MIT Center for Civic Media closes after 13 years

Director Zuckerman sees closure ‘less as a death than as the launching of a diaspora’

MIT's Center for Civic Media closed down at the end of August, as announced in a letter by the center's director, Ethan Zuckerman. The Center was a collaboration between the MIT Media Lab and the Comparative Media Studies/Writing (CMS/W) department and contributed to research in media, technology, and civic and political engagement for 13 years.

In 2007, Henry Jenkins, Mitch Resnick PhD ’92 and Chris Csíkszentmihályi created the Center for Future Civic Media to examine the relationship between participatory media and community and to “invent new community models for media,” Zuckerman wrote in an email to The Tech. In its early stages, the Center's focus was primarily on local activism. In particular, several of its projects helped communities affected by fracking advocate for their rights through media and news stories.

More recently, the Center had conducted research on “how participatory media is influencing traditional media” and explored “making and disseminating media as a way of making political and social change.” While it continued to sponsor projects supporting activism in communities around the world, the Center had also embarked on more large-scale endeavors relating to social change, tackling problems like racial bias in facial detection algorithms. Zuckerman believes the Center became “something of a magnet for activism on the MIT campus,” as “so many extraordinary activists found a home within Civic.”

Zuckerman wrote that the Center closed primarily because several staff members recently accepted positions at other universities. Zuckerman will be a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst starting this fall. 

Zuckerman wrote that research centers “are always a combination of funder interest, professorial interest and student and community interest. The last of these never waned, but it was time for the principals involved with the project to move to other universities.”

Despite the impact the Center for Civic Media has had on the MIT community and communities at large, Zuckerman interprets its closure as a positive development and hopes the Center's goals will continue to be carried out by professors and staff at MIT. “I see this less as a death than as the launching of a diaspora — there will be more people focused on Civic Media around the broader academic community while some at MIT remain closely focused on these issues,” he wrote.

In particular, Zuckerman believes the Center's mission will continue through the work of other professors and researchers, citing the “community connections” research of Media Lab executive director Deb Roy PhD ’99, the data feminism research of urban science and planning professor Catherine D’Ignazio SM ’14, and EECS professor David Karger’s research on “models for social media and systems that can improve existing conditions.”

MIT admissions officer and CMS/W instructor Chris Peterson SM ’13 tweeted Aug. 24 that the Center “is maybe the most important community I’ve ever been a part of. I am so sorry that civic [sic] is closing down and so beyond grateful.”

Zuckerman wrote that the work done by the Center in the past 13 years has had an impact in “shifting the intellectual landscape” surrounding issues like the Black Lives Matter movement, which relies heavily on “media-centric” activism. He added that “many of the ideas Center for Civic Media advocated for are mainstream ones now” and while the Center is closing, he believes the ideas it promoted “are in good hands at MIT right now.”