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Rikki writes.

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It May Not Have Levar Burton, but Goodreads is the New Reading Rainbow

Remember Reading Rainbow?  It was a television show…about reading.  Even though I was quite young when this show aired (we both premiered in 1983), I remember watching it and thinking, “There is something odd about this.  Shouldn’t I be reading books?”

But Reading Rainbow had the right idea.  The 1980’s were a great time for children’s television: Fraggle Rock, Inspector Gadget, He-Man and She-Ra all debuted in the 1980’s.  The founders of Reading Rainbow decided to leverage the increase in children’s television viewing to promote reading, instead of throwing their hands up and concluding that television was literature’s nemesis.

Goodreads, a social networking site that allows people to share what they’ve read and view what their friends have read, followed Reading Rainbow’s lead.  Founded in 2006, it jumped on the social media train just a couple of years after it started picking up serious steam.  The logic behind Goodreads is essentially the same logic behind the Facebook “like” button. (In fact, you’ll soon be able to connect your Goodreads profile to your Facebook profile.)  We are more interested in the recommendations of our friends than of strangers, and so if my friend has read a book, I might be interested in reading it too. Building off of the power of a good suggestion, Goodreads has made headlines in the last few weeks after it launched a Netflix-like recommendation system.

Goodreads takes advantage of the most popular features of social media, including “The Legitimization Effect.”  There’s something very satisfying about closing a book (or reaching the last screen on my Kindle) and then clicking “I’m finished” on Goodreads.  It simultaneously gives me a sense of accomplishment and lets me brag about being a fast reader (in your face, world!).

The site is also spot-on in making it easy for users to buy, buy, buy (something that Facebook hasn’t always been great at).  When a Goodreads user finds a book she likes, she can quickly click on clearly visible links to Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and eBay (among others) and even compare pricing without leaving the Goodreads site.

Even though Goodreads, like any business, has a commercial purpose, it is using new media to promote reading and the appreciation of literature, an idea that me, and around 6 million other Goodreads users, are firmly behind.

It seems like every time a news story airs about the damaging effects of excessive online activity, people get all fire and brimstone on social media.  Yes, it’s true, we shouldn’t be spending all day every day on Facebook, stalking people we barely know or posting every move we make.  But Goodreads is an example of how more traditional forms of learning and media, like literature, can peacefully and symbiotically coexist with new media.

Should We Let Facebook in the Classroom?

I didn’t have it too bad in high school. I had several things going for me: great relationships with my mom, dad, and sister, a series of mostly well-mannered boyfriends who maintained the appearance of being interested in me outside of their cars’ backseats, and a stellar report card. I wasn’t spoiled, but I did have quite a few amenities: a used car, a cell phone, a new prom dress every year. Aside from a few isolated episodes, I stayed away from trouble, and trouble stayed away from me.

But like every American teenager, I did have my fair share of high school drama, and when I wanted to express my angst, I wrote poetry. There were injustices in the world—boys occasionally did not return my calls, my curfew was a full hour earlier than that of my friends, the gas station that sold me cigarettes was shutting down—and these injustices needed to be released via the written word. The blood jet is poetry, there is no stopping it, I thought, as I put on my Ani Difranco CD and scribbled in my composition notebook.

Most of my friends in high school did not share my love of writing and had a particularly strong aversion to poetry. I remember one classmate lamenting over a sonnet: “Why doesn’t Shakespeare just say what he means?”

Because the overwhelming majority of my peers found poetry frustrating and deliberately vague, I rarely shared my work with my friends.  There was, and still is, an unfortunate stigma attached to creative writing, especially poetry, among teenagers.  Expressing oneself in poetry is the antithesis of the “whatever” culture, which dictates that too much enthusiasm for anything is un-cool.

And yet, based on the Facebook status updates of the few high schoolers I am friends with (mostly family friends’ kids– I’m not creepy), young people are currently expressing themselves in writing several times an hour. Sure, status updates aren’t poetry, and abbreviations and emoticons abound, but these kids are creating—inventing and reinventing their identities through photos, status updates, shared content, and comments.

