Last week marked my sixth month on Instagram. Not a big deal for most, I suppose, but at the beginning of the year I decided to create a page for myself and post one image every day this year. The decision had less to do with keeping in touch with friends, professional networks, or entertainment news and more with an ongoing curiosity of what people are doing, how it’s being used.
This might come back to haunt me, but I’ve grown increasingly interested in celebrity television and reality shows like Keeping Up With the Kardashians–not the content but rather the infrastructural organization and marketing and promotional strategies that made and keep shows like this so popular. (The Kardashians’ ratings were once over 10 million viewers per episode; now in its 13th season, the show’s ratings are steadily dropping to about 2 million viewers, which is somehow considered a flop and has led to rumors of ending the series. But can we ever truly be rid of this family from the spotlight? The show has fostered all sorts of endorsements; trademarks; clothing, shoes, perfumes, cosmetics, and oils; weight-loss pills and teas; energy drinks; book deals; video games; credit cards . . . What have I forgotten?)
If only we could harness this power for good.
In 2008, I deleted my account from Facebook. Then, it was a distraction. A waste of time. And it still might be depending on how it’s being used. But it’s a different platform today. Everything’s changed–for better and for worse. And I can’t continue teaching Digital Humanities and technical writing courses properly without understanding it. I can’t intelligently teach branding and marketing and rhetorical strategies without logging onto social media sites once in a while.
In a recent essay entitled, “Why Academics Should NOT Make Time for Social Media,” Gabriel Egan, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at De Montfort University, argues,
Social media are additional services that are layered on top of the internet and the World Wide Web, run by corporations that (when successful) accrue vast profits. They are not “free” in either sense: they generate income and restrict free expression.
True. And for this, there is much to worry about. He continues, “Students must be weaned off the social media that, like bad food, infantilises them by overfeeding their innate cravings.” But scholars and teachers won’t be the ones to “wean them off”, and it’s not our jobs. Instead, we should be teaching them how to read and work within these platforms. How do we understand what’s happening and why? What works and what doesn’t? And for whom?
I’m still in agreement with the author, but this also ignores some of the potential benefits of social media. In his rebuttal to Egan’s piece, “Why academics should make time for social media”, University of Salford professor Andy Miah highlights these to include
collaboration, presentation, networking, researching, tracking, portfolio presentation, audiovisual archiving, workflow efficiency, writing, event production, publishing, video creation, data visualisation and teaching.
This sounds a lot like the workload of every class I teach, though I wonder if students are aware that they’re doing a lot of this already. And for fun! They are creators, participants, readers, commenters, consumers . . . My recent experiences tell me, “No.”
Egan continues, “[w]e should be teaching students computer programming so that they can use these machines in ways limited only by their imaginations and effort.”
Yes. And we also need to admit that there are many kinds of literacies and many meanings attached to digital literacy. As instructors, we need to find a healthy balance to introduce all of these forms to students before they graduate, to allow them to make chooses in the areas that will best benefit them, personally and professionally. Egan refers to social media like Facebook as a “waste of time.” And, sometimes, maybe often for many of us, it is. This is the premise behind two recent books: Virginia Heffernan’s Magic and Loss and Kenny Goldsmith’s Wasting Time on the Internet. Each approach the Internet as a space for artistic practice. In short, it is not a waste of time, or rather a necessary “waste” part of the creative process.
I’m all on board to these approaches, but the university needs to look more broadly at these practices and at the changing world of information and education and business to find new ways to relate to their students (and their interests and goals and future job prospects). And not just in English Departments or the Arts and Humanities.
I had hoped students would share this past semester’s digital projects via their own social media outlets. I was a bit confused, however, when students showed apprehension and concern in doing so. Apparently, past or current instructors have reinforced this idea that accounts should be deleted or set to private to avoid problems with potential future employers. As one student confessed in the middle of one class discussion, “We’re supposed to keep our personal stuff separate.” This was the consensus. And while they offered to set up a new account in some cases, I didn’t push.
But I am left to wonder what’s being communicated to students and how. Are we really asking–encouraging–students to lead multiple, fragmented lives? What are we afraid to share? A few opened cans of beer? A hobby in quilting or photography? A recent review of a movie we saw? Our grandmother’s holiday cookies? Love for a spouse or family member? Sure, there are some posts that go “over-the-line”, but there are other ways to send these to the individuals for whom they are meant to be seen/read. And this will give the sender a chance to consciously reflect on what they’re doing and why. Connecting the personal, the familial, the professional, the communal, and the leisurely makes us more effective, caring, empathetic, well-rounded individuals. Isn’t it fair to say they make us better nurses, teachers, business leaders, workers, citizens, friends?
Maybe that’s the point of the second half of the year: going beyond the metrics of followers, engagements, promotions, and notifications and asking what’s the value in spending so much time (and effort) one what’s being shared, communicated. The big picture and the trivial.
Or maybe this is just a new crash course for me in branding and a way to promote my own interests. In the meantime, I’ll keep the project going, documenting the public talks and workshops, the day trips and long weekends, the new projects and old toys, the family, the food, the cat, the conversations . . .
6 months of Instagram.
In the moment: Instant nostalgia.
In retrospect: 6 months of biographical bookmarks.
The wide scope. A guide to the unknown.
What resembles, assembles…