The friendship assemblage

My article “The Friendship Assemblage: Investigating Programmed Sociality on Facebook”, has just been published online in Television & New Media

Abstract

In an age in which social networking sites have become the preferred way of socializing online, the question of how to think about the contours of friendship in and through these mediated spaces becomes all the more important. In contrast to much existing research on online friendship, this article takes on a software-sensitive approach. Through a close reading of various sociotechnical processes in which friendship is activated on Facebook (i.e., registering, making a profile, finding friends, communicating, etc.), this article suggests that friendships online need to be understood as a gathering of heterogeneous elements that include both humans and nonhumans. Moreover, this article attempts to show how the traditional notion of friendship as something created between equals and free of structural constraints does not apply to the realm of social networking sites, where software increasingly assists users in making certain choices about who will and who will not be their friends.

Blogging and pedagogy

“the quintessential blog post is a link surrounded by context “(Howard Rheingold)

I am currently preparing a MA course in social media that I am going to teach this fall at my department. I want it to be a course that integrates theory with practice and tries to shy away form the usual marketing and business-related talk around social media (I guess the students will find out this stuff sooner or later anyways). For the practice component one of the things that I have been thinking about is blogging. As I have searched the web for similar courses and the use of blogging in the classroom I’ve encountered a lot of different approaches and possible assignments. I thought I gather some of the discussions here and post a couple of the tips & experiences that I have found.

Two basic models of using blogs as part of my course come to mind:

  • The hub-and-spoke model, where students maintain their own individual blogs that aret connected through a hub blog that I’d set up for the class.
  • One central class blog that is collaboratively produced by the students and me.

I’m still somewhat undecided about which model that I am going to use. First I thought about going with the hub-and-spoke, as it would allow each student to get familiar with and explore the blog software of their choice and to choose their own themes and designs. But after I’ve checked out a few graduate and undergraduate courses using this kind of approach, I quickly realized that most of these individual blogs are not very rigorous nor do they seem to ”survive” the course. There are lots and lots of individual deserted blog islands out there, with only a handful of half hearted blog posts. It is not difficult to see how many of these blogs only seem to simulate a teacher-student assignment/grading relationship. The hub-and-spoke model also makes it less likely that students will actually read and comment on each other’s blogs.

For some useful pro and con lists and opinions about each of these models see the following blog posts:

Of course I had to ask Jill Walker Rettberg, one of world’s experts on blogging, for some advice concerning blogging in class. One key advice I got was this: Make blogging obligatory, otherwise they won’t do it. That is probably true. On the other hand, why make students use a medium that they obviously have no interest in using? After all, as one student recently asked me: ”Do people still blog?”

Yes, people still blog, at the same time blogging does seems a bit passé in light of all the glitzy new stuff that continues to surfaced on the social media horizon. However, blogs and blogging constitute something quite foundational and important in terms of social media. Blogging is all about self-presentation, different communication genres and modes of writing (combining both process writing and presentation writing), networks and linking practices, immediacy, the opportunity to be published and have a say in the public sphere, sharing online content and participating in a conversation. Not only is blogging a great way to learn about some of the core concepts involved in social media, but blogs are in many cases still one of the preferred publishing platforms of the commercial as well as public sector and thus an important part of the communications jobs that many students aspire to land after finishing their education.

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The question that I been asking myself during the past few weeks, is how exactly to organize the blogging once I’ve settled on the overall structure? For instance:

→ I could have students use the blog as a space for reflection about the readings – a kind of response blog. In this regard I found Mark Sample’s blogging guidelines quite useful:

Each student will contribute to the weekly class blog, posting an approximately 200-300 word response to the week’s readings. There are a number of ways to approach these open-ended posts: consider the reading in relation to its historical or theoretical context; write about an aspect of the day’s reading that you don’t understand, or something that jars you; formulate an insightful question or two about the reading and then attempt to answer your own questions; or respond to another student’s post, building upon it, disagreeing with it, or re-thinking it.

Quite often the blogging guidelines that I have come across encourage the students to pull in outside resources in their posts: links, videos, articles, etc.

The purpose of letting students blog would be to use it as an ongoing publishing platform for reflecting upon and expanding on the contents of the class. The blog posts should strive to be thoughtful and reflective, raising additional and new questions in terms of the topics discussed in class, rather than just being descriptive or summaries.

→ Another way of using blogging that I have seen instructors use quite often is to provide a prompt for a weekly blogging assignment. For instance, one could prompt students to find an interesting source/link online and discuss it in terms of the readings and knowledge acquired in class. Or, encourage students to choose a debated topic within the social media landscape and take a position.

Howard Rheingold’s Virtual Community/Social Media Stanford 2011 Course Wiki  is a great resource for planning a course in social media, with some great links and reading suggestions. In his blogging assignments, Rheingold tries to move away from blogging as “write about this week’s reading” to blogging as a practice of finding relevant and sharable content, encouraging students to develop a critical public voice by making new connections and developing arguments. Here are a few of Rheingold’s useful assignments:

  • you will make a post that serves a community of interest by directing attention to a worthwhile resource on the Web via an annotated link, including short, salient quotes, and explaining why your selected resource is worthy of attention by this community — the co-filtering function of blogging.
  • construct a post that links to two or more websites and explain the overarching idea that connects the sites you select — connective writing.
  • engage in online critical public discourse by analyzing the content of a site you link in a blog post, asking probing questions about the assumptions, assertions, and logic of the arguments in the site you link to.
  • construct a post that takes a position on an issue, using links to other relevant websites to support your position.

