Making words and images public used to be difficult, complex, and expensive. Now it’s not.

That change, simple but fundamental, is transforming the media landscape. A publisher used to be required if you wanted to write or photograph something the public could read or see. Now anyone with a keyboard or a camera can circulate their material globally. New, cheap forms of communication have opened the floodgates to a massive increase in the number and variety of participants creating and circulating media. This change is driving several effects in the media landscape today.

This course is about the transition from a world with professional media makers and a silent public, to a world where anyone who has a phone or a computer can be both producer and consumer. This change has been brought about by the technological and economic characteristics of digital data and networks. It  is upending old forms of media — newspapers, music publishing, moviemaking — faster than new forms can be put in place. The result is chaos and experimentation, as new ways of participating in the previously sparse media landscape are appearing everywhere.

This course will cover the previous media landscape, the design of digital networks that challenge those historical systems, and the social complexity that accompanies public participation in sharing words, images, audio and video. We will look at the dynamics of any electronic media that enables group conversation — WeChat, Facebook, Renren, Twitter, Weibo, and so on.

The class will consist of lectures and discussion and in-class presentations and analysis of new uses of media that you observe (or participate in) outside class. There will be in-class group presentations, and two written analyses of the media landscape, one at mid-term and one final paper.


The course will progress through 3 phases, each taking roughly a third of the course:

  1. Three Basic Concepts

We will spend the first few weeks looking at the three basic concepts of the course

  1. The media environment
  2. Technologies that enable public participation in that environment
  3. Social dynamics of those participants
  4. What Is Happening Now?

We will spend the middle third of the course looking at the ways the low cost and high availability of media used by ordinary citizens is altering what media means. We will be especially interested in media used for assembling and coordinating groups of people previously locked out of the media landscape, and the ways cheap, social media rewards productive rather than merely consumptive behaviors.

  1. The Shape of Things to Come?

We are living through the largest expansion in expressive capability in history. This shift is disrupting many of our beliefs about how media is supposed to work. What might some future developments in participatory media be?


The work of the class is studying uses and structures of media, developing your opinions about what you learn, and participating in discussions of that work in the class and in your written work.

Reading: The one required textbook in the class is Asa Briggs and Peter Burke’s Social History of the Media. The rest of the material will be online. (I will also assign readings from my book, Here Comes Everybody, but I will distribute these electronically.)

In general, there will be three or four readings a week. (One some occasions, a “reading” will be a video.) These are listed in the week they are assigned, for discussion the following week. They are listed in the order I want you to read them, and the order in which we will discuss them in class.

Where a reading is marked with a (W), we will definitely talk about it during the second class meeting that week. Some of the other reading discussions may spill over from Monday to Wednesday, but the W readings will definitely be discussed on Wednesdays.

At some point in the semester, some event will happen that is relevant to the class — a new piece of software will launch, a new meme will catch on, some government will freak out about citizen participation. When this happens, I will alter the syllabus bring readings into class that will help us talk about this event.

The single most important thing you can do while reading is to prepare questions. I expect to be able to ask any of you what questions you have about any assigned reading. Take notes as you go.

Writing: I will ask you to post questions and observations on the class forum. For these posts, I am more interested in your ideas than in perfect English expression. Your posts will be part of your class participation grade.

I will also ask for three written assignments, assigned in weeks 4, 8, and 11. For these, I care about both your ideas and the clarity of your expression. You should show your work to someone in the writing department for feedback before turning it in. They are quite helpful.

Your final written work can either be an analysis of current public media participation or a proposal for a new form of public media participation. For the final two weeks of class, you will read each other’s papers. In class, each of you will answer questions about your work, from your classmates who have read it.

Group work: Each of you will be part of a small group during the semester. I will ask you to work together on a short presentation to the class. This work will usually be to observe or compare examples of media participation. Your work in the group effort will be part of your class participation grade.


40% Class participation — Preparedness, asking questions, writing on the class forum.

10% First paper — Graded on depth of idea and clarity of expression (70%/30%)

20% Second paper — Graded on depth of idea and clarity of expression (70%/30%)

30% Final paper — Graded on depth of idea and clarity of expression (70%/30%)

Class Rules:

Be on time.

Come to class with questions.

Be respectful in conversation, especially when you disagree.

Don’t interrupt your fellow students.

