Social Media and Democracy: Final Project

Here is my final presentation! I was very much interested in how mass dissemination of text has allowed (or not allowed) people to participate in democracy. In this presentation, I examine some historical backgrounds of democracy in relation to literacy, and examine Twitter and Reddit and the role they play in creating “mock democracies” of sorts; instead of fostering republican communication, they have instead enabled online echo chambers to emerge.

One Comment at a Time

Works Cited

Chu, Charles. “Michel De Montaigne on How to Learn a Language Effortlessly.” Medium, The Polymath Project, 24 Sept. 2017.

“Dr. Helen Margetts Shares Findings on How Social Media Is Transforming Politics.” Central European University, 16 Feb. 2015.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. “Some Features of Print Culture.” In The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. 2nd Ed, Cambridge University Press, 2012, pp. 46-101.

“Fare Thee Well, John Perry Barlow.” Hypothesis, 8 Feb. 2018, web.hypothes.is/blog/fare-thee-well-john-perry-barlow/.

Gee, James Paul. “The History of Literacy and the Literacy Myth.” In Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses. 3rd Ed, Routledge/Taylor

Margetts, Helen. “9. Rethinking Democracy with Social Media.” The Political Quarterly, vol. 90, no. S1, 2019, pp. 107-123.

McCorkle, Ben. Rhetorical Delivery as Technological Discourse: A Cross Historical Study. Southern Illinois University Press, 2012.

Reddit.com

Rodriguez, Diogo. “Fifty Years on, Paulo Freire Still Sounds Subversive.” The Brazilian Report, 19 Oct. 2018.

Twitter.com

Zachry, Mark. “An Interview with Andrew Feenberg: TCQ TCQ.” Technical Communication Quarterly, vol. 16, no. 4, 2007, pp. 453-472. ProQuest, http://ezproxy.gardner-webb.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.gardner- webb.edu/docview/215437458?accountid=11041.

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Helen Margetts and Social Media’s Influence on Democracy

After last week’s work and in coordination with my final presentation, I have decided to really dig into social media and the effects it has on democracy (and the other way around as well).

Some researching brought me to Helen Margetts, Professor of Internet and Society at the University of Oxford, and her article “Rethinking Democracy with Social Media.” Side note: If I ever publish an article, I think I will use rethinking in the title. The more I read, the more it seems I’m seeing that word! Lots of thinking in the academic world I guess…

I was mostly intrigued by this article because it speaks to some questions I was having about online texts–in this case social media websites–and the way in which they have come to be seen as a scapegoat of sorts for The Fall of Democracy, even though people seemed to believe they would facilitate a true republic.

She discusses some people’s criticism of social media websites, saying that they are facilitating a ‘post-truth society’ where “we cannot distinguish real news from fake news, and ‘objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’” (114). The connections to Twitter here are ripe. Often what sells is outrage rather than logic–for better or for worse, I might add.

Discussed as well are online exclusive actions that people like journalist Carole Cadwalladr believe are leading us into a “9/11 of democracy” (112). These are things such as fake news, political advertising, and computational propaganda (111). I don’t think I will be focusing too much on these facets, but will be honing in on echo chambers as I think the design of the social media sites I will explore really do allow for them to take hold.


Remember the Human

Margetts is careful not to discount the influence that social media site’s designs influence people’s political viewpoints and actions, but she is also sure to point to the human actor behind it all; in a very Ben McCorkle fashion, she says, “[a]fter all, people have always sought out like-minded people and society has been structured around families” (115), taking a clear anti-technological deterministic viewpoint. She emphasizes this idea again when she discusses how ‘the small things matter’:

“We have an understandable tendency to assume that because something important has happened, it was somehow inevitable […] the interconnectedness of our political life means that every tiny act of support for the [Brexit] campaigns sent a tiny signal of viability out to other voters in a connected cluster of support—even if it was just a comment on a TV debate—which have scaled up to some kind of success, within some political microclimate (such as a locality, or institution, or profession), but could have fizzled out into failure” (Margetts 121).

I think this will fit well into my presentation. I’d like to highlight the way in which the design of social media websites encourage the development of certain political viewpoints, but I think she offers a good foundation as well as a way for me to stay away from scapegoating the technology being used. After all, there is always a human actor involved.

