sleeping alone and starting out early

an occasional blog on culture, education, new media, and the social revolution. soon to be moved from

Archive for the ‘Google’ Category

what is new media literacy?

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on August 17, 2009

Until about a month ago, I worked for a research group called Project New Media Literacies. During my tenure there, the group’s Creative Manager, Anna van Someren, produced the following video to describe our work:

I love this video and think it does a fantastic job describing the focus of Project New Media Literacies. What it doesn’t do, however, is answer the question my friend Kathleen asked me the other day: “What is new media literacy?”

Here’s my answer: It’s like print literacy, only different.

A short definition of print literacy

Think about learning how to read. You start by figuring out words and sounding out short sentences. Kids spend a lot of time learning vocabulary, practicing with different kinds of texts, and writing their own texts. The whole point of that is to increase learners’ fluency with the words, symbols, and markers that comprise a language, so that when they encounter an unfamiliar type of text they’ll be able to decipher it in context. By learning how to read this

you can also (theoretically) develop an ability to read this:

and this:

and this:

And even if you can’t exactly decipher everything included in the examples above, most people would likely at least know what kind of text they were looking at and, even if they didn’t know what opah was or whether it tasted good, they would at least know how much it cost to find out.

New Media Literacy
Keep in mind that, though we tend not to think too much about this, there are tons of technologies involved in the creating and communicating of print messages. Word processors are communication technologies, of course, but so are pencils, quill pens, telegraphs–even language itself is a technology–an invention devised to support a specific kind of communication.

New media literacy starts from the premise that digital technologies like email, Twitter, chatrooms and so on are simply new communication resources that can be clustered in the same category as pens, paper, and the printing press. While they’re the same class of technologies, however, the types of communication these new digital technologies support are significantly different from those supported by print technologies.

One interesting feature of print literacy is that while it’s related to oral literacy–the ability to speak and understand a language–oral literacy and print literacy can in theory and often in practice exist in mutual exclusion. This is because what it takes to interpret the symbols that make up a spoken language (deciphering a series of intentionally ordered sounds) is fundamentally different from what it takes to interpret the symbols of a printed language (deciphering a series of symbols, intentionally ordered). Print literacy, however, is built on the shoulders of oral literacy: While we can easily imagine a powerful public speaker being functionally illiterate, it’s practically impossible to picture someone who is able to read but unable to speak or understand the language she can read.

Print literacy and new media literacy are connected and separate in a similar way. In order to master new media platforms and social communication tools, you have to possess a fluency with print media (in addition, increasingly, to visual and sound-based media formats). On the SAT, here’s how this all would play out:

oral literacy:print literacy::print literacy:new media literacy

In other words, print literacy is necessary but not sufficient, because the conditions surrounding print media in social communication environments are fundamentally different from those surrounding print media in, for example, a textbook.

The goals behind new media literacy education are, however, the same as those surrounding print literacy education: To support learners’ facility with a set of texts and allow them to navigate new media platforms with relative fluency. There’s no point in learning how to edit Wikipedia, for example, if it doesn’t offer us skills that carry over into other collaborative knowledge-building environments. Twitter might (though I doubt it) flounder and fail within five years, but that doesn’t mean learning how to engage with it it pointless. Through Twitter, we can learn how to build and participate in a community that features a largely invisible audience, persistence of information, and tacit but fairly firm rules for engagement. If we can learn how to jump into the world of Twitter, then, we might also learn how to navigate this:

or this:

or this:

All of the above technologies are built on combinations of oral and print literacies, but that doesn’t mean knowing how to speak, read, write and understand are enough. The words may be the same, but the social competencies required to decipher them inside of their context are different.

There: new media literacy. It’s kind of like learning how to read and write and kind of not like that at all.

Posted in education, Facebook, Google, participatory culture | 1 Comment »

just a cool commercial for you

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 11, 2009

I’ll go ahead and admit that I know next to nothing about Bing. I’m not going to lie: I actively resist learning about new Microsoft products. I’m an open sourcie all the way (which was why my underwhelmedment over the open source project Google Wave was so disappointing).

You don’t have to have any interest whatsoever in bing, though, to enjoy this commercial. You can just ride the wave and have fun.

Posted in Google, open source, television | 1 Comment »

Dissent within the United Republic of Facebook

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on February 17, 2009

According to recent measurements, Facebook now has more than 175 million members and is growing by an average of 600,000 new members per day. As marketing analyst Justin Smith points out, “if Facebook were a country, it would now be the <a href="; target=”_blank”>6th most populous in the world.”

Now that we’re country-sized, we should really think about getting a flag and an anthem. And we should seriously consider regulating the recent trend of Facebook members posting self-absorbed notes describing in excruciating detail some of the most boring things imaginable about themselves and then&#8212and this is the part that kills me&#8212tagging other Facebook friends so they’ll read the whole gorram thing. I’m talking to you, 25 Things About Me. To you, My Top 5 Facebook Activities. You, The Soundtrack of My Life.

I suppose it’s only natural that a social media application whose users are largely young (66% are under 35) and largely <a href="
” target=”_blank”>middle- and upper-class would find a way to use the application’s resources as a platform for talking about themselves as an end goal, not as a means for building and maintaining relationships across time and distance. Is it natural, though? Or is Facebook designed for exactly this purpose, under the guise of social networking?

