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Social Networking IV: Too Much Information? Finding A Productive Place for Social Networks in the Composition Classroom

by Oleksandr Komarenko

This panel viewed online social networking as an important social phenomenon that profoundly affects many facets of college students’ lives. The panel focused on exploring and assessing pedagogical implications of various aspects of online social networking for teaching written communication, and each of the three panelists adopted a unique approach. In “A Pedagogy of Dissonance: Social Networking Sites as Models of Multimodal Dialogism,” Scott Graham investigated the levels of concordance and dissonance of elements in MySpace users’ public profiles along with their pedagogical implications. Rachel Wolford in “Teaching Aristotelian Ethos to Composition Students in Online Social Networks” discussed implicit use of Aristotelian ethos on MySpace and suggested ways composition instructors can integrate students’ online social networking experience into classroom activities. Finally, Quinn Warnick argued in “Coping with the Aesthetic of Ugly: Teaching Visual Rhetoric in Hostile Environments” the ugliness of MySpace is a form of users’ resistance, contributing to its astonishing success yet limiting the possibility of directly co-opting online social networking into instruction.

Based on conceptions of New (hybrid) Literacies and their dialogical and antilogical epistemologies, Graham hypothesized that MySpace profiles would exhibit a general trend toward high dissonance, with the greater concordance in women’s profiles and profiles of design students. Graham then examined 100 MySpace profiles of Iowa State University (ISU) students’ to evaluate the levels of dissonance of five elements of the profiles: the avatar (a member’s main image), background graphics, the “About Me” section, music profile, and color scheme profile. To standardize the sample to some degree, the profiles examined had to be public; were selected to reflect the ISU demographic and were customized rather than based on MySpace templates. Although the results supported the suppositions of significant level of dissonance and the higher concordance in women’s profiles, they showed higher than expected dissonance in design students’ profiles. Based on the findings Graham concluded that MySpace can be an effective instructional tool of New Literacies as it showed a high level of dissonance and broad range of concordance as well as provided a low barrier gateway into new media.

Wolford argued that with the advent of online social networking composition instructors have both new opportunity and responsibility to teach development of Aristotelian ethos – one’s character and credibility. Shaping one’s online identity, she argued, already involves developing Aristotelian ethos. The popularity of online social networking and the rhetorical nature of shaping one’s online identity on MySpace ensure that students have an implicit understanding of the concept. Developing it further can be facilitated through instructional activities, such as MySpace audience analysis exercises. In addition, Wolford noted the public nature of online profiles adds urgency to teaching students to think seriously about presenting themselves online. Although a “party profile” may seem appropriate for MySpace, students must be equipped to develop alter-ethos, especially as they progress further in their education and become serious about advancing their professional and academic careers.

Rather than being popular despite its ugliness, Warnick argued MySpace owes its success to its repulsiveness. The speaker contended that ugliness of user profiles results in differentiating function design and visual design. Ugliness, or “inappropriate visual rhetoric,” he asserted, is a form of resistance – a way to keep “adults” away from the students/users’ online spaces where they “live.” For this reason, the speaker concluded instructors’ attempts to co-opt MySpace or Facebook will undermine these sites as users will seek alternative “spaces” where they would feel undisturbed by “adults.” However, this conclusion does not mean that online social networking should be completely ignored by educators. MySpace and the like, Warnick suggested, contain a number of potential vehicles for class activities. For instance, identity production and audience analysis, discourse community analyses–ethnographic studies of sorts, exercises on separation of style and content combined with incorporating the aesthetic of the ugly, and issues of authorship and copyright are but a few of the effective topics and exercises for basic composition and professional communication students.

In sum, this panel demonstrated the urgency and importance of making students aware of both benefits and dangers of participation in online social networking. Academics need to make informed decisions about involving such applications into teaching and preparing future professionals to be effective communicators using both old and new media.

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