An article from Inside Higher Education (Lisa Lebduska’s “The Facebook Mirror”) led to an animated and instructive discussion on the WPA listserv during the last few days—about the pitfalls and potential of Facebook, about student writers and their audiences, and about teachers’ responsibilities to foster both old and new literacies.
We have all heard much criticism of Facebook and other social networking sites, which—according to their critics—are “dumbing down” their users. And certainly we can find examples of the jejune, the banal, the utterly narcissistic (hence the mirror analogy) on these sites. But I think it is a mistake to paint all social network sites and the conversations they contain with the same brush. Indeed, I see many counter examples produced by young writers I know: the high schooler who posts really tough questions daily and demands that others engage them; the undergraduate traveler who posts achingly bleak descriptions of the Indian hospital where he is volunteering for two months; the working mom who has built a support network for others like her who are juggling parenting, work, and school.
Social networking sites are, then, what their writers make of them. They are also spaces for writers to engage audiences of all kinds, to come into contact with people of widely differing backgrounds and assumptions. My research suggests that students are highly aware of and sensitive to such audiences: they know that their messages must be shaped to different readers, especially those they want to engage in further conversation. So if Facebook is a mirror, it is a really big one. Look in it and you can see not only yourself but all those others you are both addressing and invoking.
Toward the end of her essay, Lisa Lebduska urges teachers to find ways for their students to “know and consider” their diverse readers. “How often,” she asks, “do we ask students to hear, read and truly understand a viewpoint different from their own? How often do we expect them to think of someone, anyone, other than themselves? The ability to imagine a perspective other than our own — the idea of an audience consisting of curious minds rather than adoring fans — defines our most effective writers.” Considering varying perspectives and counterarguments is a fundamental hallmark of rhetoric and rhetorical instruction, and most of the writing programs I know of that have a rhetorical foundation engage students in these activities as a central part of the writing process. I’m encouraged to see that such a basic rhetorical principle is as applicable to student writers in the 21st century as it was two millennia ago—and that it can help guide those writers in any writing space—including Facebook.