The experts are saying that social media has become an addiction for young people, especially young girls, and has detrimental effects on their psyches. (I’ll admit that I am exceedingly grateful that I graduated high school well before the dawn of Facebook and Twitter.) Still, doesn’t it make sense to incorporate social media into Language Arts education, to encourage students to approach social media—and all media—with the same critical eye necessary to analyze literature?

Experimental and New Media Poetry, which departs from the printed page and is created and distributed electronically, seems well-suited for this endeavor. It’s fluid, it’s interactive, it elicits and often requires reader participation. Incorporating a social element into the study of poetry is a completely natural and industry-acceptable move, as most MFAs and PhDs in creative writing would tell you: workshop, feedback, and sharing is their life.

But instead some states seem hell-bent on legally preventing teachers from interacting with their students via social media. Their reasoning is that preventing “private” or “exclusive” interaction between teacher and student protects children from sexual predators. The public school system, they say, has an obligation to protect students from sexually aggressive teachers.

Obviously, I’m not an advocate for sexual predators. But most teachers are not sexual predators nor would they ever dream of having an inappropriate exchange with a student. There are many teachers out there–creative, motivated, dedicated teachers—that want to engage children and help them see that their social experiences are worth putting in writing. Why not let them use social media to their advantage?

If A Couple Gets Engaged In The Woods But No One Is There To Post About It On Facebook, Did It Really Happen?

My husband proposed to me in July 2006.  Back then I divided my limited social media time equally between MySpace and Facebook. Other mediums like Twitter, WordPress, LinkedIn—these weren’t even on my radar (or didn’t exist yet).  Though my husband proposed to me in Venice, Italy and we refrained from writing about it online, people found out about our engagement through social media much more quickly than we could announce it.  Within a few days of returning from my trip, I received congratulatory emails, calls, posts, and texts from people who I either hadn’t told about the engagement or, in some cases, hadn’t spoken to in years.

A high school friend I follow on Twitter aptly tweeted a few weeks ago, “They should just change the name of Facebook to LookIHadABabyBook.”  Well said.  The “first generation” of Facebook, people like me who were in college between 2004 and 2006 when Facebook  launched and was exclusively used by  university students, are now in their mid to late twenties.  We are getting engaged, tying the knot, having babies, and the Facebook announcement is just one of many of the important steps in the process.  Proclaiming nuptial arrangements or expected additions to the family isn’t a fad, it’s become an integrated part of the rituals surrounding these events, and now young people have several new rules of etiquette to worry about when spreading their happy news.

First, bestowing groundbreaking news to close friends and family before it is announced on Facebook is considered a sign of intimacy.  This requires the recently engaged or newly pregnant to rapidly contact the people that they want to personally tell about the news—ie their real friends—,  remind the listener to abstain from posting anything about the news on Facebook (yet),  and vigorously monitor their Facebook profile, just in case.  Even an innocuous wall post of “So happy for you guys!” can sound the alarms.  If a close friend reads the news on your wall before hearing it from you, be prepared for an irritated email.  Once you make your engagement or bun in the oven “Facebook public,” the friends that knew first will make sure to reaffirm their status in your life by making the social universe aware that they already knew about your announcement with posts like, “Just want to say congratulations again, in addition to when I said it on Saturday when you told me face-to-face over coffee.”

Once you’ve shared your news with your real-life friends, it’s important to announce it online as well, because it’s not legitimate until it’s on Facebook.  Changing a relationship status to “in a relationship with [insert name here]” has become a formal development in budding relationships.  In fact,  one of my Facebook friends was married this past Saturday and updated her Facebook relationship status to “married” on Saturday evening, just a few hours later.  (Listen, I’m a big social media advocate, but, really?  Shouldn’t you be doing other things, like consummating your marriage?)  Likewise, the appropriate way to announce an engagement involves changing your relationship status to “engaged” and replacing your profile picture with a diamond ring.  The same rules apply for pregnancy announcements—change your profile pic to an ultrasound photo, and watch the wave of small virtual thumbs up’s come rolling in.  Facebook has replaced the birth announcement and the purchased portion of the newspaper as the “official” manner of telling the world about life changes.

