About Pablo Boczkowski, Ph.D.: Pablo J. Boczkowski is Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor in the School of Communication at Northwestern University and a 2020 Fellow of the International Communication Association. A prolific scholar whose work primarily focuses on international and comparative research into digital media, Dr. Boczkowski has published six books, dozens of articles, and four edited collections. His three most recent works, Abundance: On the Experience of Living in a World of Information Plenty, The Digital Environment: How We Live, Learn, Work and Play Now, co-authored with Eugenia Mitchelstein, and The Journalism Manifesto, written with Barbie Zelizer and Chris Anderson, all came out in 2021.
Dr. Boczkowski’s previous scholarship has been recognized with Outstanding Book Awards from multiple divisions of the National Communication Association and a Best Book Award from the American Sociological Association. At Northwestern, Dr. Boczkowski is Founder and Director of the Latinx Digital Media Center and Faculty Director of the Master of Science in Leadership for Creative Enterprises program. He also co-founded and co-directs the Center for the Study of Media and Society in Argentina, an international collaboration between Northwestern and Universidad de San Andrés in Buenos Aires, and is a regular contributor to Infobae América.
Dr. Boczkowski earned the degree of Doctor of Psychology from Universidad de Belgrano in Buenos Aires, Argentina before receiving his M.A. and Ph.D. from Cornell University in Science and Technology Studies.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Can we have an overview of your professional and academic background? How did you first become interested in the study of news media and its relationship to digital technology?
[Dr. Boczkowski] Thank you very much once again for your interest in my work and for including me in this important series. I was born and raised in Argentina, in Buenos Aires, and I had a career there first as a clinical psychologist. I have undergraduate and graduate degrees in clinical psychology from universities in Argentina and I worked for four years in a mental health hospital as a resident in mental health.
During the first couple of years of my residency, in addition to our regular duties, we had six days a month of emergency room responsibilities; when that happened during the week it was essentially a thirty-hour-plus shift. You spent 24 hours working in the ER, plus the next day’s regular shift in either the inpatient or outpatient unit.
One day in the middle of my residency, at the end of those 30-or-so hours – more like 32, 34 hours – I was leaving the hospital and then one of my colleagues said, “Hey, do you have anything going on tonight?” And I said no, so this person took me to a talk at the university by a mathematician who was working on artificial intelligence. This is 1991 or 1992, probably 1991. I didn’t know anything about computers or digital technology or anything like that. I attended and this person gave a talk on hypertext which is the precursor of the web. It was essentially about HyperCard, which was a program that Apple had at the time, a software. The architecture of information was essentially the same thing as for web.
What I saw then was that hypertext replicated the structure of conservation in therapy, in the sense that it’s not linear, there are multiple entry points, there’s the possibility to annotate. It’s not just receiving information but contributing at the same time. I was very intrigued by that. I contacted the expert and I said that I was interested and asked if he would let me volunteer in his lab over the weekend. It was the only time I had free. And he said yes.
That was the beginning of my interest in all things computers and all things information technology. I worked in the lab, and I actually helped design a prototype of a software system to be used in therapy, but I became more and more interested in the social implications of what, at the time, I called “computers and social relations.” The more I was reading about that — there was not a whole lot of literature, but there was some — the more I was curious and the less I became interested in therapy, per se. So, in 1994, once I finished my residency and my doctorate in clinical psychology, I decided to come to the States to retrain as a social scientist.
I went to Cornell to get a PhD in Science and Technology Studies and, during my second year in the program, my favorite hometown newspaper went online. It was in March of 1996. They did a launch with a conversation with a very well-known writer over chat, and the idea was thirty or forty participants would join the chat on the internet. This is the very early days. I had a 28.8 modem in downtown Ithaca, I remember. It was a Friday night.
