Old Communication: Interpersonal Interactions and Social Network Sites
Although public accounts have portrayed Internet-mediated communication as impoverished and antisocial compared to face to face (Thurlow, 2006), communication scholars have documented that, on the contrary, online communication can be hyperpersonal, even more friendly, social, and intimate than face-to-face communication (Walther & Parks, 2002). Concerned with processes of online social interaction such as identity construction, relationship formation, and community building (Thurlow, Lengel & Tomic, 2004), computer-mediated communication scholars have demonstrated the potential for online social interactions to enhance self-presentation, relational maintenance, and social bonding (Chandler, 1998; Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007; Kraut et al., 2002; Walther & Parks, 2002; Wellman, Haase, Witte & Hampton, 2001).
Chandler (1998), for instance, discussed the process of self-presentation in personal home pages on the Web. Blending the professional/academic and personal in both content and form, personal home pages, he argued, can be contexts for multimodal identity practices. Through processes of bricolage, or writing, presenting, and adapting materials (e.g., text, favorite graphics, sound, code, links to others' pages), an author can display biographical information and preferences and shape oneself “in relation to any dimension of social or personal identity to which one chooses to allude” (para. 3). A form of self-publishing, personal home pages also can be viewed as online multimedia texts constructed through a process of “inclusion, allusion, omission, adaptation, and discovery” (para. 11) and shaped by one's associations, connections, and conventions in Web subcultures.
Extending such earlier work, scholars have recently been examining presentation of self, relational maintenance, and social bonding within social network sites. Jones, Millermaier, Goya-Martinez, and Schuler (2008) and others (Gross and Acquisiti, 2005), found that SNS profiles reveal a “great deal of personal information” through the presence of text, images, and communication features (e.g., identifying images, gender, age, purpose for using the site, relationship status, sexual orientation, ethnicity, geographic location, interests, education, occupation, comments feature, etc.) (p. 8). Some of this information is automatically requested when users sign up while other information is intentionally displayed (or omitted) as users craft their self-presentation. Within SNSs, participants can find information about one another before a connection is made by looking at various elements of profile pages. Through what they learn about others' situations, interests, or contacts, common ground can be established and new connections formed (Donath & boyd, 2004). For instance, Lange (2007) found that online media circulation (e.g., video-sharing) through SNSs can support existing and generate new interpersonal connections. When someone circulates a video to a dispersed, unknown audience on YouTube viewers may request to “friend” the producer or comment on the video, and in turn, the producer may go looking for the respondent's online work, accept the friend request, and so begin a new relationship.
boyd (2006), however, describes how the meaning of “Friend” connections in MySpace differs from traditional conceptualizations of “friendship” offline. Within social network sites “Friendship” can mean a variety of different relationships (e.g., actual close friend, lover, acquaintance, colleague, schoolmate, family member, public figure, someone whose network you want to access, etc.). Similarly, Ellison, Steinfield, and Campe (2007), drawing on social capital theory, found that both strong and weak social ties are sustained on SNSs. In surveying college undergraduates (n = 286), they found that intensive use of Facebook was associated with higher levels of three types of social capital: bridging capital or our “friends of friends” that afford us diverse perspectives and new information; bonding capital or “the shoulder to cry on” that comes from our close friends and family; and maintained social capital, a concept the researchers developed to describe the ability to “mobilize resources from a previously inhabited network, such as one's high school” (Ellison, 2008, p. 22; Ellison, Steinfeld, & Lampe, 2007). The researchers found that bridging social capital was the most valued use of Facebook. They suggested that networking through these sites may help to crystallize relationships that “might otherwise remain ephemeral” (p. 25), encouraging users to strengthen latent ties and maintain connections with former friends, thus allowing people to stay connected as they move from one offline community to another (Granovetter, 1973).