Works Cited

Margetts, Helen. “9. Rethinking Democracy with Social Media.” The Political Quarterly, vol. 90, no. S1, 2019, pp. 107-123.

McCorkle, Ben. Rhetorical Delivery as Technological Discourse: A Cross Historical Study. Southern Illinois University Press, 2012. 

Andrew Feenberg: Politics, Democracy, and Technology

Andrew Feenberg is first mentioned in Ben McCorkle’s book Rhetorical Delivery as Technological Discourse on page 17, where McCorkle says that he “examined connections between technology, politics, labor, education, and environmental issues.” So…nearly everything that makes up a society! I wanted to dig into him a little more and potentially tease out some ideas for my Final Presentation in the next coming days. It seems that most of my work on this blog has been tied to bringing the theoretical to the “real world,” so what better way to do that than look into what Feenberg has to say about that world.

An Interview with Andrew Feenberg

In a 2007 interview with Mark Zachry, current Professor of Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington, Feenberg lays out some ideas he has about the connections between the body and technology, how it relates to democracy, and how the specificity of online communities affects the kind of discourse that takes place in them. Below are three quotes I found interesting and would like to dissect; bold words are my own edits:


“[One] of the vice presidents of the Digital Equipment Corporation, which at the time was the second- or third-largest computer company in the world, explained to me why they were interested in computer-mediated communication. He said, our ambition was to hook up many small machines so that people wouldn’t have to buy IBM mainframes, and after awhile we realized that we were not just connecting the machines, we were connecting the people who use the machines. So then we decided to design a program for them to communicate with each other. I actually think this is the order in which engineers arrive at the conclusion that there is human communication on a system. It is as an outgrowth of some other project that appeals more to an engineering mind” (458).

My first thought here harkens back to McCorkle’s book in which he is careful not to embrace the idea of technological determinism. Here, however, it seems that Feenberg is going directly against that idea, saying instead that the computer and technological connections come first; from there, the humans then take their places. Instead of humans being the driver of person-to-person connection, it seems that the machine is the thing mediating that. This isn’t to say that there is some sort of sentient being trapped inside of the computer (sorry I, Robot), but rather that the driving force of chain comes from the things the machine enables, not the things that the people originally set out to do.


“The emphasis [of critical theory of technology] is on how power is centralized, how people are controlled, and their minds shaped by these centralized technical institutions. To introduce some sort of reciprocity, a more democratic organization of technological society, implies a redesign of many technologies underlying these institutions” (459-460).

Here, Feenberg is referring to institutions and the people who run them such as Rupert Murdoch and his connections with Fox News and other far-reaching media outlets. I like his ideas here, especially in the way he contrasts broadcast companies (Fox News, CNN, MSNBC) with the Internet. He says later on in his response that these types of communication “privilege centralized control” (460), whereas the Internet seems to be counteracting that. Instead of one point of information, there is a connected community of disparate users–though, I do think these connections can allow for echo chambers to emerge. Feenberg seems optimistic about this flexibility, saying “There doesn’t seem to be any way to reverse that [centralized control associated with broadcast] whereas in the case of the Internet there is still a tremendous amount of dynamism coming from users” (460). He is intentional in his use of the phrase “how people are controlled and how “their minds are shaped” which is something I think I’d like to explore in my final project. This isn’t something new, either: who controls the message has, historically, been just as important as what that message is.


In “The Written World,” we are talking about the creation of social spaces for online communication. That discussion was based on our observation that the early designs for computer conferencing were empty spaces, basically. Just a blank upon which anything could be written. The designs showed very little awareness of the fact that different social purposes would be served by different configurations of the communication space. So we wrote about that quite early in the mid-1980s, calling for social factors in design. Soon after that, other people who are better remembered than we were got involved, and fields like Computer-Supported Cooperative Work emerged. In these emerging fields people were very aware that what they were doing was designing communication spaces around a specific task. Now I guess it’s a familiar concept, but at the time it was an innovative idea that there were socially specific communication spaces rather than some universal neutral space (464).

It’s interesting to see how the idea of specialized spaces for specialized communications has developed. I see how, as Feenberg says, this is something that is rather obvious now, but still, interesting all the same. In my head, I sort of separate these kinds of online communication spaces into two broad(ish) categories:

  1. Real time professional communication
  2. Real(ish) time unprofessional communication

As for the first, I would group together writing and communication technologies like Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, chat functions on email, and Google Docs. For me, these are technologies that afford the closest mirror to face-to-face communication, what I would say is the end goal for professional communication.

