participatory culture, online communities, and social media research (#popf16) home

Course Information

  • T/H 9:30 – 10:45am, Merion Hall 150
  • Office: Bronstein Annex (The B:Social Building) 202
  • Bill’s Office Hours: Monday, 12:00 – 2:00 and by appointment
  • email: wwolff [at] sju [dot] edu
  • Twitter: @billwolff
  • Instagram: @billwolff
  • https://williamwolff.orgcourses/pop-fall-2016/

Course Description

Springsteen and nevertrump visuals

Communication builds and perpetuates connections—connections among people, ideas, technologies, and media objects. This is nothing new, of course. From clay tablets to scrolls to the first books, humans have used communication technologies to represent ideas to be shared with others. Internet and web technologies, however, have transformed the speed with which humans can communicate to create personal connections. Mobile technologies feed into the immediacy of those connections. As Nancy Baym, the author of the book we’ll read this semester, states, “the digital age is distinguished by rapid transformations in the kinds of technological mediation through which we encounter one another” (p. 1).

How do we make sense of these changes? How do they transform what we think about communication and the communities those communications serve? How do they change what it means to participate in a mediated society? What are the new terms and ideas that can help us understand what we see happening in public networked communication?

In Participatory Culture, Online Communities, and the Practices of Social Media Research (#popf16), we are going to consider what it means to communicate in digital spaces and how such communication contributes to the creation of personal connections. In doing so, we will consider ideas on real-life and virtual communities, social networks, participatory culture, fandom, and social justice. We will engage directly with a variety contemporary archiving tools that afford internet research and sophisticated data visualization and learn how to interpret that data. Ultimately, we will come to a significantly more nuanced understanding of how people leverage digital spaces, like Twitter and Instagram, for a multitude of complex communication goals.

#popf16 is a course that encourages exploration, discovery, and curiosity. By exploring new opportunities for communicating, by discovering new communities and opportunities, and by allowing our curiosity to lead us in new directions, we will realize more fully what it means to communicate for and in digital spaces. No prior technological experience is necessary, nor is any expected.

Course Learning Objectives

This course embodies the Saint Joseph’s University mission to “prepare students for personal excellence, professional success, and engaged citizenship” and “model [a] lifelong commitment to thinking critically, making ethical decisions, pursuing social justice.” It is informed by several Student Learning Goals and Objectives created by the Communication Studies department, as well as the importance of Reflection advocated by the Office for Mission and Identity. Objectives are listed alphabetically, not in order of importance.

Objective 1: Communication Design
Students will understand and apply human centered design approaches to communicating through digital media.

Objective 2: Effective Communication
Students will understand the principles and practices of effective media communication.

Objective 3: Ethics
Students will understand and articulate the ethical questions and principles that inform the use of digital media.

Objective 4: Reflection
Students will develop their understanding of the important role of reflection during the investigation, design, and communication process.

Objective 5: Research
Students will be able to effectively use digital media to research, gather, and assess digital information and knowledge.

Objective 6: Risk-taking
Students will know what it feels like to step out of their comfort zones and take risks with their approaches to and understanding of digital media and participatory culture.

The Assignments

This semester we will be completing several overlapping assignments, each of which contributes to the completion of the others. Assignments will be explained in greater depth on their own assignment page.

Semester-Long Study of a Hashtag on Twitter

In this semester-long project, each student will create a study around a particular Twitter hashtag (originally the goal was to investigate Instagram hashtags, but Instagram changed their API settings and posts can no longer be archived). The hashtag students choose will be related to any kind of social justice issue, interest group, community, or emerging news event, such as #climatechange, #blacklivesmatter, #icantbreathe, #alllivesmatter, #burkiniban, #brexit, #election2016, #neverhillary, #imwithher, #autism, #weneeddiversebooks, #believeinfilm, #springsteen, #popefrancis, #gameofthrones, #walkingdead, #oitnb. Students will archive the tweets using Martin Hawksey’s TAGS 6.1 GoogleDrive integrated archiving system and the Digital Methods Initiative’s Twitter Capture and Analysis Toolset. They will become familiar with ethical social media research practices and analyze the tweets using a modified version of Grounded Theory. (Associated Learning Objectives: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

