Saturday, January 18, 2014

Welcome to English 232

If this course were to have been offered twenty years ago, the "public sphere"would have meant newspapers, television, radio, and print publication. The primary way for an ordinary person to enter into such discourse would be through one or another formal gateway: a letter to the editor, a guest column or Op-Ed piece, an interview on television or radio, an essay in a magazine or journal, or that thing once known as a "book."There were, it's true, some more open ways to reach a wider audience: college radio, public-access cable, or xeroxed 'zines -- but they tended to have a very limited reach.

Today in 2014, for better or worse, the potential reach of any text or media presentation is, for all practical purposes, infinite; anyone on earth can "publish" a text, and most other people on earth can access it. And yet, in terms of actually getting one's text to an audience, it's harder than ever, precisely because there is so much already out there, and very few single outlets that guarantee the kind of mass audience that used to be available via "old" media. We are all public speakers/writers, but the size of our forum is so vast -- and yet so small -- that our "public" is likely to be a smaller and less diverse group than at any time in recent history. The battle now is not to merely be 'published' as such, but to be noticed.

So called "social media" have advanced and changed considerably in the past two decades, and many fundamental changes are still well within living memory.  I can remember when I sent my first e-mail (in 1988), and my own first online publications were in the early 1990's, before the 'World Wide Web' protocol had been invented. I can recall an Internet when commercial use of any kind was highly frowned upon, an Internet before in-line graphics, and (a bit later) an internet where there was only one browser (Mosaic) and only one or two people I knew actually had a web page "of their own." And yet today there is a large and growing tribe of so-called "digital natives" who cannot recall a world in which the Web, e-mail, smart phones, and online video were unavailable. The very nature of public discourse has changed, at least as much -- perhaps more -- than it did in the 'Gutenberg Revolution.'

This class will explore all of these differences, making use of every possible kind of resource and media available.  Everyone in this class will experiment with every media platform available, including but not limited to Facebook, Blogger, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, Wikipedia, Google+ and Reddit.  Each of us will create and interlink an online public identity, and use that identity to explore, test, and respond to the possibilities of public discourse today.  We'll also, along the way, learn something of the history of earlier social media, with the hope that these will help us put the present in some kind of perspective, even as we recognize that some aspects of it are new and scarcely tried. We'll also function as a collective, sharing our own texts and experiences with each other, and following each other's progress through the world-wide electronic jungle.

It will be an unpredictable experience.  But that's the way it is, in the new media world, at least for now.

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