Ben Grosser Selected as Fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Professor Ben Grosser with the School of Art and Design was recently named an Assembly Fellow for the Berkman Klein Center’s Institute for Rebooting Social Media (RSM) at Harvard University. This inaugural cohort of fellows includes thirteen interdisciplinary practitioners from a range of industries who will work together to "build new interfaces, implement novel protocols, and create additional artifacts that reimagine digital social space in service of democracy and the public interest."

The fellowship will allow Grosser to expand his work on artistic counter-approaches to mainstream social media design, especially those that decouple online sociality from big social media’s drive for endless growth. Specifically, he will study, refine, and extend his social media platform Minus.

Minus is a "finite social network" where users get only 100 posts—for life. The work's rejection of big social media's relentless focus on more radically reimagines the rules of today’s most widely used networks by focusing, simply, on less. The platform aligns with RSM’s broader goal to develop and demonstrate what a healthy information ecosystem could look like, particularly in how it approaches metrics and feeds. Minus shuns growth-inducing metrics such as “likes,” “followers,” or “shares.” Its feed is reverse chronological, meaning there is no algorithm that preferences the most polarizing posts or that constrains what a user sees to content the platform identifies as most engaging for them. The only visible metric on Minus is the dwindling number of posts each user has left out of their original allotment of 100. The idea behind the “less” approach is to see what online social interaction feels like when the underlying platform isn't designed to induce user engagement, and to evaluate how this approach might foster a healthier environment for online sociality. “Visible metrics and the algorithmic profiling of individual interests for the purposes of driving user engagement is largely responsible for many of the problems we see with social media today, from extreme polarizing speech to trolling and misinformation, as well as the ways these platforms damage human psychology and threaten democracy,” explained Grosser. The project launched in 2021 as part of a solo exhibition at the arebyte Gallery in London; arebyte also commissioned the work.

Grosser’s interests lie in how the growth-obsessed designs of today's social platforms direct how users behave and how online community develops in ways that are most in service of big tech's obsessions with infinite growth and endless profit. A finite social network like Minus, which limits lifetime participation, invites users to think differently about how they use their precious time and space.

“Part of this design is a reaction to how mainstream social media treats our time and attention as if they are infinite,” said Grosser. “These platforms craft interfaces that make us feel like we should keep contributing as much as possible to be visible, to feel good about ourselves. But the reality is we don’t have forever. Our time and attention are not infinite. So, what if a social media platform reflected that?”

With the Harvard fellowship, Grosser will analyze how people’s behavior and experience with Minus is different from that of other platforms. The research will explore what is possible when you alter or simply eradicate some of the ubiquitous fundamentals of mainstream social media  like visible metrics and feed algorithms, and how designing intentional limits can transform activity on a platform. The findings will help him make revisions to Minus and to generate a set of guidelines or rules for designing healthier interfaces at scale. “Some people have shown up on Minus with trolling activity and hate speech like any other platform,” said Grosser, “but those users and their posts fade away very quickly.” Without visible metrics goading users to post whatever gets the most reaction or a feed algorithm preferencing harmful posts that activate users into compulsive engagement, an online social network can foster a healthier, safer, and more contemplative environment.

This Berkman Klein Assembly Fellows cohort is comprised of practitioners who are actively engaged in changing the online landscape to benefit all people by using their industry expertise, whether it be technology, journalism, child development, or litigation. As an artist practitioner and an interdisciplinary scholar at a major research university, Grosser is in an unusual position to approach RSM’s charge to solve social media’s most challenging problems. 

“It’s that way in which art has license to rethink everything–to change all the rules as opposed to tweaking what exists already,” said Grosser. “So, I’m looking at what big tech makes and how their designs affect and change culture, individuals, and human psychology, and then imagining and crafting radical manipulations or reimaginations that people can try.”

In addition to teaching at the School of Art and Design, Grosser is the co-founder of the Critical Technology Studies Lab at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications and a faculty affiliate with the School of Information Sciences and the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory.