sleeping alone and starting out early

an occasional blog on culture, education, new media, and the social revolution. soon to be moved from http://jennamcwilliams.blogspot.com.

Archive for the ‘new media’ Category

what I do to impress my mom

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on September 30, 2009

I got this from the geek comic site xkcd:

Funny, right? Har har har. But it’s worth thinking about why some people (generally younger, generally more immersed, more regularly, in new media technologies) feel comfortable tooling around in a vaguely solution-oriented sense, while other people (generally older, generally less immersed, less regularly, in same technologies) see their computers, cellphones, and other tools as impenetrable black boxes whose functions exist in a mysterious, perhaps dangerous ether.

This morning I had the awesome experience of hearing educational researcher and recently minted Indiana University Ph.D. Tyler Dodge talk about his research into new media, visual realism and empathy. He presented a version of the following diagram (which I have helpfully built upon with a small set of descriptors). The basic idea is that new media can be designed along two distinct continua: interactivity and immersion. Put briefly, Tyler argued that high interactivity + high immersion = awesomeness.


Tyler added that high interactivity with low immersion leads to frustration. It’s what I feel when I work with the visual programming language Scratch; it’s what other people feel when they look at the Twitter interface; it’s what still others feel when faced with this:



I know doing something will make something happen
, we think in the various contexts that make us feel like a fish gaping in an empty bucket, but what am I supposed to do? And what will happen when I do it? What will happen if I do it wrong?

I know the feeling. I know it, though computer- and internet-based troubleshooting doesn’t trigger it in me–yet. My day will come, I suppose. Oh yes, it will come. So too much hubris now probably doesn’t pay.

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Posted in awesome, blogging, new media | 4 Comments »

some thoughts on what’s ‘new’ about ‘new media’

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on September 22, 2009

Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel, writing about “new” literacies, argue that the notion of “new literacies” is a useful way of thinking from a historical, but not temporal, perspective. There’s no point in thinking about new literacies in temporal terms, they write, because:

Under conditions where time is increasingly calculated in nanoseconds and, as the saying goes, five minutes is a long time in cyberspace, there is little to be gained from speaking of new literacies in temporal terms. As soon as Instant Messaging appears, email seems like an “old” literacy. There is no future in hitching a research agenda to anything as fleeting as that.

Lankshear and Knobel then proceed to divide the “new” literacies into two categories: “technical stuff” and “ethos stuff.” They explain the difference thus:

What is central to new literacies is not the fact that we can now “look up information online” or write essays using a word processor rather than a pen or typewriter, or even that we can mix music with sophisticated software that works on run of the mill computers but, rather, that they mobilize very different kinds of values and priorities and sensibilities than the literacies we are familiar with. The significance of the new technical stuff has mainly to do with how it enables people to build and participate in literacy practices that involve different kinds of values, sensibilities, norms and procedures and so on from those that characterize conventional literacies. These values, sensibilities and the like comprise what we call “new ethos stuff.”

This is the best explanation I’ve come across so far of the “new media literacies” we’re all talking about so much: technical stuff and ethos stuff.

Of course, traditional literacies had their own technical stuff and ethos stuff–it’s just that the stuff of traditional literacies had been around so long, and had been so relatively stable for so much of that time, that the adults whose job it was to foster skills in both categories felt comfortable doing so. The slate and chalk model was replaced by the pen and paper model, but that material change aside, writing was writing was writing. And anyway, the stuff clustered up in the ethos for traditional literacy practices really only mattered to the extent that people would be expected to engage in public conversations through those practices–and for the most part, this type of engagement was limited to a small, elite, and well-educated group of (rich white male) citizens.

It’s not news that this model has been turned on its head–and this is what both makes the new literacies “new” and what makes them feel so new, so unfamiliar, so hard to teach. Normally (and by normally, I mean historically speaking), we’d have a generation or more to figure out the fallout from this changing cultural model, but this time around, the change is happening so fast, and is so complete, that we don’t have the luxury of taking it slow.

