Syllabus — Interpersonal Media

Interpersonal Media: Online Communities
COM482 A - Department of Communication
Course Catalog Description:
Examines the relationships and groups formed through digital social media. Focuses on how people manage interactions and identities, develop interpersonal relationships, engage in collaboration and conflict, and develop communities in online environments. Involves both the study and use of network-based computer-mediated systems.

Overview and Learning Objectives

Digital social media has radically and rapidly transformed the nature of how we communicate and interact. When this class was first offered at UW many years ago, instructors might hope to introduce students to online communities and computer-mediated communication for the first time! Today, online communities are central parts of each of our daily lives and have an important impact on our cultural, social, and economic experience of the world and each other.

This course combines an in-depth look into several decades of research into online communities and computer-mediated communication with exercises that aim to give students experience applying this research to the evaluation of, and hands-on participation in, online communities.

As students of communication in the twenty-first century, I expect that many of you taking this course will, after graduation, work in jobs that involve communicating, working with, or managing online communities. This class seeks to inform these experiences by helping you learn how to use and contribute to online communities more effectively and how to construct, improve, or design your own online communities.

I will consider the course a complete success if every student is able to do all of these things at the end of the quarter:

  • Recall, compare, and give examples of key theories that can explain why some online communities grow and attract participants while others do not.
  • Demonstrate an ability to critically apply the theories from the course to the evaluation of a real online community of your choice.
  • Engage with the course material and compellingly present your own ideas and reflections in writing and orally.
  • Write and speak with a fluency about the rules and norms of the Wikipedia community and demonstrate this fluency through successful contributions to Wikipedia.

Note About This Syllabus

You should expect this syllabus to be a dynamic document and you will notice that there are a few places marked "To Be Determined." Although the core expectations for this class are fixed, the details of readings and assignments may shift based on how the class goes. As a result, there are three important things to keep in mind:

  1. Although details on this syllabus will change, I will not change readings or assignments less than one week before they are due. If I don't fill in a "To Be Determined" one week before it's due, it is dropped. If you plan to read more than one week ahead, contact me first.
  2. Closely monitor your email or the announcements section on the course website on Canvas. When I make changes, I will note these changes in the syllabus changelog so that you can track what has changed and I will summarize these changes in an announcement on Canvas that will be emailed to everybody in the class.
  3. I will ask the class for voluntary anonymous feedback frequently — 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.


This course is organized into two components that roughly span the first and second halves of the quarter.

Component 1: The Theory and Practice of Online Communities

In the first half of the class (Weeks 1-6), the readings will look to theories of interpersonal media by focusing on how and why online communities succeed and fail and how and why they grow or shrink. In each of the weeks in this period, we will read from the book we'll be using as a textbook: Kraut et al.'s Building Successful Online Communities (BSOC). Here is the citation:

Kraut, Robert E., and Paul Resnick. Building Successful Online Communities: Evidence-Based Social Design. The MIT Press, 2012.

MIT Press sells the book for $26.00 in a digital format and $37.00 in hardcover. Amazon sells the book for $29.00 in hardcover and $21.49 for the Kindle version. Wikipedia has this long list of possible book sources.

More or less following the organizations of BSOC, we will focus on these key drivers of participation in online communities:

  • Motivation: How do online communities incentivize participation?
  • Commitment: How do online communities build relationships to keep individuals involved?
  • Rules and Governance: How do online communities create norms, rules, and governance?
  • Newcomers: How do online communities attract — or fail to attract — newcomers?
  • Creation: How should one start a new online community?

In order to ground the theoretical readings during the first half of the quarter, there will be weekly assignments that provide a structured opportunity to learn about and become involved in Wikipedia.

You should keep in mind that the bulk of the reading in the course — and most of the most difficult material — will be front-loaded in this first five week period. The goal is to make sure that you have all the tools you'll need by Week 7 so that you can use this material to focus on your projects.

Component 2: Examples and Challenges

In the second half of the course, we will focus less on theory and more on examples of online communities and on applications, examples, and challenges, associated with interpersonal media and computer-mediated communication.

Our reading during the second part of the quarter will be focused on cases studies. We will also focus on in-class discussions and exercises that prompt critical consideration of how online communities take place in different domains as well as the challenges associated with using online communities. Our goal here is to build up the ability to critically understand these communities in terms of the theory we covered earlier.

