Social Media: The Renaissance Self-Expression and Community.. or is it?

I have spent the last few hours pondering what Micheal Wesch would say about the changes in spaces like Youtube and other social media since he made his video on Web 2.0 and his anthropological study of Youtube. Once upon a time, (though really it was not that long ago) vlogs and other personal videos were absolutely the predominant videos and content type on Youtube. Looking all the way back at 2006 we see much of what was being discussed by Wesch in simple user generated videos with just a few thousand views sitting on the front page.

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Credit: Graphitas

I am sure if we used The Way Back Machine then we would see many response videos, even to these front page entries. If we take a peek at the front page of Youtube today, the field has completely changed. Every front page is tailor made for the person who is consuming the media, especially if you have any viewing history or an account linked to your Youtube habits.

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As you can see, the trending videos look like a Hollywood catalog; they are almost completely comprised of massive company sponsored channels or the titanic channels with hundreds of thousands of subscribers making professional content for our consumption. Now, I am not saying that this is necessarily bad, since millions of hours of entertainment have arisen from the ability of an individual to monetize their videos on Youtube, but the community of videos that was so exciting to Welsh ten years ago is dying if it is not completely dead already. It seems that a significant amount of social media is moving away from being a way of interconnectivity toward being a way to create or popularize a brand. Even my own Facebook feed has become more of a space to see updates from news and entertainment sites than just seeing what a friend is up to on any given day, resulting from giving a page or website a “Like.” Is there a new social media that has replaced this phenomenon? Maybe Vines? Snapchat? My experience with these new medias are limited so I have no real idea if those kinds of apps are filling this void.

Moving to a slightly different sphere, in “Examining Digital Literacy Practices on Social Network Sites,” Amber Buck examines what she calls, (finally…at the end of the article) “a rather extreme case of social network site use.” Throughout this study, her subject, Ronnie, is shown to be trying to make a “brand” much like the celebrities that we see on Twitter, Facebook, and other networking websites. I feel that this discussion is a bit disingenuous as a result because it is not indicative of most students practices on a social networking site. While we all create an online identity, I do not believe that most people are developing as complex rhetorical skills that Ronnie is displaying and Buck is discussing nor do I think most people are trying to generate fans and fame from their social media exploration. To me this kind of study just screams outlier case.

(As a side note her abstract mentions that the literacy practices we explore include navigating user agreements, which means that she thinks that many young adults read them.)

 

Now this is not to discount that rhetorical  and genre learning is going on and we as teachers cannot take advantage of that, but social media and how people, especially youth, interact with that media evolves faster than we can build data and studies on how to incorporate it into pedagogy and the classroom. We have read many papers examining Myspace, but that website is now a wasteland with most people’s profiles sitting derelict, an interesting photograph of our past social media lives. It makes me wonder how much of that study is still relevant as things so rapidly change. I am extremely interested in what the next few years hold and how social media and literacies will continue to evolve.

Will we see another website emerge to replace Facebook? Or has the evolution of social media begun to settle and slow down? If students are as active as Ronnie and I am just ignorant of this, then how might we best bring this to the forefront in the classroom?

I think I have rambled like a terrible cynic for long enough today. So I shall do what I always will and leave you all with an OC remix of the day. This is a remix by FoxyPanda of the famous “Aquatic Ambiance” Theme from Donkey Kong Country. Cheers!

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Tech Identities: An Evolution of an Old Problem in Academia

As I read “Becoming Literate in the Information Age” and considered my own development in my own identities in technology and literacy outside of the “norm,” I began to think on the struggle for teachers in the composition classroom to effectively instruct different speech and discourse communities; a Sociolinguistics subject I studied in undergrad and, currently, the reading subject of the Introduction to Composition class Theory here at SFSU. Students from these different communities have no issue with  conveying ideas or constructing communication; they simply don’t communicate in the specific way desired by those in power. Because the prestige language is not in their own primary or secondary discourses, these students are told that their language identity is incorrect either directly or subversively and the result can be the inability to succeed in academic institutions. Now, with technology creating further expansions and fragmentation of discourse and speech communities, not to mention becoming more important globally than traditional literacy, more students have the potential to fall through the cracks if composition teachers cannot find a way to incorporate some of these new literacies and recognition of tech identities, as well as language identities, into the classroom.

one-does-not-simply-a - One does not simply become fluent in a Secondary Discourse

This felt especially relevant in the case study of David John Damon explored in “Students Who Teach Us,” who, despite being an early adopter of web design, seemed extremely practiced, skilled, and talented at not only creating websites, but also networking people, failed out of college because of his non-academic language used in his speech and composition courses. Growing up in Detroit, he did not have the background in the “standard” Academic language discourse communities that the institution he took classes at wanted him to have skill in. His other talents were never considered or really observed by those that only saw his inability to construct traditional literacy by writing formal papers.

David spent a large portion of his time creating, learning, honing and developing websites for the various communities on campus he participated in. This is basically Tapscott’s dream student who is, “hungry for expression, discovery and [his] own self-development” (Buckingham 13). He showed all of the traits of a person who knows the importance of computer literacy in an increasing technocentric world and spent his time developing these skills much like the two people examined in “Becoming Literate”, but the difference was their upbringing, creating an academic as well as technological identity that helped to lead them to success. Sadly, while David’s teachers expressed concern for his issues with formal writing, nothing is said on attempts to work with him, nor do we find out what happened after his year at college.

It is too bad that these teachers had not also read the “Students Who Teach Us” chapter of Writing New Media since it contains some interesting ideas on how to create a culture of tech literacy and identity awareness in the classroom. These kinds of writing exercises can help students realize their own authorship and literacies that they have already developed, which might make an English class less threatening. As I explore further into this fascinating and evolving world of English Composition, I have to wonder how it is possible to incorporate even elements of everything that I am learning that seems like it would benefit student learning. In addition, I have concerns about students moving forward into other classes with teachers who are still very much traditionalists and a student’s ability to succeed coming out of a class that I teach and even more how the hell teachers can not only get away with these different ideas but begin to change the departments that they reside in, but maybe that is just me overthinking things.

