Saying a lot briefly: the intricacies of social media

The following is an excerpt from an assignment I wrote about the future use of social media in classrooms:

Social media offers its own framework of processing information. Using Twitter as an example, each component of a tweet carries with it a packet of additional information. The timestamp: When was the tweet posted? Was it intentionally posted during a typical “high-traffic time?” or was it a throwaway thought late at night? If it was a tweet about another person or an event, how close to the event was the timestamp? What does that indicate about the proximity of the individual – are they live-tweeting the event, or do they have privileged access to a source?

The hashtag: is it designed to categorize the tweet, and relate it to those of a similar topic (#NHLfinals)? Is it designed to be a rallying point to draw people in to create a conversation (#Ferguson, #NotYourAsianSidekick)? Is it used to add humour to the tweet, or to add a second layer of communication? RTs and Favourites: how many did it receive, and by whom? If a sports writer has an article retweeted by its subject, is that an endorsement, or an ironic gesture? Or follower hierarchy: if someone with a significantly greater follower count is starting a conversation with someone who has less, what does that mean? Why? These nuances are absolutely familiar to youth who use social media, if not so explicitly discussed.

A tweet of 140 characters or a Facebook post can contain all sorts of details about a person’s relationship to a situation, their opinion, or clues regarding their future actions. Assignments can be created which utilize skills that students have not only developed, but which will have continuing relevance in the next 30 or 40 years. At my last practicum, one of my peers asked students to create a Twitter newsfeed for the events leading up to and including the Red River Rebellion with chronological accuracy, using the various elements of Twitter to convey their knowledge. How would students convey the concealed bellicosity of Sir John A. MacDonald? Or the mediation of Joseph Ritchot? These sorts of assignments should not replace “extensive writing” skills, but nor should they be scorned as fluff: refined manipulation of social media’s subtle details has become a legitimate, necessary skill in many professions.

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