KU News Release

June 1, 2010
Contact: Mike Krings, University Relations, (785) 864-8860

KU author explores nexus of interpersonal communication and digital technology

LAWRENCE — Users of Twitter, Facebook, Internet video chat and mobile phones have produced a sea change in the very nature of interpersonal communication.

Now, University of Kansas researcher Nancy Baym has published “Personal Connections in the Digital Age” (2010, Polity Press), a book for popular and academic audiences that probes the 21st century technological revolution in personal identity and the exchange of information.

“We’re steeped in so much rhetoric about how technology affects us — that it’s good or bad, or artificial or human,” Baym said. “This book should give people a research-grounded, sensible way to think through these things. I wanted it to be very readable — a one-stop shop for that person who wants to be able to understand what’s going on with new technologies in personal relationships. While it’s got a lot of personal examples and anecdotes, it’s pretty packed with information as well.”

For Baym, associate professor of communication studies at KU, her book represents the culmination of two decades of research.

“People have been studying online relationships and online friendship and online communication for a long time now and there hasn’t been a book that tries to really pull all of that together and make it accessible,” said Baym. “At the same time, there’s more and more public interest in it all the time, especially now with Facebook privacy issues. Everybody’s talking about relating to one another online.”

In the text, Baym explores new forms of personal connection; communications within digital spaces; online communities and networks; innovative relationships and identities forged on the Internet; and the myth that cyberspace exists independently of “real life.”

“The boundary between where I stop and where my technologies begin is not quite clear,” Baym said. “If we externalize our memories, our relationships, and things like that onto technologies, then we worry that we might be displacing what it means to be truly authentic and human. Someone might say, ‘My Facebook friend is also my friend in real life,’ but why do we have to question that? These technologies really make us question what is real and what is artificial.”

In her book, Baym examines the new boundaries of what aspects of life people are willing to share via digital communication, the subject of a debate currently raging around privacy concerns and popular social media sites.

“It’s a huge issue — are people aware of how much they are exposing?” said Baym. “There’s this whole idea of whom you are presenting yourself for, and who is looking at your information and who’s trying to make sense of you. Do you have all of those people in mind when you put that information out there? These are messy issues.”

Baym has spent the past two years writing the book, combining her research work with ideas shaped during the teaching of Communication on the Internet, a class she has led at KU for the past 10 years. She said that, in part, KU General Research Funds over that time had made her new book possible.

The KU researcher said that writing about digital communication is a challenge because the technology is constantly moving forward.

“If people read this book in 10 or 20 years and say, ‘Oh, I remember Facebook,’ I think there still will be something there that’s insightful for whatever technologies they’re using then,” Baym said. “The struggle is to extract the bigger role that communication technologies play, and what kinds of concerns and hopes and ambitions they trigger for us.”

The University of Kansas is a major comprehensive research and teaching university. University Relations is the central public relations office for KU's Lawrence campus.

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