Part of the legitimatizing power of Facebook is, of course, the convenience of distributing information to hundreds of people simultaneously.  The problem with leveraging Facebook to make things official, though, is that you are sharing a personal development with both friends and acquaintances, acquaintances that you don’t really plan on including in the fun, free-alcohol-provided events that accompany your personal news like parties, showers, and receptions.  I know from experience that when you get engaged, old friends come crawling out of the social woodwork, eyes aglow with thoughts of open-bars and passed hour devours.   Using Facebook to distribute event details only encourages this behavior.  It’s also not very efficient.  A bride-to-be that I know just used Facebook to remind wedding guests that the special hotel room rate available with her block was expiring in a few days.  A courteous message intended to help her guests save money—but how many of her 978 Facebook friends were actually invited to the wedding?  No more than 100 or so, and probably much less than that.   To avoid the awkward social moments that will ensue when you start receiving “Let’s catch up!” messages 30 minutes after you post about your destination wedding in St. Lucia, it’s best to use other platforms to share these details.

Is Facebook the High School We Never Leave?

Though most people do personally know at least some of their Facebook friends, Twitter followers, and LinkedIn connections, we tend to be less inhibited when we share on these platforms, as we might in a crowd of people who don’t really know us.  For young people, the disembodied, anonymous feeling of social media communication can have painful, even dangerous consequences, as revealed by numerous blogs, studies, and articles about cyberbullying.  Rachel Simmons’ re-release of her best-selling and groundbreaking book Odd Girl Out includes several new chapters that specifically address the role of social media in young girls’ lives.  Emboldened by distance and something like invisibility, young people say things to each other or about themselves that they would never say face-to-face, on the phone, or in the presence of an adult.  Since social media and the internet are clearly not just a trend, Simmons and other experts urge parents to talk to their kids about social media, encourage media literacy and education, and be aware of and involved in their child’s online life.  But are kids the only ones that are engaging in hurtful or destructive behavior online?

Adults, too, use social media, particularly Facebook, in a way that reveals insecurities, jealousies, concealed emotions—all the angst-y behavior that we typically associate with adolescence.  Just like kids, when adults are alone, bathed in the white glow of the computer screen, they tweet, post, and message impulsively.

For example, A particularly common adolescent behavior performed by adults on Facebook is the underhanded-asking-for-sympathy status update.  The status could be fairly straightforward, something like, “Could it get any worse?” or perhaps it’s a famous quote that refers to hard times, “What doesn’t kill me only makes me stronger, right?”  These fishing-for-praise/compliments posts are usually successful, eliciting a few comments, maybe even a “like.”

Another go-to is the passive aggressive status update: “I’m so tired of selfish people” or “No more second chances,” messages that clearly have an intended party, but don’t name them.   Obviously the unspecified recipient must be listening (ie reading), or else the post wouldn’t have been written.  Broadcasting a private argument or conflict to hundreds of people—if that’s not bullying, what is?

A less public but just as deliberate regressive behavior is stalking—spending hours and hours sifting through pictures of ex-boyfriends, former rivals, or secret crushes.  Measuring the waistline of the woman who married your college sweetheart or comparing the growth of your former classmate’s baby to your own—these tasks are masochistic.  Why do we put ourselves through it?  Is it because we just can’t help it?  The temptation, the access to that information, is difficult to resist.

A disclaimer: I am addicted to Facebook, and I acknowledge that not all people use it in this way.  Some adults really do use Facebook just to keep in touch with friends, share pictures with their family, or promote their business.  Some people would never dream of posting in the manner I just described.  But we all have at least one friend that does, and chances are we’ve never approached them about it.  This behavior is risky and reflects poorly on the writer, though, especially since so many of us use social media to keep in touch with our coworkers, and since so many employers use social media to check out candidates.