The term “new media literacies,” therefore, can be said to be making double use of the word “new”: The media formats, and technical skills required to make use of them, are new to us all; and the literacies–the social and cultural competencies required to engage in the “ethos stuff”–are new as well. Thinking more broadly, the emergence of new media literacies has also, and at the same time, forced us to engage with a new model of expertise: The young tend to be much, much better at adopting and adapting, and therefore have a great deal to teach us about both the technical stuff and the ethos stuff. (By ‘young,’ I mean anyone up to the age of oh, say, 32. Ask me again next year and I’ll say ‘everyone up to the age of 33.’)

We’re not used to a distributed model of expertise in which all participants in a culture have something to teach all participants in a culture. Traditionally, older adults had a monopoly in this respect–early reports suggest the monopoly has been overthrown. It still takes a number of years to become a domain expert, of course, but even the established 10-year time frame required for expert status has been called into question by the ubiquity of learning environments and experiences.

This kind of revolution, as a friend recently remind me, doesn’t lead to chaos in the streets. This is new, as well: Historically speaking, times of great cultural upheaval are generally accompanied by violence, riots, some sort of physical evidence pointing to revolution. We’re all being quite calm and civilized (YouTube comments notwithstanding). This, in case you were wondering, makes it the perfect revolution to buy into.

Posted in literacy, new media, social revolution | 3 Comments »

weighing in on the natives / immigrants metaphor

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on September 13, 2009

Just FYI, “digital” isn’t actually a language, no matter how badly Marc Prensky wants it to be.

Prensky’s notion of “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” has gained cultural traction because it gives us a way to talk about the generational differences in approaches to technology. We get it when he writes that

[a]s Digital Immigrants learn – like all immigrants, some better than others – to adapt to their environment, they always retain, to some degree, their “accent,” that is, their foot in the past. The “digital immigrant accent” can be seen in such things as turning to the Internet for information second rather than first, or in reading the manual for a program rather than assuming that the program itself will teach us to use it. Today’s older folk were “socialized” differently from their kids, and are now in the process of learning a new language. And a language learned later in life, scientists tell us, goes into a different part of the brain.

My mom prints emails that interest her and trusts the information delivered in print form to her front door, but not the information delivered digitally to her computer screen; the kids I work with don’t really bother with email and gather digital data like it’s Super Mario Brothers coins. Ha! we say. Digital immigrants! Digital natives!

Fine. Except “digital” is not a language.

“Digital” is a way of conveying information. “Digital” is a cultural tool for delivering language, not the language itself.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the problems with the natives / immigrants metaphor. More troublesome is the question of who gets to decide which of us are the natives and which are the immigrants. We need to consider how this metaphor–taken up so widely in our cultural conversations–continues to reify a divide in participation based on gender, class, and ethnicity.

Even those who subscribe to the Prensky metaphor have to concede that not all young people can be considered “natives” by his definition, and not all old people can be considered “immigrants.” When we make the sweeping proclamation that kids these days are digital natives, what we’re really doing is identifying the type of kid whose practices and ways of being in the world have gone mainstream.

Had we but world enough, and time, this cultural approach, Prensky, were no crime. But what we actually have is a desperate divide: (largely middle and upper class, largely white) kids with excess time and access to resources and support for developing a technological fluency; and (largely lower class, often nonwhite) kids without the resources or support to develop the kinds of social competencies that will enable them to join the larger cultural conversation.

The digital natives / digital immigrants metaphor is yet another tool that gets used, intentionally or unintentionally, to support our culture’s dominant Discourse, dominated as it is by the same members of the privileged classes who have historically monopolized cultural conversations.

One of the most thrilling aspects of the social revolution is its potential to overthrow gender, class, and ethnic divides. So far, we haven’t come anywhere near realizing even a fraction of this potential, and sweeping terms like Prensky’s–steeped as they are in a long history smacking of hegemony–make the revolutionary potential of new media technologies increasingly difficult to realize.

Related posts by other writers:
Marc Prensky: Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants–A New Way To Look At Ourselves and Our Kids
Marc Prensky: Overcoming Educators’ Digital Immigrant Accents: A Rebuttal
Henry Jenkins: Reconsidering digital immigrants…
John Palfrey: Born Digital
danah boyd:some thoughts on technophilia
Timothy VanSlyke: Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants:Some Thoughts from the Generation Gap

Posted in danah boyd, education, language, new media, participatory culture, racism, social justice, social media, social revolution | 4 Comments »

what is learning (in new media)?