Stay focused. (No devices in class, unless the assignment requires it.)

That last point needs some explanation: laptops and phones obviously have academic value, but current interfaces tend towards interruption, with alerts popping up from many forms of social media. By design, these devices reduce concentration.

These devices also harm class performance. We have long known that people are bad at multi-tasking, but recent research has demonstrated that computers don’t just distract the user, they distract people around the user. Laptops and phones turns out to be like cigarettes. They create second-hand damage to the concentration of people near you.


Reading for Week 1:

Tricia Wang; “Designing for Trust” 2012 (Watch the first 10 minutes of the video:

Assignment for Week 1:

Short questionnaire:

Week 1: Monday, August 31 and Wednesday, September 2
Introduction of class themes, and the basic idea of a network shape (topology).

A comparison of broadcast and conversational networks.

The arrival of “many-to-many” networks.

Assignment for Week 2:

Make a brief forum post describing a piece of participatory media you use.

Morning class:  / Afternoon class:

Click “Start a New Conversation” for your post.

  1. What medium do you use, and what is it for?
  2. What other, similar media do people use?

Readings for Week 2:

Social History of the Media, Chapter 2: “Printing in its Contexts” (first half, pages 13-45)

Here Comes Everybody, Chapter 2: “Sharing Anchors Community”

(W) Three Moments with WeChat (2015); Christina Xu;

(W) Digital Culture is Like Oral Culture Written Down (2015); An Xiao Mina;

Week 2: Monday, September 7 and Wednesday, September 9

An introduction to the problems of scale in networks, and how they relate to human action.

Coordination problems: Logic of Collective Action, Tragedy of the Commons, Social Loafing

Assignments for Week 3:

First paper: Identify one social situation that works well at small scale but badly at large scale. Identify one social situation that works well at large scale but badly at small scale. Describe why. (~800 words). Due Monday the 14th.

Small Group 1 assigned

Readings for Week 3:

Social History of the Media, Chapter 2: “Printing in its Contexts” (second half, pages 45-60)

Here Comes Everybody, Chapter 3: “Everyone is a Media Outlet”

(W) “The Strength of Weak Ties” (1973), Mark Granovetter,

Week 3: Monday, September 14 and Wednesday, September 16

How density affects conversation / Strong & Weak ties / Effective & Extended networks

How does the internet work?

First paper due Monday

Small Group 1 presents

Assignment for Week 4: Dead Media

Pick one example of dead media from The Dead Media dossier:

Answer two questions in the forum: Why did the medium you picked seem like a good idea at the time? Why is it not still a good idea today?

Small Group 2 assigned

Readings for Week 4:

Social History of the Media, Chapter 3: “The Media and the Public Sphere in Early Modern Europe.”

Here Comes Everybody, Chapter 4: “Publish, then Filter”

(W) Understanding Media; Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium is the Message” (pp 7-13); “Roads”, “Press”, “Telegraph”

(W) “My Fiendster Experience”, Terboted,

Week 4: Monday, September 21 and Wednesday, September 23

The effects of abundance on the logic of media/The shift to “Publish, then filter”

Limits to conversational participation

Small Group 2 presents

Assignment for Week 5:

Forum post: Choose one site — Zhihu or Quora; Wikipedia or Baidu Baike; or Jinjiang — and describe why you think people participate in it?

Small Group 3 assigned

Readings for Week 5:

Social History of the Media, Chapter 4: “Technologies and Revolutions”

Here Comes Everybody, Chapter 5: “Personal Motivation Meets Collaborative Production”

(W) “The Web Is A Customer Service Medium” (2011); Paul Ford;

(W) “We the web kids” (2012); Piotr Czerski;

NO CLASS Monday September 28 – Wednesday October 2: National Day holiday

Week 5: Monday, October 5 and Wednesday, October 7

Understanding the motivation of participants/Requirements for collaboration

Power-law distributions in networks

Small Group 3 presents

Assignment for Week 6:

Work in your group to define one of the available terms on the class wiki.

Readings for Week 6:

“Coase’s Penguin: Linux and the Theory of the Firm” (2002); Yochai Benkler;

(W) “Sharecropping the long tail” (2006); Nicholas Carr;

Week 6: Monday, October 12 and Wednesday, October 14

Yochai Benkler’s theory of collaborative peer production.