In general, readings during this second component will be much lighter and there will be no weekly assignments other than reading. The readings are lighter during this component because I'm expecting you to be spending time outside of class working on your projects.


The assignments in this class are designed to give you an opportunity to try your hand at using the conceptual material taught in the class. There will be no exams or quizzes.

Unless otherwise noted, all assignments are due at the end of the day (i.e., 11:59pm on the day they are due).

Participation and Cases

The course relies heavily on participation, discussion, and the case study method. A standard "case" usually involves reading an example — perhaps up to 20-35 pages of background about an organization or group facing an ambiguous or difficult challenge. I will mark certain readings as "[Cases]" in the syllabus and I will expect you to read these particularly closely.

It is important to realize that we will not summarize case material in class and I will not cover it in lecture. I expect you all to have read it and we will jump in and start discussing it.

Cases ask students to put themselves in the positions of individuals facing difficult situations to tease out the tensions and forces at play in the case and to construct — through group discussion — the broader lessons and takeaways. Cases are a wonderful way to connect the sometimes abstract concepts taught in many academic courses to real examples of the type of ambiguous situations that you will likely encounter in your career. Generally speaking, there are not right and wrong answers in cases.

Typically, professors teaching cases cold call on students in rooms of hundred students. Since our class will be smaller than a typical case-based class, cold calling might not be necessary. That said, I do expect every student to be in class every week and to be prepared to discuss the cases and the readings. If you have not spoken all class, I may cold call on you.

The "Participation Rubric" section of my detailed page on assessment gives the rubric I will use in evaluating participation.


You will hand in two papers in this class. In both cases, I will ask you to connect something you have experience or knowledge about to course material.

The "Writing Rubric" section of my detailed page on assessment gives the rubric I will use to evaluate these papers.

Project 1: Contributing to Wikipedia

In the first project, you will be asked to learn about Wikipedia, its norms, rules, and processes. With this knowledge, you will all be asked to research and write a new article in Wikipedia on a topic of your choice and to publish this article in the encyclopedia. As part of this process, you will interact with other community members who are not part of the class. Afterward, you will be asked to write a short essay piece to reflect on this process and to connect your experience to the conceptual course material where appropriate.

Every Friday during this first component of this class, there will be a assignment due that corresponds to one step in the process of getting involved in Wikipedia. These Wikipedia participation assignments won't be synced up the the theory, but they will provide with you lots of opportunity to reflect on the theoretical work we are covering.

Although only Task #6 includes anything that you will need to turn in, you will need to participate in Wikipedia each week. I will be able to see this activity and help you. We will take time each week to discuss our progress and experience with Wikipedia and to connect it explicitly to the theoretical concepts we are covering.

Wikipedia Task #1 - Create an account and start orientation

Due: Friday September 26
Deliverables: Make contributions in Wikipedia
  • Start the online student orientation for our Wikipedia course.

    During this training, you will create an account, make edits in a sandbox, and learn the basic rules of the Wikipedia community.

    The courses enrollment token is shark.

Wikipedia Task #2: Complete Wikipedia orientation and choose article topic

Due Date: Friday October 3
Deliverables: Make contributions in Wikipedia
  • Complete the online training for students.
  • Create a user page, and sign up on the list of students on the course page.
  • To practice editing and communicating on Wikipedia, introduce yourself to me and at least one classmate on Wikipedia.
  • Decide on an article you would like to create or a stub article you would like to significantlly expand and improve (see below).
  • Document this on the course’s talk page under "proposed topics."

If there is a topic you know are interested in writing about that doesn't have an article, go ahead and suggest it. If you are having trouble coming up with a specific topic on your own, there are a few resources you might find helpful:

  • Requested Articles — This is a list of articles that others have asked to be created. It is sorted into categories and sub-categories. When you're looking at the list, remember that it's possible that somebody else has "gotten" to them first and forgot to remove it. Remember that a red link indicates that there is no page with that name.
  • List of Stubs — This is an extremely long list of articles that are currently stubs and which is also sorted into categories and then subcategories. It might be a little bit out of date so be sure to click through before you decide on an article.

Wikipedia Task #3: Compile research and write draft

Due Date: Friday October 10
Deliverables: Make contributions in Wikipedia
  • Compile a bibliography of relevant research.
  • Write a 2-3 paragraph summary version of your article—with citations—in your Wikipedia sandbox.
  • Add your sandboxed article to the class’s course page with the template.

