The Merits of the #Blackandwhitechallenge

If you are on Facebook, chances are that you are currently seeing a lot more black and white photos. The latest viral challenge sensation asks participants to post a black and white photo each day, without humans and without explanation. Essentially, we are telling the stories of our week, simply by the objects and settings present in the images we select. I see multiple benefits to embarking in such an activity. First and foremost, creating a black and white image makes us approach photography in a more artistic manner. Most of us take pictures to capture events or the people in our lives. We rarely take pictures of wet leaves on the sidewalk or the halo of a streetlight on a misty evening.

Thanks to Instagram we have become more accustomed to filtering our images. Mostly, though, it is to find the most flattering or dramatic lighting, after the fact. We do not look at the sky and think, This would look amazing with the Nashville filter. At least, I don’t. I take a picture and then I see what happens when I apply the filters. Black and white imagery requires a bit more thought than this. The best images involve a contrasting play of patterns and a rich variety of gradients, meaning it involves both drama and subtly. I particularly like this list of tips: https://improvephotography.com/832/black-and-white-photography-tips/.

My limited photography training mostly involved taking black and white photographs. First, for my high school yearbook, and later for newspapers as a journalism intern. As I moved from the world of print to the world of the web, I no longer had to worry about the cost of colored ink and was allowed and expected to shoot and design with color. The black and white challenge reminds me of those early days in my visual arts journey when I was trying to get the basics down, focusing on light, shadow, shape, and balance (think rule of thirds). I miss those pre-digital days when I had to set everything manually: focus, aperture, and shutter speed.

Even if you do not get into the composing of a photograph, the challenge still can be enriching. On a psychological level, taking a daily photograph makes you pay attention to your surroundings, to the moment in which you are situated, and to the hidden beauty that is often unacknowledged in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. My gratitude for life increases when I take time to watch the water in the nearby creek and notice the elegant curve of the lamp that lights up the pages of the book I am reading. If you are being true to the challenge, and you do not seeing anything worthy of a picture in your current setting, you have a reason to walk outside and explore. It’s sad that we need a reason to do this, but when we have so many things competing for our attention, it’s hard to schedule time to wander. I enjoyed my Sunday morning meander through my yard. It was a great way to start the day.

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I give this social media challenge two thumbs up.

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Aesthetics, Authorship, and GIFs

What is the theoretical value of a short clip of Tina Fey “high-fiving a million angels”? What does a GIF say about new media aesthetics and how we conceive of authorship/ownership? The now ubiquitous GIFs and memes are what Henry Jenkins defines as spreadable media. The prototypical word used for media that moves virally through an online network is meme, a term that was coined by Richard Dawkins to explain how cultural ideas, practices, and symbols are transmitted “by leaping brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation” (Dawkins 189). Unlike the cultural memes Dawkins theorized, Internet memes do not maintain fidelity or an unaltered state as they pass from “brain to brain.” In their study of online memes, Michael Knobel and Colin Lankshear discovered that many were altered, “the meme ‘vehicle’ was changed, modified, mixed with other referential and expressive resources, and regularly given idiosyncratic spins by participants” (208).

A recent example of an online meme that has propagated due to modifications is the “Ryan Gosling says Hey Girl” meme. The meme began on a Tumblr feed entitled Fuck Yeah! Ryan Gosling when a captioned picture was posted that stated, “Hey girl, No Shoes, Clear Eyes, Full Heart, Can’t Wait to Kiss You” (Jezebel). This led to a circulation of a whole series of captioned Ryan Gosling photos that began with the words “Hey girl.” It spawned a derivative blog entitled, Feminist Ryan Gosling, where after the opening of “Hey girl,” the captioned Ryan Gosling delivers musings/statements related to feminist theory and literature, such as “Derrida thinks language is fluid enough to break the gender divide, but nothing will split us apart” (Henderson). At the point of this most recent iteration, who is the creator of this text? Tumblr user Jezebel wrote a caption on a photo she did not take and uploaded it to a site that she did not create. Danielle Henderson parodied the original meme to promote a feminist agenda and perhaps promote herself as an academic and writer, as her feminist Ryan Gosling Tumblr led to a book contract. Analysis of her usage led me to create my own Ryan Gosling meme, which I used in my dissertation defense, which was the final step to earning my doctorate.

