Visual Internet and Digital Literacy

Part One: The Visual Internet and the Shaping of Digital Literacy


Schooling is profoundly shaped by surrounding social conditions, whether they be economic, social, political, cultural, or linguistic/discursive, and this section aims to sketch out those conditions, mainly the linguistic/discursive.  Of course, in a study as brief as this one, there are limits on how accurately I can generalize about the current moment.  My goal is to suggest how digital technology’s powerful growth is reshaping existing print literacy into a digital literacy, in ways that are only beginning to become clear. A digital multi-media text, with a strong visual element, has a growing influence on the general stream of communication.  The composition or balance of this text (we need a new, less derivative label than “multi-media text”) is not yet determined, so that all theoretical and pedagogical approaches should be considered as tentative and contingent.  This reshaping includes many aspects, which I will touch on briefly in the introduction, but I will focus on the visual dimension in relation to the written.  The other elements are not necessarily less important, but are not my chosen focal point.


Hearing discussions on digital literacy, one encounters an insistent claim that digital technology is swallowing up all previous technologies.  This process is referred to as convergence:

The coming together into a single application or service of information content from broadcasting, telephony, television, motion pictures, photography, printed text and money;  a growing amount of overlap in the functions that can be performed by different physical telecommunication networks;  a growth in the interactivity, interconnectivity, and connectedness of different networks and information appliances in the home and the office (Center for Convergent and Emergent Network Technologies)


This concept focuses on the recombination of previously separate technologies.  What are people doing with this converged technology?  The term “Web 2.0” is the most common way to conceptualize these startling changes. The term is associated with Tim O’Reilly, a Web entrepreneur and publisher who sponsors conferences and sells books, which is enough to give pause to any skeptical observer.  Tim Berners-Lee, the MIT researcher credited with “inventing” the World Wide Web (the modern Internet with graphic interface) has labeled Web 2.0 as “a piece of jargon,” not genuinely different in quality from the pre-2004 Web.  Participation and interactivity are said to be the most important characteristics of Web 2.0:

a widely used term for the dominant tendency on the Internet toward “interactive information sharing, interoperability, user-centered design, and collaboration…” allowing “users to interact with other users or to change website content, in contrast to non-interactive websites where users are limited to the passive viewing of information that is provided to them.  (“Web 2.0.”)


Clearly the Web 2.0 term conceptualizes some characteristics of the new Internet, but its ideological nature is just as certain, presenting as it does, the Web as a utopian space of free communication and free exchange, without money, professional title, or certification.


This utopian theme is carried into American media studies by the work of Henry Jenkins, late of M.I.T.’s Comparative Media Studies program, now at the University of Southern California.  He expands the techno-centric definition of “convergence” to  a cultural, ultimately political meaning:

…Convergence represents a paradigm shift—a move from medium-specific content that flows across multiple media channels, toward multiple ways of accessing media content and toward the increased interdependence of communication systems, and toward ever more complex relations between top-down corporate media and bottom-up participatory culture (243).


Jenkins’ scholarly interest is in the activities of popular culture fans, who in their seemingly frivolous interest in a celebrity, movie, game, or program, are developing “knowledge communities” that generate, via digital technologies, a kind of “collective intelligence” that can deepen democratic processes.  He acknowledges the top-down, hierarchical character of media corporations, but suggests that they must negotiate with fans and consumers, who are increasingly active and organized via Web 2.0 technologies. Jenkins’ term “participatory culture” has spread widely through the media studies world, carrying that utopian democratic meaning*, and that faith that digital cultural processes are bringing us bright new futures without our full awareness. As Jenkins’ theory is the most influential in the field, I will both refer to it to conceptualize the new discourse and culture we are creating, and raise questions about its focus on user activity, and his neglect of the social structure that shapes that activity along strictly commercial lines. However Jenkins’ work is broadly cultural in focus, while my report is centered on the more limited field of discourse, language, and education.


“Participatory culture” helps conceptualize society’s direction, but it is highly general.  One way to focus is to define how young people’s lives are changing.  Media researcher Sonia Livingstone in her Young People and New Media: Childhood and the Changing Media Environment writes about how the social environment is changing in four specific ways:  first, mobile media is growing, redefining public and private.  Family TV viewing is declining, while personal viewing grows. Second, media is diversifying.  A much greater range of material is available, making information more global and more individual at the same time.  Old socio-cultural determinants of viewing are receding.  Third, the convergence of information services leads to convergence of “hitherto distinct social boundaries” of home/work, entertainment/information, education/leisure, and masculine/feminine, further democratizing our culture.  Fourth, and most radically, the Internet is making communication more interactive, blurring old broadcasting boundaries between active sender and passive receiver (19-21). Though Livingstone’s focus is more sociological than educational, she emphasizes that the Internet is supplanting traditional reading skills with multi-media texts (combining writing with new text designs, video, graphics, sound effects, and interactive features), and hyper-text’s more open, plural, constantly changing, non-linear features.