The interesting thing was that instead of the journalist interviewing the writer the audience was posing the questions on chat and the journalist was moderating. This is a very famous novelist and short story writer in Argentina and a writer that I had interviewed for a high school assignment when I was fifteen. Two days later, the newspaper published an account of what happened in the spring edition of the Sunday newspaper, in part as a way to promote the online site.
They included a few pictures and I saw that the writer was in the living room of his apartment around the same table where a few high school students, including myself, had interviewed him fifteen years prior. But, in this case, he was surrounded by technology and people trying to make things happen. This writer did not have access to the internet himself. He was in his 70s at the time. So, there was a lot of infrastructure, a lot of technology, that had been brought to the apartment. There was a lot of work that had to take place in order for this to happen.
It was the combination of something that was very familiar to me (the writer, the living room, the table, the genre of the interview) and lots of things that were very new (the public asking the questions, things on the computer rather than in print, and the work that needed to be done to make this happen) that greatly intrigued me. That’s how I started to study the digital transformation of news making, first, and news reception later. It was totally by chance. I have no journalistic training. At the time, I had zero connections in the journalism community. It was the beginning of a journey of 26 years, now, that has been quite the ride, if I may say so. That’s the origin story. Totally happenstance. Nothing planned.
[MastersinCommunications.com] At Northwestern, you’re the founder and head of the Center of Latinx Digital Media. Can you tell us a little bit more about the work of the center and how you understand the relationship between Latinx Studies and the study of digital media?
[Dr. Boczkowski] Absolutely. I am, what is called technically a first-generation Latino in the sense that I am an immigrant from Latin America. I came to this country 28 years ago and naturalized 8.5, almost 9 years ago. I came for graduate school and one thing led to another and I ended up staying. It wasn’t the original plan, but it happened.
My first book [Digitizing the News: Innovations in Online Newspapers] and my dissertation were all focused on the United States. Then, as my career progressed, I became more and more interested in dynamics happening outside of the US, in particular in what is called the Global South and especially in Latin America within that. All of my books after my first book have drawn on data from countries outside of the US, especially Latin America, in some cases including the US but not as the only place.
As a natural evolution of this research, in 2014, almost eight years ago, a former student of mine, who is also from Latin America, and I decided to propose to my dean at the time at Northwestern and the rector of the university where she worked in Argentina the creation of a joint center for Northwestern and Universidad de San Andrés in Buenos Aires to study media and society in Argentina. We took the better part of 2014 and 2015 to work on it and then we launched in the fall of 2015.
It is based in Argentina, but it has a strong Latin American focus. We do a number of activities, including research. In the process of doing that work, I started to become more and more interested in issues of migration, diaspora, and the scholarly connections between Latin American and Latinx USA. I wanted to understand both the differences and sometimes the fluidity of their intellectual trajectories, because a lot of the Latinx experience and the Latino / Latina experience in the US is connected to stories of migration, whether that is voluntary migration or sometimes forced migration because of political or economic conflict or economic duress.
To start exploring a little bit of that, in 2018 my collaborator in Argentina [Eugenia Mitchelstein] and I, submitted a proposal to ICA [the International Communication Association] to have a preconference on issues of digital media and digital journalism in Latin America. The proposal was accepted, so we held our first preconference during the 2019 annual meeting that took place in Washington DC. There were fifteen, sixteen submissions, and around 40 people in the room. We noticed a lot of interest. Usually, it’s just the one Latino person or Latina person, the one Latinx person, the one Latin American in a particular department. I understand that they are different, but usually there is one in each department, and their experiences tend to be quite similar. Our experiences tend to resonate with one another. At least that’s what we found through that day of conversation.
We proposed to our colleagues the possibility of starting to make this preconference an annual affair. We’ve seen tremendous interest to the point where this year we will host our fourth-annual preconference and every year we have more submissions. Now there are seventeen people on the organizing committee, and we had 52 submissions this year. When I started noticing that, I also started noticing that in this case interest wasn’t only from people in Latin America but from a lot of colleagues in the US who typically do work on Latino / a /x USA.
