EXP50: Social Media Syllabus

Jesse Littlewood
EXP50: Social Media
13 min readAug 31, 2015


Tufts University ExCollege
Fall 2015

Social media has changed the ways individuals define themselves, engage with others and impact the world at large. As more of our daily lives are spent on social platforms, it is imperative to reflect critically on how they change our relationships to each other and society. The Internet has given individuals the power of worldwide distribution of content, disrupting traditional forms of media and communications, and creating new forms of interpersonal and civic engagement.

This course will examine social media and its impacts, positive, negative and unknown. Students will explore a variety of areas in which social media has created widespread change, and will debate the opportunities and challenges of communicating on social media platforms.

Class Goals

This class is not about learning how to use the latest social media tools, though we will spend time with many of them. The focus will be on thinking critically about the role of these platforms in our society, and in our perspectives and relationships. After the class, students should be able to use social media as a lens with which to view the ongoing changes to our public and private lives, as well as business, cultural and political institutions.

By the end of the semester, students will be able to:
· Understand the historical roots of contemporary social media
· Assess the core value propositions of social media platforms
· Understand how social media have affected several aspects of contemporary life

Teaching Philosophy

There are no spectators in social media. To understand participatory culture and content, one must actively participate. In addition to the assigned readings, students will be expected to use the online tools — like Medium — that are discussed and to think critically about how social media exerts influence over our daily lives.

Additionally, social media is about two-way communication and interaction above all. While students should expect presentations from instructors and guest speakers, lively discussion will be an important part of the class.

Weekly Topics

These are highly subject to change. Plan on them changing. Check in here each week before you do the readings. All readings are either linked to here or via PDF uploaded to the class Trunk site.

Week 1 (9/8): Course Overview & Framing

We’ll present the major themes and topics for the semester and learn about students’ backgrounds in and perspectives on social media. This class will also be about getting comfortable with the range of tools and technologies that we’ll be leveraging throughout the course.

Required reading for this class: none

Week 2 (9/15): Historical Context of Social Media

When did social media really begin, and what have its impacts been over time? We’ll review some key points throughout the history of interactive media and put them in the context of broader media and technology history — and also our own digital lives.

Required reading for this class:

Writing on the Wall: Social Media, The First 2,000 Years — Tom Standage (PDFs on Trunk: pp. 6–20; 240–250)

“How Social Media Can Make History” — Clay Shirky

Understanding Media (pp. 3–11) — Marshall McLuhan (PDF on Trunk)

“What is Web 2.0?” http://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/Web-20-or-Web-2

Week 3 (9/22): What is Code?

Social media relies on programming code to work. That code has been created by humans. Who are the coders and what is code? This week will explore code and coding from two different angles: Paul Ford’s “What Is Code” an epic interactive online article that students will parse and discuss, and a lab experience of programming simple games in class.

Miles Blackwood, Software Architect with Echo & Co. @kmblackwood

This class will feature a guest speaker: Miles Blackwood, Software Architect with Echo & Co. Learn more about Miles here: https://echo.co/users/miles-blackwood or follow him on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/kmblackwood

Required reading for this class:

Paul Ford, “What Is Code?” http://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2015-paul-ford-what-is-code/

Assignment following this class:
Essay #1: 500-word paper, due on Trunk by 9/27.

Week 4 (9/29): Social Media is Big Business

Social media may not cost anything, but that doesn’t mean it’s free. We’ll explore the economic factors at play in social media, from how social media companies make money to use of personal data for marketing purposes. We’ll see just how far we can take a Facebook advertising campaign with a few dollars and a dream.

