Further Defining Digital Literacies: The Ethics of Information Creation

Defining Digital Literacies NCTE ethics

I’m slowly reading and digesting, and appreciating, the National Council of Teachers of English revised definition of Literacy in a Digital Age, and I am appreciating the depth of the inquiry.

The theme I am exploring today is all about the ethics behind creating, posting and sharing content, and the moral obligations of the writers and artists and makers who feed word and art into those network spaces. What an important topic, and one, too long ignored.

As a teacher, I often have conversations with my young students about what they are sharing and why. This year, it’s Tik Tok. Last year, it was Instagram. Before that, it was Music.ly (which became Tik Tok, in the strange recursive nature of the technology world).  Before that, it was Vine. You get the point. Most of my students readily admit that they hit “send” or “post” without thinking twice about what they are sending forward, and to whom, doing it on a whim.

All of us, adults and children alike, have transformed into this vast snake of forward motion, it seems, and it is right in this corridor of shadows and thoughtless sharing, that fake news and hidden-meaning-memes and other nefarious things flourish and prosper, creating a cloud of negativity and darkness in the networks we all use, together.

We see this most visibly with Facebook, but also with other social networking spaces, where the system of “likes” and “shares” has social value, not the quality of information or reflective practice. When all that matters for visibility is the number of thumbs ups or stars, all that matters is for content that hits emotional nerves to be what one sends out to the world.

These guiding questions of this section of Digital Literacies are helpful to consider, and provide a guide on what topics to revisit regularly with our students:

  • Do learners share information in ways that consider all sources?
  • Do learners consider the contributors and authenticity of all sources?
  • Do learners practice the safe and legal use of technology?
  • Do learners create products that are both informative and ethical?
  • Do learners avoid accessing another computer’s system, software, or data files without permission?
  • Do learners engage in discursive practices in online social systems with others without deliberately or inadvertently demeaning individuals and/or groups?
  • Do learners attend to the acceptable use policies of organizations and institutions?
  • Do learners attend to the terms of service and/or terms of use of digital software and tools?
  • Do learners read, review, and understand the terms of service/use that they agree to as they utilize these tools?
  • Do learners respect the intellectual property of others and only utilize materials they are licensed to access, remix, and/or share?
  • Do learners respect and follow the copyright information and appropriate licenses given to digital content as they work online?

In fact, this strand could be an entire semester course on ethical writing in an online world. What if that were required for all high school students, everywhere? Would we start to finally see a shift towards the positive?

It seems to me that we have, without much thought about the consequences, bought into what social networks have told us is social capital — the likes and the shares. (Which for these businesses, is advertising data, which becomes money and profit) We, the writers and creators, need to push back, hard, on this playbook, to make visible the kinds of responsible, supportive, creative endeavors we know the promise of technology may hold.

And if a network does not bend to the will of the users, then it is time to abandon that network and find another place to connect. One thing we can say about young users is they are not afraid to jump ship when one platform no longer meets their needs (the counter to this is, they don’t often think clearly about the new ship they’ve joined). A sense of agency — that users ultimately decide what platforms will prosper and which ones will fail — is an important lesson to teach all young people growing up in close proximity of digital spaces.

This work begins now, in our classrooms, and in our homes.

Peace (flourishes in the light),

Book Review: Memes to Movements (How the World’s Most Viral Media Is Changing Social Protest and Power)

I was expecting an academic examination of social media and memes with this book — first mentioned by my friend, Christina, at a National Writing Project retreat during a meme writing activity– and it was that … and so much more, too. Memes to Movements (How the World’s Most Viral Media Is Changing Social Protest and Power) by An Xiao Mina shines a light and lens on the ways that image and words, and messages, being shared over vast social networking spaces are impacting politics and more.

First, what is a meme? “Memes are pieces of content that travel from person to person and change along the way …” according to Amanda Brennan, a meme librarian, and Mina’s own definition runs parallel to Brennan’s idea. Mina makes the case, too, that memes are not just digital pieces but can have a life outside of technology.

Mina, in her book, also repeats an important assertion time and again that memes, by themselves, are not forcing cultural and social change, but that the combination of image, message, remix and virality are echoing and enhancing changes already afoot, through amplification of messaging.

Mina examines Black Lives Matter (and its oppositional movements, such as Blue Lives Matter) and the pink pussy hats (as physical memes) of the Women’s March in the United States, the Arab Spring, the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong (now suddenly back in the news), the subversive use of memes in China, and the ways the Chinese government is countering such attempts, and more, all with a close look at how memes (digital and physical) are created, spread, have impact, and — for some — have long-lasting effects.