The Development of Digital Literacy


Dobson and Willinsky’s “Digital Literacy” provides a more discourse-specific overview, following the new developments attentively, while reminding readers of the continuities between print literacy of the past 500 years and the electronic literacy of the past 50 years (or 150 or so if we include the telegraph).  Early marketing of the personal computer in the eighties began the transition from the typewriter to the word processor, which encouraged more writing, but perhaps less conceptual planning.  The consequent ease of revision and restructuring of writing drafts made word processing into a technological ally of the process theory of writing in composition (2-3).  Yet the separation of writing inside each personal computer allowed us to continue to think of writing existing in a medium of its own, subordinate to and a modern extension of, print literacy.  This separateness began to erode with rapid spread of social-interactive writing on the Internet during the nineties.  Though we used existing practices to metaphorically define the new practices (e-mail, bulletin boards, posting, chat) other new terms were created as well (list-serv, web sites).  This networked writing led to more striking changes in written discourse:  the informality, misspellings, and emoticons all suggested the invasion of Walter Ong’s “secondary orality” into writing, and the later, more radical “alphanumeric abbreviations” of instant messaging (“texting”) have prompted anxiety over the deterioration of print literacy manners and text forms (10-11) . Dobson and Willinsky cite Luke and Luke’s observation that teen expertise with the latest high-tech devices is often confused with incompetence in print literacy, avoiding the necessary spread of new educational concepts with “multiliteracies” (11).


Dobson and Willinsky place special emphasis on the advent of “hypermedia,” that is texts linked to other texts through “associative linking,” for further destabilizing print literacy (4).  Literature teachers at Brown University innovated a hypertext system in the  late eighties, allowing readers to not only access primary and secondary sources of one main text, but to add their own comments, texts and links to this system (5).  The authors doubt that the Brown researchers’ claims to revolutionize reading and education,  pointing out that print also has intertextual capacities through footnotes, multiple editions and library searches (6), yet they also concede that “hypermedia extends in significant ways our notions of textuality and literacy,” (5) suggesting that this new kind uber-text exists more as “a process rather than an object” (Hayles qtd. in Dobson and Willinsky, 5).


They review the mixed research results about hypertext assisted reading, suggesting that it is often confusing for novice readers, who comprehend better by working with the hierarchy of main point/supporting detail.  However they point to some studies “suggesting that domain experts <readers with strong background knowledge> fair <sic> better in highly networked environments because they are able to fill in gaps in the situation model with their prior knowledge” (8).  In this light, the remarkable speed, accuracy, scope, and convenience of Internet search engines may be leading to a significant gap between the highly educated on-line users who can “recognize when information is needed, and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information” (American Library Association, qtd in Dobson and Willinsky, 18), and the under-prepared user who doesn’t know what information he is looking at.  The authors conclude that the new literacy will be “a skill not just for decoding text, but for locating texts and establishing a relationship among them” (19). If digital literacy enlarges the importance of “information literacy” in this way, this change is crucial to community college educators.


Another dimension of digital literacy described by the authors appears more familiar at first:  the recent spread of “social software,” from MySpace and Facebook to weblogs, wikis, podcasting, video logs (20) all the way to Open Access publishing among academics* (17) and digital archives where millions of books are being scanned and organized for digital access, subject to legal disputes about copyrights and fair use (16-18).  It is the theory of an underlying process that is more difficult to comprehend as an evolution of literacy:  the authors suggest that knowledge itself is being created through a more intensive kind of collaboration than ever before.  This is most easily seen through the case of Wikipedia, the open source site whose information can be re-edited by any user (subject to a consensus process of the community of users).  It is now well-known to both students and teachers, and has attracted its share of controversy for its undermining of disciplinary authority in academia.   The authors are quick to defend it from charges of unreliability: “…Wikipedia’s accuracy has been pronounced ‘surprisingly good’ by the editors of Nature magazine who conducted a study of it and ultimately advised that ‘researchers should read Wikipedia cautiously and amend it enthusiastically’” (qtd. in Dobson and Willinsky, 20).  The authors claim that the democracy of print culture (expressed in pamphlets, graffiti, and photocopying) is being extended and intensified at a qualitatively new level (21).


