What are New Literacies?

cory folse tweet

Something seems wrong

A few days ago, I tweeted something that wasn’t particularly funny, but I got this response:1

cory folse tweet

I don’t know anyone named Cory Folse, and I don’t know who this @jokesallnight person is, either. So I ignored the tweet, kind of glad I had made someone happy, but kind of confused.

But then a couple of days ago, I was still thinking about this weird tweet, so I decided to see who this Cory Folse person was. I clicked on his user name, which showed me a list of his most recent tweets, with the most recent ones on the top:

tweet 2

Ah. Now I see that Cory isn’t trying to be my friend at all. He’s a spammer, someone (or perhaps a computer program) who is trying to get people to check out the @jokesallnight user. He sends random tweets to random people all the time, trying to compliment people to soften them up and make them more likely not to see through his lousy advertising. (Whatever you do, please don’t reward this behavior by looking up @jokesallnight and following that account on Twitter. I reported Cory for spam and blocked him.)

So let’s think about the clues that Cory wasn’t really my friend. Something seemed wrong in a lot of ways: I didn’t know his name, his response didn’t make sense in context, and he never uploaded an image to represent his user name. I’ve used Twitter enough to know that those three things combined often mean that a response-tweet is spam. You could say that I’m “literate” in the ways of Twitter, so I recognize when people act in “illiterate” ways.

I’m sure you know people who seem surprisingly illiterate when working with digital technology. I get forwards all the time that claim Apple or Applebee’s will give me $2,000 if I continue the forwarding chain, and others that tell me about all the stupid luxuries Democrats or travel agents have insisted on when flying. Those who are email literate recognize the signs that these things probably aren’t true (and a quick search on snopes.com usually clears up any lingering doubts about what’s a scam and what isn’t). There’s even a whole website, literallyunbelievable.org, chronicling people who read the fake news on theonion.com and think it’s real.

What’s wrong with these email-forwarders and fake-news-believers? I suggest that they’re not literate in the ways of new media. They saw something that would be fishy to many readers who are better acquainted with the usual moves made in those contexts, but no alarms went off in their minds.

This article is an exploration of new media literacies, with the end goals of reminding you not to be a sucker who falls for illiterate silliness and encouraging you to rely on your new media literacies when composing with digital technology. To get there, I want us to think about why we use the word literacy to discuss these online issues, how literacy has been expanded in other contexts, and what new media has to do with it all.

The Traditional Model of Literacy

We usually think of a particular skill when we hear the word literacy—knowing how to read. When students can barely read, teachers complain, “They’re barely literate!” When politicians say, “Kids today are illiterate!” they mean that the kids can’t read—or perhaps more subtly, that they can’t read very well. That is, they don’t understand the complexities and nuances that practiced readers see in a big splattering of words on a page or screen.

The politician’s claim reminds us of another aspect of literacy that’s usually tied to the reading angle: the ability to write. When politicians rile up crowds by calling kids illiterate, they often mean, “Kids today don’t understand complex reading, and they can’t produce complex writing, either.” So implied in the skill of literacy is also the ability to write. This makes sense; if I can’t make sense of a piece of writing’s purpose, organization, figures of speech, and rhetorical moves, I probably can’t create a piece of writing that uses those aspects of writing in sophisticated ways.

And as you can hear from my examples of the teacher and the politician, literacy is often a word that shows up when people want to describe something that people don’t have. I’m unlikely to be praised for my literacy when I accurately summarize a tough essay in class, and I’m unlikely to read a particularly nice magazine article and say to the author, “Oh, you were so particularly literate in that piece!” Literacy is usually used more as a base-line for competence, something that we ought to have but that stands out most noticeably when it’s not there, like the space where a demolished building used to be, or when we see a person not wearing any pants.

New Models of Literacy

Why go into so much detail about the traditional model of literacy—the skill of knowing how to effectively read and write? Because when literacy is applied to new contexts—as it is all the time—it often retains the baggage of its traditional usage. Even in these new contexts, literacy is often used to describe a lack that we wish were filled, just as when we describe people who can’t read. Literacy is also often tied to effective reading and effective writing (though sometimes reading and writing are expanded to different forms of understanding and acting).

For example, I described myself as “literate” at the beginning of this piece because I saw through the Twitter spammer’s tricks. That’s because I was separating myself from the “illiterate” people who fall for his spam, and because I wanted to emphasize that communicating well on Twitter is tied both to reading and writing tweets effectively.

A quick Google search for literacy shows me various other ways that people use the word:

  • Financial literacy: the ability to understand complex financial information, and the ability to act wisely on that financial know-how
  • Information literacy: the ability to find the right information for a given task, and the ability to use that information in the best way (for an essay, work assignment, protest rally, or whatever)
  • Media literacy: the ability to read or view the various tricks used by the media to subtly emphasize one point of view, and the ability to compose messages that use media trickery effectively for a given rhetorical situation

In all three of those examples of literacies, I imagine the term developed as people began to realize how illiterate their friends and colleagues seemed to be. (Perhaps most terminology begins this way: as a way for individuals to draw attention to their own strengths in comparison to a rabble of “those other people.” I definitely feel kind of cool when I catch a Twitter spammer.) In that framework, financial literacy works as a helpful term because so many people seem to lack basic skills related to budgeting, managing credit cards, and paying off debt. To people who have financial literacy, those who lack it seem to be missing a set of skills so fundamental that to not have them is akin to a reading person’s feelings toward someone who can’t read. Along the same tack, information literacy works as a term because so many people seem to lack the basic skills necessary to finding the information they need, especially in our increasingly information-centered world. And media literacy is a helpful term because so many people are duped by the political and social messages embedded in the news, movies, and music we consume.

