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The Rhetorical Implications of Data Aggregation: Becoming a “Dividual” in a Data-Driven World

Abstract

Social media platforms have experienced increased scrutiny following scandals like the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica revelations. Nevertheless, these scandals have not deterred the general public from using social media, even as these events have motivated critique of the privacy policies users agree to in order to access them. In this article, we argue that approaches to teaching data and privacy in the classroom would benefit from attending to social media privacy policies and the rhetorical implications of data aggregation: not only what these policies say, but also what cultural, social, and economic impacts they have and for whom. We consider what it means for users to have “meaningful access” and offer an investigative framework for examining data aggregation through three areas of data literacy: how data is collected, how data is processed, and how data is used. We posit Cheney-Lippold’s “measurable types” as a useful theoretical tool for examining data’s complex, far-reaching impacts and offer an assignment sequence featuring rhetorical analysis and genre remediation.

Introduction: Gaining “Meaningful Access” to Privacy Policies

There is an increasing need to attend to the role social media plays in our society as more of the work of maintaining relationships moves to online platforms. While platforms like Facebook and YouTube have experienced increased public scrutiny, a 2019 Pew Research Center study found that social media usage remained relatively unchanged from 2016 to 2018, with seven out of ten adults reporting they rely on social media platforms to get information (Perrin and Anderson 2019). International data-collection scandals like Cambridge Analytica and numerous congressional hearings on Big Tech’s’ power in the United States have not deterred the general public from using social media. Everyday users are increasingly aware that their privacy is compromised by using social media platforms, and many agree that Silicon Valley needs more regulation (Perrin and Anderson 2019; Pew Research Center 2019). Yet, many of these same users continue to rely on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok to inform themselves on important issues in our society.

Early teacher-scholars within the subfield of Computers and Writing worked within a fairly limited scope. They urged learning with and critiquing digital technologies that were more transparent because of their newness—visible technologies such as word-processing programs and computer labs. But today’s teachers and students must contend with a more ubiquitous and hidden field—the entire distributed and networked internet of personalized content based on internet surveillance strategies and data aggregation. The array of websites and apps students encounter in college includes learning management systems (Canvas, BlackBoard, Google Classroom, Moodle), cloud storage spaces (DropBox, OneDrive), project management tools (Basecamp, Trello), communication platforms (Slack, Teams), search engines (Google, Bing), professional and social branding (LinkedIn), online publishing (Medium, WordPress), social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Tumblr, WhatsApp, SnapChat), and all the various websites and apps students use in classrooms and in their personal lives. Each one of these websites and apps publishes a privacy policy that is accessible through small hyperlinks buried at the bottom of the page or through a summary notice of data collection in the app.

Usually long and full of legalese, privacy policies are often ignored by students (and most users) who simply click “agree” instead of reading the terms. This means users are less knowledgeable about the privacy policies they agree to in order to continue using social media platforms. As Obar and Oeldorf-Hirsch find in their study “The Biggest Lie on the Internet: Ignoring the Privacy Policies and Terms of Service Policies of Social Networking Services,” undergraduate students in the U.S. find privacy policies to be “nothing more than an unwanted impediment to the real purpose users go online—the desire to enjoy the ends of digital production” (Obar and Oeldorf-Hirsch 2020, 142). To this point, the 2019 Pew Research Center survey “Americans and Digital Knowledge” found that only 48% of Americans understood how privacy policies function as contracts between themselves and a website concerning the use of their data. Through their alluring affordances and obscure privacy policies, social media platforms hinder users’ ability to meaningfully engage with the data exploitation these platforms rely on.

Americans have long turned to policy for contending with sociocultural issues. While breaches of user privacy energize the public, the scale of social media platforms makes it difficult to fully comprehend these violations of trust; as long as social media works as we expect it to, users rarely question what social media platforms are doing behind the scenes. As mentioned earlier, privacy policies are also oftentimes long, jargon-filled, and unapproachable to the average user. How many of us can say we have read, let alone comprehended, all of the fine print of the privacy policies of the platforms we choose to engage on every day? Doing so requires what digital rhetorics scholar Adam J. Banks refers to in Race, Rhetoric, and Technology as “meaningful access,” or access to not only the technology itself but also to the knowledge, experience, and opportunities necessary to grasp its long-term impacts and the policies guiding its development and use (Banks 2006, 135). Meaningful access as a concept can work against restrictive processes such as digital redlining[1] or restricting access (thus eliminating meaningful access) from certain users based on the filtering preferences of their internet access provider. Privacy policies are obtainable, but they are not truly accessible: users may be able to obtain these documents, but they don’t have a meaningful, useful sense of them.

Teachers and students need to rhetorically engage with social media privacy policies in order to learn about data and privacy: we need to understand not only what these policies say, but also what impacts they have and for whom.[2] We also need to determine who has meaningful access and why that might be. As Angela M. Haas (2018) explains, rhetoric concerns the cultural, social, economic, and political implications of when we “negotiate” information; she specifies digital rhetoric as concerned with the “negotiation of information” when we interface with technology. Safiya Umoja Noble develops a related argument in Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, suggesting internet search engine algorithms are a reflection of the values and biases of those who create them, and since algorithmic processes extend into hiring practices and mortgage lending evaluations, big-data practices nonetheless reproduce pre-existing social inequities. We need to learn about data generation and its wide-reaching, real-world impact on how we connect and interact with other people to really grasp these platforms and the policies that govern them.

By learning to critically engage with the policies that shape their digital experiences, students develop an important skill set they can use to identify the ways social media platform algorithms use data collected from users to direct their attention in ways that may be more important to the platforms than to the users themselves—working to generate clicks, repetitive usage, and thus revenue from ad impressions, rather than providing the content the user actually seeks. Students might also think about the ways these privacy policies structure the information-filtering and data-collection functions on which these platforms depend, while such policies likewise fail to protect users from the potential socio-economic and racial disparities their algorithmic infrastructures re-entrench (Gilliard and Culik 2016). To this end, it can be useful to introduce concepts like data aggregation and digital redlining, which can equip users with a better understanding for how data collection works and its far-reaching rhetorical effects. In this way, it is important to understand privacy policies as a writing genre, a typified form of writing that accomplishes a desired rhetorical action (e.g. providing social media platforms with the legal framework to maximize data usage).

As writing studies scholars Irene L. Clark and Andrea Hernandez (2011) explain, “When students acquire genre awareness, they are not only learning how to write in a particular genre. They gain insight into how a genre fulfills a rhetorical purpose” (66–67). By investigating the genre of privacy policies, students gain both transferable skills and crucial data literacy that will serve them as writers, media consumers, and, more basically, as citizens. Working within this niche genre provides insights both into the rhetoric of privacy policies per se, as well as into the use of rhetoric and data aggregation for social manipulation.

One way to deepen student understanding of a genre is through remediation, or the adaptation of the content of a text into a new form for a potentially different audience (Alexander and Rhodes 2014, 60). Remediations require both a comprehension of the original text’s content and an awareness of the intended audience’s experience engaging with that text. Remediation provides students with an opportunity to put their knowledge into practice regardless of the resulting form. For example, a privacy policy could be remediated as an infographic that focuses on key ideas from the policy concerning data usage and explains them in ways a lay public with little prior knowledge could understand.