 

Finally, to emulate one of my favorite YouTubers TotalBiscuit, here is an OC remix track that I feel emulates the wonder (and possibly a little fear of the unknown?) of this world of technology and literacy that we are exploring:

The Myth and Partial Reality of Disruptive Technology

 

Whether it was the first brick phone to present day smartphones, not a day goes by in Silicon Valley where we don’t hear another technology company disrupting our lives and creating innovative products to connect people and allow communication to sidestep barriers but technology has always had detractors. Consider the written language which Plato says  in  “The Superiority of the Spoken Word. Myth of the Invention of Writing,”  that oral communication is superior to writing. For Plato, he notes that oral communications allows the speaker to immediately address an audience and to explain or clarify an idea to an interlocutor while arguing that writing is “unresponsive” and devoid of social contact.

 

In “Writing Restructures Thought” Walter Ong addressed Plato’s concerns by noting that the written text will always have a level of ambiguity but writing can reduce a significant amount of it.  He says writing has its limits and parameters and this can give a writer exigence to make conscious decisions so that the message can be accessed by the audience; Ong has said that writers will invoke their audience and fictionalize the people they are writing to in order to attend to their potential needs. In addition, Ong thinks the unresponsive nature of the written language can promote objectivity because it creates distance between the writer and the idea. Instead of judging the delivery of the orator, the idea is isolated from the writer and if the idea can withstand scrutiny, it may last for a significant time.

 

While Plato and Ong are arguing over the value of communication, we also have to consider the purpose and audience that we are addressing. For example, individuals in direct sales may benefit from developing their oral skills to reach their quota whereas a copywriter needs to be a maestro with his or her words. But even these lines are blurry. Sales people could benefit from invoking an ambiguous audience and by anticipating who they may speak to, they can prepare for the unexpected. Likewise, copywriters should have a target audience to address, tailoring an advertisement to the consumer’s desires. Whether you are in sales or in advertising, you can draw from each medium to create new technologies to communicate; the limitations from writing can be supplemented by the strengths of speaking and vice versa.

 

In reading Dennis Baron’s “From Pencils to Pixel,” I read that some technologies were brushed aside. For example, the phone was seen as incapable of replacing the telegram because people preferred permanent records. Just because the first iteration of a technology has limitation doesn’t mean that it’s useless. Rather, these limitations  provides an opportunity for the innovator disruptors to fill that gap. Nowadays, we can record and transcribe our phone conversations. To bemoan the downfall of society because of the adoption of new technology is to be trapped in the past. As Ong ironically alludes to, the written language made Plato’s ideas accessible to a wider mass–something even Plato couldn’t orally dispute.

 

Technological Revolution: Ushering in New Forms of Identity and Widening Chasms of Inequality

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Both Jim Porter’s “Why Technology matters to writing: A cyberwriter’s tale” and Derek Van Ittersum and Kory Lawson Ching’s “Composing Text/Shaping Process: How Digital Environments Mediate Writing Activity” discuss the role of aesthetics in the composing process. Jim Porter’s “cyberwriter’s tale” emphasizes the importance of design in Porter’s techno-literacy education, noting that his “experiences at Purdue taught [him] about writing as collaboration, as well as about writing as design” (382). Porter believes that the revolutionary potential of the computer is apparent when we take a “scenic/contextual perspective” and see writing produced on computers as having a major social impact. Further, Porter argues for a posthumanist conception of identity, which highlights connections between humankind and machines based on “fluidity and hybridity” (388).
This connection between writers and machines is also taken up implicitly in Van Ittersum and Ching’s piece, in which they examine distraction-free writing programs and practices. Van Ittersum and Ching point out “that software applications and interfaces can also be selected and structured to tune consciousness in writing activity” (“Cultural-Historical Activity Theory”). This focus on how consciousness might be “tuned” or adapted to the writing program of choice seems to draw upon Porter’s assumption that human identity is bound up with the technologies we use, and that our very consciousness might be altered or affected by our interaction with particular technologies. And just as Porter stresses the social impact of new technologies, specifically in what he sees as the “revolutionary” possibilities that emerge from social networking, Van Ittersum and Ching note that “softare applications are thoroughly ideological and rhetorical” (“Distraction-Free Writing Environments”), thereby agreeing with Porter that there are very real social and cultural effects of technological use. Once we understand the profound social impact that new technologies are having, we can analyze how they operate within particular “social and ideological context[s]” (Porter 384).
Yet it is not just the ideological, but the profound cultural effects of new technologies that sparked my interest most in this topic. As Porter states, “the revolution, if there is one, is the social one of interconnectivity. The writer and the machine have become one — the cyberwriter — but we haven’t yet engaged the full implications of the metaphor” (388). I think it is clear that interconnectivity has changed the fabric of our writing lives in indisputable ways, and that there are concrete benefits to be realized from social networking and participation in virtual communities (not the least of which is the amelioration of loneliness and isolation in an increasingly fragmented and depersonalized modern world). And yet, when I ponder the other social implications of the “technology revolution,” I cannot help but think about the profound and widening social inequalities that technological changes have fostered. Economist and New York Times Columnist Paul Krugman has spoken eloquently about how the very machines celebrated by Jim Porter may also be responsible for the displacement of workers today. So the “fluid” and seamless interconnections between writer and machine that Porter applauds, and the consciousness-tuning capabilities of distraction-free writing programs that Van Ittersum and Ching explore, may not take into account the other side of this equation: the human effects that technology has had on a national and global scale, including widespread displacement of workers in our current economy. At the same time, the creators of new technologies, the “technology moguls” like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_ZuckerbergMark Zuckerberg, Oracle’s Larry Ellison: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_Ellison, and Google’s Sergey Brin: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergey_Brin and Larry Page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_Page, continue to reap the financial benefits of this “revolution.” This widening chasm of inequality leads me to ask whether the increasing “interconnectivity” that comes from social networking may be a convenient distraction from political questions about how technological changes may be contributing to social inequity. To echo Jim Porter, we need to inquire into how we will use technology as well as the stakes that this would involve (388).