Carmen Joy King argues that Facebook is actually designed to highlight and enhance self-absorption; she quit Facebook abruptly when, in a search for new quotes for her profile page, she came upon this from Aristotle:”We are what we repeatedly do.” This sent her into self-reflection mode, as she explains:

I became despondent. What, then, was I? If my time was spent changing my profile picture on Facebook, thinking of a clever status update for Facebook, checking my profile again to see if anyone had commented on my page, Is this what I am? A person who re-visits her own thoughts and images for hours each day? And so what do I amount to? An egotist? A voyeur?

Fair enough. Looked at another way, though, all this focus on self-presentation isn’t significantly different from the kinds of identity work young people have always done, with all resources at their disposal. It’s just that no previous generation was able to do it quite so publicly, or with a resource so explicitly designed for statements about identity as, for example, the status message: “Jenna is _______.”

Developmental pyschologist Erik Erikson, taking up the issue of identity formation, argued that identity is “a unity of personal and cultural identity.” For him, identify formation requires active management and reorganization of ideological commitments, identifications, and affiliations. Often, for adolescents and young adults especially, this happens stormily, with rapid reshufflings of value systems before the identity work evens out and “sense of self” becomes increasingly coherent. (Remember those three days you spent as a Communist when you were a college freshman, followed by a week of anarchism and a day or two of religious fanaticism?) Facebook and similar social networking sites have the potential to kind of blow apart this trajectory, especially if current trends continue&#8212Facebook use is increasing most rapidly among women over 55.

I don’t really want to regulate Facebook, of course; I’m kind of a closet libertarian at heart. Besides, a valuable feature of Facebook’s design is that I don’t have to participate in other people’s self-making if I don’t want to. Though my Facebook friends can tag me all they want, I don’t have to read what they write. And I haven’t, for the most part.

In other news, I’ve learned how to use Facebook as a platform for directing traffic to my blog. As of the end of last week, more of my readers have been referred to sleeping alone via Facebook than via any other single referral source. I’m excited that I’ve found such an effective way to leverage Facebook for this purpose.

Posted in blogging, collective intelligence, Facebook, Google, participatory culture, social justice, social media | 1 Comment »

If you’re reading this, you’re my public

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on February 11, 2009

I’m obsessed with my new blog. I spend hours devising tactics for directing traffic to it, then I pore over the results over at Google Analytics, where, for example, I can learn that on the first day in the existence of sleeping alone and starting out early, my site had 16 unique visitors and a total of 33 visits (I assume that the 17 extra visits all came from me). I’m aiming upward, upward, upward, and directing my energies toward herding the cats my way.

Why do I care? I mean, other than for the obvious reason that if I’ve spent all this time carefully and lovingly crafting a blogpost I want people to read it? The short answer is that social media makes us consider, and target, our intended audience in more complex ways.

New media guru Howard Rheingold has written about the participatory potential of blogging, explaining that “[b]ecause the public sphere depends on free communication and discussion of ideas, it changes when it scales—as soon as your political entity grows larger than the number of citizens you can fit into a modest town hall, this vital marketplace for political ideas can be influenced by changes in communications technology.”

As bloggers are well aware, the potential is enormous for scaled-up communication via digital technology–but in a real sense, the true potential is never fully realized. It can’t be: Among the constraints and affordances of new media technology is the fact that it enables nearly anyone to become a mediamaker. Cutting through the noise, reaching all members of one’s potential public, is possible in theory but futile in practice. We don’t any of us live anymore in a world where we can expect the person living, working, or studying next to us to have read the same news stories as we have, even though we all have increased access to the news.

That doesn’t mean we can’t try; and, in fact, Rheingold and others point to the “generative” power of public voice in a new media context. He writes:

In one sense, public voice can be characterized not just as active, but as generative—a public is brought into being in a sense by the act of addressing some text in some medium to it. Michael Warner has argued that any particular public (as distinguished from “the public”) comes into being only when it is addressed by a media text, rather than existing a priori—“it exists by virtue of being addressed.” By writing a blog post about an issue, a blogger brings together people whose only common interest is the issue addressed, bringing about “a relation among strangers” that would probably not otherwise exist. Creating a wiki about a local issue has the potential to precipitate a public that can inform itself, stage debates, even organize collective action.

So far on this blog, I’ve published a poem, written about <a href="
” target=”_blank”>boobies, spoken to my hope for the future of academia, and, now, pleaded for readers. I’m not yet sure who my public is; not yet sure what type of action I’m interested in engaging my public in, other than alerting them to my take on some things that have attracted my attention.

I wonder if I’ll experience this blogging thing like I experienced teaching when I was new to the profession. Often, especially in my first few semesters, I would bluster into the classroom with some vague idea of what I wanted to do, what I wanted to teach; it was only after the class was over that I was able to work out what I was doing and how well I’d done it. I’d go back in the next day armed with just that tiny bit of extra awareness and confidence, which led to increased awareness and confidence, and so on.

For now, I’ll just settle for readers. Please read my blog. You can also comment on it if you like.

Posted in blogging, education, Google, Howard Rheingold, new media, participatory culture, social media, teaching | 4 Comments »