Contributor: Jennifer Swartz
School Affiliation: Lake Erie College
With the increased presence of social media, including Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and texting, the way students communicate with others has changed significantly. These rapid new developments have also influenced the way people write. To help students see the ways in which writing is relevant to their everyday lives (and to make them think critically about their frequent lament that “I’ll never use writing anywhere but English class,”) I introduce Facebook and MySpace to the classroom where we look at these social networking sites as rhetorical texts. Since language is a means of constructing ourselves to the world, thinking about the ways in which we do so helps students to more fully engage in the composition process and understand how writing is a skill they will use more often and in more arenas than they initially can imagine.
Using electronic media as a means of teaching writing has its own set of dangers, however. We have to make sure our use of multimedia is not simply technology for technology’s sake, but rather that we examine these sites as texts—and that this distinction remain at the forefront of our teaching of writing. We must keep in mind a point Nicholas Burbules (2010) makes about reading on the web: “Reading is a practice, and as such it partakes of the context and social relations in which it takes place” (p. 102). To that end, as teachers of writing, we need to emphasize that writing does not occur in a vacuum, but rather is a set of rhetorical choices that always has an audience and a social context. This is particularly relevant for writing done on social media sites.
In order to help students see that this class isn’t simply an opportunity to check their friends’ status updates, we begin the course by examining how the ways they (or their children) communicate with peers has shifted radically with the advent of social media. To do so, we look at their Facebook and MySpace pages in class and discuss how they describe themselves, what songs they utilize, what pictures represent them, and whether they have set their profiles to private. In other words, we explore how they use rhetoric to construct an online identity and what the ramifications of those choices are.
Lewis Goodings, Abigail Locke, and Steven Brown (2007) assert that in an online context “identity [is] defined broadly as the construction and maintenance of a particular version or versions of one’s character, and is an omnipresent concern” (p. 464). Yet, students are often not aware of privacy issues; frequently, there is a disconnect between the virtual audience and the audience for whom they are writing. They have expressed themselves in cyberspace, much as they might express themselves in a private journal, but they have completely forgotten that members beyond their immediate circle might be consuming the information they publicize, interpreting it in different ways, and using it for different purposes.
As with all forms of communication, the message we intend to convey might not be the message that is received. Moreover, the ways in which we imagine an audience might not be consistent with the reality of that audience, since those who peruse our profiles are very often not the ones whom we envision will be doing so. By asking students to think about their profiles, they begin to see that their construction of an online identity is a specific set of rhetorical choices, each one dictated by how they want to depict themselves in an online environment.
Online construction of identity is a point which particularly interests the parents in the room. Members of this group often do not have their own MySpace or Facebook pages, so they look up their childrens’ pages. One parent found her daughter’s page and was surprised to find her daughter represented herself as 20 years old in her profile when, in fact, she was 16. This phenomenon is not unusual, and it allows the parents to see what rhetorical choices their children are making. This parent asked her daughter about WHY she portrayed herself as older and discovered that the daughter believed that she would be less likely to be stalked on the internet if she added years to her actual age. Her mother pointed out that it was very easy to tell from the pictures and the clothing with her high school logo that she was several years younger than she claimed. The daughter didn’t realize that the pictures she had selected told a much different story about who she was than the numbers that she had punched into the form describing her attributes.
The self we think we are portraying to the world via these pages is often not the one that is being “read” by an audience. The assumptions the daughter made about how her rhetorical choices would be understood were erroneous, and that led to a discussion of how the narratives we produce with language are often at odds with the ones that we construct with images, sound files, and other kinds of media. To project a fully integrated online identity means to examine each kind of media in order to see if the message being delivered is consistent across all boundaries. If the messages are different, it is important to explore why multiple versions of the self are being deployed online and what the perceived benefits of this strategy are.
The mother/daughter example became one that we were able to discuss in class as the students began to evaluate how the images they used reflected their own lives. Many of them had photos that indicated their majors, their school, and their hobbies; some had posted pictures that their parents would probably not want to see. In many ways, having grown up in this age of technology, the students were oblivious to the fact that these were not just any old pictures or any old text, but rather a set of decisions that told a story about who they chose to be to the world.
Many were unaware or unconcerned that these pages might follow them and be accessed by family members, admissions committees, or future employers. While some had set their profiles to “private,” they were, as Zeynep Tufekci (2008) contends, “less aware of, concerned about, or willing to act on possible ‘temporal’ boundary intrusions posed by future audiences because of persistence of data” (p. 330). Students often do not realize that once an image or status update has been posted to cyberspace, someone very clever could access former versions of their pages by working around the privacy settings, and that old data could come back to haunt them.
By using students’ pages in class discussion, not only are we able to think about the public selves they create and their reasons for doing so, but also we are able to incorporate different kinds of literacies in the classroom. Specifically, I ask them to consider the following questions:
- How has electronic media changed the way we communicate in general?
- How is your communication pattern different from when you weren’t texting or using Facebook, MySpace, and/or Twitter?
- How has the way you communicate on social media sites changed the way you communicate when you’re off-line?
- How are our public and private personas different? Why? For what purposes?
- What deliberate choices have you made in crafting your online persona? Why?
The larger paper led to students commenting about their papers on each others’ MySpace pages, so that the assignment crossed over from the real world to the virtual one. Students were still not as aware of presentation of self as they might otherwise have been (several of them posted comments to each other about class attendance, for example, that showed up on the MySpace page they had created for me). However, they also used their MySpace pages to share class assignments and to find out from others what had happened if they had missed a session. For a semester, their MySpace pages became another text, one which enabled us to examine the choices we make when presenting ourselves to the world, especially when we are doing so in a rapidly evolving medium like the internet. In many ways, then, MySpace and Facebook have sparked a different way for all of us to think about writing and communicating by allowing us to discuss the rhetorical construction of the self as well as reassess how we engage with and use these developing technologies. Finally, we are able to think about how media of this type has collapsed the boundaries between public and private discourse and how we can successfully negotiate the increasingly blurred lines between our public and private selves.
Generally, I was quite pleased with the way this assignment worked since it enabled students to think and write about the online construction of self. In future versions of this course, I plan to add components in which we can take our discussions of online selves into an even more multimodal format by encouraging discussion of papers in the chat feature of our course management system. I also plan to follow up on one of the student’s suggestions that we create a Facebook page for our class. This could add another layer of discussion regarding online constructions of self, interrogating not only who are you when you’re online, but also who are you when you’re part of an online university community to which your professor also belongs. What rhetorical choices do you make then? These kinds of discussions could provide a useful means by which to examine the ways in which we are many selves in the online world. How we fashion those identities often is dependent on just who is out there with us.
Burbules, Nicholas C. (2010). Rhetorics of the web: Hyperreading and critical literacy. In Ilana Snyder (Ed.), Page to screen: Taking literacy into the electronic era. London: Routledge. Retrieved from http://faculty.ed.uiuc.edu/burbules/papers/rhetorics.html
Goodings, Lewis, Locke, Abigail, & Brown, Steven D. (2007). Social networking technology: Place and identity in mediated communities. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 17, 463-76.
Tufekci, Zeynep. (2008). Can you see me now?: Audience and disclosure regulation in online social network sites. Bulletin of Science, Technology, and Society, 20-36.