Thursday, January 6, 2011

The uses of FB literacy

I'm ambivalent about Facebook. I tend to lurk there, occasionally posting You Tube clips, but mostly checking in on friends and acquaintances, feeling as though I'm part of a network. My ambivalence springs, in part, from being uncomfortable with the genres of writing it seems to demand: the additive comment, the quick witted rejoinder, the enthusiastic affirmation, the self-display update.

As a teacher of young adult literacy, one of the complaints I hear about FB is that it is a time-wasting distraction, taking teens away from education, real life. I wonder, though, if there are opportunities in the engagement these young adults have in FB for literacy learning. Because it values script above oral communication, FB surely offers opportunities for literacy growth as young people are generally more accomplished in the oral genres: in order to grow a FB network, teens need to write in ways that form and build relationships.  A problem, however, is that the appearance of a 'teacher' figure--who might act as means for such improvements--within a FB teenage social network, would bend the network out of shape. But what if there is no teacher/ mentor figure? What if one of the achievements of FB is to open spaces in which such hierarchies are flatter? 

If there are uses for literacy improvement within FB that go beyond promoting programs and courses, these are perhaps to be found in the less direct, catalytic effects achieved by working on building social trust across multiple networks. In other words, FB opens up multiple social networks that individuals can engage in. But these networks crosshatch with others. It is, then, the capacities and skills to move between networks that might well be more important (in governing the self and in participating in the government of others) than building symbolic capital (in Bourdieu's sense--the cachet that one's name has) in one network. Indeed, such capacities to move between networks could be seen as a new type of symbolic capital. 

These concerns go to the concept and practice of translation: moving between networks, fields, and situations in ways that the knowledge, skills and self-belief practiced and invested in one activity, in one social network, can be drawn on in another. For example, it took me a while to accept the idea that teaching a class was a performance and not a manifestation of innate responses to a curriculum-based situation. Having performed live music over a number of years, I began to translate the techniques of preparing for and performing a gig to the tutorial situation: rehearsal, learning the pieces, improvising, recording rehearsals, having a set list, timing, keep going, playing as though it was the first time, using adrenaline . . . There are other practices involved in tutoring that gigging can't prepare you for, but having translated these key performance techniques helped to generate belief in my own capacities. I was able to move between networks, or fields, through these gateway techniques that were learnt initially in a domain that I was enthusiastic about; driven to participate in. 

The sorts of enthusiasms that circulate through FB require computer and social techniques and knowledge that complaints (or grizzling--see below) about the uselessness of FB ignore. The drive to be-friend and grow one's network generates opportunities for literacy growth that, however seemingly 'useless', can be translated into other networks, fields and situations. Providing we recognise what literacies are already happening.


Complaints about the uselessness or even malign influence of FB are part of what Meaghan Morris argues is 'Grizzling about Facebook'. Morris finds that such grizzling, as can be found in the Murdoch press, for example, is an old genre in which technological innovation is held to be an attack on traditional or everyday life. Thus the trope, in FB grizzling, of its valorising of inauthentic friendships and facile communications in contrast to the authentic sincere relationships that old media, like telephones, letter writing supposedly enable:

‘Facebook no substitute for real world contact' is a grizzle in this sense. What on earth is supposed to follow from a declaration like that? If parents are being incited to pull the plug on their children, or to seize their mobile phones, will millions of adults also rush off-line to chat in a neighbouring office or across the back fence? What would happen in the ‘real world' of our working lives if we did so?

Against FB grizzling, Morris mounts a defence of the utopian possibilities of it and other social media. Indeed, what I find most interesting in her argument, is that she sees FB's best attribute as its capacity to combine genres of sociality. It is perhaps in this combinant facility that FB encourages translation as a skill, making it a tool for literacy learning.

Let me offer my own two or three cents about utopia and Facebook. First, Facebook is not all quizzes, ‘hey babes' and pokes. Most negative media stories obsess about one or two features (photos and status updates in particular), but the point about Facebook is that it bundles together multiple functions and potential things to do. Most of us never use all of them, and other social networking platforms do some of these things better than Facebook does (MySpace for new music, Live Journal for communities, Ning for interest groups, Twitter for global converse and news as-it-happens …), but what Facebook does well is combine: you can write private letters, play games, send gifts, do quizzes, circulate news, post notes, music and clips, share photos or research, test your knowledge, join groups and causes, make haiku-like allusions to your state of mind and chat on-line with friends, all in one place and time—restoring or relieving, according to need, the pattern of an everyday life. Facebook is on-line culture ‘lite': this makes it an object of scorn for digital elitists and ‘white noise' haters (see Tuttle), but it is also a source of its mainstream appeal. Corresponding to this variety of uses is the diversity of kinds of contact Facebook allows, with the relation between ‘contact' and intimacy also having the potential to vary over time within each singular friendship. In this respect it follows the rhythms of ‘real life' as a whole: as Lauren Berlant puts it, ‘all kinds of emotional dependency and sustenance can flourish amongst people who only meet each other at one or a few points on the grid of the field of their life' (‘Faceless Book').

Nothing flourishes for people who join Facebook and do nothing with it; passive or un-giving use of any network is rewarded in kind (Strohmeyer). As Thompson points out, a depth dimension to ‘ambient awareness' accumulates only with time and aggregation. It does grow over time; Facebook has increased my affective quality of life, and not only because it offers a break from my academic service work. The collective stream of posts brings me word of books, articles, music, films, video clips and news that I would otherwise never discover. At a time of life when new involvements become more rare, I suddenly have digital penfriends with whom I exchange old-fashioned letters through Inbox (one of the least remarked features of Facebook), while an acquaintance from decades ago has become a dear friend whom I contact almost daily. Retrieving a joy of my childhood, when my father would bring home a ‘two bob' chocolate on a Friday night and we'd listen to The Goon Show and My Word on the ABC, I play variants of Scrabble with friends on four continents throughout the day. Facebook also nudges me to remember more of my past than I am wont to do, as other people's actions unpredictably pull bits of our scattered lives together. There is more to this aspect than the nostalgia decried by Susan Dominus (‘sometimes it seems like Facebook is the most back-ward looking innovation ever expected to change the future') and Steve Tuttle (‘Goodbye, William and Mary alums I barely remember from 25 years ago'). Facebook has utopian force for me because it gently undoes the dissociative patterns I learned as a girl in pugnaciously ‘real' Australian country towns; it lets me have family on the same plane as my ex-students, my friends who talk books, my colleagues in Hong Kong and Australia and friends who also post in Italian, French and Chinese. Directly because of Facebook, I was able to speak by phone to a much-loved cousin just before he died. If Facebook vanished overnight, I would experience grief.