Saturday, April 14, 2012

We Can't Define Social Media

by John T. Spencer

Educators clamor for open access to social media in schools. We (including me) write about the need to teach digital citizenship to the digital natives. And yet . . . how do we even define social media? I witnessed many metaphors yesterday and each one of them seemed to suggest that we are attempting to find things in our physical world in order to make sense out of the digital.

I'm not sure it does make sense. At least not to me.

Should we view social media as a public location? If so, does it matter where one tweets from if he or she is "on Twitter?" Is it about the network? the equipment? If it is a space, is it truly public? Does it make a difference that someone must willfully follow a person on Twitter or "friend" a person on Facebook? My speech is, in this sense, less public than it would be at a supermarket or a baseball game.

Defining social media through the lens of location becomes tricky, though. Twitter is, on some level, a spaceless space. It is real-time, but not bound by time. My words do not evaporate the way they do in conversation. Instead, I leave a ticker-tape of thoughts behind me for anyone to pick up asynchronously. In addition, social media allow users to be in many places at the same time in a way that is simply not possible without a horcrux (Harry Potter reference). 

If I can speak openly about my faith at Starbucks with a group of friends then what changes if it in a tweet instead? The size of the group, perhaps? What size is large enough to be "broadcast?" If this is the case, it would seem that the larger issue is less about the Establishment Clause than the right to assemble publicly.

Should we view social media as the tools we use for the content that we produce? Is it similar to writing a book, publishing a magazine, posting a blog? What makes a tweet different from a bumper sticker in a staff parking lot, where a student might see political, personal or religious speech? How are my Instagram pictures any different from putting photography in a museum? 

The difficulty here is that the content is more accesible than in other forms of media. It is public, open to the entire world anywhere at any time. And unlike other media outlets, it is one in which the creators of the content do not have any voice in who owns the method. 

If so, then are the issues of free exercise and the establishment clause really relevant to social media? At this point, it seems that it would be more an issue of the freedom of the press. It is hard to deny the power of the pocket journalists in the Arab Spring who used social media to report on the issues in the world. 

Should we view social media as a method of communicating? Is it simply another form of conversation, not unlike body language, voice, text, etc.? When I'm tweeting am I simply having a conversation with whoever cares to listen? 

The problem here is that social media doesn't work like traditional forms of communication. The permanence, the broadcast nature of each medium, the difficulty in determining who is "listening" make it challenging. Moreover, it becomes even more challenging when it social media, by nature, are multimedia. Twitter involves videos, pictures, symbols, text, all moving digitally. 

Should we view social media as an expression of one's identity? We use terms like digital citizenship, online identity and branding, which all suggest that social media moves beyond simply communicating and into "being." 

The problem here is that it is easier online to choose anonymity and to craft identity in ways that are much more difficult in person. In addition, social media force the individual to create separate accounts  if he or she wants to compartmentalize. I am always a teacher at school. It is my identity. My speech changes when I am off the clock, outside of school. 

I see a real danger in the notion that employers (especially if it is the government) essentially "owns" a person at all times when he or she uses social media. When the speech is permanent (as it is) and the profile is static (as it is), I don't have the chance to switch roles and responsibilities. 

What does it mean, then, to protect the personal side of a teacher (or any worker) online? At what point does a teacher still represent a school even when he or she is "away" from that context? 


  1. I've honestly been thinking about this post for a week now and find the question very challenging. Maybe social media is a context in which a conversation occurs. The broadcast nature may make it not seem like a conversation, but it IS two-way where it needs to be, so I lean more towards a conversation than anything else. What's most important is the context in which this social-media conversation takes place. In real-life, some conversations I have are clearly private (my wife and I discussing our finances) while other conversations don't carry the same expectation of privacy (my friends and I loudly arguing about who the Cleveland Browns should draft this week). Context matters in each of these conversations, and my expectation of privacy actually dictates the topics and language choices I make as I converse.

    In the social-media context, I worry about the line between my personal and professional conversations. Clearly, as a teacher and when having an education discussion, I need to adapt the conversation for the public space. However, as a private person with friends, inside jokes with those friends, and a healthy need for irreverence, I need the opportunity to engage in public conversations that do not represent me as a teacher, but as a whole person.

    This post has me thinking of Charles Barkley, in a way. I resent the notion that I, or any employee, has to be a role model 24/7. It's an unfair expectation, and the recent move to codify my private life as somehow reflective of my public life, is a scary maneuver that should be resisted and challenged. Thanks for raising a challenging question John, and I hope we're all giving it some serious thought.

    1. But if you found the prime minister / president / priest was eating babies / stealing old people's homes / running a spam business you would complain. Or at least I would.
      Doesn't your objection to being a role model 24/7 does smack of "Do what I say not what I do", or perhaps "be social in public, a beast in the dark"?

  2. It is easier to use social media in teaching, as a matter of fact online teaching now a days is very rampant. Were in the new age now new technology new learning.


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