At the risk of sounding too “the children are our future,” I have to ask—how can we demand that our children (well, not my children—I don’t have any.  But kids in general.) learn to act responsibly and maturely online when the average adult demonstrates so many childish behaviors in the same space?  When a grown woman posts “So tired…in the emergency room all night” and only later (and privately) reveals that she was there because she nicked her thumb while cutting a bagel, do we tell her that she is the boy who cried wolf?  No, but we would tell that to a fourteen year old.

And here’s my larger question– are these behaviors really childish, or are they just human?  Do we ever truly grow out of the need to bully, fish for compliments, and spy on people, or was the opportunity to act on these urges simply not as present until social media came along?  Is Facebook a high school we never graduate from?

Can We Be Thoughtful in 140 Characters?

In response to my most recent post about McLuhan and social media, Bob McCannon, President of Action Coalition for Media Education (an organization with an honorable mission, check it out here) asked me this:If McLuhan is right, what does that mean for the quality of the culture created by messages communicated by short tweets and even shorter texts. Do we not lose the considerations crucial to a complex understanding of the complexities of life, love, democracy, etc.? Is our disdain for detail responsible for knee jerk reactions of today’s media pundits and politicians?”

Bob implies that brevity mandates excluding details, and that our culture’s obsession with brevity, with tiny tweets and texts transporting important information and complex ideas to thousands of readers simultaneously, has created an atmosphere in which the majority of people dismiss the critical details. Furthermore, he’s arguing that there is a danger in this move away from the details. Without the complicated particulars, we may be losing the ability to understand larger ideas, ideas that successful, engaged, voting adults must understand.

I agree that the brevity of tweets, texts, and other social media interactions has certainly had detrimental effects on the way young people are communicating. When I taught writing courses to undergrads at the University of Utah, I was shocked at how often inappropriate abbreviations and slang showed up in academic papers. Students used “thru” for “through” or “u” for “you,” for example, and sentence fragments abounded. I shouldn’t have been surprised, as Bob and ACME report that an alarming percentage of Americans can’t read 7th grade material. If adults can’t read simple grade-school literature and use short forms of social media as their main communication medium, how will they be able to understand the important issues they’ll be asked to vote upon? It’s frustrating for me, as someone who grew up with literature and is passionate about the written word, that texts and tweets have become the new vernacular.

This leads me to a larger question, though: if the message is short, can the content be rich? Does brevity imply simplicity? I don’t think so. Content can’t be measured in characters. Many poets would agree with me. Consider Ezra Pound’s poem “In a Station of the Metro” that he famously trimmed down from 30 lines to 2:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
petals on a wet, black bough.”

In his 1918 essay “A Retrospect,” Pound wrote, “Use no superfluous word, no adjective which does not reveal something.” There’s a long tradition in English literature (in all literature, really– think of the haiku) of communicating important, beautiful images in condensed forms.

This isn’t to say that tweets should be compared to poems. Of course we can’t compare the seething restraint in Dickinson’s ten line verses to the poorly written tweets out there (one today from a young Tweeter: “#dearyoungself This too shall pass. And that. But will give you a spine of steel. Then fun part.” Um, what?) However, we could argue that there’s a precedent for embracing shorter forms of communication as valuable. If brief content can’t be rich, then lengthy content must be, and we all know from watching rambling political speeches that this isn’t true.

I’ve only recently started using Twitter, and I must admit that I adore it. For me, it’s not the tweets, it’s the links. Though the tweets themselves are short, grammatically incorrect, jumbled (etc), they almost always refer readers to a more complex article, story, or video via a link. Some anecdotal evidence of Twitter’s positive effects: I have a friend who used to be very apathetic about the news, particularly international news. Now that’s he on Twitter and follows a handful of politically minded celebrities who tweet links to news stories and opinion pieces, he’s much more informed.

So is it the brevity of mediums that can lead to knee-jerk reactions, or is it their social element? If you use Twitter to follow the news, think about the degree to which your news could be biased based on who you follow. If you’re a conservative and you’ve chosen to follow Sarah Palin, Fox News, and the Tea Party, and use their links to keep up with the day’s breaking news, you’ll end your day chest-high in ideas in which you were already knee-deep. Likewise, if you’re a liberal who follows Cecile Richards, Stephen Colbert, and President Obama, you’ll end up in the same situation. The news is becoming increasingly social, just look at the Huffington Post. It’s brilliant, it makes money, but it doesn’t necessarily encourage challenging oneself to consider another point of view. We don’t use social media to connect with people we don’t agree with. We “like” things like ourselves.