Wikipedia Task #4: Make article "live" and choose articles to review

Due Date: Friday October 17
Deliverables: Make contributions in Wikipedia
  • Move sandbox articles into the main name space.
  • Begin polishing your article.
  • Select two classmates’ articles that you will peer review and copy-edit. (You don’t need to start reviewing yet.)

Wikipedia Task #5: Peer review other students' articles

Due Date: Friday October 24
Deliverables: Make contributions in Wikipedia
  • Peer review two of your classmates’ articles. Leave suggestions on the article talk pages.
  • Copy-edit the two reviewed articles.

Wikipedia Task #6: Finalize article and turn in reflection essay

Due Date: Friday October 31
Deliverables: Finish article in Wikipedia and turn in link to article in Canvas. Turn in reflection essay in Canvas.
Maximum length for reflection essay: 750 words (~3 pages double spaced)

Your Wikipedia article be will be evaluated based on your demonstrated understanding of Wikipedia rules and policies. Is it a good article by Wikipedia's standards?

In addition to finishing up your Wikipedia article, everybody should turn in an essay reflecting on your experience contributing to Wikipedia in light of your experience and the course material.

Your essay will be evaluated on the degree to which you engage with the course material. See the writing rubric for details on my expectations in terms of the content of the papers. A successful essay will do the following three things:

  1. Comment directly on your experience in Wikipedia. What did you do and what did you learn?
  2. Connect your experience in Wikipedia explicitly to the concepts in the course material we have covered. Which topics or issues were relevant or important? Why?
  3. Reflect on what parts of the theories or concepts we covered applied or didn't? What would you change or add based on your experience?

I will give everybody in the course feedback on their assignment. The basic structure is similar to what you will be doing in the final project. As a result, you can treat this as a "mid-term" and make adjustments based on feedback.

Project 2: Critical Analysis of an Online Community

For the final assignment, I want you to take what you've learned in the class and apply it to a community you have observed or participated in. This project will involve two written assignments and a presentation.

Community Identification

Maximum Length: 300 words (~1 page double spaced)
Deliverables: Turn in in Canvas
Due Date: November 7

In this assignment, you should identify a community you are interested in — and that you hope to analyze critically in your final project. In this assignment, I am asking you to write 1-2 paragraphs explaining what community you want to study, why you care about it, and why you think it would be a rich site for reflection. If relevant or possible, it might be useful to also provide a link.

I am hoping that each of you will pick a community that you are intellectually committed to and invested in your personal or work life. You should also keep in mind that you will be presenting this publicly to the class.

You will be successful in this assignment if you identify a community and clearly explain why you think it would be a useful community to study using the concepts we have covered in the class.

I will give you feedback on these write-ups and will let you each know if I think you have identified a project that might be too ambitious, too trivial, too broad, too narrow, etc.

Final Projects: Critical Analysis of Online Community

Presentation Date: December 1 and 3
Paper Due Date: December 10
Maximum paper length: 1500 words (~7 pages)
Deliverables: Turn in in Canvas

For your final project, I expect students to build on the community identification assignment to describe what they have done and what they have found. I'll expect every student to give both:

  • A short presentation to the class (5-6 minutes)
  • A final report that is not more than 1,500 words (~6-7 pages double spaced)

Each project should include: (a) the description of the community you have identified (you are welcome to borrow from your Community Identification assignment), (b) a description of how you would use the course concepts to change and improve the community.

You will be evaluated on the degree to which you have demonstrated that you understand and have engaged with the course material and not on specifics of your community. I want you to reflect on what parts of theory we covered apply or do not. What does the community do right according to what you've learned? What might it do differently in the future based on what you've read? What did the course and readings not teach that they should have?

A successful project will tell a compelling story and will engage with, and improve upon, the course material to teach an audience that includes me, your classmates, and students taking this class in future years, how to take advantage of online communities more effectively. The very best papers will give us all a new understanding of some aspect of course material and change the way I teach some portion of this course in the future.


