Many moons ago, I did my Master's thesis on media literacy in education. It was a pretty unconventional topic at the time, but I was intrigued by the application of critical thinking skills to the analysis of popular media, specifically advertising and news. With the media affecting so much of kids lives, I felt like learning how to find truth in media was just as important to learn as analyzing a Shakespearean sonnet.
Funny, and sad to admit, but the Internet was just not a major media player at the time I did my thesis. I've thought over the last decade or so about how my research might have been different given the paradigm shift in how people get information and entertainment. And in the last couple years, with the emergence of social media, I've really adjusted my thinking even more.
Let's start with a definition of media literacy. There are lots of them, but I like this one from Rick Shepard:
Media literacy is an informed, critical understanding of the mass media. It involves examining the techniques, technologies and institutions involved in media production; being able to critically analyze media messages; and recognizing the role audiences play in making meaning from those messages.
Source: Rick Shepherd, "Why Teach Media Literacy," Teach Magazine, Quadrant Educational Media Services, Toronto, ON, Canada, Oct/Nov 1993.
Check out more definitions and opinions on the Media Awareness Network.
One of the most interesting things about media literacy for me was the "third level" of study: looking at who controlled and filtered the messages conveyed through the media and to what purpose. I'm not typically a conspiracy theorist, but I do believe that people always have a purpose, and power corrupts absolutely. Thus the emergence of the "liberal media" and Fox News--news with an underlying purpose of pushing their "agenda."
So how does this relate to social media? And is there such a thing as social media literacy?
Social media, although diverse and much more egalitarian in its source, is still a form of media. No matter the source of content, the principles of media literacy still apply. Questions like: Who is the source? What is their agenda? What perspectives are you not hearing? --are all questions that should be applied to any form of communication in order to truly "get it." Social media may not always have the same goal of mass media in communicating a message to a large, diverse audience, but applying the same analysis principles is essential to understanding the purpose of the messages communicated. In fact, its essential that as new technologies and methods of communication are adopted that we look at how communication is changing, and why.
One of the challenges I had in studying media literacy was that, in the end, what media education hopes to teach is the critical analysis of media messages. What essentially are media messages? Communication. Communication is a much broader scope than just media, so then, is the critical analysis of communication simply "literacy"? The traditional understanding of literacy is simply being able to read. But in order to truly succeed in modern culture, you must be able to do more than just read. You need to be able to "read between the lines," to question, to challenge, to critique. Check out this article about the need for integrating social media literacy into mainstream education.
As social media expands and media changes and evolves, critical thinking skills are a constant.
So, yes, there is such a thing as social media literacy, just as there is media literacy, just as there is literacy. There is simply more of a need for awareness of the importance of critical analysis of all of the forms of communication you are exposed to every day.