Teaching social media: a critical media education approach

Rubki cube

How should educators respond to the opportunities and challenges posed by social media? Why we need to look beyond educational technology, and develop a critical media education approach.

The educational technology industry is showing a growing interest in social media. Commercial services such as Facebook and Twitter are widely used in educational settings, alongside customized platforms developed specifically for educational use, such as Moodle and Blackboard (which often include social media functions). And of course, MOOCS (Massive Online Open Courses) run by companies like Coursera, have become increasingly big business, after a faltering start.

As with earlier educational technologies – laptops, whiteboards, computer games – enormously inflated claims have been made here. Social media will, it appears, utterly transform teaching and learning: they will promote democratic participation, create new forms of knowledge production, and creatively disrupt old-fashioned pedagogy. It’s a familiar mix of technological determinism and cyber-euphoria, which has long been part of the sales pitch of educational technology businesses.

As Neil Selwyn and others have argued, the reality is often much less revolutionary. These technologies can be used merely as more effective means of ‘drilling and skilling’, and extending the surveillance of both students and teachers. The effective use of social media in learning will depend upon teachers’ aims and values, and on the social contexts in which these media are used.

In the educational technology literature, there is a good deal of discussion about the economic dimensions of using social media, as well as familiar questions about equality of access, the provision of training and proper support structures, and the need for evaluation. There are also issues specific to social media such as copyright and privacy, and the problems of mediated (as opposed to face-to-face) interaction.


This is important stuff, but there has been very little discussion regarding what students and teachers need to know about these media. Students’ orientations towards any educational medium – their skills and attitudes, and their habits of use – will largely be developed through the ways they use that medium outside educational settings. What you do on Facebook or Twitter will significantly inform how you use your school or university’s version of Moodle or Mahara, for example. Your ability to assess the credibility and reliability of online sources, how you choose to communicate, and ultimately your beliefs about what counts as learning, will be largely shaped in these non-educational, commercial environments.

As the Italian semiotician Umberto Eco observed many years ago in relation to a much older medium: if you want to use television to teach somebody, you first have to teach them how to use television. Teaching through media in some form (including books) is often necessary; but it needs to be accompanied and informed by teaching about those media. Media are not neutral tools that simply convey content into the mind of the user. They need to be used critically.

For us media educators, this much is fairly obvious. However, I believe we have been somewhat wrong-footed by the development of social media over the past decade or so. Of course, we too have been keen to use them as tools. A platform like YouTube gives us access to a massive archive of media material that was previously very difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. The ability for students to post and share their work online allows them to reach real audiences in quite unprecedented ways. These developments have to some extent transformed media teaching.

However, we have been rather less clear on the question of what we want to teach about these media. As I have argued elsewhere, we have not been helped in this respect by the predominance of cyber-euphoria among media educators themselves. Some have claimed that social media have brought about a fundamental democratic revolution in media access. The people have apparently taken control. In this context, these enthusiasts suggest, old-style critical Media Studies is no longer necessary – and indeed, it’s positively outdated and patronizing. Media Studies 2.0 will be all about creative production – and the job of teachers is simply to stand back and celebrate this.


This argument might charitably be described as wishful thinking (or perhaps uncritical thinking), but in many ways it’s positively dangerous. As the media market is increasingly dominated by a small number of global commercial monopolies – Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon – there’s a much more urgent need for students to understand how power and control are working in this new environment. Questions of representation – whose voices are heard in these online spaces, and how claims to truth are established and debated – now seem much more important and complex in the age of fake news, trolls and online abuse. And the claim that we are all free and equal ‘participants’ needs to be replaced by a much more critical understanding of how users are targeted and engaged, and how data about them is gathered and used.

As I argued in my previous post, the public discussion of social media has focused almost exclusively on a narrow range of ‘harms’ that these media apparently inflict on young people. Even the debate about fake news seems to have been driven by the assumption that we can easily teach kids to differentiate between truth and falsehood, and then the problem will be solved.

