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Archive for the ‘participatory culture’ Category

thoughts on creative writing, MFA programs, and the social beat

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on April 4, 2010

I recently participated in a local event called Ignite Bloomington, where my co-presenter, Christian Briggs, and I performed a poem we called “the social beat.”

The design of the background images, the development of the poem, and the planning of the performance were all completed collaboratively; this was by far the most collaborative creative project I’ve ever been involved in. I say that as a graduate of an MFA program who spent three years doing almost nothing but creative work. I say that as someone who intentionally moved away from what I’m coming to see as the antiquated approach to writing that pervades creative writing programs around the country.

I write more now, and more creatively, and with more enthusiasm, than I ever did during my days as a ‘poet.’ In part, this is because the primary type of writing I do these days is far more public and persistent, and more closely linked to issues that matter deeply to me, than was the writing I did as a creative writing major. But the writing I do nowadays is also more aligned with my ethos: These days, I embrace openness, collaboration, and collective knowledge-building; and producing, circulating, and building upon others’ ideas online meets these interests nicely. In fact, this “writing publicly for a networked public” thing meets my needs like gangbusters.

Creative writing, at least in the MFA-program sense of the term, never did meet my needs or interests. It felt too far out of my control. We more or less buy the idea of the “muse”–call it flow if you want, call it the zone, call it whatever you want, but what it means is that we embrace this strange idea that the greatest works emerge when you can set your conscious mind a little bit to the side and let your unconscious break through to the surface. It had to happen in silence. It had to happen alone. And you couldn’t control it. You could only control the circumstances that make it more likely to happen.

Sure, fine. We need people to make those great brilliant works by betting on the muse. But that way of thinking about writing is just not for me–it never has been. I’m more into the “how do you get to Carnegie Hall” approach to writing, which is why blogging, and the attendant potential readership, appeals so much to me.

And when it comes to creative writing, I’m kinda into this “collaboration” thing. Coordinating the partnership is tricky and time-consuming, but if you find the right partner you end up standing on each other’s shoulders, finishing with something better than any one of you could have written on their own. One thing I know for sure is that the work that came out of my collaboration with Christian is better, stronger, more powerful than anything I could have come up with on my own. I’m proud of this work, maybe prouder than I was of any poem I wrote on my own, and I’m proud to include the poem and a video of our performance of it below.

the social beat
Jenna McWilliams & Christian Briggs

let’s walk it backwards:
when a girl
in a field
face shielded from the sun
looks out at you and smiles
you think something has begun
but that’s not a smile
it’s a grimace it’s a sneer
you’ve got that camera around your face and a 21st century leer

but it’s a circle, a cycle, a snake that eats its tail
explosion, says mcluhan, split the instrument from the wail
and now we’re walking that split backwards to where the hammer meets the nail
to where the language meets its speaker and the face removes its veil

is this a flat world?
a kind world?
a world framed as a game?
what’s the win state?
who’s losing?
should we send it all up in flames?
and with every change we fight for does it all just stay the same?

in 1984 papert blew up the school or said computers would
{they didn’t
or if they did, they hid it}
it’s a long revolution
a slow evolution
characterized by dilution and diffusion
and confusion
sometimes, but joy too, and profusion, collusion and elocution
and hope, and motion, and implosion
of space and time and multiple uses
we lifted our tech and it calmly spoke through us.

implosion: the same plane with the same name moves us and rushes us and smooshes us together
that long walkway is us walking away from the everyday pulleys and gears of our years
we climb onto the tech we climb into the sky
we can collaborate now we can elaborate now we can fly

it’s gonna crash
the school becomes a skull
its planks and its floorboards and its chalkboards and its front doors flash past us like shrapnel
as we dash past with laptops
the floor’s falling in and we have them building backdrops and stage props in woodshop.

they’re gonna fall
explode in on themselves, the freight and the chaos
beams buckling, roof knuckling under the weight
as crowds spill like kindling into the street
meeting each other again flinting and squinting again in the sun {ignite}

it’s all going under
it’s all yellow light slanting sideways across shining faces
it’s thunder
it’s traces of ozone it’s acres of blight
as we push back the night as it grinds to a crawl as the old ladies watch and wonder
they’re gonna go under

but the story’s not finished
they’re gonna defend
they’ll never give in. they learned how to stand in an age of their father’s machine.
they’re clean.
so they defend. and they default. and they defer
to the icon and its policies and its politics and its poetry
we automate the manual. now our hands are clean on the path to hell

cue eye roll.
we know how to build, we can do it again. so we build.
and we machinate. and we slap down machines to palliate the children
we fill them as if they were containers.
it’s heinous.
it took two days for those green machines to fill up with guess what? porn.

