TEDx Warwick: Digital Literacies and the Rise of the Meme
DIGITAL LITERACIES AND THE RISE OF THE MEME
A talk by Dr Doug Belshaw, Researcher/Analyst at JISC Advance
Learning digital skills never ends in our constantly developing technological world. In his TEDx Warwick 2012 talk Dr Doug Belshaw argued that companies need to lower their barriers to digital literacy to ensure success, citing the rise of meme websites as an example of unfettered creative communication.
“How many of you have managed to see a two or three-year-old child use a computer mouse for the first time?” asked Dr Doug Belshaw, a researcher with JISC. Toddlers don’t understand that the horizontal move of the mouse corresponds to a vertical movement of the cursor on the screen, so they try and pick up the mouse to move the cursor up the screen. “The translation between the interface and the screen is just lost on them.”
“Sometimes I don’t think we understand that there’s a lot of pre-literate behaviour and gestures involved with things like books for example.” His one-year-old daughter sometimes picks up books upside down and tries to open them from the spine end. “We need to understand that there are pre-literate gestures and behaviours involved with almost everything we do”. Practice makes perfect – it takes time for gestures and behaviours to become ingrained and for your fingers to do what your brain wants them to do.
This raises an interesting question for Dr Belshaw: what does it mean to be literate? Someone who can play notes in a plodding way on a musical instrument is at the opposite at the end of the scale from celebrated professional musicians. It takes a lot of definition to decide what counts as literacy, including digital literacy, such as the child with the computer mouse.
With digital technologies the goalposts are always moving and people have to update their skills. For example Dr Belshaw says that a generation ago he was the one in his family who used to program the VHS recorder. Yet in the 21st century the VHS is nearly obsolete, superseded by DVD, Blu-ray and downloadable content over the Internet. Dr Belshaw’s grandmother has discovered that upgrading technology means acquiring new digital skills. She has had Sky television installed for the football. “Whereas previously she would have pressed channel up or down, now she has to deal with a menu system.” It has taken weeks for her to learn this. Why?
Menu systems, says Dr Belshaw, rely on branching logic. The user selects one option and then a sub-option. The trouble is this doesn’t exist in nature and it is a purely digital invention also used by phone systems. Who hasn’t been told to press one for your bill, two for payment options etc. by a disembodied voice?
Apple is a company that understands user behaviour and lowers the digital literacy threshold for them. When a customer calls the company the system recognises their voice and request and puts them through to the right department. “The company understands there’s a barrier to getting things started in the digital world.” It uses the same theory for its iPad. The iPad is easy to use partly because it has a really simple menu system. “Everything you want to do is represented by some kind of icon.”
As part of his doctoral thesis Dr Belshaw studied memes. A meme is an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. Take the example of ‘success kid’. On 26th August 2007 a Flickr user uploaded a picture she took of her son on a beach holding sand in his fist. After she made it public soon others were emailing it and adding it to social networks. Some people remixed it and added text and images – indeed a whole Russian newsgroup popped up dedicated to remixing this image. “Then somebody took the image, cut it out and started putting in other images” explained Dr Belshaw, “but the meme really took off when it went on meme generation sites like quickmeme. On these sites the barrier to getting started is significantly lowered because all you have to do is add some text and it does the rest for you.”
Memes are like genes, Dr Belshaw says. They go viral. One hundred years ago, adding a background and text to a photograph would have been a long and laborious process. Today it’s not only possible, but it’s getting easier as the barriers to digital literacy are lowered. “Communicating is a lot easier than it used to be. Remix is right at the heart of digital literacies, right at the other end of the spectrum to elegant consumption.” It is the plodding instrument player as opposed to the professional musician.
According to Dr Belshaw the Internet company Mozilla is doing some fantastic work around learning, aiming to create a generation of webmakers. Mozilla understands that digital literacy is a condition, not a threshold. “It affects your identity because every time you are given a new tool it gives you a different way of impacting upon the world.” Digital literacy is a fluid concept. “Really we need to be talking about digital literacies, not literacy, because they are plural, context dependent and they need to be socially negotiated.” Digital literacies should be looked on as progressive and not sequential.
The way to develop digital literacies is to focus on people’s interests and to try and motivate them to want to develop digital skills for themselves – such as Dr Belshaw’s grandma who wanted to learn how to use digital television in order to watch more football matches.
He concluded with the reminder that digital technologies are an integral part of our world. “This is the world in which we live. This is the world where ideas spread quickly and can be remixed. It’s a world where the knowledge, skills and ideas that we’ve got can’t be learnt once, for all time, because digital literacy practices are constantly in flux. It’s a lifelong project that all of us need to be involved in.”
Doug Belshaw is a Researcher/Analyst at JISC Advance where he researches and advises on issues around open education and innovation. A former teacher and senior leader with experience of all sectors, Doug is also co-kickstarter of Purpos/ed which aims to encourage and sustain debate around the purposes of education. He was awarded his PhD in 2012 from Durham University.
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McArdle, Elizabeth (2008) Online communities and their evaluation: creation of a method to assist Online Community Managers to evaluate the performance of their own communities: executive summary. EngD thesis, University of Warwick.