The iDPI Reading List

This is an eternally in-progress list of research, popular writing, and blog posts from our lab that make up what we affectionally call our “iDPI Canon.”

We’ve written a number of essays and academic papers outlining the concept of digital public infrastructure. Based on those ideas, we’ve also written a number of essays and academic papers analyzing the digital public sphere and proposing experimental software to undergird it.

“The Three Legged Stool: A Manifesto for a Smaller, Denser Web,” by Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci, Michael Sugarman, and Ethan Zuckerman (Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure at UMass Amherst, 2023)

This white paper is a summation of our work at the lab here so far, our vision for future social media, and a road map for the projects we will be working on at iDPI in the years to come.

Digital Public Infrastructure

The Case for Digital Public Infrastructure,” by Ethan Zuckerman (Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, 2020)

The paper that started it all. Ethan lays out what digital public infrastructure is and why we need it, pointing to the successful history of public broadcasting to argue for the introduction of public service digital tools that fill gaps in the digital public sphere.

Building a More Honest Internet by Ethan Zuckerman (Columbia Journalism Review, 2019)

A brief version of The Case for Digital Public Infrastructure.

What is Digital Public Infrastructure?” by Ethan Zuckerman (Center for Journalism and Liberty, 2020)

This paper fleshes out the definition of digital public infrastructure, and starts to outline a roadmap for building an ecosystem of public service digital tools.

Digital Public Sphere

An Illustrated Field Guide to Social Media by Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci and Ethan Zuckerman (Knight First Amendment Institute, 2021)

An Illustrated Field Guide to Social Media is a collection of essays exploring the different “logics” that animate the diverse universe of social media. Because Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are so prominent and are so widely amplified by mainstream media, we tend to assume that all social media operate in the same way and suffer from the same problems. This narrow view of social media not only limits our discussions about social media and social media’s effects, it constrains our imagination about what social media could do or be. 

A Social Network Taxonomy” by Ethan Zuckerman (New_Public, 2023)

This essay lays out a new way of thinking about social media platforms, classifying them based on their ownership (one owner/many owners) and network structure (big room/many rooms). For example, what do Twitter and Mastodon have in common? They are both big rooms. How are they different? Twitter has one owner, while Mastodon has many owners.

From Community Governance to Moderation, and Back Again” by Ethan Zuckerman and Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci (forthcoming)

This paper explores early accounts of social media content moderation to consider whether the “free speech” and “public health” approaches to community moderation might have obscured a promising earlier model: community moderation. Community moderation has re-emerged in spaces like Reddit and special purpose social networks and in novel platform initiatives such as the Oversight Board and Birdwatch. The paper argues that community moderation approaches could address persistent challenges of social media moderation. (We are happy to send an advance draft on request.)

How Social Media Could Teach Us to be Better Citizens” by Ethan Zuckerman (Journalism of E-Learning and Knowledge Society, 2022)

In 1995, social scientist Robert Putnam suggested that American civic life was weakening because people were retreating from public spaces. Local organizations from bowling leagues to men’s lodges, Putnam believed, helped train citizens in the mechanics of civics. People learn to run meetings, to find agreement, to argue respectfully and helpfully. Could we gain some of these same lessons from participating online? Platforms like Reddit, where individuals are invited to moderate communities they belong to, suggest a path towards rebuilding civic skills through online spaces.

Creating PublicSpaces “by Geert-Jan Bogaerts, José Van Dijck, and Ethan Zuckerman (Digital Government: Research and Practice, 2023)

A collective of Dutch public broadcasters and cultural organizations (PublicSpaces) have taken on the work of auditing their software use and identifying tools that conflict with their values. This paper outlines the PublicSpaces origin story, and investigates whether the model of aligning software with the principles of “values-led organizations” might create a new market for open source and socially responsible software.

From Community Governance to Customer Service and Back Again: Re-Examining Pre-Web Models of Online Governance to Address Platforms’ Crisis of Legitimacy” by Ethan Zuckerman and Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci (Social Media and Society, 2023)

“We review early accounts of online governance to consider whether the customer service model has obscured a promising earlier model where members of the affected community were significant, if not always primary, decision-makers. This community governance approach has deep roots in the academic computing community and has re-emerged in spaces like Reddit and special purpose social networks and in novel platform initiatives such as the Oversight Board and Community Notes. We argue that community governance could address persistent challenges of online governance, particularly online platforms’ crisis of legitimacy. In addition, we think community governance may offer valuable training in democratic participation for users.”

Projects and Proposals

We’ve written a number of blog posts and papers about projects we are working on and proposals we are advancing that are based on our theories of DPI and social media.

Forgetful Advertising: Imagining a More Responsible Digital Ad System by Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci and Ethan Zuckerman (Yale Journal of Law & Technology, 2022)

As Silicon Valley giants sketch their preferred future for digital advertising, an infrastructure with significant implications for life online and offline, there are startlingly few alternatives to their vision. In response, Chand and Ethan propose “forgetful advertising”, a vision for responsible digital advertising structured around a single design choice: avoiding the storage of behavioral data. Forgetful advertising can still target ads using information like geography, intent, and whatever other context can be gleaned from a single interaction between a user and a website, but it cannot remember any previous interactions to inform its targeting. Chand and Ethan argue forgetful advertising can make digital advertising compatible with the values of human agency and privacy and offer it as a bottom-up solution for organizations that find existing digital advertising systems inconsistent with their values.

Welcome to Smalltown, a Civic Space Onlineby Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci (Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure at UMass Amherst, 2022)

This blog post outlines our work on Smalltown, a fork of Mastodon we’ve developed for use in small-scale civic discussions. We are using Smalltown to test out a number of our hypotheses about social media and to experiment with new approaches to building and running civic spaces online.

Gobo 2.0: All Your Social Media in One Place by Spencer Lane (Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure at UMass Amherst, 2022)

This blog post outlines our work on Gobo, a “loyal client” for social media that aggregates, filters, and posts to your different feeds. We think a loyal client is critical to moving past many of the hard problems and sticky debates of the digital public sphere. By moving some power from platforms into the hands of individuals and clients, we can allow many different answers to the difficult questions of the digital public sphere, and inject some much needed agency and innovation into the social media space.

We Mapped Reddit: Introducing by Ethan Zuckerman (Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure at UMass Amherst, 2022)

In this post, we introduce our open source tool, which maps the most popular subreddits by number of comments and shows how closely they are related to one another. Ethan also explains the background of the project.

Freq: A Platform Tuned for Music Community” by Mike Sugarman (Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure at UMass Amherst, 2022)

In this post, we propose a social media platform designed specifically for social music community. Mike makes the argument that right now, there’s only purpose-built technology for accessing music, but not for build social spaces around it. Freq takes inspiration from Reddit, Letterboxd, and torrent tracks to build intentional infrastructure for music community.

A Better Approach to Privacy for Third-Party Social Media Tools” by Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci and Ethan Zuckerman (Tech Policy Press, 2023)

To enable the spread so-called “middleware,” or software the users could employ to help them better navigate and filter their social media accounts, new privacy norms will need to prevail. We suggest “contextual privacy,” wherein norms about who has access to what information are dictated by a context created by culture, software, and users’ needs.