we’ve had millennia now of dissemination, maybe it’s time to change the story
to disovulation: one perfect idea at a time, sent out into the world
then we’ll let you guys fight over who gets to claim it.
or blame it.
millennia now of the Churchills the Hitlers the Gateses the Jobses the Spitfires and Messerschmittses and Habermas and Hobbeses

like a girl
in a field
face shielded from the sun
is still inside the lines
where something has begun

it’s the circle, the cycle, the snake has caught its tail
the explosion’s moving backward though the timid first will fail

the tots will test it, resisting with a poke, a prod, a post
the slightest and the smallest seem the most benign of rabble
filling up the tubes with what will mostly seem a babble
to defenders of the past

now they’re teens
on the street
the lines are giving way
babble turned to business
as the structures start to sway
but still defenders are within this
scene, clutching for the days….
that will no longer be..

you see…

the teens have grown and jumped the lines
we’re not walled in and not walled out
nor confined by any doubt
instead we clamber for the time
when all that’s in will all be out
a coalescing of the minds
whose synaptastics speed the time

technology will take its place
a toy a tool connecting us
aiding a collective us
crushing in both time and space
freeing up the play in us

we are those girls
in our fields
faces turned toward every one
collectively reflecting on the
thing that has begun
or is it ending as it rends us?
the scream igniting as it mends us?
unbends us and upends us:
a lick of flame, a bonfire, night brought shrieking to the sun
a slow sermon whispered softly:
there is much that must be done.

Posted in blogging, creativity, participatory culture, poetry, social revolution, writing | 2 Comments »

help me collect information on Twitter lurkers

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on April 1, 2010

I’ve gotten interested lately in the role of lurkers within the Twitter social network. I recently posted this tweet:

Though I wasn’t specifically soliciting feedback on this issue, I received lots of responses from Twitter users who wanted to talk about how and why they user Twitter. These are, keep in mind, people who self-identify as lurkers–yet they responded to me through Twitter.

Clearly, this is something people want to talk about.

So I’m interested in finding out more.

I’ve created a short survey, intended to gather some basic information about the use of Twitter by people who consider themselves lurkers or light users of Twitter, and I’d also be thrilled to hear any thoughts you have on the phenomenon of lurking in Twitter or other online social networks, either through the survey or in comments to this post. I’ll post the results of the survey to this blog. The survey is available here.


Posted in participatory culture, social media, Twitter | 1 Comment »

SparkCBC takes on the issue of computational literacy

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 23, 2010

As I’ve explained in previous blog posts, I’m a fan of incorporating computational literacy education into the formal classroom–across curricula and content areas. So I was thrilled to see Spark Radio will be tackling the issue of computational literacy in an upcoming broadcast. Spark co-producer Dan Misener explains, using the user-friendly iPad as an example:

(T)he iPad (and its little brothers, the iPhone and iPod touch) abstract much of the computer away. Apple watcher and former Spark guest John Gruber says it’s a bit like the automatic transmission in a car:

Used to be that to drive a car, you, the driver, needed to operate a clutch pedal and gear shifter and manually change gears for the transmission as you accelerated and decelerated. Then came the automatic transmission. With an automatic, the transmission is entirely abstracted away. The clutch is gone. To go faster, you just press harder on the gas pedal.

That’s where Apple is taking computing. A car with an automatic transmission still shifts gears; the driver just doesn’t need to know about it. A computer running iPhone OS still has a hierarchical file system; the user just never sees it.

And from the standpoint of the vast majority of computer users, this abstraction can be a good thing. It makes computing simpler, easier, friendlier. Why should I need to understand what’s going on under the hood of my computer if all I want to do is send email to my friends?…

But I wonder, is the same attitude towards computers dangerous? Does oversimplifying technology –removing necessary complexity — have a downside? By making technology simple, easy, and convenient, do we risk a generation of people who can’t tell the difference between this blog post and the Facebook login page?

