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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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.

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