Digital Literacies for Writing in Social Media

The following is a shortened version of a talk I gave at the “Engaging the Public” symposium held at Washington & Jefferson College on Oct. 1. According to Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It, 65 percent of students entering school today will have careers in fields that haven’t been invented yet. While #IDontHaveFactsToBackThisUp, I’m willing to make the following prediction about writing: a full 100% of these students, at some point in their lives, will be required to use writing technologies that haven’t been invented yet.

Consider this: as recently as four years ago, who would have imagined that major companies would have employees whose jobs were to interact with customers on Twitter, or that someone could make a career out of writing for Facebook? Four years before that, not only did those jobs not exist, Twitter and Facebook didn’t exist, and the types of writing that they represent were only in their nascent form. As someone who teaches college students, what this says to me is that, in the space of two college graduation cycles, new genres of writing emerged and became dominant on the web.

The question we are faced with, then, is this: how do we prepare our students to write effectively in environments that don’t yet exist? While I’m sure there is more to add to this list, I suggest that there are three domains of literacy that, if students become aware of them, will prepare them for new digital writing environments. Namely, students should be aware of the speed of digital communications and the types of interactions that speed encourages, the ways in which digital writing environments preserve and provide access to data, and how writing technologies manage the divide between public and private.

Kairos of Digital Media

Every media has different needs with regard to the timing of communication. A 30-minute delay that is used to formulate a thoughtful response is perfectly fine with email but would be completely out of place in a face-to-face conversation or online chat. This suggests that the gestures that are the hallmarks of respect in one media are signs of disengagement and neglect in another.

Rhetoricians have long use the term kairos — the right word at the right time — to describe the ways in which the timing of communication is of paramount importance. While we have lots of information on the appropriateness of communication timing in media like print or face-to-face, it is difficult to generalize about these issues when media are new. For this reason, students need to gain experience actually participating in social media. The best way to understand the expectations of a particular medium is to participate in that medium and identify its genre expectations as they emerge.

It’s Not Someone Else’s Job to Preserve Your Data

One of the most interesting effects of digital media on writing has been the ways in which it has altered how we preserve and access information. Digital technologies offer users the tantalizing prospect of immutable information, and it is important that students don’t take this assumption for granted. Different media and technologies have different memories, and we have to make sure that our students don’t make casual assumptions about the future accessibility of the data they share online. Consider Facebook’s recent changes. While it used to be difficult to access older information on Facebook, the new changes allow users to more easily navigate through the archive of their posts. However, these changes don’t make Facebook a good archive. The site still controls your data and your access to it, and at any time they could decide to take away this access or limit it in whatever way they choose.

Students need to think of their online data along the dimensions of:

* accessibility
* searchability
* persistence

They should ask questions like: If my writing will be saved, who will save it? If not, who will get to decide if it is deleted? If so, will it be accessible to me later? To others I want to share it with? To others who I don’t want to share it with? These questions will cause them to examine how these features of their writing will effect the rhetorical situations — current and future — that their texts will address.

Know How to be Private and Public

Prior to digital communication, the medium of a text placed limitations on publicity or privacy of that text. For example, as recently as 75 years ago, books could only be copied with great difficulty or expense. In the analog world, the materiality of a medium determined the limits of its own shareablity. Digital communication eliminates this physical incompatibility between media: when all media are digital, all media are subject to the affordances of digital communication, most notably effortless copying and sharing. It doesn’t matter if the “text” in question is an audio recording, video, or series of characters (or some combination), all texts require forethought and planning with regard to who will be able to see them and who can’t. As more and more of our writing makes its way into digital form — and as the increasing use of biometrics and other forms of behavior monitoring turns our behaviors into volumes of data — it will become increasingly important for writers to take steps to ensure the integrity of their private data.

In short, teaching our students about the kairos of digital media, its accessibility and persistence, and the extent to which it is public and private will prepare them not only for the writing situations that they find themselves in now, but also those they will face in the future.

Banner image credit: Angélique ~