As I ponder this, I’m a bit torn. The technology populist in me wants to say, “Of course, make computers easy! What’s wrong with making computers as simple and friendly as possible?”

But another (geekier, snobbier) part of me wants to say, “Yes, computers are hard, and that can be a good thing. I don’t want to use technology designed for the lowest common denominator.”

The question this Spark show hopes to tackle is this:

If I don’t understand how to use my computer, whose fault is it? Is it my fault for not wanting to read manuals or spend time learning a new technology? Or is it the fault of the designers and engineers who build the technology we use?

You can weigh in on the discussion at the Spark blog, then listen in live or or download the podcast of the show; information on broadcast times and podcast download is available here.

Here’s my take on this issue, which I’ve also posted as a comment on the Spark blog:

This is a thorny issue, because easier interfaces help to drop the barriers to participation, but on the other hand this shift means we give up some degree of empowerment to make decisions about which sorts of interfaces, and by extension which sorts of technologies, work best for our specific needs. Indeed, the crafting and marketing of products like the iPad is deeply, deeply political, and the embedded politics that lead to the tools we use is not readily evident to those without a degree of computational literacy. And enormous swaths of the computer-using public are lacking in this area.

On the other hand, computational literacy is very much like other forms of literacy: reading, writing, mathematical literacy, and so on. We don’t blame the math-illiterate learner who has never been exposed to mathematics education, or whose math education was lacking in significant ways. This is the exact case with computational literacy education: It’s nearly nonexistent in formal classrooms, and has become the nearly exclusive domain of those with the luxury of access to computational technologies outside of school. In some ways, then, perhaps we get the technologies we deserve.

Posted in Apple, computational literacy, education, literacy, participatory culture, politics, reading, technologies, writing | 3 Comments »

a model for designing the ELA classroom in support of "literacy science"

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on February 7, 2010

You guys, I think I have a model to show you.

This makes me extremely happy, because as I’ve explained (more than once), I’ve struggled mightily with the very concept of modeling. I’ve also struggled with representation. The purpose of designing this model is to show my take on the role of new technologies in educational environments. But articulating a theory, even a working theory, about the role of technologies has been such an insurmountable challenge for me–which technologies? for which students? and for what purpose?

But the elements for building this rudimentary model have been around me for some time. It just took time and reflection for me to be able to put the elements together.

(image description: this is a pen-and-ink drawing of a classroom. In the center of the room, the class is seated, facing each other, around a square of tables; on the table in front of them are combinations of books, notebooks, and electronic equipment. Around the edges of the room are, clockwise from the upper lefthand corner: an easel labeled “representational literacy;” a table with extra pens and extra notebooks; a chalkboard with a variety of marks on it, labeled “design thinking”; book shelves; a workbench labeled “computational literacy”; open space lining most of one wall; a laptop labeled “new media literacy”; a safe filled with bundles of cash; and a laptop cart. Below the picture is the phrase, “If you can’t build it, then you don’t understand it.”)

Inspiration for this model
Design of the periphery: Multiple intelligences schools. A few years ago, I read the 25-anniversary edition of Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. Throughout the book, Gardner describes a variety of approaches to integrating his theory of multiple intelligences into learning environments, and one description–of the Key Learning Community in Indianapolis–has stuck with me. In this school, students work in “pods” that represent each type of intelligence outlined by Gardner; a founding principle of this school, he explains, “is the conviction that each child should have his or her multiple intelligences stimulated each day. Thus, every student at the school participates regularly in the activities of computing, music, and bodily-kinesthetics, in addition to mastering theme-centered curricula that embody standard literacies and subject matter.”

You don’t have to agree with this approach to appreciate its effort at offering a range of avenues for learning to happen. From time to time I think about those multiple intelligences schools and wonder what aspects might be applied to my current area of focus, the English / Language Arts classroom. Clearly, more avenues toward literacy is better than fewer avenues; and since we know that traditional literacy practices taught through traditional means are insufficient preparation for the types of literacy practices people are called upon to demonstrate in real life, we might think of “pods” for different groupings or categories of literacy learning.

