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"The Rise of Social Media" — Ponderings from a 3-Credit Course

A Q&A with Gardner Campbell

Gardner Campbell, an associate professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University who thinks deeply about the philosophy of communications, has been teaching a new course this fall called "The Rise of Social Media." He and his students are exploring the history, trends, and perhaps even the future of what we now call social media. Earlier this year, in our Q&A, "Social Media Now Has A Past — Can We Learn from Our Mistakes?" we examined the basis for the course and promised to follow up after it was in full swing in the fall semester of 2021. Below, we ask Campbell for some early insights from the time he's spent with classes so far.

college students sitting outdoors

"By studying the Web at the beginning of the course, students will have a much better idea of how social media came to be." —Gardner Campbell

Mary Grush: What are the expectations of students coming into a course about the rise of social media?

Gardner Campbell: I think some students are very happy to have landed in the course, even though it might not be exactly what they were expecting. I was struck by the students who said, early on, "This isn't a course on the rise of social media; it should be called 'The Rise of the World Wide Web.'"

There are two things that are interesting about that remark. One, I shared the syllabus so that they wouldn't be surprised. But as to the other, I don't think that many students understand the Web as the first really mainstream platform riding on the Internet, allowing, at a very basic level, everyone to use the Internet. And following that, social media were all Web-based. My students don't seem to perceive this relationship between the Web and social media.

I do have a few students who have a detailed knowledge of the Web and the social media universe, but for most, they don't even realize that when they open an app, most or all of what follows happens through the Web, and that the Web still sets the conditions for most of what's possible.

Grush: How will the course bring them around to a better understanding of the relationship between the Web and social media?

Campbell: By studying the Web at the beginning of the course, students will have a much better idea of how social media came to be. You don't have to look far to see how early ideas of computing from Vannevar Bush in the 1940s led to what Doug Engelbart tried to do in his famous 1968 demo and throughout his career with the augmenting intellect conceptual framework, and how both of those led to Tim Berners-Lee as he was thinking about design principles of the Web in the early '90s. Looking at this progression, my students may come all the way to an understanding of participatory culture, a term central to Henry Jenkins's 2006 MacArthur Digital Media and Learning report. My students are surprised at those connections and how they drove a certain kind of innovation that has had a direct connection to the world they live in today.

Most of our students are aware of all the social media arenas open to them. They are very involved in it: Some follow Tik Tok religiously, a lot of them use Reddit for news, and nearly all use Instagram. On the other hand, they don't understand the larger context. That's in large part because they don't know the history and the relevant concepts that brought this revolution. It's wonderful to watch them as they make their way toward a deeper understanding.

Grush: In teaching this course, what else are you doing to expose your students to social media in its historical context?

Campbell: In general, students are always surprised by history, but what's fascinating to me about this course is that the social media realm — and its history — is actually very recent. And yet my students, who are generally young, are not aware of many of the stories that make up even the very recent saga of social media. For example, how many of them know that Tim Berners-Lee had said that hypertext was the basis of the Web, or that he coined the term "intercreativity" to describe the activity that he hoped to see on the Web. Most of my students had no idea of how Google came about and had never heard of Larry Page or Sergey Brin.

My students, who are generally young, are not aware of many of the stories that make up even the very recent saga of social media.

So I decided, just before classes started, that what I really wanted to do was to front load the entire semester with the story of someone who was a very important innovator, thinker, writer, blogger, and activist in the first decade of the 21st century — someone the students probably would have never heard of, but someone they would find immediately congenial and relatable.

I chose Aaron Swartz, who helped to found Reddit but then left because the property was acquired by Condé Nast. Swartz had helped create Reddit with high ideals for communication and community — then it was bought by a commercial magazine publisher. His story is perfect to engage our class. He had a true passion for the ideals that drove the Internet, and he suffered when those ideals were ignored or dismissed.

From there, we can circle back to progress through the historical timeline, using Aaron Swartz as a kind of touchstone throughout the semester.

Grush: Where are you in the semester right now?

Campbell: We are about halfway through, and we're just starting to look at the applications most students would recognize as social media — from YouTube to Twitter to Facebook and from blogging to Wikipedia, with connections and implications for the social media that emerged later, too.

Grush: What are some of the other topics that have sparked student interest or influenced the direction of the course?

Campbell: We've just come off a week when we looked at Web 2.0 and participatory culture. One important reference was Tim O'Reilly's influential 2005 essay, "What is Web 2.0?"