Ultimately, a multi-pronged approach is required to gain meaningful access to privacy policies. In the following section, we provide a framework with terms and questions that consider how data is collected, processed, and used. We direct attention to digital studies scholar John Cheney-Lippold’s theory of “measurable types,” the algorithmic categories created from aggregated user data, as a framework in our development of an assignment sequence that tasks students with performing two remediations—one that focuses on making information more digestible and another that centers long-term effects. The primary audience for this article is instructors who are new to digital surveillance and big-data concepts and are looking to orient themselves with theory as they create assignments about this emerging issue for their classroom.

How Is Data Collected, Processed, and Used?

Data is the fuel that keeps our social media platforms running. Fortunately for companies like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok, data is generated and captured constantly on the internet. Every website we visit, every story we share, every comment we post generates data. Some of this information comes in the form of cookies, or small files installed on your computer to keep track of the pages you view and what you click on while visiting them. Capturing user behavior on the internet is accomplished largely through third-party “tracking cookies,” which are different from the “session cookies” used primarily to help web pages load faster. Session cookies do not store any user information. Tracking cookies, on the other hand, are so important to a platform like Facebook’s business model that they have a whole separate policy for them: “We use cookies to help us show ads and to make recommendations for businesses and other organizations to people who may be interested in the products, services or causes they promote” (Facebook n.d.). Big Tech companies and their advertising partners use this information to infer what users’ interests might be based on their online behaviors.

Our internet activity on social media platforms creates metadata, which is another form of data web companies collect and use to track our online activity.[3] Metadata is not the content of our posts and messages, but the information about who and/or what we interact with and how often those interactions occur. While quantitative forms of information may appear more trustworthy and objective, in actuality this seemingly neutral data has been stripped of important rhetorical context. Digital humanities scholar Johanna Drucker suggests that we refer to data as “capta,” since data is not information that perfectly represents whatever was observed as much as it is information that is “captured” with specific purposes in mind. Capta cannot fully stand in for us, but it can be used to compare us to other users who “like” and “share” similar things. Therefore, the collection of metadata is valuable because it more efficiently reveals what we do online than the meaning of our content alone. Rather than try to understand what we are communicating, computers instead process this quantified information and use it to calculate the probability that we will engage with certain media and buy certain products (van Dijck and Poell 2013, 10). So, even though data collection requires us to give up our privacy, the stakes may seem relatively low considering that we are presumably getting “free” access to the platform in exchange. Coming to terms with how data impacts our society requires understanding the ostensibly predictive capacities of data aggregation because data we consciously share is never separate from other data, including data from other users and the data we don’t realize we are sharing (e.g. location, time, etc).

Data is what powers social media platforms, but their rhetorical power comes from how data is processed into predictions about our behavior online. Our individual data does not provide accuracy when it comes to recommending new things, so data aggregation makes recommendations possible by establishing patterns “made from a population, not one person” (Cheney-Lippold 2017, 116).[4] These “dividual” identities, as digital studies scholar Cheney-Lippold explains via digital theorist Tiziana Terranova (2004), are the algorithmic classifications of individual users based on the data generated and processed about them. Indeed, we each have our own personal preferences, but we are also interested in what captures the attention of the larger public: we care about the most recent YouTube sensation or the latest viral video. When platforms like YouTube make video recommendations they are comparing data collected from your viewing behavior to a massive cache of data aggregated from the viewing behavior of many other users.

A primary use of data is in the personalization of online experiences. Social media platforms function under the assumption that we want our online experience to be customized and that we are willing to give up our data to make that happen. Personalization may appear to be increasing our access to information because it helps us filter through the infinite content available to us, but in actuality it has to restrict what we pay attention to in order to work. This filtering can result in digital redlining, which limits the information users have access to based on the filtering preferences of internet access providers (Gilliard and Culik 2016). Internet service providers shape users’ online experiences through both privacy policies and acceptable use policies. Not unlike how banks used racist strategies to limit minority access to physical spaces, internet service providers (including universities) employ “acceptable use policies” to limit engagement with information pre-categorized as “inappropriate” and explain why various users might have very different perceptions of the same event. Practices like digital redlining reveal how personalization, albeit potentially desirable, comes at the cost of weakening the consistent, shared information we rely on to reach consensus with other people. Ultimately, we embrace data aggregation and content personalization without considering its full implications for how we connect and communicate with one another and how businesses and governments see and treat us.

Using Measurable Types to Investigate Privacy Policies

One helpful tool for analyzing how algorithms construct online experiences for different users is Cheney-Lippold’s concept of “measurable types.” Measurable types are algorithmically generated norms or “interpretations of data that stand in as digital containers of categorical meaning” (Cheney-Lippold 2017, 19). Like dividual identities, measurable types are ever-changing categories created from aggregate user data without any actual input from the user. Essentially, measurable types assign users to categories that have very real impacts on them, but from data that has been collected with very specific definitions in mind that users don’t know about. The insidiousness of measurable types is how they automatically draw associations from user behaviors without providing any opportunity for users to critique or correct the “truths” scraped from their dividual data. For instance, most users might not see any adverse effects of being labeled a “gamer”; however being classified as a “gamer” measurable type could also algorithmically align users with members of the #gamergate movement[5] resulting in misogynist content spilling into their digital experiences. In this way, measurable types remove humans from the processes that operationalize their data into consequential algorithmic decisions made on their behalf.

Every social media platform has its own privacy policy “written for the express purpose of protecting a company or website operator from legal damages” which outlines the data-collection practices permissible on the site and governs its use (Beck 2016, 70). Measurable types as a framework guides analysis of these policies with specific attention to the implications of how data is collected, processed, and used. Students in first-year courses in composition and technical communication, in addition to those studying communications, information technology, computer science, and education are well suited to investigate these digital policy documents because many such students are social media users already. Analyzing privacy policies for social media platforms through the measurable types framework reveals to students that these policies are about more than simply their experience on the platform. In addition to prescribing user actions on these sites, these policies also directly impact students’ online experiences as the policies concern how data from their activity on the platform is generated, aggregated, and then repurposed into measurable types. They exist among a constellation of Terms of Service (ToS) documents, which can offer robust opportunities to examine the impact data aggregation has for different entities and users. In other words, to really grapple with how a privacy policy works, it is helpful to examine a wide array of ToS documents in order to familiarize yourself with these genres of digital policy.

The assignment sequence we offer for working with measurable types and social media privacy policies in the writing classroom includes an initial rhetorical analysis followed by two remediations. The rhetorical analysis assignment tasks students with examining choices within the privacy policy (e.g. temporality, transparency, and language) to demonstrate how critical information is relayed and to offer suggestions for making the policy more accessible for various audiences. While the goal of the two remediations together is “meaningful access”—not just understanding the policy itself but also the long-reaching impacts that it will have—the first remediation is focused primarily on making the policy more comprehensible. Through a series of in-class activities students learn about data aggregation, digital redlining, and measurable types before moving into a second, more intense remediation where they investigate the consequences of big data and their social media usage. Ultimately, using measurable types as a framework throughout the assignment sequence we offer presents students a path to learn about how their actions online dictate not only their future experiences on the internet but also the constellation of user experiences in their local community and around the world.

