Online Communities and Crowds (Winter 2022)

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Online Communities & Crowds
Communication Studies 378 (undergraduate)
Media, Technology & Society (MTS) 525 (graduate)
Wednesdays 10am-11:30am CT
(in-person) Frances Searle Building, Room 2-407
(remote) See below for Zoom details
Winter, 2022
Northwestern University
Course websites
Canvas for announcements, submitting assignments, and file sharing.
Panopto for recorded, asynchronous lectures.
Zoom for remote, synchronous course meetings and guest speaker visits.
Class discord server (invite available via Canvas or instructors) for chat, lightweight Q&A, etc..
Wikipedia Assignment dashboard for everything related to the Wikipedia Assignment.
Undergraduate (Comm Studies 378) discussion section is held Fridays at 2-107. Details can be found on the Undergraduate sections page.
Graduate (MTS 525) discussion section details can be found on the Graduate section page.
This wiki page for nearly everything else.
Instructor: Aaron Shaw (
Office Hours: Wednesdays 12:30-2:30pm and by-appointment.
Location and details.
Please signup if you'd like an appointment or drop-in if a slot is listed as available.
Also usually available via Discord for chat during "business hours."
Teaching Assistant: Sohyeon Hwang
Office Hours:
(remote for entire quarter, please read info on this linked page and sign up) Mondays 12:30-1:30PM CT, virtually at: [[1]] (password on the prior linked page)
(once in-person is safe again, just drop-in) Tuesdays 11AM-1PM CT, at room 2-430 in Frances Searle (up the main stairs from the lobby, and then go right).
Also usually available via Discord for chat during "business hours".
Detail of an ukiyo-e styled image generated by from the prompt "online communities and crowds" on December 27, 2021

Course information[edit]


Online communities & crowds are fundamental to how people communicate, work, play, learn, socialize, and more. However, they also threaten our well-being and undermine critical social institutions as well as the integrity of public discourse.

This course seeks to understand online communities & crowds. It does so through an interdisciplinary inquiry into a set of practical challenges that confront online communities & crowds today. When and why do some efforts to overcome these challenges succeed? What insights and expectations can we draw from these experiences?

Learning objectives[edit]

The course is designed to enable students to achieve the following goals:

  • Understand and critically engage central concepts, examples, and issues relevant to online communities & crowds.
  • Cultivate practical experience with online collaboration (in online communities and crowds).
  • Assess and iteratively improve upon your own work and that of your peers in light of the concerns analyzed in class.
  • Elaborate original insights into online communities & crowds; extend and apply the material presented in class.

Format and materials[edit]

As of December 20, 2021, Northwestern University has required that all classes proceed via remote instruction for the first two weeks of Winter Quarter, 2022. The hybrid format of our course is designed to be robust to this change. At this time, all synchronous remote sessions will all be held via Zoom (details and links to-be-distributed via Canvas). If/when possible, we will hold in-person synchronous sessions on campus.

The course consists of both synchronous (remote or in-person) and asynchronous (recorded) lecture sessions as well as synchronous (remote or in-person) discussion sections. The undergraduate discussion sections will be led by the Teaching Assistant and the graduate discussion section will be led by the Instructor.

The lectures will synthesize a variety of historical, theoretical, and empirical materials. The discussion sections will focus on weekly reading/viewing assignments.

All readings and other materials for the course will be linked from this page and/or posted on Canvas.

Assignments and responsibilities[edit]

The course includes "weekly" and "irregular" assignments.

Every week all participants are responsible for (1) consuming any recorded lecture(s); (2) attending the synchronous lecture and discussion section; and (3) completing any weekly assignments. Weekly assignments are usually readings along with reading quizzes (undergraduate) or memos (graduate). The graduate reading assignments usually consist of the undergraduate reading assignments plus additional materials (the schedule indicates this accordingly).

Everyone in the course will complete the Wikipedia assignment. Otherwise, the irregular assignments for graduate and undergraduate members of the course diverge quite a bit. Details are provided below.

All written assignments should be submitted as a PDF via Canvas. I recommend you familiarize yourself with Aaron's assessment policies (especially the assessment rubric for written work) as well as salient principles on academic integrity, especially the appropriate attribution of sources. Please submit written work in a readable (size 11 or greater) font and adopt a standard citation style (e.g., APA or PACM HCI) throughout. Please include your name somewhere (prominent!) in the document that you submit as well as your last name at the beginning of the filename (e.g., "Shaw-occ-week1-assignment.pdf").

