Finding purpose in my digital presence
From consumer to creator to helping others create and reflect about media.
I have always been a highly visual and very curious person. As a child, I spent hours arranging miniature or shell collections; later, I would collect vintage advertising and lettering samples. As an adult, I would scour flea markets for old alarm clocks, kitchenware and vintage matchbooks. But gathering things was not the point — I was always interested in the lives those objects had lived. Even as a teen, I wanted to tell their stories, and highlight the beauty and craftsmanship I saw in such mundane artifacts. I began creating handmade posters and fanzines about the things I collected. And so began a life of learning and sharing content.
When it came time, I hesitated between graphic design and journalism as a career. I ended up choosing both: as an art director of magazines and newspapers (what we call a visual journalist), I would spend over two decades trying to look beyond the surface of things, finding new and interesting connections, and sharing those stories in a visual way. Making media was expensive then, and the privilege of few. Those of us in the industry took pride in shining a light on our ways of living, reflected only occasionally about the lack of representation or the heavy responsibility of influencing the culture, and gathered likes and haters in very small quantities, mostly in the form of reader mail. The wall between consumers and producers of content had yet to be broken.
But I was ready for it. When I look back, I realize that curating, creating and communicating have always been at the center of anything I do. So I guess I was born for the digital revolution — though a couple of decades too early, maybe. For what is an early adopter, if not someone who has been ready for that technology for a while? And adopt early I did. I remember the wonder and exhilaration of standing on the corner of 5th ave and 57th St in Manhattan in the early 90’s while sending a friend an email from a clunky Newton device — actually emailing from the street! I also remember being the first in my circle to get a digital camera, uploading my memorabilia collections to albums on Picasa and Flickr as soon as they launched, and the joy of being able to dig around for new and wonderful things that other people had gathered, my world suddenly and dramatically expanded. The official record of my son’s first two years is a photo book published on Issuu – the cloud, in my mind, the safest place to keep my memories, after the rapid evolution of removable media caused me to lose every single image taken in my last few years in New York. Only someone who accidentally overwrote a Jaz, Zip or Syquest disk, or has media that can no longer be played, knows the pain.
In spite of the occasional horror story, digital became a way of life. Sharing, teaching and collaborating were also a calling that was amplified by the arrival of digital tools. I was asked to teach my newsroom coworkers how to use the new desktop publishing technologies to amplify their creative possibilities. I would teach the junior designers in my studio the nuances of editorial design, but also the tips and shortcuts to every new tool that was launched, and how we could increase collaboration. I shared my favorite tools on Symbaloo, used every productivity tool available, and eventually maneuvered all those skills to work remotely with clients in Canada, Switzerland and Hong Kong, leading a creative team across twelve time zones. By that point I had a state-of-the-art digital portfolio, a presence on social media and many curated collections of bookmarks, both for my own use and on the early social bookmarking sites.
Digital literacy was my passport to deeper learning, self-expression and collaboration, not to mention professional growth. It gave me wings. So I was profoundly surprised when I started working at a school in 2014 and realised all those changes were being kept at bay. Inside the school it was all textbooks and rows of chairs, as usual. Student’s visual output was mostly posters on hallway walls. Outside the school, we were reading interactive stories, collaborating with people across the globe, and entire nations were organising on social media to bring down governments.
So I turned my sights to this new challenge: how could we open up the school to digital culture? How could we change classroom practices, allowing students to explore, create and publish, if educators themselves were not digitally literate? And, most importantly, how could we engage learners in reflection about their role and responsibilities in a connected society, and prepare them to use this immense power?
In my current professional incarnation, I advocate for and practice media literacy education. In the last few years my digital output has grown significantly. From a modest presence, a Google search for my name now returns rows and rows of images. I have created resources for professional development and for the classroom, taught workshops, given online lectures and seminars. I wrote an open source book and many lesson plans, created several web sites and overcame my camera shyness to record both homemade and professional videos. I have used social media to share knowledge and for advocacy. I have supported both teachers and learners in creating and publishing content as well, and seeing their joy at this accomplishment has been one of the most fulfilling things in my long and varied career.
For my second act, I have found more than a voice. I have found a purpose. And that is definitely something a digital geek can be very grateful for.
(This piece was written as an assignment for the Digital Authorship seminar, part of the Graduate Certificate in Digital Literacy at the University of Rhode Island, in which we explore digital and media literacy through focusing on the critical and creative practices of self-expression, advocacy, and the advancement of learning communities.)