***Elle Moyse considers how Web 2.0 reconfigures our sense of identity when it is presented as media. These ideas are discussed with reference to online journalism, blogging and social media. Elle is on Twitter @ElleMoyse. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission as part of our CityLIS Writes initiative***
The publishing world has been shaken with the arrival of Web 2.0 platforms that allow the role of the consumer and producer to combine into one. To elaborate on exactly what Web 2.0 is Bawden and Robinson (2008:7) define the innovation of Web 2.0 as the emergence of websites such as blogs, wikis and social networks, which facilitate shared information, creation, and community. In this sphere, quality, valued content is being produced that often rivals traditional published media. In fact, many information consumers rely on web platforms alone for their retrieval of news and political content. In this context, questions of identity are prevalent, both because of the manner in which we shape our identities via our consumption of media, and the way in which we choose to present our identities in the online sphere. Navigating and making sense of the information within these types of texts requires Library and Information professionals to rethink our current ideas around information and media literacy to include how to evaluate and make sense of these new forms of published works.
In this essay, I will be examining how Library and Information services contribute to questions of identity that arise with the arrival of modern forms of publishing within the Web 2.0 landscape. In this, I will focus on new-media journalism disseminated via blogging platforms, as well as the spread of news and political content via social media. First, I will examine how the ‘online self’ is formed through our obsession with social media and social networking platforms. I will look at how identity can be performed and managed in the online, and how this contributes to a lack of clarity and authenticity in the infosphere. In this, the de-individualization of the author in the online sphere, as well as anonymity, will be examined. Finally, I will investigate how these questions of identity that arise in the online contribute to a need for Library and Information services to develop a new kind of digital and media literacy that enables information users to assess information holistically, with these modern forms of publishing in mind.
Social Media, Social Networks and the Self
Social media is an overarching figure in the modern landscape, not only does it permeate the lives of those who engage in it, it is for many of us – particularly millennials (Talib, 2018:55) our main source through which we consume media content. In fact, social media is so integral to the way in which we live our lives and shape our identities that the
majority of young people admit to checking their phone within minutes of waking up each day (Greenwood et al., 2016). Whilst we live our offline lives separately, it is greatly influenced by our online experiences. In the infosphere we are producing and consuming micro-narratives which represent an externalised stream of consciousness, changing and developing our social selves and how we interact with society (Floridi, 2014:62). Web 2.0 platforms allow users and consumers a newfound freedom to play and experiment with identity – in maintaining an online presence, one can choose exactly how much and how little they reveal. Those who produce and consume content, whether the content is a personal Twitter feed or a reputable journalistic blog, navigate a sphere in which identity and communities are negotiated, managed, and performed (Vallor, 2012). In this, a new ethical space is opened up and questions of authenticity and reliability are all the more pressing.
The idea of identity being a performance in the infosphere is an important one, especially when it comes to answering the ethical dilemmas at the heart of Library and Information studies – such as accessing information and sensemaking. Floridi (2014:73) refers to the “digital gaze” to emphasise the concept of identities online being managed and performed. Through the digital gaze, the self gazes upon itself through the proxy of the digital medium, which in turn provides only a partial and specific reflection. The danger of the digital gaze is that it imposes external and alien rules onto the construction of one’s own identity (Floridi, 2014:74). In the online world, we can choose to construct our identities from the bottom up, and in the offline world our identities are strongly tied to those we create and live out online. Online content producers negotiate these boundaries with each upload, controlling their disclosure and participation in the infosphere (Greenland, 2013:221). The media that we choose to consume online can have a significant effect on our offline identities, including our citizenship and participation behaviour (Pan et al., 2017). Therefore, what we choose to consume is incredibly significant. More traditional forms of publishing often undergo thorough research and editing before the information reaches the public. In the online world, anyone can produce, and anyone can consume. That is not to say that traditional media forms are inherently reliable or authentic, however, it is significant to note the difference in production. Digital identity is intimately linked with media literacy in this context (Lange, 2014:216), if the internet is a stage and we are the performers – how do we know what is real?
Consumption, Production, and Authorship in the Digital Age
Not only has the adoption of Web 2.0 platforms allowed information citizens to create virtual lives that run parallel with their offline identities (Gunter, 2008:197), identity is deindividualized in the infosphere and we often view ourselves and our social network contacts as representatives of a group rather than their own unique persons (Parnell, 2008:46). This is an especially interesting idea when it comes to digital authorship. It is incredibly common to consume the majority, if not all, of one’s news and political content from blogs and social media sources. In this context, the identity of the author is often anonymised or deindividualized due to the way in which information is spread and filtered through sources before it meets each recipient. In 1969 Foucault (1998) was beginning to voice ideas around authorship and deindividualization, predicting that the author function would soon disappear. In the digital age, specifically within the context of blogs and social media publishing, the idea of the ‘author’ is well on its way out. This, of course, has consequences for the way information is disseminated and received, for if no one is responsible, no one can be held accountable.