As I said in my last post, we must approach media critically. The medium doesn’t just deliver, it constructs. None of what I’m saying is new, of course. Cultural theorists and media educators like Bob McCannon and his cohorts at ACME have been making this point for quite some time, as do professors and graduate students at most academic institutions. But this point isn’t made nearly enough in the mainstream media. It’s no longer enough to be literate; we need to be media literate as well.

Marshall McLuhan: 100 Years Later, then Six Years Ago

Marshall McLuhan, famous academic and cultural theorist who studied our relationship with media, was born 100 years ago this week (On the Media produced an excellent story commemorating his birthday.  Check it out here.).  I was introduced to McLuhan in my first Cultural Studies class at the University of Virginia and was fascinated by his prophetic conclusions about media.  His ideas about the importance of the medium as tantamount to the content (his famous phrase: “the medium is the message”) and that the media affects not only what we think about but how we think were framed by the appearance of the television in the homes of Americans in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  What struck me, though, is how applicable his theories were to contemporary forms of communication, like instant messaging and the internet.  After hearing On the Media’s story about McLuhan’s quirky, complicated ideas, I dug up one of my old papers about him.  In the short six years that have passed since I wrote the paper about how McLuhan’s observations can be applied to the internet,the way we use the internet to communicate has advanced quite a bit.  To show how, let’s look at some of my points from 2005.

A younger version of me wrote: “McLuhan suggests that when a media of communication becomes the dominant form, making the previous form outdated, the outdated media does not disappear but rather conforms to the rules of the dominant form. This seems to be the case as the internet becomes the dominant media of communication.  In the 90’s, as the internet became increasingly popular, several movies such as The Net, Hackers, and You’ve Got Mail used the internet as their main topic.  Popular television shows such as The O.C. acknowledge that internet is a dominant form of communication, incorporating the language of instant messaging into their dialogues.”

There’s more compelling evidence today to support the idea that television isn’t disappearing, but adapting.  Television networks are going much further now to use the internet as a complimentary, not competing, medium.  Most shows have websites where viewers can learn more about actors and view extra material unavailable on TV, like webisodes, outtakes, and interviews.  Some television shows even offer their episodes for free on the internet the day after they air (although some networks are changing this policy).  Many networks have been able to leverage social media, mainly Twitter and Facebook, to both engage their audience and improve their content.  At the Digital Media Conference East (DMCE) earlier this summer, Gayle Weiswasser, VP of Social Media for Discovery, reported that she closely monitors the Twittersphere while new shows air to gather audience feedback.  Along the same lines, many shows are combating the power of the DVR by promoting live tweets with actors during the show’s timeslot, encouraging viewers to watch the show live (with all those money-making ads) and interact with the stars of the show on Twitter.

My younger self’s ruminations on instant messaging reveal a stark contrast between online communication of 2005 and 2011.  I wrote, “A conversation via AIM could be classified under McLuhan’s system as a `cool’ medium.  Cool mediums require the viewer to fill in gaps of information, engaging multiple senses and creating a very active and interested user.  During AIM conversations, very little information is provided to participators.  The subject must fill in the aspects of conversation that are missing: sound, intonation and inflection of the voice, emotion, and facial expressions.  Because all this information must be supplied, AIM certainly engages the user as a whole.”  How quickly things change.  Just a few years later, AIM is a completely outdated form of communication, replaced by G-chat, Twitter, and Facebook messaging.  The basic characteristics of instant messaging have stayed the same, despite the different companies that host them, but I’m still skeptical of my previous classification of instant messaging.  I’m not sure that it’s a popular medium because it engages our senses and requires us to fill in gaps of information.  In fact, it’s the gaps themselves that make the medium popular.  We like this form of communication because it allows us to multi-task, to use multiple forms of social media simultaneously.  It’s the ease with which we can disengage that makes it useful.