An article in The Guardian investigates this topic quite provocatively: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2012/jul/01/new-tech-moguls-robber-barons. What this gets me thinking about in particular, is that the very openness, freedom, and possibility that are often associated with the “technological revolution” may in fact belie a hidden truth. This truth is that we are actually not quite as free to shift our identities, or as capable of revolutionizing our relationships via the internet, when those who control these technologies remain unaccountable and removed from the concerns of everyday people. The widening chasm between haves and have-nots is only hardening and deepening, it seems to me, and this seems to undermine what may appear to be the “revolutionary” possibilities of the internet age.

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Finally, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman speaks about how technological changes have contributed to the economic divide in the following video, which I’ll leave as my final thought for your consideration:

http://www.businessinsider.com/paul-krugman-on-technology-and-inequality-2013-2

A Liberatory Literacy

While Ohman’s article Literacy, Technology, and Monopoly Capital argues that technological literacy, or new media literacy, will simply promote the idea of “monopoly capitalism,” Yancey’s work Made Not Only in Words, Composition in a New Key, contends that this new literacy will help negotiate a more positive type of economy that is “driven by use value” (Yancey 301). Although Ohman and Yancey are writing in different eras which naturally is illustrated from rather disconnected economic contexts, they both categorize new media literacy in social terms from an economic perspective.

 

By utilizing Ohman’s article as a precedence that Yancey responds to through her discussion of literacy and the economy, we can see the development of new media literacy from a social and historical perspective. Because Ohman is writing near the advent of the personal computer, he is rather skeptical and believes that “the computer and its software are an intended and developing technology, carrying forward the deskilling and control of labor,” and draws parallels to F.W. Taylor’s work on assembly lines, which all contribute to Ohman’s idea of monopoly capitalism (Ohman 708).  Ohman extends this idea to the classroom, claiming that the attempt to utilize technology in school settings will not transform education, but will simply contribute to the increasing politicization of the educational system. New media and technology are a way for businesses to stimulate and direct educational processes, so do not have “liberatory potential” (710). Yancey is similarly concerned with the economy’s role in evolving literacies by claiming that the expanding writing public has contributed to globalization, which has led to a loss of jobs. This speaks to Ohman’s references to Taylor and the dehumanization of the creation process, but Yancey further explores this type of labor development in more positive terms of globalization leading to new forms of cooperation and communication among previously disparate social realms. While Ohman does not address these more positive societal developments, his definition of literacy is inseparable from social constructs so does support Yancey’s socially-charged claims.

 

Ohman argues that literacy is a social exchange that will always contain unresolvable political conflict. Although he claims that new media and technology cannot advance the educational system, he also demonstrates that this technology can’t be separated from his socially affected and continually developing definition of literacy. His resistance to new media’s place in the classroom is very clearly delineated, but he is unable to argue against its place in the evolution of literacy. He concludes with the statement, “It’s worth trying to reconstitute literacy as a process of liberation– but also to remember that work for literacy is not in itself intrinsically liberating” (Ohman 713). This remark illustrates that although Ohman claims to not believe that technology can radically change writing, he has incredible foresight which allows his argument to carry validity in the current debates about how to utilize technology in the classroom.

Yancey then expands on and complicates this idea of “literacy as a process of liberation” by demonstrating that screen literacy, or new media literacy, will not only aid students in their education but will also prepare them for our economy’s increasing globalization by providing them with competitive skills. Where Ohman believes that computer literacy is not applicable to or diminishes the skills necessary to succeed beyond education, Yancey argues that the educational system, particularly composition, can help students engage with new media and then act as a gateway to the real world where they will be able to effectively “become members of the writing public” (Yancey 306). Yancey also agrees with Ohman’s assessment that literacy is not inherently liberatory, but situates her view of this in terms of the student/professor relationship. She contends that if literacy is a social process, “Shouldn’t the system of circulation– the paths that the writing takes– extend beyond and around the single path from student to teacher?” (Yancey 311). This argument can stem from the ongoing debate of how to utilize technology in the classroom in a way that expands and, as Ohman would term it, liberates students from the traditional and more restrictive model of students writing only for their professor. So how can schools and universities utilize new media in a liberatory way that allows students to participate in the increasing globalization of society? Neither Yancey nor Ohman provide a concrete solution to the issue of new literacies that attempt to engage with more global views, but they both establish that these concerns are worth addressing and have no ready solutions.

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Cultural Identity in the Digital Age

“One of the major problems with popular debates in this field is the tendency to regard technology as the driving force of social change. Social theory of the kind I have discussed here reminds us that technological change is often merely part of much broader social and historical developments.” (Buckingham 10)

“We can understand literacy as a set of practices and values only when we properly situate our studies within the context of a particular historical period, a particular cultural milieu, and a specific cluster of material conditions.” (Hawisher et al. 646)

As we see in the quotes above, both David Buckingham in “Introducing Identity” (2008) and Gail E. Hawisher. Cynthia L. Selfe, Brittney Moraski and Melissa Pearson in “Becoming Literate in the Information Age: Cultural Ecologies and the Literacies of Technology” (2004) contend that social and historical conditions shape technological changes, rather than seeing technology as a one-sided agent of social change. Both authors are concerned with the impact of digital media on young people, with Hawisher taking a broader approach that compares the experience of digital literacy across generations. While Hawisher concludes that “people can exert their own powerful agency in, around, and through digital literacies” (644) and that often this agency occurs outside of the parameters of academic institutions, Buckingham seems to take this line of inquiry further in his conclusion that “Critical literacy is … about understanding who produces media, how and why they do so, how these media represent the world, and how they create meanings and pleasures” (17-18). This point seems to move beyond the more insular focus in Hawisher’s article on expanding composition instructors’ notions of “literacy” and on increasing gateways for young people to become digitally literate. Rather, Buckingham focuses on those who produce new media and the cultural changes that accompany it. He notes that there are very real social implications stemming from the emergence of new technologies and digital media, including “questions about social power and inequality” (19).