Social media and blogging platforms are an innovation in modern publishing as they have combined the role of information producers and consumers into one – often referred to as a ‘prosumer’ (Vanwynsberghe et al., 2015; Gunter, 2008). The way in which we interact with social media by delivering and receiving information in this manner has become so intuitive and integral to our daily lives that for many of us reading blogs and social media websites has replaced more traditional forms of published media. Initially blogging platforms or social media websites like YouTube, reached smaller, more niche audiences – content that was posted on these kinds of websites tended to be more personal and produced with a small community of consumers in mind. Now, however, these platforms pose significant threat to ‘traditional media’, with many journalistic blogs and vlogs becoming established news sources (Gunter, 2008:205). Examples of this include ‘The Huffington Post’ and ‘Techcrunch’, which both began as blogs (Aldred et al., 2008).
These modern innovations in publishing are especially interesting as they are de-institutionalised, and the flow and distribution of information is not controlled by media companies (Vanwynsberghe et al., 2015:283). When it comes to receiving news and political data via these mediums, this lack of outside control can be both a positive and a negative. Without outside influence, particularly outside influence that facilitates media texts to exist through money gained from advertisers, broadcasting institutions or publishing agencies, information can be given more freely and with less barriers. However, in the infosphere anyone can be a content producer. Information can be posted straight from the mind of the producer, with no editing or review process in-between, and misinformation spreads like wildfire. Hirst (2019) warns that the “fake news” phenomena is heavily linked to the collapse of the old news media paradigm. Levels of trust in traditional media are falling, which in turn may contribute to the over-reliance on web platforms as a news source. This ideological shift contributes significantly to the spread of “fake news” (Himma-Kadakas, 2017). As a society, we have reason to doubt the authenticity or ‘truthfulness’ of news distributed via traditional forms of publishing. For example, Matis & Danzig’s (2015) research of ‘The Daily Mail’ tabloid articles found several instances of false statistics used to present xenophobic ideals (e.g. “600,000 unemployed migrants living in Britain”). Even the BBC, which is publicly funded and supposedly ‘neutral’, has been involved in supposed media ‘cover-ups’, such as the rumoured cover-up of television presenter Jimmy Savile’s sex offences and child abuse (Whittam Smith, 2012). However, the growing lack of faith we, as a society, have in traditional media, coupled with the implementation of social media as an integral part of our identities and daily routines, means that we may become reliant on sources that are even less trustworthy.
Anonymity and Sensemaking in the Infosphere
Bawden and Robinson (2008:7) refer to the loss of identity and use of anonymity in Web 2.0 platforms as a specific concern to the field of Library and Information Science. The lack of identity inherent in these modern forms of publishing is a considerable threat to the authority of recorded information and validity can be incredibly difficult to access. The ambiguity associated with the online self fits within a complex of debates about the nature of authenticity, trust and reputation that are integral to the discussion of anonymity and pseudonimity in the infosphere. All online identities are to be treated with distrust and need verification (Degroot, 2011), however, at the same time the reliance on text-alone interaction in the infosphere leads to increased self-disclosure and therefore allows for trust to be built amongst online producers and consumers (Page, 2014:47). Underpinning questions of authorship and anonymity in modern publishing forms, is a need for a new kind of digital and media literacy that encompasses and addresses the aforementioned concerns. This is especially relevant as young people, and a growing number of older people, are now displaying a normative use of Web 2.0 technologies in their information gathering habits (Gunter, 2008:205). This manner in which we exist and co-exist in and amongst the infosphere presents the field of Library and Information science with new and confounding questions around digital and media literacy. Subliminal and docile acceptance of media impact turns information consumers into “prisoners” (McLuhan, 1964:6), therefore the ability to question and access information is key. In the context of blogging and social media platforms, identity is blurred and unreliable or dishonest content is easily amplified and spread.
