Civility (or the lack thereof) and New Media Literacies in the 21st Century

I often write on this blog about New Media Literacies, Social Media, Education, and a pretty wide array of other topics related to my interests. Today, post-2016 Election, I am struggling with the results.

Honestscreen-shot-2016-11-09-at-11-19-32-amly, I never believed that this great country I live in could elect a person so clearly unfit to be President! To be fair, I was not super interested in the prospect of another Clinton Presidency either after learning what happened to Bernie Sanders by the DNC. I think the whole thing is indicative of a larger problem that impacts both parties. A problem that is now getting glossed over by the “Let’s get behind our President” talk. This talk is fine to have and it is important for civil society but we have to at least acknowledge how corrupt the system is and that it needs changing. Before one goes on to assume or think that, Yes the system needs change and that is precisely why Trump needed to be elected, let’s examine some of how we got here, or at least follow along and see what I think has contributed to this outcome. It doesn’t matter what side of the political continuum you are on because this really isn’t meant to be a political post. I have decided to move on.

Regular readers and those that know my work understand my deep interests and belief in social media, but they also know that it is more than that. It is about new media literacies and participatory culture. You can search my blog for more on these concepts but suffice it to say that Participatory Culture has dramatically expanded because of the Internet. Some may say Social Media is to blame for the election results…They are not wrong. Some will say the mainstream media is to blame…They are not wrong. But what I am interested in understanding at this point in time is that we had very high hopes for the Internet and how it might contribute to new ways of learning, connection, and opportunity. In large part, we have seen those positive outcomes and we have also seen examples of the dark side. I posted a Quote from Media & Communications scholar Marshall McLuhan up above where he stated, “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”

There is some disagreement about what this phrase actually means but I feel it is particularly important in the current context of today’s results. To say social media has not played a major role in the election is simply wrong. Even looking back to 2008 we can see how it has transformed the electoral process. But my point is that social media is not necessarily to blame because it is simply a tool. A tool that we have collectively shaped, which now shapes us. We as a nation may have succumbed to the effects of too much reliance on social media, alternative news, or other information sources rather than sitting back and thinking critically about what we are consuming. Henry Jenkins explains that Participatory culture is a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, where strong support exists for sharing one’s creations, there is some type of informal mentorship taking place where knowledge is being passed along from experienced to novices. A Participatory Culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another. Participatory Culture is a culture that shifts the focus of literacy from one of individual expression to one of community involvement.

I think we have missed a few things in our current election cycle based on this definition of Participatory Culture that could contribute to increasing our own Media Literacies or our ability to think critically about the media content we consume and share. We missed opportunities for making a deeper connection, for dialoguing in a civil manner, for keeping our minds open to learning new things, for the possibility of more. We need to do better at learning critical thinking skills, analyzing information online and judging its credibility or usefulness, and we need to be kind when we disagree.

It is interesting because about 7 years ago an anthropologist named Mike Wesch from Kansas State University gave a talk at the Personal Democracy Forum on some of these ideas. What struck me the most back then and also rings true today is his idea of Connection without Constraint and the cultural tension that I see happening online, primarily on Facebook. Dr. Wesch describes this cultural tension as being the fact that we as a culture express individualism but want community, express independence but seek out relationships, and express commercialization but value authenticity. So in the middle of all this is that idea of connection and we all want connection, clearly, if this was not the case then social media would cease to exist. However, we see connection as inherently constraining. It takes time to have meaningful conversations, so why not just tweet? It is discomforting when I disagree with someone in person, but online the anonymity of the internet prevents one from facing that emotion.  Wesch goes on to explain, much like McLuhan, that media mediate relationships and when media changes, relationships also change.  You can see Dr. Wesch discuss this more with some great and humorous examples in the video below.

Do not misunderstand that I am simply blaming social media for the outcome of the election and a woefully misinformed electorate. I mean I guess I am, but hopefully I am putting some of it into context with the aforementioned discussion of Participatory Culture and Cultural Inversion because this leads me into thinking about the question,

where do we go from here?

I wish the answer were simple but that would be disingenuous. I do think the answer still involves social media, because what kind of social media researcher would I be if it didn’t, right? We can still rely on social media for our news but we really owe it to ourselves to do better in developing media literacy and knowing that just because we have discussions through screens that we should not be so narcissistic to believe that we MUST be right or that the other person is simply an idiot. We don’t have enough information to fully understand their logic nor do they have enough to understand ours. It’s kind of like fighting with your partner via text message. You have to know that it doesn’t matter what kind of emoji you use, the other person is likely not going to understand your implied sarcasm or other messages you are trying to convey. Instead, give them a call or better yet try to have a meaningful discussion in person.

We need to understand the difference between opinion and journalism.

We need to be comfortable in agreeing to disagree.

We need to better understand the issues and possible outcomes as they apply to our lives but more importantly to our communities. You have to live in the community after all.

We need to become comfortable in rooting out social and economic injustices online and off.

All of this, at least to me, relates to the idea of increasing our media literacies. We can contribute to the Participatory Culture of social media and we can do it in a fun, meaningful, and civil way. We can encourage young people to learn from others that have the kind of knowledge that will help us become more than what we are now. We can learn from our mistakes and know when it is time to turn off and re-center ourselves in a way that allows us to contribute to a culture of hope rather than fear. We already have the tools, but we as the public need to take them back and use them in positive ways. Civility in the 21st century still requires authenticity, accountability, and in some sense transparency. We should not let algorithms and monied interests dictate the narrative or co-opt it in a way that only benefits them. I am re-committing myself to work harder with educating my students about media literacies and how they impact all facets of life and I hope many others will do the same.


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