Monday, April 18, 2016

Sanders and Trump: Power of Digital Communities

The last decade has demonstrated the power of social media in mass revolutions, even if those revolutions fizzle or come to disastrous ends. The Arab Spring, the Orange Revolution, Occupy Wall Street, and the Tea Party all relied on social media to build momentum. Unfortunately, the Islamic State, nationalist political parties, and plenty of undesirable groups also mastered social media.

The current election campaign in the United States reflects the power of social media. President Obama's two White House campaigns demonstrated the effective uses of data science and social media. The campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump don't appear to possess the same zeal for data analytics as the Obama campaigns, but they do reflect a more organic social media environment.

Bernie and Trump memes on Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter aren't designed by campaign advisors. The images and slogans come directly from passionate supporters. Communities have formed, however ephemeral they might be, around the anti-establishment campaigns of these two men.

Online forums like Daily Kos seem to be fading, yet the power of social networks is rising, especially among progressive/liberal online communities. The connections are less centralized and less organized than Red State or Town Hall on the conservative side. Maybe this reflects generational differences.

As online communities gain influence, political parties lose influence. We see this in the United States, as Sanders and Trump embody rejections of the moderate establishment. The extremes are rebelling online. Passions online seem to be reinforced, echoing and growing louder throughout the campaign.

I'm not sure this trend is good for the United States, as the extremes are not where most citizens reside. The extremes are taking over the political discourse, which is only going to lead to greater disenchantment and greater conflicts.

Social media has helped the extreme, passionate, minority of activists. That's the new reality of politics.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Digital Media Future

By May, I'll be half-way through an MFA in Film and Digital Technology. People ask why a Ph.D in rhetoric would need an MFA. My explanation follows.

Rhetoric (and composition, since they are often lumped together in academic settings) has struggled between the tension to teach traditional rhetoric and a need to update our courses and field to reflect new technologies and trends in communication.

Other departments expect us to teach how to format academic papers (MLA, APA) and write traditional genres: the five-paragraph (yuck) "essay" (which isn't an essay at all), the term paper, the journal article, the "book review" (again, which isn't a review at all), the thesis, and so on. We know these forms and many of us want to resist them. Yet, our classroom work is often relegated to the "service" of other academic fields.

Shifting away from composition seems necessary for me to explore rhetoric where it is now most effective at reaching broad audiences. It isn't that we can't define "composition" itself broadly, but that to be a "composition" teacher is too often to be a (resistant) advocate of forms and writing styles I dislike.

I do not like dense academic language. I don't like the strict formatting rules, meant to emphasize the words when so many other ways to communicate should be permitted and encouraged. I don't like a lot of what I have had to teach in writing courses, and I have often reminded students that we use academic writing to reach a narrow, specific, and powerful audience. (Power is contextual, right? Power over grades is real power over students, even as academics have less influence in public policy today.)

Enrolling in an MFA in Film and Digital Technology allows me to resist the "rhet/comp" quicksand, while I hope to continue to speak out and advocate for changes in writing across the disciplines.

Persuasion today occurs on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and a dozen other social media outlets. Media clips live on, with links being passed along in a "viral" spread among friends of friends. The old days of an academic appearing on "Meet the Press" changing news coverage and influencing the public are fading away.

Digital media are not really "new media." Though they offer new potentials for creation and distribution, a creative video embodies the old idea of a public square, an "agora" with people trying to influence each other.

And so, I will return to the academic job market later this year (2016) with a focus on the digital, the multimedia content of today and whatever is to come. Academic papers? Those have always been a rarified niche, and that niche is shrinking (ironically, due in part to the wild expansion of academic journals with smaller and smaller audiences).

I'm glad to be moving forward, seeking to cross a bridge between the past and future of public discourse.