Social Paper: Retooling Student Consciousness

A global commons for students to network in-progress writing and feedback across disciplines, institutions, and publics.

The following is a grant proposal written in October 2015 soliciting funding from the Knight Foundation to further develop the beta version of the networked writing tool Social Paper. Social Paper is currently in beta version at The CUNY Graduate Center through the generous support of a National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Humanities Start Up grant and a CUNY Advance grant. Though my thinking has evolved on the project, I’m posting this proposal as a snapshot of Social Paper’s guiding vision. 

In one sentence, describe your idea as simply as possible.

Student writing is not just an educational issue, it’s a global politics issue. While world problems demand empathetic collaboration across national and cultural boundaries, communication platforms continue to inhibit collective action and obscure radical possibility from our imagination. As a student-developed commons with a commitment to user freedom and privacy, Social Paper will release the momentous and untapped energies of student writing into an organizing force for global community.

A networked writing environment

As a cloud-based, networked writing environment, students will be able to compose, archive and share all forms of their written work, whether for class or extracurricular interest. Unlike many learning management systems or course blogs, Social Paper gives students full control over the sharing settings of each individual piece of writing. Students may choose to share a paper with a professor, a class, a writing group, the public at large, or alternately, keep it private as part of their personal, in-progress, reflective writing portfolio. Additionally, while composing, students can post comments on their writing with questions mentioning other users or tagging topics in order to solicit peer feedback or interest. By giving students a centralized space to manage the totality of their writing, students can easily change privacy settings as they mature as writers and thinkers, develop audience for their growing body of work, and reflectively build off prior writing.

Opening the black box of education

For the most part, student writing is confined to the audience of a single professor and has few opportunities to generate an engaged public beyond each individual course. Social Paper will provide a sustainable commons where students may browse, comment upon, and build off the work of their peers, both within and outside their courses, disciplines, institutions and familiar communities. Social Paper will use activity feeds to promote student writing and student comments among a network of peers; likewise students may choose to associate their papers with categories and topics to make them easily discoverable or showcase them on their public archive. By exposing the hidden messy processes of developing one’s writing and thoughts, Social Paper will foster egalitarian peer pedagogy. Unlike siloed or ephemeral course sites, Social Paper transforms every writing assignment into the opportunity to build community both within and beyond the class.

User freedom and participatory development

In contrast to the many proprietary platforms used within education, Social Paper is committed to the practice and philosophical attitude of Free Software. All too often, students are encouraged by educators to use profit-driven technologies which inflict incomprehensible user terms, predatory data practices, user restrictions, and/or advertising upon the student and her educational space. Besides being unethical, these technologies tacitly condition students into being passive consumers of the technologies which shape their communication and community. Conversely, as a non-profit, open-source platform, Social Paper will strive to achieve full transparency in all of its operations and open up both its code and its practices to student participation; users will be invited to participate in the platform’s ongoing development to better serve their emerging needs and interests. Thus, aside from fostering peer pedagogy and self-organizing community, Social Paper’s pedagogical mission is to awaken participatory consciousness in the users of today’s technologies.

What does this have to do with data?

As communication technologies become increasingly integrated into educational practices, students are exposed to a broad array of data surveillance conducted by the platforms they use to write documents and communicate with instructors, peers or the public. These data collection practices are largely covert, obscuring from students the direct connection between the profit motives of tech companies and the distinct forms of communication made possible by their platforms. By giving students control and awareness of their individual and collective data, Social Paper will intervene on this situation in two important ways. First, students will be positioned for the first time ever, as a global community, to creatively analyze their data for their own purposes, such as understanding their individual development as writers or comparing broader community trends, and create governance regarding the use of this data. Second, by exposing students to the power and practices of data collection within their own community, students will be better attuned to the complex political issues and democratic potential of an increasingly data-driven world.

Briefly describe the need that you’re trying to address.

Student writing is conceived of as a waste product–a valueless byproduct in the production of literate citizens. Current technologies for composing and submitting student writing reinforce this attitude by making it all but impossible to generate a sustainable public for student work. Though profit-driven social technologies offer new public opportunities, they continue to alienate students from understanding and directing the ways in which technologies shape the social potential of their work.

What progress have you made so far?

Social Paper is currently in development by The CUNY Academic Commons development team (http://commonsinabox.org/about-the-project/project-team) at The CUNY Graduate Center with a release scheduled for November 2015. This release will serve the CUNY community only. Funding has been provided by a $29,965 2014 National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Start-Up Grant, and a $29,500 2015 CUNY Advance Grant. Further funding would help us create a Social Paper platform for general public use.

What would be a successful outcome for your project?

First, we would use funding to host our tool on a network open to all, regardless of location or institutional affiliation. Success would consist of a growing global community of users as well a transformation of public consciousness regarding the politics and ethics of communication technology.