My Rejected Fellowship Application
Inspired by Jason Smith and his Oxy project (which I've donated to), I decided to share the Personal Statement portion of my rejected Berkman Center Fellowship Application from January 2013. I have edited it slightly to remove references to client work.
Looking back now, if I had it to do over again, I would have spent less time talking about myself and my career to date. (It's evident how insecure I truly felt about being a non-academic.) I would have spent more time focused on what I hoped to accomplish through my research and why I needed the Berkman Center's support.
While I haven't reapplied, I do plan to again in the future when I have a more specific project or study I want to see through. In the meantime, maybe reading this will inspire you or give some insight into why I do the work I do.
“Personal transformation can and does have global effects. As we go, so goes the world, for the world is us. The revolution that will save the world is ultimately a personal one.”
- Marianne Williamson
I began my love affair with cyberspace when my mom (who worked in IT) taught me DOS as a kid. I was a child of Napster and chat rooms and, later on, 4chan and AIM. I learned to code by building Livejournal themes and hacking my Myspace account. When I graduated from MassArt with a Communication Design degree, it was at the height of the recession. A friend suggested to me (via Twitter, of course) that I pursue my passion for “social media” as a career - which, at the time, was a term I was not even familiar with. After giving myself a crash course on emerging technology, I went in to interview for a Community Management position about a week later. When the hiring managers asked me how they could use social media for their business, I didn’t even hesitate before rattling off a number of different opportunities. I left the interview feeling both energized and stunned to realize that digital savvy was not something that everyone possessed. It was an “ah-ha moment” for me to realize that my deep knowledge of and passion for the internet was unique - and that it could be a career path.
From there I continued to study and learn everything I could about social media to create more professional opportunities for myself. At my next job, I grew my role into that of a digital strategist and planner, realizing that what was more interesting than communicating on behalf of a company on social media was determining who the audience was that was talking about the brand online and what types of content would resonate most with them. I love learning about these “tribes” of people and their behavior online. It’s one thing to facilitate focus groups or write surveys, but what I’ve found (and bet my career on) is that nothing can compare to listening to what people are saying about brands on social media when they think that no one is reading.
The important parallel story to this career journey starts back at that first job, when I was a Community Manager. I convinced my boss to send me to ROFLcon II for continuing education. I remember sitting in the front row for the opening keynote - danah boyd and Ethan Zuckerman’s talk on “The Future of the World Weird Web” - with my jaw on the floor. In addition to being the moment that brought my attention to the Berkman Center’s work, it was then that I realized that an understanding of social media and user behavior translated to so much more than a community management skill. I saw that I could fill a distinct need in our society for people to “translate” things like internet culture and how cyberspace serves as as a medium for any and every thing: communication, marketing, activism, education, art. While it has been interesting and engaging work, my calling is not writing POV decks with my observations from social listening research (like the work sample I included). It’s taking the insights and mapping them to trends that are more indicative of shifts in culture or human behavior. It’s becoming a true cyber analyst, advocate and educator.
My motivation for applying for this fellowship is simple: I want to use my powers for good. The work I am proposing to conduct is a synergy of the two paths I have been on. I plan to study consumer behavior on social channels, particularly amongst teens and young adults. I want to understand how their relationships to brands have changed - and not what that means from a business perspective, but for once, to understand what that means from a societal perspective. I want to partner with the Berkman Center to analyze how brands are using social media to communicate with their younger audience (read: advertise to them). Moreover, how can I, in my role, become an advocate for just and ethical marketing on social media? When our relationships with brands online can feel as personal as our relationships with our friends, how do we distinguish between reality and consumerism? How does growing up with this blurry line effect our youth? What, if any, good is coming out of this? What dangers can we identify now? This work compliments so much of the work that the Berkman Center is currently doing with the Youth & Media and Media Cloud projects in particular.
In his commencement speech at Stanford in 2005, Steve Jobs said “you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” In recent years, I went from being unaware that I could have a job in social media, to speaking to over 300 teen girls through Microsoft’s DigiGirlz program about how many opportunities there are for them to have a career in technology like mine. I cannot imagine what shifts we will see in cyberculture over the next few years, but I hope to look back at my time as a Berkman Fellow and see that I was able to make a valuable contribution.