Privacy policy rhetorical analysis and initial remediation

When performing a rhetorical analysis of a social media privacy policy, begin with heuristics to work through genre conventions: how audience, exigence, structure, form, and intention work to shape a genre and the social actions it encapsulates (Miller 2015, 69). Which users and non-users does this document potentially impact? How do specific rhetorical choices impact how critical information is taken up? What is the intent of the people who write and design these documents, and the companies that publish them? Examining and discussing rhetorical choices within the privacy policy reveals how it addresses complex concepts such as data collection and aggregation—issues which are critically important for students to undertake throughout the assignment sequence. The goal is to begin working through the aforementioned terminology to inform remediations that emphasize rhetorical changes students would implement to make the policy more accessible for various audiences.

When approaching the genre for remediation, students should highlight the changes they will implement to make the social media privacy policy more transparent and readable. After students highlight the changes, they can figure out the genre of the remediation. We imagine students might produce infographics, flyers, zines, podcasts, videos, and other genres during this part of the assignment sequence. Since social media privacy policies impact many students directly, ask them to consider what they would do to make the document’s information more accessible and digestible for users like themselves. Students could perform usability tests, hold focus groups, and ask peers (in class and in other classes) for feedback. Also, consider the temporality, transparency, and language of the document. When was the last time the policy was updated? What methods of data collection might be opaque or otherwise inaccessible to users? What rhetorical arguments are formed by the policy? Answering these questions helps students develop a sense of what it means to be an engaged digital citizen. The more comfortable they are with analyzing the dynamics of these policies, the more likely they will see themselves as digital citizens navigating the complexities of a data-driven digital society. Students will focus more on how this data is used and to what ends as we move into a second remediation considering the social, political, and economic implications of digital privacy and data aggregation.

Expanding the scope to amplify measurable types

The exchange of our personal information for accessing services online is among the most complex issues we must address when considering how data use is outlined in social media privacy policies. Therefore, students should build upon their initial remediation, paying attention to the far-reaching implications of practices like data aggregation which lead to data commodification. Cheney-Lippold’s measurable types help us understand how our online experiences are cultivated by the processes of big data—the information you have access to, the content you are recommended, the advertisements you are shown, and the classification of your digital footprint (Beck 2016, 70). The following classroom activities expand the scope of these conversations beyond social media privacy policies towards larger conversations concerning big data by making measurable types visible.

According to Pew Research Center, 90% of adults in the United States have access to the internet; however, this does not mean that users get the same information. What we access online is curated by algorithmic processes, thus creating variable, often inequitable experiences. Digital redlining is about the information you have access to online. As with personalization earlier, digital redlining is “not only about who has access but also about what kind of access they have, how it’s regulated, and how good it is” (Gilliard and Culik 2016). Therefore, analysis should center on the access issues that privacy policies could address to help users better understand the myriad of ways social media platforms limit access just as much as they distribute it. Since digital redlining creates different, inequitable experiences arranged according to measurable types, it is easy to observe, as Gilliard and Culik do, how this frequent practice extends beyond social media privacy policies and into our everyday lives. Even simple, familiar online actions like engaging with mainstream search engines (e.g. Google) can demonstrate how different measurable types yield different results.

The techniques used to investigate social media privacy policies are transferable to any policy about data collection. For example, Google is often criticized for mismanaging user privacy, just as social media platforms like Facebook suffer scrutiny for not protecting users’ information. To examine the cultural, economic, social, and political impacts of user privacy on Google, students can perform some basic searches while logged out of Google services and note the results that appear on the first few pages. Then, students can log into their Google accounts and compare how personalized results differ not only from previous search results, but also from the results provided to friends, family, and their peers. What information is more widely shared? What information feels more restricted and personalized? These questions help us to process how measurable types contribute to the differences in search results even among those in our own communities.

Internet advertisements are another way to see measurable types at work online. As in the previous case with Google searches, we can easily observe the differences in the advertisements shown to one user compared to others since search engine results have a considerable amount of bias built into them (Noble 2018). Moreover, visiting websites from different interest groups across the internet allows you to see how the advertisements shown on those web pages are derived from the measurable types you belong to and how you (knowingly or unknowingly) interact with the various plugins and trackers active on the sites you visit. In comparing how the advertisements from the same webpage differ among students, we can develop an awareness of how algorithmic identities differ among users and what these advertisements infer about them as a person or consumer—the composite of their measurable types. Facebook also has a publicly accessible ad database that allows anyone to view various advertisements circulating on the platform in addition to information pertaining to their cost, potential reach, and the basic demographic information of users who actually viewed them. Advertisements present various sites for analysis and are a useful place to start when determining what data must have been collected about us because they provide a window into the measurable types we are assigned.

Internet advertisers are not the only stakeholders interested in data related to our measurable types. Governments are as well, as they are invested in assessing and managing risks to national security as they define it.[7] For instance, certain search engine queries and other otherwise mundane internet activity (keyword searches, sharing content, etc.) could be a factor in a user being placed on a no-fly list. Artist and technologist James Bridle refers to these assigned algorithmic identities as an “algorithmic citizenship,” a new form of citizenship where your allegiance and your rights are continuously “questioned, calculated, and rewritten” by algorithmic processes using the data they capture from your internet activity writ large (Bridle 2016).[8] Algorithmic citizenship relies on users’ actions across the internet, whereas most users might reasonably assume that data collected on a social media platform would be contained and used for that platform. However, algorithmic citizenship, like citizenship to any country, comes with its own set of consequences when a citizen deviates from an established norm. Not unlike the increased social ostracism a civilian faces from their community when they break laws, or appear to break laws, a user’s privacy and access is scrutinized when they don’t conform to the behavioral expectations overseen by government surveillance agencies like the National Security Agency (NSA).

Performing advanced remediations to account for algorithm-driven processes

Thinking through concepts like algorithmic citizenship and digital redlining helps us acknowledge the disproportionate impacts of algorithm-driven processes on users beyond the white, often heteronormative people for whom the technology was designed. Addressing algorithmic oppression on a theoretical level avoids settling for the short-sighted, strictly technological solutions to problems that are inherently social and cultural, a valuable perspective to consider for the second remediation. Therefore, in developing a second privacy policy remediation, students should consider not only their own experiences but the experiences of others in ways that mimic the aforementioned expansion from the individual to the dividual. This part of the assignment sequence promotes thinking about how online experiences are not equitable for all users by prompting students to investigate their measurable types and offer remediations that account for digital access issues like digital redlining or algorithmic citizenship. Some investigations into these digital modes of oppression will operate at the local, community level while others will operate at the much larger, societal level. Students might consider how their online shopping habits could influence where a new bus line is implemented in a future “smart city,” or how their internet browsing actions could influence which measurable types get flagged automatically for an invasive search by the TSA on their next flight overseas.

