Creating Technology for Social Change

Why You Should Apply To be a Berkman Fellow

You should apply to be a Berkman Fellow next year, especially if you’re a designer, computer scientist, or researcher of technology. There’s one week remaining. Apply here.

If you haven’t clicked on that link and started filling out the application, this blog post is for you. The official link has helpful information about qualifications, funding, and more. Here, I try to explain why makers, computational social scientists, and computer scientists should apply, even if you haven’t finished your PhD.

I’m a Berkman Fellow for the 2013-2014 academic year. As a PhD student at the MIT Media Lab, I’m deeply enjoying the opportunity. This post tells my story, explains what I’m doing now, and answers questions you might have about being a Berkman Fellow. You should also know that is not official advice, and I’m not on the selection committee.

When I first arrived in Boston in 2011, I was starstruck and envious to learn that my colleague Molly Sauter had been Jonathan Zittrain’s research assistant. I haven’t fully overcome my shyness about chats with people who get lots of media attention, but I am learning to value what I bring to the conversation as a maker & researcher. Over the last two years, Molly and my advisor Ethan encouraged me to visit Berkman events and blog them, which has been a fantastic learning experience. Molly also encouraged me to present my work-in-progress to the Cyberscholars working group, which I eventually came to co-facilitate.

In my two years as a Master’s student at the Media Lab, the inspiration and genuine encouragement of people at Berkman influenced major parts of my research. My presentation received amazingly helpful feedback and connections. A blog post I wrote from a talk by Andrés Monroy Hernández has inspired a long collaboration with Andrés and the first inklings of my PhD topic.

with Andrés at Microsoft Research this summer, where I created NewsPad

Berkman has been an astonishingly encouraging and positive community who have listened to me, respected me, and supported me even as a random attendee at the public events. It’s a community of energetic curiosity, passionate action, and mutual support. Those are the qualities that motivated me to apply to be a Berkman fellow.

What Do I Do At Berkman?
In a given week, I spend all Tuesday at Berkman, concluding in a wonderful dinner conversation with other fellows. Since I’m based at MIT, I welcome fellows at the Media Lab and sometimes visit Berkman for a meeting or special event. I also try to make it to pub nights organised by other fellows. More formally, I

  • co-facilitate the cooperation working group with Brian Keegan. We read each other’s papers, offer feedback on projects, review literature, and discuss new research on cooperation and peer production, every Tuesday at 5pm. Join us!
  • blog talks and participate in discussions
  • participate in the MediaCloud project in small ways by linking them up with researchers and contributing code from time to time
  • with Kate, Andy, and Kit, we created a January term crash course for coders, startups, & civic hackers to learn basics about legal issues & concerns for makers.
  • link Berkman fellows with networks & resources in the Boston area, especially among makers and computer scientists. I connected one fellow with researchers who could offer insight on his upcoming startup. I am offering other fellows feedback and suggestions on research methods. I host international experts to share their work at Berkman and enrich our connection to areas like computational social science (example).
  • occasionally facilitate transatlantic research partnerships and participate in conversations between researchers in the Berkman network and startups. I’m hardly the only person doing this kind of thing at Berkman.


Do You Have to Propose a Grand Project? Jeff Swift asked on Twitter about my driving project and next big thing for me. I don’t have one. Some of the fellows are working on their books or setting up their next startup. As a first-year PhD student, I’m building the network and growing the conversation around the next four years of my work. Facilitation and network building are much less flashy, but they’re valued activities at Berkman.

Okay, but what are you actually working on? I’m finishing up work to measure gender representation in online media at a large scale. I’m continuing my work on acknowledgement online. I’m starting a research project on Space Team with the cooperation working group. I made a bot.

One of my year-long goals is to strengthen the role of technology makers, computer scientists, and computational social scientists at Berkman. Email me if you want to work together on something!

What do you wish you’d known before you applied? I already had a good understanding of Berkman before I applied. I think other fellows didn’t realise how much the fellowship is up to fellows themselves — we create our own infrastructure, our own year program, and take responsibility for our own journey. Berkman usually doesn’t offer funds, can’t offer official Harvard access beyond libraries, and can’t usually sponsor visas. And yet the followship works amazingly well for people who invest time into the fellowship, articulate their interests, and take initiative with the conversations and resources available.

update 3 Dec: Rebecca Tabasky writes, “we do sponsor visas for people who’re eligible.”

Berkman Patterns
Here are some patterns I’ve observed while at Berkman:

  • The Researcher uses Berkman to grow networks with practitioners, share ideas with people outside their field, and get feedback on new projects
    • Sociologists and Communications researchers often use this opportunity to connect more closely with tech research and develop as public intellectuals
    • Computer scientists often use this time to link their work with broader social and political issues and connect with companies that have interesting data
    • Humanities researchers use the Berkman network and experience with copyright to bring about new technologies and online resources
  • The Organisation Leader (or activist) uses a Berkman year to step back for some strategic thinking, get feedback from researchers, connect with funders, and figure out the next thing
  • The Public Intellectual gets feedback from experts on upcoming projects, grows in visibility, builds networks, and develops new directions
  • The Mediamaker, often someone with a strong interest in Internet business models, copyright, or activism, takes time to reflect strategically and grow the next project
  • The Indie is someone who’s passionate about a set of values and skills and who works through Berkman as office space, a hub, and a network
  • The Institution Person connects with civil society, researchers, and companies to bring new perspectives to their work in government or other large institutions

Some people drop in and out as they can. Others focus on their main project. Some people bounce around looking for inspiration and collaborators. Others master the art of convening events. Many Berkman fellows catch up on their reading.

What Makes Berkman So Special?
It’s people. As a fellow, you’ll be part of an amazing, supportive network of people who will help you, challenge you, and work with you to make your work more socially conscious, more visible, more effective, and more awesome. If you’re excited to be that kind of person for someone else, and if you could use some of that yourself, apply now!