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on September 9, 2009

Alert blogtrollers may have seen multiple posts recently with titles identical to the one accompanying this post–that’s because we’ve been asked by learning scientist and new media researcher Kylie Peppler to address this very concern. The question–what is learning in new media?–is too broad for anyone to address within the context of a single blogpost, but if we all set to work, we might get that turkey stripped down to its bones by the end of the night.

My chunk of the turkey is time.

When I joined Twitter, I lurked for months and months without tweeting a thing. When I finally did join the community as a good, earnest citizen, I started out slowly and picked up speed as I learned to negotiate the community’s norms and embrace the valued practices of the space. Now, a year and a half later, I can communicate fairly clearly the spoken and tacit norms of the Twitterspace.

I did the same thing with Facebook, Wikipedia, and blogging–looking around for months before joining the community. By doing so, by taking the time to consider the space I was entering, I was able to reflect on others’ practices before offering up my own. I read thousands of blogs before starting my own. I worked with friends to learn how to edit Wikipedia. And I was coerced by another friend to join Facebook; the rest was up to me.

I recently spent some time working with Scratch, a simple visual programming language designed for young learners. As the site explains,

Scratch is designed to help young people (ages 8 and up) develop 21st century learning skills. As they create and share Scratch projects, young people learn important mathematical and computational ideas, while also learning to think creatively, reason systematically, and work collaboratively.

I’ve designed exactly two projects in Scratch; the first was about a year ago, when a colleague spent the morning helping me work up a little thing I call Jimmy Eats World.

To play this project, click the green flag in the upper right.

I’m annoyed with myself that I didn’t make the flying hippo actually disappear at the end of the project, and if I wanted to I could open up the program and make it so. Or I could turn the main sprite, the walking cat, into a hammerhead shark announcing my blog’s url.

I could do that if I wanted to, because I am a highly resourceful independent learner who has the passion and the time to devote to projects like this. I find them personally and epistemologically meaningful–I feel enriched, and I feel that the time I devote to these kinds of projects makes me a better, more useful and proficient blogger and educational researcher.

Time, the friend of the highly resourceful learner, is the enemy of teaching. Time: There’s never enough and even if there were, it couldn’t be spent on tinkering. There’s content to cover, and not just in the name of high stakes tests. A teacher’s job–one made ever more challenging by the social revolution–is to equip learners with the knowledge, proficiencies, and dispositions that will suit them well for future learning. There comes a time when the teacher must say, It’s time to stop with Scratch and start on something else.

Which is a deep shame, because it’s the tinkering, the ability to immerse oneself in participatory media or a learning platform, that fosters a real fluency with the space.

This is a key feature of what it means to learn in new media: the choice to engage with certain tools, to join up with certain affinity spaces, beyond the time required by schools. Clay Shirky writes that the days are gone when we could expect to do things only for money; we’re in an era when the greatest innovations emerge not for money but for love.

If learning in new media takes time, passion, and some combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, then on its surface school seems to run anathema to a new media education. In fact, it may be that engagement with participatory practices is exactly what schools need at a time when they are struggling to remain relevant to the real world needs, experiences, and expertises into which learners will ultimately emerge.

Posted in academia, academics, blogging, Clay Shirky, creativity, education, Facebook, graduate school, MIT, new media, Ph.D., schools, shark attack, social revolution | 10 Comments »

"Things fall apart"? SRSLY?

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on September 2, 2009

Over at the HASTAC blog, Cathy Davidson has posted a fantastic piece about a so-called “Facebook Exodus.”

Davidson’s post is called “Is Facebook the Technology from Hell?” and it tackles a New York Times article by Virginia Heffernan that suggests that

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. Facebook, the online social grid, could not command loyalty forever. If you ask around, as I did, you’ll find quitters…. [W]hile people are still joining Facebook and compulsively visiting the site, a small but noticeable group are fleeing — some of them ostentatiously.