Students may choose to remediate the privacy policy into genres similar to the initial remediation assignment (e.g. infographics, videos). However, immersion in these policies for an extended time, over multiple, increasingly more intense inquiries, clarifies how these social media privacy policies extend the digital divide perpetuated by inequitable access to technology and critical digital literacies. Concepts and questions to consider for this remediation include meaningful access, data aggregation, and digital tracking and surveillance techniques. Who has access to certain information and who does not? What user data is shared with different stakeholders and why? What data are being collected and stored? What norms are perpetuated in the development of technology and technological systems? This final assignment in the sequence provides a means to examine the material consequences of big-data technologies: the critical role measurable types play and the algorithmic processes that make them possible. In performing this work, we can better comprehend how data collection and aggregation enables systematic marginalization in our social, political, and economic infrastructures.

Discussion and Further Implications

Learning outcomes vary across classrooms, programs, and institutions, but instructors who choose to teach about data aggregation and social media privacy policies should focus on critical objectives related to genre analysis and performance, cultural and ethical (rhetorical) context, and demonstrating transferable knowledge. Focusing on each of these objectives when assessing remediations of privacy policies in the writing classroom helps students learn and master these concepts. Importantly, the magnitude of the grade matters; genre remediations of privacy policies should be among the highest, if not the highest, weighted assignments during a writing course because of the knowledge of the complex concepts and rigor of writing required to perform the work. Instructors should create and scaffold various lower-stakes assignments and activities for students to complete throughout a sequence, unit, or course which augment the aforementioned learning outcomes.

While scholars in rhetoric and composition have long theorized the nature of genre, instructors should emphasize that privacy policies are a social construct (Miller 2015). Assessment should focus on how well students analyze and perform in the genre of the privacy policy during their remediations. Assessing how well students perform in a genre like a privacy policy challenges them to understand the rhetorical context and inequity of digital surveillance; moreover, it helps them develop transferable knowledge they can use when performing in other genres in other disciplines and as they go out and make an impact on the world. Instructors who teach about privacy policies should highlight knowledge transfer as a learning objective, because it helps students prepare to take up the skills they develop in the writing classroom and deploy them when performing in other genres in other classes and in their careers.

As mentioned earlier, many students have minimal experience with privacy policies because most do not read them and because hardly any have performed in the genre. Admittedly, unless students are planning careers as technical communicators, technologists, or entrepreneurs, they will probably not perform in this genre again. Even the entrepreneurs in your classes will more than likely take the approach of outsourcing the composition of their start-up’s privacy policy. Regardless of their future experiences with genre and remediation, this assignment sequence extends students’ critical thinking about data aggregation beyond their immediate classroom context and into their online and offline worlds.

Data: Beyond the Confines of the Classroom

We recommend analyzing social media privacy policies as a way to provoke meaningful interactions between students and the digital communities to which they belong. With so many documents to analyze, students should not feel restricted to the privacy policies for mainstream social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter but should interrogate fringe platforms like Parler and emerging platforms like TikTok. We have focused on extending conversations about digital privacy, data aggregation, digital redlining, and algorithmic citizenship but there are other concepts and issues worthy of thorough investigation. For example, some students might strive to highlight the intersection of digital policing techniques and mass incarceration in the United States by analyzing the operational policies for police departments that implement digital technologies like body cams and the privacy policies for the companies they partner with (like the body cam company Axon). Others might focus on how data manipulation impacts democracy domestically and abroad by analyzing how social media platforms were used to plan the insurrection in the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, and the meteoric rise of fringe “free speech” platforms like MeWe and Gab in the days following the insurrection.

Working through privacy policies and data concepts is tedious but necessary: we cannot let these challenging issues dissuade us from having important discussions or analyzing complex genres. Foregrounding the immediate impact a social media privacy policy has on our experiences in higher education highlights data aggregation’s larger impacts on our lives beyond the classroom. What are the real-world, rhetorical implications of abstract concepts like digital data collection and digital privacy? The answer is inevitably messy and oftentimes results in uncomfortable conversations; however, understanding how and why data collection, aggregation, and manipulation contributes to systemic oppression provides a valuable opportunity to look far beyond the classroom and to make smart, informed decisions concerning our present and future digital experiences with social media platforms.

Notes

[1] Scholars Chris Gilliard and Hugh Culik (2016) propose the concept of “digital redlining” as a social phenomenon whereby effective access to digital resources is restricted for certain populations by institutional and business policies, in a process that echoes the economic inequality enforced by mortgage banks and government authorities who denied crucial loans to Black neighborhoods throughout much of the 20th century.

[2] Stephanie Vie (2008), for instance, described over a decade ago a “digital divide 2.0,” whereby people’s lack of critical digital literacy denies them equitable access to digital technologies, particularly Web 2.0 tools and technologies, despite having physical access to the technologies and services themselves.

[3] Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg is not lying when he says that Facebook users own their content, but he also does not clarify that what Facebook is actually interested in is your metadata.

[4] Aggregate data does not mean more accurate data, because data is never static: it is dynamically repurposed. This process can have disastrous results when haphazardly applied to contexts beyond the data’s original purpose. We must recognize and challenge the ways aggregate data can wrongly categorize the most vulnerable users, thereby imposing inequitable experiences online and offline.

[5] #gamergate was a 2014 misogynistic digital aggression campaign meant to harass women working within and researching gaming, framed by participants as a response to unethical practices in videogame journalism.

[6] Facebook launched its ad library (https://www.facebook.com/ads/library/) in 2019 in an effort to increase transparency around political advertisement on the platform.

[7] Perhaps the most recognizable example of this is the Patriot Act (passed October 26, 2001) which prescribes broad and asymmetrical surveillance power to the U.S. government. For example, Title V specifically removes obstacles for investigating terrorism which extend to digital spaces.

[8] This is what Estee Beck (2015) refers to as the “invisible digital identity.”

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Vie, Stephanie. 2008. “Digital Divide 2.0: ‘Generation M’ and Online Social Networking Sites in the Composition Classroom. Computers and Composition 25, no. 1: 9–23. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compcom.2007.09.004.

Acknowledgments

We would like to thank our Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy reviewers for their insightful feedback. We are particularly indebted to Estee Beck and Dominique Zino. This article would not have been possible without Estee’s mentorship and willingness to work with us throughout the revision process.

About the Authors

Charles Woods is a Graduate Teaching Assistant and PhD candidate in rhetoric, composition, and technical communication at Illinois State University. His research interests include digital privacy, biopolitical technologies, and digital rhetorics. His dissertation builds a case against the use by American law enforcement of direct-to-consumer genetic technologies as digital surveillance tools, and positions privacy policies as a dynamic rhetorical genre instructors can use to teach about digital privacy and writing. He has contributed to Computers & Composition, Writing Spaces, and The British Columbian Quarterly, among other venues. He hosts a podcast called The Big Rhetorical Podcast.

