Distributed Communities and Classrooms: Reading Twitter, Teaching on the Internet

I’m going to break the rules a little here and talk about two “texts”–one is a conventional print book about digital writing, and another is a series of videos that help to showcase (I think) the wonderful possibilities of what I call Internet Pedagogy (as in, using the internet to teach) and how to compose it.

First, the scholarly, corporeal text.

Michele Zappavigna’s Discourse of Twitter and Social Media

81Rt2P-OV3LZappavigna’s book, in essence, sets itself out as a truly conscientious linguistic analysis of Twitter (and other high-visiblity, searchable social networks), and it’s mission is to argue for the importance of searchability and ambient affiliation (namely, how distributed communities of discourse are created by indirect reference) on the internet. Zappavigna, in other words, is trying to demonstrate that searchability and ambient affiliation are the key markers of this discourse environment, and that things like hashtags, memes, and typographic tendencies all try to serve these ends (whether the user is fully aware of this or not).

What makes this study refreshing is Zappavigna’s admission that this is a difficult, elusive, and just logistically difficult corpus to analyze, and that we cannot analyze it using only one method–it’s too big, and too complex, and changes too quickly. Incompleteness is part of the game (and indeed, Zappavigna tends to overlook things like one-off hashtags and misreads a few memes, which helped to motivate my own project). The work, as a whole, adopts a “social semotic perspective” (11), meaning it concentrates on real-time group meaning-making and–perhaps uniquely–direct interpersonal meaning-making where the two people negotating meaning are temporally and spatially distant.

In one frustrating moment, on page 101, Zappavigna lets me down, though. She asserts that “Internet memes are depolyed for social bonding rather than sharing information,” which for me is an uncareful distinction growing out of the social semiotic framework of the book. Social bonding is so important to this linguistic/sociological pursuit that Zappavigna neglects to realize that social bonding *only occurs* when information is exchanged in meaningful ways (what these meaningful ways are, of course, must be negotiated). This, in part, became the impetus for my project–to resurrect the idea that memes aren’t just membership badges without an inherent message, but they are ways of saying something so that the group will understand, a highly literate internet shorthand. It’s not just a performance of membership, it’s speaking to the membership.

Of course, just by taking on the language of Twitter as a scholarly subject and asserting that it has real, useful purposes and underlying structures, Zappavigna has already done something remarkable–she’s managed to accumulate a corpus of tweets and show how they aren’t just nonsense or fluff, but rule-bound discourse with its own grammar and conventions, that reaches out for new personal connections. And that’s a pretty big deal.

CrashCourse Youtube Series (or, How to Do Teaching on the Internet So Well We Might as Well Not Show Up Tomorrow)

Crash CourseIf you don’t know about the Youtube channel CrashCourse, by John Green (of The Fault in Our Stars young-adult-novelist fame) and his brother Hank, what have you been doing?

In essence, the channel is arranged into series, usually of several dozen episodes, that basically teach a high-school-plus to undergraduate-level course in a particular general topic. Written by a team of academics and the Green Brothers (the VlogBrothers), they use detailed visuals, a bit of humor, and a lecture-style teaching method to quickly and effectively train viewers in the topic. Each episode is, in essence, a multimodal lecture-essay, with a clear topic, audio, visuals, and the comforting presence of a person in a tweed jacket (usually) talking to your eyes like you’re in the room.

They are almost worryingly effective at teaching (if John Green ever does a CrashCourse series in freshman composition, we will all be fired), and in the case of History and Literature, are unafraid of discussing, dissecting, and identifying their theoretical frameworks, giving teachers a good model of how to talk about this in real-life classes, too. Importantly, these lecture-essays reinforce just how profoundly important visuals are on the internet in order to get your point across, and how important it still is to have (or simulate having) a real, embodied person talking to you. They know just how far you can go with the affordances of the web for teaching, without getting so wrapped up in the internet’s possibilities that they subvert their pedagogical aims.