A note of caution:  despite the authors’ concession that “government and employer surveillance” are unsettling, I am concerned they downplay the risks of  the new power amassed by Google, Facebook & Co. in their growing knowledge gained from their unprecedented collection of data about users’ behavior and psychology.  Users’ new modes of  “collaborative knowledge” are exciting, but when these private corporations survey and parse our every move, I doubt they will freely share their data.  Every time users enter search terms, click on some sites and not others, post photos, comments or preferences, these expressions are being collected, sifted, analyzed (perhaps with anonymity protected, if we believe Google), and perhaps sold, in the present or future, for purposes that are unknown to the users (Auletta, 120, also see Lessig qtd. in Aultetta 138).  Yes, I have heard that in the near future, our mobile devices will be able to pick up messages sent from an omnipresent observer in cyberspace about a certain sale (fitted to our individual data profile) when we enter a certain building.  Forgive me, as the grandchild of Huxley and Orwell, for being uneasy about the growing mountain of data accumulating from the daily trawl.  In the end though, I am inclined toward Dobson and Willinsky’s caution about both utopian and dystopian predictions (21-22).  They follow the influence of Walter Ong is this respect: they emphasize the continuities between print literacy and digital literacy, while being attentive to the different qualities of the new discourse that are seeping into our communicative routines from every direction.


Television Goes Digital


Dobson and Willinsky also acknowledge the work of previously cited “multiliteracies” scholars.  Their observation that the visual icon on the screen may be supplanting the book as the dominant communication medium (Kress, qtd in Dobson and Willinsky 15) brings me back to my focus on the visual dimension of the Internet.  After giving a brief overview of technological and business trends, I will focus on the visual dimension of digital discourse, exemplified by YouTube.


The first decade of the new century has been one of media convergence. First, the Internet content providers have drawn readers, listeners and viewers away from the old media (newspapers, radio, magazines, books, and television) with new reporting from new actors arising in the digital medium.  Bloggers, posters of cell phone video, “citizen journalists” and even participant-observers writing brief comments via Twitter are now providing a growing portion of peoples’ news.  News journalism, centered in the old media, is going through tremendous upheaval. Second, the old media companies have defended their hold on audience attentions by establishing their own outposts on the Internet.  Much of Ken Auletta’s book Googled: The End of the World As We Know It, details the battle of old media companies to fight off Internet companies’ encroachments. This past decade, TV networks have increasingly moved into the Internet, rather than just suing for copyright infringements, or trying to insulate themselves from the sea change. Local TV stations refer viewers to their own websites to follow stories or news personalities in greater depth, making the website complement their television news show.  New partnerships and intermediaries have proliferated. is a popular site for accessing previously aired television entertainment programs. It was first established to compete with YouTube by NBC and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and has partnerships with Sony and Paramount.  CBS has set up, and Disney (owner of ABC television) sells recordings of its programs through I-Tunes (Auletta 240).  Much of the pressure toward these new arrangements results from the Internet’s undermining of traditional business models and notions of property ownership associated with centuries of law and custom from the print era*The Dark Knight, the most popular movie of 2008, was illegally downloaded seven million times, according to Auletta (316).


TV/ Internet convergence is caused not just by media content providers, but also by producers of the technological infrastructure.  Competitive plotting, deal making and technological innovation to control the future traffic of an Internet-focused television are daily business news.  For example, industry leaks fueled a New York Times story about an alliance of Sony, Google and Intel to:
bring the Web into the living room through a new generation of televisions and set-up boxes…. The Google TV software will present users with a new interface for TVs that lets them perform Internet functions like search while also pulling down Web programming like You Tube videos or TV shows from  The technology will also allow downloadable Web applications, like games and social networks, to run on the devices.  (Bilton, Vance and Helft).


Netflix, whose mail order rental of movies on DVD has eliminated so many video tape/ DVD rental businesses, is moving heavily into streaming its movies via the web to televisions via Nintendo’s Wii computer game system.  This merger is proceeding rapidly.



Some analysts of old media argue that the two media will co-exist separately, side by side, and that technological devices are associated with habitual behaviors: televisions with couch potato-style passivity, and computers with active immersion, exchanges of representations and opinions, and restless surfing of the net (Richtel).  However I see these behaviors, from passive to more active as part of a continuum that the Internet can encompass.  After all the term “surfing” first grew up from TV viewers’ restless changing of channels with remote controls.  Computers are used to “passively” watch movies as long as the screen resolution is acceptable. With all the money and marketing going into 3-D television (Stelter and Stone A-1), improvements in computer screens seem certain, and the convergence of television and film into the Internet is no less certain.  I am not insisting that all other media will become extinct, anymore than speech died when writing became common, only that all other media will exist in some kind or new, but unforeseen digitally structured combination, that will change both society and education.  Television’s omnipresence, both as source of domestic entertainment, comforting chatter, and news*, is bound to continue, but it will look very different within the digital multi-media stream.