She also explores the popular conceptions of cats as the source for memes on social networking spaces, balancing a historical approach to how memes — remixable, shareable, riffable media — tap into something rich in people’s sense of storytelling. The intersections between art, culture and politics, along with an easy way to share, have made memes a powerful messaging platform, even if memes can also be untrustworthy (see Know Your Meme for where memes originally spring from)

Some of the more fascinating sections in this book involve China (where Mina has worked and done advocacy), in which activists often use memes to get around censorship through imagery and symbolism (the llama, or grass mud horse, has political meaning, for example) and support for those imprisoned by the government.

Just as you start to think, memes might be another tool for political change, Mina shifts her focus, showing governments — autocratic and otherwise — have started to reverse course on trying to block memes and now floods the networks with its own social media, in an effort to overwhelm users and create doubt about truth and veracity in the minds of users.

The writing here in this book is lively, and researched, and global on scale. If you have interest in social media and literacy, and the way viral messaging seems to be overwhelming the way people share news, jokes and information, then this book is well worth your time.

Peace (no meme necessary),

On the Mystery of Memes

We had to deal with is likely a “sign of the times” as our youngest son moves from adolescence into teenager (we still have six months!), and he learns more about the reach of media. I won’t share the whole story but it has to do with him sending an email blast to a bunch of friend and teachers with an image he thought was cute and funny.

It wasn’t.

It was an image of Pepe the frog. Which, if you followed the election and the emergence of the so-called Alt-Right, you will know that the image of Pepe has been, let’s say, taken over by the extreme right wing for racist insults. A frog is not just a frog on the Interwebz anymore. Pepe is a cartoon from the days of MySpace comic, and artist Matt Furie is trying to reclaim his image. Good luck with that.

To be fair, my son only shared an image of Pepe and not any of the nasty, dangerous memes. He was clueless about the back story of Pepe until I saw what he had done and sat down, and we had a conversation about the hidden meanings of many memes. Many times, the harsh meaning of memes is disguised behind a cute image. I had printed out an article about how the Anti-Defamation League had declared Pepe a “hate symbol” after the election, and showed him a blurb in Time Magazine about it.

This, from the ADL:

Images of the frog, variously portrayed with a Hitler-like moustache, wearing a yarmulke or a Klan hood, have proliferated in recent weeks in hateful messages aimed at Jewish and other users on Twitter.

“Once again, racists and haters have taken a popular Internet meme and twisted it for their own purposes of spreading bigotry and harassing users,” said Jonathan A. Greenblatt, ADL CEO. “These anti-Semites have no shame. They are abusing the image of a cartoon character, one that might at first seem appealing, to harass and spread hatred on social media.”

My son was taken aback, as he should have been, and then proceeded to write out apology notes for two of his teachers that he shared it with over email (we also had a longer talk about careful and considerate use of email and sharing  media with people), explaining his ignorance of the hidden meaning and stating that he is not a racist or right-wing fanatic.

Of course, they know that, but it was the act of apology that made the action right to do (and it turns out, one of his teachers was completely ignorant of Pepe, too.)

One resource that is valuable for us, as adults, and perhaps for kids, too, is Know Your Meme — a vast database of information about the histories of memes and the current usage of them. We all might want to spend some more time and thought on what we are sending before we send them out into the world.

Peace (in reflection),

Woody Guthrie Lives Inside of Me

memecat stays positive

From time to time, I pull out my guitar and record a “corner concert” in my house. Nothing fancy. Just me and a song. Given all the noise about politics, to which I am very much attuned, I pulled out this song that I wrote, Woody Guthrie Lives Inside of Me.

While the politicians sleep
We’ll occupy the streets
Woody Guthrie lives inside of me

Thanks for watching and listening and being engaged in this crazy political season.

That man

Peace (in the songs),

Reflecting on a Week of Meme-Making

So you wanna make a meme
What a meme-filled week we had at the Making Learning Connected MOOC! And what a range of discussions that our meme-making inspired, particularly around the concepts of cultural currency, who gets left out of the conversations, the concept of privilege, what constitutes a meme, and more.

There are still plenty of folks in the CLMOOC who are scratching their heads about all of this meme business, but that’s OK — it might be one of those topics that takes time to simmer and stew before understanding comes around. There does not have go be instant understanding when it comes to the topics in the CLMOOC.