Students were intrigued by O'Reilly's discussion of Web 2.0 businesses enabling network effects by default. At face value, that sounded like a good thing. O'Reilly advised Web 2.0 designers not to rely on users to deliberately contribute content. Instead, he said to design the sites to track and record what users do while they are doing it, and get value that way. Well, here in 2021 we are no longer able to take that idea at face value. I don't think Tim O'Reilly imagined he was suggesting anything nefarious — the idea was put out there as a savvy strategy for business. Of course, "to track what they are doing to personalize and make their experience better" is the type of language surveillance capitalism would end up using as a way to persuade users to allow their usage to be tracked, stored, and monetized through targeted advertising. And now, in 2021 we have people testifying to congress about algorithm-driven strategies.

For our class, I juxtaposed the 2005 O'Reilly essay with the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning research report written in 2006 at MIT by Henry Jenkins and his research team, "Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century." The report includes a list of skills or characteristics necessary for 21st century education: performance, appropriation, collective intelligence, networking, negotiation [and several others]…

My students annotated the list in It was interesting to see their comments, such as, "No one taught us media literacy of this kind," and "How would you teach that?" So, we discovered that it's possible to look at parallel frameworks that are very close to each other in time, but focused differently. And some of my students are now grappling with unsettling questions about what happened to the ideals represented by various frameworks. As I guide the class, I'm watching this closely myself; I want to help these troubling questions to be explored in a supportive environment.

Some of my students are now grappling with unsettling questions about what happened to the ideals represented by various frameworks.

Grush: Could you briefly mention any other exceptionally fruitful topics the class has been focused on?

Campbell: A big turning point happened when we started talking about blogging. Several of my students had journaled before but had never considered the idea of making some part of their writing more public by blogging. We used Scott Rosenberg's 2010 book, Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It's Becoming, and Why it Matters, in which Rosenberg asserts that every single question, every difficulty, every dilemma that we find talked about in social media (in 2010) first appeared in the world of blogging, what we used to call the "blogosphere." I'm not sure how many of my students had thought of blogging as social media, but the majority were fascinated by what Rosenberg was saying.

And just as my students were really thinking about that, I introduced them to another writer, Philip Agre, who had predicted, over twenty years ago, that a kind of surveillance capitalism would be very likely to flourish on the World Wide Web. He had written several essays on the potential of the Web, and another idea he presented was about finding your voice.

Most of my students had not thought about social media as a place to find and build a public voice. That was interesting to me, because back in the first decade of the 21st century, there were a lot of discussions about Web 2.0 (beyond the writings by O'Reilly that I already mentioned), and establishing some kind of public voice was at the center of many of these discussions, along with the idea of participating in culture in a more democratic, decentralized, and authentic way.

Most of my students had not thought about social media as a place to find and build a public voice.

The point of view of my students was that social media was a place for creativity, or a place to connect with friends, or a place for amusement or entertainment. They thought of it as a place for news, while realizing that it included a share of misinformation and toxic elements. But virtually none of them had considered social media as a place to build a public voice. They were familiar with the idea of building a commercial presence, but not a public voice — and certainly not a public voice in productive conversations with other bloggers.

The point of view of my students was that social media was a place for creativity, or a place to connect with friends, or a place for amusement or entertainment.

However, the students were responsive to what Agre wrote way back in 1999, and they were able to draw certain connections to what we see in the present, both in social media generally and — for some — in their own educational experience. Why aren't schools helping students to build their public voices online, via blogging and other aspects of participatory culture? What is lost by not doing so?

So, right now, at this point in our course, students are not simply identifying historical patterns in their study of social media; they are responding to the context they are beginning to experience. They respond when there's a context that supports good, rich thinking.

Students are not simply identifying historical patterns in their study of social media; they are responding to the context they are beginning to experience.

But that context doesn't happen automatically, and it doesn't happen within most social media formats as we know them today. Most social media doesn't get you to think about social media, it simply tries to get you to engage.

Blogs may be the exception, particularly as they still build your public voice. So it has been extremely interesting, and a kind of turning point reached, as the class began to think about blogging. And their thinking is put to use immediately, as they have all created public blog sites (via VCU's WordPress-based platform) in which they are telling the story of their learning in this course.

The students' most recent blog posts are especially interesting as many students note how important school-centered participatory culture has become during the pandemic, and how little their education has done to help prepare them with the necessary skills and ideas to do their best in this environment.

Grush: That brings us up to the current date, just about halfway through the semester. What's next on the syllabus? Are you anticipating a great 2nd half of the semester?

Campbell: Right now the students are getting involved in thinking deeply about their Wikipedia project, and we will be having some in-depth discussions about Wikipedia in classes this week.

And I am anticipating good things. One of the things I love is when the students realize how much they have grown over the semester. Learning can be difficult and sometimes confusing, but in the end I hope students emerge feeling they are stronger and more capable digital citizens. My goal, as always, is to encourage students to be more thoughtful, which starts with being better informed — in this case, about how Internet-based social media came to be. Whatever their relationship to social media, I want students to be more informed, more thoughtful, as they make their choices.

[Editor's note: Campbell's syllabus for "The Rise of Social Media" is online.]

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