// Oleg Elkov

from the corner to the digital street

As the distinction between life on the internet and life in the real world blurs, one consequence is that our online behavior can have a tremendous impact on our offline lives—think of someone who gets fired over an insensitive Facebook comment or derogatory Tweet. But as Yuan Hsiao and colleagues show in their new study, this relationship goes both ways. Our real world lives also affect our online interactions.

Published in the American Sociological Review, this mixed-methods paper examining on- and offline conflict between Latino gangs in Chicago combines the strengths of computational techniques—like spatial and social network analysis—and in-depth qualitative discourse analysis to contextualize, corroborate, or refute quantitative findings. The authors set out to determine the extent to which online gang behavior, which may include posting about gang activity and membership or making threats toward other gang members, corresponds with real-world violent crime reports and territorial boundaries. They found that rather than acting as a catalyst for violence, online gang activity is heavily influenced by offline interactions and territorial proximity. That is, the more closely gangs are connected in the real world, the more likely they are to engage in conflict online.

As social media becomes central to political and cultural life, studies have tended to focus on either online interactions or the ways online behavior shapes real-world outcomes. The findings of this paper instead demonstrate a more complex process whereby offline proximity and interaction create the necessary conditions for online conflict. This can bring the business of the euphemistic “corner” onto the “digital street,” further exacerbating tensions. Moreover, this paper shows that using qualitative analysis to interrogate quantitative “big data” findings is an important step for capturing the complexity of contemporary social life.