MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman: ‘I go to Reddit for the cat pictures’

Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT's Center for Civic Media, building his writer's cabin in the Berkshires.
Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT's Center for Civic Media, building his writer's cabin in the Berkshires.

Ethan Zuckerman is the director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media. More than a decade ago, the Internet scholar co-founded, a site to help guide readers through the maze of citizen journalism from several countries. He is the author of “Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection.”

What wakes you up?

My son, when I’m lucky enough to be at home in western Massachusetts. He’s six, and our morning ritual involves blueberry waffles and Disney cartoons recorded on the DVR, so my first media of the day tends to be “Miles from Tomorrowland” or “Sophia the First.”

These days, I stay two to three nights a week in Cambridge during semesters, allowing me to spend three to four days a week at MIT. My wife is the rabbi for Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, a job that’s less suited to commuting than mine is.

How do you follow the news?

NPR is an essential part of my day, in the car on days I’m driving, or via the Public Radio Tuner app when I’m on the road. (Being able to listen to WFCR, my local NPR in western Massachusetts, is a wonderful 21st century luxury.)  I keep the New York Times app on my phone, and I usually scan headlines a couple times a day. I’m subscribed to a number of e-mail newsletters that are essential reading – the Global Voices newsletter gives me three to four fascinating global stories each day, and the daily newsletter inevitably gives me the stories my New York City media friends are reading and talking about.

How do you insure that your information diet is balanced?

Twitter is my main tool for ensuring news balance. I follow many members of the Global Voices community; either because we’ve become friends, or because I’m fascinated by what’s going on in the country they live in. I look at who they retweet and follow those users as well. I’ll add a few new feeds this way when something interesting is unfolding in a corner of the world, and may remove folks from the list when there’s less news going on. Periodically, I’ll audit who I’m following and adjust for gender and geographic distribution to try to ensure better balance.

Do have a tech guilty pleasure?

Reddit. I have friends who use it productively, following deep and informative subreddits like r/philosophy. Not me. I come for the cat pictures and GIFs of people slipping on ice and stay for the memes. It’s the first thing I block with Rescue Time when I need to focus and work.

How do you stay organized?

I’m not nearly as well organized as I would like. I am a creature of to-do lists and calendars – if something doesn’t get onto my Google Calendar, I don’t show up for it. Same goes for my to-do list. People who know me well have learned to insist that I commit to obligations by opening my laptop and putting them onto the appropriate calendar or list – a verbal agreement and a promise to remember won’t work.

What is a can’t-do-without technology?

I fear that I can no longer travel without technology. Twenty years ago, I loved getting on a bus in West Africa and taking off for a city I’d never been to before, relying on advice from out-of-date travel books and fellow passengers on the bus. Now, I end up using TripAdvisor, Yelp, and Google Maps. I probably eat and sleep better when I’m on the road, but I miss the mystery of travel when it was more random and unpredictable.

How do you unplug?

I build things with wood. Lately, I’ve been building a small writer’s cabin about 200 meters from my house, just far enough to be outside of WiFi range. When I’m playing with circular saws, I’m offline (though often listening to podcasts) and when I sit in the cabin to read or write, it’s wonderful to be offline for a few hours at a time.