Then it occurred to me it would be interesting to have a community space at Northwestern where we could do, first programming, then research, then teaching, on issues pertaining to Latinx digital media. Part of the remit of the center is that institutionally it is usually, not always, but usually the case that you have at most universities the Latin American and Caribbean Studies unit, then you have the Hispanic or Latina/Latino/Latinx Studies unit. The two investigate very different intellectual issues many times but, again, there are certain connections sometimes.
The idea behind the Center for Latinx Digital Media is to encompass, as we say, dynamics across the Americas: dynamics pertaining to the Latinx and/or Latin American experience across the Americas. We launched in the fall of 2019. We had to switch a lot of our plans because of the pandemic and because some of the funds became a little bit delayed. But the switch to virtual enabled us the possibility of hosting regular seminars without incurring the cost of flying people to Northwestern, number one, but number two, making the seminars and our programming more available to lots of people outside the Northwestern and the Chicago area and outside of the United States.
Initially, our programming has evolved in two directions. We have a virtual seminar series that takes place 30 times a year during the academic year – so on a weekly basis – and that is focused on a piece of research. Then we have a weekly podcast – 30 weeks of the year, again – where we talk to the speakers of the seminar series, not about a particular piece of research, but about their intellectual and professional journeys to help make this community more visible.
The idea is for the podcast to be a repository of career histories for graduate students or for younger colleagues – younger not in terms of age but in terms of stage in career development – who sometimes might think their circumstances are unique. But they’re usually not, and when you see how other people have dealt with circumstances or challenges that might be related to yours, it might be empowering to know you’re not the only person in that circumstance and help you develop strategies about how to deal with certain issues.
[The virtual space] has greatly amplified the work of my colleagues, which is very fulfilling in that sense. It’s been very interesting and very surprising. During the first year – the first 30 seminars – we had registered academics from a quarter of the countries in the world. And, again, we don’t have any marketing budget. All that we do is post on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. That’s essentially it. We don’t only have people from universities. We have people from governmental offices from different countries in Africa who join regularly. We have had high school students in the Dominican Republic registering for seminars. This is, if you wish, a niche product because it’s very targeted. We’re not going to have tens-of-thousands of views or something. It’s not a TED Talk. But it is several multiples of what you would get in face-to-face contexts and a much more diverse public, made up of a lot of people who would not otherwise access these materials.
Now, Northwestern is a very wealthy and research one (R1) institution that can afford to bring people in, but that’s for the people who are at Northwestern. There’s nothing wrong with that, but part of the mission is to build community globally and to allow people who are not at Northwestern to sometimes enjoy or participate in the content we produce. In that sense, it’s been great. I don’t get to go with my colleagues for lunch after. I miss that part. But lowering of barriers to the access of knowledge is something important to attend to. Particularly for the type of community we’re trying to build, I think it’s part of the mission and part of the empowering side of doing this digitally.
It’s been an interesting journey and I can’t say we had any of this in mind. It’s a process of learning by doing and experimenting. We are very, very pleased with how it has evolved and are looking forward to seeing what the future might bring.
[MastersinCommunications.com] A persistent subject of your research has been the concept of abundance: that many of us live with immediate access to a tremendous amount of information, knowledge, and choice. Can you briefly explain what you believe this concept helps us see about contemporary culture and communication?
[Dr. Boczkowski] We have a lot of information at our disposal. It’s very difficult to quantify that despite the different metrics being used. I think we could all agree that relative to our experience twenty, thirty years ago, it’s a lot of information that we have. A lot, a lot, a lot more. One of the things that I say in the book is that, when I was finishing the final version of the manuscript, before it went into production, it was in fall of 2020 at the tail-end of the Trump presidency. So, I went on CNN, and I did a search on Donald Trump, and, within a matter of seconds, I had 80,000 results.
