Dialogue Summer 2017

Exploring the Next Frontier

Digital Media Module Students Confront the Future Now

As human social systems move deeper into the digital realm, questions surrounding their impact intensify. How are social media, smartphones, and rapidly evolving computation and data-aggregation technologies changing the way we interact with our world and each other? How are they helping improve our lives? Poised to lead the digital charge, students throughout the School of Communication are exploring digital media’s influence through an innovative, computationally rich, and research-heavy program: the digital media module.

Jeremy Birnholtz

Jeremy Birnholtz (C96), associate professor of communication studies, is uniquely equipped to coordinate the digital media module. A regular fixture in Silicon Valley, he is also a grant-funded researcher specializing in social media and its uses and implications. The communication technology course he teaches in the module focuses partly on how we communicate through social media—how being connected all the time affects this communication—and partly on what happens when technology connects large groups of people. Marrying in- and out-of-class work to give students depth and focus, the module has never been more important, says Birnholtz.

“We hear a lot of talk about how these kids have grown up with technology and know everything about it, and while it’s true they know how to use it, they don’t always know how to think about it,” says Birnholtz. “Technology might change quickly, but people change slowly. People might be using these new mediums, but their motivations are the same.”

Birnholtz’s demanding module aims to help students understand that technology is not objective—that users should proceed into the digital abyss with caution. Google, for instance, builds in a lot of biases; and of course, Facebook came under fire in the recent presidential election for encouraging people to stay in ideological bubbles that reinforce their views.

“We’re getting to the point where objectivity is just a myth,” says Birnholtz. “All of this technology is built on algorithms, which are often built to generate advertising revenue, and algorithms can have biases that reflect the data they process and how they process it.  What we all need to do as consumers is become more critical. When TV came out, with all its flat, wide shots, many viewers assumed they were watching reality, but that was not true. We eventually learned that, and it changed the way we watch TV as well as the way we watch movies. We’re starting to get to the point where algorithms are the same way. We just have to be savvier consumers.”

Students in the digital media module not only learn how to be savvier consumers but also learn how to innovate and how to think about building new technologies for the future.

From left: Yoko Kohmoto, Justine Yucesan, Prarthana Gupta

Keeping Connected

Senior Yoko Kohmoto worked with other undergraduates in the module to develop a social media platform for high schoolers looking to connect with same-aged and like-minded students.

“I worked with a team to develop a prototype for a web app, kind of like LinkedIn for high school students,” she says, “for connecting with people in other grades and asking for advice about school or post–high school plans.”

The app would help students plan better and also network among others their same age.
Kohmoto said the module has opened her eyes to the larger digital world and given her new ways to think about the social media platforms she uses every day, such as Facebook,
Instagram, and Twitter.

“I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve had to learn about,” she said, “from design to communication to building communities to measurements, and even more.”

Kohmoto hopes to work for a tech company after graduation and expects that technology will continue to have a seismic influence on generations to come. “Growing up, I called my grandparents in Japan with a telephone and exchanged fax messages with them,” she says. “Now, however, I can see their faces in real time through FaceTime or Skype or show my mom what I’m up to through Snapchat. My hope for the future of technology is for humans to continue to be able to interact in new ways, especially for people who can’t communicate face to face because of location, finances, or some other reason. I hope that technology continues to bring us together.”

Researching How We Use Technology

Justine Yucesan, a senior communication studies major who works in Birnholtz’s Social Media Lab, is studying how algorithms work and affect the way we view Facebook, Twitter, and even such dating apps as Tinder. One of her recent projects involved collaborating with a graduate student to create a dating app that tests how people sort through the information.

“We collected data on users to determine whether distance or the number of mutual friends or whether they were online right then would affect their attractiveness to the user,” she says.

Alluding to an iconic Tinder feature, she adds, “We were asking, ‘Would these factors affect whether they swiped right or left?’” She is currently running through the data and cannot yet make a determination about the results.

Yucesan says the module has opened her eyes to the many ways she might work in technology when she graduates. “The most surprising thing I’ve learned is that I could bridge this whole world between communication, design, and social behavior with all these things I thought were unrelated, like developing new technologies and how technology works.”

Design and Purpose

Prarthana Gupta, who graduated in December, says she uses technology every day to keep track of events in her calendar, pay bills on her bank apps, and even take notes on Google Keep. A research project she completed for the module looked at how people used the Fitbit app, which helps users track daily activity.

“I was able to undertake a yearlong research process that was essentially divided into three phases: exploratory, research, and design recommendations,” she says. “I was able to carry out a survey, to use contextual inquiries and other human-computer interaction research techniques, and finally to use the data analysis from the survey and interview sessions to provide design recommendations.”

Aspiring to a career in marketing or advertising, Gupta says that the module prepared her for the modern workforce.

“Digital media is most definitely a brand of knowledge essential for success,” she says. “Whatever the industry might be and whatever role you might play in it, you are interacting with a consumer, and your consumer is interacting with some form of digital media. It is essential to understand not only the media but also the subtle nuances of the consumer’s interaction with digital.”

Seeing What We Want to See

Marissa Pederson, who graduated from Northwestern in 2015, says the most surprising thing she learned in the module was how people see technology through a very personal lens.

“People see what they want to see,” says Pederson, who went on to earn her master’s degree in integrated marketing communications at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications and is currently the marketing intern for Major League Baseball’s Minnesota Twins. “While the internet can be used to learn about new ideas and perspectives, we tend to only view content that aligns with our current beliefs and interests. This also applies to the way we talk to others using technology. On social media sites, we tend to continue interacting with people we commonly connect with in person, while our acquaintances stay acquaintances.”

For one of her projects in the module, Pederson studied how people self-diagnose themselves using the internet and how nonprofits use social media to improve the lives of their primary beneficiaries. The research and her time in the module have given her a unique edge in her chosen field of marketing.

“Digital is the way of the future and the language that the coming generations will speak,” she says. “It is import that we understand both how different groups interact with the current digital options and how they would ideally want to interact with digital media in a perfect world. Going digital must serve a purpose, and knowing when and when not to utilize it helps tremendously in the marketing world.”

Going Live

Sam Mandlsohn, a senior who transferred to the School of Communication specifically to get involved in the digital media module, has worked on a number of fascinating projects, from researching live-streaming video platforms such as Facebook Live and Periscope to working as a manager at the Web Use Project, a lab focusing on how people use the web and how this might contribute to social inequity.

“I’ve taken so many great classes in the module and worked on so many fascinating projects, such as looking at mining and analyzing Twitter data, examining collaboration dynamics in online communities, and exploring problems around algorithmic biases ,” says Mandlsohn. “The module has given me a critical lens to analyze digital media. It’s really how people use and interact with technology that determines its impact .”

Mandlsohn said being a communication studies major can seem broad, but the module provides a “framework to explore and assess the key issues of today and of the future within a community of like-minded individuals, both students and faculty.”

“Personally,” he adds, “I’ve been interested in technology since a young age, but this gives me the tools to prepare myself for the industry and to critically think about the larger implications of technology in society.”

- Cara Lockwood