Noah Wilson is a Visiting Instructor of Writing and Rhetoric at Colgate University and a PhD candidate in Syracuse University’s Composition and Cultural Rhetoric program. His research interests include posthuman ethos, algorithmic rhetorics, and surveillance rhetorics. His dissertation addresses recent trends in social media content-recommendation algorithms, particularly how they have led to increased political polarization in the United States and the proliferation of radicalizing conspiracy theories such as Qanon and #Pizzagate. His research has appeared in Rhetoric Review, Rhetoric of Health & Medicine, Disclosure, and other venues

Screenshot of University of Mary Washington Libraries Digital Collections homepage.
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What Do You Do with 11,000 Blogs? Preserving, Archiving, and Maintaining UMW Blogs—A Case Study

Abstract

What do you do with 11,000 blogs on a platform that is over a decade old? That is the question that the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT) and the UMW Libraries are trying to answer. This essay outlines the challenges of maintaining a large WordPress multisite installation and offers potential solutions for preserving institutional digital history. Using a combination of data mining, personal outreach, and available web archiving tools, we show the importance of a systematic, collaborative approach to the challenges we didn’t expect to face in 2007 when UMW Blogs launched. Complicating matters is the increased awareness of digital privacy and the importance of maintaining ownership and control over one’s data online; the collaborative nature of a multisite and the life cycle of a student or even faculty member within an institution blurs the lines of who owns or controls the data found on one of these sites. The answers may seem obvious, but as each test case emerges, the situation becomes more and more complex. As an increasing number of institutions are dealing with legacy digital platforms that are housing intellectual property and scholarship, we believe that this essay will outline one potential path forward for the long-term sustainability and preservation.

As a leader in what is called the Digital Liberal Arts, we at the University of Mary Washington are facing the unique challenge of archiving our early digital output, namely, UMW Blogs. Started in 2007, UMW Blogs contains 11 years of digital history, learning, and archives. Although we are best known today as the birthplace of Domain of One’s Own, UMW Blogs was a testcase for showing the viability of such a widely available online platform for faculty, staff, and students.

After three years in which Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT) staff and a few UMW faculty experimented with blogs in and out of the classroom (Campbell 2009, 20), UMW Blogs launched in 2007. It provided the campus with a WordPress installation that allowed any student, faculty, or staff member to get their own subdomain (e.g. mygreatblog.umwblogs.org) and WordPress site, administered by DTLT. Since then, the 600 blogs of 2007 has grown to over 11,000 blogs and 13,000 users as of 2018! Each site has any number of themes, plugins, and widgets installed and running, creating a database that is exponentially larger and more cumbersome than the user numbers suggest at first glance.

The viability and popularity of a digital platform available to the UMW community convinced the administration that we should be providing faculty, students, and staff not only with a space on the web, but with their own web address, hosting capabilities, and “back-end” access to build on the web beyond a WordPress multisite installation. Domain of One’s Own was born, where anyone with a UMW NetID could claim their own domain name and server space on the web, and where they could install not just WordPress, but also platforms like Omeka, docuwiki, or even just a hand-coded HTML website.

As a result, we now have two “competing” platforms—one legacy, one current—to administer and maintain.

Maintaining UMW Blogs today can be quite a challenge, and as the administrators we frequently alternated between idyllic bliss and mass panic. It’s not very heavily used (most users have moved to Domain of One’s Own instead), but when something does go wrong, it goes really wrong, bringing down every site on the system. And with a number of sites that haven’t been updated since the twenty-aughts, there are many that are poised to cause such problems: too many sites using too many outdated themes and plugins, leaving too many security vulnerabilities, and impacting the overall performance of the platform.

And while there was the initial expectation that the sites would be left up on UMW Blogs forever, the changing nature of the web and our understanding of digital privacy and data ownership has evolved as well. We have an open, online platform featuring works by former faculty and students that are over a decade old, many of which are inaccessible to the original creator of the content to delete. Content they may no longer want on the web. How do we balance preservation and privacy?

Of course, we can’t just pull the plug—well, okay, we could, but for many faculty, this would be unacceptable. Some of our faculty and students are still using UMW Blogs, and many of the sites no longer being maintained are important to our institution and its history—whether it’s an innovative (for its time) course website, an example of awesome student collaboration, or an important piece of institutional history. Former students, as well, may still be using content they have created on UMW Blogs in their job search. We want to ensure the UMW Blogs system works and that those important pieces of our institutional history and students’ intellectual property don’t become digital flotsam.

With that in mind, DTLT in collaboration with UMW Libraries have embarked on a major project to ensure the stability of our legacy system and the long-term preservation of UMW’s digital history. We are going to chronicle some of those efforts, both for the benefit of the UMW community and for those at other institutions who find themselves in a similar situation, or soon will.

Outline of the Problem

UMW Blogs contains some stellar content. A group of students (some of whom are now UMW staff) catalogued historical markers and other landmarks throughout the Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania area, mostly from the Civil War, providing important historical context. A student wrote love letters to his girlfriend at another university regularly for several months, leaving her coded messages and invitations to dinner dates (“don’t forget the coupon!”). Two colleges on campus hosted their Faculty Senate sites there. Student government leaders (and campaigns) hosted sites on UMW Blogs. And there are historical sites from many student clubs, activists, and research groups. And who can forget Ermahgerd Sperts, or possibly the most creatively unimaginative username: umwblogs.umwblogs.org.

While most faculty, students, and staff have migrated to Domain of One’s Own (DoOO), there are always those who remain on the the platform they are most familiar with. As a public liberal arts, teaching-intensive institution, many upper-division courses are only taught on a three-year rotation, meaning that course sites built in UMW Blogs remain inactive for two or three years until the course itself is once again offered. While the course sites could (and often eventually are) migrated into DoOO, the way that faculty and students then interact with those sites inevitably shifts, causing some degree of anxiety from faculty members, who thus delay the migration process.

In other words, in the faculty’s mind, if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. Except, of course, it does break. Often. Leaving their course sites down.

In addition to valuable contributions to UMW history, scholarship, and archives, UMW Blogs also contains about 700 sites that were last updated on the same date they were created. (“Hello, World!”… and nothing since.) A number of sites have “broken” since they were last maintained, mostly as a result of using themes and plugins that have not been updated by their developers to retain compatibility with upgrades to the WordPress core platform. And then there are sites that, while valuable to some at the time, have been neither updated nor visited in a long time. This leaves broken and vulnerable sites, compromising those who are currently using the platform.

One of the challenges we are facing in the process of archiving the sites is the ethos under which the project was created, of openness and experimentation. The original Terms of Service for UMW Blogs reads:

UMW Blogs is an intellectual and creative environment, owned and maintained by the University of Mary Washington’s Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies. Users of the system are expected to abide by all relevant copyright and intellectual property laws as well as by the University’s Network and Computer Use Policy.

Users are encouraged to use UMW Blogs to explore the boundaries of Web publication in support of teaching and learning at the University, with the understanding that UMW may decide to remove at any time content that is found to be in violation of community standards, University policy, or applicable federal or state laws.

As participants in a public Web space, users must also understand that the work they publish on UMW Blogs generally may be browsed or viewed by anyone on the Web. Some features are available to users who wish to protect content or their own identity. Information about protecting content and/or your identity within the system can be found at the following address:[1]

While the TOS capture the ethos and spirit of UMW Blogs and prompt users to think about privacy, they don’t prompt users to address their own IP and copyright. This oversight is partially a reflection of the approach to the Web as open. Nevertheless, it leaves us, now, wondering what we can actually do with student work, former faculty and staff work, group blogs, long-term collaborative projects between faculty, staff, and students.