Is Kress right in claiming that the interactive screen is the dominant medium?  All I can confidently assert is that that still and moving images are becoming more ubiquitous in the multi-modal texts of visual communication.  The human taste for extensive visual images is not new.  In the past one hundred fifty years, from the advent of  photography, then motion pictures, and later of television, the weight of the visual in the overall balance of human modes of communication has grown. Today many web texts and e-mails are no longer composed only of written words, but include videos, still photos, podcasts, and other graphics.  I would venture to say that overall visual design of web texts will have a growing presence in these new texts.  The nature, status, and genre classifications of the texts that we have inherited from the era of print are now in flux and transformation.  It may need to be restated that writing is visual communication, its most abstract version, essential to clarify abstract assumptions and statements, whereas visual communication is a less systematic code (Messaris 113-118), a code “replete” with tangible specifics—lifelike, fuzzy, ambiguous, (Salomon 36).


Media conscious educators and scholars argue that media change will entail discourse change, which will in turn alter how the media functions. Henry Jenkins, as I wrote before, is a utopian optimist on these matters.  In his Convergence Culture he did a careful case study of network television’s “reality shows” and their accommodation to the Internet to hold onto their viewers.  “Spoiling Survivor: The Anatomy of a Knowledge Community” details the relations of cooperation and competition between the show’s fans and its producers.  The producers had every reason to welcome the Internet-based fans, who carried on puzzle-solving activity of all viewers (who would win the “survivor” contest, who would ally with who, against whom, and attendant character minutia), contributing to a wider buzz in popular culture.  Jenkins emphasizes the producers’ inability to control the fans, whose dedication to gathering intelligence about the show’s plot twists threatened to expose dramatic outcomes prior to its TV broadcast, undermining the network’s hold on a large audience. Jenkins’ concern is the growth of knowledge communities that develop participants’ skills in investigation, evaluation, and cooperation (25-58). He is not interested here in the program’s content, but in the relationships among audience members, their collective relations with the producers, and what these experiences suggest about the future participation of viewers (now more active as “users”) in reality TV and game shows, 21st century marketing strategies, as well as political campaigns and elections.


Visual “Participatory Culture”:  YouTube

In 2007, when I was updating a lesson plan on analyzing TV commercials for an English 93 composition class, I was complaining to my colleague Alisa Messer that my old collection on videotape was outdated, and that my VCR, which I had previously used to record new TV commercials, was broken.  She said that YouTube, the Internet site where anyone could upload a video, was full of commercials. I had heard about YouTube but had not paid much attention.  It was my then thirteen year old son who conveyed to me how young people related to YouTube, chatting about recording a video of his little sister dancing, and posting this on You Tube in order to ridicule her to the whole world.  YouTube was part of his peer culture;  even if he had never made this video, it was a “cool” thing to talk about.  I also noticed that my City College students had begun to refer to YouTube as a typical, domestic form of entertainment, something they watched to relax when they got home.


While searching You Tube for advertisements suitable for student analysis, I ran encountered Henry Jenkins’ “convergence culture.”  When I requested a certain type of advertisement in You Tube’s search engine, I would get it, but as soon as I viewed the ad, I would get a pop-up window that would offer 4 other ads, of uncertain relation to the first ad, and when I viewed one, it might be a different version of the first ad, or it might be a parody of the ad by some budding film students.  Analyzing parody was certainly a different task than analyzing a message produced with a commercial purpose, but on You Tube, there was no labeling of what was an ad and what was a parody.  It occurred to me that You Tube ads were not broadcast after the “air time” was purchased by sponsors as on TV, but were recorded and posted by users, possibly even by “fans” of the commercials (or were commercial sponsors posting them, posing as fans?).  The site brings in large chunks of material that were recorded from TV, whether cable or broadcast, but combines it in seemingly random ways with original video or film footage uploaded by non-professional users.  It dawned on me that I was lost, an innocent who had stumbled down a rabbit hole into an alternate universe of discourse.


While presenting the ads to students in my developmental writing class, I did not share these thoughts. My job was to teach composition, how to analyze an advertisement in a structured way, not to wander through that alternate universe, which many of the students knew better than I did.  But what I excluded may be the most important thing for students to consider:  not the ads themselves, but the new site in a new medium offering a diffuse range of videos that are endlessly variable in meaning and placement, and an Internet site which continues to morph in unexpected ways, as its company seeks to profit as a business*.  Back at my City College class, I taught as if these ads were merely recordings of television commercials (to be analyzed in a televisual context), rather than ads in a very different medium. Even though I was dissatisfied with the audio-visual qualities of You Tube’s recorded commercials, the unit ended up working fairly well, because of the students’ ease of access.  The issue of the new medium that has drawn so much on my students’ time and attention was ignored.


