I have good reason to believe that the one common thread to our humanity is that at some point in school, you ran in to your teacher outside of the classroom, outside of the school grounds, and you were shocked that they had a life beyond writing passive aggressive comments on your assignments. If you didn’t have that experience, please don’t @ me; I’m trying to make a point here.
Flash forward several decades beyond the last of these revelatory experiences for me (seeing Mr Dobrum attending an anti-gun rally; what a bloody dark horse he was), and now my study guide kind of implies that I’m obliged to follow my unit chair on social media. Twitter, Youtube, SoundCloud, the guy is everywhere. I’ve gone back to school, started postgrad studies in communications, and first cab off the rank for my subjects is blogging and online communications (#ALC708 #TiffLyfe). Turns out, a lot has changed since I was last a student. And it makes sense; I’m studying entirely online, and I’ll likely never (again) have to avoid eye contact with my tutor on campus because I’m running late on submitting an assignment, or have the indignity of falling asleep and crashing through one of those weird little lecture tables.
This is a subject where engagement via Twitter is encouraged, and the subject is treated as much as a craft as it is an academic pursuit; getting your hands dirty is the only way to go. Fortunately, I’m a communications professional for my day job, so the premise of communicating online is not alien to me, although a gamified system where my subject-related tweets deliver a carefully codified system of points is a delightful new development (I will get all the points dammit). But applying an academic and well-researched foundation underneath my social media activity is a new experience (so plenty of practice needed before assignment one is due).
Taking a critical eye to my own social media practice is a surprising exercise; I won’t feign to say that my online presence isn’t premeditated and carefully curated to display only my best side and most Wilde-ian wit. But the consideration of why I develop any particular digital persona, or prefer one platform to another, or what success looks like; these are all perfectly reasonable questions, but questions that contemporary digital citizenship rarely forces us to reflect upon. This feels even more pointed and pressing since our online identities and associated activity are part and parcel with our participation in the unit.
And in immersing myself in the readings for the unit, even more questions have arisen, particularly the spicy point of contest over Media 2.0. Having studied culture and media in the past, it hasn’t occurred to me that the fundamental nature of how we discuss and study media has changed (or not according to some traditionalists in the debate). The new manifest destiny that the digital world has provided has not simply created a new medium to tack on to an existing media studies rubric, but irreversibly changed our individual and collective interaction with all media (and on this, I very much agree with the Media 2.0 advocates). This is not to say that this transformative shift in how media and audiences interact is universally positive – far from it – but this bell can’t be un-rung.
I take for granted now the capacity to participate in media, beyond the receptive role of the audience as it has existed in the past. I am fully aware of the volume of my voice within the virtual village green that is Twitter, of the re-balancing of power that I have as a consumer that can shop from the other side of the planet as easily as I can just up the road (sometimes more easily), that I can take elected representatives to task on a platform far more familiar to me than it is to them, that I can reshape and remix the media that I consume and throw it into the digital conversation.
Taking up digital communications as a subject is causing me to reflect on my interests and my ambitions in studying this area. I am unashamedly active on social media and predictably curious about new platforms and technologies. It appeals to me on a personal level, but also a professional level (and I’ll leave a discussion of professional social networking to another time). My work in an international humanitarian agency reflects some of my existing interests, so it’s no surprise that issues of power, influence, identity and justice are deeply compelling to me as a student.
For this reason, I have to confirm that I am fundamentally a digital optimist, seeing the utopian possibilities. But this is tempered by a deep-rooted critical assessment of our perennial social failings and weaknesses. I am skeptical that digital communication channels and technology have caused many of our current social ills, but no doubt they have a part to play. I see parochialism, narrow-mindedness, aggression, censorship and the exertion of power all playing out in online spaces in the same ways that they would in the offline world. Much like every tool we’ve taken up over centuries of human history, these digital tools have been used to dominate and oppress as much as they have been to enlighten and advance.
But in my view, the democratic nature of the digital tools now available gives an incredible equalisation of voice and power to those who have most often been held back or left behind. Whatever trade offs may have been made, for this point alone I think this evolution of our communicative selves has been worth it.