Required reading for this class:

“Advertising is the internet’s original sin” (The Atlantic) http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/08/advertising-is-the-internets-original-sin/376041/

“Facebook terms and conditions: Why you don’t own your online life” (The Telegraph) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/social-media/9780565/Facebook-terms-and-conditions-why-you-dont-own-your-online-life.html

“Social networking is not a business” (MIT Technology Review) http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/410313/social-networking-is-not-a-business/

Week 5 (10/6): Digital Identities, Communities & Norms

Who we are in the real world and how we represent ourselves online are not always the same. Whether you believe that or not, social media can have profound effects on our perceptions of ourselves and each other. We’ll dig into the written and unwritten rules that guide our activity in the social world — then come up with creative ways to break them.

Required reading for this class:

“The Always-On Lifestyle” danah boyd (PDF on Trunk)

Personal Connections in the Digital Age — Nancy Baym (Ch. 2) (PDF on Trunk)

“Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”

Harold Garfinkel, “Studies of the Routine Grounds of Everyday Activities” (PDF on Trunk)

Assignments following this class:

Essay #2: 500-word paper, due on Trunk by 10/11.

Week 6 (10/13): Privacy & Anonymity

The central covenant of social media is trading personal information for access to services. We’ll examine how privacy is (or isn’t) deployed from these services. Anonymity — where we can maintain the most personal privacy — is a hallmark of a number of social media platforms including Reddit and YikYak. Both have seen concerns about abuse by users who can hide behind their anonymity.

Required reading for this class:

danah boyd, The Politics of ‘Real Names’ (PDF on Trunk)

“Who Spewed That Abuse? Anonymous Yik Yak App Isn’t Telling” http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/09/technology/popular-yik-yak-app-confers-anonymity-and-delivers-abuse.html

“Now 10 years old, 4chan is the most important site you never visit” http://www.dailydot.com/business/4chan-10-years-christopher-moot-poole/

“An annotated guide to Facebook’s privacy settings (that you’ve never read)” http://www.thestar.com/business/2015/02/24/signed-up-for-facebook-this-is-what-you-really-agreed-too.html

Facebook: Data Policy

Assignments following this class:

Decide if you want your final project to be individual or collaborative (group). As below, letter-graded work is to be submitted (and graded) individually. You are welcome to make a “pitch” to the class on 10/20 (or on Medium) to join you on a group project.

Week 7 (10/20): Social Activism

Much has been made of social media’s role in recent social movements, from #BlackLivesMatter to same-sex marriage to net neutrality. We’ll dive deep into the most visible contemporary example of social activism spurred by social media: #blacklivesmatter and put ourselves in the roles of activists looking at goals, strategies and tactics for a movement in the age of social media.

Daunasia Yancey, ‎Founder/Lead Organizer, Black Lives Matter Boston

This class will feature a guest speaker: Daunasia Yancey, ‎Founder/Lead Organizer, Black Lives Matter Boston. Learn more about Daunasia here and follow Black Lives Matter Boston at @blm_boston.

Required reading for this class:

“When Black Lives Matter Met Clinton: Activists Speak Out on Challenging Candidate over Crime Record” — watch the video — http://www.democracynow.org/2015/8/19/when_black_lives_matter_met_clinton

“Our Demand is Simple: Stop Killing Us” http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/10/magazine/our-demand-is-simple-stop-killing-us.html

“How Black Lives Matter moved from a hashtag to a real political force” http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/08/19/how-black-lives-matter-moved-from-a-hashtag-to-a-real-political-force/

“Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted” http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/04/101004fa_fact_gladwell?currentPage=all

“I Can Text You A Pile of Poo, But I Can’t Write My Name” https://modelviewculture.com/pieces/i-can-text-you-a-pile-of-poo-but-i-cant-write-my-name

Assignments following this class:

Essay #3: 500-word paper, due on Trunk on 10/25

Week 8 (10/27): Social Media’s Dark Side

Social media enables communication of all types — and it’s not all positive. How do we negotiate the negative elements of social communities, from cyberbullying to the formation of hate groups and terrorist organizations? Warning: We’ll probably go to some (more) dark corners of the web in this one.