I have put together a very detailed page that describes grading rubric we will be using in this course. Please read it carefully I will assign grades for each of following items on the UW 4.0 grade scale according to the weights below:

  • Participation: 30%
  • Wikipedia assignments: 15%
  • Wikipedia reflection essay: 10%
  • Community identification: 5%
  • Final Presentation: 10%
  • Final Paper: 30%


September 24 (W): Intro and Wikipedia


Goals for the day:

  • Learn each others' names
  • Review the course objectives and requirements
  • Get started with Wikipedia


  • Come to class with an mnemonic linking your name with something interesting about yourself you want to share. For instance, use statistics every day in my research so for me it will be: Mako the Mathematician

September 29 (M): Motivation


Required Reading:

Optional Reading:

  • BSOC, Chapter 1, pg 1-17

October 1 (W): Motivation


Required Readings:


October 6 (M): Commitment


In the second half of class, we'll have a guest visit from a very active local Wikipedian to share their experience and to give advice on Wikipedia assignments.

Required Readings:

  • BSOC, Chapter 3, pg 77-102

In some of these cases, there is an enormous amount of material on this page and its subpages. Poke around for 10 minutes or so on each one until you get a strong sense for who is participating and how and why people build commitment to the site and are comfortable talking about this in class:

October 8 (W): Commitment


Required Readings:

October 13 (M): Rules and Governance


Required Readings:

October 15 (W): Rules and Governance


Required Readings:

  • BSOC, Chapter 4, pg 140-170
  • [Case] Slashdot: Spend 5-10 minutes to visit the homepage, look at a story you think is interesting, and read several of the comments, paying specific attention to the rating system.
  • [Case] Slashdot Moderation FAQ, 2014
  • [Case] Lampe, Cliff, and Paul Resnick. “Slash(Dot) and Burn: Distributed Moderation in a Large Online Conversation Space.” In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 543–50. CHI ’04. New York, NY, USA: ACM, 2004. doi:10.1145/985692.985761. [Official Link (available through UW libraries)] [Author Website (available for free)]

Optional Readings:

October 20 (M): Newcomers


Today we'll be visited by Jonathan Morgan, an expert on newcomers in Wikipedia, an employee of the Wikimedia Foundation, and the first author of the paper we'll be reading as our case today.

Required Readings:

October 22 (W): Newcomers


Required Readings:

October 27 (M): Creating New Communities


Required Readings:

October 29 (W): Creating New Communities


Required Readings:

Optional Readings:

November 3 (M): Wikipedia Assignment Debrief


No required readings.

Please be prepared to give a very short (~1 minute ) in-class presentation about your Wikipedia editing experience.

In the second half of class, we will have a visit from local Wikipedia group Cascadia Wikimedians (full disclosure, I am a member). Prepare questions for them about your experience or about Wikipedia in general based on the readings and cases we've done so far.

November 5 (W): Historical Communities


Required Readings:

Optional Readings:

  • Hauben, Michael, Ronda Hauben, and Thomas Truscott. (1997) Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet. Los Alamitos, Calif: Wiley-IEEE Computer Society Press. [Chapter 2 and Chapter 3]

Optional Video:

November 10 (M): Free Software

Required Readings:

November 12 (W): Innovation Communities

Required Readings:

November 17 (M): Hackers

Required Readings:

Optional Readings:

  • Mollick, Ethan. “Tapping into the Underground.” MIT Sloan Management Review 46, no. 4 (2005): 21. [Available through UW Libraries]
  • Mollick, Ethan. “The Engine of the Underground: The Elite-Kiddie Divide.” SIGGROUP Bull. 25, no. 2 (2005): 23–27. [Available through UW Libraries]
  • Scacchi, Walt. “Computer Game Mods, Modders, Modding, and the Mod Scene.” First Monday 15, no. 5 (2010). [Free Online]

November 19 (W): Creative Collaboration

Required Readings:

Optional Readings:

  • Sinnreich, Aram. Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture. University of Massachusetts Press, 2010. (Excerpts) [Forthcoming in Canvas]
  • Vaidhyanathan, Siva. Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How It Threatens Creativity. New York: New York University Press, 2001. [Available from Instructor]

November 24 (M): Civic Media

Guest Lecture from Andrés Monroy-Hernández who is a researcher at Microsoft Research. Details on his talk will be confirmed.