Data Visualizations

Students will construct visualizations of our hashtags using Hawksey’s integrated visualization tool and the free software Gephi and analyze their visuals using theories on network visualizations. (Associated Learning Objectives: 2, 4, 5, 6)

Final Project Visuals

Students will present their results in a series of visuals designed using Canva (or related software) for specific media (poster, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.). (Associated Learning Objectives: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

Blogging and Tweeting

Students will be blogging and tweeting throughout the semester. The course hashtag is #popf16. We will be creating collaborative blogs based around similar hashtags that will more fully integrate you into the communities surrounding your hashtag. The blog posts will directly inform content for your project. We’ll integrate Twitter with blogging by tweeting out blog posts, blogging about tweets that contain the hashtag you’re studying, and using Twitter (and other spaces) to try to spread the reach of our posts. We’ll also be live-tweeting course-related work and tweeting about class discussion. (Associated Learning Objectives: 2, 4, 6)


Reflection is an essential part of the learning process. As such, students will compose reflections at each stage of the research process and in connection with each of the other assignments. (Associated Learning Objectives: 4)

Required Texts and Materials


Grades will be calculated in the following way:

  • Three Research Benchmarks: 30%
  • Data Visualizations: 20%
  • Final Project Visualizations: 20%
  • Research Blog: 10%
  • Social Media Engagment (Tweeting): 10%
  • Participation: 10%

The following assignments will be accompanied by reflection statements designed to contextualize your work and will contribute to the assignment grade: Data Visualizations, Final Project Visualizations, Research Blog, Tweeting

A note on in-class discussions: Contribution to in-class discussion is expected in this class. That is, I expect all students in all class meetings to contribute thoughtful insights into the texts and the ideas discussed in class. Each member of our community of learning needs to be actively engaged in the learning process. Each student is here to contribute to the exchange of ideas. Ask questions. Be curious. As a student in this course you will create your own communal context for learning by engaging in conversations with others. As such, being prepared to participate in discussions and activities is paramount. This entails having read, annotated, and thought about the required materials carefully before class starts. The more you as students shape the conversations by engaging with each other, validating each others ideas, pushing each other, and asking each other questions without my prompting, the more this class will feel like a community and not just another class.

A note about grades: Grades in the A-range are those that show the student working at levels significantly higher than what is expected. Grades at the B-level are those that show the student working at levels at or just above what is expected. Grades at the C-level and below are those that show the student working at levels below what is expected.

All major assignments must be completed to pass the course. It is better to complete an assignment late then not to complete it at all.

Academic Technology Statement

Because this is an upper-level course, you are expected to be familiar with the department’s approach to using digital technologies: experiment, take risks, and play.

However, as much as technology makes life easier, at times it can also be difficult (computer crashes, deleted work, slow internet connection, etc.). Plan accordingly: “the computer ate my homework” or “the internet was down” are not reasons to forgo doing the assigned work. It is in your best interest to leave extra time, and back up frequently, especially at first to ensure that technology does not get in the way of your work.

That being said, I will never mark down or refuse to accept a project because of difficulty using academic technology. The software and applications we use are a means to complete the work, not the work itself. The software is often new and sometimes still has bugs. I am aware of this and am aware that problems can happen. If you run into trouble, let me know as soon as possible so I can help you work through it. There is no reason to sit for hours getting more and more frustrated. Send me an email with as detailed a description of your problem as possible and we’ll figure out what is going on.

If you are having trouble getting a project completed on time (for whatever reason) please let me know about your delays as soon as possible. It is better to complete an assignment late then to not complete it at all, and I am more than happy to work with you so you can compete the best project you can.

Universal Learning

I am committed to the principle of universal learning. This means that our classroom, our virtual spaces, our practices, and our interactions be as inclusive as possible. Mutual respect, civility, and the ability to listen and observe others carefully are crucial to universal learning.

Any student with particular learning needs should contact the Student Success Center at 610-660-1041. The Center is located in Bellarmine Hall. The staff is available to answer questions regarding accommodations or assist you in your pursuit of accommodations. Then you and I can work out the details of any accommodations needed for this course.