You Tube is only the largest of  250 video-oriented Internet sites**, but it dominates the field. According to Auletta, You Tube accounts for one of every three videos viewed on line (205). While it first became known for its cute animal videos (drawing on the amateurist tradition of America’s Funniest Home Videos on television), it quickly became a site for millions with video cameras on their cell phones, and the more enterprising who were ready to digitize films (old or new, previously released on not) or old television footage.


The new ubiquity of digital video recording allowed the site to shape political publicity.   Both the retirement of a Virginia conservative politician (after his racist quip at a rally about “macacas,”) and the dismantling of ACORN (an activist group for low income city dwellers, attacked after the filming of a staged attempt by actors playing a pimp and prostitute, to seek legal advice from ACORN employees) were made possible by YouTube.  This popularity is enabled by the new digital recording technology, and the open door between the public news and culture of the Internet the private communication channel of e-mail , allowing users to paste links to YouTube videos onto e-mails to their friends.  This is what leads to certain YouTube videos “going viral,” that is spreading quickly from the site to personal contacts, accelerating publicity cycles of outrage and protest.  As I began my sabbatical in early 2009, Oscar Grant was shot to death by police at a BART station in Oakland, and within only one week, after the posting of several cell phone videos on YouTube, there were outraged demonstrations and even riots.  Nor has the populist character of the site, which has “become the viral hub where a candidate’s flubs or fibs were exposed” (Auletta, 206), stopped respectable politicians from making use of the site either.  During the 2008 presidential election, six of the seventeen major candidates announced their candidacies on You Tube (Auletta, 206).



Recent scholarship on YouTube (Lovink and Niederer), has been helpful in my recovery from future shock and to clarify my questions: how are videos on  YouTube organized?  What is the nature of its “participatory culture”?  What are its typical genres?  What is the relation of its content to the larger popular culture?  As usual, theoretical understanding lags far behind practical developments. But given my special interest in visual communication on the web, the rest of this section will  focus on YouTube as a trendsetter.



The very characteristic that I found most confusing as I first searched YouTube is crucial to its nature as a site that claims to be driven directly by the interests of its users: tagging.  According to Birgit Richards, in tagging “…users judge (through social networking and social bookmarking*) the products of other participants by marking their favourites and writing comments” (142).   “Tags,” user-generated labels, classifiers or synonyms for a certain video (or any other text or artifact, as they are a common Web 2.0 organizing device), are used by others to search for disparate videos (also called “clips”).  Richards says tags are most important search mechanism in YouTube’s data base.   Users tag the video with a word or phrase, not bureaucrats or librarians, and then these tags can be used as search terms by future users.  This is why the site is associated with the term “participatory culture”;  however the invisibility of YouTube’s data base organizers, working with algorithms and commercial considerations, must be remembered.  According to Richards, YouTube presents some videos more prominently by a rating system, including pages of “most viewed,” “top rated,” “most discussed,” and “most responded** videos and those criteria, through some formulaic data base process, cause the more popular videos to be featured more prominently (142-143).


While Richards denies that YouTube video producers are pure autodidacts outside of the art or professional worlds, she is interested in their amateur status:  “…people with no professional education in the field of art production are testing new forms in this laboratory for moving images, which they generate from materials of everyday media and pop culture” (143).  This massive artistic production, outside of any formal authority, is heartening for anyone who supports the spread of democratic culture across the society*.  To avoid a lapse into utopian fantasy, I am reminded by Lev Manovich that most YouTube users are still viewers, not producers of videos.  He cites 2007 statistics that only 0.5-1.5 percent of users contributed to the most popular social media sites (Flickr, YouTube, Wikipedia) (33) .  However YouTube also has a reputation as a site that any “ordinary” person can contribute to, and certainly the numbers of video producers reaching limited audiences is certainly much greater now than it ever was before.  Manovich cites Michael Wesch, a cultural anthropologist who researches as well as contributes to Internet videos, who concluded in 2007 that only 14% of YouTube videos were commercially produced, leaving 86% of the work being posted by amateurs (35) .  On the other hand, what is the balance between amateur vs. professional video-makers in relation to formula by which videos with the most “hits” are featured to be watched the most.  The data is not available to me now.  Manovich cites the Web 2.0 catch-phrase about “the long tail” of user data, claiming that “…not only the ‘Top 40’ but most of the content available online—including content produced by individuals—finds some appreciable audience,” arguing that “…in many industries the total volume of sales generated by such low popularity items exceeds en masse the volume generated by the more recognizable ‘Top 40” (34).  In other words, the Web 2.0 platform provides an economic base for this small scale cultural production.  I would expect regular contributions to YouTube to increase slowly for some years, as users become habituated to the Web, and to digital recording technology, some faster than others.  Facebook and My Space seem to be entrenched in the social life of high school students today, and young people’s  acquisition of technical habits like filming, uploading and posting digital content suggest that the transfer of those skills to video is not difficult.  Nor is the move from viewing to publically commenting a big step anymore.  Manovich cites a survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project that “…among U.S. teens who post photos online, 89 percent reported that people comment on these photos at least some of the time” (41). The limits of participation seem to be defined more by a person’s inclination (or lack thereof) to communicate a message than it is by insufficient technical knowledge.