Required Readings:

  • Castells, M. (2007). Communication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society. International Journal of Communication, 1(1), 29. [Freely Available Online]
  • Monroy-Hernández, A., boyd, danah, Kiciman, E., De Choudhury, M., & Counts, S. (2013). The New War Correspondents: The Rise of Civic Media Curation in Urban Warfare. In Proceedings of the 2013 Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (pp. 1443–1452). New York, NY, USA: ACM. [Official Link (Available through UW Libraries] [Freely Available Online]
  • Hu, Y., Farnham, S. D., & Monroy-Hernández, A. (2013). Whoo.Ly: Facilitating Information Seeking for Hyperlocal Communities Using Social Media. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 3481–3490). New York, NY, USA: ACM. [Official Link (Available through UW Libraries] [Freely Available Online]

November 26 (W): NO CLASS

December 1 (M): Final Presentations

No readings.

The final classes will be devoted entirely to presentations.

December 3 (W): Final Presentations

No readings.

The final classes will be devoted entirely to presentations.

December 10 (W): Final Papers Due [Assignment Due]

Administrative Notes


As detailed in my page on assessment, attendance in class is expected of all participants. If you need to miss class for any reason, please contact a member of the teaching team ahead of time (email is best). Multiple unexplained absences will likely result in a lower grade or (in extreme circumstances) a failing grade. In the event of an absence, you are responsible for obtaining class notes, handouts, assignments, etc.

Devices in Class

In the class, we will work on exercises and discuss assignments that involve referring to things online. To help with this, you will probably find it convenient to bring a laptop or table to class for use during these parts of the class sessions.

Except during these parts of class — which I will always point out explicitly in class — I ask that you refrain from using your laptops, tablets, phones, and pretty much any (digital) device with a screen.

Note that this is not a requirement. You may, if you need or choose to do so for any reason, bring and use any device in the classroom. I am not banning devices and I will neither prevent nor frown upon you for using them. However, I will ask that all students using devices sit in the back part of the classroom to avoid distracting the rest of us. I will also (privately) let you know if I feel that your in-class device usage is negatively impacting your participation in the course.

The goal of this policy is to help you stay focused and avoid distractions for yourself and your peers in the classroom. This is really important and turns out to be much more difficult in the presence of powerful computing devices with brightly glowing screens and fast connections to the Internet. For more on the rationale behind this policy, please read Clay Shirky’s thoughtful discussion of his approach to this issue.

Office Hours

Because this is an evening degree program and I understand you have busy schedules that keep you away from campus during the day, I will not hold regular office hours. In general, I will be available to meet after class. Please contact me on email to arrange a meeting then or at another time.


In general, if you have an issue, such as needing an accommodation for a religious obligation or learning disability, speak with me before it affects your performance; afterward it is too late. Do not ask for favors; instead, offer proposals that show initiative and a willingness to work.

To request academic accommodations due to a disability please contact Disability Resources for Students, 448 Schmitz, 206-543-8924/V, 206-5430-8925/TTY. If you have a letter from Disability Resources for Students indicating that you have a disability that requires academic accommodations, please present the letter to me so we can discuss the accommodations that you might need for the class. I am happy to work with you to maximize your learning experience.

Electronic Mail Standards of Conduct

Email communications (and all communications generally) among UW community members should seek to respect the rights and privileges of all members of the academic community. This includes not interfering with university functions or endangering the health, welfare, or safety of other persons. With this in mind, in addition to the University of Washington's Student Conduct Code, I establishes the following standards of conduct in respect to electronic communications among students and faculty:

  • If, as a student, you have a question about course content or procedures, please use the online discussion board designed for this purpose. If you have specific questions about your performance, contact me directly.
  • I strive to respond to Email communications within 48 hours. If you do not hear from me, please come to my office, call me, or send me a reminder Email.
  • Email communications should be limited to occasional messages necessary to the specific educational experience at hand.
  • Email communications should not include any CC-ing of anyone not directly involved in the specific educational experience at hand.
  • Email communications should not include any blind-CC-ing to third parties, regardless of the third party’s relevance to the matter at hand.

Academic Misconduct

I am committed to upholding the academic standards of the University of Washington’s Student Conduct Code. If I suspect a student violation of that code, I will first engage in a conversation with that student about my concerns.

If we cannot successfully resolve a suspected case of academic misconduct through our conversations, I will refer the situation to the department of communication advising office who can then work with the COM Chair to seek further input and if necessary, move the case up through the College.

While evidence of academic misconduct may result in a lower grade, I will not unilaterally lower a grade without addressing the issue with you first through the process outlined above.

Credit and Notes

This syllabus was inspired by, and borrows heavily with permission from, two other classes on online communities taught by young professors whose teaching I admire and respect: