A critical media education approach: using the concept of production (a.k.a. institutions or industry) to teach about social media.
Are the ‘key concepts’ of media education still relevant in an age of social media? To what extent do they need to be reformulated, or even replaced? In an earlier post, I made the case for a critical media education approach to social media. This is the first of four posts in which I take each of the media education key concepts and think through how they might be applied in teaching this area. (If you’re not familiar with this key concepts approach, you can find a very straightforward summary here, and some approaches to assessment here.)
In this post, I’m looking at the concept of production (sometimes called ‘industry’ or ‘institutions’); and I’ll be referring primarily to platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. I begin by re-stating a few of the most important emphases here, and considering how they might apply to social media. I then briefly suggest a few topics or strategies for teaching, primarily at upper secondary (high school) level. This is not intended to be comprehensive or definitive: it’s very much provisional, work in progress. I’m keen to receive feedback, via the old-fashioned medium of e-mail.
Looking at production basically means looking at how media are created, manufactured and distributed. It might seem that, in the case of social media, we are all potential producers. Yet the platforms we use to share what we produce are almost all commercial, even though they present themselves as free to the user (the main exception here is Wikipedia). These platforms exist in order to make profit, even if they try to minimize any evidence of the commercial interests that are at stake. Google and Facebook, along with Apple and Amazon, are the commercial media giants of the modern age. However, this is not a monolithic process, and it’s not very helpful to think about it as a kind of conspiracy, or in terms of propaganda or manipulation. Even so, many social media users don’t completely understand how it works.
Whether we’re talking about old media or new media, looking at media production means looking at some very basic topics:
Production processes. What technologies are used to produce and distribute media? Who does the work, and how do they do it?
Economic dimensions. Who owns the companies that buy and sell media? How do they make a profit?
Regulation. What laws and guidelines control the production and distribution of media?
Access. How do users gain access to create these media? How much choice and control do they have?
These four ideas could provide a useful means of comparing social media with older media like television or the press. The answers to some of these questions aren’t immediately obvious, and they could provoke some interesting debate. For example, in relation to production processes: who actually does the work that’s involved in producing social media? Who owns the material that is produced? When we generate content – when we tweet or post, or even just share or ‘like’ – is this merely a kind of unpaid digital labour?
Likewise, in relation to access, students might be encouraged to explore debates about net neutrality, and how they compare (for example) with debates around public service broadcasting. Should access to the internet be controlled by commercial companies, or should we see it as a public utility (like water, for example)? Alternatively, should access to distribution be controlled by the government, or in some other way? What might be the consequences of these different options, for example in terms of freedom of expression?
In some cases, these topics could also prompt students to undertake some research. In the case of regulation, for example, the laws and guidelines relating to social media are frequently far from clear. Companies, governments and the legal system respond to controversies as they arise, but often in incoherent and inconsistent ways. So why are social media regulated in a different way from older media, and are those differences justified? Should online communication be regulated in the same way as offline communication – for example, by using the same laws on ‘hate speech’? How do laws relating to copyright apply to social media, and how can such laws be enforced?
On a basic level, students need to understand that social media companies are commercial enterprises. However, they operate in different ways from older media. There are still large companies that produce and sell media content in the traditional way: Disney’s recent purchase of parts of the Murdoch empire would provide an interesting case study here. However, social media companies have a different business model, which is sometimes (rather euphemistically) called the sharing economy.
Rather than producing content themselves, they enable individuals, groups of people, companies and other organisations to distribute their own content (or indeed content they have found in older media). But in sharing content, users provide data that social media companies can gather, analyse and sell, for example to advertisers and marketers. These companies collect personal data by following our every move online; and in many cases they legally own everything we choose to upload.
In the past couple of years, there have been numerous controversies that enable students to explore these issues in less abstract terms. For example, Facebook’s endless wriggling around fake news illustrates some of the fundamental issues and dilemmas at stake here. Fake news obviously provides a source of income for Facebook: it generates clicks, which mean profit. Dealing with it effectively would cost vast amounts of money. So is Facebook merely a technology company – as it would like to be seen – or a media company? How far should it (and can it) take responsibility for content? If it doesn’t, who else is going to do so?