Weekly assignments[edit]

The course schedule provides details of all reading assignments as well as links to materials and Canvas pages for submitting written assignments. Specifics for several types of assignments follow below.

Undergraduate: Reading quizzes[edit]

At the beginning of every Wednesday class session (with the exceptions of Weeks 1 and 10), all members of the undergraduate course will receive a reading quiz via Canvas. The reading quiz will consist of a small number of multiple-choice questions, which will be graded out of 10 points. The quiz will start when class starts and end four minutes later. If you are slightly late starting the quiz, you might be able to complete it in time. If you are very late or absent, you’ll get a zero. There are no make-up quizzes. At the end of the term, we’ll drop your lowest three quiz grades.

Graduate: Discussion memos and lead discussants[edit]

Graduate students in the course are required to submit discussion memos via Canvas no later than Tuesday at 9pm CT each week (with the exception of week 1). The memos are intended to facilitate digestion of the reading/viewing materials ahead of each discussion section. They should be short (400-500 words) and should synthesize central arguments and/or themes of readings/viewings. During the quarter you may skip up to two discussion memos with no consequences.

Each graduate student will also be required to serve as a lead discussant in section at least once during the quarter. Details and expectations will be discussed in the first section meeting.

Irregular assignments[edit]

Irregular assignments include the Wikipedia assignment as well as several longer-form written assignments. Brief descriptions follow here with additional details provided via linked pages.

The Wikipedia assignment (everyone):[edit]

All members of the course will participate in the collaborative creation of de novo Wikipedia articles. This assignment will proceed in small teams of 4-5 people led by graduate students and will take place over about six weeks starting at the beginning of the quarter. It will culminate in a short essay reflecting on and assessing the experience in light of the other course materials.

Please review this overview of the assignment and assessment criteria. Details of specific assignment milestones and deadlines will be (almost entirely) provided through the course WikiEdu Dashboard.

Deadlines (See WikiEdu Dashboard for specific assignments and most up-to-date/accurate deadlines)
January 8: Introduction, Create an account, join the course page, learn some basics, evaluate an article
January 14: Review some more rules, Start working with your team, Choose possible article topics
January 21: Edit existing articles/citations, finalize article topic, start drafting articles
January 28: Exchange and respond to peer review of article drafts
February 4: Improve/polish articles, publish articles (move them into the main namespace)
February 11: Final revisions to articles before reflective essay.
February 18: Reflection essay due.

Undergraduate students in the course will be required to complete a take-home exam late in the quarter that will cover material from lectures and from the assigned readings. The exam will consist of several short essay prompts. The prompts will cover course materials up to the point of the exam; they will emphasize synthetic understanding of course materials and will not require outside research. We estimate the exam will only take a couple of hours to complete, however, given the circumstances, we will make it available during two days and students may complete it at any time during that window.

Exam link (Canvas)
Exam available: March 7
Exam due: March 8
Community Advising assignments 1 & 2[edit]

Undergraduate students in the course will also be required to complete two Community Advising assignments (CA1 and CA2, for short). For each assignment, you are invited to serve as an expert advisor to the leaders and members of an online community or crowd and to provide evidence-based insights into how to better address a specific challenge they face.

Detailed information about both assignments is available here

CA1: 1500-1800 words For CA1, the teaching team will select the community/crowd as well as the challenge. In elaborating your recommendations to address the challenge, we expect you to draw on sources and evidence provided as part of the course (readings, lecture, section materials, etc.). You may, but absolutely do not need to draw on additional sources.

Update (Feb 2.): CA1 details have been posted

CA2: 2000-2250 words For CA2, you will select your own community/crowd and challenge. We encourage you to choose a community/crowd of which you are a member/leader and where you could, even if only in theory, deliver your recommendations to other members/leaders and have some chance of seeing the recommendations debated/adopted. For CA2 we expect you to draw on sources and evidence provided as part of the course (again) as well as any additional materials you deem relevant/useful. Please note that we require you to meet with a member of the teaching team to discuss your plan and to secure written (email or chat is fine) approval of your chosen community/crowd and challenge at least two weeks before CA2 is due.