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If we consider aesthetics as a way of judging the value of art, then the aesthetics of online media/art involves how easily and likely a text is to be “appropriated and reworked by a range of different communities” (Jenkins et al 2). Because viral media and memes rely on the audience to transform and repurpose the original text, the value of a piece is co-determined by the audience. To reach an audience and elicit their participation, pathos is needed. According to Jenkins, Ford, and Green, spreadable media most commonly contain: “absurd humor or parody,” “puzzles or enigmas which encourage us to seek out other information,” a need for audience participation to be complete, and “themes of community and nostalgia” (6). As Micciche argued, emotions bind a social body together. Online, emotions are the catalyst behind likes, shares, and posts. We are not only circulating images and information, but emotions.

Understanding the aesthetics of new media texts should be recognized as a form of literacy. “Literacies call us to generate and communicate meanings and to invite others to make meaning from our texts in turn,” explain Lankshear and Knobel, “This, however, can only be done by having something to make meaning from—namely, a kind of content that is carried as ‘potential’ by the text and that is actualized through interaction with the text by its recipients” (4). Whether this type of literacy should be referred to as digital literacy, electracy, aesthetic literacy, or critical literacy is up for grabs. What is clear is that we must reconceptualize literacy, authorship/ownership, and aesthetics to glean the most from the affordances of new media.

Works Cited:

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, 1990.

Henderson, Danielle. Feminist Ryan Gosling. Tumblr, 2013.

Jenkins, Henry, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green. Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. NYU Press, 2013.

Jezebel. “Hey girl, No Shoes, Clear Eyes, Full Heart, Can’t Wait to Kiss You.” Fuck Yeah! Ryan Gosling. Tumblr, 2012.

Knobel, Michael and Colin Lankshear. A New Literacies Sampler. Peter Lang, 2007.

Micciche, Laura. Doing Emotion: Rhetoric, Writing, Teaching. Heinemann, 2007.

Hashtagging a National Dialogue

While hashtags on social media can be overdone commentary (#yolo, #blessed, #tbt) or topical aggregators (#poetry, #healthyrecipes, #diy), they also can give individuals access to an international dialogue about an issue they care about. The questions of what means to be patriotic, how we should protest injustices, and how we should express political discontent all were linked by one hashtag over the weekend, #takeaknee.

Why this is important is because our articulated experiences say something larger when they are aggregated with others in the public sphere. In The Public and Its Problems, Dewey states publics form when individuals gather to discuss adverse effects to government policies and activities:  “Indirect, extensive, enduring and serious consequences of conjoint and interacting behavior call a public into existence having a common interest in controlling these consequences” (126). One could argue that hashtags call a public into existence.

I would like to take a moment to highlight the variety of perspectives present, which enriched and deepened the conversation that began when Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem. Eric Reid, one of the first to join Kaepernick in his protest, stated in the New York Times, “After hours of careful consideration, and even a visit from Nate Boyer, a retired Green Beret and former N.F.L. player, we came to the conclusion that we should kneel, rather than sit, the next day during the anthem as a peaceful protest. We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.” The protest, of course, being against police brutality against African Americans.

This protest was partially reawakened by President Trump’s remarks at a rally in Alabama.

Of course, much of the contentious debate centered around using the national anthem and the flag as a means of protest.

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It also tied today’s protest other historical ones.

It contained the voices of vets:

If we approach these conversations, not to reaffirm our own beliefs, but to listen to the varied experiences of others, we can deepen our understanding of an issue and develop a course of action or at least develop the empathy to have a meaningful conjoined conversation rather than isolate ourselves in echo chambers. Unfortunately, we are now hashtagging our filter bubbles and missing out on the true dialogue needed for a functioning democracy. In response to #takeaknee, the #IStand hashtag was formed.

