Behind the Scenes at Wintersession

What’s it like to develop a Wintersession course?

Earlier this year, we spoke to Amina Elgamal ’22 about her experience organizing the Wintersession 2021 course, Design for Good. Contributors to the course included Jérémie Lumbroso, Kyle Barnes, Carina Lewandowski, Kevin Feng, Olivia Kusio, Theano Stavrinos, and CDH User Experience Designer Gissoo Doroudian.

What motivated you to develop such a course for Wintersession?

Technology for a Just Society (JuST) is a group at Princeton University committed to empowering future technologists in creating a more just society. JuST offers a community where students can explore how technology can deepen social inequity, as well as how it can be leveraged to advance social justice and address other major societal challenges. [Last] fall, we began planning a Wintersession workshop to explore social media through various lenses—to understand the ethics and impact of this industry on society.

How was your experience?

I enjoyed hearing from all the speakers and their varied perspectives. We invited six speakers—academics, designers, and journalists.

A few spoke generally about design and prototyping. Gissoo Doroudian presented a brief history of design thinking and evaluated its shortcomings and long-term consequences. Erika Harano presented on UX design with a focus on user research from a design justice and consentful tech perspective. Nick Punt demonstrated how we can use prototyping as a tool to advocate for more ethical design of existing products.

Others spoke directly to the topic of social media. Dr. Joan Donovan spoke about online extremism, media manipulation, and disinformation campaigns. Professor Dave Colangelo spoke about how social media interacts with physical spaces. Casey Newton shared his perspective on social networks, big tech, and democracy as an independent journalist.

Was there anything that you didn’t expect?

When we had begun planning this event in the fall, we didn’t expect social media to be in the news as much as it was this winter. Parler had just been shut down by Amazon Web Services (AWS) a few days before our workshop began because its moderation didn’t follow Amazon’s terms and conditions, which helped anchor this series of conversations in a really interesting and exciting way. A lot of people—invited speakers and attendees alike—had really interesting perspectives about hate speech, moderation, censorship, and rights.

What were some of the challenges that you faced?

This was definitely a learning experience for all of us. I think we had a really ambitious plan, and juggled between pursuing an in-depth workshop and a conference with a lot of breadth. The experience ended up being more of the latter, with a lot of presentations and not a lot of time to actually work through a design project. I think next time we would try to have more clarity with the goal before planning, and budget time better—knowing that logistics during the event is substantial time sink, especially over Zoom.

Did you achieve your goals with the course?

For the most part! We went into it flexible, expecting to learn a lot about planning workshops and conferences—and we’re excited to use this experience to plan more events in the future!

What did you learn from it?

I personally really enjoyed speaking with Dr. Donovan, the Research Director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy [at the Harvard Kennedy School]. She shared an insight that really resonated with me and that I continue to think about throughout my education, so I’ll try my best to paraphrase. It’s time to descale the internet, specifically social media. American society tried this decades-long experiment in scaling products to basically take over industries, and especially in social media platforms we see how this fails. She said to future tech founders: if an investor asks how your company scales, tell them that it doesn’t—and that’s the whole point!

Editor’s note: Check out our recommendations as you browse Wintersession 2022 courses. Registration ends February 19.

Carousel Photo by Andrew Ridley on Unsplash

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