Buckingham and Hawisher are concerned with unequal access to digital media among diverse socioeconomic and ethnic groups, but only Buckingham gestures toward the social and political implications of this divide, and of the technology “revolution” in general. What I am interested in exploring here is the way in which the rise of digital media has also given rise to a particular ideology, or way of viewing the world, espoused most prominently by the tech innovators of Silicon Valley. The New Yorker reporter George Packer has explored this emerging ideology in his article “Change the World: Silicon Valley transfers its slogans – and its money – to the realm of politics” (27 May 2013). Packer traces both the growing wealth divide in Silicon Valley, and the attendant libertarian ethos that has accompanied the rise of wealth in the Valley, showing that as the divide grows between haves and have-nots, a libertarian-inspired suspicion of government and bureaucracy has enabled Silicon Valley executives to deflect questions of social justice and equality. The insular focus of these executives is guided by the belief that government can only impede the climate of freedom that is essential for technological innovation to occur.

George Packer, a Palo Alto native, notes that when he grew up in the 1970s, the

Valley was thoroughly middle class, egalitarian, pleasant, and a little boring. Thirty-five years later, the average house in Palo Alto sells for more than two million dollars. The Stanford Shopping Center’s parking lot is a sea of Lexuses and Audis, and their owners are shopping at Burberry and Louis Vuitton. There are fifty or so billionaires and tens of thousands of millionaires in Silicon Valley; last year’s Facebook public stock offering alone created half a dozen more of the former and more than a thousand of the latter. There are also record numbers of poor people, and the past two years have seen a twenty-percent rise in homelessness, largely because of the soaring cost of housing. After decades in which the country has become less and less equal, Silicon Valley is one of the most unequal places in America.

This growing inequality and divide in wealth is accompanied by an ideology that seems to be shared by Silicon Valley’s elite, which holds that “collective problems are solved incrementally, through the decentralized activity of countless interconnected equals—a process that mirrors the dynamics of the Internet.” This belief might be called the myth the digital age, the notion that innovations in technology hold the cure for solving societal problems such as inequality. This myth assumes, in other words, that if tech innovators are granted the freedom to innovate, societal problems will be solved without the need for government intervention. This has fostered a libertarian outlook among many of the Valley’s tech innovators, and in Packer’s view, has enabled them to turn a blind eye to pressing questions of inequality. As Packer states:

Like industries that preceded it, Silicon Valley is not a philosophy, a revolution, or a cause. It’s a group of powerful corporations and wealthy individuals with their own well-guarded interests. Sometimes those interests can be aligned with the public’s, sometimes not. Though tech companies promote an open and connected world, they are extremely secretive, preventing outsiders from learning the most basic facts about their internal workings.

It is this clash between the purported “open,” “transparent,” “egalitarian” tech culture and the hierarchies upon which it is actually constituted that strikes me as important to consider in any discussion of technology and identity. That is, we can ask what kind of cultural identity is fostered by the tech “revolution,” and we can also question how the lack of transparency that characterizes the operations of many tech companies might clash with the myth of liberation and accountability that they promote. Packer asserts that “technology can be an answer to incompetence and inefficiency. But it has little to say about larger issues of justice and fairness, unless you think that political problems are bugs that can be fixed by engineering rather than fundamental conflicts of interest and value.”

Both Buckingham and Hawisher encourage us to critique the myth that “technology [is simply] a force of liberation for young people” (Buckingham 13), a sentiment that George Packer seems to agree with. Yet as they focus on the formation of identity among young users of digital media, neither Buckingham nor Hawisher seems to shed light on the identities of those who are developing these innovations, namely the tech leaders of Silicon Valley. As a whole, this group has, as Packer shows us, cultivated an ethos of insular libertarianism that often deflects attention from broader social inequities. I would argue that we should examine the cultural identity as much as the individual identities that have emerged alongside the rise of technological innovations and digital media, as this distinctive tech identity is profoundly affecting the era in which we live.

New Literacies, values, voices, and technology

There is something especially appropriate about writing a post about “New Literacies” on a collaborative blog, especially a blog that I don’t “own” or control.  I’m participating in an interactive space where I can not only link to relevant things, but other people can link back to me, or reply to me, or any number of other instant social things.  The “owner” of the blog can also potentially come in and edit my words, or migrate this post and all others in the blog into another format.

But, wait, there’s more! WordPress notifies me “Draft saved at 1:46:51 pm”, which also lets me know that the text itself is also being broken up into packets, copied, transported, transmitted, stored, erased, and re-distributed all over the world even now, as I type in these words!  After I click the “publish” button, this text will get pushed and pulled through data centers and and finally onto the machines of anyone who reads this post.   It’s a bit mind-boggling when you think of how different the “mechanics” involved in producing and consuming text are compared to what it is with so-called “dead tree” books.

But all of that is really just an interesting aside, right? I guess you should probably ignore my giggle fits over how freaking cool this is.

Or should you?  (Cue ominous suspenseful music.)