Design of the center and periphery: A real life ELA classroom. I’ve had the unBELIEVABLE good luck to sit in on Becky Rupert’s ELA classroom at Aurora Alternative High School here in Bloomington, IN. Much of the design of this model is based on how she has arranged her class. To begin with, the main focus of the room is a square of tables where students meet at the beginning of each class. My model does not identify the teacher’s location; that’s because in Becky’s classroom, she sits at the table right alongside her students. She does this on purpose, and it works in service of developing a learning community.

Becky’s classroom is absolutely stuffed with books–you have to move books in order to get to other books. A new addition this year is a laptop cart, which sits against the far wall of the room.

Inclusion of design thinking: my work with SociaLens. For the last several months, I’ve been working with a new organization called SociaLens. The purpose of this organization is to consult with businesses and offer strategies for integrating new types of communications tools and ways of thinking into their organizational plans, with a particular eye toward social media technologies. Two key categories that we think make for highly adaptive, potentially highly successful organizations are new media literacies and design thinking.

Until I started working with SociaLens, I had not thought to consider the connection between these categories. I also hadn’t thought about what educational researchers can learn from corporate innovators and vice versa. But what has been seen cannot now be unseen. I’ve come to see design thinking as an essential element of literacy learning, and especially if you believe (as I do) that computational flexibility (which I’ll describe briefly below) is key to preparation for success in a new media age.

Inclusion of new media literacy, representational literacy, design thinking, & computational literacy “pods”: Some stuff I’ve read. I’ve been immersed in new media literacy research for a good chunk of years, and I drank that kool-aid long ago. If you believe in the value of teaching new media literacy practices in schools, then computational literacy kind of comes with the territory. These categories of literacy are similar in lots of respects: Both are better described as a set of proficiencies and attitudes–what Lankshear and Knobel call a combination of “technical stuff” and “ethos stuff”–than as concrete, teachable skills. Both require a kind of openness–a flexibility–to meet the quickly changing demands with emerging technologies. But new media literacies are the required skills to engage in collaborative knowledge-building or collective meaning-making or problem-solving activities, while computational literacy is, in my mind, linked to a kind of “hacker’s mentality.” It’s the act of simultaneously making use of and resisting the affordances of any technology; of knowing when and how to say “no” if a technology doesn’t meet your purposes; and of finding (or developing) a new technology that better meets your needs and interests.

Design thinking, as I mention above, comes out of my work with SociaLens and the (admittedly very surface-level) reading I’ve done about this approach to problem-solving. This type of thinking has also made an appearance in the recent work I’ve been reading about research in science and math instruction. Many researchers whose work focuses on supporting an inquiry-based focus in science instruction, in particular, emphasize the value of embracing the epistemological basis of science-as-inquiry. As William Sandoval and Brian Reiser explain in their 2004 piece, “Explanation-Driven Inquiry: Integrating Conceptual and Epistemic Scaffolds for Scientific Inquiry,” the epistemic elements of this approach include

knowledge of the kinds of questions that can be answered through inquiry, the kinds of methods that are accepted within disciplines for generating data, and standards for what count as legitimate interpretations of data, including explanations, models, and theories. Placing these epistemic aspects of scientific practice in the foreground of inquiry may help students to understand and better conduct inquiry, as well as provide a context to overtly examine the epistemological commitments underlying it.

Wilensky & Reisman, in their work with computer-based modeling, argue in support of what they call “the engineer’s dictum”: “If you can’t build it, then you don’t understand it.” They work with a modeling language called NetLogo, which is a loose descendant of Seymour Papert’s Logo program. The program requires students to solve problems by developing models of real-world processes like population fluctuation within predator-prey (wolf-sheep) communities and the phenomenon of fireflies synchronizing their flashes. The authors make a strong case that model-based thinking–or what we might also call “design thinking”–is key to students’ ability to engage in deep learning about a specific phenomenon and about scientific inquiry more broadly.

I included a pod for “representational literacy” in this model because of my own recent experience grappling with model-building. The ability to design, critique, and modify representational models is a set of skills with relevance across content areas, and we don’t typically think of it as extremely valuable in the literacy classroom. But it should be news to nobody that “literacy” is becoming an increasingly visual category of proficiencies, and that representational literacy is quickly becoming even more tightly bound up with traditional literacies than it ever was before.