→ In a somewhat similar vein (but not involving the instructor that much), one way of organizing blogging that I think could be quite useful is to divide the class into groups with different and rotating roles. Again, I found Mark Sample’s way of thinking about this quite instructive. As he explains in this recent article:

Most recently I divided a class of 25 students into four groups, rotating week-to-week from one role to the next:

  • First Readers: These students are responsible for posting initial questions and insights about the day’s material to the class blog the day before class meets.
  • Respondents: Students in this group build upon, disagree with, or clarify the first readers’ posts by the next class meeting.
  • Searchers: Students in this group find and share at least one relevant online resource. In addition to linking to the resource, the searchers provide a short evaluation of the resource, highlighting what makes it worthwhile, unusual, or, if appropriate, problematic.
  • The fourth group has the week off in terms of blogging.

→ While most of the above suggestions imply a great deal of off-class blogging, Jill Walker Rettberg suggests making blogging an in-class activity, rather than just hastily write up the day before class. In her super useful video about blogging for learning, she gives the following advice:

  • In the last 10 minutes of class, ask your students to sit down and write about the most important thing that they learnt that day and publish it straightaway.Another assignment is to let students search online for some of the core terms discussed in class and post the best descriptions that they find on their blog, reflecting on why this link/definition/resource seems useful to them (and others). This helps them research terms and find links.
  • In order to interact with others’ writings students should be prompted in class to comment on other people’s blog posts to get the conversation going.
  • Another issue to take account of is whether to write public blogs or make them password protected. I guess there are diverging opinions on this one as well, but I think Rettberg has a good argument when she says that writing publicly equips students to deal with the realities of the networked world (accountability, responsibility, publics, etc.) and to encourage them to reach out to others as well.

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Last, but not least the questions is: How to actually evaluate and grade blog posts and comments?

I think that rather than reading and evaluating every single blog post that the students write, a better and more efficient way would be to let them pick four blog posts for assessment themselves at the end of the term as part of a portfolio. The portfolio could also include a list of links of comments on other students’ blog posts.

In order to circumvent the possibility of students only writing a set of blog posts at the end of semester for the sake of credits, writing no more than one weekly blog posts could be a way of organizing the rhythm of blogging.

Probably the best way it to rate the individual posts on some form of scale like the one used below by Mark Sample in his many classes using blogs. See for instance his Post-print fiction class.

RATING CHARACTERISTICS
4 Exceptional. The blog entry is focused and coherently integrates examples with explanations or analysis. The entry demonstrates awareness of its own limitations or implications, and it considers multiple perspectives when appropriate. The entry reflects in-depth engagement with the topic.
3 Satisfactory. The blog entry is reasonably focused, and explanations or analysis are mostly based on examples or other evidence. Fewer connections are made between ideas, and though new insights are offered, they are not fully developed. The entry reflects moderate engagement with the topic.
2 Underdeveloped. The blog entry is mostly description or summary, without consideration of alternative perspectives, and few connections are made between ideas. The entry reflects passing engagement with the topic.
1 Limited. The blog entry is unfocused, or simply rehashes previous comments, and displays no evidence of student engagement with the topic.
0 No Credit. The blog entry is missing or consists of one or two disconnected sentenc

Dawn R. Gilpin uses the following assessment criteria as part of her Media 2.0 Social Media course (original bolds):

Posts must be relevant to the subject of social media in some fashion, and consist of at least four full paragraphs. They should preferably relate to that week’s course content, but in any case the topic should apply to the class in a clearly evident manner. Each post must contain at least one external link, properly formatted (meaning that the “http://…” should not be visible to blog readers–use appropriate anchor text). Your contributions will be graded on content, writing, and originality.

Jill Walker Rettberg used these assessment criteria for the blog posts as part of an undergrad course in social media she taught in Bergen 2010 (as the course was in Norwegian the translations to English are mine, not necessarily translated word by word):

  • Correct use of sources. Does the student refer to the readings or others sources from the web? It this done in an orderly and correct fashion using links?
  • Originality and reflectivity? How descriptive is the blog post, or does the student also offer additional and perhaps alternative perspectives in order to contextualize the topic? Is there an argument? Is it evaluative? Does the post present any new ideas?
  • Does the student participate in a broader conversation? Is the post a commentary on other students’ posts, and does it provide links to others’ blog posts? Does the student enage in a discussion with his or her fellow students, for instance by commenting their comments?
  • You choose three blog posts that we will carefully read, but we will also evaluate your blog as a whole. You have to blog a minimum of 10 times. Does your blog show a consistency in blogging? Do the blog posts show an overall engagement with the course material?

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Some inspirational class blogs (if you know of other nice course blogs please let me know and I’ll add them to this list):