In these ways, interpersonal connections are forged by users' publishing about themselves and their lives and interacting with the publications of other users and their networks through the social and technical features in the environment. Such online communication is important for young people, especially those from low-income families, because it can foster peer-to-peer connections based on very specific personal characteristics and interests rather than based on geography and thereby, improve access to relevant or influential information and relationships from which to draw in making important life decisions (e.g., career or college selections or initiation into a college going culture). Moreover, it is well established that low-income and first-generation college students benefit from initiatives, frequently offline, that increase their connections to peers and community resources, leading to a greater sense of social belonging, persistence and success in school (Tinto, 1998; Zhao & Kuh, 2004).
In addition, the various processes of reading, writing, and appropriating digital materials to craft one's online self presentation may allow young people who have felt marginalized, the opportunity not only to reflect and transform the way they think of themselves, but also to communicate who they want to be to a mass audience, an opportunity previously afforded only to the privileged, and so extend the reach of their own influence.
New Literacies and Social Network Sites
Complementing the work of communication scholars, a growing number of scholars in education and its interdisciplinary subspecialties of learning technologies, learning sciences, and New Literacies, are concerned with shifting notions of learning, literacy, and new media as shaped by social and cultural practices. For instance, Buckingham (2007) argues that as new media (e.g., the internet, mobile phones, computer games) have become a “significant dimension” of most young people's lives, and their relationship with these digital technologies no longer formed primarily within school but “in the domain of popular culture” (p. vii), we as educators need to move beyond customary views of these media as simply curriculum-delivery devices, teaching aids or “neutral” tools for learning (p. viii) to find ways of engaging with them more critically and creatively as ways of representing the world, of communicating, and as social and cultural processes (p. viii): “We need to move the discussion forwards, beyond the superficial fascination with technology for its own sake, towards a more critical engagement with questions of learning, communication and culture” (p. 13).
Similarly, John Seeley Brown (2008) argues that education must not only foster young people's standards-based learning about subject matter but also focus on understanding and fostering young people's “social learning,” that is, how they learn and with whom, or their learning to be participants in a community of learners and contributors to the shaping of a local and global society (Brown, 2008, para. 3). According to social learning theories (Brown & Duguid, 2002), meaningful learning involves simultaneously developing a social identity that shapes what people come to know, feel and do and how they make sense of their experiences. Understanding better how such identity develops and how learning occurs in the social and technical contexts young people currently inhabit—e.g., how and with whom expressions are crafted, displayed and utilized, and ideas evolved and distributed through interaction and negotiation—might suggest improvements to instructional designs in formal education.
In this vein, scholars working under the umbrella of New Literacies argue for the importance of considering not just print-based literacies currently emphasized within schools, but also digital literacies shaped by social practices:
New technologies such as blogs, wikis, massively multiplayer online games, social networking technologies and video- and music-dissemination technologies have rapidly spread, by means of the Internet, each with additional, new literacy forms and functions that are reshaped by social practices… literacy has now come to mean a rapid and continuous process of change in ways in which we read, write, view, listen, compose, and communicate information (Coiro, Knobel, Lankshear & Leu, 2008, p. 5).
Although the theory of New Literacies has been described as emerging and multifaceted (Leu et al., in press), and at the risk of oversimplifying, we draw on the Handbook of Research on New Literacies to outline its four important elements (Coiro et al., 2008). First, new literacies necessarily include new skills, strategies, dispositions, and social practices required by the internet and new information and communication technologies (Coiro et al., 2008, p. 14).