What I haven’t yet noted is that these categories of literacy practices make up what we might call “literacy science.” I mean this term to hold the same place in the literacy classroom as “mathematician” or “scientist” or “historian” or “musician” hold in their respective classroom-based environments. As a culture, we haven’t spent enough time yet thinking about the purpose we hope the new literacy classroom to serve. Science class is supposed, ideally, to get students thinking like scientists; in math class you (ideally) learn to think like a mathematician; in history class you think like a historian; but in general English class has been designed as a sort of catch-all, a place where students can learn the basic reading and writing skills that enable them to think like historians, mathematicians, and so on.

What if we shifted the focus of the ELA classroom to more explicitly broach the notion of “literacy science”: A way of being in the (literate) world characterized by an ethos, a set of skills, and a set of norms and behaviors? What would it mean to turn the ELA classroom into a place where we support the growth of literacy scientists?

Inclusion of open space: a nod to the future work of literacy science. Howard Gardner’s list of multiple intelligences has grown over the years, and my model is designed to accommodate new categories of literacy practices. Filling up the entire classroom does nobody any good, especially since we know–we absolutely know–that new valued practices are emerging along with the breakneck speed of emergent technologies.

I should mention, too, that my model includes a safe filled with bundles of cash. This is a nod not only to the future work of literacy science but also to the current conditions of the typical public school. On top of the training required, every one of the pods in my model costs money, and it’s money that schools simply don’t have.

So that’s it: That’s my current model for the role of technologies in the literacy classroom. I would love to know your thoughts. Comments, questions, and suggestions are most welcome and will be read with great joy, thoughtfulness, and enthusiasm.

References: In case you’re interested in reading the work I identified above, here are the citations.

Wilensky, U. & Reisman, K. (2006). Thinking like a Wolf, a Sheep or a Firefly: Learning Biology through Constructing and Testing Computational Theories — an Embodied Modeling Approach. Cognition & Instruction, 24(2), pp. 171-209.

Sandoval, W., A., & Reiser, B.J. (2004). Explanation-driven inquiry: Integrating conceptual and epistemic scaffolds for scientific inquiry. Science Education, 88:3, 345-372.

Posted in creativity, education, Joshua Danish, learning sciences, literacy, new media, participatory culture, pedagogy, schools, teaching | Leave a Comment »

technologies as sleeping policemen: or, how I learned to stop worrying and…

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on January 18, 2010

Nicholas Burbules and Thomas Callister worry for us. Or, at least, they were worried, over 10 years ago when they offered up their take on new technologies in a paper called The Risky Promises and Promising Risks of New Information Technologies for Education. Among their concerns: that too many people adopt a “computer as panacea approach” to new technologies. This is uniquely problematic in education, they argue, where

(r)ather than acknowledge the inherent difficulty and imperfectability of the teaching-learning endeavor, rather than accept a sloppy pluralism that admits that different approaches work in different situations—and that no approach works perfectly all the time—educational theorists and policy makers seize upon one fashion after another and then try to find new arguments, or new mandates, that will promote widespread acceptance and conformity under the latest revolution.

As problematic as the “computer as panacea” approach is, it pales in comparison to the relativistic “computer as neutral tool” approach, the one that has people saying that any technology can be used for good or for evil. Burbules and Callister explain that:

this technocratic dream simply errs in the opposite direction from the first. Where the panacea perspective places too much faith in the technology itself, the tool perspective places too much faith in people’s abilities to exercise foresight and restraint in how new technologies are put to use; it ignores the possibilities of unintended consequences or the ways in which technologies bring with them inherent limits to how and for what purposes they can be used. A computer is not just an electronic typewriter; the World Wide Web is not just an on-line encyclopedia. Any tool changes the user, especially, in this instance, in the way in which tools shape the conception of the purposes to which they can be put. As the old joke goes, if you give a kid a hammer they’ll see everything as needing hammering.

They prefer a middle approach, which assumes that a simple cost-benefit analysis fails to account for the possibility that benefits and costs are highly dependent on perspective. They offer as proof the history of antibiotics, which through widespread use greatly decreased humanity’s likelihood of dying from bacterial infection but in the process led to the emergence of drug-resistant forms of bacteria. (“That is a very bad thing,” they write.)