I was thinking that when I lived in Argentina if I went to, let’s say, the National Library of Argentina, the news section, and I wanted 80,000 entries on the sitting president of Argentina or the sitting president of the United States, I wouldn’t be able to get them and, even if I were able to, it would’ve taken me quite a bit of time to do that and accessing them would’ve been quite cumbersome, combining multiple microfiche, this and that.
So, we have a lot of information. Now, we are not the only society in history that has gone through a sudden and massive increase in the volume of information available. It happened in antiquity. It happened in the Early Modern period. It happened, of course, during the Renaissance with the printing press. It happened during the Enlightenment, and it started to happen even more so at the turn of the century during the transition from agrarian to urban environments.
Since then, we have had quite a bit of scholarship on this topic – what happens to individuals, what happens to groups, what happens to organizations, even to entire countries, when they confront this. In the social sciences, probably since the work of Simmel at the turn of the century, in the behavioral sciences probably the canonical reference is the work of Miller 1956, the famous article by [George Armitage] Miller, “The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two.” And there’s been a lot of work since then.
Most of the work has coalesced around the notion of information overload. That’s sort of the term of art. There are others like info-obesity, infoglut, data smog, etc. But the term of art tends to be information overload. The problem with information overload is that it’s very good for a particular, fairly narrow kind of use of information, which is when you use information instrumentally to make a decision or a series of decisions, usually in the context of work, where there are fairly clear-cut outcome variables that tell you whether it was a good or a bad decision given amount of time and other resources. In these contexts, it is not unreasonable to assume a point of optimality after which you don’t need more information, in fact after which having more information is actually a burden rather than a resource. You enter into what is called diminishing returns. Therefore, the notion of information overload is suffused with what I call this discourse of deficit where, beyond a certain point, having more information is no good, right? It’s bad.
Now, when we think about our general day experience with this abundance of information, sometimes we use it to make decisions and sometimes we use it to express ourselves, like when we post on social media, when we consume stuff on social media and react to it to express ourselves. Sometimes, we use it to entertain ourselves – also social media or when we watch Netflix, when we binge-watch. Many of us use it to manage our relationships on messaging services like WhatsApp or just on our cellphone or the Slack groups we have, etc.
There are many different uses, it’s not just instrumental to the world of work–it is integral in many different contexts. It could be the world of work, but it could also be studying, it could also be our relationships, our friendships, our romantic relationships, family and so on and so forth. In that sense, it becomes much less clear-cut whether an abundance of information is good or bad.
My all-time favorite Netflix show is in English, it’s called Money Heist, it’s La Casa de Papel in Spanish. It’s a caper, heist type show. Unfortunately, it ended after five seasons, but every time the new season was released, I did nothing for 24-48 hours but watch that. One might say, that’s a terrible use of time. But I had a good time! Who’s to say that that’s bad for me? I don’t know, might be good, might be bad. If I missed work or that ended up being detrimental to my family, maybe a different story.
The point I’m trying to make is that whether having a lot of information — having all the episodes of Money Heist and watching them in 24 hours — is good or bad depends on the situation and the context. We cannot adopt a discourse of deficit; we must evaluate information as emergent and contextually dependent. The notion of abundance tries to capture, in a much more ambiguous and normatively neutral way, the experience of having all this information at our disposal.
Every second, I believe, there are more than 8,000 new tweets. Every second. And some of this might be relevant and we didn’t have any of that before. That’s the idea behind the notion of abundance. What I do in the book is I set out to understand what the experience of it is, and, in particular, by experience I mean the interpretation of information, what information means to people, what different kinds of information means to people, the emotions or the affect associated with this (so, it’s not just cognitive, it’s how it makes us feel) and what kinds of practices and clusters of practices like routines we enact to deal with this.
When we wake up in the morning and we have 725 new messages on WhatsApp, how do we cope with that? Do we go to sleep at 2am feeling like we need to answer all those messages, or do we disregard them? How much time do we spend on Facebook or Instagram? Do we comment on everything of note?