In the second, I would group things like Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and even Instagram (though it’s main purpose, I don’t believe, is written communication).

Perhaps these divisions are arbitrary, but I think the reaction to instances of “mold breaking” is worth looking into. An obvious example is President Trump’s rather undiplomatic use of Twitter that frequently prompts criticism. Often, it is not the content of the message that he tweets–as he is apt to verbalize that kind of language anyway–but it is the medium he is using. Twitter, by and large is not a place for “professional communication,” my first grouping from above. In fact, its interface is not designed for that. Sure, users are able to have conversations, but they are only mimicking real-time communication, and are only allotted 280 characters. Anything longer, and they are split up into jarring sections, often with other people’s comments interspersed. So, I think there is some investigating to do here in regards to mismatched communication/communication space.

Long Story Short

I’m still in the beginning stages of my Final Presentation, but I’m really intrigued by the democratic and political implications online communication and composition spaces have. It’s something that I will continue to look into as I near the end of this class.

Works Cited

McCorkle, Ben. Rhetorical Delivery as Technological Discourse: A Cross Historical Study. Southern Illinois University Press, 2012. 

Zachry, Mark. “An Interview with Andrew Feenberg: TCQ TCQ.” Technical Communication Quarterly, vol. 16, no. 4, 2007, pp. 453-472. ProQuest, http://ezproxy.gardner-webb.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.gardner-webb.edu/docview/215437458?accountid=11041.

An Internalized Part of the Self

The relationship that humans have with technology is something that is very interesting to me, but I usually tend to think of technology in terms of ‘high tech,’ things like electronics, artificial intelligence, and new virtual reality developments. Walter Ong’s “Writing Is a Technology That Restructures Thought” as well as the other readings this week have sort of opened my eyes to how writing is a technology, and not only that, it is something (in Ong’s view, at least) that actually has measurable effects on a person’s thought process.

Here are a two quotes in particular that drew my interest:

“Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does, not only when engaged in writing but even when it is composing its thoughts in oral form.”

The fact that we do not commonly feel the influence of writing on our thoughts shows that we have interiorized the technology of writing so deeply that without tremendous effort we cannot separate it from ourselves or even recognize its presence and influence.”

Walter Ong, “Writing Is a Technology That Restructures Thought”

The second quote is something that I found very interesting because it seems to draw a distinction between the physical act of writing and the act of composing thoughts and verbalizing them. To me, these things seem more related than disparate. In fact, when my students hit a speed bump in their writing, I will ask them to verbalize what they want to say. Most of the time what they are able to say out loud, stemming from things that they have thought, is really what they’re going to end up writing. This disconnect is interesting to me, though. It seems that if a person can verbalize their ideas, then the act of writing them down should really just be the end product, something that is not really changed too much from cognition to composition.

But I suppose this idea comes into conflict with what Ong says on page 31 and 32, where he discusses how to be understood, all writing requires sound, whether it is verbal or mental, and where he discusses how writing, unlike speech, is artificial.

I’m currently  working on writing a novel, and I would say that one of my biggest pitfalls is writing dialogue. And I think that some of my struggles might stem from some of the ideas that Ong is talking about here. I’m very able to see in my head what I would like this conversation that I’m writing to sound like, but when it gets transferred onto paper, my thought process has to be mediated by the technology of writing. The things I want to say would almost sound better–and I use the word sound here purposefully–if they were just spoken aloud. But the transfer to a transcribed version brings into play a whole host of problems. Natural pauses, scatterbrained ramblings, even unintelligible sounds that everybody makes while they speak, none of these things are easily transferable to the written text. It’s my opinion, anyway, that you can put them down on paper, but all of Ong’s ideas about writing’s dependence on sound (31) come into play. I also think about the issue of distance between the writer and the reader, what Ong calls an unresponsive text (27). My job as the writer is to produce something that can stand on its own, without me peeking over the reader shoulder and letting him or her know ‘oh by the way, this dash right here is to communicate that the main character is nervous about this conversation he doesn’t quite know what to say.’   If it were that easy, I think I would have had a best seller by now!

