Building Social Networking Sites for Social Good


In fall semester 2016, I taught an advanced web design course in the undergraduate Professional Writing program in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at Michigan State University. The election coincided with the introduction to our final project—a team web development project to practice newly acquired skills in JavaScript, PHP, and MySQL. At this time, conversation trended in the media that directly related to students’ work in the course as newbie web developers; specifically, the ethical role of developers who may have built features of social networking sites that contributed to post-election tensions such as strained personal relationships and compromised media literacy as a result of facebook’s news feed-generating algorithm. Eager to discuss the election, students engaged in spirited discussions around these articles and how they might attend to these concerns. I knew then that the nature of the final project needed to change to reflect our engagement with ethical concerns raised as to how the structure of social networking sites may have affected the election.

Changing the Project Assignment for the Post-Election Moment

To do this, I revised the project prompt to create space for the imaginative potential of my students around ethics and social change in web development.

Homepage for the original social networking site, Robin’s Nest

Rather than ask my students to build a simple social networking site from scratch (the original project prompt), I instead provided a folder of files for a bare bones social networking site, created by our textbook author, Robin Nixon, and freely shared on the website for the 4th edition of Learning PHP, MySQL, & JavaScript (Nixon).

The new focus was on building for social good: playing with, breaking, and remaking a pre-existing social networking site. This new prompt also better aligned this project and its evaluative criteria with a multimodal composition pedagogy focused on play, creativity, and speculative design (Shipka; Dunne & Raby). It was my hope that this new unit focus would enable students to critically assay the technology as it currently exists: tackling media literacy, siloing of information, relationship-building across difference, as well as other issues deliberated during class discussions.

New Project Assignment

In this four-week assignment, students assembled into groups of four and collaborated in team GitHub repositories. The five steps of the project were:

  • Read/re-read the articles on design, web development, and the election. Think about ways social networking could work for social good, and how to design and build for this purpose.
  • Fork the site files (in your team’s GitHub repository), play, and brainstorm a re-design. You can find discussion of these files in the final chapter of Nixon’s book, your technical resource for the project.
  • Create a mood board, wireframes, and a project plan with a timeline for completion of all tasks. Divide the work across your team. Designate a project manager and decide on other roles as suit your particular project needs.
  • Create all deliverables and build new or edited SNS files in GitHub. All changes to files must be documented in GitHub as we practiced in class.
  • Give a presentation and product demonstration in class. 


What might it mean to teach digital rhetoric in a web design course after the election? For us, it meant a heightened and contextualized attempt to bring rhetorical literacy as well as functional literacy to a course in advanced web design. Final projects, and the discussions from the presentations of these projects, generated the following themes:

  • Structural changes to SNS sites: Each group challenged the primacy of the News Feed feature in the design of a social networking site, and attempted to create more agency for the user in choosing the content they consume. For them, this largely involved increasing the transparency of what the algorithm does (visibly asking users which media outlets or friends from whom they wished to read their news). Currently, this places the onus on the user to customize their accounts in ways that are onerous and confusing, reading through each and every friend and “liked” organization and placing them in buckets according to the user’s level of interest. This does not, however, always frame the work that this activity is for (choosing what we see as “news”). We discussed how designs could create spaces for users to consciously choose daily news outlets and highlight these in separate spaces on the interface.
  • Relationships between researchers, designers, and developers: The web development team approach to this assignment encouraged reflection for those teams who chose a member who would do the programming. Ultimately, the teams saw their success or failure hinging on that one person’s ability to put their redesign into working code, regardless of the dissonance of this with the evaluative criteria for the assignment. They all chose to put the build last, after research and design was completed. The very act of bifurcating theory from practice in these team roles reinforced the importance of the challenge that undergirded the assignment: can builders of software think ethically about structural decisions inherent in that building?
  • Functional [computer programming]literacy versus rhetorical literacy: The change to this assignment, prompted by the election, forced us all to reimagine what it meant to learn the functional literacy of PHP, MySQL, and JavaScript (as defined and discussed in Selber). Learning to build the moving parts of a social networking site does not equip us to build in such a way as to improve the lives of the users of that site. This project allowed us to question the contemporary climate of social networking, not simply replicate it. Teaching digital rhetoric after the election meant that future web-related professionals acted on a desire to rhetorically and ethically make digital technologies. After this assignment, students of web design and development saw how their designs and builds create online spaces where users make decisions—including decisions about how to vote.


Dunne, Anthony, and Fiona Raby. Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. Cambridge: MIT P, 2013. Print.

Nixon, Robin. Learning PHP, MySQL, & Javascript. 4th ed., Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly P, 2014. Print.
Shipka, Jody. Toward a Composition Made Whole. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2011. Print.

Selber, Stuart. “Reimagining the Functional Side of Computer Literacy.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 55, 2004, pp. 470-503.

About Author

Dawn Opel

Dawn is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at Michigan State University. She researches the design of communication in clinical settings, with emphasis on design and use of information technology. Find her on Twitter @dawnopel.

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