So what happens when we apply these same ideas to new media reading and writing contexts?

New Media Literacies

New media is an awkward term; on its surface, it seems to imply media (news, music, TV, movies) that’s recent—it’s new. From that perspective, new media would be content that was distributed in the last few days or weeks, as opposed to all that hype about Justin Bieber, which was so last year.

But new media encompasses far more than that. In the introduction to an issue of the scholarly journal American Journal of Business, Jo Ann Atkin describes a complex mess of activities that could be termed “new media”:

What do we exactly mean when we say “new media?” Most definitions of new media (and there are plenty) usually focus on three characteristics. That is, new media is a form of interactive communication that is both digital in format and distribution. This definition would encompass such technologies as: gaming, web sites, chat rooms, e-mail, virtual reality, streaming video or audio, blogs, real simple syndication (RSS), short message service (SMS), Twitter, wikis, online communities (e.g., Facebook, LinkedIn), and YouTube to name a few. The definition also implies that the computer or information technology plays a critical role in both message content/design and dissemination. (3)

Atkin’s list of new media technologies is a treasure trove for different angles through which we can understand new media literacy. As with other kinds of literacy, I’m reminded of all the people I know who aren’t literate in these areas (and I bet you know a few too).

For example, from the reading angle, I can think of plenty of people who

  • are confused when faced with a video game, not knowing where to look for visual cues about what to do next
  • don’t notice the visual cues on a computer desktop that instantly draw the attention of a more literate person
  • miss the signs that an email or tweet is a phishing scam
  • don’t realize that blogs are inherently spaces for dialogue in the comments section
  • never stop to consider that web designers have purposefully chosen colors, layouts, fonts, images, and multimedia elements to make viewers think and feel in specific ways

And from the writing angle, there are plenty of folks who

  • try to use Facebook in ways that feel weird to those who are literate in its use
  • produce movies for YouTube that come across as boring, badly paced, ugly, or annoying
  • write emails without knowing the expectations of their audience (who, for instance, might prefer to be addressed in complete sentences)
  • think their Twitter followers really want to know every boring detail of their lives
  • create graphics without carefully choosing effective fonts, colors, and layout options that will be most effective for their audience
  • participate in wikis without respecting and following the formatting and structural decisions made by those who went before them

All of these people could be described as needing one or more of the skills wrapped up in the phrase new media literacy. These skills often have both a technical and a rhetorical angle. That is, those with exceptional new media literacy are masters at understanding and using technologies (e.g. getting around on social media sites, using photo editing software, producing videos), and they’re also masters at understanding the rhetorical needs of reading and composing in a specific time and space, for a specific audience who will judge a composition to be effective (e.g. designing a website that visitors think is attractive, saying something to Facebook friends that is likely to be “liked,” not looking like an ass when plodding around online in general).

So What?

If you’re asking, “So what?” the answer should be obvious: illiterate people need training and practice in literacy to become effective in contexts where those literacies matter. And just as traditional text literacy can be taught, so can these other literacies, both through immersion in contexts where those literacies are used effectively (like a U.S. citizen moving to Japan to learn the language, or a seventy-five-year-old woman who spends hours online every day to learn the conventions used by effective websites) and through instruction from experts.

The good news is that many traditional-age college students already have a solid grip on many new media skills—and they may not even realize how skillful they are! But there’s a subtle problem as well: like a child who goes around telling his family that he knows how to read when he really only knows his alphabet, it’s possible to over-estimate the sophistication of one’s new media literacy skills. That is, I might say, “Um, I’ve been online every day since I was eight. Of course I know what makes an effective website or video or audio essay.” But when given a chance to show off some of my skills, I might suddenly be found lacking. All that skill I have at navigating new media spaces may not have translated into a complex understanding of the literacies at play there, keeping me from effectively being unable to describe what makes an effective new media text and even more unable to make one myself.

That’s why writing new media texts—or in this case, composing is probably the better term—is so important: it gives us practice in using our new media literacies in powerful ways while showing us the places where our skills are most lacking sophistication. It also reminds us of the importance of building our new media literacies in community. When you compose a new media text—an email, video, digital song, audio essay, blog post, wiki page, or tweet—ask a few people what they think about it. Get their gut reactions, their subtle, first-impression-style judgments about if you’ve used your technology well and if you’ve effectively communicated to your audience in a way that works for them.

So go out and compose like crazy in any format you can find or invent—but all the while, ask yourself what you already know and what you still need to learn. And for goodness sakes, try not to look like a spammer while you’re out there.

[1] On Twitter, anything starting with an @ represents a user account. So this tweet was written by Cory Folse, who tweets from the account @corsett445. In the text of his tweet, he mentioned @kstedman (me!) and some other user called @jokesallnight. Because he mentioned our user names, Cory’s tweet will appear as a “mention” when we log into Twitter. It’s much like when someone “tags” you on Facebook.

Works Cited

Atkin, Jo Ann. “Lost in Translation: New Media | Old School Lesson.” American Journal of Business 24.2 (2009): 3–4. General OneFile. Web. 25 May 2012.