So just what kind of videos are these participants producing?  Richards’ research finds that the largest category are so-called “ego clips,” where the producer simply faces the camera and performs, but the real message is self-advertisement for future fame. Subcategories of the ego clip include “dancing, singing, karaoke, sports, and vlogs (video weblogs)” (146).  Another major category is ‘media-remix.”  The producer reconstructs some recorded footage, usually from television or movies, games, ads.  The footage can be manipulated in various ways: written text may be integrated or a new musical track may be spliced in (145).  The range of video topics and genres is enormous beyond these typical ones:  “fan clips” about pop stars, “event clips,” media parodies, how-to “skillzclips,” “experiment clips” and “artyclips” are also common categories (146-147).  The prominence of “ego clips” “fan clips” and parodies reminds me that the producers’ main source of codes and conventions is pre-existing TV/Hollywood visual culture. Educator Alexandra Juhasz comments more critically:  “The signature YouTube video is easy to get, in both senses of the word: simple to understand—an idea reduced to an icon or gag—while also being painless to get to…YouTube videos are often about YouTube videos which are most often about popular culture.  They steal, parody, mash, and re-work recognizable forms, this maintaining standard styles and tastes….in an endless chain of immediate but forgettable gratification that can only be satisfied by another video” (138).  On the other hand, the sheer variety of participation on YouTube, the “small scale cultural production” mentioned above, leads to the posting of exceptional videos on a regular basis that depart from that norm.  They just have to be located in the haystack.


Another characteristic of this on-line pop culture environment is its often crude and incoherent language, in the videos themselves, and in the written responses posted in and around the videos on YouTube’s “pages” (in quotes because those surfaces so often morph into other videos that “page” is hardly an adequate description).  Some video producers refuse to post on YouTube because of the inhospitable nature of the large, anonymous on-line environment.  Lange addresses the impression that YouTube has a problem of “anonymous haters,”  which she defines as “…a person who leaves unnecessarily harsh criticism on a video, often using stereotypical phrases…” (94).  She acknowledges the problem, adding that its extent is not known yet, but questioning the assumption that the anonymity of the on-line communication makes so-called flaming, or disrespectful language, more easy to use. From my brief exposure to YouTube, I would agree that the discourse is often crude, and sometimes hostile and mindless.  But as an city dweller, walker, passenger and driver, I don’t find the “real” world to be much more civil, subtle, or elevated.  The on-line world often re-presents the hostilities present in the off-line environment.



The 2009 cell phone videos of BART police killing Oscar Grant that were posted on YouTube provide a local example of the impolite participatory culture of YouTube that is nonetheless reshaping traditional television news.  Grant’s death in a police shooting, while in custody in a BART train station early New Year’s day, was immediately reported by the news media, in the common treatment of a notorious incident involving a young black male and a white police officer.  However several witnesses took cell phone videos of the incident (“…despite police efforts to confiscate cell phones at the crime scene,”  wrote Rachel Swan) and posted them on YouTube, showing the shooting and the incident leading up to it, from several different perspectives. Swan noted that on one video, other bystanders are heard yelling “Put it on YouTube!”, pointing to an already existing consciousness of new media.  Not only did these videos go “viral” on YouTube, they were incorporated into television news and news web sites, leading to more critical reporting of police responsibility for Grant’s death.  Within only one week there were outraged demonstrations and even minor rioting in Oakland.


The old issue here is the power of visual representation to convince viewers that they are seeing “the truth,” or “what really happened.”  Visuals, especially moving visuals with sound, seem closer to experienced reality than language.  There continue to be many viewers who do not understand the shaping of visual representation through camera point of view, camera angle, and editing.  Various levels of context (what happened before the filmed part of the incident, for example) can also alter the viewer’s understanding of what is being seen.  On the other hand, some dimensions of this video explosion are entirely new: the ubiquitous presence of the video recording in our lives now, the speed of posting to universally-accessible web sites, and rapidity of “viral” transmission of visual representation.


