Engage in the dynamism of ecological composition
Anonymous social media platforms like Yik Yak present theoretical and pedagogical challenges for our field as we work to understand their prevalence in university settings. While identity and community are concepts frequently utilized in conversations about profile-based social media sites (boyd, 2011), these concepts are not as useful when discussing Yik Yak and related platforms, for two main reasons. First, personal profiles, which allow users to express many facets of their identities, are not a major aspect of the application; and second, the network of this application is determined by geographic coordinates, rather than interests or pre-existing social networks. As a result, anonymous social media applications are more heavily influenced by situational forces—forces that, by their very definition, shift and change constantly.
This shifting nature requires a theoretical frame that embraces these situational realities and illuminates the relationships between different factors that influence exchanges on applications like Yik Yak. Collin Gifford Brooke (2009) pointed out that ecology has become a "crucial framework" suited for the interrogation of media that "paradoxically, grow increasingly interconnected and global, on the one hand, and ever more diverse and intricate, on the other hand" (p. 28). Yik Yak was one of many platforms that represent this growth, as it utilized mobile technology and anonymity in order to craft complex networks that we require careful navigation.
Applying an ecological framework to explore anonymous social media platforms, as this webtext does in its examination of Yik Yak, necessitates that we view the networks crafted by these platforms as distributed across many nodes, and influenced by interactions between these nodes. Anonymity, illustrated in Yik Yak by the lack of personal profiles and publicly-displayed user names, re-directs attentions normally placed on identity and community-building, allowing us to more clearly see the influence of time, place, and feeling (or affect) upon exchanges via the application. Further supporting the use of an ecological framework, these factors emerged from student reflections on this assignment that asked them to explore and intervene in the once-dynamic network of Yik Yak, as a way to illustrate the shifting nature of writing in digital spaces.
Characteristics of Ecologies
Ecologies are made up of parts distributed across a number of sites. Sidney Dobrin (2012) argued that the "spatial, relational, and complex" nature of writing makes it an "ecological phenomenon" (p. 2), presumably one that continues to increase in complexity as more ways of connecting (like social media) are introduced. Jenny Edbauer (2005) maintained that "writing is distributed across a range of processes and encounters," including the use of a keyboard, the reactions of a "writing body," and the events that unfold when writing in a group (p. 13). When students pick up their phones and open up an application like Yik Yak, their experience is at the intersection of several encounters: the use of their phones, the availability of wireless or mobile data, their particular geographic location, as well as previous experiences and associations with the application. This convergence of everyday factors represents the constant presence of these networks that are being crafted and traversed by our students.
While the presence of individual parts or nodes is undoubtedly important in the makeup of any ecology, the relationships between these parts are perhaps even more important. Edbauer noted the work of Lloyd Bitzer on the rhetorical situation, which complicated static sender-receiver models of communication by asserting that communicative exchanges are influenced by situational factors; however, rather than accepting these individual factors as determinants, Edbauer pushed beyond, arguing for an ecological notion of rhetoric, which takes into account "temporal, historical, and lived fluxes" (p. 9) that shape rhetorical exchanges. In addition to the external forces that shape all communication, we ought to think more ecologically about technological interfaces and how they are "about the relations we construct with each other…through the artifacts we make for each other" (Wysocki & Jasken, 2004, p. 33). Thus interfaces and their content are intertwined; the types of posts on Yik Yak and the anonymous and hyperlocal nature of the application were intricately tied together, as students referenced in this webtext continually observed.
Wherever there are nodes, and relationships between different nodes, there will undoubtedly be shifts—as digital media shows us time and time again. "Ecologies…are in constant flux. Ecologies are vast, hybrid systems of intertwined elements, systems where small changes can have unforeseen consequences that ripple far beyond their immediate implications" (Brooke, p. 28). The relationships between situational factors (such as time of week and geographic location, or the attentions of the users and current events, connections pointed out by students in this study) constantly change, though the ecologies themselves continue to thrive; though in its prime, Yik Yak networks perpetually existed as spaces where students could log on and engage, the content and connections changed each time our students opened the application.
Applying an Ecological Framework to Anonymous, Mobile Social Media Platforms
Ultimately, if we adopt this ecological framework to examine the use of anonymous mobile social media platforms, we might see more clearly the forces beyond user identity that impact user experiences—multiple forces that produce both collaboration and isolation on these networks. Brooke wrote that using ecology as a metaphor for digital platforms allows us to "focus our attention on a temporarily finite set of practices, ideas, and interactions without fixing them in place or investing too much critical energy in their stability" (p. 42), providing room for forces subject to frequent shifts.
In this webtext, I focus on three main themes that students identified in their written work:
- Time, as a force that manifests in multiple, and different ways;
- Place, as a layered concept with varied and sometimes conflicting meanings; and
- Intensity of feeling or affect, which users engaged as they drew closer in relation to objects or experienced interruptions in this process.
Each of these themes flows into the others, and while this webtext presents them on different pages, each example that I draw on contains elements of each of these factors.
I’d like to make a quick note on the use of the terms "affect," "emotion," and "feeling" in this webtext: affect theory is a complex area of study, featuring a host of different definitions of these terms. In my discussions about affect, I draw heavily from Sara Ahmed and Susanna Paasonen's (2015) work, most simply casting affect as a representation of our movements towards things we find pleasing, and away from those we do not. Deborah Hawhee argued that in order to better understand contemporary rhetorical exchanges, "rather than rehearsing the accepted division between emotion and affect…perhaps we should exploit the intensity of feeling, or at least dwell there for awhile" (p. 12). Following her work, and striving to use the terms provided by Ahmed and Paasonen accurately, I use both "affect" and "feeling" to convey the intensities that students wrote about in their reflections on this assignment.
I also acknowledge that by using the categories of time, place, and feeling to organize this webtext, I run the risk of falling into the trap of oversimplifying these rhetorical exchanges into "discrete elements" (Edbauer, 2005, p. 8) that fail to capture the movement inherent in such networks; however, this overarching ecological metaphor asks that we consider relationships and processes that build up larger systems. Though "components are not decomposable or separable" (Horst, Herr-Stephenson, & Robinson, 2010, p. 31) in practice, we can examine the push and pull between them to try and better understand how they are bound to one another. Further, these categories emerged from student work, and represent dynamic processes that they experienced, rather than static, fixed items.
Such a framework has special significance for digital writing pedagogy, as we continuously engage with new technologies in our classrooms. Using platforms that complicate traditional notions of online identity formation, as anonymous applications do, helps us to focus on elements of writing environments that we perhaps otherwise might miss. If we are aware of the "complex ecology of texts, writers, readers, institutions, objects, and history" (Rivers & Weber, 2011, pp. 188–189) that accompanies each discursive exchange, we can more closely interrogate these exchanges alongside our students, in order to work towards healthier and more sustainable digital writing environments.