Tufts University

The Revolution Will Be Twittered

Digital DemocracyThe Fletcher School's Patrick Meier and Josh Goldstein are examining the role that modern communication technologies play in promoting democracy.

The first session of the Tufts Experimental College course on digital democracy -- which explores the intersection of the democratic process and new media -- happened to coincide with the inauguration of President Barack Obama. For Fletcher School students Josh Goldstein and Patrick Meier, co-teachers of the course, the coincidence could not have been more fitting.

"It was actually a really good way to start the class, with so much attention to potential use of technology for transparency and accountability and participation," says Meier a third-year Henry R. Luce Ph.D. candidate at The Fletcher School.

According to Meier, Obama's team has been at the forefront of using digital technology to reach its audience. During the presidential transition process, the team maintained a website known as the Citizen's Briefing Book, which solicited ideas to be given directly to the president; and within hours of Obama being sworn in, the White House unveiled a new blog that allows visitors to comment on pending legislation.

"We take all that together and we start asking how can that be applied now for human rights," says Meier

Goldstein and Meier came to The Fletcher School to explore interdisciplinary applications for digital democracy and to find a testing ground for their theories. Both their ExCollege course and the halls of Fletcher have given them this opportunity.

An 'Open Source' Course

Political movements have always relied on multiple forms of communication—from word of mouth to pamphlets to television commercials—to spread information and provoke action. But with the emergence of the web and rapid-fire technologies such as text messaging and online social networking applications like Twitter and Facebook, that face of political communication is evolving. But where is it headed?

A key goal of the digital democracy class is to separate the hype surrounding these new technologies from the substance. A lot of people talk about Facebook and text messaging as "the next big thing," but what does that really mean? And what are the practical implications, whether the context is post-conflict Uganda or a new presidential administration in the United States? For Goldstein and Meier, the course is an ideal forum for exploring these issues in greater depth.

Undergraduates, they feel, are the most logical group to work with because they are most intimately familiar with the technologies and, according to Meier, can "bring the conversation to a different level." Basing the class in the ExCollege—where Meier previously taught a course on early warning and disaster relief—also ties into the nature of the subject at hand, bringing in an interdisciplinary approach.

"We're trying to make this as open source as possible... This is such a new area that there's not much concluded about some of the dynamics we're starting to see unfold"

— Patrick Meier

"The problems really encompass many different disciplines. You're not going to solve any of these problems with just law or just political science," says Goldstein, a MALD student at Fletcher.

Meier and Goldstein have organized the class to be a practice of the principles they are addressing. The syllabus is a wiki that is updated frequently (though they did toy with the idea of a syllabus self-organized by the students), and students are encouraged to post and respond on the course blog. Updates and news items are posted to the course's Twitter feed, where participants can chime in or spread the word. Goldstein cites the "collaborative ethos," which not only defines how the course was conceived but also how digital democracy functions.

"That kind of ethos that the Internet provides allows for multiple minds to work on things, new ideas to come out," he says.

"We're trying to make this as open source as possible," says Meier, who adds that he and Goldstein are still learning about the subject themselves. "This is such a new area that there's not much concluded about some of the dynamics we're starting to see unfold," says Meier, who likens classes to "brainstorming sessions."

Digital Democracy

Meier and Goldstein in the classroom.

"It makes it a more interesting laboratory as a class. You now get to talk about things that are being experimented with. There's no better example of the success of these tools but also the utter newness of them," adds Goldstein. "Obama may have a new media coordinator, but he definitely doesn't have the answers on how to best involve the public in the democratic conversation."

Laura Fong, a senior political science major, says the class has been the perfect complement to her work as an intern at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, which studies the development of cyberspace, and her research with EPIIC on Internet censorship in China.

"It's very dynamic," she says. "Five people volunteer each week to blog, and then that generates a lot of the discussion in the next class. We're shaping the direction of the syllabus as well."

One project the class is working on in conjunction with the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tisch College is YouthMap, a social network that allows students to map civic relationships in the community and visually represent the connections among those groups. The project gives students a chance to transform their discussion of digital activism into real-world applications.

"We try to make this an applied class," says Meier. "YouthMap allows [the students] to identify these dynamics to be used as a decision-upport tool for policymakers at various levels, to say, 'This is where we need to work in order to have a maximum impact on this particular problem.'" (continued)

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Profile written by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications

Homepage photo by Alonso Nichols, University Photography, taken at the Tufts Center for Scientific Visualization. Classroom photos by Joanie Tobin, University Photography.

This story originally ran on Mar. 2, 2009.