Creating Technology for Social Change


At the end of August 2020, the Center for Civic Media at MIT will close down. Established in 2007 as the Center for Future Civic Media, the Center has been a longstanding collaboration between the MIT Media Lab and the Comparative Media Studies / Writing program at MIT. Over the past thirteen years, hundreds of students, researchers, visiting scholars, faculty members and members of communities in the Boston area and worldwide have contributed to the work that's unfolded here. I’d like to pause and recognize the work that's been done and the many people who've made it possible.

When Henry Jenkins, Mitch Resnick and Chris Csíkszentmihályi established the Center, it responded, in part, to a call from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation "to foster blogs and other digital efforts that seek to bring together residents of a city or town in ways that local newspapers historically have done." Since then, the idea of Civic Media has broadened to include the intersection of participatory media (everything from blogs to Facebook to Tiktok) and social change. The projects launched at Center for Civic Media have expanded as well, including everything from systems for consensus decision making in small communities to tools that help residents of cities document the shortcomings of local infrastructure and demand change.

As the Center has grown and changed, so has the field of Civic Media. Catherine D'Ignazio (a Center alum and now professor at MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning) and Eric Gordon (a friend and frequent collaborator with Civic) launched a Boston Civic Media network that brought together students and faculty at dozens of Boston-area institutions, deepening ties between MIT, Harvard, Emerson, Tufts and other extraordinary institutions. Universities beyond the Boston area have begun offering degrees in Civic Media, and the MacArthur Foundation now has a portfolio of investments in Civic Media, which focuses on helping activist organizations advocate for change through making and disseminating media.

At least as important as the work building Civic Media as a field internationally has been the importance of the Center to the MIT community. Center for Civic Media has become an epicenter for activism within the broader MIT community, offering a popular class on technology and social change, and hosting discussions with activists locally and around the globe. From The Public Lab to Make the Breast Pump Not Suck hackathons to the Algorithmic Justice League, amazing long-term projects have been nurtured around the Civic table and continue to make the world a better place.

We owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who's made the Center possible, beginning with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, whose initial investment launched the Center, and whose unwavering support has seen the Center through numerous changes in direction and focus. We are grateful to the many other funders who've supported our work over the years, including The Gates Foundation, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The Ford Foundation, The MacArthur Foundation, The Open Society Foundations, The Bulova-Stetson Foundation, The Mozilla Foundation as well as the corporations that make up the MIT Media Lab consortium. 

While the Center for Civic Media at MIT is closing, its work continues, changing shape as it spreads with the alumni of the program. Erhardt Graeff's lab at Olin College focuses on designing effective methods of civic engagement; Nathan Matias's CATLAB at Cornell University studies the governance of online communities and ways communities can create healthier behaviors. Catherine D'Ignazio at MIT DUSP is creating the field of Data Feminism, and Rahul Bhargava's new lab at Northeastern explores the civic impacts of data storytelling and visualization. My new project at UMass Amherst, the Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure, is working to create digital public spaces dedicated to civic ends, not just for-profit goals. We join other Civic pioneers like Henry Jenkins, who explores the Civic Imagination in his center at USC and Chris Csíkszentmihályi, whose work at Madeira Interactive Technology Institute continues to explore the civic implications of community radio.

Thanks to everyone who's followed our work over the years and lent a hand in one way or another. We have had an extraordinary run, thanks most of all to everyone who's joined us around our table for conversation, collaboration, argument or support. My heart is only a little heavy as we close this chapter because the hundreds of people who've been part of the Center for Civic Media have gone around the world to spread the ideas, strategies and tools we've developed together. We are all, in our own ways, working to change the world.

—Ethan Zuckerman