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Social Media: An Introductory Anecdote

Based on a study involving both surveys and interviews with first-year composition students, this webtext argues that individuals make important and complex rhetorical choices when they engage with social media. It expands extant discussions by suggesting that students are sophisticated users of social media, as they often operate profiles on multiple sites. It therefore becomes important for teachers, if they intend to incorporate social media in a pedagogical context, to be aware of and discuss the rhetorical choices that students make when they decide to post on or engage with one social network over another. The following anecdote serves as a prelude to this argument, illustrating how students verbalize and demonstrate their understanding of the intricacies of the rhetorical situation as it exists on social media—they simply lack the specific vocabulary to link these meaningful interactions to intentional rhetorical strategies.

While acting as a substitute for a colleague's section of first-year composition, I noticed a group of students whispering near my perch at the front of the classroom. One of these students, observing my mix of curiosity and consternation, began speaking loudly about the campus's "Secret Admirers" Facebook page that was apparently generating a great deal of buzz. Since the page's founding a week prior, the site had drawn over five thousand "likes"—in Facebook lingo, this indicates that a user wishes to follow the content of this page on her News Feed (homepage). This is no small feat given that such a number would represent more than a quarter of the entire student population, assuming that the majority of likes were garnered from individuals affiliated with the university.

The "Secret Admirers" page operates on a simple premise: hopeful admirers post a compliment to a Google form, and then the administrator(s) anonymously repost the content to the Facebook page. These admirations are generally written in epistolary form, with a large number of posts emulating something in the vein of, "Dear [insert name here], I'm in your 8 am biology class. I think you have the prettiest smile that I've ever seen. I'd love to take you out sometime. Sincerely, The Guy Who Wishes You'd Notice Him."

Secret Admirers Facebook page screenshot
Figure 1: Screen Capture of the "Secret Admirers" Facebook Page

I, now eavesdropping unabashedly, became interested in the ways in which these students were negotiating and defining multiple interpretations of audience: there were the explicit manifestations of this ("has someone mentioned you yet?"), to questions about the site's creators ("whoever runs this must be ditching all their classes ... do you think it's girls or guys?"; "is this site really anonymous?") to larger concerns about how this page could be viewed by the institution in which it was informally affiliated ("how long do you think it will be before the university shuts this down 'cause someone gets raped after meeting up with their 'secret admirer'?").

Intrigued, I decided to peruse the page, and I became further interested in the multiple ways in which the typical format began to be subverted by its users. Instead of simply calling out a person by name, some individuals referred to fleeting moments ("Dear Girl in the White Shorts and Pink Shirt who I saw Walking by the Library at 2 PM today") or larger groups of people ("Dear Guys in Sigma Alpha Epsilon"), while others simply used the site as a clever way to reference popular culture (e.g., referring to the 2004 film Anchorman, "Dear San Diego, Stay Classy. Sincerely, Ron Burgundy"). Perhaps most compellingly, some individuals used "Secret Admirers" to express their admiration of the university, with several posters indicating that the page made them feel grateful to attend an institution where fellow students had such an appreciation for each other. As the site grew in popularity—at the moment I'm writing this, the page has been liked over 9,000 times—"Secret Admirers" began to take on something of a PR function, as people outside the campus community used the page to express their desire to attend the university because of perceptions about its positive atmosphere.

I offer this anecdote as evidence of a social media-driven rhetorical situation. Such a situation, operating from Lloyd Bitzer's (1968) conception of the term, is found in the relationship between exigence, audience, and constraints. Exigence, which Bitzer (1968) understood as “a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done” suggests the motivations for writing (i.e., a rhetorical exigence as a means to negotiate or correct a perceived deficiency), whereas constraints are, “made up of persons, events, objects, and relations which are parts of the situation because they have the power to constrain decision and action needed to modify the exigence” (p. 6-8). If, as Kenneth Burke (1950) explained, rhetoric itself is the "art of persuasion" in which the speaker's "act of persuasion may be for the purpose of causing the audience to identify itself with the speaker's interests," social networking sites, with their transparent function to publicize user interests to select audiences, perhaps operate then as one of the most legible forms of rhetorical application (p. 46). Successful social media posts persuade their audiences to respond to and identify with the author's interests, whether that be through tacit acknowledgment (liking a post) or more explicit interaction (commenting, sharing, replying, reposting, etc.).

The circumstance of the "Secret Admirers" page thus offers a specific opportunity to explore the rhetorical potential and complexity of this simple communicative platform: it reveals multiple opportunities to interrogate concepts of author(ity), community building, and discursive structures, among many other potential concepts of interest to a rhetorician. It is not, however, a specific interest in the "Secret Admirers" page which propels my current focus of study, but rather the community and the platform which enabled such a situation to occur. Although I center on a demographic within this community, specifically first-year writers, I believe that "Secret Admirers" stands as emblematic of the potentially productive rhetorically-based discussion that could emerge when considering the social media composing practices that characterize the so-called Millennial generation. I concentrate on first-year writers both because they are typically members of this social-media-savvy generation, and they are a generally accessible population to researchers and teachers in composition and/or rhetorical studies.

Since the development and subsequent rapid growth of Facebook nearly a decade ago, many composition and rhetoric researchers have recognized this site, along with its predecessor MySpace, as a viable space for introducing students to the concept of rhetorical analysis.  Yet, in many of these classroom applications, there seems to be a continued assumption that the rhetorical applicability of such sites is something inherent, in the sense that students can easily recognize how these media demonstrate the relationship between text and audience. Facebook (over a billion current users worldwide in 2014) and MySpace (50 million users in 2014) have also drawn a great deal of scholarly attention, while other increasingly popular, visual-based sites, such as Pinterest (70 million users) and Instagram (150 million active monthly users) receive considerably less attention. Twitter (200 million users), the most popular social media site following Facebook, has also drawn comparatively little work, despite the fact that its limited character requirements provide excellent space for examining how its users conceptualize and interact with both explicit and implicit audiences.

Given these circumstances, this webtext explores the contemporary social media situation: how are students conceptualizing social media sites differently, especially in regard to perceptions of the concepts typically deemed "rhetorical" (exigence, audience, constraints)? And how might composition teachers particularly tap into these manifestations in order to facilitate critical analysis of these sites?  This study of the social media composing practices of first-year composition students therefore seeks to interrogate the status quo of approaches to social media within a college composition context. While sites like Facebook remain productive and valuable potential pedagogical tools, I believe that there is more to be said about how they function as spaces of rhetorical discourse. Traditional pedagogical examinations of Facebook might no longer be news(feed)worthy, but college students are engaging in social media sites now more than ever; it is therefore time to develop new discussions of these media in order to further conversations about how these sites can contribute to rhetoric-based digital literacy acquisition.