In the first chapter of “New Literacy Sampler”, Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel discuss how literacies can be thought of as a person’s ability to engage in a specific discourse, and how the advent of social online technologies results in a kind of explosion of various literacies, discourses, and identities for people to occupy.  For them, literacy means more than a person’s ability to read and write–it refers to a person’s fluency and comfort participating in a given discourse. It’s a set of skills appropriate for a given community, and having or not having those skills signal whether someone is part of an “in-group” or not.  There is much much more to their discussion about how to draw a line between old and “new” literacies, as well as how “new” literacies represent and require changes in how we think about everything from authorship, ownership, identity, business, and text. However, the way they implicitly define literacy is what I want to highlight here.

So what does it mean when we apply the metaphor of “literacy” to such a wide variety of practices?   In “Blinded by the Letter – Why Are We Using Literacy as a Metaphor for Everything Else?”, Wysocki and Johndan say that “too much is hidden by [the word] ‘literacy’… too much that we are wrong to bring with us”.  They discuss how “literacy” is problematic not simply because it’s hard to define. They remind us of the social implications and baggage that historically and currently are still tied to the word “literacy”.  They remind us that the “myth of literacy”–that gaining “literacy” will somehow empower and lift people up to the same level–is in fact a myth.  While gaining literacy (no matter how you are defining it) is a useful tool to help one participate in a given discourse, it is not value-neutral, and it does nothing to solve the underlying causes of inequality, socio-economic problems, racism, or other problems.  They remind us that teaching kids in a poor neighborhood to love reading, writing, or Facebook, will not inevitably make them feel like they can participate in the dominant public discourse when they grow up.   Wysocki and Johndan remind us essentially that literacy is not a magic bullet solution to social problems, and caution us not to think of these skills which we keep calling “literacies” in this way.

I think this reminder is especially relevant with regards to discussions about the internet, and especially “Web 2.0”, which is all about participatory webservices, a blurring of the lines between creator and consumer of content, and the dissolution of “authority”.  Many people see the internet as a place where “anyone can have a voice”, and they think of it as a kind of “great democratizer”.  Making sure young people have basic computer skills in addition to reading and writing skills has become a topic of educational policy and practice exactly for this reason.   Companies and industries thrive in their efforts to create newer, more connective, and more feature-ful services and technologies because of how important these “new literacies” have become to us and perhaps because they share the dream of giving everyone a voice online.

I think if you asked Wysocki and Johndan, they’d remind us that there is a danger in unbridled enthusiasm for the technologies driving these “New Literacies”, especially if they are adopted without being conscious of how existing social problems and power structures may be reinforced or further perpetrated within them.

I’ll use an example of a certain social website, reddit.com.  reddit (which is always written in lower-case) is a social news site and web community where members post content, and other members vote either up or down to indicate how they felt about a given article, story, or comment.  The idea is that “good” content, comments, and discussion will bubble up to the most prominent areas of the site, and “bad” content will be buried and eventually drop out entirely. It’s a typical example of a web service that tries to “democratize” the web. Only, there are problems.

Once you begin to engage in discussions on reddit, it becomes pretty clear that there is a set of values, ideologies, and voices that as a whole the community values and seems to give voice to through their votes.  Unpopular values and viewpoints are regularly “downvoted to oblivion”.  Reddit itself is also conscious of this trend, describing this practice as someone being a “victim of the reddit hivemind”.  In response to this culture, minority groups, voices, and people with “unpopular” views carve out their own communities in sub-sections of reddit where, while their ideas and discussions may be more appreciated, they are no longer participating in the “mainstream” portion of reddit as a whole.

reddit is just one example of a place where the dream of technology and literacy empowering and enabling everyone falls short of its goal.   Instead, we find that in our enthusiasm, we may have simply created a cyberspace version of existing social problems that literacy (both old and “new”) have only limited power to truly solve.  Offline, there are countless examples where minority groups who have literacy skills may still not be able to participate in mainstream culture, because mainstream culture doesn’t represent or reflect them.

So what does all of this have to do with the way I started this blog entry? My enthusiasm for how all this technical stuff works wasn’t just me geeking out for its own sake (okay, maybe it started out that way).  Really, I wanted to demonstrate one way that it is possible to become totally unaware of, or even ignore, the social context in which these technologies sit. It’s easy to take these New Literacies for granted, and allow ourselves to forget that technology and New Literacies are not value-neutral, and they carry with them all the things (good and bad) of the society that created them.

Ah Violetta! A different kind of Multi-Tasking? Collaborative Function as an Index of PostModernity

Recently, at a desk bestrewn with empty coffee cups, a half-dozen books, digital audio equipment, handwritten lists, old syllabi, and class notebooks, I’ve found myself multitasking. Similarly, my typically tidy virtual desktop has become cluttered with quite a number of pdf articles, garage band files, electronic “sticky” notes in all colors, word documents in various states of editing or abandonment, and a slew of photos awaiting sifting and sorting.

Given the mundane/virtual dust-devil of texts I’ve been interacting with and generating these days, I’m very interested in the discussion of multi-tasking I’ve been encountering in critical discussions of digital and new literacy.  After all, if my desk/desktop is any indication, shouldn’t I, as a multi-tasker with a laptop at the heart of it all, be able to find myself represented in articles discussing digital textuality and new media?

Lankshear and Knobel, in their 2004 plenary address to the NRC, “New” Literacies:  Research and Social Practice, commented glowingly on the work of Angela Thomas, noting her interest in the “ways in which children construct their identities in multimodal digital worlds,” and held her research up as “an excellent exemplar of how weblogs and chat spaces, among other online media, can be used as research tools.”

When I cam upon Lankshear and Knobel’s discussion of Thomas, I was drawn to the words of Violetta, one of the digital insiders interviewed online by Thomas:

I need to make a confession right now, I am talking to you but at the same time I am talking to this cool guy Matt who I know from school, and trying to do some homework – an essay for which I am hunting some info on the web – you know, throw in some jazzy pics from the web and teachers go wild about your ‘technological literacy skills’ skills.  Big deal.  If they ever saw me at my desk right now, ME, the queen of multi-tasking, they’d have no clue what was happening.

