Throughout the spring of 2022, the Berkman Klein Center’s Institute for Rebooting Social Media engaged nineteen graduate and professional students from Harvard and MIT in an in-person, student-led discussion group that explored key legal, technical, and sociological topics related to social media. Based on “Design for Democratic Discourse,” a curriculum developed and taught by Professors Jonathan Zittrain and Deb Roy in the fall of 2021, participants examined the current state of affairs, analyzed what successful intervention in the digital sphere might look like, and imagined alternatives to the status quo. The discussion group syllabus can be found here.
Co-led by student research assistants, Jenny Li (HKS ‘23) and Anne Lonowski (HLS ‘23) and supported by RSM staff, students joined from nine different programs that ranged across law, government, engineering, business, education, religious studies, and public health. This diversity of intellectual perspectives enriched group discussions as students tackled John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace and the Fairness Doctrine, and debated questions surrounding Facebook’s Oversight Board and whether high school students should be making content moderation decisions for major platforms.
Heidi Bloodgood, for instance, an Ed.M. candidate at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, brought a youth-centered approach to these conversations. “There is very little to prevent a 10-year-old from accessing content on social media, and we cannot predict how it will shape their vulnerable brains,” Bloodgood told us. “But we do know these apps are shaping the world they experience, either for better or worse. This makes us responsible for paying attention, readjusting, and creating a safer experience for young users.”
Perhaps most excitingly, students envisioned alternative futures for social media. Proposals broached platform-level interventions, such as encouraging individuals to actually read the articles they share as a form of digital friction, or restricting the frequency with which users could post. Further, they discussed legal interventions, including whether social media regulation should be grounded in a sense that the services provided by these firms are public goods. Nevertheless, students expressed difficulty imagining alternative business models that could compete with the ones major social media networks currently deploy.
The student-led discussion group was part of the Institute for Social Media’s larger portfolio of programming, research, and educational opportunities. With a commitment to building the field, RSM anticipates hosting additional iterations of this discussion group throughout the current academic year, and is also planning to work with student RAs. The Institute hopes to continue to provide opportunities for students to engage, debate, explore, and imagine as we accelerate progress toward “rebooting” social media. Sign up for our newsletter to make sure you stay up to date on opportunities to work and learn with us!
This summary of the 2022 Student Discussion Group was written by Will Marks.