On Teaching Social Media to Undergraduates [Syllabus As Essay]

Alice3_smEditor’s Note: We are very happy to feature Ethnography Matter’s first Syllabus as Essay post for 2013 from Alice Marwick, a researcher who conducted pioneering ethnographic fieldwork on the world of social media use. Simply titled, “Social Media,” the syllabus that she created for undergraduate students at Fordham University is breathtaking and groundbreaking. Not only did Alice construct an interdisciplinary reading list to prepare her students to critically analyze social media, she also aimed to give her students practical social media skills for entry-level jobs and internships. Who does that? Only a professor who has a deep understanding of the contemporary internet!

While we weren’t lucky enough to be Alice’s student, she gives us an abbreviated tour of her class below. Alice explains her motivations for including several key readings in her syllabus. We get a peak into some of the lesson assignments for her students. We also get to learn how she integrated tumblr into her lesson plans.

Alice is currently an Assistant Professor at Fordham University in the Department of Communication and Media Studies and an academic affiliate at the Center for Law and Information Policy at Fordham Law School. She is turning her dissertation, Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity & Self-Branding in Web 2.0, into a book. 

Are you teaching a class on ethnography that engages with issues of technology? Then consider being our next guest poster for the Syllabus as Essay series! 


[Social Media Week by Fora do Eixo on Flickr]

I started my first semester as an assistant professor at Fordham with free range to take over a recently-added undergraduate class called “Social Media.” I’ve seen social media classes taught at the undergraduate level that focus entirely on learning to use the sites du jour. Not only does this approach not age well, it doesn’t give students skills to analyze social media critically, which is my primary ethos of teaching media studies.  Instead, I decided to spend the first half of the class grounding the students in a mish-mash of theory drawn from computer-mediated communication (CMC), science and technology studies (STS), and digital ethnography, and the second half organized topically, around key areas of interest like journalism, memes, and privacy. I wanted to do two things with the class: First, give the students some practical skills they could bring to bear in an internship or entry-level job, and second, focus on the sociotechnical, the interplay between technological affordances and social norms, to provide a skill set that would enable students to approach new sites and apps with a critical eye.

For a textbook, I chose Nancy Baym’s Personal Connections in the Digital Age. Like me, Baym is trained in communication, but uses ethnography as her primary method. The book gives a thorough schooling in CMC theory, some of which is out of fashion but still useful, and more modish key concepts in STS, while maintaining a critical, anthropological viewpoint.

We used Tumblr for our class blog. I feel strongly about blogging for class. A class blog creates a sense of community between the students, and allows them to experiment with the “blog voice” in a relatively low-stakes way. I’ve used WordPress in the past, but Tumblr is more fashionable and I thought it was more likely my students would encounter it professionally (many communications students go into PR, marketing, and advertising, where “cool” social media like Instagram and Tumblr is often used to promote brands and clients). Unfortunately, Tumblr has limited support, so I wrote a lengthy “How To” document, which was immediately obsolete as the site implemented changes constantly. In general, Tumblr’s integration with other internet sites made it a good fit for the class, and the students posted lots of pictures, videos, and audio files in addition to plain old text posts.  I gave the class a blog assignment about once a week, which helped them apply the theoretical concepts to sites they knew and used, and gave them lots of practice using Tumblr.

The syllabus is really long, so I’m going to highlight a few concepts and weeks I particularly liked.

History and Context

I began the class by situating social media within a historical continuum. It was important to me to avoid the ‘gee whiz’ enthusiasm that’s often endemic to scholarship on ‘new’ media, a term I can’t stand. We read a few chapters from Tom Standage’s terrific book on the telegraph, The Victorian Internet, one on scam artists and one on telegraph-facilitated romance. The  title of Standage’s book makes clear the parallel between the two technologies, and the colorful stories about cheaters and lonely hearts places social media within a much more understandable history of human interaction and emotion than stand-alone ‘cyberspace.’

Telegraph Key

[Telegraph Key by Photobunny c/o Flickr]


I assigned two pieces: Donald Norman’s chapter on “The Psychopathy of Everyday Things,” which takes a very pragmatic, design-oriented standpoint to various poorly-designed objects with lots of pictures and illustrations. Norman clearly explains the concept of an affordance, and we spent a lot of time in class talking about the difference between what an object or technological feature is intended to do, and what people use it for. (I also assigned Latour’s “Where are the Missing Masses?”, a classic piece of STS theory dealing with affordances, and it was way over the head of my undergrads.) The goal here was to give students a way to interpret technical functionality without falling into determinism, that is, being able to understand what Facebook’s privacy settings afford rather than presuming that the availability of a feature determines how it is used.

The 2012 presidential campaign was in full swing during the semester, which gave me lots of opportunities to use it in the classroom.  For the blog assignment, I asked students to pick a politician, national or local, and compare their use of Twitter to that of a celebrity. What affordances did each one use, and how were they different? This let students see that although users are interacting with in an identical technological framework, how they interact with that framework is quite different.

A few examples:

Social Norms

Here’s where I introduced ethnography. I was deeply influenced by Bambi Schieffelin in graduate school, who introduced me to ethnomethodology. I knew I was going to use a version of Christian Sandvig’s social media breaching experiments, which identified key norms on individual social media sites and asked students to break them. For background, I assigned Garfinkel’s “Studies of the Routine Grounds of Everyday Activities,” a great piece for undergrads. Garfinkel required his hapless students to break all sorts of norms and write about their experiences, and I found that fifty years after it was written, my students reacted the same way Garfinkel’s did when contemplating breaching social norms—with horror, embarrassment, and trepidation.

