What is Digital Writing? What is Social Media?
Digital writing is a multifaceted and constantly evolving term. It not only refers to writing blogs posts and online articles, but also being multimodal: using images, as well as online platforms – social media – to reach a wide audience. Digital writing entails anything from a Buzzfeed post about the tragic evolution of Harry Styles’ hair, to a tweet about the glorious excitement of Grilled Cheese Day in the Caf, to even a Snapchat of your reunion with your dog over fall pause.
Social Media is the plural, collective term used to refer to social networking sites. In their article, “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship,” Danah Boyd and Nicole Ellison provide a three-tiered definition of ‘social networking’:
“Social network sites [are] web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system.” (Boyd and Ellison 211).
As such, social networking sites allow for individuals to connect with users who they know, or even make their work completely public, in order to connect with and share their ideas with people from across the globe. This expedites the spread of thoughts, ideas, and information, and in this way, social media revolutionizes human connections and interactions.
Social Media: an Effective Pedagogical Tool
Digital writing through using social media platforms is currently transforming the educational landscape. The incorporation of social media into the classroom setting provides students with a new and engaging way to convey their thoughts; it also strengthens their writing by forcing them to be meticulous with their spelling and grammar – since they are sharing it on the world’s digital stage – and often to be concise in their writing.
Leigh Wright, Assistant Professor of Journalism at Murray State University, is a strong proponent of incorporating digital writing through using social media into the classroom. In order to have his students practice writing for a public audience and to be concise, engaging writers, he has them use Twitter to tell stories. In the past, these stories came from live-blogging sessions, in which students tweeted about different events ranging from college basketball games to the college’s Presidential Lecture Series, featuring Spike Lee. He writes that these exercises, “challenged them [students] to take notes electronically and tweet on a deadline” as well as to write effectively and “concisely” (Tweet Me A Story). Leigh ultimately stresses the importance of using social media as a pedagogical tool because it gives “students the tools to develop their voice, tone, and unique writing style” (Tweet Me A Story). He also cites how after using Twitter in his journalism classes for two years, he has witnessed “clearer and more engaging writing” in students’ news stories (Tweet Me a Story).
Susan Kinzie also addresses the need to utilize social media platforms as teaching tools. In addition to writing about how professors use social media to encourage concise and engaging writing to “retain readers,” she also explains how an increasing number of college professors are “using Twitter to keep discussions going long after class is over, to share research, pose questions and gather information” (Kinzie 1). She also identifies the difficulty in personalizing student engagement in large lecture halls. Yet, she writes that Twitter is now being used in these larger lectures to “keep students engaged” and to foster “a running online dialogue during class” (Kinzie 1). In this sense, social media allows for the development and strengthening of student writing skills, and provides a way to keep every student engaged during class – even in a two hundred person lecture. Digital writing keeps the class discussion alive and thriving, thereby giving students the initiative to want to engage more with the material.
Academics are also starting to explore other forms of social media which are revolutionizing digital writing and communication, but haven’t necessarily made it to the classroom. One such social media application is Snapchat. Created and popularized within the last two to three years, Snapchat is a smart device-only social media application which allows people to take a picture, add a one-line caption and draw on the image, and then send the image to whomever they choose on their friends list.
However, Snapchat is different from any other sort of photo-messaging social media application because it only allows the receiver to view the image for one to ten seconds – depending on how long the sender chooses – before it disappears into digital oblivion. Sure, there are ways around making the received image “disappear forever,” such as having the sender save the image to their phone before sending it, or having the receiver take a screenshot of the image before it disappears. Yet, the basic premise behind Snapchat is for the sender to convey a short message along with an accompanying image, and for it all to disappear within the course of ten seconds.
In her article, “Why Snapchat is Valuable: It’s All About Attention,” Danah Boyd addresses how Snapchat is revolutionizing digital communication. Boyd writes that although Snapchat originally gained a negative stigma due to its possible inappropriate uses, it has completely changed the relationship between social media, content consumption through paying attention, and concise message conveyance. She writes,
“In a digital world where everyone’s flicking through headshots, images, and text without processing any of it, Snapchat asks you to stand still and pay attention to the gift that someone in your network just gave you […] Snapchat is a reminder that constraints have a social purpose, that there is beauty in simplicity, and that the ephemeral is valuable.” (Boyd 1).