Library and Information Services and Critical Digital Media Literacy
Information spreads fast in the infosphere, anyone can produce as well as consume, and there is often no editorial control. This means that modern forms of publishing, such as social media and blogs, can be difficult to navigate and make sense of. As we live in a neoliberal society in which individual agency is prioritised, the onus is on members of the public to interpret the information they consume (Boyd, 2018). Digital literacy is increasingly discussed, and governments are becoming aware that digital confidence and skills are necessary to benefit their citizens and contribute to society (Fraser & Reedy, 2018:155). Librarians are also increasingly responsible for enabling their patrons to use resources such as social media and blogging platforms (Callahan, 1991). However, there is not just one type of ‘digital literacy’ – to navigate the complex of information we now find ourselves wading through, we must not only learn how to navigate systems, but also how to question and be critical of these systems. In the world of online alternative forms of publishing, a combination of digital literacy and media literacy may be necessary. It is likely that many users will gain experience navigating digital systems outside of a library setting, and for those who cannot, access is readily available in the majority of public libraries (Thorne-Wallington, 2013:54). However, libraries could play a more significant role in developing critical media literacies to enable information citizens to avoid falling into the trap of “fake news” that has become such a phenomenon in online journalism. Bawden and Robinson (2008:9) call for a deeper understanding of human interaction behaviour in order to develop a critical digital literacy that addresses issues such as anonymity and sensemaking. In order to teach users how to question and be critical of information, we first require a more rounded idea of how users interact with these systems.
When it comes to navigating modern forms of publishing, the library and information field must prioritise the sociocultural and analytic aspect of studying and accessing media (Lankshear and Knobel, 2008). A critical digital media literacy is necessary in navigating information presented in blogs and social media. This encourages users to not only question the information they are presented with, but the context in which the digital communication is taking place (Talib, 2018:58). In this, the medium in which the message is being translated through must be considered, as well as questions of authorship, ideology, power, political economy, production, and reception (Funk et al., 2015:3). In decoding the context of an information resource, we can gain greater understanding of the beliefs and biases behind the text and the inherent semiotics of the types of content used to create the message (Kellner, 1998). Boyd (2014) emphasises the importance of building empathy in attempting to make sense of digital information. This means that developing an understanding of why certain individuals and groups may express certain beliefs and ideas, even if these ideas may not align with the user’s own. The extension of empathy onto a critical digital media literacy teaches consumers to analyse contradictions in text, rather than getting stuck in the intention behind the production of said text – which may be less relevant. In actively participating in a knowledge society, learning these critical digital media skills is necessary to make sense of information and access the honesty and validity of information resources. This is especially significant in the post-2016 era of ‘fake news’.
In the modern age, identity is formed through the online via our formative experiences with social media and blogging platforms. These identities can be negotiated as the digital gaze allows us to construct our identities online from the bottom-up. In the infosphere, identity can also be performed and managed. Therefore, navigating modern forms of publishing within this sphere can be difficult as all is not what it seems – authenticity and truthfulness can be difficult to discern. The use of blogging platforms and social media websites to disseminate and receive information, especially news and political information, presents the field of library and information science with new and unique challenges in discerning authenticity, credibility, and authorship. The deindividualization of the author in these modern publishing forms has implications for the way in which information is both interpreted and disseminated. These modern platforms allow online publishers to remain anonymous, therefore they cannot always be held accountable for the content of what they publish.
Information citizens are already beginning to question the old news media paradigm and rely less on traditional forms of media. Traditional media outlets have a chequered history, however, these outlets have somewhat of an ethical responsibility to tell the truth, whereas the internet is the Wild West. In the infosphere, ‘fake news’ spreads significantly faster, and the anonymity inherent in these platforms means that nobody is held accountable for disseminating inaccurate information. An over-reliance on resources in which information may not be edited or fact-checked can be dangerous, therefore the fact that many people rely on Web 2.0 platforms exclusively for receiving their news and political content is worrying. The ambiguity of the online self and a societal reliance on social media platforms calls for a digital literacy in which these issues are addressed, and users can be assisted in navigating these modern forms of publishing. Digital identity and media literacy are inherently linked in the infosphere and our identities are closely tied to the information we consume and produce online. However, because identity in the online can so easily be performed, negotiated and managed, we must develop strategies in order to make sense of and evaluate information. In this, a combination of digital and media literacy is necessary. The development of a holistic critical digital media literacy will give web users the tools to evaluate sources and decode the context and intent behind the message. Consumers and producers of web media content need also be aware of the bias’s built within the medium of the message, as well as the message itself. The extension of empathy onto a framework like this, also encourages digital consumers to access contradictions, rather than focussing on the intention of the author. In a world in which published works on social media and blogging platforms hold as much weight as traditional media texts, Library and Information services must intervene and equip information users with the skills needed to decode and evaluate these texts.
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