the way data is managed and archived makes it hard to forget," she said, which gets into interesting and concerning ethical dilemmas.
Potential Benefits for Individuals, Corporations
During spring 2012, Coonan sent targeted messages to companies in Tucson and Phoenix with information about eSociety while also seeking their participation in a roundtable about the degree's applicability.
"Within less than 30 minutes, I received positive responses from a major entertainment firm in Phoenix and from a local branch of a major media outlet," Coonan said. "These firms were so excited to be a part of the talks that they've been in touch a few times just to make sure we still have them on the participant list."
The eSociety degree will prepare students to work in social media production, marketing, big data analysis, consulting with governmental and nonprofit organizations as well as in business – much of which is new for today's employers.
"They know we need to broadly train employees, but in what – it has yet to have a name but we know it is about social media analysis and social marketing; someone who can data mine and turn that into chunks of information that can be used by organizations," Brooks said.
Companies are increasingly concerned with improving data mining and analysis, improving reach and impact via social media and also with privacy and legal issues in a Web-mediated world – all of which eSociety will address.
"What that means for students, and this is classically what we believe in the social and behavioral sciences, is that you train people for the long run – not the short," Jones said. "We need to make people versatile enough that when they change their careers four times in a lifetime, they can use their knowledge to bridge careers, one to another."
Bryan Heidorn, the director of SIRLS, noted, for example, that it was only about 20 years ago that in order to be successful in any Internet realm a strong computer programming background was a prerequisite.
"But others have built up these tools for us so you don't have to build your own hammer – just take one that exists at the moment," Heidorn said.
"In a way, there are too many tools. Today, there are new tools coming out every week, and you need to discover those tools and decide which will serve the right purposes for you," Heidorn said.
"This is not just about putting messages out on Facebook or marketing to sell widgets. This is about analytics and helping you manage your operations," Heidorn said, noting that this is especially important for understanding social and political phenomena. "It's important to have the long-term view and to be able to interpret the consequences."
Graduates of eSociety could one day be those helping to solve problems with the digital divide and addressing the pervasive nature of misinformation on the Internet, and they undoubtedly will aid in the establishment of new digital communities, practices and applications.
The continued evolution of digital communications and infusion of technology in day-to-day interactions will only continue to have a strong impact, whether locally or globally, Brooks said.
That means the UA's eSociety program would also grow and evolve, eventually incorporating other disciplines.
"I see eSociety evolving as our historic milieu continues to shift. eSociety is obviously something that will continually adapt to changing technologies and shifting cultural needs, norms and dilemmas,” Brooks said, emphasizing the importance of the program's interdisciplinary nature.
"To maintain a strong program, all involved departments will need to continue to be intellectually and programmatically flexible," she said. "By keeping an open mind to the ways that cross-department and multi-college endeavors can happen, we are really going to benefit the students at the University of Arizona."