Davidson, while acknowledging her affinity for other Heffernan-authored pieces, rightly attacks this article for sloppy research and a bald-faced refusal to interpret data rationally. First, Davidson explains,

The “small but noticeable group” she documents are her friends. Their reasons are the ones that any wise FB user needs to be cautious of. Privacy, mostly. Of course FB is datamining. It’s “free,” right? Well, no. As every Cat in the Stack user knows by now, the “information is free” fantasy has been over for a long, long time. If it is free, they are gathering information that they can sell on the backend. There is no free lunch and no free Internet.

While it’s certainly true, Davidson adds, that Facebook’s popularity is declining among the younger demographic and it likely won’t remain the behemoth it is now for the rest of time, there’s no reason to think it will turn into the “online ghost town” Heffernan believes it’s doomed to become–a ghost town, by the way, “run by zombie users who never update their pages and packs of marketers picking at the corpses of social circles they once hoped to exploit.”

But Davidson’s most important point is this:

methodology, people! We have to hold mainstream media responsible in the same way we hold the Internet bloggers and writers responsible. One’s five friends are not necessarily the best filter on the world.

It is passing peculiar that the journalistic revolution–everybody, Clay Shirky writes, is a potential media outlet–is being covered by journalism’s old guard, the very people whose vocations are threatened by new media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, blogging applications and forums. Humans have consistently proven their ability to see only what they want to see and ignore the rest; print journalists, for all their training in “objectivity” and “fairness,” are really no different.

Of course not all print journalists are focused on studiously ignoring the social revolution, despite the overwhelming likelihood that it will come at the cost of their entire field as we know it today. For proof, just follow any journalist who actively uses Twitter as god intended it (I recommend David Carr, David Pogue, and Rachel Maddow).

Still, the question remains: Given the inherent bias of print media outlets toward print media outlets, how do we decide what to trust? Is it true that Facebook, Twitter and the like are suffering from a decline in popularity, that online reportage is less reliable than print outlets, or, indeed, that print journalism is really in the dire straits it purports to be?

Posted in Facebook, journalism, new media, social revolution | 1 Comment »

why I am a technological determinist

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on August 26, 2009

I’m fascinated by danah boyd’s recent post intended for the New Media Consortium’s upcoming Symposium for the Future. In her post, she cautions new media theorists to avoid what she labels “technological determinism.” She explains:

Rejecting technological determinism should be a mantra in our professional conversations. It’s really easy to get in the habit of seeing a new shiny piece of technology and just assume that we can dump it into an educational setting and !voila! miracles will happen. Yet, we also know that the field of dreams is merely that, a dream. Dumping laptops into a classroom does no good if a teacher doesn’t know how to leverage the technology for educational purposes. Building virtual worlds serves no educational purpose without curricula that connects a lesson plan with the affordances of the technology. Without educators, technology in the classroom is useless.

boyd’s point is well taken, though I’d be hard pressed to find a single new media scholar who embraces the kind of technological determinism she describes in the above passage. There may have been a time when the “if we build it, they will come” mindset was commonplace, but virtually no serious thinker I have encountered, either in person or in text, actually believes that new media technologies can or should offer quick fixes to society’s ills.

The problem, as I see it, is a two-part one. The first issue is one of terminology: Increasingly, we talk about “technology” as this set of tools, platforms, and communication devices that have emerged from the rise of the internet. This is useful insofar as it allows new media thinkers to converge as members of a field (typically labeled something like digital media and learning or the like), but it does so at the expense of the deep, complicated and deeply intertwined history of technologies and what we call “human progress.” In truth, social media platforms are an extension of communications technologies that reach back to the beginning of human development–before computers, television, motion pictures, radio, before word processing equipment, to telegraphs, typewriters, Morse code, pencils, paper, the printing press…all the way back to the very first communication technology, language itself.

“Technology” is not a monolith, and there is a distinct danger in presenting it as such, as boyd does in her final paragraph:

As we talk about the wonderfulness of technology, please keep in mind the complexities involved. Technology is a wonderful tool but it is not a panacea. It cannot solve all societal ills just by its mere existence. To have relevance and power, it must be leveraged by people to meet needs. This requires all of us to push past what we hope might happen and focus on introducing technology in a context that makes sense.