Required reading for this class:

“How ISIS Games Twitter” (The Atlantic) http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/06/isis-iraq-twitter-social-media-strategy/372856/

“The dark side of Reddit’s cringe culture”

“The Ethics of Doxxing” https://medium.com/matter/actually-it-s-about-ethics-in-doxxing-1651b3deac77

“Dylann Roof, 4chan, and the New Online Racism”

Assignments following this class:

Final project topic pitch/proposal — an outline of the project and topic focus, due on Trunk on 11/1.

Week 9 (11/3): Social “Media”: News Distribution and Consumption

Social media has made significant changes to how journalism is practiced today — some good, some not so good depending on who you ask. Do we still need newspapers? Should you ever trust what you read on Twitter? We’ll debate these questions and others.

Required reading for this class:

“The People Formerly Known as the Audience”

“Everyone is a Media Outlet” — Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody (PDF on Trunk — Chap 3)

“Platform Creep” (The Awl)

“Beware online ‘filter bubbles’” http://www.ted.com/talks/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles?language=en

Assignments following this class:

Source review for final project, due on Trunk 11/15

11/10/15: No classes

Week 10 (11/17): Civic Engagement in a Social World

Governments, elected officials and community organizers all use social media to foster civic engagement, to varying degrees of success. We’ll get into some of the communication tools that are being used both locally and nationally. Bonus: Our guest speaker will tell us how he’s used the web to increase transparency in government.

Guest speaker: Michael Morisy, founder, MuckRock.com

Required reading for this class:

Robert Putnam, “Bowling Alone,” Journal of Democracy (January 1995) (PDF on Trunk)

Micah Sifry, The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics (Yet) (PDFs on Trunk: Chapter 1; Chapter 2)

Week 11 (11/24): Social Media Culture

How many references can you get?

The internet has given rise to entirely new languages and cultures, from memes to remixes to the rise of Anonymous — and social media is a driving force in establishing these new means of expression.

Required reading for this class:

Patrick Davison, “The Language of Internet Memes” in The Social Media Reader (PDF on Trunk)

“Savoring time as the Internet’s favorite punching bag”(interview with Scumbag Steve) http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/2012/11/24/the-internet-favorite-punching-bag/WVjHfEhnvTAkRQgLiIZHpL/story.html

“Ermahgerddon: The Untold Story of the Ermahgerd Girl” http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2015/10/ermahgerd-girl-true-story

Assignments due following this class:

Individual 5–7 page research paper, based on group topic, due on Trunk on 11/30.

Week 12 (12/1): Pop Culture + #brands

Social media allows individuals to discover and share untold amounts of music, photography and video, disrupting the traditional model of the creative industry. We will examine how social media enables new avenues for success and also how creators have adapted to the new reality of social entertainment. We’ll also discuss how brands (try to) play in this world, with firsthand experience from our guest speaker.

Guest speaker: Megan Baker, social media manager at Boston Beer Co.

Required reading for this class:

“Comedy Central in the Post-TV era” http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/21/magazine/comedy-central-in-the-post-tv-era.html

“Hashtag Blessed: Music’s Unfortunate Social Media Side Hustle”

“Does Snapchat have Star Wars in its future?”

“How do you market to Millennials?” http://www.npr.org/2015/02/24/388592666/how-do-you-market-to-millennials

Assignments due following this class:

Group project artifact (via Medium post — link, download, one-pager, etc.) and presentation, due before class 12/8.

Week 13 (12/8): Demo Day

Students will present their final projects and take questions from their peers.


Students will be evaluated on the following:

Participation — 20%
In order to be prepared for class discussion, students are expected to have completed the readings. As this class meets only once a week, regular attendance and participation is critical and will count in formulating the final grade. Here are the components of class participation:

  • Attendance in class.
  • Quick Responses: A single post on Medium — tagged with Quick Response — that is your reflection on the readings for the week. This could be your key take-away, some critical question(s) you have for discussion, or a related article, video or application you want to share with the class. These are due Monday at noon ET. Late submissions will be published but you will get a zero for that week’s submission.
  • Review Quick Responses: Read your classmates’ Quick Responses before class — and you are highly encouraged to comment on them.
  • Class discussion: Each week you will be expected to participate in a rigorous classroom discussion of the key concepts and readings.

