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Envisioning a Better Digital World

The Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure (iDPI) at UMass Amherst leads research on the civic and social role of internet platforms as well as reimagines social media for the public good.

When Manning College of Information and Computer Sciences Associate Professor Ethan Zuckerman asks students in his Fixing Social Media course what’s wrong with social media today, they respond with a litany of concerns. 

“[They say that social media is] bad for democracy. It’s polarizing our society, making it harder for people with differing beliefs to have conversations about the future of our country,” recounts Zuckerman, whose work is centered on public policy, communication, and information at UMass Amherst. 

In reality, the research around these widely held beliefs is mixed. “Social media is part of an extremely complicated media and political landscape,” Zuckerman explains. “While it appears to connect to some of the harms we’re experiencing as a society, it would be very difficult to demonstrate causality.”

There is more evidence, however, of harm on an individual level, as his students also point out. “There are some indications that social media can be pretty bad for certain groups of people. Young women, in particular, seem to have real problems with social media and body image. There are also patterns where people who have a lot of anxiety and depression turn to social media, and in some cases, leaning on social media helps them, while in others it doesn’t,” says Zuckerman.

What is clear is that, while social media is extremely popular, today’s major social networks are not seen to be primarily working for the good of their users. In recent years, U.S. public policy has focused on keeping young people off social media to mitigate potential harm. Yet not only is this approach very unlikely to succeed, but it may also cause more harm—especially for those teens and young adults for whom social media is a lifeline, offering support they may otherwise lack offline.

For Zuckerman, the goal should not be to ban legacy social media companies like Facebook, X (formerly known as Twitter), YouTube, and Reddit. Instead, the aim should be to empower users with greater control over their own online experiences, such that social media sites can work for the good of their users rather than primarily benefiting the for-profit companies that run them.

To that end, Zuckerman launched the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure (iDPI) after joining the UMass Amherst faculty in the fall of 2020. Comprised of faculty, students, and staff representing UMass Amherst’s School of Public Policy, the Department of Communication, and the Manning College of Information and Computer Sciences, iDPI leads research to understand the civic and social role of internet platforms, in addition to imagining and advocating for a new digital infrastructure that serves the public good.

Understanding the State of the Internet Today

Faculty, staff, and students at iDPI conduct research on today’s social media platforms, including building publicly available web tools to enable a deeper understanding of these platforms. Most recently, they’ve developed a tool called TubeStats to study YouTube—the most used social platform among teens by far. TubeStats enables researchers to explore questions about YouTube’s growth, annual views, and detectable languages, among other topics. Researchers at iDPI used TubeStats to calculate the previously unknown size of YouTube (estimated at 14,760,753,574 videos as of this writing).

                                        A chart from TubeStats showing the estimated yearly size of YouTube

As Zuckerman explains in his blog, “These platforms are some of the most important parts of our digital public sphere, and we need far more information about what’s on them, who creates this content, and who it reaches.”

Zuckerman and his colleagues also built a tool called Reddit Map, a virtual “map” used to make Reddit more navigable by illustrating the relationships between individual subreddits based on overlap in users. Users who comment on the subreddit R/UMass, for instance, are also likely to comment on R/Northampton.

Jasmine Mangat ’23, a former undergraduate researcher in the lab, contributed to the creation of Reddit Map, and sees it as a way to increase knowledge of online communities, including extremist communities of concern. Moreover, Reddit Map shows the vast breadth of communities on the internet. "In our research, we found some really interesting and esoteric communities," says Mangat. "For example, there’s a whole subreddit dedicated to mewing—or putting your tongue on the roof of your mouth to change how the underside of your chin looks. There are also many communities based on crafting, like crocheting or blacksmithing."

While many internet users take current social media platforms for granted, says Zuckerman, “We want to interrogate the strengths and weaknesses of these infrastructures and think about cases in which you might want to have an alternate space.”


Imagining Better Social Networks

In determining what a healthier alternative to today’s social media spaces looks like, iDPI makes the case that public investment in such platforms is key.

“I argue for public investment in social media based on the belief that a big part of what’s wrong with social media today is that it’s controlled by very powerful companies that are much more concerned with profit than they are with the quality of the space,” explains Zuckerman. “Just as most modern democracies help fund at least some public media, iDPI is based on the premise that we should consider building public infrastructures to host these important public conversations.”

Zuckerman also believes social media “communities” should reflect actual communities in size and function. “The notion of a Facebook ‘community’ of three billion people is farcical,” he says. “My hypothesis is that it’s very hard to have a community that’s so large. The market is inevitably going to lead to these massive one-size-fits-all platforms because that’s what’s best for advertisers. But what’s best for us as a society is something different.”

Imagine instead that there existed a pluriverse of many different smaller social media communities organized around common interests. Individuals could belong to multiple small communities based on their professional, personal, family, and community affiliations. Importantly, members would play a key role in governing these spaces, says Zuckerman.

I argue for public investement in social media based on the belief that a big part of what's wrong with social media today is that it's controlled by very powerful compaines that are much more concerned with profit thatn they are with the quality of the space."

-Ethan Zuckerman

Building Tools for a Better Internet

An important component of iDPI’s work is developing new software to make the changes it advocates for a reality. 

One such example, Smalltown, is a social media platform focused on civic engagement. It aims to create small, locally based spaces where users can talk to neighbors about their government and community. In contrast to Facebook or Twitter, iDPI’s Director of Product Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci says that small social networks can choose to focus conversations on civic issues and limit off-topic posts. "They can limit participation to people who are directly affected by the issues being discussed, Rajendra-Nicolucci wrote in a blog post. "They can experiment with moderation and participation rules to enable the conversations a community wants to have.”

Zuckerman acknowledges that Smalltown hasn’t caught on as they had hoped, possibly because people aren’t engaged enough with civic issues to be motivated to regularly check in with a separate platform.

Another piece of software developed by iDPI is GOBO, a client that aggregates different social media feeds—currently, Mastodon, Blue Sky, and Reddit—and allows users to control how the algorithm presents content to them. In the future, they hope to expand GOBO to include posts from X and Threads.

Zuckerman envisions GOBO as a kind of middle layer between social media networks and users, nothing that others are also working to develop other forms of “middleware.” Such competition is a good thing, creating a pluriverse of options for users, he says.

Yet scaling up such tools is a difficult and expensive proposition, says Zuckerman. That’s why iDPI advocates for significant public investment to help build a healthier online ecosystem.

Uplifting a Community of Social Media Researchers

IDPI is part of a global community of people working to envision a better internet. On his podcast Reimagining the Internet (available on YouTube and many podcast apps), Zuckerman interviews scholars, activists, journalists, and entrepreneurs around the world about the issues with social media and how to fix them. For example, a recent episode featuring UMass Amherst’s Brian Levine, a computer scientist working on cybersecurity, discussed how to make the internet safer for children. 

Zuckerman and Rajendra-Nicolucci are also working on an updated version of their book, An Illustrated Field Guide to Social Media, scheduled to be published by MIT Press in fall 2024. They have been releasing the book, chapter by chapter, via an email newsletter to solicit feedback and generate new ideas from the community of scholars studying online social networks.

“The book discusses a range of different models for forming online communities and fiscally supporting social media platforms,” says Zuckerman. “Our message is there are many ways to do this, and we should think broadly when imagining the future of social media.”


This story was originally published by the UMass Amherst Office of News & Media Relations