The second problem is a rhetorical one. New media theorists have found themselves engaged in a mutually antagonistic dance with those who prefer to focus on what they see as the negative cultural effects of digital technologies. For better or worse, people engaged directly in this dance find themselves coming down more firmly than they might otherwise in one of these camps and, because the best defense is a good offense, staking out a more strident position than they might take in private or among more like-minded thinkers. Thus, those who dislike Twitter feign disdain, repulsion, or fear and are labeled (or label themselves) luddites; and those who like Twitter find themselves arguing for its astronomical revolutionary potential and are labeled (or label themselves) uncritical utopianists.

In fact, media theorists have been targets of the “technological determinism” accusation for so long that they refuse to acknowledge that technologies actually can and often do determine practice. Homeric verse took the structure it did because the cadences were easy for pre-literate poets and orators to remember. The sentences of Hemingway, Faulkner, and many of their literary contemporaries shortened up because they needed to be sent by telegraph–leading to a key characteristic of the Modernist movement. The emergence of wikis (especially, let’s face it, Wikipedia) has led to a change in how we think about information, encyclopedias, knowledge, and expertise.

A more accurate–but more complex and therefore more fraught–way to think about the relationship between humans and their technologies is that each acts on the other: We design technologies that help us to communicate, which in turn impact how we communicate, and when, and why, and with whom. Then we design new technologies to meet our changing communications needs.

Again, virtually no media theorist that I know of would really disagree with this characterization of our relationship to technologies–yet say it too loudly in mixed company, and you’re likely to get slapped with the technological determinism label. I say this as someone who has been accused more than once, and in my view wrongly, of technological determinism.

Overly deterministic or not, however, I agree with boyd that technologies do not offer a panacea. More importantly, she argues against the use of terms like “digital natives” and, presumably, its complement, “digital immigrants.” These are easy terms that let us off the hook: people under 30 get something that people over 30 will never understand, and there’s nothing you can do about this divide. As boyd explains,

Just because many of today’s youth are growing up in a society dripping with technology does not mean that they inherently know how to use it. They don’t. Most of you have a better sense of how to get information from Google than the average youth. Most of you know how to navigate privacy settings of a social media tool better than the average teen. Understanding technology requires learning. Sure, there are countless youth engaged in informal learning every day when they go online. But what about all of the youth who lack access? Or who live in a community where learning how to use technology is not valued? Or who tries to engage alone? There’s an ever-increasing participation gap emerging between the haves and the have-nots. What distinguishes the groups is not just a question of access, although that is an issue; it’s also a question of community and education and opportunities for exploration. Youth learn through active participation, but phrases like “digital natives” obscure the considerable learning that occurs to enable some youth to be technologically fluent while others fail to engage.

The key question on the minds of researchers in digital media and learning is not (or should not be) how we can get computers in the hands of every student but how we can support participation in the valued practices, mindsets, and skillsets that go along with a networked, digital society. To get this question answered right requires an ability to engage in the complex, thorny, and socially charged issues that boyd and others have identified in their research and writings. It requires development of a common language within the broad digital media and learning community and an ability to communicate that language to the vast range of stakeholders who are paying attention to what we say and how we say it.


Related posts by other writers:

danah boyd: Some thoughts on technophilia
Kevin Kelly: Technophilia

Posted in academics, collective intelligence, danah boyd, education, new media, participatory culture, public schools, schools, social media, social revolution, Twitter | 1 Comment »

where to move if you want to survive the zombie apocalypse

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on August 18, 2009

the first in a two-part series on how to survive in case of zombie invasion

Though theories on this vary, it seems safe to assume that when the zombie apocalypse comes (as come it certainly will), it will start slow and pick up steam quickly in a fairly predictable pattern. We’ve seen this pattern before in the emergence of previous epidemics, including the bubonic plague, smallpox, HIV, and swine flu.

The difference, of course, is that traditional precautions–handwashing, safe sex, and face masks–won’t protect you in the event of a zombie epidemic. Here’s what you’ll need to survive the zombie apocalypse: Guns, food and water, and access to new media. Through a complex triangulation system that accounts for these key factors, I have pinpointed the geographic location that offers the highest chance of survival: Mobile, Alabama.

