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An Overview of Social Media as a Pedagogical and Rhetorical Tool

According to a recent post on Inside Higher Education, approximately 40% of college faculty use social media as a “teaching tool” (Rogers, 2013). Within composition studies, the use of social media as a potentially viable classroom aid, especially one that could be used to help students understand rhetoric and/or rhetorical analysis, typically emerges from two contingent premises:

  1. that social media sites increasingly mediate and facilitate student writing off-campus and
  2. that it can be a valuable exercise to channel this extracurricular writing into a teachable moment, particularly one that asks students to consider how digital practices may alter conceptions of audience.

This page thus presents a partial overview of how social media sites have been treated, both explicitly and implicitly, as rhetorical artifacts within a pedagogical context.

Facebook as a (Rhetorical) Classroom Device

With currently over a billion worldwide users, Facebook is the largest social networking site, and, consequently, approaches to this particular social medium represent the bulk of current pedagogical studies. Bahar Baran (2010), in a qualitative study that aimed to assess the effect of requiring students to use Facebook in a classroom context, concluded that Facebook can be a viable educational tool, but instructors must be aware that not all students will easily adapt to its use in a non-social context: It was difficult to appropriate Facebook’s inherent social function into a more formal setting. The challenge of shifting students' focus toward the educational potentialities of social media is also echoed in Octavia Davis and Bill Marsh's work. In a first-year composition classroom, Davis and Marsh (2012) developed their own social media site called “NoDiff” which was intended to emulate many of the features of networking sites (blogging, commenting, media sharing, etc.) in an attempt to “take the best of what social media sites have to offer while redirecting student awareness to the sense-making and information management conventions that make sites like Facebook so alluring as both personal and professional networking tools” (p. 177). While the "NoDiff" platform exists as different from mainstream social media networks, Davis and Marsh's study indicates the potentiality of social networking, particularly within the context of college composition.

Jane Mathison Fife (2010) and Stephanie Vie (2007) specifically reinforced the idea that Facebook and other social media sites can be used to teach rhetorical analysis. Fife (2010) also addressed the challenges of appropriating a “lowbrow” popular culture mechanism into the academic curriculum, but then framed her discussion as an anecdotal account of a conversation between herself and her students as to how Facebook users demonstrate traditional rhetorical appeals, noting that “since Facebook profiles are representations of the self, most features that can be seen as appeals to logos or pathos also have a strong reflection on the writer’s ethos” (p. 558). Vie's (2007) dissertation, Engaging Others in Online Social Networking Sites: Rhetorical Practices in MySpace and Facebook, aimed to assess students' cognizance of rhetorical practices in their social media usage. Although Vie approached this project through a specifically Foucauldian lens—she was highly concerned about relationships of power that potentially perpetuate through these discourses—her interest was in how her subjects construct digital identities; she asked “what audiences do individuals envision they are writing for and how does this influence what they write and how they share these texts?” (p. 93). This concept of audience awareness—a key element of rhetorical analysis—figures also in the work of Bronwyn Williams (2008), who specifically looked at engagement with popular culture mechanisms on social media sites ("liking" and or identifying favorite movies, television shows, music, etc.). He suggested that these preferences can result in a misreading of the individual's identity by their audiences. The profiles will always exist as incomplete representations, but a user might be evaluated and/or judged based on his or her interests.

Jennifer Swartz (2010) also indicated how the multimodal nature of social media sites functions to construct an incomplete (but highly meaningful) persona, noting that, in her classroom, her students thought specifically about how rhetoric functions to produce an online identity. Echoing Williams (2008), Swartz (2010) indicated one potential disconnect between identity, the message or artifact that is created and how the audience chooses to interpret that message or artifact: “The self we think we are portraying to the world via these pages is often not the one that is being ‘read’ by an audience." When discussing social media, ascertaining audience is often difficult because, even when profiles are "private" (i.e., not accessible to the general audience of Internet users), the posted content is still visible to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of friends, forcing students to perhaps be highly cognizant of how this content might be interpreted differently by these multiple individuals. Any integration of social media practices must consequently approach this topic with awareness of public/private protocols and maintaining professional distance.

Courtney Patrick (2013) further reinforces the continuing contemporary viability of Facebook as a pedagogical tool. Uniting Foucault's concept of the “docile body” with Chaim Perleman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca's understanding of audience, Patrick (2013) asserted that this lens can be used to help "students realize the power Facebook has over how they perceive their lives, and how they wish others to perceive their lives" in the hopes that they "will begin to start critically thinking about how online profiles often serve to control and influence our lives rather than give us the opportunity to express our individuality." Patrick's claim here is again one based on the instructor's ability to teach students how to read their technology-mediated composing practices, but it also relies on the understanding that this critical digital literacy emerges only when students recognize the influence of both implied and real audiences—a key element of rhetorical discourse. Deborah Balzhiser et al.'s (2011) Kairos piece, "The Facebook Papers," is a webtext both about and on social media: its layout is meant to disrupt the standards of a scholarly essay by emulating the conventions of a Facebook page. The authors suggested that their webtext, however, functions as hybrid of both academic text and social media site, noting that, "as they would do in Facebook, individual authors enter the webtext through their mediated selves (constructed in both spaces into particular personas). But our readers are not authors. Readers enter the text through a persona of someone else and, thus, have to situate themselves in the network of text and relationships of authors." Thus, this webtext perhaps best illustrates the concept that the act of reading and writing on social media is a necessarily rhetorical (and multimodal) process, in which users will always bring to the text their own unique ways of composing and processing.