Discuss collaborative production of class definitions

Assignment for Week 7: Draft statement of observation

Pick a medium you want to observe, and write a brief post on the class forum about one social design feature of that medium, and how it works.

Small Group 4 assigned.

Reading for Week 7:

Social History of the Media, Chapter 5: “New Processes and Patterns”

“Design Principles And Threats To Sustainable Organizations That Manage Commons” (1999); Elinor Ostrom;

Week 7: Monday, October 19 and Wednesday, October 21

Coordination problems special to long-lived groups/Tradeoffs in group strategies

Small Group 4 presents

Assignment for Week 8:

Observe the medium and social feature you observed from last week’s assignment, and write a short paper (~1200 words) that…

  1. …describes the medium and the social feature you are focusing on
  2. …explains why you think the feature was designed the way it was
  3. …explains the tradeoffs that the feature creates
  4. …imagines one change to the feature, and describes what would happen if that change was implemented.

Readings for Week 8:

Here Comes Everybody, Chapter 6: “Collective Action And Institutional Challenges”

(W) “ʻThis Is Not a Gameʼ: Immersive Aesthetics and Collective Play” (2003); Jane McGonigal

(W) “Our Weirdness is Free” (2013); Gabriela Coleman;

Week 8: Monday, October 26 and Wednesday, October 28

In-class discussions of your observations about the design features of social media

Assignments for Week 9:

Forum post: What change would you like to see in participatory media? What new site, service or app do you think should exist? Or what would you like to change about an existing site, service, or app? What would happen if your change came about?

Small Group 5 assigned

Readings for Week 9:

“Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market” (2012); Duncan Watts et al.;

Additional readings TBA For Guest

Week 9: Monday, November 2 and Wednesday, November 4

Guest Speaker

Networks and culture

Small Group 5 presents

Assignment for Week 10:

Small Group 6 assigned

Readings for Week 10:

“Social Media Street Art: Censorship, China’s Political Memes and the Cute Cat Theory” (2011); An Xiao Mina;

“Networked Politics from Tahrir to Taksim: Is there a Social Media-fueled Protest Style?” (2013); Zeynep Tufekci

“A Tale of Two Memes: The Powerful Connection Between Trayvon Martin and Chen Guangcheng” (2012); An Xiao Mina;

(W) “Behind the Great Firewall of China” (2012); Zhao Jing (Michael Anti);

(W) “Dancing with Handcuffs: The Geography of Trust in Social Networks” (2012); Tricia Wang;

Week 10: Monday, November 9 and Wednesday, November 11

Political uses of social media

Assignments for Week 11:

Forum post: 2-3 possible subjects for your final paper

Small Group 6 assigned

Readings for Week 11:

Here Comes Everybody, Chapter 8: Solving Social Dilemmas

“Why Should I Share? Examining Social Capital and Knowledge Contribution in Electronic Networks of Practice” (2005); Molly McLure Wasko and Samer Faraj;

(W) “Self-segregation on social networks and the implications for the Ferguson, MO story” (2014); Ethan Zuckerman;

(W) “#BlackLivesMatter: the birth of a new civil rights movement” (2015); Elizabeth Day;

Week 11: Monday, November 16 and Wednesday, November 18

Social capital and distributed groups in social networks.

Small Group 6 presents (The last small group presentation.)

Assignment for Week 12:

Forum post discussing your idea for your final paper

Readings for Week 12:

“Social Objects” (2010); Nina Simon;

“Group as User: Flaming and the Design of Social Software” (2004); Clay Shirky;

(W) “Autistic Social Software” (2005); danah boyd;

(W) “Everything is Broken” (2014); Quinn Norton;

Week 12: Monday, November 23 and Wednesday, November 25

Design Issues in Social Software

Assignment for Week 13:

Finish your final paper, ~2000 words. DUE FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 27

Read your classmate’s papers; come to class with questions.

Week 13: Monday, November 30 and Wednesday, December 2

Discussion of Final Written Work

Assignment for Week 14:

Read your classmate’s papers; come to class with questions.

Readings for Week 14:

All of you will be assigned to read some papers of your classmates. Please come to class prepared to ask questions of the author.

Week 14: Monday, December 7 and Wednesday, December 9

Discussion of Final Written Work