Unmediated Publics? Those are So Last Millennium.

In “Why Youth ❤ Social Network Sites,” Danah Boyd explores why teenagers are drawn to social networking sites, what they express on the sites, how the sites fit into their lives, what they’re learning from participating on them, and whether or not their activities online are equivalent, different, or supplementary to in-person friendships (119). Boyd’s research mostly focuses mainly on MySpace-using teens, aged 14 to 18.

(Sidebar: Boyd has the most awesome job, ever! I would love to do this research; I wonder if she needs a Research Associate to help her out? I will be available starting in June, but I digress…)

“…Social network sites are a type of networked public with four properties that are not typically present in face-to-face public life: persistence, searchability, replicability, and invisible audiences” (120).

Boyd’s description of “public” in reference to social networking is very interesting: She describes it as not just a collection of people who may or may not know one another, but also something that is “quite similar to audience as both referred to a group founded by a shared text, whether that is a worldview or a performance” (125). Specifically, Boyd refers to two types of networked publics – spaces and audience as connected through technological networks, such as MySpace or, most recently, Instagram. These networks (mediating technologies) mediate communication between members of the public.

Mediated Publics – Inquiring Minds Want To Know

So, what separates unmediated publics from networked publics?

  • Persistence: The Internet never forgets! Code: Your embarrassing moment or terrible public break-up are probably going to be there forever. Future employers can also dig up dirt from your red cup-enhanced party days.
  • Searchability: You can run, but you can never hide. You have a digital footprint, and folks will find you.
  • Replicability: (Wuh-oh!) Rumors spread quickly and indiscriminately. Also, folks can quickly and easily plagiarize (hence: heavy use of turnitin.com amongst teachers).
  • Invisible audiences: Lurkers abound, stalking your page. Or maybe you’re the digital stalker…

Essentially, these mediated publics are very … well … public, and in an especially widespread fashion. And while this can be problematic for most of us older folks, it’s especially challenging for young whippersnappers to navigate. This is especially the case as teenagers tend to have even less of a concept of how magnified their public exposure is, and the potential downfalls of that exposure.

In light of these potential downfalls, why do youth venture into the exciting and potentially dangerous land of social networks? In short, they want to socialize! Instead of hanging out at Valley Fair Mall, like my friends and I did back in the Stone Age 1990s, today’s youth connect via heavy social network use.

clueless

Social networks also “enable youth to connect with peers in new ways…to extend the friendships that they navigate in the familiar contexts of school, religious organizations, words, and other activities” (Ito, et al, 2008, p. 1). Basically, they’re always “around” in digital form, and there’s no parental gatekeeper taking messages via landline or portable phone, 1998-style.

Clair Huxtable

“Hello? I’m sorry, but Monica can’t accept phone calls after 10pm on a school night…”

Furthermore, Amber Buck, in “Examining Digital Literacy Practices on Social Network Sites,” argues that social media platforms allow students to represent and cultivate their identities, not only through intricate pages, but also through the messages they transmit via Tweet, meme, or picture (2012). Social networks give teens the opportunity to practice image management through something other than wardrobe, car selection, or other more “traditional” status markers. And most of all, social networks give teenagers more agency over how and when they will “hang out” with friends and acquaintances. Of course youth ❤ social media sites!

 

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Academic Identity and Social Networking

One of my Introduction to English students, who has recently been released from juvenile hall, sits in my office this afternoon tapping her fingers vigorously on her notebook, and tells me about the difficulties she encounters being a first-time college student this semester.

“I just don’t even know what I’m doing at all.” She says distressed, looking anxiously around my office.

Fatima is a first generation college student, who had never thought about attending college much before, and had a troublesome track-record in high school. She recently received her GED while incarcerated, and is now looking to further her education.

I asked her to talk about some of the issues that she specifically felt were challenging to her, and she shared a list of roadblocks that she felt were preventing her success. The first of which I found particularly interesting. She had to write a short paragraph for her Ethnic Studies class where she evaluated herself as a college student. I thought this sounded like a pretty straightforward assignment, and one that would be great for a student who is underprepared academically. I was contemplating the metacognitive awareness connections she would gain from such a task.

“What are you finding challenging about the assignment?” I asked her.

“I don’t know, I guess I don’t really know what that means. What it means to be a college student. How do I rate myself? What is a college student? I hope that’s not a dumb question.”

Her response has had me thinking all day. What she really seems to be struggling with is not the inability to start writing a paragraph (though that may be a component), but more importantly, her current personal identity is not linked to academia. She does not have a sense of self in college.

The creation of an academic identity for at-risk, basic skill students in community colleges can be a crucial step in facilitating access into higher education. When a population of marginalized students has been placed on the outskirts of the educational community, their entryway will be the organization and definition of themselves as being academic beings. Fatima needs to start creating an academic identity and this will help her analyze the issues she is having as a student and seek solutions.

Professors longing to see all their students succeed, but unable to make necessary system-wide structural changes, must find ways to combat the achievement gap. C. Cooper (2002) has reported that there are five key bridges to students’ pathways to college, and all five share the theme of identity. At-risk students, students who belong to a group that is statistically below the average college completion rate, must form identities as college students if they are to complete their college education. The relationship between identity development and academic achievement is one in which researchers and educators alike have a stake. Identity achievement has been argued to be essential to academic success.

