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Web 2.0 and Literate Practices

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picture of erinErin Karper is writing an article about her students' literate practices in a course on Web 2.0.

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Literacy Narratives: Digital Natives and Their Discontents

One of the first projects in the class was a "Web literacy autobiography." Students read various technological literacy narratives—including selections from Hawisher and Selfe (2004)'s Literate Lives in the Information Age as well as readings about "digital immigrants vs. digital natives" (Calore, 2006; Shebar, 2006; Thompson, 2006; Woods, 2006)—and discussed these readings on the LiveJournal community set up for the class. Students then worked to create static Web-based narratives which told the story of "How have you grown up (or not grown up) using the Internet?"

Here is a list of all of the Web literacy autobiographies produced by students in the course (two narratives are missing because students chose to remove them):

A caveat about the narratives: most students were not familiar with Web design and Web writing conventions, so the composition (especially the visual elements) of their narratives also reflect the conventions common to novices working within those genres (Karper, 2004; Palmquist, 2005). Therefore, most narratives have a simple text-image-text structure; most page designs are inconsistent across the site; navigation is haphazard or in many cases missing entirely. Since the design of the pages is consistent with typical behavior for novice Web designers as described in the sources above, I have chosen instead to highlight the uses of and identifications with the Web being made in the narratives and discussions instead of discussing students' design choices.

In the reading discussions and the narratives, most students start with their childhood and tell stories about the acquisition of their first computers (either at home or for family use), and their first access to the Internet, which for most of them happened in elementary or middle school. These experiences situate them well within the definition of the digital native as someone who has grown up with technology. Some students self-identified as digital natives (usually by defining themselves against their parents) and acknowledged that computers and the Internet played an important role in their lives, especially their social lives:

I read the articles and i [sic] can almost completely relate. I would consider myself a as much of a digital native as one can be. From the time i [sic] was a little kid i [sic] have been around computers, at home and at school. When a new form of technology came around i [sic] was right there. From computer games, to the internet, and then to chatting. I've done and still do it all. I agree with the article when it said people get bored of old fashioned teaching. I know when i [sic] am doing research for an assignment i [sic] can whip up all my information on the internet in less than half the time it would take me to do my research in books in the library. (Ryan)

I am 23 and a digital native. My mother is 50, she is a digital immigrant. This author is right on point when they talk about digital immigrants still coming to terms with culture. I can't leave my house without my cell phone; and I couldn't imagine being a college student with a laptop or the use of the internet. It is hard for me to understand that one point, more specifically when my parents were in college, there was no internet... What a concept. My mom is still learning how to use her pre-paid cell phone (she's had it for two years); and doesn't even know how to upload pictures on to her home computer. (Cathleen)

I defiantly [sic] would consider myself a digital native and can relate to the people in both articles quite well. I have had access to a computer for just about as long as I can remember. [...] These simple things that are everyday features for me are the things that motivate my mom into getting deeper into the digital age. My dad can’t quite grasp it yet but someday he will have to. And the moment I realized all this was a simple family bonding time over the summer. While we were all sitting in our hot tub at home discussing an issue with a local sports team my dad got mad at me for making an accusation. So I simply grabbed my laptop which was next to the hot tub providing us with music and jumped on the net via the wireless we have in our backyard. Linked with the site that I wanted, which was easy to filter through because I have learned what sites exaggerate information completely and was able to give him the facts without even leaving the hot tub. (Nick)

Some students were happy to identify themselvs as digital natives, Generation M, or Generation Net and to place their parents on the other side of the binary. For them, technologies were a normal and normalized part of their lives, especially life in college. However, in the online discussions and in their narratives, some were inclined to qualify that label:

Although it would be hard for me to say I'm not a digital native, I dont feel like one. Although I have had great technologies throughout my life, I dont particuarly feel as though i [sic] am good at using any of them. If I want to let someone know I am thinking about them I send them an actual card. I really think that it is much more personal and more special because they are so rare these days. I do understand how some people feel a connection though the internet but I am just not one of them. I think [it] breaks down communication in so many ways. To be fair, I do check the weather online every morning as apposed [sic] to waiting for the weather portion of the news. If i have to just tell my mom something really quick I e-mail her instead of calling. I dont want to seem like some anti computer or technology girl, because I'm not. I often times wonder how more advanced our society will get when it comes to these sorts of things. our parents thought their generations were moving fast and now look at us. (Molly)

okay so here is my dilemma ... i [sic] am a digital native because i [sic] own and use a cell phone and have a facebook and e-mail account ... but i [sic] am a digital immigrant because i [sic] do not carry my phone with me always and do not religiously check my facebook or e-mail. I love the internet and couldnt [sic] imagine life without it, but i [sic] do not HAVE to use it every day. i [sic] suppose that would make me somewhat of a digital median. i [sic] know A LOT of digital natives who are very serious about it, such as the london chick who went backwards 5 miles for her phone .. well i [sic] know people who have gone back 30. if i [sic] forget my phone, i dont freak out ... i [sic] simply say eh whoever calls ill call back when i [sic] get back to my phone. it is almost the norm to be a digital native since our generation has grown up with the internet and cell phones ... we have never been without it so we cannot imagine life without it. i [sic] understand why people are the way they are (digital FREAKS, as i [sic] would call them haha) and i [sic] dont necessarily like to make fun, but cmon people! people before us lived without these things, im [sic] pretty sure you will survive for 3 hours without it! I like the constant upgrades and how everything is much more effecient, but it'll be okay if you dont have it 24/7:o) (Tiffany)

Quotations such as the ones above mirror the assertion by Vaidhyanathan (2008) that generations are not monolithic entities, especialy when it comes to experiences of and with technologies. This duality can also be seen in the concerns students expressed about how these technologies had shaped or could be shaping their lives and whether or not they would be left behind like their parents had been:

One social network on the web I swore I would never join was Facebook. I thought this stalkeresque website was ridiculous, time consuming and unnecessary. The spring of my Junior year of college three of my best friends locked me out of my bedroom and set up an account under my name...I have been addicted to it ever sense [sic]. I will admit the site is interesting in terms of taking a peek into other people’s lives, more in-depth than some will reveal with Webshots or through AIM [...] However, as I see the advancements Facebook is starting to make ( News Feeds, opening the network up to the general public instead of just college students) I am reminding myself, and friends why I was leery about this site. (Kristin)

Technology can change the way people do things, little things, like paying bills. Everyone has electricity and heat, so let's talk about these. My grandmother (she's 80) pays her bills at the grocery store in person, or writes a check and puts it into the blue box. My mother (she's 50) pays her bill either in the grocery store or over the phone. My oldest sister (she's 30) has her bill directly come out of her bank account every month, linked with her credit card. I pay my bill online, in fact, I don't even get a paper bill in the mail anymore. As technology advanced, people changed the way they do things...However, these different generations still do things the same way they always have done, so I can't help but think what is going to happen when they invent beyond today's web2.0...Will our generation still be stuck in our ways and do things the old fashioned way? (Cathleen)

While not all students easily or readily accepted the label of digital native and identified with its characteristics, their narratives include some of the characteristics of digital natives as described by Prensky (2001): they were eager to present and discuss how other aspects of their lives had been shaped by technology and how technology, specifically the Internet and/or the Web, allowed them to engage with the world .

The most common uses of with Web-based technologies represented in their discussions were the following:

All students recalled using computers in school and how their families had provided them with their first access to computers and the Internet. Many of them also mentioned the presence and importance of cell phones as part of their literate practices.

While all of the students' narratives discuss how computers are used as part of their lives, they did not all present the person in the narrative as "identified" (see Burke) with computers, the Internet, or technologies. Only two students called themselves a "computer person" while the rest either disclaimed or complicated the idea of their relationship with computers and the Web. For the rest, other identifications (parent, sorority member, athlete, Wikipedia editor) were stronger; they viewed computers as tools to help them achieve and maintain these identifications.

In her narrative, Melissa identifies herself as a "Computer Wizz Kid" and describes the various uses of the computer in her primary and secondary schooling before elucidating the ways that she uses the computer for "fun, shopping, and finances." Her primary uses could all be classified as consumer based: sometimes she is making an actual purchase, and other times she is acquiring and consuming information. Like all of the students in the class, she does not really identify herself as a producer of information on the Web, even though she participates in social networking sites where she frequently contributes information.

Similar to Melissa's narrative, Nick's narrative begins with:

For many, life began in a stroller, a highchair, or a walker. For me, it began on a keyboard. The transition from a non-technical world to one engulfed in a fast paced digi-existence has been one that has fooled many people, but for this digital native it’s been a life all about the fun gadgets and toys. Since I can remember I have always been fascinated with computers and electronics starting with my Mom’s original Tandy. Since then, my life has been all about electronics, technology, and the internet. It doesn't matter if its computers, cellphones, TV's, palm pilots or ipods, i've been there and had that.

Tiffany's narrative begins with a list of online behaviors she refuses to engage and leads up to the (visually emphasized in the original) statement of:

I do not believe that what a person does on a technological device defines who they are. That is my main point and view, if you didn't catch it. If you do these things, good for you. You must have a lot more time on your hands than I do, so power to you! But for me, internet and cell phones are an added bonus to everyday life.

Cathleen's narrative expresses a complicated view of how she "identifies." She explains that she has taken a lot of online courses and almost completed an entire degree via the Internet, reporting that she "uses the internet everyday as part of my daily activity. I don't think I could go a day without checking my mailbox(es), just as I would get my mail out of my mailbox at my house." Interestingly, Cathleen claims that:

I also want to note that I don't really participate in any Facebook or Myspace communication. I don't really know why, but it never really appealed to me. I'm not sure how i [sic] feel about just putting my information out there for anyone to see. Even when I was actively involved in AOL discussions, I never filled out a "member profile" that you could fill out and tell a little about yourself.

For all students, technologies are important because they facilitate the consumption of information (now an important commodity) or material goods. Most see technologies as instrumental in the Feenbergian sense: they "[sought] and found] affordances that can be mobilized in devices and systems by decontextualizing the objects of experience and reducing them to their useful properties" instead of as "socially relative and the outcome of technical choices is a world that supports the way of life of one or another influential social group." For them, technologies are useful tools that make up part of their lives; tools they see as outside of their control.

Most students view their uses of technology as determinist: "they [are] stripped of body and community in front of the terminal and positioned as detached technical subjects. At the same time, a highly simplified world is disclosed to [them] which is open to the initiatives of rational consumers. They are called to exercise choice in this world" (Feenberg, 2004). While Feenberg argues that such a view of the world ignores the "struggles and innovations" of those who use computers to create and facilitate communications, the students most likely would have disagreed. For them, their choices are limited to what technologies they chose and how often they use them for the purposes of consumption; their questions are limited to the value and validity of such technologies to their lives -- not what could or should be done with them or whether they should exist at all.

These narratives confirm the assertions of those who would challenge the native/immigrant binary as being too simplistic to accurately describe the current technological experiences of this generation. The students' experiences and words demonstrate that these "digital natives" are not a monolithic entity; while many students related similar experiences with past and present uses for the Internet and other technologies, many of them remained skeptical about the necessity of technologies, especially social networking technologies and ubiquitous communication, in their lives. This skepticism is also balanced by an instrumentalist and/or determinist view of technology as well as a strong conviction that these technologies are both normal and normalized for them, as evidence in their analyses.


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