Though it’s fairly simplistic to compare new information technologies to antibiotics, I’ll go with the analogy for now, mainly because I agree with the authors’ effort to problematize attitudes toward new technologies. It’s perhaps more accurate to consider the social effects of antibiotics: they have led to a general increase in life expectancy, but in the process have enabled imperialistic societies (cf. the United States) to effectively colonize cultures, communities, and countries worldwide. In the same way, new technologies offer unprecedented access to information, communities, and tools for mobilization, but they simultaneously support new forms of colonization, both across and regardless of national borders.

Which brings me to the metaphor of technologies as sleeping policemen.

The sleeping policeman: In America, we call it a “speedbump.” It looks like this:

The speedbump’s intended effect is to get drivers to slow the hell down, and it’s commonly used in neighborhoods and suburban areas with lots of kids. And it does get people to slow the hell down, primarily because they have no choice. There are also tons of unintended effects: Parents feel more comfortable letting their kids play outside. And, as this post points out, kids playing outside tend to get to know each other better. They–and, by extension, their parents–connect with other neighborhood residents, and everybody feels more connected: “Parents come to know the nearby children. And, inevitably, they come to know those childrens’ parents. They begin trading favors like driving children around. They become neighborly.”

There are potential negative effects, too. Using sleeping policemen to slow drivers down changes driving practices in unintended ways. When a driver hits the last speedbump, she hits the gas and jets on down the road. This might increase the risk of an accident just beyond the range of the speedbumps. Drivers may choose to avoid areas with speedbumps, thereby increasing traffic through other areas–even, potentially, nearby neighborhoods whose streets lack speedbumps. And when a driver is not forced to monitor her own driving practices, the decision to simply drive more slowly in neighborhoods is taken away from her, thereby increasing the possibility that she will not adopt slower driving as a general practice.

Still, I think we can all agree that the benefits outweigh the costs. Nobody sees the speedbump as a panacea, and I don’t imagine many people see the speedbump as a neutral technology.

So why do we worry so much more about the emergence and increasing ubiquity of new media technologies than we do about sleeping policemen or antibiotics?

One reason is that it’s easier to see new media technologies as actors that shape our practices than it is to see how speed bumps and antibiotics have shaped us.

Actors: Any person or tool that exerts force upon any other person or tool, thereby shaping its use or practice. In Actor-Network Theory, everything is a potential actor, everything a potential actant.

Speed bumps act upon cars, drivers, kids, parents, neighborhood dynamics. Antibiotics have acted upon people, policies, government spending, and attitudes. We live longer now. We therefore reshape our lives, our goals, and our relationships to others. It’s all very chaotic and complicated, because our reshaped attitudes in turn act upon our use of antibiotics. Everything mediates everything.

Because new media technologies have emerged and been adopted so quickly, their role in reshaping thought and action–and even, it’s becoming clear, physiology–is clear, even if the outline of how this reshaping is shaking out remains quite fuzzy. New technologies as sleeping policemen: They shape not only how we drive, but how we think about driving. We move them, we reshape them, we add more or take a few away, we develop cars with better suspension…and it goes on down the rabbit hole.

Posted in academia, education, learning sciences, new media, participatory culture, pedagogy, philosophy, public schools, schools, social media, social revolution | 3 Comments »

on Cory Doctorow on how to say stupid things about social media

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on January 5, 2010

Originally posted at

“There are plenty of things to worry about when it comes to social media,” says writer Cory Doctorow in his fantastic Guardian piece, “How to say stupid things about social media.” Social media environments, he continues,

are Skinner boxes designed to condition us to undervalue our privacy and to disclose personal information. They have opaque governance structures. They are walled gardens that violate the innovative spirit of the internet. But to deride them for being social, experimental and personal is to sound like a total fool.

Yet plenty of perfectly smart people who should know better say exactly the foolish kinds of things Doctorow rightly decries in his post. Mainly, lately, the stupid things have been leveled at Twitter: It’s trivial. It’s banal. It’s too voyeuristic, or it’s a weak imitation of real relationships, or–and this is the one that really gets me–I try to use it in smart, deliberate, consequential ways, even though lots of my followers don’t.

Partially, people who take stances like the above fail to see that the majority of the communication on sites like Twitter falls into the category of what Doctorow calls “social grooming.” He writes:

The meaning of the messages isn’t “u look h4wt dude” or “wat up wiv you dawg?” That’s merely the form. The meaning is: “I am thinking of you, I care about you, I hope you are well.”