Re-reading Violetta’s last line gives me, a teacher and older user of technology, pause.  Don’t older or less frequent user-creators of new media, many of us latecomers to the party, multitask too?  Are our styles of multitasking really so different from Violetta’s?

In “Sampling the New Literacies” Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel write:

Multitasking has become ubiquitous among digital youth.  Moreover, the multitasking mode is not seen simply [as] some casual kind of modes operandi confined to interactions with one’s closest friends – as when chatting, roleplaying, updating a weblog, IM-ing, etc. simultaneously . . . . Rather it is widely seen as a way of operating that applies generally in everyday life at home, at school and at play. (15)

On the basis of such input, I’m still not convinced that Violetta has anything on me.  I like to sneak a text out to a friend during class at least as much (hell, perhaps more than) most of my students.  And, to be sure, I’ll leave facebook open while paying bills, g-chatting, answering professional correspondence, writing for fun, emailing my parents, taking notes for a role playing game, listening to music, or playing/recording a guitar.

Through coordinations of self/technology/and context, we perceive ourselves, and intuit how others may read us.

However, Lankshear and Knobel do have more to offer.  In positioning their concept of new literacy into the discourse theory of James Gee, they cover the idea of coordinations through which our situated-selves enact literacies within discourse.  This catchall phrase reminds us to consider the myriad elements bound up with incarnating literacy:  thoughts, feelings, rules, institutions, tools, accessories, clothes, language, etc.  “Within such coordinations,” according to Gee, “we humans become recognizable to ourselves and to others and recognize ourselves, other people, and things as meaningful in distinctive ways.”

Perhaps Violetta’s statement suggests a refined sense of how the various coordinations invoked in her digital literacy present (or interpolate, in the Althusserian sense) her as a subject, one with creative agency, but one who also may be seen, even studied, as such.  After all, she casually mocks teachers for praising even a cursory expression of “technological literacy.”  That is, to take up Gee’s reasoning, she has a subtle awareness of how the coordinations that frame the ongoing practice of her own literacy simultaneously enables her generative self-styling of a public persona and provides surfaces through which others may find her persona legible.

Thinking through Gee’s coordinations again, which include thinking and feeling, I’m led to consider the possibility that, even if people like Violetta and I each use some of the same technology, perhaps even in somewhat similar ways, perhaps the way we think and feel about our respective digital practices are what matter.

In Lankshear and Knobel’s charting of the ethoi underpinning the practices of typographic and digital textuality, we find a wide range of theory suggesting that typographic literacy and digital literacy carry with them a number of rather different assumptions, such as the way in which ideas are given value – such as through scarcity (typographic) or sharing (digital).  I grew up in a world in which the economic model of scarcity-derived value gave ideas and academic credentials their feeling of worth; not everybody had them.  This kind of thinking is of course still with us, and I hear it expressed whenever a student expresses worry that someone might “steal”  his or her ” idea.”

Lankshear and Knobel quote Barlow’s perspicacious claim that “dispersion . . . has the value and [information’s] not a commodity, it’s a relationship and as in any relationship, the more that’s going back and forth the higher the value of the relationship” (11).

Perhaps this point isn’t so different from being, in the years before before GPS, lost with someone who checked a paper map versus being in the same situation with someone who was happy to ask for directions.  Is it worth starting a face-to-face relationship with someone when what you want is a bit of information? (Yes, this opens a fertile line of gender-based inquiry generally absent from the more accessible layers of the theory Lankshear and Knobel cite).

Barlow’s  idea, that information is conceptualized differently by practitioners of differing literacies, helps me to infer a possible difference between my own approach to the web and that of someone like Violetta.  Let me illustrate the point with a problem that came up during a recent period of multi-tasking heavily weighted toward my current academic commitments.

A few days ago, I encountered a problem using a forum a professor had set up using SFSU’s ilearn for a class.  I’d asked my professor to modify the default settings for the forum.  One of the side effects had been that all of the group members ended up locked out from posting to the forum.  Before alerting my instructor to the problem, I tried to query ilearn’s online help several times, and quickly came up against an electronic brick wall, a invitation to search that kept resulting in:  “There are currently no QuickGuides in the system that match your search criteria. Please try again.”

Reflecting on the matter now with Barlow’s statement in mind, I realize that I tried to solve the ilearn problem from a scarcity-model informational standpoint; the smart money would have been to solve it relationally, to find someone who could help me step by step through the situation, perhaps through the obviously displayed email or chat support options.  Seeking that kind of help isn’t as comfortably in my playbook.   Looking back, I realize I  also have a few people in my networks (both professional and social) with whom I might have interacted in order to solve my problem.

Why didn’t I?  I bet that, in terms of digital  literacy, I am several, even 10s of thousand of hours short of Violetta’s time online.  If indeed, as Walter Ong famously wrote, “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought,” Violetta and I may very well negotiate such problems differently.   I bet she would have gotten the results, and probably through a more social source than the help files I looked at, which are simply digital analogues of mundane owner’s manuals — a typographic solution.  A digital insider might ask: why open the manual when you can instant message an expert?  Perhaps Violetta might have started by asking that “cool guy Matt” she was already chatting with, and he might have had the answer.

I think that we might be in the midst of a social change that dethrones, or destabilizes, our traditional view of a narrowly defined executive function as the preeminent organizational skill.  It may be that this concept was formulated in an era of, or under the influence of values generated by, typographic literacy.  Perhaps collaborative function, an ability to effectively access collective sources of knowledge, is a more apt descriptor of the underlying capability for problem solving in the digital era.