Second, the development of new literacies is viewed as essential to full civic, economic, and personal participation in a world community (Coiro et al., 2008, p. 14). This was no more apparent than in the 2008 U.S. presidential election campaign where a new style of ‘Netroots’ politics that was open-sourced and inclusive, multiracial and multicultural allowed citizens not just to consume campaign propaganda but to help shape and distribute it via online meet-ups, blogs, videos, and social network sites (Sheehy, 2008, p. 79)
Third, new literacies are dynamic and situationally specific (Coiro et al., 2008; Hull & Nelson, 2005; Kress, 2003; Lankshear & Knobel, 2006). They change as technologies available over the internet are constantly changing. Within changing contexts, meanings are negotiated, shifting from space to space, person to person, moment to moment. Literacy, therefore, entails “knowing how and when to make wise decisions about which technologies and which forms and functions of literacy most support one's purposes” (Coiro et al., 2008, p. 5). Grounded in sociocultural and activity theories (Vygotsky, 1978; Engstrom, 1987), new literacy theorists view literacy as socially mediated practice (Gee, 1992). Technologies shape social relationships and practices. They enable or constrain certain kinds of literacy practices in certain contexts. In turn, people experiment with technologies-in-use, trying to overcome their limitations and inventing new practices and modifications in the technologies themselves (Coiro et al., 2008). Gee (1999 as cited in Black, 2008) argues that whether or not individuals or groups use language and other modes of meaning are tied to their relevance to the user's personal, social, cultural, historical or economic lives (p. 601).
Fourth, new literacies are multiple and multimodal and are best investigated from multidisciplinary perspectives and in interdisciplinary teams (Coiro et al., 2008, p. 14). For instance, Kress (2003) argues that literacy practices are increasingly multimodal. Changes in media, from page to screen, make “it easy to use a multiplicity of modes… in particular the mode of image–still or moving–as well as other modes, such as music and sound” to convey one's message. The writer of multimodal texts is in essence a designer “assembling according to one's designs” (p. 6) which allows meaning to be distributed across different modes; “reading” requires making meaning from the multiple modes present in a text (p. 35). Multimodal texts can also be interactive as users can “write back” further blurring lines between authorship, readership, production and consumption, and as Kress (2003) reminds us, these shifts between “the world shown” and “the world told” or narrated, require new skills, sensibilities, social practices and new roles for us as educators.
Today, scholars across disciplines are working to define the meaning of literacy in a range of current contexts. There is keen interest in understanding naturally occurring literacy practices within young people-initiated virtual contexts and how these practices intersect with, contradict, or suggest shifts in formalized school practices. For examples of this, see Steinkuehler's (2008) studies of adolescents' gaming practices in online multiuser environments, or Black's (2008) exploration of literacy practices in online fan fiction communities, or Lewis and Fabos' (2005) examination of adolescent literacies in instant messaging. For instance, investigating cognition and literacy practices within massively multiplayer online games, Steinkuehler (2005) documented how these games are spaces for authoring identities, rich meaning-making, and construction of coherent and creative discourses valued in fields outside the game.
However, we are aware of few empirical studies that have looked at school-age young people's patterns of participation in social network sites from an educational and new literacy perspective. Perkel (2008) observed ‘copy and paste’ practices. Combining Jenkins' (1992) theories of appropriation and reuse of media with new literacy theories, he speculated that MySpace is an informal learning environment that fosters new literacy practices: “the expressive power found in the creation of a MySpace profile concerns a technically simple but socially complex practice: the copying and pasting of code as a way to appropriate and reuse other people's media products” (p. 1). Similarly, Erstad, Gilje and de Lange (2007) discuss young people's “remixing” practices, defined as selecting, cutting, pasting, and combining “semiotic resources” (downloaded and uploaded files “found” on the internet) into new digital and multimodal texts. The process of “finding” and “reusing” resources, they argue, highlights the inter-relationship between analysis (reading) and production (writing) (p. 185). The notion of “remixing” can be extended to other acts of consumption and production in the service of communicating within a social network site space (e.g., video-sharing, blog-sharing, photo-sharing, etc.).
If as educators, researchers, and citizens, we want all students to be fully literate and able to communicate to be successful in a global community, we ought to attend especially to those students from low-income families who may be more likely to experience lower levels of online participation at home or at school, compared to their more affluent peers, and therefore, have fewer opportunities to practice new literacies. Looking at these teens' use of social network sites through the lens of new literacy theories raises interesting questions, such as: What are the unwritten rules, expectations, or strategies for self-presentation and network production, maintenance and development? What role do different modes (e.g., language, images, music, etc.) and other forms of communication play in the development of the social network? How do the practices participants demonstrate fit with or depart from school practices? This article will attempt to speak to these questions.