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A personal update

It’s September 1, and because I’ve spent 35 of my 47 years in educational institutions of one sort or another, the start of the school year seems like the start of the year. So, time for a personal update.

Yesterday was my last day at MIT, directing the Center for Civic Media. It’s been a wonderful ride over the last nine years, and I will be forever grateful to MIT for giving me the chance to advise Masters and PhD students for the first time in my career, to work on my own research (including Media Cloud) and to help students and colleagues with their research, from the wonderful Make the Breast Pump Not Suck hackathon to the important and inspiring work of the Algorithmic Justice League.

Oh, and I grew a pandemic beard. You probably did too.

We held a wake for the Center last week and agreed that we had to think of the end of Civic as a diaspora rather than a death, as so many of our graduates have gone on to lead Civic projects elsewhere in the world. I am especially proud of the many people who came through the lab and have gone on to academic careers – Nathan Mathias at Cornell, Erhardt Graeff at Olin College, Catherine D’Ignazio at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Mols Sauter at UMD, Rahul Bhargava, Matt Carroll and Laura Perovich at Northeastern. For a guy who dropped out of grad school almost three decades ago, I’ve helped lure an awful lot of people into academia. (The r0 for Civic Media is a frightening number, and in terms of my lab, the replacement rate calculation leads to a division by zero error…)

Some friends on Twitter have asked why Center for Civic Media won’t continue beyond this year. The decision is consistent with how the Media Lab handles the departure of professors. Research labs are tied to a specific professor or researcher’s work and ends when she or he leaves the Lab. The unusual exception to the rule was what allowed me to be hired into MIT in the first place – when I came on board, two of the three founders of Center for Future Civic Media had left MIT, but funding for the Center from the Knight Foundation continued, necessitating the hire of someone to lead the research. And while Civic won’t have a dedicated group in the Media Lab, Sasha-Costanza Chock will be visiting the Lab this coming year, and Eric Gordon, a pioneer in the Boston Civic Media community is visiting at CMS/W. Add in Catherine’s new lab at DUSP and Civic is still a very strong presence at MIT.

Media Cloud is alive and well, too – we have been operating as a partnership between MIT and Harvard for the past several years, and that partnership is going to expand to include Northeastern, UMass and perhaps others. I’m finding the tools we’ve been building especially useful for understanding the twin effects of the pandemic and the late Trump administration on the news agenda, which have managed to almost silence the 2020 election cycle.

So what’s next for me? This fall, I am a visiting scholar at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. This was my brilliant plan to spend time with all the friends in New York, at Columbia and elsewhere, who I don’t see enough when my center of gravity is in Boston. Of course, now I’m not seeing anyone outside of my narrow corner of the Berkshires, and my new colleagues are yet more Zoom boxes. But they’re awesome Zoom boxes, and I’m excited to get the chance to work through some of the ideas about Digital Public Infrastructure I’ve been exploring with people who are deeply thoughtful about the policy environment around social media platforms and the open internet.

The idea I’ll be working on with my Knight friends is the one I will be bringing with me to UMass Amherst this January, when I start as Associate Professor of Public Policy, Communication and Information. Over the next year, I plan to launch the Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure, a research group focused on imagining and building alternatives to an internet built around the logic of surveillance capitalism. Instead, we’re working on a vision of digital public spaces that are optimized for civic ends, not for profits. I started writing about this idea prompted by friends at Columbia, and have been working to translate a pretty complex set of concepts into something that fits in a brief article. More to come on that front in the next couple of weeks.

I’m excited to be teaching at UMass, an excellent university that’s been on a tear lately, hiring smart people and building new programs. My “tenure home” is in the School of Public Policy, which has a great faculty of folks affiliated with other departments – I am part of the first cohort of professors who are based within SPP. My first course this spring will be Fixing Social Media, which I taught at MIT this fall – excited to bring it to a mix of policy, communication and CS students.

When I announced that I was moving to UMass, any number of folks commented that my commute would be better. That’s certainly true – UMass is about an hour and fifteen minutes away from my home, while MIT was three hours on a good day. But of course, no one actually goes anywhere anymore. Beyond that, it was important to me to teach at a state university, and especially one in the west of the state, where I’ve spent my entire adulthood. It’s very strange to be joining a new school and a new community at a moment where we’re mostly interacting with each other virtually, but I am excited for the moment I can meet colleagues and students in person.

If that wasn’t enough change, I’ve got a new book coming out in January. It’s called Mistrust, and it’s my attempt to draw a line from the Nixon administration to QAnon, though Reagan and Trump… but it’s also an optimistic book about the ways we can still make social and civic change even when we may have lost faith in political institutions. I’ve been working on it through much of my time at MIT, and it’s been hard to finish because current events (the pandemic, QAnon, the late Trump administration) have demanded inclusion at the last moment. I don’t know what a book tour looks like in the age of COVID, but I’m looking forward to one.

So that’s what’s ahead. 2019-2020 has been one of the more challenging years of my life – yours too, I bet. 2020-2021 is likely to be another memorable year, and not for the happiest of reasons. We’re all in it together, though, and I am at least as excited as I am scared, which is saying something at this particular junction.