There are several key ideas and terms that students should be able to use here. I’ve already referred to a few of them, here and in earlier posts: the idea of the platform (or ‘platform capitalism’), digital labour, net neutrality and the so-called sharing economy, for example. Students also need to understand how algorithms work, and how they are used by social media companies; and they should know about practices like data mining and behavioural marketing. More everyday social media terms like clickbait, viral and meme will be useful here too (you could do worse than hold a quiz). It’s fairly easy to find definitions and discussions of these terms online; and the Oxford Dictionary of Social Media is also a very comprehensive online resource.
These questions and ideas can obviously be considered in general terms, but they need to be made more concrete. What follows are half a dozen specific suggestions for things students might do in the classroom.
1. Facebook’s terms of service agreement could be an interesting place to start. Students will almost certainly have clicked ‘accept’ on this document, but how many of them will have actually read it? Students could handle this almost like a comprehension exercise, going through the text and highlighting key terms they don’t understand, or which might surprise them. In the process, they will inevitably come up against issues of privacy and copyright, and what such companies are able to do with users’ data. Students might also want to debate the purposes and the value of such documents, and of facilities like privacy settings that enable users to customise the platform (albeit in limited ways). How transparent are these companies about the services they provide, and how much control do users really have?
2. Company case studies are a standard approach to looking at media industries. Students could select a specific company and do online research about who owns it, how many people it employs, its profit and loss accounts, its acquisitions, and so on. It would be interesting to contrast larger and smaller companies, and to look at how their business strategies evolve over time. Companies that failed – such as MySpace or Bebo – would be especially useful to investigate here. Twitter would be a good example of a company that has only recently begun to generate profit: how and why is it adapting its platform in its attempts to monetize its user base? On the other hand, Google (or rather its parent company Alphabet) could be considered in terms of how it has diversified and restructured in order to maximise its profits.
3. Company profiles. Following from this, it would be interesting to look at how social media companies present themselves in the public domain. Students could analyse how companies promote their brand, through overt advertising as well as promoting their services to existing users via the platform. (Facebook’s current advertising campaign provides just one example of how the company lays claim to a kind of warm-hearted, democratic humanity.) Students could also consider how company executives handle controversy and seek to deflect criticism (fake news, hate speech, smartphone addiction, and so on). However, they should also look ‘under the hood’ at how these companies market their services and subsidiary companies to other commercial businesses, such as advertisers and marketers: the ‘business’ pages of Facebook, Google, Instagram and others are readily accessible, as are countless online guides for prospective advertisers. (And yes, it probably would be good for students to watch The Social Network, with their bullshit-detectors turned up to eleven.)
4. Interfaces with older media. It’s important to see media holistically, and to recognise the economic connections between them. Students need to analyse how older media (such as TV, film, radio and newspapers) are using social media, but also vice-versa. Older media are now routinely urging audiences to communicate via social media, but these activities also generate profit for social media companies. Students might look at how popular TV programmes (The Voice, Celebrity Big Brother) make content available online, and how they both invite and restrict users’ participation. A particularly relevant focus here would be media fandom: how do the owners of old media franchises (Game of Thrones, Star Wars, Harry Potter) use social media to stimulate fan activity, and when and how do they intervene to close it down? Meanwhile, how much activity on social media platforms is related to older media, in the form of sharing, commenting and so on?
5. Digital labour. Following on from the above, students might consider how even older media (such as newspapers and radio) make use of user-generated content, or so-called citizen journalism. In what contexts, and for what purposes, are readers or listeners invited to contribute? How are their contributions edited and presented? What are the (financial and other) benefits of this work, both for the participants and the companies? It would be useful here to contrast commercial platforms with non-commercial ones such as Wikipedia, and to consider other potential alternatives.
6. Celebrity vloggers. The rise of teenage YouTubers is an aspect of the social media industries that will probably be close to home for many younger students. How do such vloggers define their unique selling points, and attract subscribers? How do they use YouTube as a platform to make money, to promote products and to promote themselves? How do these activities spin off into other media (such as publishing and music)? The analysis here could obviously extend to similar phenomena, such as YouTube gamers. More entrepreneurial students might even want to develop their own business plans to fill gaps in the market – although they might also be encouraged to consider the difficulties of a future career as a YouTuber…
These are merely suggestions for starters. This is an area where there is no shortage of topics to address. However, it’s important to avoid a heavily information-laden approach: the detailed facts are less important than the broader issues at stake. Keeping a focus on the concept itself, and using the key questions I have identified, might help in seeing the wood for the trees.