This isn’t to say that McLuhan’s theories can’t be at all applied to this medium.   McLuhan also argued that the younger generation of his time would develop a new way of thinking because they grew up with television as the dominant media of communication.  He said the younger generation demands more participation in classes, discussion instead of reading, etc., because television is a cool and participatory medium.  The same holds true for the younger generation today that has been raised in a world of instant messaging.  Many young folks offend their older colleagues when they check their smartphones for new email during meetings or reply to a text during lunch.  They simply assume that conversation involves some element of interruption.

McLuhan’s ideas about media were (are) groundbreaking, thought-provoking, and, at times, difficult.  In particular, his writings about technology as the extension of or even the replacement of the self, for example, “When you are on the phone or on the air, you have no body.”  But it’s these “Mcluhanisms” that are most relevant today, as we project ourselves into the world via digital media.  We’re not just communicating our ideas but our selves, via photos, language, videos, and connections.  The ability to create and recreate our self through digital media leads people to questions about when and how are virtual selves and real selves disconnect.  I subscribe to a LinkedIn group called “Digital Marketing” and was swept up in the myriad of responses that the post “What happens to your digital profile when you die?”  It’s questions like these that McLuhan encourages us to ask.

Whether or not we agree with his metaphysical take on media and language, we should celebrate his legacy and continue to examine our media (ourselves) through a critical lens.

My Grandmother and Her Social Media

I can judge my grandmother’s health by the number of chain e-mails she sends me per day. On days when she’s feeling particularly energetic, she’ll send me four or five. The subjects of these emails, when they’re not cut off by the browser on account of the “FW:FW:FW” that precedes them, are exercises in persuasion: “MUST READ: UNBELIEVABLE SANDCASTLES” or “Staircase vs. Elevator: BRILLIANT-MUST WATCH!” or “SISTERHOOD- Let’s see who sends this back to me, don’t break the chain!” These emails make my inbox look like that of my AOL account circa 1999.

My grandmother first started sending me chain emails three years ago, when she was introduced to the internet and email. Unaware of advanced email capabilities like Bcc’ing or copy/pasting, Grandma would simply click “forward” and blast the chain emails to her entire address book. It took me several minutes to scroll through the previous email headers to finally get to the real content of the email. After a few months, when it became clear that Grandma’s forwards would be a daily occurrence, I began to ignore them. If she wanted to speak to me, or share something with me, wouldn’t she send it to me directly, instead of everyone she had ever emailed? Who really expects responses to mass-emails, anyway?

Grandma did. When I called her, she would ask if I saw her email about staying safe in parking garages or the hidden cleaning powers of Coke. She actually expected me to not only read, but respond to her emails. That’s when I realized that chain emails are my grandmother’s social media.

Think about it: when you post a You Tube video to your wall on Facebook, you’re instantly distributing it to hundreds of people. Surely you don’t have your friends list memorized, but you might have a few people in mind who you believe might find this video particularly funny. When they don’t respond—or when no one responds—don’t you feel disappointed, or even slighted? Despite the mass distribution, you expect a response. So did my Grandma. What’s more, my Grandma considered the content of those chain emails her content. By taking ownership (authorship?) of the content in the email and sending it out to her friends and family, she was making a statement that the content was a representation of herself and her ideas. We perform the same re-purposing when we share on Facebook. We post funny quotes or compelling news stories because we hope our friends will enjoy them, but we also hope the masses will see the content as a reflection of ourselves, of our humor, of our interests.

Grandma, despite her late debut into the virtual world, understands that online media is social. She expects, she demands, that social interaction will accompany her media. She propels her chain emails out into the world as a projection of herself and is unsatisfied when the world doesn’t respond. Her attitude is testimony to the increasingly social, collaborative nature of online media of all kinds. It’s no longer enough to read a news article– we want to read it, comment on it, read others’ comments, and then share it with our friends (both real and virtual).

I’m interested in how the social element of online media affects our language, our expectations of the results of language, and the way we employ language to persuade others. What do you think

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