MIT Is Teaching a Social Media Class Nicknamed ‘Credit for Reddit’

The forum has become somewhat of a phenomenon, billing itself as the 'front page of the Internet,' so educators thought it was worth dissecting.

This spring students at MIT will have a chance to enroll in a course that takes a deeper look at one of the most frequented places on the Internet, where a vast majority of national news stories break, time is spent sifting through strange images, and hyper-local information is swapped between users with impunity.

MIT researcher and admissions officer Chris Peterson is getting ready to co-teach a class for the second time in two years at the Comparative Media Studies/Writing Department about the complexities of social media and online forums like Reddit, which has been appropriately coined by its creators “Credit for Reddit.”

“It’s what we nicknamed the course, it’s not the official name,” Peterson told Boston in an interview Wednesday.

Peterson said the whole point of the course isn’t to understand why memes of dogs make it to the top of Reddit’s front page, but rather to study social media as objects, and to understand that forums like Reddit and other sites have both social and political consequences.

“They are social and political objects shaped by people that then shape the people who use them,” he said.

Peterson first came up with the concept for the class last year when he was working on a research project. Inspired by a student’s comment that he spends all of his time on Reddit, “so he might as well get credit for it,” Peterson put a call out, fittingly, on the online forum, in a subsection called “Theory of Reddit.” It was there that he asked users to help him compile ideas for a course syllabus. After receiving more than 120 responses, Peterson put a pitch together and floated the idea to school officials.

“We wanted to change it up so we said, ‘why don’t we do something on social media research and social media as media systems?’” said Peterson, who co-teaches the course with Professor Edward Schiappa, the head of the department. “We realized there was a desire to provide an academic vehicle to help students better understand what social media is as a social phenomenon, so they could ask important questions about it.”

Peterson said as someone who spends a lot of time on Reddit and other similar sites, his aim was to try to preserve a mixture of both playfulness and seriousness when attempting to formulate the class structure, tapping into topics like crypto currency adoption, and researching why people use Tinder and what that means.

“What I think interests people about these communities is they are finding themselves wrapped up in online communities with strangers and also with friends—with people they have never met before, and people who live down the street,” said Peterson. “There becomes this question about why so much of their life is conducted through these online environments that we should understand what influence we are having on these environments, and what influence they are having on us.”