CA1 announced: February 2
CA1 due: February 9
CA2 topic proposal: February 9-March 2
CA2 due: March 16

Assessment rubric for CA1 and CA2

The teaching team will evaluate both CA1 and CA2 along the following dimensions and criteria, which overlap a great deal with Aaron's general assessment rubric for written work. Keep in mind, these dimensions and criteria don't correspond to specific point values or anything like that. They also tend to escalate in terms of difficulty. An exceptional paper does all of these things exceptionally; a very good paper does all of these things well; a good paper does most of these things well; etc.

Clarity & style: Is the paper readable and clear? Is it free of errors? Is the writing logically organized and coherent? Are sources appropriately cited/documented?

Quality of analysis: Does the paper provide clear, original, and well-supported arguments and interpretation? Does it identify and analyze the challenge(s) facing the community/crowd effectively? Where possible/reasonable, does the analysis draw on relevant evidence to support its claims and recommendations?

Scope: Does the argument adapt a suitable scope given the length constraints of the assignment? Does it provide a thorough and focused analysis of the key issues at hand? Is there an appropriate balance between high-level generalities and specific details?

Quality of insight: Does the paper propose a clear strategy, design, and/or actions in response to the challenge? Do the proposed strategy, design, and/or actions seem compelling and worth adopting given the evidence presented? Do the proposed strategies, designs, and/or actions reflect a creative and sophisticated synthesis of available evidence, relevant course materials, and other resources the author has chosen to draw upon?

Graduate: Original research project[edit]

Graduate students in the course will be required to complete an original research project. This project may take the form of (1) a detailed research plan/proposal; (2) a replication/revisit of an important and influential study; (3) a completed original research manuscript (i.e., a "submission-ready" draft of a journal article or conference paper). Please note that you are also required to submit an abstract/proposal for the project and you must submit a new abstract/proposal at least two weeks before the project due date if you want to change the topic/direction substantially.

Project abstract/proposal due: February 23
Completed project due: March 16

Discussion sections[edit]

The center of this course will be your discussion section. Attendance and participation are mandatory. Detailed attendance and participation policies will be provided by the respective section leaders.

Sections are meant to provide you with an opportunity to confront, challenge, and explore the major themes of each week in a safe, respectful environment. Your active participation is indispensable, so come prepared, ready to test out ideas and hypotheses. Please keep in mind that participation is about more than who speaks the most. It is also about demonstrating a willingness to think through your own and others’ ideas. Some ground rules:

  • Respect others’ rights to hold opinions and beliefs different from yours. Challenge the idea, not the person.
  • Listen carefully to what others are saying even when you disagree. Comments that you make (asking for clarification, sharing critiques, expanding on a point, etc.) should reflect that you have paid attention to the speaker’s comments.
  • Be courteous. Don’t interrupt or engage in private conversations while others are speaking.
  • Support your statements. Use evidence and provide a rationale for your points.
  • Allow everyone the chance to talk. If you have spoken a lot already, try to hold back a bit; if you are hesitant to speak, look for opportunities to contribute to the discussion.

Grading and assessment[edit]

The teaching team will assign grades (usually a number between 0-10) that assess your performance of several elements of the course listed in the table below. For each element, grades start with the maximum possible value (10) and only decrease in the event of a specific failure to meet some aspect of the relevant assessment rubric (more on those below). The percentage values are weights that will be applied to calculate your overall grade for the course.

Course element Undergraduate Graduate
Participation 20% 20%
Weekly assignments 15% 30%
Wikipedia assignment 15% 15%
Community Advising #1 10% NA
Community Advising #2 20% NA
Exam 20% NA
Original research project NA 35%

For detailed assessment rubrics that the teaching team will use to derive grades for all assignments, please see the corresponding assignment page as well as Aaron's general assessment page. Other relevant information about academic integrity policies, grade appeals (requests to regrade), and more can be found on the general course policies page.


General course policies[edit]

General policies (including links to Northwestern's recommended policies) on a wide variety of topics including classroom equity, attendance, academic integrity, accommodations, late assignments, and more are provided on Aaron's class policies page. Below are some policy statements specific to this course and quarter.

COVID-19 Policies[edit]

Aaron's COVID-19 policies page provides specific COVID-19 policies mandated by Northwestern University. Several additional COVID-19-related policies follow below.

Teaching and learning in a pandemic[edit]

Even beyond my COVID-19 policies, the ongoing pandemic will impact this course in various ways, some of them obvious and tangible and others harder to pin down. On the obvious and tangible front, we have things like the fact that we will begin quarter remotely and, assuming we return to campus, will still be wearing masks when we do so. These will shape our collective experience in major ways.

