Welcome to the Class

Spring 2022

Explore how life, work and citizenship have been impacted by digital media and culture & learn how to critically analyze and create media in a variety of forms

Because the Internet has radically accelerated the free flow of information, old power hierarchies are shifting under our feet. Today, with digital devices in hand, everyone communicates with everyone. Peer-to-peer sharing and new ways of getting media are becoming more and more central to how we work, play and live. YouTube channels entertain us with a wide range of talented amateurs and professional performers who provide information on every conceivable topic, interest, or hobby. The ability to create and represent information and ideas using digital media is essential for activists, change agents, and for people working in many different fields and professions.

In today’s media landscape, entertainment, information, and persuasion are increasingly blurred. Sponsored content is so skillfully blended into your social media feed that you may not even recognize it as advertising. Most American children want to be a YouTuber, a professional videogame player, or a social media influencer when they grow up. Many of the top 200 television shows with the highest ratings are reality shows, depicting ordinary people competing in everything from singing and dancing to losing weight, or just living their everyday lives. In an increasingly performance-oriented culture, the desire for status, fame, and celebrity shapes how we post and share on social media, and it may also affect self-image, self-esteem, and confidence.

Digital media also play a key role in the practice of democratic citizenship, as publics form and mobilize using hashtags like #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and #StoptheSteal. The decline of local journalism has been accompanied by an explosion of bloggers who offer commentary on any possible political topics under the sun. People who seek to influence policy on climate change or drug policy interact with both journalists and celebrities to increase visibility for their goals. Because conspiracy theories are more popular and compelling than ever, people may feel a sense of community in exploring arcane questions that take them “down the rabbit hole.” And because outrageousness is a sure-fire way to gain attention (and get elected), political leaders may simply repeat falsehoods until they seem real.

For all of us, it’s harder than ever before to sort out quality from junk in the digital content that comes before us. It’s very likely that you have encountered disinformation and propaganda online. Growing up with media, you have probably also encountered problematic stereotypes, pornography, and depraved depictions of aggression and violence, as well as cyberbullying and other forms of harassment and abuse.

And another knotty problem is now raising important questions for all citizens: Who should be responsible for protecting people from the risks and harms of online life? What role should the platform companies play in limiting access to dangerous, harmful, or false information? Public concern is growing about the role of platform censorship, as the increasing dominance of Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Netflix now influence all aspects of culture. These companies collect data on every action you take online and use this information to further shape your experience with online media.

For all these reasons, there has been no better time to acquire digital and media literacy competencies. In fact, we are now seeing a mainstreaming of media literacy as the empowerment-protection dialectic becomes more a part of people’s everyday experience with media. The idea of empowerment emphasizes the actions that people take to make good decisions about what kind of media they use, evaluating the quality of media content, and using the power of communication to make a difference in the world. The idea of protection is rooted in the idea that people need to protect themselves from the negative influence that media and technology have on human behavior. Media can diminish self-esteem, perpetuate harmful stereotypes, promote violence, and amplify dangerous falsehoods. Both empowerment and protection perspectives are important in developing digital and media literacy competencies.

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