Teaching Facebook Culture

In the spring and fall semesters of 2008, I taught a class at UMBC in the Media and Communication Studies program titled “Facebook Culture: Democracy, Surveillance, and New Media.” It was a really interesting class to teach, and since then several of my students have gotten social networking internships at Pfizer and a few other major corporations and have used their research in their senior theses.

In the spring/first semester, I used these texts:

Kids Rule!: Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship (Console-ing Passions) (only sections, helpful for talking about the development of cable, which we used to parallel the rise of the internet, also the discussion on political and commercial citizenship)
Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market (for the section on porn, which outlines the legal challenges but also talks about privacy, community standards, etc, that were very transferable to our discussions)
A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future (used whole book, very student-friendly and useful for blogging–the most popular text of class)
iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era (Cultureamerica) (the most scholarly and theoretical book we read, helpful to give the more pessimistic view of the possibilities of the Internet)

In the fall/second semester, I used these texts:

The Wisdom of Crowds (helpful to talk about social networking’s possibilities and power, on the more optimistic side in regards to crowd-sourcing and community-building on the Internet)
The Cult of the Amateur: How blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the rest of today’s user-generated media are destroying our economy, our culture, and our values (certainly a scathing polemic, which I thought would be helpful as a counter-point, but students didn’t respond well to Keen’s vehemence)
Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics (This was an NYT notable book of the year, and was perfect considering the presidential election was happening at the same time)
iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era (Cultureamerica) (liked it so much I used it twice– does such a fantastic job of outlining the starker realities, challenges the students’ abilities and perspectives at the same time)

Both semesters, we also watched Charlie Wilson’s War as a roundabout way of thinking about whether sometimes, secrecy can be a good thing. Students really responded well to this– I think it caught them off-guard since I didn’t choose a movie explicitly about the Internet.

Both semesters’ assignments included student blogs of 20 posts each, ten assigned topics and ten unassigned student-choice topics. During the first semester, the students wrote a short paper and completed a multimedia project incorporating new media, most often blogs, websites and videos posted to YouTube. This project was very open-ended but had to touch on some of the topics covered during the course. During the second semester, students each submitted an idea for an assignment that would put into practice some of the ideas in the texts, and the class voted on which project to complete and then completed it– this project was mainly inspired by The Wisdom of Crowds, which was one of our required texts. During both semesters, the students wrote a paper at the end of the class, asking them to synthesize ideas from all the texts and also to take a position on the question: “What is the future of the Internet? Will it be utopian or dystopian?”

The course was primarily discussion-based and garnered positive reviews on the student evaluations. If you have any questions about the class, feel free to drop me a comment or email me, and I’ll be happy to talk about it further.

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