I’ve been reading my students’ first Inquiry Project blog posts in which I asked them to write about how they use social media, or how they “live” online. I imagined their posts to be part reflective, but also part argumentative, in that explaining how they live online would force them to articulate how a particular social media served their interests in some way. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they felt like they needed to provide a bit of defense for the platform they chose to blog about.
I am not sure, because I am not of their generation, but I know enough from my own experience, and observing my children and the passel of students I teach every year, that every social media platform is its own nuanced space, and nonusers bring a set of fixed assumptions about some of those spaces. I also know that not everyone uses social media platforms in the same way, so we have to suspend our assumptions about users of social media spaces we don’t know, like, or understand. Also, I wondered how truthful students would be about their uses of social media.
First, a digression. (I told my students to tell stories in their blogs. People remember stories. We like them. They make writers real). So a story first (I promise there is an associative trail linking the story to my student’s Inquiry Project posts):
I spent last week at the beach with five members of my immediate family who fell in the age range of 18 – 25. During the week, my 20-year-old son miraculously knew where every party was happening. We’d be deep in the middle of a corn hole match and he’d look over at his cousins and say, “Hey there’s a pool party at 3:00 at Blue Ocean,” and before I knew it, a few of them would be heading off to check out the party.
No need to wander aimlessly up and down the boardwalk for hours, like my friends and I had done at the beach at his age, looking for the party spots. My son had Tinder, a social media platform that, according to my beach-mates, was primarily used for hooking up. “You use Tinder!” his cousins exclaimed, shocked either that he admitted it or that he used it, I couldn’t tell which. But my son said he’s used Tinder for the last two years to find good parties and bars in the city where he goes to college. His cousins were skeptical, but after a few volleyball and pool parties turned out to be a lot of fun, they saw potential new uses for a social media app they had dismissed before.
Yes, I am perfectly aware that my son may also be using the site for hooking up, but that isn’t the point.
The point is, first, that he had found another use for Tinder that nonusers didn’t know about. Emily Witt alluded to this alternative use in her GQ article, when she wrote, about Tinder: It seemed possible that one need never be isolated again.
The second point is that he would likely not feel safe enough to write about Tinder in his blog post, were he in my class. (Note to self: none of my students dared to go there!) And even if he mentioned Tinder he would likely have quite a bit of explaining to do – an argument to make – to his audience, like he made to his cousins, that the app has other uses beyond what it was originally intended.
It turns out, social media has made our students hyper aware of audience. As a teacher of rhetoric and composition, I’ve forced discussions about audience in every class for two decades. But during all those years, asking students to imagine an audience was a sort of charade, and we all knew it, because ultimately, as the teacher, I was the audience they were writing for, because I had the unlucky position as grade-giver. When the final product of a course is a word processed paper, handed to the teacher, or submitted as a Blackboard assignment, even when a student has shared the paper with any number of forced (and unforced audiences) like peers, writing tutors, even parents, the audience that always mattered, the one they worried over pleasing, was me, the teacher.
But, what I found in the comment threads on the Inquiry Project posts, was that students never mentioned worrying about what I thought of their social media habits. Instead, they seemed far more concerned about one another as readers of their posts. One student wrote about another student’s post: ” I think it’s funny how you mention what others will think of you when your are doing an assignment someone will be judging. I too worry myself with these types of insecurities. But who really cares what others will think about what you want to do? ” Maybe I’m wrong, but the “someone judging,” I don’t think, is ME, as much as me AND other student readers.
On one thread about Instagram, student commenters discussed their reluctance to be truthful about their goal of attaining “likes” on their Instagram photos, and praised a student for her honest anecdote about taking a photo down and reposting it in order to get more likes. Another students confessed that she contemplated changing her browser history for the Associative Trails Assignment, but decided against it because it would be dishonest. Still another student, complaining about the selfies trend, said, “I try to make other people’s feeds fun.” Selfies, he insisted, were not audience-friendly. All of these are examples of students considering audience in their writing, an audience far bigger and more important to them than me.
Finally, audience is real and immediate for Univ 200 students in our Summer cMooc. When my student posted “I am an Instagrammer and Proud of it,” she was writing to a much wider audience than me. I don’t even use Instagram, and I have few preconceptions about it. I don’t even understand why she has to articulate “pride” when she writes about Instagram. I am not, really, her target audience at all.
And that makes me giddy-happy. Because real writing — whether a blog post or piece of fiction or song or poem or journal article — is written for real people out in the world, not a teacher with a red pen in her hand — the kind of teacher I never wanted to be. The kind of audience I spent years trying to convince my students to pretend didn’t exist.