Class Presentations — 20%
Each student will give one seven-minute “lightning talk” presentation related to that week’s given topic. The subject of the presentations and the day it is given will be determined by a lottery. See details here: https://medium.com/exp50-social-media/exp50-fall-2015-lightning-talk-guide-21dec9de7121

Written Assignments — 30%
Students will engage in three short written assignments over the course of the semester, including reading responses and personal reflections on class activities. Assignments will be submitted to Medium for peer review and response.

Final Project — 30%

The goal of the final project is to demonstrate understanding and synthesis of the key issues brought up in the course through the creation or analysis of a social media artifact, event or strategy. Examples include: Create a social marketing plan for an organization; create an original blog or social media persona with an agenda/point of view; develop a business plan for a new social media business (social platform or business enabled by social technologies); choose a topic/event and analyze it from a social media perspective.

Students will be able to select from several examples to be outlined during the course; alternative proposals will also be accepted. Final projects will be submitted either as a group or individually (with required papers submitted individually regardless of the rest). The components of the final project are as follows:

  • Topic pitch/proposal — An outline of the project and topic focus submitted to instructors — due 11/1 on Trunk (one per group)
  • Source review (group) — An explanation of key sources/platforms and readings (beyond assigned readings) related to the project, including details on how they were used (1–3 pages) — due 11/15 on Trunk (one per group)
  • Research paper — Each student within a group will submit a 5–7-page paper including further analysis of the selected topic/platform and reflection on the experience, bringing in key readings as applicable — due 11/30 on Trunk (one per student)
  • Project artifact (link/download/one-page explanation) due before class on 12/8 on Medium (one per group)
  • Presentation/demo of the completed project — in class 12/8 (one per group)

On Being a Good Class Participant

This class meets only 13 times over the semester, so attendance and participation is critical to get the most out of our time together. In order to be prepared for class discussion, students are expected to have completed the readings and any assignments including reading and commenting on your classmates’ Quick Responses.

On being a good discussion participant:

  • Your perspective is unique. Do participate, even if you are shy.
  • Debate. You don’t have to agree. Your politics may be different: please share your point of view. You might play devil’s advocate.
  • Be to the point. Make a quick note about your key points. This keeps from rambling.
  • Step up, step back. If you’re someone who talks more readily, wait to give others a chance to jump in first. If you are someone who is shy, or doesn’t participate right out of the gate, challenge yourself to jump in early.
  • Get to know your fellow student’s names, and use them in class discussion. It helps make a better class experience for everyone.

Your Instructors

Ben Rubenstein (@ben_rubenstein) has managed web content and social media strategy at organizations including the Sun-Times Media Group, Northwestern University, and wikiHow. He currently leads the social and community team at TechTarget, a Newton-based media company that publishes over 100 global websites covering enterprise and consumer technology. Ben holds a B.S. in Social Policy from Northwestern University, and an M.A. in New Media Studies from DePaul University. Find him at http://benrubenstein.net/ or on Twitter at @ben_rubenstein.

Jesse Littlewood (@j_littlewood) has developed web, email, and social media strategies for some of the largest non-profit advocacy organizations in the U.S. Currently, Jesse is the Director of Digital with Common Cause a public interest citizen lobby that holds power accountable and promotes reforms that strengthen our democracy. Jesse has taught two previous ExCollege classes. Connect with him in various ways at about.me/jesse.littlewood.



Jesse Littlewood
EXP50: Social Media

Campaigner, digital strategist, redhead. Campaigns & Digital w/ Common Cause (commoncause.org); former Lecturer, Harvard Kennedy School & Tufts