Learning about Rhetoric Via Twitter

Although the body of work on other social media sites is much smaller than that written about Facebook, Andrea Lunsford's (2013) praxis-based exercise, "Using Twitter to Develop a Sense of Audience" contributes meaningful knowledge to how Twitter can function rhetorically. She suggested that teachers begin by asking students how they use Twitter, including whether or not they have ever utilized the search function. She next suggested having students analyze the content of an example tweet, including any mentions in the tweet (e.g., whether the tweet is directed at another Twitter user via an "@" symbol), as well as any hashtags, which enable words or phrases to become searchable databases that log every mention of that word or phrase. She then encouraged students to compose their own tweets, noting that "they should consider what main point(s) to emphasize in the body of the tweet in order to attract readers, and they can use hashtags and mentions in order to further direct their tweets toward interests their intended audience is likely to follow" (Lunsford, 2013). Lunsford's emphasis on "intended audience" suggests that students who have a more concrete grasp of their explicit viewership, in a manner quite similar to the arguments presented by looking at Facebook and other profile-based media, are more able to understand the complexities of audience in a digital setting, a notion perhaps made even more complicated when considering issues of public versus private site settings.

Melody A. Bowdon (2014) also presents an explicit discussion of how Twitter can be used to increase rhetorical awareness. She suggested that analyzing both individual and corporate feeds on this site, especially in response to a significant event like 2011's Hurricane Irene, can be a productive exercise for technical communication students to think about these feeds "as sites for meaningful analysis of ethos" (p. 35). Joel Penney and Caroline Dadas (2013), like Bowdon, studied user response to a particular event on Twitter—in this case, the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement—to illustrate that the network can be a platform for community-building and activism. They suggested that "Twitter allows the OWS [Occupy Wall Street] counterpublic to publicize its activities to many audiences simultaneously, enabling OWS participants to concurrently communicate among them selves and also potentially attract sympathetic outside audiences" (Penney & Dadas, 2013, p. 88). This article consequently examined Twitter as a social site that enables users to both connect with and become aware of their audiences, thus providing practical application of the rhetorical potential of this site to which Lunsford alluded.

Empirical Approaches to Understanding Students' Rhetorical Choices on Social Media

Amber Buck's (2012) case study of an undergraduate student's literate practices on social networking sites offers insight into how composition on multiple platforms can demonstrate rhetorical awareness. Her case subject, Ronnie, was an active user of numerous social networking services, including Facebook and Twitter, and Buck suggested that "a large part of the literate activity that Ronnie engaged in on social network sites involved managing content to construct his identity for specific audiences" (p. 25). Buck therefore asserted that, through his engagement with these multiple social platforms, Ronnie became more aware of the different audiences for each site and the differing expectations for posting. Buck (2012) further examined this point, noting that "Ronnie’s use of Facebook and Twitter demonstrated how he negotiated flattened audience structures to share information with and represent himself to both groups, providing more and unfiltered information on Twitter and updating information more strategically on Facebook" (p. 25). Buck's research, thus, represents an important preliminary study of how an individual demonstrates rhetorical awareness across multiple social platforms, an idea that this webtext will examine further.

The Current Study's Contributions

In sum, these perspectives on social media offer an understanding of how these technologies have been used in classroom contexts, and they discuss—either explicitly or implicitly—how such usage indicates rhetorical choices by the profile author. They also reveal a discussion largely centered around profile-based sites like Facebook and MySpace, with comparatively little attention paid to other social networking platforms. Chris Gerben (2009), further commenting on the pedagogical viability of social sites, noted that “a profile page on Facebook becomes a site of social and textual collaboration with complementary goals of self-expression and reaching out to a real and relevant audience: both things compositionists strive for in classrooms and collaborative assignments." The current study aims to determine the additional ways in which rhetorical principles manifest in student understandings of "self-expression" and "real and relevant audiences" within their current social media practices.

What this discussion consequently adds to extant conversations is an examination of how a population of first-year writers conceptualizes the rhetorical situation across multiple social media platforms. Since many (if not most) college students are "advanced" practitioners—meaning that their use of social media is not just confined to operating a profile on one site—it becomes important to think about the rhetorical choices that they make when they decide to post on or interact with one network over another. This study therefore incorporates discussion of not just Facebook and Twitter, but also Instagram and Pinterest, two sites that have not received much attention within scholarly discourse. By incorporating classroom activities based on the results of both the survey data and in-depth interviews with first-year college writers, this webtext also provides some preliminary ideas for ways that teachers can encourage students to develop their understanding of rhetoric through their engagement with the complex and multifaceted entity that is social media in the 21st century.