I’m still digging into the the idea of writing as a technology and an artificial thing.  It seems obvious after looking into a little more deeply, but I wonder if I am doing a slight disservice to my students when I try to equate verbalizing ideas with writing them. The human capacity for writing, I now see after this week’s readings, is not innate like the capacity for language, so it seems that that might offer some explanation as to why by students, and I myself, hit patches where we can conceptualize what we want to write, but cannot transfer it to the paper.

Works Cited

Ong, Walter. “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought.” The Written Word: Literacy in Translation. Ed. Gerd Baumann. Clarendon Press, 1986, pp. – .

New Semester, New Class: Literacy and Technology

Iconography Applied

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about soccer. May 12th marked the end of the 2018-19 Premier League season, the highest division in competitive English soccer, so my Saturday mornings have felt a little empty. However, this week’s readings have actually offered a chance for me to jump back into the PL and draw some connecting lines between the sport and literacy, especially in regards to iconography.

In Mary Carruthers’ “Memory and the Book” she discusses ways in which texts and accompanying pictures in early Western writings served as not just a way to fill pages, but as a way to help the reader memorize and internalize a message (222). This was something that I had never really considered, and her exemplification of Psalm 148 really helped solidify her theories. Everything contained in that psalm–angels, hosts, sun and moon, stars (222)–was then represented visually, serving as a way for a reader to work through the image, internalizing the message. If I am reading it correctly, it is almost like puzzle to be deconstructed; once the pieces can be understood–especially how they form the whole–then they can be easily remembered. The reader can see the story laid out in image form, supplementing the written form. Fascinating stuff.

I suppose it could be said that this type of iconography helps instill and enforce a certain lore or myth. Something as long-standing as religion needs a way to be transmitted from one person the next as well as from one generation to the next. This type of visual recording, I think, facilitates that.

Connections

Now this may be a stretch, but I think this lore building has some connections in the logos of soccer teams that play in the English Premier League. Each team has a distinct crest or badge affixed to their jersey. These, I think are much more distinctive than, say, baseball or football teams. MLB jerseys will usually be embossed with a letter denoting the team, or a simplified version of the team’s mascot as seen below:

A collection of MLB Logos: Los Angeles Angels; Los Angeles Dodgers; Miami Marlins; Milwaukee Brewers; Minnesota Twins; New York Mets; New York Yankees; Oakland Athletics
A collection of MLB logos

The same goes for teams in the NFL. Aside from the physical location of the team, and the colors they usually wear, there is not a lot of extra information being communicated.

A collection of NFL logos: New England Patriots; New Orleans Saints; New York Giants; New York Jets; Oakland Raiders; Philadelphia Eagles; Pittsburgh Steelers; San Francisco 49ers
A collection of NFL logos

In the Premier League, the badges are much more intricate. Here are a few samples:

Some of them are…less than beautiful (looking at you, Burnley), but I think the connections to Carruthers’ ideas about iconography are interesting. Sure, these crests are not supplemental to reading, but they do tell a story on their own. Take Burnley’s crest, for instance. Sean McGeady, a writer on The Football Crest Index, jokingly says that “Burnley F.C.’s crest is clearly a cryptographic attempt to communicate with extraterrestrial entities more powerful than we could possibly imagine” (McGeady), but in a more serious sense, there is a lot being communicating here.

The raised hand is representative of the town’s motto, “Hold to the Truth.” The bees that flank the hand indicate Burnley’s historical industry. The lion in the center–a common staple of English teams such as Chelsea FC–indicates the royal roots of the team. Most interesting to me is the bird standing at the top of the crest. As it turns out, it is actually a stork and pun on the name Starkie, a prominent family of the area. Almost everything in this crest seems to be pulling double duty; some symbols are literally translated while some, like the lion, play off of existing iconographic associations. Some are steeped in history while some are just above silly puns.

What I think is the most interesting about these crests is that all of this information, for the casual fan at least, is really unnecessary. You can still enjoy watching a game without in-depth knowledge of all the icons on the team’s crest. However, there is a whole other level or lore that is accessible for more dedicated fans. Coordinated cheers from the stands, stadium lore, and theme music all play off of existing images and myths that have developed through teams’ histories. Liverpool fans sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” by Gerry and the Pacemakers during their team’s matches, a text that has been enshrined on the team’s logo since 1992. Sunderland FC–a team that has been relegated to the lower league of English soccer–includes a colliery wheel to represent the former mining land that the stadium, The Stadium of Light, stands on.