Where is the collaboration in this executive function model?

Lankshear and Knobel note how wikipedia, for example, “leverages collective intelligence for knowledge production in the public domain.”  The literature on digital literacy that has come across my workspaces of late suggests that some kind of collaborative function will increasingly trump the sort of executive function that typically is associated with students’ ability to focus.  If we fail to recognize this, we not only impair our own digital literacy, and misunderstand the classroom presence of our students, but also, even while using digital and new media, stage our attempts at problem-solving with a scarcity-based model of information lurking in the wings.

Given the frequency with which New Media theorists invoke Jameson, Derrida, and other postmodern luminaries, it has become difficult to disassociate digital textuality from postmodernity itself.  Lankshear and Knobel note that the 2.0 digital mindset may be seen “as an aspect of the postmodern spirit.”  In “Blinded by the Letter:  Why Are We Using Literacy as a Metaphor for Everything Else?” Anne Frances Wysocki and Johndan Johnson-Eilola contrast, in a line of inquiry somewhat parallel to the scarcity/dispersion dichotomy, the private linearity of printed consciousness and the spatialized intertextuality of digital thinking.

Perhaps the world where the full implications of “an unseen network of reference” that is “visible, navigable, writable and readable, on our computer screens” is also the world of collaborative function, where users not only see/access links between texts, but are much more free to see/access the social relationships based upon textual exchange, the affective and informational networks through which texts, reified artifacts, useless in themselves, are transmitted and granted meaning.

In my youth, fan-generated responses to Star Wars often looked more like this.

Where Violetta and I may well overlap, in terms of our digital-literary consciousness, though, would be in our appreciation of fan-generated media.  Consider this fan-generated video of a Star Wars space battle, which reveals  the fervor and technical prowess of the normally faceless imperial pilots that form part of the menacing backdrop  of the films.

Sleigh Bells

Although my information-seeking instincts may be still been conditioned by a youth of scarcity-consciousness, at least I’ve come this far – I can admire fan-fictive remixing, and don’t want to see either Lucasfilm (or Sleigh Bells, which someone other than the fan-author added to the vid as a righteous musical backdrop)  pull down the video by flexing their scarcity-derived intellectual property rights.  I’d go further, and assert this fan-creator’s right to draw upon these sources to make new texts.  Many of you are probably already familiar with Larry Lessig’s TED talk on Read/Write culture, so I won’t belabor the matter.

One last takeaway from Violetta’s statement, I think, is that we don’t want, by studying digital and new medial literacies, to fetishize their demonstration.  Users like Violetta are aware that their practices are the subject of academic/pedagogical inquiry and appropriation.  They may know all too well that scholars like Lankeshear and Knobel dedicate works like “Sample ‘The New’ in New Literacies” to “the young (and not so young) digital insiders who inspire people like us.”   In that spirit, let’s make sure we do our best, then, to listen to what student-users have to teach us about working collaboratively with new media.

Taking advantage of tools and bewaring of false promises

In “Blinded by the Letter Why Are We Using Literacy as a Metaphor for Everything Else!” Anne Frances Wysocki and Johndan Johnson-Eilola address two myths that are associated with discussions of “literacy,” one, that literacy is always a tool of liberation for oppressed peoples, and two, that literacy will improve an individual’s sense of self and moral character. I have often had a bad taste in my mouth when reading academic discussions of literacy in the sense that academic efforts to offer literacy to oppressed peoples are like wealthy philanthropy—rich people donate money because it makes them feel good, but more often than not, not because it will really create substantial change. I’m not saying that efforts to share literacies are not worthwhile and effective, but I don’t think teaching someone to read and write is the panacea that will dissolve class inequity. Literacy is just a piece of the puzzle. The Wysocki and Johnson-Eiolola article was refreshing to me. This quote from Ruth Finnegan words it well, “So, when people might want, for example, houses or jobs or economic reform, they arc instead given literacy programs. (41)” 

The second myth taken up by Wysocki and Johnson-Eilola is that the book, and the book alone, offers people the necessary self-reflection to become more self realized and moral individuals. A book or literacy for that matter does not by default make you a moral person. I hear this in the tone of people’s voices when they react to discovering that another individual has never read a book or only plays video games. Yes, reading does open you up to considering moral ideas, but it does not inherently make you moral. The cultural expectation to read can be oppressive. This Portlandia sketch sums up this myth pretty well to me.

Wysocki and Johnson-Eilola continue their argument by applying their discussion of literacy myths to computers, urging readers to consider the use of the term “literacy” when applying it to computers—for fear that we might apply the same assumptions and myths to computer literacy. Efforts by the Clinton administration to put a computer in every classroom seem to be tangential to this idea of applying the same myths of literacy to computers. Computers in every classroom did not save students, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt them either.  

The second assumed promise of literacy that the authors warn us to consider carefully is this idea of improving the self, the bildungsroman of literacy. A bildungsroman is a literary term for a coming of age story. Computers are very much tied to self-improvement and authoritative self-identity. We can see these myths embodied in rags to riches stories like that of Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, all wunderkinds whose abilities and destinies were unleashed because of computers.

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We cannot assume that people are missing out on the good life if they don’t know how to work an iPod.

But to completely dismiss computers and computer literacy because it brings along some myths of overzealous promise is unwise.

Computers can be powerful tools for discovering identities and understanding how power is negotiated. InColin Lankshear and Michele Knobel’s article, “’New’ Literacies: Research and Social Practice,” the authors analyze “‘new’ literacies” (which at the time of the article’s publication are new but today are more broadly accepted as commonplace)

in the form of blogs, online fan fiction and “synchronous online communities (this appears to be a precursor to things like World of Warcraft).

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It took me awhile to wrap my head around the idea that each online community represents a separate discourse community, thereby offering an individual the ability to become literate within that discourse community.