Rachel Swan puts this use of cell phone video into a larger context, not just of citizen journalism, but a wider range of YouTube postings portraying all kinds of violence and bad behavior:  from small fights, large brawls, vandalism incidents, accidents, fires, and beatings, to group attacks and even gang rapes.  The year 2009 also saw another notorious local event videotaped by cell phone, the gang rape of a 15 year old girl in Richmond, though to my knowledge, it was not posted on YouTube.  Swan points out that YouTube does impose some posting guidelines “to a certain degree,”  limiting “pornography, defamation, humiliation, gratuitous violence, underage substance abuse, or other visual shocks,” but says that such limits are more related to pressures of the YouTube community, than the company’s content police.  Clearly pressures and limits are constantly at issue, and such issues are being argued over not just by YouTube video makers but by viewers as well.  As Swan concludes:

Indeed, there’s a certain anonymity in posting a video—or commenting on one—that the old format wouldn’t allow.  Old-school journalists have bylines.  They source facts.  They’re bound by rules of accountability.  In contrast, users of cell phone technology often blur the line between documenting a behavior and participating in it.  At the end of the day, it’s hard to tell whether these new media technologies are utterly exploitative, or utterly revelatory.  Perhaps they’re a little of both.



It is no revelation to notice the convergence of film and television codes, genres, and cultures into the Internet.  But to theorize how multi-media literacy is altering communication would be.  I will limit my point to this:  the interweaving of visual and written communication is causing a growing prominence of moving images, dispersed among written communication, in a balance not yet determined or understood.


Educators “Catching the Drift” of Digital Literacy


While I tend to follow the media literacy theorists cited earlier, and the “multi-modal composition” advocates in English (cited in Part Three of this report), I don’t do so with a certainty that their projections are always accurate, or that they know how we will teach in the future.  Changes continue to accelerate, and it is not clear when stabilization of communications technology or discourse forms will take place.  From my reading of literacy theory, one thing is sure:  as in all changes in language and communication, the new discourse order will be overdetermined by all the social actors together, in conjunction with the systemic architecture, not by an academy of communications scholars.  Scholars will have to work hard to comprehend, and learn how to teach in the new order.  I will generalize now for the sake of clarity, but without certainty about whether this generalizing is at all adequate in predicting future directions in discourse, culture and pedagogy.


What might be the “multi-modal literacy” that is developing alongside the “multi-media text”?  From my critical reading of “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century” * (Pacific Film Archive 121-158) four crucial areas are (a) what Henry Jenkins and the other authors call “core literacy skills,” of reading and writing, supplementing the more visual mass media literacy skills;  (b) a cluster of abilities that librarians call “information literacy,” the ability to navigate and make good choices in complex information systems; (c) what Jenkins variously refers to as “distributed cognition,” “collective intelligence,” and “negotiation” skills; and (d) closely related skills related to social environment in the digital world that are so far from the systemic representational code of a “literacy” that they may better be defined as important social/ digital abilities.


Core digital literacy skills in Jenkins’ text are described as “the ability to deal with the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities” (Pacific Film Archive 149-152).  Here writing is redefined as all the various codes and media through which a story or information might be conveyed, and the awareness of how the story or information changes, (or I might add, possibly could be conveyed at all), across different media.  Closely related to this is Jenkins’ “appropriation—the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content” (Pacific Film Archive, 135-137).  The “high tech” versions of this are digital remixing of hip-hop or techno music or the on-line fan fiction occasioned by Harry Potter fans.  The low tech version is an oral storyteller’s intuitive revision of an origin stories.  That such digital re-mix abilities will grow in importance is certain, but to throw together aural/musical codes with linguistic codes and say that they are both “literacies” suggests that they can be learned and taught simultaneously.  I am not convinced.  In general however, even if we define literacy as related to written languages only, their new forms (as in hyper-linked texts), and the new prominence of ext design mean that writing pedagogy needs to be redefined and overhauled, one way or the other.  The change will entail multi-disciplinary collaborations and new definitions.