Abundance tried to understand that through a combination of 158 interviews and a 700-respondent in-person survey. The work was done in Argentina with people of all kinds of age groups, occupations, social class, family status, level of educational attainment, etc., and using an in-person, face-to-face survey of a nationally representative sample. So, that’s the story behind Abundance. It came out last year with Oxford University Press and it’s coming out in Spanish in mid-March with the publishing house of Universidad Nacional de San Martín in Argentina.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You actually published three books in 2021: Abundance: On the Experience of Living in a World of Information Plenty, The Digital Environment: How We live, Learn, Work and Play Now with Eugenia Mitchelstein, and The Journalism Manifesto with Barbie Zelizer and Chris Anderson.
[Dr. Boczkowski] It was a little bit crazy. It will never happen again that I’ll have three books in one year, ha! There was a period of about six months that was really, really tough, when everything was coming to a close in all three books. For the three books, I would highlight the differences rather than the common threads. One of the things that I have personally been very intentional about during this most recent phase of my career is to interrogate writing. Rather than just mechanically write what I find in the research, to think more deliberately about writing practices and different writing genres within scholarly writing that might be best suited for different kinds of content and which allow me to learn and explore new things.
One challenge at a certain stage of your career, in my opinion, is how to keep learning new stuff, learning new skills, being exposed to different experiences, to avoid more mechanical repetition of the work. Abundance is a classic ethnographic study. It took 5 years from start to finish. What I tried to do with Abundance was to strike a slightly different register from the typical writing of ethnography than I had done before, that is more of a cross between the traditional sociology / social science writing and what in Spanish we call la crónica, which is the long, journalistic chronical genre that has had a bit of a revival in Latin America during the 2000s until recently.
With The Digital Environment it was a very different story because Eugenia and I wrote some articles together for the media. We started noticing that, unlike academic articles, we were being read by thirty to forty thousand people. Which is sort of obvious, if you think about it, but the change in scale is remarkable. We were writing about research but without all the jargon, 1,500 words, more digestible and accessible content.
Because I’ve been doing research on journalism for quite some time now, I have a lot of contacts in the media scene, particularly in the Spanish-speaking media world. I had written a couple of pieces before for a news site called Infobae which over the years has become the leading Spanish-speaking news site in the world, even larger than El País in Spain. It’s an online only platform but they publish lots of articles a day. Now they have viewers in different parts of Latin America and in different countries, and they have specialized, nationally targeted editions.
I approached the managing editor one day and said, “Would you be interested in a monthly column that essentially does science communication but instead of science communication of the natural sciences or the physical sciences, which is their typical MO, it explores science communication of the social sciences of the internet? There is a lot of discussion about whether technology is destroying democracy, whether smart phones are addictive. How about once a month we tackle a particular topic? Because we know the scholars, we’re friends, we can interview some of the leading scholars on that particular topic and we choose people who have recently published important books and articles on those topics.”
He said, “Great, start whenever you want. ” I believe in March 2018 we published our first one and what we decided to do was, instead of us simply summarizing the research, we would read the research of our colleagues and then interview them about it. After about six-or-so of the columns, we started to see a common thread or common themes.
We approached MIT Press and said, “This is what we did and what we’ve been doing. This site is massive, and we’re being read every month by tens-of-thousands of people in the Spanish-speaking world, but no one in the English-speaking world is reading our stuff. We believe that, because of the success in Spanish, we’d have a public in English. We don’t want to repost the columns. Would you be interested in us writing a book based on the columns — adapting them, expanding them, connecting them — with the central thesis being that all of these topics tackle one particular slice of our digital life and usually one particular suite of technologies, but what we have seen is that all of these technologies are really interconnected and constitute an environment in which we live our lives that is akin to the urban environment in the sense that it’s made by people? You don’t experience asphalt as something disconnected from the sewage system as something disconnected from x, y, and z. In part you do, but what makes the urban environment so powerful is that it is experienced in its totality.”