Building on Sandvig’s assignment, I gave the students a list of social norm experiments. While they could pick from ten, the students overwhelmingly picked one of these two:

  • FACEBOOK PICTURE CREEPER. On Facebook, go through an acquaintance’s photo albums and comment on at least 15-20 photos older than six months over a period of 3 days. Write only positive comments (e.g. “cute photo!”). Check back and see if anyone else has commented on the photos after you have. Describe the responses and how you feel about doing this.
  • THE OVERSHARER. Pick either an acquaintance you don’t know that well or a parent. In a 24 hour period dramatically increase the amount of information you send this person using a text-based mobile communication technology that you know they can receive (like IM on your phone, text/SMS, or e-mail on your phone/PDA). For example, you could communicate with them every time you do anything (“hi I am getting on the bus”, “arrived in class,” “class is boring,” “having lunch,” “talking with friend.”) Describe the reactions.

The “picture creeper” assignment came from a discussion we had in class about when it was acceptable to comment on people’s Facebook information. (Being from a different generation than my students, I often learned about appropriate online etiquette and new apps from them.)

[Facebook by English106 c/o Flickr]

The responses to this assignment were fascinating. The students who picked Facebook Picture Creeper reported being blocked, getting texts and phone calls asking them to stop, being chided by friends, and unfriended on Facebook. About half of the Oversharers reported similar results, with the other half saying they had become much closer to their subject as a result. (One student picked his mother and said it had dramatically improved their relationship). Unlike most essay assignments, I thoroughly enjoyed reading them and was impressed by my students’ reflexivity and thoughtfulness.

This assignment clearly demonstrated both the impact of violating social norms, and how social norms can be widely held but also very specific. For example, the idea that commenting on old pictures is impolite is much more prevalent among today’s college students, who have embarrassing high school and middle school pictures on Facebook, than older people. When one comments on a photo, it “bubbles up” to the newsfeed and everyone the person is friends with can see the old prom picture or team photo. Students found that parents and other adults were happy for the comments and attention on old pictures, while their peers were mostly horrified.

As extra credit a few weeks later, I asked students to come up with their own breaching experiments. My favorite responses are archived here. (http://socialmedia3307.tumblr.com/post/34340777332/your-social-media-breaching-experiments).

Transgression and Deception

Fast-forwarding quickly through the second half of the class, I screened “We Are Legion,” a documentary about Anonymous, and had students read Biella Coleman’s  “Phreaks, Hackers and Trolls: The Politics of Transgression and Spectacle” and Judith Donath’s essay “Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community.” While about 20 years separates the research in Donath’s piece from the cutting-edge hacktivism of Anonymous, students drew lines between how Donath describes trolling on Usenet in the early 90s, Coleman’s discussion of  trolling as spectacle, and the Anons appearing in the documentary who found great pleasure in causing a ruckus online.  The class had a lively discussion about what constituted “trolling,” and how this may have changed over time. We concluded that a successful troll has to truly understand the norms of any community he or she harasses in order to successfully violate those norms.

This also nicely set up our later discussion about online anonymity, spurred by the revealing of the ViolentAcres Reddit troll.

[created by one of my fabulous students]

The Upshot

This class was immensely successful, a result I can attribute to my wonderful students, who were interested and engaged. The reading list was a heavy one for undergrads, but I found that the students’ inherent interest in the subject matter kept them motivated. I’m teaching this class to master’s students next semester. While I plan on keeping the overall structure more or less intact, I’m going to build in more ethnographic assignments, including participant observation and field notes (perhaps on the use of social technologies in day-to-day life). I also want to vary the sites we discuss, as Facebook and Twitter were vastly overrepresented in the class. The students also vociferously advocated for adding topics on video games and mobile apps, which I’d love to cram in in the future.

For the entire syllabus, click here.

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5 Responses to “On Teaching Social Media to Undergraduates [Syllabus As Essay]”

  1. melissatully
    January 9, 2013 at 5:55 pm #

    Great post! I teach a similar class, “Social Media Today,” at the University of Iowa. It’s a large lecture course, enrolling 175 students for the upcoming spring semester. We take a similar approach: first part dedicated to history and context of social media, second part dedicated to aspects of social life (news, politics, health, sex/relationships, diversity, etc.), plus professional skills. Thanks for sharing your experiences and readings. As my co-instructor and I plan for this spring, I will definitely consider some of your texts.

    • January 9, 2013 at 9:45 pm #

      hi Melissa Tully – we’d love to have you post your syllabus as part of the Syllabus as Essay series or have you write something about your experiences in teaching it! We’d be open to different ide

  2. January 19, 2013 at 1:39 am #

    Thank you for this awesome essay/reflection. I’m currently teaching a writing-intensive course on media and anthropology to first years students; this is the 3rd go-round with my current syllabus. Your inventive design and broad knowledge is inspiring and I’m definitely adding some new material and assignments to the course!

  3. Lisa Parks
    February 23, 2014 at 11:04 am #

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts about teaching social media. I genuinely benefitted from reading this post and am extremely grateful. It’s wonderful that you’ve been so ambitious with your pedagogy and have managed to integrate approaches from history, media and communication studies, ethnography, as well as experimentation and practice. Thanks again!


  1. Good Anthropology from the January 2013 Anthropology Blogs | Anthropology Report - January 10, 2013

    […] On Teaching Social Media to Undergraduates [Syllabus As Essay], Alice Marwick I wanted to do two things with the class: First, give the students some practical skills they could bring to bear in an internship or entry-level job, and second, focus on the sociotechnical, the interplay between technological affordances and social norms, to provide a skill set that would enable students to approach new sites and apps with a critical eye. […]

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