Rules of Engagement in the Digital World

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Russell Guerrero '83
Jul. 31, 2012

Rules of Engagement in the Digital World

First Amendment scholar Jennifer Henderson researches how people communicate and create on the Internet

SAN ANTONIO - We live in the age of communication.  At no other time in history have so many people been able to connect and communicate so easily.  Just think of the rising number of viral videos shot with nothing more than a mobile phone or how social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter helped organize revolutions in places such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen.

Jennifer Henderson 

One of the people most excited about the rise of digital communication is Jennifer Henderson, associate professor and chair of communication at Trinity.  Henderson uses her background as a media law scholar to explore how the boundaries of free speech have been affected by the online world.

Henderson believes that the new forms of communication have the potential to give a voice to those who have been traditionally disenfranchised from society and to deepen conversations that could lead to a stronger democracy.  But there are pitfalls.

For example, Henderson says access is still a problem for low income citizens who have limited access to the Internet.  Their opportunities to participate are "hampered even before they begin to create." 

 Things have recently begun to change, however slightly, as more people adopt smart phones to access the Internet and bypass conventional communication infrastructures.

Another area of concern is privacy, from the government operating cameras on street corners to Facebook collecting personal data on our online habits. 

Right now, there are no government regulations to limit how much information can be collected by social media sites or advertisers online, says Henderson.

Another area of research for Henderson is the study of participatory cultures, places - usually online  - where individuals come together to form groups around a common interest.  More than cultures of consumption, participatory cultures are characterized by expression, engagement, collaboration, and sharing.  She, along with associate professor of communication Aaron Delwiche have edited The Participatory Cultures Handbook, published this summer.

While participatory cultures existed before the rise of the Internet, there has been an explosion in the number of groups that have formed in recent years to engage with others online. 

The Participatory Cultures Handbook discusses everything from fans talking about Harry Potter, to people working with Habitat for Humanity, to scientists sharing data gathered from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

Henderson is especially interested in the legal and ethical implications of how members of participatory cultures communicate with one another.  For example, in some cultures, group members create their own rule structures and set up expectations of what is acceptable content, while other forums are maintained by corporations which moderate discussions and shut down conversations it deems inappropriate.

"One of the things I care about is what those boundaries are and how far you can push them to have as much good discourse as possible," says Henderson.  "The power of participatory cultures lies in the diversity of many voices and the freedom to say what is necessary."

Though the field of communication has grown exponentially with the rise of the Internet, Henderson is proud that Trinity's communication department's curriculum has kept pace with the changes to prepare students for the future.

"We are not only teaching traditional media but media for that next New York Times journalist who goes on the road with the president and who will have to blog and shoot video and write their front page story," says Henderson.  "We are lucky to be in this liberal arts and sciences environment to say 'it's OK to be that talented generalist instead of a specialist.' That is what employers are looking for."

Still is it not just journalists who are benefitting from the new age of communication.  Cities are using social media to engage their citizens on voting for public works projects, such as building new sidewalks in an underserved part of town.  Others have built micro-funding sites to help financially support the arts.

It comes back to the idea and the hope of advancing society through open discussions.  "Really it is all about those boundaries of speech to me.  How do we speak and listen to others to get what's best for our society in all these different venues," says Henderson. "The way we talk about things through mediated communication and the breadth of that discussion is what I really care about."

Courses Taught

  • The Mass Media
  • Mass Media Law & Policy
  • Race and Class in the Media
  • Media Fandoms
  • Media, Culture and Technology

Selected Publications

  • The Participatory Cultures Handbook.  New York: Routledge, co-editor with Aaron Delwiche, 2012.
  • Defending the Good News: The Jehovah's Witnesses and Their Plan to Expand the First Amendment, Marquette Books, 2010.
  • "Who Is a Journalist and Why Does it Matter?  Disentangling the Legal and Ethical Arguments," with Erik Ugland, Journal of Mass Media Ethics, Autumn 2007.