Media educators in the UK might look to the newly revised qualifications for some indication of how we might develop a more complex and thoughtful approach. However, if we look at the list of so-called theorists on the A-level syllabus, hardly any of them have written in any detail about social media; and (without naming names), at least two of them are silly cyber-utopians. However, I’m not suggesting that we simply replace these writers by others (although the books by Graham Meikle and Jose van Dijck, or even Christian Fuchs’s old-style Marxist analysis, would be a better place to start).

Rather, I would suggest that we can take the established framework of media education concepts and apply it to social media, and see where that takes us – and this is something I’m intending to do here over the course of this year (among other things). My approach, however, is about using theories and concepts not as a set of tablets of stone, but rather as a collection of critical tools to think with, and if necessary, to challenge and adapt.

Freak out

To begin with, we need to define what we mean by social media. The obvious starting point is to recognise that social media are media – and indeed that they are often inextricably connected with other, older media. This means resisting the claims of Facebook and Google et al. that they are merely technology companies making technical services and platforms available to their users. Like older media, social media create meanings and represent the world and generate profit from their users, although they clearly do so in some different ways.

Perhaps the most significant difference here is that social media are no longer just about texts but about practices. It’s important to study particular platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat – but we need an approach that isn’t based on specific services or technologies, let alone specific brands. When we study television, we don’t primarily study the BBC or Netflix – although there is undoubtedly some value in looking at channels as institutions or companies. We don’t primarily study the cathode ray tube, or microphones, or cameras – although there could be some value in that too. What we study are forms of representation and communication that are socially organized and distributed.

With social media, these forms of representation and communication – written, visual, aural, audio-visual, musical – are generated, and then shared and circulated, in rather different ways. All media are social; but these new platforms would perhaps be better termed sociable media – they offer opportunities for circulation between individuals, not just distribution by large corporations. What makes these media social or sociable are the social practices they make possible, which depend upon particular forms of connection or connectivity.

So we might begin with a list of these various social practices (although more inventive readers could probably come up with a three-dimensional model). At present, such a list would probably include:


blogging and micro-blogging

social networking



representing self



searching, retrieving and bookmarking

collaborative writing and media production

Clearly, this is a collection of overlapping practices that are often combined or blurred together on specific platforms (and often cross or combine media). Companies are constantly adapting their services to widen the repertoire of practices they allow – although in the process they run the risk of diluting or losing their unique selling points (think of Twitter and its character limit). Nor are these necessarily new practices: an old-style mix-tape was a form of ‘curating’, and self-representation has a very long history (as I argued in an earlier post). Even so, digital connectivity makes it possible for these forms of collaboration and communication to be carried out in new ways, and across boundaries of time and space.

At the same time, however, all these practices both depend upon and make possible another set of practices, which are carried out by commercial companies. The list here might include:


surveillance and data gathering

advertising, promoting, marketing

data mining and analysis

selling of user data


I’m not offering this as a definitive model, but I do think it points to the need for a rather different approach. Historically, media education has predominantly focused on texts. Media have been treated – not exclusively, but to a large extent – as a set of objects to be analysed. Most media teachers in the UK have originally trained as English teachers, and textual analysis is something they find quite easy, and even comforting. By contrast, they often find the more ‘sociological’ aspects of media education – media institutions and audiences – more challenging.

This is not by any means to imply that close textual analysis is no longer relevant (although advocates of ‘Media Studies 2.0’ certainly do so). However, the advent of social media suggests that we might need to displace the text from its central, privileged position, or at least do more to place the text in its wider social context. Those more ‘sociological’ concepts might need to come to the fore rather more than they have done in the past. To put this another way, we might say that our focus should not be so much on media as a set of self-contained objects, but rather on processes of mediation.

I’m not at all sure at this stage what that might entail in terms of pedagogy. It might simply mean extending what we already do, but it might involve some more fundamental shifts. I’m hoping to take up these issues in various ways in the coming months, including here on this blog.