MIT Press really liked the idea, so we wrote the proposal, it went through via review, we got the contract, and then we put together the full text, it went through review, and then we revised. The Digital Environment is written as a trade book. It’s 45,000 words or something like that, and it’s a way of, again, creating community. We ended up showcasing the work of sixty scholars from fifteen different disciplines.
What we are very proud of is the fact that usually the flow of knowledge is North to South, English to Spanish and Portuguese, or whatever other language you think of. But it’s not usually South to North, right? – Spanish to English or Portuguese to English or Swahili to English. We are very proud and very grateful to MIT Press for understanding this and being willing to support it. Again, it went through the entire review process, and all of that. But they were willing to support a book that is, in that sense, atypical. And it allowed me to practice trade writing more – it’s a little bit more between the reportorial and the analytical. We do have some theorizing but it’s not very heavy and it’s written in a very accessible form.
Now, The Journalism Manifesto is, as it says, a manifesto. It is a 25,000-word polemic within the manifesto series at Polity, which has very precise guidelines. And it was a book that was about 2+ years in the making, but it’s not like we were working on it all the time. We had ebbs and flows. But the idea was that Barbie [Zelizer], Chris [Anderson], and I have been thinking about and researching various aspects of journalism for a long time, each of us individually, and the idea was, let’s think about what we can say about the present and future of news above and beyond our specific research. What is it we’ve learned that we want to communicate and communicate with a specific sense of urgency? Because we do see the news industry and especially journalism as a craft and occupation at a pivotal moment, at a crossroads, and, again, it’s another, different kind of writing. Writing a polemic is very different than writing a monograph, or a hybrid trade book.
It was absolutely fabulous. Barbie, Chris, and I write very differently and have very different kinds of expertise, but what was remarkable about this book is that we worked so hard on each other’s ideas and texts that toward the end we could guess what the other was going to say, and the writing gelled into something that was neither Barbie’s, Chris’s, nor my own. It was a fantastic writing experience and our friendship really deepened as a result of that.
If there is a common thread across the three, for me personally it is experimenting in new modes of writing, communicating, and engaging your thinking and potential readers. It has been, in that sense, very fulfilling. Very tiring, so I’m not planning to work on three things in parallel again. It just was the way it was and I’m very glad that everything worked out.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have any advice you would give to graduate students who might be interested in conducting comparative, international research but don’t know where to start? Do you have any advice you might give, more generally, to students considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication who are interested in journalism and digital media?
[Dr. Boczkowski] I think that what I would say in part applies to both types of students. I think one of the aspects that makes this profession, this occupation, so rewarding is the possibility of learning. Learning new ideas, the possibility of learning new modes of analyzing the ideas, of communicating them, etc. When you do international work, that becomes ever clearer because you are essentially in a context that is not yours. Even if it is yours. When I do research in Argentina, I am from Argentina, but I’ve lived most of my adult life outside of Argentina now. I look at my home country very differently than my contemporaries who stayed all their lives there look at it.
I had a project that I coordinated that’s coming to an end with colleagues in Israel, Finland, Japan, the US, and Argentina, and it’s been absolutely fascinating through our conversations to learn about these cultural differences — how the very same platform or news story can be read and interpreted so very differently. So, a stance of curiosity is important. Openness, curiosity, appreciation, and respect for difference, I think, is absolutely paramount if you do work that is comparative in nature and I think in general is something that can be particularly fulfilling and powerful – fulfilling personally, powerful intellectually – even if you don’t do comparative work. We should have an attitude toward the world we live in that leads us to experience it as full of wonders, which we then have the opportunity to account for, explain, understand, and to share that understanding with others. I think that’s one issue that I would highlight.
Thank you, Dr. Boczkowski, for the detailed discussion of your research into global information abundance in the digital age, as well as the digital communication ecosystem!