On the "harder to pin down" side, even though (or maybe especially because) we've been doing this pandemic thing for a while now, many of us may experience elevated levels of exhaustion, stress, uncertainty and/or distraction. We may need to provide unexpected support to family, friends, or others in our communities. I have some personal experiences with this and I expect that many (all?) of you do too. It can be a difficult time.

It is important to acknowledge the realities of the situation and create the space to discuss and process them in the context of our class throughout the quarter. As your instructor and colleague, I commit to do my best to approach the course in an adaptive, generous, and empathetic way. I will try to be transparent and direct with you throughout—both with respect to the course material as well as the pandemic and the university's ongoing response to it. I ask that you try to extend a similar attitude towards everyone in the course. When you have questions, feedback, or concerns, please try to share them in an appropriate, empathetic way. If you require accommodations of any kind at any time (directly related to the pandemic or not), please contact me.

Expectations for class sessions[edit]

The following are some baseline expectations for our class sessions. Please feel free to ask questions, suggest changes, or raise concerns during the quarter. I welcome all input.

  • All members of the class are expected to create a supportive and welcoming environment that is respectful of the conditions under which we are participating in this class.
  • All members of the class are expected to take reasonable steps to create an effective teaching/learning environment for themselves and others.

Please note that these expectations apply independent of whatever modalities we use to hold the class!

Expectations for synchronous remote "lecture" sessions[edit]

And here are suggested protocols for any video/audio portions of the "lecture" portions of our class (i.e., the Wednesday meetings):

  • Please mute your microphone whenever you're not speaking and learn to use "push-to-talk" if/when possible.
  • Video is optional for students during lecture, although if you're willing/able to keep the instructors company in the video channel we always appreciate it.
  • If possible, we ask you to enable video when you want to speak (ask a question, make a comment, etc.) or are in breakout rooms.
  • If you need to excuse yourself at any time and for any reason you may do so.
  • Children, family, pets, roommates, and others with whom you may share your workspace are welcome to join our class as needed. Please do your best to minimize distractions and disruptions to others in the course.
Expectations for in-person sessions[edit]

Please wear a suitable and well-fitting face covering over your nose and mouth for the duration of our time in class together.

I ask everyone to come to our in-person class sessions prepared to comply with all applicable university COVID-19 policies and guidelines. We will be following Northwestern's guidelines for instructional spaces, including the use of face coverings, consistent seating, and health monitoring using the Symptom Tracker app (either the mobile or web-based version is fine). We'll review this early in the quarter as Northwestern continues to update its policies and guidelines.

Syllabus revisions[edit]

This syllabus will be a dynamic document that will evolve throughout the quarter. Although the core expectations are fixed, the details will shift. As a result, please keep in mind the following:

  1. Assignments and readings are frozen 1 week before they are due. I will not add readings or assignments less than one week before they are due. If I forget to add something or fill in a "To Be Determined" less than one week before it's due, it is dropped. If you plan to read or work more than one week ahead, contact me first.
  2. Substantial changes to the syllabus or course materials will be announced. Please monitor your email for Canvas messages about changes. Also, whenever I make changes, these changes will be recorded in the edit history of this page so that you can track what has changed.
  3. Changes will usually reduce/change work, only rarely augment. I tend to be a little over-ambitious with my syllabus content and then dial that back as I sort out what's most crucial and what can be tossed overboard.
  4. The course design may adapt throughout the quarter. As usual (for me at least), I may iterate and prototype course design elements rapidly along the way. To this end, I will ask you for voluntary feedback — especially toward the beginning of the quarter. Please let me know what is working and what can be improved. In the past, I have made many adjustments based on this feedback and I expect to do so again.

Additional resources/readings[edit]

Throughout the quarter, we will undoubtedly generate a long list of related topics, readings, videos, memes, etc. You can add things to that list here

Schedule (with all the details)[edit]

Please note that the date provided for each week corresponds to the Wednesday session when we all meet together. Everyone also has discussion sections

Week 1: Origins (01.05)[edit]


  1. Introduction (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3)
  2. Course logistics (Part 1 and Part 2)
  3. Birth of the "modem world" (via Zoom, recording (includes transcription))
Lecture slides (via Canvas)


  • Complete the readings/viewings below (note that graduate students should complete undergraduate+graduate readings)
  • Enroll in our course Wikipedia Assignment (link and passcode distributed via Canvas)
  • Complete Week 1 Wikipedia assignment exercises
  • Join the course Discord server (invitation link distributed via Canvas)