“Information literacy” skills seem easier to reconcile with current institutions of English and libraries.  These skills Jenkins refers to as “judgment—the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources” (Pacific Film Archive, 146-149), and “networking—the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information” (Pacific Film Archive,152-155). The “judgment” part is the closest to the critical thinking skills valued by English teachers, but the “networking” part goes beyond information searching to disseminating information on-line, which teachers and librarians are novices at, just like everyone else. But even in evaluating sources, English teachers as a group have much to learn about the rapidly evolving world of cyber information, and librarians may be important to re-educating English teachers about how to move through the digital world.  For that matter, there may be many things our students know as “digital natives” that teachers and librarians do not, even in the field of information science, because most educators remain rooted in print literacy.  It also occurs to me that Jenkins’ “multi-tasking—the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus on salient details on an ad-hoc basis” (Pacific Film Archive, 137-139), is really a problem closely associated with the two other abilities cited just above, and is subject to intense debate in homes and schools everyday now.  Solutions are not apparent to me now.


Language educators are much less familiar with what Jenkins calls “collective intelligence—the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others towards a common goal” (Pacific Film Archive, 142-146), and even less familiar with “distributed cognition— the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand out mental capacities,” (Pacific Film Archive, 140-142), or “negotiation—the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives…” (Pacific Film Archive, 155-158).  These all seem to be related to the way that people work together, sometimes in large numbers, in relation to sites, data bases and activities coordinated on-line.  However these abilities do not seem tied to instruction in a systemic code (as are linguistic, gestural, musical/aural, visual design, spatial design codes).  These networked communication abilities are intensely social (mediated digitally), and they might better be termed social/cognitive skills, not literacies.  They overlap with the teaching of communication skills but are broader by nature.


Furthest from my knowledge and the disciplinary boundaries of English are a last grouping of abilities, which I cannot accept as literacy or code-related, but are certainly related to digital existence.  First is the very broad category of “play: the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem solving,” (Pacific Film Archive  12-128).  This is emphasized probably because playing video games give children their first exposure to digital environments.  Play is closely related to “performance—the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery,”  (Pacific Film Archive 131-134), and is also a common feature of video games, and continues in quasi-anonymous on-line environments.  Finally “simulation—the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real world processes” (Pacific Film Archive, 128-131) clearly takes us from the realm of more sophisticated video games into the social sciences.  Simulation is clearly a kind of cognitive activity which is less involved in direct language than in manipulating the interaction of various complex systems.  Is there a code to that, an ability that everyone needs to have to function in a future society?  All of these areas of knowledge and learning are important in digital environments, but I am not convinced that these are coded systems of knowledge that should be formally learned as a code by everyone to function as a full human being in a future society.


What I am convinced of is that the first two areas outlined above, (a) skills in deciphering and designing digital communications, and (b) skills in navigating and handling the digital information environment,  are within reach of literacy educators in the near future, if we can develop a new consensus about what they are, and how to teach them.

* I am not certain of the origins “participatory culture” but it reminds me of term “participatory democracy,” from the influential “Port Huron Statement” of the “new left” Students for a Democratic Society (circa 1962), affirming the need for citizens’ full political involvement, not just voting.

* I accessed Dobson and Willinsky’s  article on a PDF in one of these Open Access sites, not through the Cambridge Handbook of Literacy where it was first published.  This open access site also posts scholarly writing not yet published, reminding me that scholarly practices are also undergoing rapid transfomations.

* This is a reminder to educators that the plagiarism epidemic we face is part of a much larger change in culture and custom, whose end point is not yet clear to me.

* TV news has been particularly important at times of crisis — 9/11/2001 for example—providing society a trusted sense of “reality”—a representation of the larger environment beyond our doors.

* Another Web 2.0 novelty:  this burgeoning business, begun in 2005, and bought by Google in 2006 (Richard 142) , has prospered without ever making a profit, because so many use and watch it (Auletta, 206) .

** A now somewhat dated statistic from 2007  (Lange 89).

* Without excessive explanation, these terms refer to users’ listings of sites, keywords, and preferences that they post in public ways, available to both Internet data bases and to other users with similar interests.

** This designates video clips that receive the most responses by another video, which in Richards’ research is considered to be a “superior category” of significant response (145).

* Some finest detail on YouTube’s producers comes out of anthropologist Patricia G. Lange’s MacArthur Foundation-funded ethnographic research.  Lange protests the general labeling of YouTube video-makers as “ordinary” amateurs, asserting that “many people that I have interviewed do have some important connections to professional or at least advanced-amateur media making” (90).  She describes a sub-culture of festivals, meetings, as well as less formal events sponsored by YouTube that help video makers make ties that can later be cultivated through private and public Internet links beyond YouTube  (93).  She portrays this culture of participation as a very large and very complex subculture, subject to local and global shifts, where reality and appearance may not coincide.


* Authored by Henry Jenkins and four other co-authors in 2005 for a MacArthur Foundation study.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s