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Social Media Pedagogy 2.0

In the 2010 special issue of College Composition and Communication, Bronwyn Williams argued that "as media and culture make writing more fluid and borderless—part of the daily work of life—our responsibility is to follow, as researchers, teachers, and advocates, those literacy practices wherever they lead" (p. 143). These literacy practices, especially amongst college students, are increasingly leading toward social media engagement; in consequence, instructors should strive to integrate these media specifically into classroom practice. Stephanie Vie (2008) supported this claim, noting that "despite the challenges of using social networking sites in the classroom, they can provide many teachable moments for instructors who wish to talk with students about audience, discourse communities, intellectual property, and the tensions between public and private writing" (p. 21). Although 40% of college instructors (Rogers, 2013) are already incorporating social media to some extent, there should be new ways of discussing these technologies, especially within the framework of college composition, that take into account the shifting paradigms in student social media usage, particularly the notion that many students are advanced rhetorical practitioners. Social media is no longer a new, fleeting technology, but instead something that increasingly manifests in and complicates nearly all digital interactions.

While students do use Facebook heavily—97% of survey participants indicated that they operated a profile on that site—the steadily increasing rise in the popularity of other media (e.g., Instagram, Pinterest) suggests that these sites also ought to be the subject of more scholarly discussion. This data reinforces the most recent PEW study that, although noted the continual high use of social networks (especially Twitter) by young adults, indicated “one of the more striking stories about the social networking population has been the growth among older Internet users in recent years,” with 43% of those ages 65 and older operating a profile (Brenner & Smith, 2013). Perhaps because of this, as was particularly evident in the interviews, students are forced to make deliberate rhetorical choices when they are users of multiple sites, especially when they consider the different audiences (e.g., family members) that exist on one site and not another. This premise alone suggests many potential pedagogical applications. Talking with students about which sites they use, whether or not they are public or private (and why), and what makes something "Facebook-worthy" versus "Twitter-worthy" could generate valuable conversation about the kinds of rhetorical choices they make when simply deciding which app to open on their iPhones. Similarly, image-based sites also offer ways to think about the rhetoricity of visuals. As several of the interview responses indicate, the visual elements of Facebook and Instagram (and perhaps Pinterest, as well), especially when accompanied by text, are rife with the potential for further discussions of authorial decision-making processes. I, therefore, argue that new approaches to social media pedagogy should take into account how users negotiate rhetoric across these sites, and not simply confine discussion to the rhetorical viability of profile-based networks like Facebook. This becomes especially pertinent as Facebook in particular continues to reach new audiences—audiences that, for a first-year writer, might force added considerations of how posts might be perceived.

Implicit in this discussion is the assumption that rhetorical analysis is valuable for students to learn, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to measure to what extent student awareness of how rhetoric functions within these sites might impact their own composing practices, both on social media networks and elsewhere. The body of work on the transfer of learning from first-year writing courses to other writing, educational, and professional contexts (see Wardle, 2007; Skeffington, 2012; Adler-Kasner, Majewski, & Koshnick, 2012, just to name a few), and the question of whether or not such transfer is even possible, are thus important points to consider. Yet, I still argue that it is crucial, because of the widespread engagement of both students and professors with these sites, to introduce students to the complexities of rhetoric as related to developing a critical social media literacy.

This awareness becomes especially important as technology increasingly mediates communicative practices. Recent monographs by David Weinberger (2011), Sherry Turkle (2011), and danah boyd (2014) all discuss at length the ways that social media exists as an important and complicated concomitant of technology. boyd's ethnographic study of teenage social media users offers particular insight into some of the consequences of highly-networked existence. She asserted that, "Through social media, teens reveal their hopes and dreams, struggles and challenges ... Technology makes the struggles youth face visible, but it neither creates nor prevents harmful things from happening even if it can be a tool for both. It simply mirrors and magnifies many aspects of everyday life, good and bad" (boyd, 2014, p. 212). If social media then is the space where teenagers (a demographic which many first-year composers belong to) make "visible" their composing practices, it becomes important for them to develop consciousness of these practices.

Future research on this topic, however, might consider the themes and ideas that are only touched upon here. For instance, both the survey and interviews represented in significantly greater proportions the opinions and perspectives of individuals who identified as female. According to PEW's Maeve Duggan, more online women than men identify as users of social media. Interestingly, women also dominate particular sites; according to Duggan, "Women are significantly more likely than men to use Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram. A roughly equal proportion of men and women use Twitter and Tumblr, respectively. Reddit is the only site we’ve measured in which men are significantly more likely than women to be users" (Duggan, 2013). A study that interrogates these practices across gender lines could offer insight into the rhetorical choices that shape and define the culture of social media usage: Why, for instance, is it more acceptable for a woman to share with particular audiences her Pinterest board of ideal vacation destinations? Researchers might also think more specifically about how the public/private dichotomy influences rhetorical choices: To what extent might a student's consciousness about having a public Twitter account versus a private Facebook profile impact her composing practices, especially since privacy, particularly on the increasingly sophisticated Facebook, occurs across a spectrum? Individuals now have the ability on that platform to block the posts of particular users without unfriending them, and they can also prevent certain friends from viewing content. Theoretically, then, a college student could post a picture on a private account and block family members or friends who might consider that image to be problematic (e.g., one that involves the underage consumption of alcohol). It could be potentially of interest to scholars to explore the extent to which students are cognizant of these differences in public and private media usage in light of the increasing ability to personalize who can view specific content.

I utilize Lloyd Bitzer’s (1968) notion of the rhetorical situation as the framework for this discussion, and, while his understanding has been interrogated (Vatz,1973), I believe that Bitzer offers a particularly important way to think about the possibilities for social media participation. Bitzer (1968) asserted that a rhetorical situation

functions ultimately to produce action or change in the world … the rhetor alters reality by bringing into existence a discourse of such a character that the audience, in thought and action, is so engaged that it becomes a mediator of change. In this sense rhetoric is always persuasive. (p. 4)

Certainly there exists the potential for social media to effect change on a large scale, as instances such as #YesAllWomen—a hashtag-based movement that aimed to counter misogyny—illustrate (Weiss, 2014). Although not addressing change on such a widespread level, this webtext specifically demonstrates that students do possess awareness of how social media can cause audiences to alter their perceptions of individuals, as well as, to some extent, how they construct their actions on social media to provoke audiences to respond. Students assess others frequently for their posts and possess an understanding of audience at a numerical level (the number of friends and followers one has, for instance), as well as the potential importance of maintaining a private account. This though does not necessarily indicate that students naturally connect this awareness specifically to rhetoric, or have a sophisticated understanding of how these “judge-worthy” behaviors manifest in their own posts. The opportunity to have a conversation with students about rhetoric, however, is present in almost every social media interaction: Whether students are "admiring"; determining whether or not the awesomeness of a recently consumed peanut butter cookie warrants mention on Facebook or Twitter; or deciding if photos proving recent participation in the campus "undie run" are too scandalous for the eyes of an 84-year-old grandmother. It is therefore my hope that using social media in the classroom can itself become a rhetorical act, inspiring students to function as “mediators of change” as they navigate their increasingly sophisticated networks as advanced social media practitioners.