 

 

 

When you look at these two opposing conversations together, I see the positives and negatives behind taking such a controversial means of protest. On the positive side, the protest has garnered much attention and it is a peaceful means of protest, as opposed to a torched march. On the negative side, it challenges a dogmatic belief, which people want to defend. And through their defense, their beliefs become further entrenched and the possibility for productive conversation lessens. This, of course, is frustrating.

We cannot ignore these conversations. My newly minted 9-year-old son came home from football practice Monday night scandalized by the actions of the NFL. Even at the third- and fourth-grade level, they play the national anthem before the games and stand respectfully. Rather than force my own perspective on the protest, I tried to explain both sides of the issue to my son, so that he could both understand his teammates desire to stand and also support those who may choose to kneel. At this point, I feel the most valuable civic skill I can teach him is to understand multiple points of view, not just mine. However, it can be difficult at times to listen in the inflammatory world of social media.

Blogging: The Case Against Immediacy

In our New Media Writing class this week, we are preparing to enter the blogosphere. Part of that preparation involves considering the genre of a blog. As an introduction, we read Andrew Sullivan’s essay, “Why I Blog?”. When I first read this piece nearly a decade ago, I felt the wave of techno-optimism as a true public sphere emerged online where everyone could have a voice. Today, I feel less optimistic reading about the power of free expression, as we have become inundated with perspectives and have begun to treat all perspectives as valid, even those that perpetuate the oppression and the suffering of others. It’s become difficult for many to differentiate between fact and opinion, between well-reasoned analysis and false causality. Because of this, I believe we need to abandon our goal of speed when it comes to posting, commenting on, and sharing information online.

In his essay, Sullivan writes, “We bloggers have scant opportunity to collect our thoughts, to wait until events have settled and a clear pattern emerges. We blog now—as news reaches us, as facts emerge.” Having access to information at all times has created a world that is constantly being fed bits of stories, not just online, but on our 24/7 cable news stations. We do not need more truths that are likely to changes as details emerge. We do not need more cherry picked facts with commentary instead of context. What we need to do is redirect our attention to the longview, to the aggregated facts. Our attention drives the media cycle.

Our blogs can still be expressive and written in one sitting (ala Doogie Howser-style). However, when facts are involved, verify them. Proceed cautiously with emerging stories and new studies. Speed is not the ultimate value. Let’s approach blogging as an endurance sport.

Introduction to Multimodality

The key shift between composing for a print environment and composing for a digital environment is the number of “modes” available to aid in the storytelling. Modes are different forms of expression: linguistic, visual, aural, spatial, and gestural. In the discipline of English, we are most familiar with the linguistic, the selection, arrangement, and delivery of words. I like to say to be a new media writer you need to be a jack of all writer-605764_960_720trades and a master of one. For most of us, writing will be our “master trade.” The trick in new media writing is not relying solely, or too much, on our strongest and most comfortable form of expression.

While writing may be our strength, it may not always be the most effective mode. As the cliché goes, “A picture tells a thousand words.” Visuals can give viewers a more immediate understanding of a concept or situation. In addition, visual choices regarding size and color drives a viewer’s attention and shapes their understanding/perception of the message. Visual choices, not just linguistic choices, are a part of every paper we compose. For example, academic papers should look a particular way. We would not use pink Comic Sans for a font choice.

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In conjunction with the visual is the spatial. Appearance and function often work together. The spatial mode involves the arrangement of a piece and how people move about it. This movement can be how someone opens and consumes a brochure, how we navigate a website, or even how we sit in a classroom. The rhetoric of place is a fascinating area of study if you are into architecture, landscaping, or urban design. However, in this class, we will mostly look at layout and navigation. When we move from a print environment to a web environment, the spatial mode also expands, as web texts are not isolated — they can easily connect to other texts via hyperlinks.

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Another change as we enter the digital environment is the introduction of sound. Instead of reading an interview, we can hear an interview. As a standalone mode, sound allows 1-1260977459Qiyistories to become more portable. I can listen to a podcast while I drive and do household chores. As a supplementary element, it brings personality/culture to the individuals and places featured. We can use music as a new way to express tone: this is serious, this is relaxing, etc. This can get us into trouble at times if the music we have chosen is not appropriate to the situation or editorializes the content in negative manner.

