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Classroom Activities

These activities aim to encourage students to think critically about rhetoric in relation to multiple social media sites, and they are designed to reinforce theoretical claims pertaining to use of these multiple platforms in practical ways. For instance, Amber Buck's (2012) case study described her subject, Ronnie—certainly an advanced social media practitioner with profiles on, "Twitter, Facebook, Blogger, MySpace, Tumblr, Flickr, YouTube,, Linked In,, PureVolume, Digg, LibraryThing, and Ning" (p. 14)—as identifying explicit purposes in his use of multiple social sites:

Ronnie envisioned different audiences with different concerns and interests on both Facebook and Twitter and constructed his identity on both sites with these audiences in mind ... The difference in audience size and conventions on Twitter and Facebook—it’s socially acceptable to update Twitter 15 times a day but Facebook only a few times a day—contributed to the difference in use as well. (p. 18)

I, therefore, believe that, whenever possible, students should be encouraged to examine their own social compositions in relation to each site's different rhetorical function, and have others assess them as well—otherwise the significance of social media as deeply rhetorical could exist only theoretically. These activities could be the focus of a one-day class discussion, or they could provide a framework for a more extensive written or multimodal assignment. If assigned in sequence, they could also be used as the basis for a semester-long social-media-themed class. While I’ve developed these activities primarily for use in a first-year composition, rhetoric-oriented course, they could easily be adapted for use in other classroom situations.

Activity 1:
Artifact Analysis: So Why Did You Post That Photo?

Have students pick a specific artifact from one of their social media websites (e.g., a tweet, a picture, a status update, a "pin," etc.) and analyze the specific audience(s), exigencies, and constraints associated only with that post. Some questions that they could consider include:

  • Who, specifically, did the student hope would see the post?

  • In what ways did the student want his or her audience(s) to respond?

  • What motivated the student to post on that particular site over another, if he or she has more than one social networking profile?

  • Is the post an image, text, or does it combine image and text? If the post combines both, what did the student hope to accomplish by adding a caption to the picture (to establish context, to include a “tag” other users, etc.?)

  • Why did the student believe the image/text warranted posting in the first place?

  • Was there anyone, in retrospect, who the student hoped did not see the post?

If a student does not use any social media sites, pair them with a student who does, and ask the student to do an analysis of her partner’s post—does she view the post as having the same audience(s), exigencies, and constraints as her partner?

Another variation of this activity asks students to pick a social media post (one that they are comfortable sharing with the class), and have the entire class identify their perceptions of the artifact’s audience(s), exigencies, and constraints. These perceptions could then be compared with the author’s intentions for the post.

This activity supports Kevin Eric DePew's (2011) claim that

there is the potential for a student or a group of students to use the technology's affordances to make effective arguments ... While a student could certainly make the argument through traditional ink and paper technologies, the social media gives the student a more expansive palette for creating a greater impact. (p. 59)

Certainly, students could analyze an image or an article for its rhetorical intent, but this activity places this analysis within a real-world composing situation. It also provides students with a framework to think about how their own authorial intent for a post might exist in contrast to others' ways of understanding the meaning of the post. As a "palette" then, social media exists in this activity as the mechanism through which students can think about the rhetoric of both text and image, as well as their motivations for uploading particular content on one social site over another.

Activity 2:
Facebook v. Twitter v. Pinterest: Rhetorical Analysis of a Social Networking Site

Have students pick a social networking site and think about it as a rhetorical artifact. Questions to consider:

  • What is the site’s primary purpose? What are the site’s secondary purposes?

  • How does the site distinguish itself from other social sites?

  • Why might an individual want to use this site over another social networking site?

  • Has the site borrowed successful features of other sites (e.g., hashtagging, @ symbols)? What do you think were the reasons for this?

  • What do you need to know in order to be a successful user of this site?

  • What design elements does the site incorporate? How is the site’s information organized? How does the site draw attention to what the designers want the user to notice first?

  • Who comprises the site's target audience? How can you tell?

Stephanie Vie (2008) argued that

if we look more closely at social networking sites as sites of media convergence where literacy in a more general sense can be practiced, then such sites have much to offer compositionists interested in engaging students in the act of composition—broadly defined. (p. 20)

This activity, thus, builds on this claim by encouraging students to develop rhetorical literacy skills by looking specifically at how particular conventions of a social networking site dictate the act of composing. It compels students to question how composing on a particular site might be restrictive (especially in relation to character limits and design parameters) and encourages them to also think both about a site's unique purposes, as well as the ways that the network differentiates itself from other social media tools. Social media sites will always function persuasively, as these media have two main goals: 1) to generate income and 2) to attract additional users. This activity will thus require students to analyze the specific ways that the site accomplishes these tasks.

Activity 3:
Smartphones and Social Networking

Ask students to think about the ways that smartphones—i.e., near-constant access to the Internet—impact the use of social networking:

  • What social media apps have students downloaded?
    • Do the students have the app for every social site that they operate a profile on? Why or why not?
    • What app do they open most frequently and why?

  • What makes students decide to open one app over another…
    • …when they decide that they want to post something?
    • …when they decide they just want to “browse”?
    • …when they want to know something about a current event?

  • In what ways do mobile interfaces impact how students interact with the networks? What, for instance, is hidden in the mobile version but visible in the desktop version?

Sherry Turkle (2011) encouraged readers to think critically about the ways that technology impacts communicative practices, and she is particularly disapproving of mobile phones. She argued that, "with a mobile device as portal, one moves into the virtual with fluidity and on the go ... We use social networking to be 'ourselves,' but our online performances take on lives of their own. Our online selves develop distinct personalities" (p. 160). These personalities, however, can never be truly or wholly authentic representations of self. This activity consequently encourages students to think about how the technology on which much of their social media composing practices takes place impacts and shapes their virtual identities. It also asks them to consider the kinds of rhetorical choices they make when they decide to open one social icon over another.

Student (Audio) Narratives

After concluding a unit that examined social media sites as artifacts of rhetorical analysis—a unit that placed particular emphasis on encouraging students to think about rhetoric in relation to their use of various social media platforms—several members of my Fall 2014 section of first-year composition agreed to discuss their experiences. While it was not my intent to interview only female students, these were the individuals who expressed an interest in participating. This group, then, may not represent the average first-year composition student: By volunteering for this process, each student demonstrates her enthusiasm and interest that in each case also extended into her other work in the course.

The following brief audio recordings represent these five students' responses when they were asked to identify 1) which social media sites they operate profiles on, 2) what they think about generally when they decide to post on or engage with one site over another, and 3) what they believe they have learned about rhetoric as a result of discussing this concept through the lens of social media. All of the students agreed to be identified by their first name, and some preferred to write down their response first (that they then read aloud), while others wanted to talk through their responses as I recorded. It is my hope that these narratives allow the students' perspectives to emerge from within this discussion, and that readers will consider these voices as further impetus to incorporate extended conversations about social media in a pedagogical context.

A few points of note here: the interviews reveal that these students are all advanced practitioners (each operates a profile on at least six different social media accounts), and—echoing claims made in the interviews with the other group of first-year composition students—several indicate awareness of how family members might perceive content as justification for posting on one site over another. These interviews also perhaps stand as evidence of how quickly social media can evolve, as some of the networks that these students reference here (such as Yik Yak) did not exist when I began this study in 2013.

This portion of the study was IRB-approved as an addendum to the original application materials.

Rose's Narrative (1:32)

Betsy's Narrative (1:58)

Sarah's Narrative (:54)

Madison's Narrative (1:28)

Jeanna's Narrative (:51)

A PDF transcript of these narratives can be found here.