The intention was always that copyright would remain with the creator of the content (which was made explicit in the Domain of One’s Own Terms of Service). But as we archive sites, we have encountered a number of issues regarding whose permission we need to move these sites into the (public) archive, to which the original creators will no longer have access. This is particularly difficult for collaboratively created sites, where contributors to the site are not owners of the site.

There’s another related issue that has been weighing on our minds. Past members of DTLT (none of whom are still administering the platform) told users that their UMW Blogs sites would be hosted in perpetuity, but that presents a major data ownership and privacy issue. The internet is a different place than it was in 2007. According to Paul Mason, the entire internet in 2007 was smaller than Facebook is today (Mason 2015, 7)! And that’s to say nothing of the changing ways in which we view our personal data, even our public creative work, since GamerGate, Ferguson, and Cambridge Analytica. And as the birthplace of Domain of One’s Own, UMW (and DTLT in particular) has focused increasingly over the past decade on the ownership aspect of writing and working on the web—empowering students to make critical decisions about what they put on the web, what they don’t put on the web, and what they delete from the web.

We’ve also received a number of requests from alumni asking us to remove their blog from UMW Blogs, to remove a specific post they created on a faculty course site, or even to remove specific comments they left on a classmate’s blog as part of an assignment. We are well aware of the vulnerabilities that working in public can create, as well as the ways in which we as people change and grow, leaving behind aspects of the (digital) identity that we once shared with the world.

And so, beyond the need to streamline the platform, we think it’s important that we take the initiative to remove old content from our public platform, and to pass it along to former students and faculty so they can decide what should be public and where it should be hosted.

After everything is archived locally and before anything is deleted from the platform, DTLT will be reaching out to those former students, faculty, and staff, letting them know our plans, and providing them the opportunity (and documentation) to export their data and preserve it publicly or privately, in a place of their choosing. This not only helps those currently on the platform have a better experience, but it helps our former community members once again reflect critically on their public digital identity and take a bit more ownership over their data and what’s done with it.

As proponents of “digital minimalism,” we often tell our students and colleagues that what we delete is as important a part of curating our digital identity as what we publish. We want to encourage students (and faculty and staff) to think about how large a digital footprint they are leaving, and help devise strategies everyone can use to minimize traces of themselves online. And our freedom to delete increases our freedom to experiment. As the attention economy and algorithmically driven content discovery have radically changed the internet since the early days of UMW Blogs, it’s worth rethinking both what we as an institution hold onto, and what we as individuals decide to keep in public venues.

Another challenge was that at the start of this project, we at UMW did not currently have any policies governing data storage, collection, and deletion. Alumni could keep their email addresses, the only time we ever deleted a course in the LMS was when we moved from one to another, and we do not have a enterprise-solution cloud-based shared digital storage space. We were starting from scratch.

The Process, DTLT

We identified over 5000 blogs on the platform that have not been updated since 2015 or earlier, are not administered by any current UMW community members, and have either not been visited at all in the last two years or have been visited less than 100 times in the entire time period for which we have analytics. That means essentially half the platform is inactive and no longer providing benefit to users, but is also open to vulnerabilities or “bit rot,” which can cause problems for the active sites.

However, some of the inactive sites we identified are also important pieces of institutional history. After analyzing the metadata for all 11,333 sites in the UMW Blogs database, we identified a list of over 5000 blogs that meet all of the following criteria:

  • The blog has not been updated since Jan 1, 2016.
  • None of the blog administrators are current members of the UMW community.
  • The site has either not been visited at all in the last two years, or has logged fewer than 100 visits all-time.

We then went through the entire list to identify sites important to our institutional history, as well as course websites that are less than five years old. (Some courses are offered every three or four years, and having relatively recent course websites live can be useful for faculty and students.) These are sites that we either think should be kept on the platform, or—more likely—that we think would be good candidates for UMW Libraries’ new Digital Archive. The latter will create a flat-file archive (a website with no databases or dynamic content, only HTML and CSS code) that will be far more future-proof and less likely to just break one day.

Now, we didn’t visit all 5000+ blogs manually! Rather, we looked carefully at the metadata—site titles, the person(s) attached to the sites as administrators, the administrator’s email address, and the dates the sites were created and last updated. This told us if the site was created by a student or faculty member, and if the site was a course website, collaborative student project, personal blog, etc. We identified almost 300 sites from this collection which we did check manually, often consulting with each other about them, before deciding on the 62 of these 5000+ sites that were important to keep public or submit to the UMW Digital Archive (more on that process below).

In the end, we determined that of the 11,333 blogs on the UMW Blogs platform, 6012 of them were important to keep actively published on the web (including about 50 which would best serve the UMW Community by being frozen in time and preserved publicly before “bit rot” and broken plugins bring them down). The other 5321 blogs, many of which were important in their time, are ready to be removed from the platform.

To be clear, we’re not talking about just deleting them! We are working with our hosting company, Reclaim Hosting, to create a flat-file archive and a WordPress XML export of each of those blogs, which DTLT will retain for 2 years before permanently deleting them. We are also preparing to email the administrators of those sites to let them know our plans so they can download their content before we remove anything from the platform (or, worst-case scenario, ask us to email them the backup archive after we purge the platform). But ultimately, it is important for the health of the platform to streamline the database and focus on supporting the more recent and active sites.

Through this process, we also identified a number of faculty and staff “power users” of UMW Blogs—those people who had more than 10 sites on UMW Blogs or had created a course site on the blog within the last two semesters. Once that handful of faculty were identified, we reached out to them to schedule one-on-one meetings with a member of DTLT to discuss the options for their UMW Blog site: deletion, personal archive, library archive, or migration to personal subdomain.

This was, admittedly, a fraught process for some of the faculty; these sites had become important and significant resources, examples, and case-studies of the viability and ultimate success of working openly on the web. They were sometimes years in the making, informed by countless hours of student and faculty work. To come in and say, “These sites aren’t viable in this space anymore” is intimidating.

One advantage of targeting the “power users” first is that we interacted frequently with these faculty members on a number of other projects, and thus had already developed a relationship with them, not to mention an understanding of their values, their work, and their pedagogy. We decided collectively which DTLT team member would work with each individual faculty member based on past relationships and interactions. We weren’t cold-calling these faculty; we were approaching colleagues with whom we had previously collaborated. Thus, we knew better how to discuss the issues with each individual faculty. While time consuming, we built on our relationships to tailor each interaction to the specific needs of the faculty member, allowing us to better explain and recommend options for their UMW Blog sites.

Explaining that our goal is, in fact, to preserve these websites in a more sustainable format, in order to celebrate and highlight their importance and significance to faculty, is key. We also want faculty to take more control over their data and their sites, understanding better how WordPress works and how the archival process will be of benefit to them. No technology, no matter how advanced, can survive this long without a lot of help, a lot of work, and some hard decisions about how we are going to invest our time, energy, and monetary resources.

