How should journalism educators teach and study social media?

recent blog post by Vadim Lavrusik called upon journalism educators to make social media and online community engagement a stronger part of their curricula:

“[T]here are three components I think that are still largely missing from most journalism curricula today that could help in user engagement: learning the social media tools available for journalists to engage the audience, an understanding of what it means to cultivate community, and lastly a negative stigma to the use of data and analytics.”

The post elicited several favorable comments from journalism students, instructors and practitioners associated with institutions around the country, including a link to this thoughtful advice about how journalism education needs to change. Amen to all of it, I say. Journalists need to know how, when and whether to blog, twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, tag, make and use widgets, link strategically, build and use wikis, craft SEO-friendly content and understand analytics. (Just to be clear, references to Twitter, Linkedin and Facebook have more to do with the need for facility with sites that function in this way, not with fealty to those particular brands.)

However, we need to be more systematic in thinking about how we approach this subject as a matter of teaching, research and practice.  One can learn the basics of using particular blogging and social media tools in a workshop. A college-level exploration of the design, disseminating and evaluation of social media content should not only be about practices, but also about principles. Journalism curricula need to reflect upon and synthesize emerging insights from a range of disciplines that can inform social media practices and standards for communications professionals.

To help that conversation along, here are some thoughts on specific aspects of social media and community engagement that are ripe for college-level curriculum development and research. My effort here is more speculative than prescriptive.

Composing for recomposition

This 2009 paper, Composing for Recomposition: Rhetorical Velocity and Delivery from Jim Ridolfo and Danielle Nicole De Voss does a great job of helping content creators and educators understand the changed meaning of publishing in a social media culture. Ridolfo and De Voss’s concepts of rhetorical velocity and delivery offer a way of understanding how traditional publishing models are redefined by social media.

Ridolfo and DeVoss’s model can help us think about what we are trying to achieve in creating social media content, and how to do it most effectively. Their choice of the press release as a form for presenting a scholarly treatise is telling. As they explain in their introduction:

We chose a press release design for this article because it is distributed as analog and digital, with specific strategic use and importance associated with each of these physicalities; it also demonstrates an implicit consideration and structure for its recomposition. Certainly, a press release is not the flashiest or most compelling example of rhetorical velocity in digital spaces, but we think this genre is a useful place to begin thinking about the strategic appropriation of compositions. This genre, though constrained by rigid formatting conventions, offers a useful starting point for thinking about how such strategizing may predate and also change shape with the widespread adaptation of digital composing literacies. Additionally, this genre—with its disposition to alphabetic text—offers quick, easily locatable research examples for discussion and comparison (see the Defense Department example we’ve included elsewhere in this webtext). This genre scaffolds well into classroom conversations, and challenges students and researchers to find, argue for, and discuss other instances and mediums where ideas change shape, gather speed, and are elsewhere delivered.

Much of  what’s being said here about press releases could also be said of the inverted pyramid news story, or of traditional conventions for headline writing. All three forms are highly structured. The rules for word choice, phrase or sentence structure, paragraph structure and format are well defined. So too, are the rules for when and how each genre should be employed. This makes them well suited to digital distribution and content management.

Implications for journalists

But the authors identify two concepts that are important beyond their implications for content creation: rhetorical velocity and amplification effect.

Rhetorical veolocity concerns the likely path and speed of movement of a piece of content in internet or social media space. Composing with rhetorical velocity in mind extends and old idea. It’s not a stretch to think about how the packaging and anticipated shelf life of a particular story changes as one moves from breaking print or news broadcast, to a second day story, to the wires, magazines, books or documentaries. When the concept is applied to computational media, it has ramifications for  everything from SEO optimization to cross-cultural communications to the potential for collaborative problem solving. Composing for rhetorical velocity is at the heart of composing for social media.

The amplification effect is important in understanding how recomposition affects the authority, credibility and sourcing of content. The authors argue that content creators who compose with recomposition in mind are more likely to see their ideas disambiguated, repackaged and circulated in ways that give their messages more power and traction. They cite a study of the way that Iraqi insurgents used the internet to spread their message as an example. The more recent use of Twitter by protesters in Iran and Moldova is also illustrative.

The amplification effect complicates the routine journalistic task of separating grassroots movements from astroturf campaigns and outright propaganda. How might our vetting techniques need to change? Could be an interesting researchable question for both communications scholars and computational journalists.

Ridolfo and DeVoss conclude with some interesting practical exercises that can help students understand the practical implications of composing for recompostion. These exercises can be readily adapted to newswriting classes. Learning to write SEO and twitter-friendly headlines and lead grafs is an example of creating content with rhetorical velocity in mind. Using widgets and embeddable media is another.

This is one area where  analytic data can be employed usefully without engendering concerns that actual news content will be corrupted. Analytic data can help content creators understand which platforms, storytelling techniques, commenting practices and tools are likely to affect rhetorical velocity in desired ways.

That brings me to another concept that I’ve been wrestling with for some time for some time- the ethical implications of what Douglass Rushkoff calls “viral media,” which Henry Jenkins and his colleagues have recast as “spreadable media.”  I’ll tease this one out in the next post. (UPDATE 12.8.2010: Actually, here’s the post on spreadable media.

Posted in Blogging, Business models for journalism, Civic media, Collaboration, Computational Thinking, Journalism, journalism education, Research, Teaching, Technology, The Craft of Writing and tagged , , , , .

professorkim

My professional background is in public information, magazine journalism, blogging and journalism education. My current research is founded on the premise that democracy requires the broad participation of a computationally fluent citizenry. Civic media industries must reflect the communities they serve at the level of ownership, research and development, news gathering, presentation and community engagement. This adds greater urgency to the already critical need to broaden participation in computing. To that end, I have collaborated on curricular models for infusing computing into journalism education at both the scholastic and collegiate levels, and for promoting civic engagement in computer science education. My current interest is in exploring the potential of stochastic networks and as enhancement to social computing tools for broadening civic participation.
While most of this blog is devoted to my research in computational journalism and trends in journalism education, I occasionally do some storytelling of my own. This blog picks up where my other blogs, Professor Kim’s News Notes (http://professorkim.blogspot.com) and The Nancybelle Project (http://kimpearson.net/nancybelle.html) left off.