Am I what I say?

Having argued in my previous post that to be active successfully in online fora, you should be media literate, the next obvious question is how do you acquire this literacy?  As a part of my group’s #ONL191 work, we have looked at a variety of practical tips as well as more philosophical points.  As with any environment, you need to know the rules of engagement.  There are a lot of guides out there, for example for “academic Twitter”, or for blogging as an educator.  These sorts of guides are very helpful, although often very platform- or tool-specific.

More generally, this kind of information should be included in journalism training programmes, as we can see from the course structure for a Masters programme at the University of Kent, where the impact of online media is discussed, as well as methods of storytelling.  For the moment, my own exploration of the topic is a bit more limited, so I will concentrate on one particular aspect, that of context collapse.  I came across this term in a set of articles by Bonnie Stewart, in particular one called ‘Collapsed publics‘.  The article is primarily concerned with a case study of several academics with a strong online presence, with a focus on Twitter coming to the fore.  The participants in the study have several common ways of interacting that are considered appropriate, including such facets as sharing (interesting) work by other, as well as invitations for congratulation or commiseration. One thing that comes across clearly is that online credibility belongs to those with charisma and good (digital) social skills; this is not necessarily congruent with expertise.  However, was it not ever thus?

So, what is context collapse?  In the simplest sense, it is the reading of texts by multiple audiences, some (most) of whom are not privy to the intentions and larger surrounding discussion.  Stewart frames this using some very interesting work by Ong on secondary orality (broadcast media culture) and literacy; later, Ong ascribes digital communications as secondary literacy – “textualised verbal exchange registers psychologically as having the temporal immediacy of oral exchange”.  The possibility of immediate response online encourages us to act as if we are in a conversation, but our words are recorded forever.  When we speak in person, we are highly conscious of the immediate environment and power relations, but this is lost online after the immediate discussion has taken place.

So, our intention does not carry through.  Instead, as Lanclos and White have put it, content is king, and this leads to an explicit identification of the person with the content, hence the title of this post.  Am I (only) what I have said/written?  Plainly not; the unreliable narrator is a mainstay of fiction.  The learner or student is also in this position; their ideas are not yet fully formed.  But, to pose a rhetorical question, what else can the reader do?  Stewart concludes that:

the dominance of oral-style interaction as the perceived price of admission may be the key factor in keeping academic Twitter a relatively minimal threat to academia’s structure and tenets, among a professional population deeply conditioned to the internalized, distanced register […]

Digital literacies vs digital languages

The first topic on #ONL191 covers online participation and digital literacies.  One of the pieces of suggested reading presents a model by White and Le Cornu, developed in 2011, to categorise users as Visitors or Residents of the digital world.  I liked this description, and think that it has a lot of applicability.  The two roles are also presented without judgement.  A post by one of my colleagues on the course, Sara Ihlman, provides some more background to this description and where it developed from.

One of the drivers for White and Le Cornu to propose this new description was the broader switch from comparing digital skills to language learning (Prensky’s native/immigrant approach), to instead talking about digital literacy, and indeed literacies in the plural.  I find that I don’t have a good grasp on this distinction, and so that is what I will discuss now.

On its own, literacy usually has two meanings, the first being the ability to read and write, and the second referring to competence or knowledge in a particular area.  Language is a communcation system, and it is common to refer to computer programming languages, for example.

One of the first times I came across the term ‘computer literacy’ (which I assumed to be a precursor of the phrase ‘digital literacy’) was in the acronym CLAIT (Computer Literacy and Information Technology).  This was the name for a series of courses in the UK covering basic computing skills such as how to use word processors and spreadsheets.  The computer literacy covered in the initial courses was simply the ability to use these tools in standard ways, for example, writing a letter in a word processor.  The approach promoted the tool over understanding, as you don’t have to know how to program a spreadsheet to be able to use it.  At some point, this approach hits limits, as understanding the kind of things that computers can do can increase dramatically the types of things you can envisage doing with spreadsheets (including building flight simulators!).

A first flight simulator in Excel, by George Lungu (

A first flight simulator in Excel, by George Lungu (

In White and Le Cornu’s paper, they provide a short summary of how digital literacy has been defined and used, which I quote here (without the references included in the original):

  • Mastering ideas, not keystrokes

  • Conceptual definitions as distinct from standardized operational definitions

  • Individuals’ ability to participate in a multimodal culture

This sounds like the primacy of understanding over implementation.  Or perhaps I could rephrase this as the lowering in importance (indeed relevance, in this description) of technical competence, and an increase in the importance of competence in media studies.  These definitions are a long way from the literacy of CLAIT, and its modern replacements. The ability to use digital tools is assumed and is not considered a part of the definition.

In fact, I might go so far as to say that this is a description of a more general media literacy, but now more obviously including the ‘writing’, or active, aspect that had once been limited to journalists in mass media.  In that context, I can see that this is indeed a literacy, rather than a language, with the digital implicitly meaning ‘digital media’.