In essence, as a pedagogical practice on the internet, they remind us just how important it is to engage with our students across several modes simultaneously in order to make the most of our time, but also remind us that a person is still required, and that there’s something to the meatspace classroom. As someone who’s taken online courses with a teacher and zero multimodality, I can say, unless online pedagogy starts to evolve, most institutions are doing a grievous disservice to its online pupils. CrashCourse gives us a model for how to teach people things on the internet, and what sort of tone is appropriate to that situation.

Really, in essence, without CrashCourse, it might have been a lot harder to remember the importance of visuals in my own project, or to understand what sort of tone internet teaching should take in order to stick in the memory of the user. CrashCourse understands the fine line between a boring Wikipedia article and a super-internetty, directionless multimodal mess with no pedagogical aim, and they know how to make a video without it sounding like someone taped lecture slides.

(And I’m not just saying that because John Green stole my lecture cadence, either.)

5 thoughts on “Distributed Communities and Classrooms: Reading Twitter, Teaching on the Internet”

  1. Michael,

    I know that this is somewhat out of the realm of our blog comments (is it though? is anything really?) but I’m really interested in your intervention in Zappavigna’s argument.

    I’m inclined to agree with you by instinct and say that memes share information at the same time as creating or cementing a social bond. But here’s one example I can’t get out of my head until I know how you’d approach it in your argument: the reddit meme comment that simply repeats a common sentence or phrase.

    …Actually, in the process of writing the above sentence, I already figured out how I’d respond to that for you, so I don’t know how useful this will be. I’ll keep this here, just to see what you say, but since reddit comments are, by nature, commenting on some primary text, even if they are the most empty-seeming repetition of a meme, they would be transmitting information about that primary text is some form. Good job, Callie. Answered your own question.

    But what do you think? Is that how you’d respond to that example?

    1. Something very much like that, yeah. I mean, after all, I don’t study genre fiction because it always says new things–there’s something about repeating and copying (OMG remix) that is fundamentally about both conveying information (usually information illustrated in the original context which, wait for it, becomes metonym-ized in the repetition) and about membership (“look at me, knowing to repeat this!”)

      I just think splitting up those two functions is such a silly thing for Zappavigna to do. Like how Lessig splits up RO and RW culture, or how Standage goes all splitty on Mass vs. Social Media. It just seems like a silly distinction that erases the function of the thing in order to create a myth of difference.

  2. Michael,

    As you describe it, Zappavigna’s book reminds me of one I’ve actually read—Greg Myer’s Discourse of blogs and Wikis, which feels like a very smart yet somewhat desperate attempt of an academic to catch up with a rapidly changing world of discourse.

    On the other hand, John Green is a step ahead. If he does a series on Academic Writing, I’ll just play them and tell students to email their essays to him, (Which comment, in its subtle way, points to the one thing Green can’t do on the web as a teacher.) But I agree with you—in terms of pedagogical videos, Green is the man.


    1. I came here to say pretty much what Joe did. Green IS indeed the man. Of course, besides CrashCourse and his own novelistic writings, he’s also one of the people behind the fantastic adaptation of Pride & Prejudice for YouTube, The Lizzie Bennett Diaries: http://www.youtube.com/user/LizzieBennet

      I’m sure many people in this class have at least heard of this, but if you haven’t already, you really MUST watch it. The series sets the plot of the novel in the modern day, with Lizzie as a grad student in communications. Using the device of Lizzie’s personal vlog/thesis project, the series follows her family drama and budding romance over 100 videos of about 6-8 minutes each (I wonder if a link to Katie’s discussion of tweetbooks might be made here). However, not content to simply retell the story in this linear way, the creators also added supplementary YouTube channels for several other characters, along with creating social media accounts for the primary characters–for instance, stylish Jane has a Pinterest page related to her job in fashion, while wild-child Lydia tweets at the speed of sound, and all concurrent with the events of the main story. All in all, the series has been praised not only as a great adaptation, but for the ways in which it engages storytelling over multiple social media platforms.

      Sorry if my comments for this week are coming off as more a ‘list of things Petra likes’ than anything else! I guess that’s what comes of thinking about these ideas all semester and realizing how much I already have been in my reading/media preferences!

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