Additional resources (not required! optional!)[edit]

Week 2: Definitions (01.12)[edit]


  1. What (was|is) a community anyway? (recordings)
  2. Crowds: Their madness and wisdom (recordings)
  3. Defining online communities & crowds (zoom recording)
Lecture slides (via Canvas)


  • Complete Week 2 Wikipedia assignment exercises (due Friday)
  • First reading quiz (378) and discussion memos (525) this week.
Undergraduate readings[edit]
Graduate readings[edit]

Additional (optional!) resources[edit]

Week 3: Participation (01.19)[edit]


  1. Motivating participation (recordings)
  2. Participation inequalities
  3. "Too much democracy in all the wrong places"
Lecture slides (via Canvas)


Additional resources[edit]
Additional resources about Twitch

Week 4: Newcomers (01.26)[edit]


  1. Newcomer recruitment and socialization (recordings)
  2. On the varieties of newcomer experience
Lecture slides (via Canvas)


Wikipedia Assignment (all)[edit]
WikiEdu dashboard timeline for this week
  • Article topic selection complete.
  • Develop draft articles in sandbox/user namespace.
  • Peer review another group's article late this week.

Additional resources[edit]

Week 5: Identity (02.02)[edit]


  1. Identity: The presentation of online self (recordings)
  2. Privacy, context, and disclosure
  3. Anonymity: Threat or menace?
Lecture slides (via Canvas)


Community Advising Assignment #1[edit]
Wikipedia Assignment (all)[edit]
WikiEdu dashboard timeline for this week
  • Expand draft articles
  • Complete peer review of another group's article.

Additional resources[edit]

Week 6: Governance (02.09)[edit]


  1. Governing the digital commons: A crude and brief synthesis
  2. Governance of and by (and within?) platforms
  3. Order from chaos? Governance in autonomous communities
Lecture recordings (Panopto) and lecture slides (Canvas)
Guest speaker in class Wed.: Molly de Blanc (Debian Project, Gnome Project, Community Data Science Collective, NYU, and more)


Community Advising Assignment #1[edit]
Wikipedia Assignment (all)[edit]
WikiEdu dashboard timeline for this week
  • Move article drafts into "main namespace."
  • Revise articles in response to peer feedback.

Additional resources[edit]

Week 7: Quality (02.16)[edit]


  1. How do they do it? Community production dynamics
  2. Social production, social failures
Lecture recordings (panopto) and slides (canvas)


Wikipedia Assignment (all)[edit]

Additional resources[edit]

Week 8: Profit (02.23)[edit]


  1. A withering critique of contemporary information capitalism
  2. Whither alternatives?
Lecture recording (panopto) and slides (canvas)


  • Mary Gray and Siddharth Suri. 2019. Ghost Work. Read Introduction, Chs 1, 3, and 6 (Other chapters and Conclusion optional). (Available via via Canvas or the Internet Archive)

Additional resources[edit]

Week 9: AI (03.02)[edit]


  1. The ubiquity of bots, algorithms, and machine intelligence in online communities
  2. FATE and other horizons of AI
Lecture recordings (Panopto) and slides (canvas).


  • Michael Ann DeVito. 2021. Adaptive Folk Theorization as a Path to Algorithmic Literacy on Changing Platforms. In Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, Vol. 5, CSCW2, Article 339 (October 2021), 35 pages,
  • Geiger, R. Stuart (2014). Bots, bespoke, code and the materiality of software platforms. Information, Communication & Society. DOI:10.1080/1369118X.2013.873069 (preprint version)

Additional resources[edit]

Week 10: The Future (03.09)[edit]


  1. The future of online communities & crowds



Additional resources[edit]

Acknowledgments and Credits[edit]

This course design and syllabus builds from prior iterations as well as similar/adjacent courses offered by Joseph Reagle (Northeastern University); Benjamin Mako Hill (University of Washington); Nathan TeBlunthuis (Northwestern), Casey Fiesler (University of Colorado at Boulder); Amy Bruckman (Georgia Institute of Technology); Sarita Yardi Schoenbeck (University of Michigan); Nazanin Andalibi (University of Michigan); and Nicole Ellison (University of Michigan). It has also been shaped by input from past students in the course and past teaching assistants (Sneha Narayan and Jeremy Foote) as well as current participants. Some of the language and policies were co-authored with Daniel Immerwahr (Northwestern).