Students with Disabilities

Requests for Accommodations: Reasonable academic accommodations may be provided to students who submit appropriate documentation of their disability.  Students are encouraged to contact Dr. Christine Mecke in the Office of Student Disability Services, Bellarmine, B-10, at; or at 610.660.1774 (voice), or 610.660.1620 (TTY), for assistance with this issue.  The university also provides an appeal/grievance procedure regarding requested or offered reasonable accommodations through Dr. Mecke’s office.  More information:

Grievance Procedures for Students with Disabilities, Appeal Process: The Office of Student Disability Services will seek to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified students with disabilities.  However, there may be times when a disagreement as to what is considered a reasonable accommodation will occur between the student and the University.  The student has a right to file a grievance for complaints regarding a requested or offered reasonable accommodation on the basis of a disability under Section 504 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and University policies. If you have any questions regarding the appeals process, please contact Dr. Christine Mecke, Director Student Disability Services – Bellarmine – Room G10 –

For further information regarding accommodations, please see:


As this course is highly interactive and practice/discussion-driven, your success is absolutely tethered to your presence and participation. The course will move quickly, and each successive meeting will build upon the concepts of the previous. Missing a class puts you at a serious disadvantage in terms of the larger semester arc. This is not the type of course where you can “ask for the notes” from a classmate and get the same learning experience. If you miss class you will miss something important.

Please come to class on time, prepared, having completed the assigned reading and writing, and ready to contribute to class discussions, to listen seriously and respectfully to the thoughts of others, and to participate in all in-class activities.

According to the 2015-2016 Academic Catalog, “Credit and degree-seeking students are obliged to attend all classes and take all examinations. Absences totaling twice the number of hours the class meets a week will be permitted for illness or serious reasons” (p. 513). For our section of COM 443, this means students may miss up to 4 classes “without danger of failure due to absence” if—and only if—there is a “serious cause” (p. 513). This excludes common colds, car break-downs, etc. Absences for religious purposes do not count against the permitted number (as long as prior notification is given).

Except for “serious reasons,” missing more than 1 class will affect your grade. More than four absences will result in failing the course. Lateness counts as .5 of an absence. Leaving early will count as .5 of an absence. The grade reductions after 1 absences:

2 absences = -1/3 grade (B+ becomes B)
3 absences = -2/3 grade (B+ becomes B-)
4 absences = -1 full grade (B+ becomes C+)
4.5 or more = FA (failure due to absences)

Your primary responsibility is to be in class and fully present.

Digital Etiquette

Many of the assignments throughout the semester will require participation in online spaces. Students should work to preserve the same atmosphere of respect and consideration that occurs in the classroom. Disagreements may arise and consensus is not always possible (indeed disagreements are productive). However, name calling, bullying, harassing, shaming, flaming, trolling, etc. is antithetical to the goals of this course and decent humanity.

Email Etiquette

There will be times during the semester when I will need to contact the class and you will need to contact me. I will contact you via your SJU email account, so please be sure you are checking it regularly and/or forwarding it to the email service you use most regularly. I do not recommend calling me on my office phone.

I strongly suggest you contact me via Twitter (@billwolff) and/or email. Email, however, tends to be seen as an informal medium. This, however, should not always be the case. All emails that I send to you will have a meaningful subject line and a proper salutation (“Hi Class,” or “Hi Jane,” etc.). The first sentence will notify you of the purpose of the email, and then will get to the heart of the matter. It will end with a formal closing (“Thanks, BW”). (See this article on contacting a professor when going to be absent.) I expect the same from any email you send. Twitter is less formal, so feel free to just tweet me questions. Please add the course hashtag (#bsocialf16) to all course related tweets.

I’ll get back to your tweets and emails as soon as possible—usually within half a day. With two small children at home, during the week I tend to be offline 5:00pm – 9:00pm and after 11:00pm and during the weekend I’ll be online sporadically, so don’t expect an immediate response during those times. If I don’t get back within a day, it may be that I did not see your tweet or email for one reason or another, such as an email going in my spam folder. Send me a polite reminder and/or ask me in class if I got it, and I’ll get back immediately.

