Digital Natives aren’t Necessarily Social Media Literates


Jen Doak is the online communications specialist at CASE.

The students at your institution may be considered “digital natives” – that is, social media and technology tools come naturally to them and are part of their day-to-day lives. But knowing how to use these tools doesn’t always mean that students use them in a smart way, as a quick image search on Facebook will attest.

Just as with traditional communications tools, being a skillful user of new technology requires some measure of social media literacy—a trait not necessarily characteristic of all digital natives.

The magazine Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education  recently had an article on social media literacy that featured social media expert Howard Rheingold, lecturer at the University of California-Berkeley and author of Smart Mobs. In a similar article for EDUCAUSE Review, Rheingold specifies five aspects of social media literacy:

  • Attention: Knowing when to focus and when to multitask as well as acting with others in mind.
  • Participation: Not just in social networks as a medium, but for broader social organizing.
  • Collaboration: Putting together or learning information with the help of others online.
  • Network awareness: Understanding how networks work and function, at both micro and macro levels.
  • Critical consumption (or “crap” detection): Both determining who is trustworthy online, and effectively sampling the endless flow of information available. Here’s Rheingold’s video on crap detection.

“When it comes to social media, knowing how to post a video or download a podcast…is not enough,” he writes. “Productive use of Twitter or YouTube requires knowledge of who your public is [and] how your participation meets their needs (and what you get in return)…Ultimately, the most important fluency is not in mastering a particular literacy but in being able to put all five of these literacies together into a way of being in digital culture.”

This means that effective online organizing – be it for alumni reunions, fundraising or campus events – isn’t just about putting together a glossy website. It’s about knowing that the Internet isn’t actually a series of tubes, and that people will not immediately flock to your Twitter account just because you have one. It’s also about being conscious of issues like network organization, fair use, trolling and privacy.

Fortunately, since we’re talking about the Internet, this information is easily obtained.

  • Rheingold has many other articles about social media literacy on his website. You can also visit his Social Media Classroom for how he uses these principles in higher education.
  • If Rheingold’s article was a bit too text-heavy for your tastes, here’s a six-minute interview.
  • American University’s Center for Social Media, besides being a generally excellent resource, has a code for media literacy that includes fair use (which all social media literate people should be aware of).
  • CrissCrossed blog has a great article on the topic, and has seven tips to increase your literacy.

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