Fishing for Information: Social Media as a Study Resource

We all know someone who is good at math, someone who is great at writing and editing, or that someone who always seems to have great ideas. Thanks to social media, I have an open line of communication to other academics whether it’s other students or professors whom I work with. Because of this, I am able to post questions or concerns about an assignment that I am working on. One or a few of them may respond with information that could shed light on whatever I’m working on. Sherry Turkle, a Professor at the Massechusetts Institute of Technology, refers to this as a “Personal Learning Network (PLN)” ( For example, when I couldn’t understand what I was doing wrong on a math problem, I posted a picture of the problem along with how I tried to solve it and maybe a specific question on Facebook. My math friends would reply with something like ‘you factored it wrong’ or ‘you should reduce it first.’  In another example, when I was not sure about something I was writing, I posted a request for help to my friends and someone may ask me to inbox them what I’d written so far. One would think that a friend would want to show off what she/he knows, but that is not the case. I’m lucky to have friends who genuinely want me to understand. So I get the help that I need, and they get to say they saved a brain cell.

It seems reasonable to assume that teaching students how to build their own PLN would relieve some of the stress of studying because they would not be working in a bubble. This is what Clive Thompson refers to as “public thinking” in his book Smarter Than You Think. I would imagine that educators’ hearts would be warmed by Facebook statuses written by their students that read I finally understand how a topic sentence relates to a thesis statement. Or, on the other hand, a student would find it convenient to post questions to his/her professor on an open access site rather than a limited access platform such as BlackBoard Learn. By tightening the access gap, educators can reach more students and students would find it easier to communicate with his/her professor. It would be interesting to juxtapose limited access technology such as Blackboard Learn with extended access technology such as social media sites in order to learn which is most conducive to learning.



Adapting to the Technological Age

According to Nicholas Carr’s article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” published in the July/August 2008 edition of, people today have become too dependent on technology, especially the internet. He explains that people’s ability to remember and concentration on information has decreased because the internet and other technology, for the most part, does this for us. Carr further claims that we are no longer reading in the traditional sense, that the way we read has changed because of the various ways that we can access information. Moreover, he claims that these technologies have affected the way that people write. Because of all of this, Carr says, the maleability of our brains and our natural rhythm have been affected. Carr’s skepticism is understandable, but I’m not fully convinced that the internet “is making us stupid.”

The author insists that he notices a difference in his ability to access and recall information. He reports that other tech-savvy professionals have also noticed this change in themselves. And while we can all relate, the testimonies of these professionals are not enough to says for sure that the internet has caused any harm to our neurological abilities.

Carr admits that there is not yet any measurable evidence to support his claim that our brains are practically turning to mush because of the internet. Instead, he presents the results of a study performaed by scholars at the University College of London that basically revealed that internet users are reading more but not the way people traditionally read. While this contradicts traditional reading behaviors, it is not alarming. Rather, it is revolutionary. People have learned to access more information in different ways. Carr quotes the author of the study as saying, “[i]t is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense.” So what if readers have learned to access more information in a shorter period of time? It doesn’t necessarily mean that people have stopped reading books all together. The author even presents evidence from a neuroscientist that tells us that the human brain “break[s] old connections and forms new ones,” which weakens his claim that we should be worried. As the human race and its technology evolves, one should expect the human brain to evolve in order to process the new expectations.

Fear and anxiety surrounding the unknown is quite common, but those emotions do not usually last long. Some skepticism, the author tells us, can be healthy. This healthy skepticism allows us to protect ourselves as internet users. As the web grows astronomically over time, the amount of information available to us becomes overwhelming, so we have to learn new strategies for discerning good information from useless or flat out wrong information. However, this is not impossible to do.

Notwhithstanding the seemingly endless amount of information available to us, I for one am still skeptical about doing away with hard copies of books. Like Carr, I find it hard to focus on a piece of reading for long periods of time while using technology. However, I do not see this as irresolvable. I, like others I’m sure, am aware of the affect that technology has on me and I adjust accordingly. As a matter of fact, since so much of the reading that I need to do is online, I use the speech option on my computer to read the text for me while I read along. This allows me to access the information visually and audibly. As a result, I am able to focus on the reading and I retain more information. I wouldn’t call that stupid; instead, I would call it adapting.

The Complicated Nature of Digital Literacy

Danah Boyd, a social media scholar and youth researcher, asserts in the chapter”Literacy: Are Today’s Youth Digital Natives?” in her book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, that the discourse about “digital natives” fails to address the challenges of some teens in that group. Boyd explains the emergence of the term “digital natives,” discusses the subsequent emergence of new technologies, and then moves into a discussion about the political ramifications of the digital divide that grew simultaneously with the concept. The author’s purpose, then, is to highlight the socio-political causes of the digital disparity in order to persuade academics and educators to participate in the movement to increase digital literacy.

Boyd claims that identifying the digital populace as either “digital natives” or “digital immigrants” detracts from the issue of accessibility. Her explanation about the various ways in which teens access digital media illustrates how the disparity grows.

Talk of digital natives may make it harder for us to pay attention to the digital divide in terms of who has access to different technical platforms and the participation gap in terms of who has access to certain skills and competencies or for that matter, certain cultural experiences and social identities. (192)
Those who have computers at home are able to access the media more often; therefore their digital literacy skills are usually greater. Those who do not have frequent access are in a constant state of playing catch-up. This disadvantage, when not adequately addressed, leaves this subgroup of “digital natives” far enough behind that it is harder to compete with their cohorts. I can relate to this because when I was in the seventh grade, I was one of those students who did not have a computer at home. There were no computers in the library yet, so the only computers I had access to were at school. A few years went by before I could regularly access a computer and a few more before I learned to use one to do anything other than play Frogger. I was one of those people who were digitally illiterate; I was behind. This is not to say that it is impossible for the disadvantaged to catch-up, but it is a challenge nonetheless. So Boyd’s argument is somewhat valid.However, it lacks adequate support. There is no data to support the author’s claim. Instead, she seems to rely on the credibility of other authors and researchers who discuss some of these issues earlier.
The author suggests that censoring “problematic content” fails to provide users the opportunity to flex their academic muscles. Boyd uses the controversy about Wikipedia’s trustworthiness as an example. This familiar example allows the reader to better understand the censorship issue. She claims that “[students] need to know how to grapple with the plethora of information that is easily accessible and rarely vetted” (181). In other words, protecting students from seemingly incorrect information weakens their academic muscles and fails to prepare them for a world run by propaganda.

At first glance, one would think that “digital natives” have no problem accessing and making use of digital media. However, being able to access the internet from a digital device does not make one tech savvy. According to one example that Boyd uses, some have access to the internet, but because it is sometimes a little sketchy, students choose easier platforms (194). It is “easier” to ask someone else because of the limitations. This, according to Boyd, is a distraction. She states, “The rhetoric of “digital natives,” far from being useful, is often a distraction to understanding the challenges that youth face in a networked world” (194). So this limitations are just one example of the “distractions” that some young users face. Although Boyd’s argument is reasonable, her lack of statistics makes it hard for someone without prior knowledge or experience to accept.
Boyd, Danah. “Literacy: Are Today’s Youth Digital Natives?” It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. Yale University Press, 2014, pp. 176-198.