We worked with faculty, then, to create a list of sites on UMW Blogs and categorized them based on how they wanted them to be preserved. Once that list was created and finalized, we passed the information along to the relevant people, including DTLT and UMW Archives staff, to make sure that all sites ended up in working order where they were supposed to be. When moving sites to Domain of One’s Own, we often had to replace themes and plugins, so that while the site might not look the way it did when initially created, we tried to ensure it would still retain its original functionality. The static library archive preserved the original link and function of the site in a static file.

The Process, UMW Libraries

UMW Libraries has been archiving the University’s web presence for several years now, primarily with established, automated web crawls and the occasional manual crawl to capture historical context during a special event, such as a university presidential inauguration. Our focus has been on archiving institutional sites, such as the main website, social media, UMW Athletics, or UMW News. Despite this effort, we were often missing the individual stories of the campus community.

We have a fantastic scrapbook collection in the University Archives. Stories from UMW (or MWC) students across the decades. Though students are still creating and donating scrapbooks, many are recording their college experience online, through Domain of One’s Own or UMW Blogs, rather than on paper. We also have detailed records of university business, such as meeting minutes, correspondence, and publications. The vast majority of this information is online today, with blogs or other platforms used to keep notes on committee work or to provide transparency on important campus issues, such as faculty governance or strategic planning. We must be proactive in not only preserving but providing access to these records for future students and researchers.

The UMW Archives appraisal process is an important step in beginning to archive this material. We not only need to make sure that the websites and digital projects we collect fit within our collection development policies, but we must also be confident in our abilities, through both technology and staff power, to preserve and provide access to the material we agree to accept. To help us with this process, we developed a set of criteria for appraisal:

  1. Scholarship that is new and impactful in its field.
  2. Highly innovative technical and/or creative aspects.
  3. Content that complements existing archival collections and subject areas of emphasis.
  4. Content that documents the history, administration, and/or culture of the University.
  5. Unique content that supports the research and curriculum needs of faculty.
  6. Content created, owned, or used by university departments, faculty, or students in carrying out university-related business, functions, or activities.
  7. Compatibility with SCUA’s preservation software.
  8. A faculty member’s statement of support for student-created websites.

This set of criteria will help us work through lists of current websites to determine what would be best suited for the UMW Archives. It is also published on the library website so that faculty, staff, and students can read through the list and determine if their website will be a good fit for the library’s collections. However, even if a UMW community member is unsure of where their website belongs, our hope is that the broad guidelines will encourage them to contact us and start a conversation. Even if a suggested website is not acquired by the archives, DTLT and UMW Archives staff will work with the creator to find other alternatives for migrating or archiving their content.

The lists of current websites that we are combing through and appraising do not contain the thousands of websites that DTLT started with on this project. For example, we removed from consideration sites that were created but never built out, don’t have any content, haven’t been accessed, etc. Other websites were also included because they were listed in previous university publications or suggested by a colleague. Our initial list of potential websites to archive is not all-inclusive, and it will be a continuous process as more URLs are recommended or discovered.

After websites are selected for archiving, the very important step of requesting permission follows. While the University Archives actively archives institutional websites, such as UMW Athletics or UMW Social Media, we feel strongly that we must receive permission before archiving individual blogs, websites, and other digital projects. DTLT and UMW Archives work together to reach out to the community to request permission from all creators and contributors of items that we want to archive. For those submitting archive requests, the copyright permission statement is published on the library’s website so that anyone can read and understand the terms before submission. Even if a faculty member recommends a website for archiving, the student still must provide permission before archiving takes place.

If permission is received to archive a website, the crawling can begin! UMW uses three tools for archiving websites: Preservica, Archive-It, and Webrecorder. Each web crawl is manually initiated by staff and student aides, as well as checked over for quality control after the crawl is complete. The crawl creates a WARC file, which is uploaded in the library’s digital preservation system. A metadata record in the form of Dublin Core is created for each WARC file, which includes creator(s), contributor(s), and two to three subject headings. Library staff used “Descriptive Metadata for Web Archiving: Recommendations of the OCLC Research Library Partnership Web Archiving Metadata Working Group” to help determine metadata guidelines, in addition to local, unique needs (Dooley and Bowers 2018).

The final component to the archiving process is making the archived websites accessible. Once a WARC file is created and metadata is applied, the archival item is published in Digital Collections, the library’s digital preservation and access platform. Users of the platform are able to locate archived websites through search functions that use both metadata and full-text. The websites render within the browser itself, so users can navigate the website as it existed at the time of capture.

Conclusion: Further Challenges, looking forward, plan for it

This is only the beginning of a long process of preserving and protecting our legacy platform, UMW Blogs. The platform was a launch pad for Domain of One’s Own and put UMW on the map for innovative digital learning. At the time, there was no precedent, no best practices, no road map, no rules. Now, we hope the lessons shared in this essay help schools trying to maintain their own legacy, open, digital learning platforms.

Moving forward, we will likely confront similar issues with Domain of One’s Own, particularly concerning what we should preserve in our library archives. We are developing a process for students, faculty, and staff to submit a site for preservation consideration. But given the ethos of DoOO—that the work done on users’ website is theirs to do with as they like—we know there have already been some potentially important sites deleted, as is the prerogative of the user.

How, then do you balance the imperative to save, preserve, and keep digital artifacts of (potential) historical significance with the need for agency, privacy, and freedom of the student, staff, or faculty member to delete, let die, or decay? These are the questions we are now collectively grappling with, and will continue to moving forward.

Notes

[1] Much like this project itself is trying to illustrate in the preserving of historic or significant materials that lived online, the original links to these policies and information are broken and the original information is all but inaccessible.

Bibliography

Campbell, Gardner. 2009. “UMWeb 2.0: University of Mary Washington Webifies Its World.” University of Mary Washington Magazine, Fall/Winter 2017. https://archive.org/details/universityofmary33fwuniv.

Dooley, Jackie, and Kate Bowers. 2018. Descriptive Metadata for Web Archiving: Recommendations of the OCLC Research Library Partnership Web Archiving Metadata Working Group. Dublin, OH: OCLC Research. https://doi.org/10.25333/C3005C.

Mason, Paul. 2015. Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

About the Authors

Angie Kemp is the Digital Resources Librarian at the University of Mary Washington. She works in Special Collections and University Archives, focusing on maintaining and expanding the university’s digital archives. She also oversees the Digital Archiving Lab, where campus and community members go to collaborate on digital collection projects and preservation. Her research interests include ethics and privacy in digital archives, as well as the long-term sustainability of digital projects.

Lee Skallerup Bessette is a Learning Design Specialist at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS) at Georgetown University. Previously, she was a Instructional Technology Specialist at DTLT at UMW working digital literacy and Domain of One’s Own. Her research interests include the intersections of technology and pedagogy, affect, and staff labor issues. Her writing has appeared in Hybrid Pedagogy, Inside Higher Ed, ProfHacker, Women in Higher Education, and Popula. You can find her talking about everything on Twitter as @readywriting.