Each community: fan fiction fans, synchronous online community members, and bloggers, all three of these discourses offered community members avenues for re-imagining their identities and expressing themselves in ways that conventional media and reading and writing outlets had not.

Lankshear and Knobel classify communication through fan fiction and online synchronous communities as “relationship technology” rather than “information technology” (while blogs seem to stand in both categories), and they argue that awareness of these literacies can be applied in the classroom. I would rephrase this suggestion as “know your population. ”

Framing curriculum in formats that are personally compelling for students is beneficial in terms of engagement for the students. Students can have “authority” over their school assignments in ways that traditional research papers may not allow, capitalizing on the “relationship technology” that youth are so adept at navigating.

An article in A New Literacies Sampler continues along similar lines as Lankshear and Knobel. In “Popular Websites in Adolescents’ Out-of-School Lives: Critical Lessons on Literacy” by Jennifer Stone, Stone explores how popular websites used by teenagers support literacy practices encouraged in schools (a la Robert Brooke’s “Underlife and Writing Instruction” wherein the transgressive activities of students in class actually reinforce classroom goals). In Stone’s research she observes youth using the rhetorical skills that complement classroom practices. Stone suggests that schools can help students to “begin addressing the convergence of genres, modalities, and inter-textuality to promote consumption” (61) that is inherent in many popular websites.

In conclusion, it may be beneficial to use technological literacy in the classroom as a tool for empowerment and self-realization, but it is necessary not to overstate what our claim of “literacy” offers students. We are offering them tools, but we are not necessarily offering liberation or morality. It is also important to note that the tools benefit not just the students, but also, us, as teachers in our ability to engage our students.

Technowriting Evolved: Resistance is futile

I had already begun considering the process of biological evolution, even before I got to the last article in the series, Alex Reid’s “The Evolution of Writing” from The Two Virtuals. If we consider that humans have invented new technologies long before the computer, and that these technologies include the written word, as outlined by Walter Ong and Dennis Baron, then we must go back even further to the invention of the spoken word itself, the thing that eventually made our societies so complex that we needed writing to order the things we said and thought.  Go back further, and you see anthropologists refer to the human revolution in the wheel and other mechanical objects; earlier, stone tool-making forward to iron and so forth.  Even further, I thought, we should consider the evolution of communication itself.  But why stop there? Is not every evolution, every step that brought us to now, an advance in technology that changes our abilities to get around in our environments?

Now, as I write this, I have only read the opening of Reid’s text, and I shall read it in its entirety after I have finished this post.  This requires some discipline on my part, because clearly it leads where I was supposed to go, and like all literature majors, I want to know the ending.  But today I want to try something different: I want to venture down this path blindfolded and see if I end up in a similar place.  Maybe it’s the anthropology major in me, finally exercising its desires after having been suppressed inside an English teacher for so long.

I enjoyed the supreme irony in Plato’s dialogue of Socrates and Phaedrus which prizes the oral and denigrates the written, even as Plato sees fit to commit that argument to writing.  I feel that most people still don’t see that, even now, in this moment, the “virtual world” is still very much organized around alphabetic technology: Writing.  Plato wrote his argument in the form of a dialogue between two people, who weren’t actually there discussing it; in so doing, he borrowed an oral form to get the idea into print.

Science-fiction has seen the future, and it is the cyborg: A human-machine hybrid, usually evil and unconcerned with the preservation of “unplugged” humanoids.  Like the Borg of Star Trek: The Next Generation, assimilation is the only evolution, “resistance is futile.” But what remains today is that our heroes resist against all odds and prevail, like the stories over the campfire millennia before us. Small bands of native resistance pop up, like that established by the singular Borg named Hugh who develops a soft spot for humans after spending time with them away from the Borg Collective, or the underground city appropriately named Zion from The Matrix films.  I ask now: Who’s borrowing from what here?

It was tough for Plato to wrap his brain around what was happening to him in the moment he wrote that what is spoken is superior to print.  I think Henry David Thoreau’s rejection of the telegraph, at the same time as he perfected pencil manufacture (another tool) in order to keep himself writing at Walden Pond, is a similar sort of technology-related “brain fart.” I have a tough time trying to imagine a world where my son and his progeny will be human-computer cyborgs of anything but an evil kind.  This doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen, and probably (I hope) in ways that are not evil, but only different.  Although I’m sure my son would love to grow up to be Darth Vader or General Grievous, cyborgs of that other science-fiction juggernaut we geeks love so well.

Evolution, even technological evolution, takes time.  After I graduated from Cal in 1996 with the aforementioned degree in English and Anthropology, I tried my hand at learning to code HTML.  It was not pretty, and I couldn’t do it.  It it felt, for me, like my failure to master calculus as a freshman and subsequently giving up on being a vet, a doctor, or a chimpanzee researcher: I simply could not order my world that way.  I just wanted to communicate, and maybe ride the Web 1.0 to early retirement.  But now, fifteen years later, I can use what grew out of that desire to communicate and use the tools others built for me to use, and explore in this blog, and in my own blog, and in the blog I created for my students to use, and teach them to establish and use their own and those of their classmates.  And ultimately, I get to do what I was always pretty good at in the first place: Write.  But while I did have to wait, I didn’t have to wait very long, comparatively; I established my very first blog in 2001.  On an evolutionary timescale, that’s too small a period to measure. But on my personal timescale, that’s the period when I went from being unable to keep plants alive to having a son of my own.  I must have evolved! Or grown up.

I think, like many things in their nascent forms, there will be system crashes and temper tantrums as the bugs and kinks get worked out.  There will be people railing against the digital revolution until something replaces it as the Next Big Thing.  But historically, most of these things have never turned out to be as evil as The Borg.  And if resistance is futile, then embracing technology and being on the forefront of its responsible use, especially in the writing classroom, becomes our next responsibility.