Category Archives: Boston-area social network

learning about social media

My head is swimming with recent conversations that touch on social media, civic engagement, and young people. I’d define “social media” as any of the Internet technologies that make it easy to distribute your own creations and form relationships with others online. These tools include “friending” people in Facebook, commenting on their blogs or YouTube videos, or following them on Twitter.

Yesterday, I met with my Tufts colleague Marina Bers, who (among many other projects) has created a virtual world for in-coming Tufts undergraduates who build an ideal university before they attend the real one. A movie of the 2006 summer project is really remarkable.

In the evening, I was on a panel at Harvard with the psychologist Howard Gardner, my friend Joe Kahne (who is one of the most acute and productive scholars of civic education), and Miriam Martinez, who represents one of the best programs for high school students, the Mikva Challenge in Chicago. It was an informal conversation, ably steered by Gardner, and we talked a bit about what kinds of social media use constitute “civic engagement.” (Are you civically engaged if you join a Harry Potter fan group?)

And then this morning, I presented our own social media tool, YouthMap, to the Boston Social Media breakfast ( #SMB12 ). That’s a gathering of about 75 business, tech, and activist types who meet in a jazz club–at 8 am–to examine new tools and strategies.

Speaking just for myself … I’m finding Facebook increasingly fun now that the demographics have tipped and lots of us non-hip Generation-Xers are using it. I watched the President speak with Facebook open and got a kick out of the comments. Blogging is a big part of my life–both writing and reading–but it’s not really a “social medium” for me. I mostly read blogs by professional reporters and I compose my posts as fairly conventional short editorials. I have a Twitter login but haven’t found a way to use it that makes me comfortable.

turning “friends” into supporters

In our Boston-area social networking project and related work, we hear repeatedly that the challenge is to convert online connections into “real world” action. Young people are heavy users of online tools like MySpace and Facebook, but they are also quick to criticize these tools for being too easy and superficial and not necessarily changing the world. Allison Fine is producing a series of podcast interviews on the topic. Her first guests are Jonathan Colman of the Nature Conservancy and Carie Lewis of the Humane Society of the United States, both of whom are using Facebook’s “Causes” application effectively. Download the MP3 podcast or check out the site for the series.

Our own criteria of success include the number of students who conduct service or activism as a result of using our social-networking tools, the number of organizations they serve, and the demographic diversity of their networks. We won’t succeed unless they go offline.

mapping Boston’s civil society

We’re busy mapping Boston. Students place nodes that represent people, ideas, or organizations on a blank plane. Each node stores data, such as contact information, goals, activities, and geographical locations. Connections among nodes represent real collaborations. The data can be shown in lots of ways–on a geospatial map, as a network diagram with various center-points, as a list of search results. Ultimately, this software will be an application for Facebook and MySpace, making it easy for people to add or use data . For now, we have a standalone website.

Here’s a screenshot from today. This represents the work of just a few Tufts undergrads over a couple of weeks. We’re already working with students at UMass Boston and will be expanding beyond those campuses in the spring. The software is also capable of automatically harvesting organizations and links from the Web and pasting them here to be analyzed by human beings.


  • Recruiting people and organizations. One can search for individuals who are connected, even indirectly, to a given issue and then ask them to participate in events or projects.
  • Finding opportunities. One can search for places to volunteer, give money, or organize politically. The search can be by key-word. More interesting is to search for organizations that are linked to other organizations.
  • Analysis and deliberation. One can link two issues together, or link an issue to an organization, and then debate the connection. Is homelessness worsened by zoning? That hypothetical connection can be discussed on the map itself.
  • Broadening sources. Journalists, government agencies, foundations, and researchers tend to ask the same people for information and opinions. They often rely on formal credentials as evidence of knowledge. The network map can lead them to overlooked citizens who are useful sources because of the social roles they play.
  • Investigations. One can look for inappropriate or problematic connections, or lack of connections.

Issues that students have brought up so far:

  • Privacy: Whose information should go on the map, and who decides that?
  • Chilling effects: Would people be discouraged from linking to controversial organizations and causes if their links could be mapped?
  • Spam and other bad stuff: Inappropriate content can be added to the map
  • Marketing: Instead of recruiting volunteers or activists for a social cause, a company could use the map to find influential customers.
  • Sustainability: It’s fun for me and my colleagues to build the map. But other people who contribute need to know that it will still be there (and kept current) in five years.
  • Limits: This is a Boston area map. That geographical definition gives it useful density. But Darfur could belong on the map, since Boston-area students work on Darfur. Former Bostonians could place themselves on the map. Is there any point to a geographical limit?

first steps with a Boston-area social network

We have a fairly large grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service to build a new kind of social network for college students in the Boston area, to support their community research, volunteering, recruitment, and advocacy. At the heart of it is software for “mapping” the networks that exist in a community. This software will soon be plugged into major social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, so that students will find it where they are and will not have to visit a standalone site. Meanwhile, some Tufts undergrads have started to use the not-so-user-friendly standalone version. As part of a commitment to openness and public citizenship, their work is going online from the beginning. And here’s a little screenshot from their emerging network map.