You are so meme

I’d like to share out a few pieces that went beyond the making of memes, as I think they showcase the flavor of the discussions. Of course, you are invited to join us at any time, too.

  • Rebecca Powell started a thread of discussion in our Google Plus space about privilege and memes, and the result was a far-ranging talk of a handful of us on the theme. I like this post because it shows us questioning, pushing back at our thinking, and sharing ideas in a positive way. We don’t really come to any conclusions but, personally, I am thinking of memes in a different light right now. Thanks, Rebecca!
  • Shyam Sharma and Maha Bali collaborated on a very deep piece for EdConteXts about their work on memes in the CLMOOC, bringing together blog posts that both of them wrote during the week about cultural connections to meme sharing and meme making, and how without those cultural touchpoints, they felt left out of the conversations. This reflective stance is so important, for not only do we not want people in the CLMOOC feeling on the outside looking in, we also do not want our students to feel that way. I love how Shyam and Maha end their piece, with a call for all of us to “open our ears and eyes and hearts if we want to truly take advantage of the web of people and ideas as educators.”
  • Chris Campbell’s extension of memes into cinema and videos, and remix, is the perfect leap from one form of media (still image) to another, and I love how he shows as well as shares his ideas in his blog post. Chris’s piece sparked some great conversation within the MOOC itself. One thread of those converations had to do with sampling of music and repositioning melodies of old into songs of the new (I am stretching the topic a bit here but it is something I think about when I listen to HipHop). Music as meme? Of course!

At point during the Make Cycle, I grabbed as many of the memes that I could, and put them into an Animoto video. At that point, there were about 125 memes, and many more flowed in after the video was finished. I shared the video in our spaces and asked the questions:

  • What do we notice about the memes when pulled together as a collection?
  • What does the collection say about us as a community?

I didn’t get much response — that’s OK — but I have been thinking about it, and here is what comes to mind as I watch the video again with my questions in mind.

  • While Peter Kittle and crew did use the World Cup biting incident to spur on some modern memes, most of this collection either referenced cultural events from years past or no cultural events at all. However, someone did note that a potential lesson for students would be to take a current event, synthesize it down into a meme, and post it to a public space — which sounds intriguing;
  • Most of the reference points were American-centered in nature and do not reflect a world-view;
  • We used a lot of the meme-generator sites instead of making our own memes with our own images, probably out of ease but when you do that, you lose agency as a maker;
  • There were fewer LOL cats than I would have thought, which might reflect a generational pull of our crew. Or maybe, we are just tired of the cats. Dogs, anyone?;
  • Playing with language — syntax, purposeful errors, spelling — was relatively rare. Again, this might reflect our community of mostly teachers whose natural impulse is to not write/publish ungrammatical work, even memes that situate such errors as part of the construction of the composition (I know I feel that tension when I try to write that way intentionally);
  • You can see lots of people experimenting with what a meme is, and if you scroll through the conversations, there is still a lot of wondering about what makes a meme a meme, and ” Did I do this right?” Thus, some of our projects work as memes, and some are just artful statements on life (Is there a difference? I think so, but maybe I am wrong. This continues to be a rich source of discussion);
  • I wondered if any of our memes would go viral, beyond the CLMOOC. Not as far as I can see, but a movement to gather up a collection of political memes that take a poke at the Education Reform/Testing Industry could have legs in educational circles, if we can get our act together to make that happen.

mo money meme
(Remix your own version of this meme)

What do you think? Check out the Meme Game (which Terry Elliott shared with us) and see how many you recognize and if you recognize the context. I was solid on a few, had some inklings on some others and was clueless on the rest. Interesting …

Peace (in the viral world),


Find Your Muse: Making an Animated Meme

I’ve tinkered with animated GIFs before (most notably, with DS106) and when I saw a fellow traveler in the Making Learning Connected MOOC world sharing an animated GIF meme, I thought: I gotta try that.

So, I did. Here’s how I went about it.

First, I found a clip on YouTube that I liked (of Lisa Simpson playing her saxophone).

Then, I grabbed the url of that video and went into a site called Make a Gif, which does what it sounds like it does: it creates animated GIF files out of YouTube videos. I took just the first three seconds of the video, as the loop of Lisa playing while Homer kicks back and dreams of other things while Lisa kicks out her saxophone jams.

Then, I went into an online photo editor called EZGif, which allows you to layer in text on top of animated GIF files.

