Digital Culture: A Retrospective

WRT 330 at Oakland University was a class I took in which we created and organized a community involvement project. The class was presented as a course on digital culture, identity, and community. These three things came together in a graduated process, whereby the fundamental concepts of identity and digital life were negotiated and put into practice in the form of digital activism. We negotiated our own identities in this class, learning that identity is an ongoing process of identifying with something, like a particular group or activity. Active engagement is a necessary component to one’s own identity, and in WRT 330 we learned to utilize digital media to actively engage with ourselves and others, inside and outside of the classroom.

By creating video compositions that explored our own identities, we became more self-aware and more comfortable with each other. As for my part, when we finished creating our videos and held a gallery presentation in class, I was somewhat nervous about having other classmates gaining a deeper glimpse into my nature and what I identify with. But this exercise served as an ice-breaker and put everyone at ease throughout the rest of the semester.

We then continued to look into digital identity by investigating issues of “microcelebrity” and race. Microcelebrity is the phenomenon of how someone chooses to present themselves online, create multiple identities, or interact differently depending on platform and audience. By looking at online tropes featuring racism, and reading Theresa Senft and Safiya Noble, we learned that race is an artificial invention and the faceless features of the Internet can poison positive race-relations online. We also debated privacy concerns and the ephemeral nature, or sometimes staying power, of hashtags. For example, when sharing updates, interests, and “Likes” for the benefit of a close group of friends, seldom to users realize that others are watching. Being aware of privacy concerns reinforces the idea that in order to act responsibly with New Media structures of social engagement, one should behave online as if they were onstage, performing for a larger audience. Finally, the terrorist attack on the editorial offices of the Parisian Charlie Hebdo occurred before the semester started. By following the event on Twitter (among other digital news items) through the ubiquitous “#JeSuisCharlie” hashtag, the class began to understand how engagement (a necessary component to identity) on social media takes shape. The contentious nature of Charlie Hebdo and the outpouring of support after that attack took on its own rhetorical meaning, and we debated journalistic integrity, the democratic process, and the potential of sites like Twitter to enact real political change.

We spoke to four individuals via Twitter and Skype who have been involved in digital activism or awareness projects. By engaging with them, the class saw how digital media could be used constructively. Melanie Yergeau showed how social media was instrumental in gathering autistic individuals together in protest against the misguided and rhetorically harmful Autism Speaks. Live tweeting with Krista Bryson was also an eye-opening experience for me. She responded to the calamity in the communities affected by the West Virginia Water Crisis in Charleston and surrounding areas. By using her expertise in media production, Bryson created a blog and is working on an interactive documentary to spread her message. She has used social media to get exposure as well. Likewise, Logan Stark created a documentary to shed light on the issues relating to PTSD in returning war veterans. These individuals truly made an impact on me. So often when navigating through the refuse of social media, I see no point in sites like Twitter. But meeting these individuals was illuminating and made me want to pursue more active engagement in online communities that have both a purpose and mission, whether it be altruistic or creative. Indeed, the creative aspects to this class were explored in subjects like fandoms, explored with Merideth Garcia. I had always perceived fandoms as a vacuous art form providing passive entertainment. But now I see them as intertextual, creative, participatory, and meaningful, another way to negotiate one’s identity and arrive at new meanings and truths.

These insights came into being as the class prepared a community activism project of our own. Through a slow but steady process, the class created an event from scratch that was based on International Tabletop Day, an idea provided by a classmate after we all pitched community project ideas. Our event was called Game On! Grizzlies, and we held a game day in support of Beaumont Children’s Hospital. At the beginning of the semester, I thought the goal was to get off campus and engage with a community partner in person. But the way the event was planned and played out was in keeping with the whole theme of digital communities. Indeed, the class never met with anyone from Beaumont, but we still managed to communicate with the hospital through formal channels like email and informal channels like Twitter. Throughout this process, I learned that activism can really produce positive benefits even when that activism is digital.

Digital communities form through dedication and ongoing communication. Through teamwork and both print and digital media promotion, our event was recognized by hundreds of people. This was pretty significant considering there were only 11 individuals in charge of our event. We gained a following of 482 people on Twitter, and our efforts were shared through the Beaumont blog and The Oakland Press online. At the end of the day, I would imagine we had around one-thousand people becoming aware of the event. Unfortunately, the event itself was staged rather quickly, and it was only open to Oakland University students one week before a busy exam period. Therefore, the showing was marginal. But we learned how to effectively organize an event that was largely conceived digitally.

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