Snapchat makes the receiver actually pay attention to what the sender is saying because the receiver has a limited time – ten seconds at most – to view it. It is impossible to just gloss over “snaps,” unlike with blog posts and Facebook messages, which readers can simply skim through due to a post’s length, or general disinterest. Snapchat heightens awareness, necessitates concise composition if the “snap” is including a message, enhances content reception, and therefore, revolutionizes digital writing and communication.
Social Media’s Role in My Academic Career
Social media has definitely had a positive impact on my academic career as well. Though the social media craze really began during my middle school years with MySpace – which my parents forbid me from joining – I did not begin using social media until my freshman year of high school when I joined Facebook. The utilization of digital writing and social media in the classroom did not occur until midway through my high school career. My junior year of high school was when I first became familiar with Twitter. In my English class, my teacher assigned a group project about Beowulf. We had the option of either writing a group research paper about character development in the epic poem, or we could collaborate on a creative project with a one to two page summary of our goals and methods. My group unanimously agreed to opt for doing the creative project.
At the time, Twitter was still a relatively new social media platform. I had only created a personal account about a month prior to this project, so I was still pretty unfamiliar with the site. However, my group and I thought that creating Twitter accounts for the major characters in Beowulf would be an engaging, and even fun, route to pursue for this project. We created Twitter accounts for Grendel, Grendel’s mother, Beowulf, and King Hrothgar, and we posted tweets that were original – not direct quotes from the epic poem – and that we felt were in line with each character’s established personality. We also had some of the characters interact with each other on Twitter; some genial, some combative, some threatening conversations were had. The interactions were dependent on the characters who were interacting.
Sadly, I cannot provide examples of direct tweets because these Twitter accounts have since been deactivated. However, I can attest to the success of the project. My teacher and classmates all thought that it was hilarious to see these characters in an entirely different context. In a way, it was kind of absurd, seeing these Old English folklore characters taking their problems and battles to social media. Twitter provided us with a new outlet of expression and communication; most of our classmates were not even on Twitter.
Using Twitter was also important in enhancing content comprehension. It was beneficial to the class because tweets are short, so they were concise, direct, and able to hold the class’ attention and interest. We also wrote the tweets in modern English, as opposed to directly quoting Old English passages. This made it easier to gain an understanding of the characters and their relationships to one another. I wish that I had the opportunity to do more of these interactive and creatively-stimulating projects using social media. But, unfortunately, I was too frequently required to write basic, reading comprehension essays, which were far less academically beneficial than this Twitter project.
Incorporating innovative social media projects into English course curricula will make learning and interacting with course materials more engaging. Similar projects to the one that I did in high school can be adopted to fit new social media platforms. Facebook pages could be created for different literary characters, or even authors, instead of Twitter accounts; students could then have the characters engage in debates relevant to their stories, or, in the case of authors, to their points of view. For the innovative artsy student, Snapchat could also be used to do a similar project; students could take pictures, transform themselves into different literary characters, and include a concise, one-line statement relevant to the character’s personality. Social media holds infinite possibilities in creating engaging projects for students.
Social Media: an Integral Part of Academia and Human Connection
Social media possesses transformative powers: it has revolutionized the ways in which we communicate with others, and it has the power to shape the future of education. By utilizing social media – including but not limited to Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and even Snapchat – in the classroom, teachers will provide students with an invaluable skill set; one which will help them think creatively and have a deeper engagement with learning materials, as well as one which will prove essential when entering the “real world.”
In her article, “Consider the Audience,” Jen Rajchel highlights how online platforms are “reconfigured regularly,” and how students who graduate with a knowledge of “historicized technological shifts and who are encouraged to recognize their experiences as part of a larger and longer framework of media change, are well-positioned to push the boundaries of their own scholarship” (Consider the Audience). In other words, to excel both academically and in their future employment, students must be digitally literate; they must have an extensive knowledge of how to write in the digital world through using social media platforms, in order to succeed.
Boyd, Danah. “Why Snapchat is Valuable: It’s All About Attention.” apophenia (blog). Web. 22 Oct 2014.
Boyd, Danah and Nicole B. Ellison. “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13.1 (2007): 210-213. Web. 25 Oct 2014.
Kinzie, Susan. “Some Professors Losing Their Twitter Jitters.” The Washington Post 2009: Academic OneFile. Web. 22 Oct 2014.
Rajchel, Jen. “Consider the Audience.” Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning (2013). Web. 02 Oct. 2014.
Wright, Leigh. “Tweet Me A Story.” Web Writing: Why & How for Liberal Arts Teaching & Learning, Michigan Publishing (2013). Web. 18 Oct. 2014.