In earlier drafts, the syllabus addressed the perception that social media is “smoke and mirrors,” and so unworthy of sustained academic study. That syllabus engaged a lot of scholarship. That syllabus spoke to the DH insiders of my Twitter community, not the professors and admins who are at most occasional users of social media. Call it a #FAIL: I inaccurately gauged my target audience.
I revised to include a 1,045-word glossary of my course’s bedrock concepts and 415-word Thick Description of how digital build and theory work in tandem.
I’m leery of for-profit courseware companies trolling blogs like this one for freely shared course design that they might turn into proprietary content. So I’m posting just the glossary and half of the course description, not the entire 4700-word syllabus. If you’d like to see it, reach me at kathiberens [at] gmail [dot] com .
Ubiquitous Computing (a.k.a “ubi comp”): Mobile devices have abruptly changed how we compute. We are “always on” even if we are not actually using the Internet at a particular moment because we know we have perpetual access to the Web no matter where we are. 2009 marked the first year people used mobile devices to access data more often than make voice calls. The penetration of the tablet has taken mobile computing into the bedroom and into other spaces where mobile phones were less hospitable, such as airplanes: tablets are an ideal consumption device because the screen is bigger and easier to read; it’s light and ergonomically designed. Tablets, smart phones and laptops working in tandem create the material conditions for an “always-on” experience.
Social Media: Social media is the bedrock of “Web 2.0.” Before the existence of social media platforms like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and YouTube, the Web was largely broadcast: a way for companies and organizations to send messages out. Web 2.0 allowed users to talk back. The fact that companies now need to monitor their social media 24/7 has given rise to many entry-level jobs in social media for those sufficiently trained in its strategic affordances and capable users of its platforms.
Social media allows people to quickly and virtually organize all kinds of social gatherings: parties, social movements, live events in support of brand launches. One trend we’ll study in this class is “social viewing”: the use of tablets as the “second screen” to connect TV fans of particular shows to each other in real time during the TV show’s broadcast.
Medium-Specific Analysis: This term, coined by media theorist N. Katherine Hayles, is “a mode of critical interrogation alert to the ways in which the medium constructs the work and the work constructs the medium” (Writing Machines, 9). Returning to the “social viewing” example above, a discussion of social viewing necessitates analysis of the device that permit such interactivity, the tablet. Why did social viewing happen in tandem with the penetration of tablets into user experience? Why didn’t it happen with mobile phones? Simple answer: the phone’s screen is too small. Deeper answer: the tablet changes our relationship to real-time virtual social interaction because with it one computes on a large mobile screen that cradles easily in the lap. The non-invasive shape of the tablet (unlike the bulkier laptop) gives rise to new social behaviors and identity construction: of time (watermarks are being built into broadcast at 1.6 second intervals so viewers can tag exact moments as they watch on big screens and engage social media on tablets), physical space (where do you watch TV?), of virtual identity formation (some fans create personae from which to Tweet and engage), and physical identity formation (how do people negotiate with others in physical space for “real time” viewing experiences: the people they live with, the people the invite into their homes for viewing parties, etc.)
Building Digital Objects: Students in this class use software and social media platforms to build digital objects. The aim of such work is not just to work with tools — though that experience grounds one’s thinking in the materiality of step-by-step procedural logic, and teaches students to learn by guessing, checking and revising. The specific communication goal of “making stuff” is to give students direct experience of how specific platform and software choices permit unique messaging capabilities.
Social Media Etiquette: Etiquette is platform-specific and involves different rates and modes of engagement. For example, Pinterest and Twitter are platforms of immediacy. A Twitter Direct Message [DM] implies instantaneous communication: even one hour might be too long an interval for effective messaging in this context. Email is more forgiving: generally one day’s interval is socially appropriate, but that rate changes based on audience and context. These are examples of elements we consider as we message on behalf of our selves, clients, or organizations in which we participate.
Curation: The act of filtering information. In this class, we curate reading links in Diigo, the social bookmarking platform. We also use the #COMM499 Twitter hashtag to draw all class members’ attention to relevant links, knowledge or happenings.
Usability: How we use an object. Testing the Hidden USC map built by spring 2012 students involved clicking every pin on desktop to make sure each pin pulled correct and appropriately sized information. When students tested the map on the USC campus, however, they found the map was too big to load quickly on their mobile devices. They had to decide whether to edit the map to make it smaller or to build ancillary, theme-specific minimaps that could be loaded in situ. Usability drives (re)design. Just as one would never submit prose without editing it, so too one would not launch a project without testing usability.
Quality Assurance: Reviewing all information to ensure it is error free, easy to find and self-evidently useful or meaningful.
Synchronous Learning: Students in this class meet at the assigned class time via virtual office software and/or face-to-face in our designated classroom.
Asynchronous Learning: Students engage with the professor and each other in various social platforms: Twitter, Diigo, Google Docs, Google Maps. We do this outside of regular class time.
Digital Natives: The mistaken notion that because today’s students were born into computing environments, they automatically understand how and why to use computers and platforms. 98% of today’s students are on social media; but their avocational use is insufficient to prepare them for the strategic demands of messaging professionally in social media. There are also potential dangers in social media (bullying, losses of privacy and reputation, identity theft or hacking) of which they should become aware.
Passive Surveillance: People give their passive consent to surveillance by willingly posting personal information in social media platforms. Their interests are also traceable and aggregated in their use of Web browsers. Rather than taking one extreme approach or another — either ignoring the dangers or opting out of social media participation — students need to learn about the afterlife of their digital traces, how to manage or erase them, and what it means to be living in a world where very little is invisible. We also discuss how commercial underwriting of “free” Internet platforms affects their lives and how it ought to influence their decision making in social media.
If we transported a doctor or a midwife from 5,000 years ago to present day, he or she would find huge difference in the practice of medicine. The same is true of lawyers or actors or farmers. But teachers would largely feel at home. Howard Rheingold uses this anecdote to point out that our technologies of learning lag behind advances in communication practices.
This Annenberg COMM class retains the traditional practices of reading, writing and analysis. We use them in every class. But it adds to that traditional skill set a dimension of social consumption and knowledge production. It broadens the scope of our critical attention from televisual, filmic and print texts to include Tweets, blogs and Facebook posts, profile pictures, info graphics, YouTube videos and other characteristic elements of social media. It asks students to collaborate and gives students critical tools for evaluating the mechanisms and quality of collaboration.
Duke University John Hope Franklin Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies Cathy N. Davidson has identified as crucial skills of the modern learning and workplaces:
• Peer-to-Peer learning
• Experiential learning: learn by building
• Attention to the unique affordances of platform as an active shaper of context
As more and more people work in hybrid environments — sometimes virtual, sometimes embodied — and with teams of people from around the world with different cultural norms and etiquettes, students need to learn how to engage all of these elements. The best way to do so is practice. That’s why our class meets both virtually and face-to-face simultaneously.