From Friendster to Anonymous, Sienkiewicz Explores Media

One minute the class in Merkert 127 is learning about the history of social media like it would in any class—through lecture and discussion—then the next, these 90 students are face-to-face with Kent Lindstrom, the former CEO of the first major social media network, Friendster, who is now working on a news app called Nuzzel. His face lights up the projector screen, as he talks about his firsthand experience starting tech companies. Thanks to the unique teaching style of Matt Sienkiewicz, a professor in both the communication and international studies departments, this is not at all unusual for the Boston College students in his Online Communication and Global Society class.

In the past, Sienkewicz has brought in Gregg Housh, a former hacker for Anonymous who spent years on the run from the FBI. Housh worked as a hacker and activist for the organization, served three months in prison for running a software piracy group, started his own news organization, and even served as an adviser for House of Cards. He’s just one of the more notable speakers Sienkewicz brings to class. These speakers give students a chance to enter into conversations with major figures they otherwise never would have gotten near.

“For a 90-people-sized class, I’m surprised he could make it so interactive.” Solina Jean-Louis, MCAS ’18, said.

The surprise only lasts so long. By the end of the semester, his students know that they can expect someone interesting and unexpected skyping in for a conversation, because Sienkiewicz is type of professor who can make that happen. He goes out of his way to give his students an experience beyond the classroom, one that puts them in contact with successful people across the globe and inspires them to learn. It is just one of the ways he brings creativity, intellectual discussion, and a far-reaching perspective to BC—all aspects of education and society that he learned the importance of over a lifetime spent pursuing knowledge.

Sienkiewicz attended Medfield Senior High School in the nearby Boston suburb, where he experienced a homogenous education. The school, his teachers, and his friends all valued traditional standards of success, such as getting good grades and going to a prestigious university, more than anything else. The curriculum was rigid and unimaginative: canonical books, traditional interpretations of history. There was no room for personal interest or innovation, the kind of creative thinking that Sienkiewicz was searching for. His school funneled him toward one way of thought—the standard approach to middle-class success—and nothing else, which he couldn’t accept.

Instead, Sienkiewicz was exposed to wider-ranging ideas through his family and learned to question things and think differently. He reacted against the rigidity of his high school. He wanted to take control of his studies and develop intellectually, unrestrained by strict and bland standards. For his first step toward that goal, he chose to attend Wesleyan University, which has no core requirements and allows students to figure out their own academic pathway. During his undergraduate film classes, he realized how fascinating and important media could be. He would watch the films, do the readings, and develop his own interpretations and theories to debate with other students after class.

Media became a passion, so he found a way to make it his career. After finishing his undergraduate degree, he attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison and got his master’s and Ph.D. in communication arts. While staying in the West Bank for 17 months, he wrote his dissertation on globalization and the struggle for independent Palestinian media. During this education, he learned the international and political importance of media and media studies, especially considering how people can be misled and misinformed by the media.

“Media is the thing that everybody uses and nobody understands,” he said. “They think they do, but they don’t. We know that because people get tricked by it all the time.”

After finishing his thesis, he was still drawn to the global aspects of media. He focused his academic career on drawing connections between international studies and communication. This meant looking at global media culture and analyzing the international implications—such as studying Western countries’ investment in Middle Eastern broadcasting and analyzing what that means for international relations, or examining the expanding role of social media in foreign policy.

“What excites me is thinking about the connections between stuff you might not think could connect,” he said.

For his first post-graduation job, he taught at Gettysburg College for a year. He continued to work on far-ranging media projects, including editing Saturday Night Live and American TV, a collection of essays examining the cultural impact of the sketch show. In 2012, BC noticed Sienkiewicz’s extensive work in global media and offered him joint employment in both the communication and international studies departments.

Since coming to BC, he has dedicated himself to countless projects, one of the most important being his classes. Bringing speakers to class, such as Lindstrom, is one of the most visible ways Sienkiewicz’ does this, and he uses one of his favorite tools, social media, to make it happen.

Sienkiewicz calls himself an “aggressive” Twitter user. He follows somebody with an interesting bio on Twitter, and if they follow back, he will interact with them and meet up for coffee to exchange ideas and thoughts.

“I have many close friends who I initially met on Twitter,” Sienkiewicz said. “Now I can call them up on the phone.”

These experiences push his students outside of the classroom and help bring his lectures to life.

“You can tell he’s truly passionate about what he’s doing,” Yizhou He, MCAS ’19, said. “Every class it’s like he’s pouring out knowledge for us with a bottomless bucket. I remember I was freaking out about a midterm, but when I went to his office hours, I saw him in a cozy sweater, with forearms folded and rested on the desk, body leaning forward intently, and I felt instantly welcomed like I can ask him about anything.”

During every class and during every office hour, Sienkewicz demonstrates this dedication. He types down the questions students ask on his computer and answers each and every one of them in full detail. He always uses the last class of the semester to answer questions his students anonymously ask him. More recently, he has introduced his personal side into the classroom. After his son Leon was born, Sienkiewicz gave the whole class updates on the toddler’s life, displaying new photos or videos. He even brought his wife and son to class one day and let his students hold the baby.

Outside of the classroom, Sienkiewicz works in multiple areas of media, including television analysis and even production. He has been nominated for three Emmys—one in 2005 for Best Program Writing in New England for the show Windy Acres, one in 2007 for Best Cultural Documentary for his work as cinematographer for Festa, a look at the Feast of Blessed Sacrament celebration in Massachusetts, and most recently a 2016 nomination for his part in co-producing a public service announcement entitled “Said No Drug Dealer Ever,” which targeted opioid abuse by teenagers.

Sienkiewicz’s desire to expand his horizons and pursue far-reaching projects is evident simply from sitting in his office. Framed artwork on the wall displays just a few of his most prominent efforts. One large poster showcases the cover of his recently published book, The Other Air Force, which looks at American broadcasting initiatives in the Middle East post-Sept. 11. Another shows an advertisement for his 40-minute documentary, Live from Bethlehem, which focuses on the struggles, failures, and triumphs of Ma’an News Network, the only major independent news source in the Palestinian territories.

“I would argue that working on different topics, as long as you are not spreading yourself too thin, is a really powerful way to come up with new ideas,” Sienkiewicz said.

Sienkiewicz is still fervently pursuing new ideas, but at the moment, he is in transition mode after finishing his book. He is taking more time for his family, and conducting research in safer locations, as he enters a new stage of his life, one that revolves around that new baby boy he brought to class.

To see this transformation in Sienkewicz life, it’s useful to look at one of his favorite tools—social media. Proudly displayed on his Facebook page, his toddler Leon lights up photo after photo. One post displays two photos side by side: Matt and Leon, father and son, and the caption reads: “Leon is more handsome, sure, but he doesn’t have my style.”

Featured Image Courtesy of Matt Sienkiewicz

October 15, 2017