Guns: Priority Number One
Because of their effectiveness in destroying brains from a safe distance, guns are by far the most effective weapon against zombies. This means, of course, that your best bet of survival is by residing in the United States. With 90 guns per 100 people, America leads the entire world in small arms ownership–which is a steaming hot pile of insanity during civilized times but a cache of awesomeness when the zombies invade. Through an accompanying world record-level firearm-related death rate, America has also proven its collective ability to aim for the whites (or, as the case may be, the sickly yellows) of their eyes.

The deadliest states also, coincidentally enough, happen to be those with the highest gun ownership rates: Louisiana (45.6%), Alabama (57.2%), Alaska (60.6%), Mississippi (54.3%) and Nevada (31.5%). This makes it easy to narrow the field of competitors for Safest City in Case of Zombie Apocalypse.

Food and New Media: More Closely Linked than Previously Thought
All the guns in the world won’t save you if you don’t know how to deploy them. Given that the majority of U.S. residents are at least passing familiar with what a zombie is and how to kill it, it still seems fairly likely that the first wave of humans casualties will stem from surprise-induced paralysis. Early survivors will be those among us who are naturally attuned to running from danger.

That’s right, the geeks will survive us all.

And what do you think they’ll do first? Why, head to their technology, of course. It’s likely that the first reports of the zombie apocalypse will spread via Twitter, Facebook, or user forums on free software sites. Alert social media users will be able to become informed about the invasion, learn from the early failures and successes of human resistance, and prepare themselves for the onslaught. Preparations will include gathering the abovementioned weaponry, along with sufficient supplies to allow survivors to outlast the epidemic. As zombies, contrary to some reports, don’t die off because they are already dead, the epidemic is likely to last a long time.

We have lost our ability to grow or hunt for our own food, and this is especially true of the geeks among us. In general, however, geeks are highly adept at foraging, given the right circumstances. For geeks, the right circumstances include: a supermarket. Additionally, while it’s feasible that internet access will not outlast the zombies, survival odds increase for those who have prolonged access to networked technologies. That, in all likelihood, means a major metropolitan area. That rules out Alaska (unless–and this seems unlikely–zombies prove vulnerable to cold).

The Finalists: Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Nevada
Of the remaining states with large weapons stores, we can rule out Nevada’s major cities, Vegas and Reno, for the obvious reason that zombies have already invaded them. This leaves just three states, Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. While the survival odds for residents of any of these states are approximately even, one last factor serves as a tie-breaker: relative health of its citizens. All three states rank near the bottom of the life expectancy scale and at or near the top in obesity rates.

The Winner: Mobile, Alabama

With a population of just under 200,000 and an ideal seaside location in one of the most gun-friendly states in the U.S., Mobile offers food, shelter, a temperate climates, access to cubic tons of water that’s just begging for desalinazation, and enough firepower to blow the heads off of as many zombies as can find their way to this southern city. As an added bonus, Mobile boasts a subtropical climate that’s ideal for producing small, year-round rooftop gardens, just in case the Wal-Marts, Save-A-Lots, Winn-Dixies, and Circle K’s run out before the zombies do.

Tomorrow: a mathematical approach to surviving the zombie apocalypse.

Posted in collective intelligence, new media, zombies | Leave a Comment »

what’s a 17-letter word for mixed blessing?

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 19, 2009

You guys, I really love word and number puzzles–crosswords, sudoku, cross sums, word mines, the whole deal. One of my most long-standing hobbies is working through a ratty pile of Dell puzzle magazines. (Never Penny Press; I hate Penny Press.)

It didn’t occur to me until I read this post in Good Magazine arguing that the decline of print media may also signal the decline of printed puzzles. Suddenly, I’m terrified: What if Dell Magazines goes out of business? Would I have to turn to Penny Press as the only alternative, however distasteful and what if Penny Press goes out of business too?

My fear of losing my printed puzzles (there is, so far, no evidence to justify this fear) helps me get some perspective on the people who are terrorized by the notion of their local newspaper shuttering its windows and boarding up its doors. In Boston, where I live, the prospect of failure looms large at the Globe–a long-time money sieve–after its parent company, New York Times, Inc., began looking for buyers. The Globe is only the most visible example in a trend toward faltering print media sources as revenues decline amid the emergence of participatory media.