What possible ways can this academic identity be created and fostered? Introducing Identity discusses the multiple uses of technology socially and educationally. When discussing social networking, Beckham says, “It appears to be used primarily as a means of reinforcing local networks among peers.” One possible avenue for helping a student who is creating their academic sense of self could be through digital media, like Facebook, where a cohort of students, in say, her English class, can collaborate and interact, reinforcing a connection with peers who are in academia. This could be an especially useful tool for students like Fatima who have no friends or family who are enrolled or who have attended college. This can create a more personal, and perhaps more easily accessible space for networking with fellow college students, thus understanding and feeling like one herself.

Michael Wesch made a very convincing argument for the connectivity of YouTube and, more specifically, the potential value in broadcasting to a vast and unknown audience.  I have never used YouTube for more than sharing iMovied slideshows with family and friends.  I didn’t really dial into the social connectivity of the site until one of my slideshows (of a camping trip to Lett’s Lake) showed 302 hits and a video clip of my daughter’s indoor skydive showed 159 hits.  At first I felt fear.  I was involved in a nasty custody dispute over my daughter when she was an infant and was forced into terminating all contact with her biological father.  It is for that reason I’ve always been very cautious about what and how I post to the web.  Over time I came to realize that we were not being cyber-stalked, that people were simply doing searches for “Lett’s Lake” and “indoor skydive” and these videos came back in their searches.  Suddenly I realized that my “channel” didn’t exist in the isolation that I had once imagined.  I honestly believed that no one would be interested in my videos unless I had specifically sent them the link – or unless they were a psycho cyber-stalker.  So, while my experience was different than speaking to the glass dot, I became aware of just how many people lay beyond it.  This realization can be both frightening and empowering.

Social networking sites, such as facebook, can also be frightening and empowering.  Who, in our generation, doesn’t have a story of some blast from the past coming to haunt them on facebook?  Scary for anyone who would like for their past to remain, well, in the past.  But there is a fascinating psychology behind the way that people develop their profiles on such sites.  As danah boyd points out, these sites offer the “opportunity to craft a personal representation”, something that is not so easy to do in face-to-face situations which require more immediacy in response.

These sites offer a way of collecting people that sit like window dressings on any user’s friend list.  Some people will accept and solicit friends in an attempt to get their number up, while others will carefully select who may enter the sanctity of their fb domain.  boyd, in “Why Youth (heart) Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life“, suggests that, “by looking at other’s profiles, teens get a sense of what types of presentations are socially appropriate,” but savvy teens can also make moves that others may not in order to generate more social interest by who they have on their friend list, and what types of postings appear on their wall.  Facebook can be incredibly clicky in that you can see in your news feed that certain people’s wall posts and status updates generate an obscene amount of comments while yours may sit, if not unnoticed, uncommented on, which can make you feel on any given day like a HUGE loser!

Scrolling through your friend list on fb is kind of like looking at a bug collection in a shoe box – you can open the lid (or click on the link) and admire all the critters you’ve picked up along the way.  The only difference (ok, besides species and the fact that hopefully most of your fb friends are still alive and crawling around) is that the collection helps to tell you something about yourself every time you look at it.  Are your friend choices authentic?  Are most of your friends nerdy or hot?  How many of these people interest you enough so that you visit their profile independently?

It is all so interesting how we can be little sociologists on our own playground.  For more danah boyd check out her dissertation.

TWinaDA Means “I Love You” Even If I Don’t Understand You

In “Introducing Identity,” David Buckingham identifies an argument that supports the view of today’s new media technology as “a force of liberation for young people–a means for them to reach past the constraining influence of their elders, and to create new, autonomous forms of communication and community” (13).  But I’m not sure how “autonomous” the younger digital generation can really be.  They are definitely empowered to break away from traditional opressors–parents, like the argument suggests, and perhaps also institutional (at least in its traditional forms).

Still, are they (or any of us) really free from controlling forces in digital media?  One of Buckingham’s concerns points to “the undemocratic tendencies of online ‘communities'” (14).  In fact, if we look at one such online community like Facebook, it’s quite apparent that there is a lot of follow-the-leader activities going on.  One day about a month ago, women (and girls) on Facebook started putting up colours and patterns on their statuses.  Some men even joined in, many without knowing what exactly they were participating in–their favourite colours?, the colour of their current mood?, or what?  And when many asked those who participated, the resulting elitism and reluctance to reveal was met either with participants’ own lack of understanding, or a cliquish desire to keep that knowledge from more people.  Only after a whole day, or even longer, did many find out that it turned out to be the colour of the bra you are wearing at the time in support of breast cancer awareness.  Nevermind the irony esoteric knowledge/practices against the purpose of awareness, what disturbs me more is the antisocial, anti-democratic behaviours that arose from the event.  And this is but one example on Facebook, while many others include the so-called “doppelganger” profile picture week, viral gaming like Julianne has noted, etc.  And these behaviours are certainly not limited to Facebook.  Go to any site that has social interaction–MySpace, Twitter, even markets like Amazon and eBay–and they’re all there.

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