Pretty much all I teach these days are classes on the study of writing in digital communities. For 15 weeks, students in my undergraduate and graduate courses embed themselves in a space of their choosing and investigate how participants write, read, communicate, and think in that digital network. I’ve had the pleasure of reading studies on interesting linguistic constructions like the “because noun” and “I can’t even.” I’ve learned about the ways that language gets debated on the black hole that is Tumblr, and I’ve witnessed countless ragequits and twittercides as they are documented and analyzed by the student scholars in my classes who write with clarity and confidence about the people in the communities they study throughout the semester.
We talk about the difference between image macros and memes (they are often taken to mean the same thing, where one is actually a subset of the other). We construct research questions that often boil down to: “Why would anyone waste their time on that?” We then design qualitative (short term) ethnographic studies that attempt to account for why people spend hours a day buying and selling pixelated items in virtual auction houses, or why it’s not cool to retweet a post from someone’s protected account. Students have taught me the difference between “bro” and “brah,” learned via investigative research into fantasy sports leagues. They’ve explained doge to me in ways I could have never possibly understood without their assistance. Best of all, we have learned together how difference is best appreciated when experienced firsthand. The rest of the world may not understand my obsession with flowcharts, but my fellow Pinterest users sure do. To them, it makes perfect sense why anyone would want to spend hours a day curating their niche collections of taxidermy photos and DIY lip balm recipes.
I’ve always believed that to study language is to study people. Studying how people write and value texts and paratexts in their everyday lives is to appreciate perspectives that were perhaps previously misunderstood. From the insides of these communities, we can make and share meaning in ways that feel different and somehow new. Take, for example, the 19-year-old Tumblr user who created a comic about white privilege. The comic itself generated a huge buzz and loads of negative backlash from nasty Tumblr users. But in the end, it’s a teaching moment for those of us who study the ways that people use Internet-based writing spaces to communicate with one another. On the one hand, this communicative form enables hate and ignorance in countless ways. On the other hand, it exposes hate and ignorance in concrete, readable, consumable ways, too. The raw, unedited, unfiltered Internet communities are rich with opportunities to teach students about the power of language and text. I believe strongly in exposing students to both the bloody awful and the radically accepting ways that digital textual communities shape our lives.
In 2006, I was a co-author on a white paper titled “Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century,” primarily written by one of my mentors, Henry Jenkins. In that piece we wrote about something we called “the transparency problem.” The “transparency problem” is the notion that adults (educators, parents, mentors, media makers) often mistakenly assume that because young people are “born digital” as “digital natives” (an idea, by the way, I wholeheartedly disagree with) they must be so rhetorically skilled at interpreting media messages that they don’t need our help “to see clearly the ways that media shape perceptions of the world” (p. 3). While it is definitely true that some people younger than I am are more knowledgeable about digital tools and communities than I am, it is equally true that I still have plenty to teach them about these spaces, too. That’s why we work on understanding these spaces together. Shared understandings of shared languages, artifacts, and activities enable us to become better thinkers and writers, and that, in turn, enables us to share better thinking and writing with other communities, like the folks participating in this Sprint Beyond the Book. Thanks for reading, and feel free to invite me to understand your weirdo niche subreddit or strangely addictive Pinterest board.