Computer Classroom Etiquette

These general guidelines will help make your overall course experience more effective, productive, and educational:

  • When someone is speaking and you are not asked to be following on your computer, please turn and face that person. Everything the instructor is doing on the computer will be projected onto the screen in the front of the classroom.
  • Class is made up of students with widely varying levels of computer expertise. If you have technical experience, please be considerate of those who do not. Do not act bored during these times of instruction, since that will distract others and alienate you from them. Instead, offer what help you can to others if they seem lost or confused. You will not only help your colleague, but you will create a collaborative atmosphere in the class, both of which are only to your advantage.
  • If you are a novice computer user, do not be afraid of asking questions, even when it seems that everyone around you is “getting it.” I will not know what areas are mysterious unless someone asks for clarification, and they will be more than happy to answer your questions. The chances are good that if you don’t understand something that others don’t either, and your I need to know this. Don’t be intimidated into silence.
  • When communicating with classmates online please pay special attention to how you word things. Electronic communication is wonderful for many reasons, but because tone is not readily apparent, oftentimes things are misinterpreted and people can get quite hurt.
  • Be sure to bring to class all your required materials. If you have time in class to work on projects, don’t work on other courses or personal business. Make use of your limited time in the classroom, ask me and your classmates questions, and take advantage of the opportunities the course and the classroom offers you. Always log out of the computer before leaving for the day.

There will be times when I ask you to put your phones, tablets, and computers away so we can focus on the discussion.


Writing center: You will write a lot in this class. If you are particularly concerned about your writing or think you might benefit from extra support, SJU has a writing center with peer tutors trained to help with all kinds of assignments. Locations are in Merion Hall (room 162) and Post Learning Commons (room 128). You can drop in during open hours or make an appointment online.

Technology and Gear Rentals: The Communication Studies department has most of the equipment that you will need to complete course assignments. Everyone in the department, including faculty, use the gear for their work, so it’s important that we all treat it kindly and return it on time. Your technology fees paid for this gear. Please treat it better than if it was your own and respect your fellow Communication students by returning it on time, with all parts included, and in optimal condition.

Where is the gear?
The department equipment room is located on the second floor of Bronstein Hall. It is open for limited hours during the semester, so be sure to plan ahead.

When can I rent the gear?
During Fall 2016, the room is open from Monday – Thursday, 12:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.

Where can I see a list of what gear is available?
A list of equipment will be available on the website.

Equipment is available on a first-come, first-served basis. Equipment can be checked out for blocks of time. If you check something out on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, it’s due the immediate Thursday. If you check something out on Thursday, it’s due the following Monday. Check-outs are renewable if no one is waiting for it, but you must bring the equipment back to Bronstein to renew your rental.

Loss and Damage
You are responsible for the item that you check out. If you lose it or damage it, you are responsible for repairs or replacement.

Overdue Gear
Overdue equipment will result in the suspension of borrowing privileges and could result in a hold placed on the borrower’s university account.

Charging and Memory Cards
Please recharge the batteries before returning the item and make sure you remove your SD card (SD cards are not provided by the department).

Digital Media Zone (DMZ): The DMZ is a great resource if you need help working through the technical aspects of this class, such as Google docs or image editing. They have trained staff and fancy computers. The DMZ is located on the second floor of the library.

COM studio: In addition to the DMZ, the Communication Studies Department will hold weekly studio sessions that you can attend on a drop-in basis for extra help. The schedule/location of these sessions is TBD, but it will be posted on the SJUCOM website.

Academic Honesty: Please familiarize yourself with the University’s Academic Honesty Policy.

Firearms Policy

According to the Human Resources section of the SJU website and the SJU Student Handbook (January 14, 2016),

The carrying, or presence, of a firearm is not permitted on University property, including, but not limited to, one’s vehicle, office, residence or locker, except when the firearm is carried by a deputized law enforcement officer and/or agent who is conducting official business on University property.

The University policy concerning the prohibition against the carrying, and presence, of firearms on campus, is intended to conform to applicable statutes of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Such statutes define firearms as any pistol, revolver, shotgun, or any weapon which is capable of firing a projectile.

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