It’s a fair bet that the failure of a big chunk of our country’s newspapers won’t signal the death of journalism; it’s not the desire for news but the medium of choice that’s unsustainable.

But the readers who are most terrified of losing the Globe are a lot like I am with Dell puzzle magazines: If the Globe stops printing, they’ll have to turn to the dreaded Boston Herald (which really is one of the world’s lamest newspapers).

If the Herald follows suit, people may resort to the Phoenix, the Metro, or a non-local paper; and the more papers fail, the less likely readers are to find the features that drew them to a particular news source in the first place.

As a kid, I lived in a house that subscribed to both the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press. I was drawn to the Freep for lots of reasons, from its larger comics section to its more interesting columnists (Mitch Albom, Susan Ager, Leonard Pitt) to its more readable print type. If pro-print media types were honest, they might say that the real issue is not (just) the potential decline of journalism but their deep affinity for the features of one newspaper or another.

Losing the small delights of a particular print news source means finding new sources of delight, just like I would have to do if my puzzle magazine of choice were to shut down its presses. I suppose if this were to happen, I might start reading books before bed instead, or crochet, or develop some other evening hobby to take up the slack. I might even be the better for it. The puzzle industry might be better for it, too, if it could find more cost-effective ways to deliver its product to the populace. It might, after all, be agathokakological.

Posted in journalism, new media, participatory culture | Leave a Comment »

seeding and feeding your educational community

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 7, 2009

My sensei Dan Hickey’s recent post on seeding, feeding, and weeding educators’ networks got me thinking, for lots of reasons–not least of which being that I will most likely be one of the research assistants he explains will “work with lead educators to identify interesting and engaging online activities for their students.”

This got me a-planning. I started thinking about how I would seed, feed, and weed a social network if (when) given the chance to do so. As David Armano, the author of “Debunking Social Media Myths, the article that suggests the seeding, feeding, and weeding metaphor, points out, building a social media network is more difficult than people think—this is not a “if we build it, they will come” sort of thing. Designing, promoting, and growing a community takes a lot of work. People will, given the right motives, participate in the community for love and for free, but you have to start out on the right foot. This means offering them the right motivations for giving up time they would otherwise be spending on something else.

A caveat
First, know that I am a True Believer. I have deep faith in the transformative potential of participatory media, not because I see it as a panacea to all of our problems but because participatory media supports disruption of the status quo. A public that primarily consumes media primarily gets the world the media producers decide they want to offer. A public that produces and circulates media expressions gets to help decide what world it wants.

Social media, because of its disruptive and transformative potential, is both essential and nigh on impossible to get into the classroom. This is precisely why it needs to happen, and the sooner it happens, the better.

But integrating participatory media and the participatory practices they support into the field of education is not a simple matter. Too often people push for introduction of new technologies or practices (blogging, wikis, chatrooms and forums) without considering the dispositions required to use them in participatory ways. A blog can easily be used as an online paper submission tool; leveraging its neatest affordances–access to a broad, engaged public, joining a web of interconnected arguments and ideas, offering entrance into a community of bloggers–takes more effort and different, often more time-consuming, approaches.

Additionally, while social networks for educators hold a great deal of promise for supporting the spread of educational practices, designing, building, and supporting a vibrant community of educators requires thinking beyond the chosen technology itself.

Five Tips for Seeding and Feeding your Community

With these points in mind, I offer my first shot at strategies for seeding and beginning to feed a participatory educational community. (Weeding, the best part of the endeavor, comes later, once my tactics have proven to work.)

1. Think beyond the classroom setting.
In the recently published National Writing Project book, Teaching the New Writing, the editors point out that for teachers to integrate new media technologies into their classrooms, they “need to be given time to investigate and use technology themselves, personally and professionally, so that they can themselves assess the ways that these tools can enhance a given curricular unit.”

The emerging new media landscape offers more than just teaching tools–it offers a new way of thinking about communication, expression, and circulation of ideas. We would do well to remember this as we devise strategies for getting teachers involved in educational communities online. After all, asking a teacher who’s never engaged with social media to use it in the classroom is like asking a teacher who’s never used the quadratic equation to teach Algebra.

