It may be apocryphal, but the word on the Internet is that the average person is bombarded by up to 5000 advertisements per day. The actual number doesn’t really matter. What does is the fact that we have to sift through a lot of information over the course of a day. As adults, we have probably developed some good coping mechanisms for how to deal with al of this information. But we’re also in the content creation business, so it could be said that we’re part of the problem. Problem, did you say? What’s the problem with so many messages out there? Well, a critical problem is one of authority and figuring out which sources to trust. This is an intellectual exercise that we perform thousands of times a day, probably without giving it too much thought. But put yourself in the shoes of your students for a moment: do they have the intellectual skills and experience to sift through the stream as easily as you do?
Media Literacy is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media in a variety of forms. That’s the formal definition. I would add that inherent in the definition is greater awareness of the analysis and creation of content that we’re all already doing. I had a conversation with a board member recently about the explosion of YouTube, in particular how it’s being used more and more often as a search engine. He commented rather dryly and dismissively that no one wants to read anymore. While that may or may not be true, inherent in the statement is that one media (the written word) is superior to others. This is a commonly held belief, rooted, I believe, in the centuries of experience we’ve all had learning at the feet of the great books, and not just books written by great authors and authorities but great books, gloriously illustrated and printed, and priced accordingly. If we pass this belief in the inherent greatness of books along to our students, are we serving them well? Think about their experience as consumers compared to ours. Where do books, musty, heavy, hard-covered tomes, fit into their daily lives? It’s safe to say, they take up a significantly smaller portion of their lives than they did in our lives as students, squeezed out partly by the electronic gadgetry and the explosion of new media channels. We can blather on all we want about how books are great, but are we even talking the same language when students can access books on a Kindle? (I like the tactile experience of a book! I’ve heard teachers harumpf. Why is that tactile experience better than the one I experience with my Kindle?)
So where does Social Media fit into this conundrum? Here’s an exercise you might consider trying yourself or passing along to your colleagues. Think of an author — the stodgier the better. When I did this, I thought of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Check the author’s Wikipedia page. How often is it updated? Now search for videos related to the author on YouTube. Finally, look for the author on Facebook. The last time I checked, Hawthorne has a page and almost 10,000 like it. What does all of this tell us? It tells us that there are different approaches to subject matter. If our students are spending so much of their time engaging in social media, instead of spending our energy trying to ignore that reality or diminishing its significance or promoting one medium over another mainly because that’s what we prefer, understanding its power and how to best use it is the better way to go. If Hawthorne can be friends with Facebook, we can, too.