All of these little tidbits of information do not detract from an understanding of the team or the game, but rather serve as representation of teams’ rich histories, and help to foster a sense of community and belonging between the fans.

Mary Carruthers, quoting Hugh of St. Victor, says that the iconography of early Western texts can be seen as “a journey from ignorance to contemplation; one first sees only an overwhelming jumble of fragmentary detail, then as one meditates, one begins to collect the pieces, and then in contemplation forges a meaningful patter” (Caruthers 255). It may be a little poetic, and perhaps it is just images on a team’s logo, but I think it’s fascinating that what at first appears to be a jumbled pictorial mess becomes more clear the more time you spend with it.

Works Cited:

“2019 MLB Logos – 2019 Major League Baseball Logos – The News and History of Sports Logos and Uniforms.” 2019 MLB Logos, http://www.sportslogos.net/teams/list_by_year/42019/2019_MLB_Logos/.

“2020 NFL Logos – National Football League Logos – The News and History of Sports Logos and Uniforms.” 2020 NFL Logos, http://www.sportslogos.net/teams/list_by_year/72020/2020_NFL_Logos/.

Carruthers, Mary. “Memory and the Book.” The Book of Memory. Cambridge U.P, 1990, pp. 221-257.

Finnis, Alex. “Every Premier League Club Crest, Ranked from Worst to Best.” SportsJOE.ie, 24 Aug. 2016, http://www.sportsjoe.ie/football/every-premier-league-club-crest-ranked-worst-best-92643.

Synchronicity

“Coincidences give you opportunities to look more deeply into your existence.”

Doug Dillon

Perhaps the quote above is a little melodramatic, but it’s odd how things seems to match up and how a little bit of synchronicity makes you think, “huh–that’s interesting.”

This morning, I was browsing Reddit when I came across a post on r/videos about a ten year old girl with autism who has been non-verbal for her whole life. After working with a number of therapists, as many as three at a time, her parents were beginning to become frustrated with the lack of progress. At the center of their frustrations was something incredibly human: the desire to communicate with their daughter.

It wasn’t until Carly was given a computer that her parents realized that she was actually incredibly articulate, aware of her condition and the limitations it has placed on her life. She writes, “I am autistic, but that is not who I am. Take time to know me, before you judge me,” and “If I don’t [react by flailing my arms or banging my head], it feels like my body is going to explode. It’s just like when you shake a can of coke. If I could stop it I would, but it’s not like turning a switch off. I know what is right and wrong, but it’s like I have a fight with my brain over it.”

I know there are distinctions between people with autism and people with different seeing/hearing abilities, but but the core message is strong here: without some way to communicate, a person’s sense of worth and agency in the world is effectively diminished.


In my literacy narrative video from last week, I sort of traced my experiences with multimodal composition beginning in high school, moving throughout college, and now, in my own classroom. I suppose that this idea of open access to different forms of communication is the driving force behind these sorts of projects. There is a saying in AP classes when it comes to grading: “Reward the student for what they do well.” I think this applies for multimodal composition. I want students to find what they do well and use it to show their skills. What I hadn’t really considered, though, is what happens when one of these skills or modalities becomes inaccessible for someone.

My Digital Literacy Narrative that traces my experiences with multimodal composition.

In this week’s discussion I wondered about where systemic change for differently abled bodies would come from; would it come from the top down, or would it start from the bottom up, with students influencing their classrooms? The more I think about it, the more I’m led to believe that it will be a combination of both (stealing Zach Koenig’s ideas here), but will lean more heavily on the top-down approach.

I think back to my undergraduate studies, and the lack of real training in skills and technologies that can help people of all sorts of abilities “enter the conversation.” I mean, I majored in English-Teaching, so if there was ever a candidate who should be the best equipped to accommodate and include people in composition classes, it probably should have been me.


An Update

As it turns out, Carly has really found her voice, and in January of last year, she took over Stephen Colbert’s desk, interviewing him. Here’s a video:

Carly Fleischmann on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

Works Cited


STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder. “Non-verbal girl with Autism speaks through her computer 20/20 ABC News.” YouTube, 8 Aug. 2012,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMBzJleeOno

The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. “Carly Fleischmann Gives Late-Night TV A Try.” YouTube, 13 Jan. 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPtCf8DBZ0E