Garlin Gilchrist II, the executive director of the University of Michigan's new Center for Social Media Responsibility (CSMR), considers himself a "technologist and engineer" who loves the way technology connects people.
"I am a graduate of University of Michigan engineering, and engineering and computer science have been a love of mine since I was a child," he says. "When I was a software developer at Microsoft, I felt we were using technology to help people connect, lift up their voices in the community, and do political organizing."
CSMR's goal is to address concerns about social media's negative effects by creating metrics to assess social media companies' accountability, as well as a public forum to discuss the topic. Gilchrist sees that as a continuation of his work as director of innovation and emerging technology for his hometown of Detroit, using technology to address inequities, he says. He hopes to work on related issues in his new role and says he sees CSMR as an "opportunity to go deeper."
While one facet of the new center's work will be on curbing negative behaviors like aggressive online comments, cyber-bullying, and the spread of "fake news," Gilchrist says the main focus is on the positive goal of making online interactions "better and richer."
That end goal can be achieved through applying groundbreaking research already being done at the university, Gilchrist says.
"Faculty and researchers are doing some of the most important scholarship in the world around how information flows through social networks, both online and offline," Gilchrist says. "They're researching how social media impacts users and broader media and conversations, so the School of Information is the perfect home for the center."
He says the goal is to "activate" that research and make it usable for media makers and users so they can improve their experience, whether that's implementing better commenting platforms and guidelines for civil conversation or figuring out what sort of networks encourage or discourage the spread of information from unreliable sources.
"I've just come on board in February, and I really want to hit the ground running," Gilchrist says, adding that he wants to be "aggressive" in looking for opportunities to show what researchers are doing and how their work can improve the world of social media.
"We want to make tools available to the public soon, so this becomes a center of action," he says. "As social media continues to grow as a primary way so many people get information about the world, it's important that those experiences and lenses to the outside world are designed with care. I see the center as an opportunity to make sure they're designed in a conscientious way."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo courtesy of Garlin Gilchrist II.