Doctorow compares the “banality” of conversations on Twitter and Facebook to the conversations we have with coworkers. We ask a coworker if she had a good weekend, he writes, not because we care about how her weekend went but because we care about developing bonds with the people around us.

Yes, though that’s only part of the answer. In choosing to communicate via Twitter, I’m not only saying “I am thinking of you, I care about you, I hope you are well,” but I am also publicly announcing: “I am thinking of him, I care about her, I hope he is well.” These announcements are interspersed with my Twitter interactions with
people who are not close friends or even necessarily acquaintances–people I care about only in the most abstract sense. I follow just under 350 people, after all, and am followed by around the same number–a far higher number than I am equipped to develop deep relationships with. And lots of people follow and are followed by far greater numbers than I.

The creaming together of the personal and the professional, the public and the private, means that ‘trivial’ social interactions in online social networks, however much they seem to replicate those that pepper our physical interactions, actually represent a new social animal whose form we have yet to fully sketch. We’re all kind of blindly feeling our way around the elephant here. We who embrace social media technologies can scoff at the person who says an elephant is like a water spout after feeling only its trunk, or the person who has felt a little more and argues it’s like a moving pillar topped off by a shithole, but we would do well to remember that in this parable, everyone who tries to describe the elephant, no matter how much of it he has touched, can only describe it by comparing it to objects he has previously encountered. Twitter is similar to a lot of things, but in the end it’s its own elephant, identical to nothing else we’ve seen before.

This is why, as Doctorow points out, people rely on personal experience and therefore read Twitter and similar networks as trivial and banal instead of deeply socially meaningful. But it’s also why we need to take care to treat the social meaning as different from that which emerges through other types of (digital or physical) social interactions.

Posted in Facebook, participatory culture, social media, social revolution, Twitter | 2 Comments »

response from Mark Bauerlein: on The Dumbest Generation

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on December 10, 2009

I recently received an email communication from Mark Bauerlein in response to my recent critique of his book, the Dumbest Generation.

I asked, and Bauerlein gave me permission, to post his response to my blog. Here it is, in its entirety:

Astonishing, Jenna, that you quote Liz Losh, who actually takes one disgruntled student’s comments on RateMyProfessors as evidence from which to generalize about my teaching.

If you have found any factual or logical errors in Dumbest Generation, I’ll be happy to concede them. After all, we want every harsh judgment in the book to be proven wrong.


Posted in awesome, education, new media, participatory culture | 2 Comments »

let’s all agree to pretend it’s not ironic that we ask experts to weigh in on the changing nature of expertise

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on November 20, 2009

An astounding phenomenon of participatory culture is this: If you toss yourself around in it enough, and you bang hard enough on everything you think might be a door, and you try to do your very best to toss yourself around and bang on doors in articulate, responsible, and interesting ways, sometimes you get lucky and someone opens the door to figure out what all the ruckus is about.

I got lucky this week, when CBC Radio called to interview me about new media literacy. The resulting interview, posted to the CBC program Spark, was my chance to try to say something reasonably articulate and unembarrassing about strategies for navigating the new credibility issues that emerge out of a cultural moment in which, as National Writing Project Co-Director Elyse Eidman-Aadahl put it in a recent panel on digital writing, we have the technologies and the potential to foster universal authorship in tandem with universal literacy.

The interview, with Spark host Nora Young, has been posted in full online (here and here). A shorter version will air on CBC Radio soon. Try not to pay attention to the eye-crossing, jaw-dropping irony of the argument I make that the very nature of expertise and credibility have changed, all the while acting as if I were an expert on the issue of expertise.

Another interesting feature of participatory culture is that there are still plenty of opportunities for people to act as the Sage on the Stage, despite the fact that the wisdom they impart often comes through deep collaboration and interaction with many people. In this case, the ideas I brought to this interview came through conversation with my buddies Rafi Santo, Katie Clinton, Michelle Honeyford and Becky Rupert. It’s strange to me sometimes that the person who makes the most noise so often ends up being the one who gets handed the bullhorn and an audience to address.

By the way, the example I give of the stakes in finding out the year Mickey Mantle was born came directly from Rafi Santo. I stole it and he deserves all the credit.

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