Anyone who knows me knows what a fan of blogging I am. I proselytize, prod, and shame people into blogging–though, again, not because I think blogging is the best new practice or even necessarily the most enjoyable one. Blogging is just one type of practice among a constellation of tools and practices being adopted by cutting edge educators, scholars, and Big Thinkers across all disciplines. Blogging was, for me, a way in to these practices and tools, and I do think blogging is one of the most accessible new practice for teacherly / writerly types. The immediacy and publicness of a blogpost is a nice preparation for increased engagement with what Clay Shirky calls the “publish, then filter” model of participatory media. This is a chaotic, disconcerting, and confusing model in comparison to the traditional “filter, then publish” model, but getting in synch with this key element of participatory culture is absolutely essential for engaging with features like hyperlinking, directing traffic, and identifying and writing for a public. In a larger sense, connecting with the publish, then filter approach prepares participants to join the larger social networking community.

2. Cover all your bases–and stop thinking locally
One of the neatest things about an increasingly networked global community is that we’re no longer limited to the experts or expertises of the people who are within our physical reach. Increasingly, we can tap into the knowledge and interests of like-minded folks as we work to seed a new community.

Backing up a step: It helps, in the beginning for sure but even more so as a tiny community grows into a small, then medium-sized, group, to consider all of the knowledge, experience, and expertises you would like to see represented in your educational community. This may include expertise with a variety of social media platforms, experience in subject areas or in fields outside of teaching, and various amounts of experience within the field of education.

3. In covering your bases, make sure there’s something for everyone to do.
Especially in the beginning, people participate when they feel like they a.) have something they think is worth saying, b.) feel that their contributions matter to others, and c.) can easily see how and where to contribute. I have been a member of forums where everybody has basically the same background and areas of expertise; these forums usually start out vibrant, then descend into one or two heavily populated discussion groups (usually complaining or commiserating about one issue that gets up in everyone’s craw) before petering out.

Now imagine you have two teachers who have decided to introduce a Wikipedia-editing exercise into their classrooms by focusing on the Wikipedia entry for Moby-Dick. Imagine you have a couple of Wikipedians in your network who have extensive experience working with the formatting code required for editing; and you have a scholar who has published a book on Moby-Dick. This community has the potential for a rich dialogue that supports increasing the expertise of everybody involved. Everybody feels valued, everybody feels enriched, and everybody feels interested in contributing and learning.

4. Use the tool yourself, and interact with absolutely everybody.
Caterina Fake, the founder of Flickr, says that she decided to greet the first ten thousand Flickr users personally. Assuming ten thousand users is several thousand more than you want in your community, you might have the time to imitate Fake’s example. It also helps to join in on forums and other discussions, especially if one emerges from the users themselves. Students are not the only people who respond well to feeling like someone’s listening.

Use the tool. Use the tool. Use the tool. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. You should use it for at least one purpose other than seeding and feeding your community. You should be familiar enough with it to be able to answer most questions and do some troubleshooting when necessary. You should be able to integrate new features when they become available and relevant, and you should offer a means for other users to do the same.


5. Pick a tool that supports the needs of your intended community, and then use the technology’s features as they were designed to be used.

Though I put this point last, it’s the most important of all. You can’t–you cannot–build a community with the wrong tools. Too often, community designers hone in on a tool they have some familiarity with or, even worse, a tool that they’ve heard a lot about. If you want your community to refine an already-established set of definitions, approaches, or pedagogical tenets, then what you’re looking for is a wiki. If you want the community to discuss key issues that come up in the classroom, you want a forum or chat function. If you want them to share and comment on lesson plans, you need a blog or similar text editing function.

Once you’ve decided on the functions you want, you need to stick with using them as god intended. Do not use a wiki to post information that doesn’t need community input. Don’t use a forum as a calendar. And don’t use a blog for forum discussions.

It’s not easy to start and build a community, offline or online. It takes time and energy and a high resistance to disappointment and exhaustion. But as anybody who’s ever tried and failed (or succeeded) to start up a community knows, we wouldn’t bother if we didn’t think it was worth the effort.

Posted in Clay Shirky, convergence culture, Dan Hickey, education, new media, participatory culture, public schools, schools, social media | 2 Comments »