In my first-year reading and composition course at UC Berkeley this semester (“Writing in Public: Identity and the Digital You”), my students read a series of pieces that asked them to think about digital technologies and the ways they are affecting our lives.
Among the things they read and wrote about:
*It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, by danah boyd
*The PBS Frontline documentary, “Generation Like”
*Clive Thompson’s book, Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better
*Philip K. Dick’s famous futuristic novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
They wrote in the traditional modes of freshman composition–rhetorical and literary analyses, persuasive papers and summaries, reader responses and the like. Then, after they read Thompson’s descriptions of students who had experienced the beneficial effects of writing online for an audience of more than one (the teacher), I asked them at the end of the term to write a short, multimodal essay and to post it online so that anyone–possibly you–could see it.
The class issued a collective gulp.
Exhausted after a long semester but game for the challenge of writing in a way almost none of them had tried before, they wrote and shared their essays via WordPress, Tumblr, and Prezi. I’ve linked below to some of them, organized loosely into two categories. I hope you’ll take the time to explore a few of them.
Social media and its (dis?) contents
Starting with a little historical context, Inger draws comparisons between Facebook profiles and illuminated texts from the Middle Ages.
Alex argues social media might help us bridge the gaps between our intrinsic and perceived identities, and Sierra tells us about how social media provides her with a “second home” as she moves from Korea to Canada to the Philippines and then on to the U.S.
Exposing part of social media’s less savory side, one student looks at how it pressures people to change their appearance, while another, Chantelle, explores in particular the way this affects girls’ and women’s sense of what counts as beautiful.
Perhaps Shelby’s examination of why people tend to present only their ideal selves online accounts for some of how those pressures create a vicious cycle of self-presentation. Maybe this is part of why people behave so aggressively online, a subject that Justin explores.
Much of the pressure comes from the prominent place of the visual in online spaces. Katie discusses the rise of digital photography, and another student asks her friends to describe why they use Instagram the way they do.
Speaking of photography, Keshlee clearly enjoys taking selfies, and she’s glad to tell you how to up your selfie game.
Who Am I Online (and Off)?
This student asks whether it’s possible for people, including himself, to be authentic on social media. Dorothee feels like one of her favorite musicians, Ben Howard, can. (Especially if one mostly ignores social media and simply listens to his music.)
Lily–lover of food, reading, and golf–asks whether she’s the same person online and off, as does Stephane, who may one day win Wimbledon or improve your eyesight, or both.
This student, employing the evocative metaphor of the silhouette, debates whether we are knowable online, and demonstrates why some, including herself, often choose to represent themselves with avatars.
Kevin wonders whether he’s just being a lemming by joining social media (he says, with good cheer, that the answer is pretty much yes), while Kim lays out the virtues of the most popular networks, and Jocelyne considers the ways in which people interact on Tumblr.
Vanessa makes clear that it’s all about the audience for her, even if the audience–paradoxically for social media–is sometimes just herself, while Danxin reminds us that in the global reach of the Internet era, one’s audience (and one’s online self) can sometimes shift as it crosses borders.
My thanks to my students. (That wasn’t so painful, was it?) I hope you, the public audience, enjoyed their pieces as much as I did.
Postscript: As I posted these essays here, I sent out the following tweet with a link to this page, and soon thereafter got the following responses from one member of the broader public audience.
If the students above had even a fraction of Clive Thompson’s 25,000+ Twitter followers take a look at their essays, that will be an audience that is considerably larger and more public than the one they’re used to. Nice to have one of the authors we read cement the point for us.