The final mode is the one that we will employ least in this class, the gestural. Unless you celebration-1295014_960_720are delivering a monologue via your webcam, this won’t be a factor. The gestural is the way our bodies communicate: our expressions, our hand gestures, our posture, etc. If you are wondering an emoji could be counted as a gesture (I was), the answer is yes. At least, some scholars are arguing that they be considered as such. In this way, the gestural may find its way into your social media posts.

As you can see, we can express ourselves in many ways and can constructive meaning, at times, without even realizing it. In this class, we will be utilizing multiple modes whenever we construct a text. Our focus will not be on the technical aspects of page layout or audio editing; it will be on making good choices to create an effective, cohesive text where all the elements are appropriately selected and arranged.

For a more in-depth explanation of the five modes discussed, see: https://www.amazon.com/Writer-Designer-Making-Multimodal-Projects/dp/1457600455

 

Curating New(s) Literacies

When I first began researching social media, I picked up Howard Rheingold’s book Net Smart, which covers the skills needed in order to communicate, network, and cultivate an identity online. One of my favorite terms he uses is the word curate— essentially the act of choosing and presenting information discovered online. I’m returning to this term in order to consider how to teach news literacy in the upcoming semester. While the class could go through the usual process of evaluating credibility and verifying facts, I want to make this lesson more applicable to the ways in which we share information every day, which is not in academic research papers. I want us to become more critical curators.

Twenty years ago, trusted print and broadcast journalists curated content for us, not only at the national level, but also at the community level. Increasingly, those small papers have shrunk and merged. In Michigan, the distinct identities of many news organizations have morphed into the large networked space of Mlive. If you follow them on social media, you are as likely to see a national news story on some salacious story in another state (children in cages, gruesome murders, etc.) as a local story. We have filled this dwindling of community news with other filters we identify with, such as media personalities and particular civic and political organizations/groups.

It’s important to distinguish between media personalities and news reporters, which is one part of critical consumption. While all news stories are filtered by the sources selected, the use of quotes, and the arrangement of information, reputable reporters seek out those closest to the story and who have the highest level of expertise and work to portray those viewpoints fully and accurately. A good news story also is balanced and told without revealing the reporter’s individual stance.

One of my stronger students this past semester chose to write a paper on fake and misleading news. In one of his examples, he mentions news coverage by Nancy Grace. At this point I stumbled and questioned him, as Nancy Grace does not deliver news coverage as a journalist, but gives opinions on news events as a commentator. Commentary is not news reporting, even if it is on CNN. In newspapers, opinion pieces are easily identified in their own sections. On cable news stations, the lines between factual, impartial news and commentary are often blurred. Even more dangerous is the fact that these news stories are tailored to audiences of a particular viewpoint, who are unlikely to question information that mirrors their beliefs.

On a smaller, but perhaps more influential level, our news is also being filtered by our social media circles. Each of our friends and liked pages and groups perform curation. While we are most familiar with how individuals curate their statuses and photos to present the most attractive aspects of their life, the non-personal information they share is also a form of curation. In fact, even liking and clicking a story drives the attention information receives. We make stories go viral, we make fake news profitable, and we shape how search engines rank information sources. Maria Popova argues that we have become moderators, sifting through the heaps of information and choosing which ones to shine a spotlight on. It’s a weighty role we have all unknowingly taken on and most of us do not have the skills needed to do it well.

In the composition classroom, we spend most of our time preparing students to enter the conversations of their discipline. However, we do not spend enough time preparing them to ethically drive the attention economy and critically consume and curate information. Here are the resources I am drawing from as I move towards making a paradigm shift:

Truth, truthiness, triangulation: A news literacy toolkit for a “post-truth” world

Verification Handbook

Stony Brook Center for News Literacy

Fake Or Real? How To Self-Check The News And Get The Facts