I’ve run into problems hosting animated GIF files before and I have found that if I use Flickr and grab the “original” image (not the embed code that Flickr gives you, as that will flatten the GIF down to a static image) via copy/paste, and place that original upload file directly into my blog post, it will remain animated.

The result?


Pretty nifty, eh? Go give it a try and share out what you made as part of this Make Cycle around memes. We’re moving to shift gears out of this Make Cycle but it never really ends. You can enter into the conversation with the CLMOOC whenever you arrive.

Peace (in the sharing),

When the Meme Turns Serious

My Students ... meme
Someone in the Making Learning Connected MOOC community posted a pretty serious-themed meme yesterday, as part of our work around understanding memes as cultural currency. I was struck by the realization that I seem to always go for the funny bone when I make and read memes, and yet, there is something about a meme that can be strikingly serious, too, if done right.

I decided to put aside the humor for a bit and try my hand at a serious meme, which is more difficult for me than I would have thought. Serious means that I had to resist the urge to be flip and/or sarcastic, which is the heart of how I view memes. I had a small amount of writing space and the image had to tell much of the story, if the meme were to be effective.

In addition, I wanted to move away from using the meme generator sites, which offer limited choices and pull you into their system, leaving very little agency. Instead, I wanted to create the meme, all on my own, with my own image and my own text, and my own choices, with no branding on the final meme.

I don’t know if I succeeded or not in my serious meme angle, but I can’t shake the feeling of how big business is really impacting our educational system, and the sense that it is more the bottom-line of those companies than the needs of our students that is driving much of the educational reform movement. I know I am probably preaching to the choir, if you read this blog, but it still is something that sits in the back of my mind (particularly as our district is spending gobs of money on a new math curriculum by a company whose name and presence is all over the testing industry these days. It begins with a “P.” You know what I am talking about, I am sure).

So, this meme (shared above) seeks to stake out some protective ground, establishing as best as I can a philosophical wall between the business interests outside my classroom door and the students who are inside my space each and every day of the school year.

This is how I made this meme:

  • I went into my Flickr files/archives to find a picture of a student at work. This one is from a National Day on Writing event a few years ago where my students were podcasting and publishing some of their writing;
  • I used the Aviary editing tool within Flickr itself (although I had a hard time finding the Aviary link, as Flickr made some design changes to its tools in the last few days);
  • I layered in text and added a border to the original image, and tried to find a text font that seemed “meme-like” that would stand out on top of the image;
  • I struggled with the wording, and how to concisely say what I wanted to say. I knew I wanted the large font on top to say “my students” in some vein, and the “not a cog in the wheel” kept gnawing at me. I ended up with “My student writers are not cogs in your business model” with the purposeful use of “you” to direct the meme at educational businesses (as if they care);
  • I reposted the image, now a meme, to Flickr for sharing.

Peace (in the message),

PS — if you want to use my image to create your own meme, feel free to do so. The image is linked here on Flickr or you can grab it from this post.



Deconstructing the Cowbell (A Meme Exploration)

CLMOOC cowbell

Raise your hand if you know the reference to this meme? As part of our exploration of memes as cultural currency with the Making Learning Connected MOOC, I decided to use this particular meme and deconstruct it a bit. And I decided to do it in comic form.


Check out how Google Trends followed the “more cowbell” concept over time:

And also, where the phrase has cache, globally (almost entirely in the United States):

If you want to know more about memes, then you should check out the site — Know your Meme — which provides context for original references and tracks the history of particular memes. Plus, it’s a fascinating history lesson into the digital age of popular culture references, for good and for bad (many memes have racist or mean origins.)

This is just a sampling of the hundreds of variations of this meme at this one site. You can see all sorts of references to businesses, inside jokes, friends and more.
cowbell memes

Over at Meme Generator, you can even set up a Meme Generator, so if you truly want more cowbell, then go make a meme!

clmooc fever

Peace (in the meme),

Making a Mess with Memes

Clmooc meme
So, we’re going to have some fun this week with the Making Learning Connected MOOC, with Make Cycle 2’s theme on the topic of “memes.” You can read the newsletter that gives the context for memes and cultural humor, and more, and then we invite you to dive into making memes yourself.

Clmooc meme

I make a lot of memes, as regular visitors here know, but I want to try to dive in a bit deeper this week, and learn more about the ins and outs of how memes connect to popular culture, and how some memes become a secret language of sorts for young people. This is a good overview by Peter Kittle, one of the Make Cycle leaders this week.

Meanwhile, make your own memes, and share them out with the CLMOOC community.

Peace (in the meme),