Kris Shaffer is a data scientist and Senior Computational Disinformation Analyst for New Knowledge. His book, Data versus Democracy: How Big Data Algorithms Shape Opinions and Alter the Course of History, will be published Spring 2019 by Apress. Kris also coauthored “The Tactics and Tropes of the Internet Research Agency,” a report prepared for the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election on social media. A former academic, Kris has worked as an instructional technologist at the University of Mary Washington and has taught courses in music theory and cognition, computer science, and digital studies at Yale University, the University of Colorado–Boulder, the University of Mary Washington, and Charleston Southern University. He holds a PhD from Yale University.

Can You Digg It?: Using Web Applications in Teaching the Research Process

Rochelle (Shelley) Rodrigo, Old Dominion University

Abstract

Instructors teaching research methods, especially undergraduate writing courses that focus on researched arguments, should use various web-based interactive applications, usually referred to as Web 2.0 technologies, throughout the research process. Using these technologies helps students learn various 21st Century technology and media literacies as well as promote diverse student learning methods and active learning pedagogies. The article provides examples of different type of web-based applications that might be used throughout the research process and then ends with a discussion of logistical concerns like student access and privacy rights.

 

 

Admit it, when you first search for something you use Google or check Wikipedia:

  • Of course!
  • What? Are you crazy! I can’t trust those sites.
  • I shout out to Facebook or Twitter.
  • Plead the fifth.

I don’t ask this question of my students; instead, I ask this question of my colleagues when I do workshops about teaching with technology (especially when teaching big end-of-semester term or research papers). Can you guess the results? If we admit that we are just as “guilty” of using Google or referring to Wikipedia and other online “friends” when seeking out information, isn’t it time we accept these as legitimate steps for research in the 21st century. Therefore, if going to the web is the one of the first steps for research, we should “digg” using various web applications when teaching research skills.

Digg is the catchy title for thinking about using web applications in research. On the one hand, I believe instructors do not use social bookmarking tools, like Digg, nearly enough while teaching basic research skills, especially in First Year Composition courses. However, I do not use Digg, nor ask my students to use Digg, because it has been repeatedly critiqued for the gender, age, and socioeconomic bias of the users who curate the materials (Lo 2006; Solis 2009; Weinberg 2006). Digg’s biased user population is representative of the promise and peril of the internet in general. If anyone can post on Digg, and I choose to use such a web application in my research, how does the bias of the application impact my research process and product. However, is that not the case with almost any research process and product we suggest for our students? In short, part of what we are teaching our students about research is to just be plain critical, of everything, including the tools we use (Selfe 1999).

Critical engagement with the technologies they use is a powerful motivator for having students work with various web applications. Learning how to use different technologies, learn new technologies and critically engage with technologies prepares students for staying successfully employed in the 21st century. The majority of lists citing the key skills needed to succeed in the 21st century include “information literacy” as well as “consume and compose multimedia.”(AT&T 2010; CWPA 2008; Partnership for 21st Century Skills n.d; NCTE 2008; Kamenetz 2010).

Lankshear and Knobel (2007) claim that:

The more a literacy practice that is mediated by digital encoding privileges participation over publishing, distributed expertise over centralized expertise, collective intelligence over individual possessive intelligence, collaboration over individuated authorship, dispersion over scarcity, sharing over ownership, experimentation over ‘normalization’, innovation and evolution over stability and fixity, creative innovative rule breaking over generic purity and policing, relationship over information broadcast, do-it-yourself creative production over professional service delivery, and so on, the more sense we think it makes to regard it as a new literacy. (228)

If the Web 2.0 world is promoting these types of changes, researching in the Web 2.0 world might need to be considered a new literacy.

This article argues that instructors teaching research methods, especially undergraduate writing courses that focus on researched arguments, should use various web-based interactive applications. The article discusses how these applications, usually referred to as Web 2.0 technologies, are a way to meet 21st Century Literacies learning objectives as well as diversify student learning methods and facilitate active learning pedagogies. The article then provides examples of different types of web-based applications that might be used throughout the research process, and ends with a discussion of logistical concerns like student access and privacy rights.

Why Digg It?

Once you get out into the real world you won’t have your textbooks with you, so having experience using IT as a learning tool helps prepare people for life after textbooks.
–An undergraduate student, 2010 ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology (Smith and Caruso 2010, 27)

The obvious first reason for teaching students to use web applications in research is “if you can’t beat them, join them.” I know students are going to use Google; therefore, I embrace that default and enjoy introducing them to specialized Google search engines like Google Scholar (Google’s search engine that focuses on returning results from scholarly books and journals), Google Books (Google’s search engine that returns results from Google’s book scanning project), and Google News (Google’s search engine that returns results from news outlets as far back as the 19th century). I enjoy their “shock” in learning about these specialized search engines.

Since 2004, college students responding to the annual ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology have rated themselves highly for the ability to “use the Internet effectively and efficiently search for information” (Smith and Caruso 2010, 66). Specifically in 2010, 80.7% gave themselves “high marks (expert or very skilled)” and over 56% gave themselves high marks for “evaluating reliability and credibility” (69). However, if students are as information literate as they think, then why does it feel like there is a “crisis” of 21st Century Literacies? Although it feels like the “crisis” of 21st Century Literacies is restricted to the 21st century, the heart of this crisis is wrapped up in various techno-literacies and the various media or techno-literacy crises have been rampant for over 40 years. Since the National Council of Teacher’s of English (NCTE) published the “Resolution on Media Literacy” in 1970, it has followed up with a variety of other related lists and position statements about techno-, media, and 21st century literacies.

Many other educational organizations produce lists and policy statements that include things like:

  • using technology to gather, analyze, and synthesize information (ASCD 2008; Association of Colleges and Research Libraries 2000; Council of Writing Program Administrators [CWPA] 2008; National Council of Teachers of English [NCTE] 2008; & Partnership for 21st Century Skills n.d.) as well as
  • describe, explain, and persuade with technology (Conference on College Composition and Communication 2004; CWPA 2008; Intel n.d.; NCTE 2005; NCTE 2008; & Partnership for 21st Century Skills n.d.).

Forbes’s top 10 list of “skills that will get you hired in 2013” listed “computers and electronics” as number five; the top two skills listed were “critical thinking” and “complex problem solving” (Casserly 2012)—both required of major research and writing projects. Teaching research processes through and with web 2.0 technologies combines these skills. In a study of basic writing students, Vance (2012) found that although students do want the interactivity that comes with Web 2.0 technologies, they also want more stable, instructor vetted and delivered content as well. This desire hints at the fact students do want and need help identifying and using digital information. Instructors are being hailed by both (the overestimation of) their students as well as (the underestimation of) their colleagues to help students become better technologically-mediated researchers and communicators.

Getting students to understand that there is more to Googling than just Google not only helps develop more critical digital research skills, it builds upon what they already know and do. Most individuals do some form of research every day, and more often than not, Google does get the job done. Starting with what the students already do works not only because we are going with the flow; actually, it is because it is going with their flow. Brain research demonstrates that students learn best when what they learn is connected to something they already know or do (Leamnson 1999; Zull 2002). The process of teaching research skills needs to be built upon students’ existing processes. Instead of trying to completely rewire students–as science instructors often attempt to do when they continually repeat that seasons are based on the position of the earth’s axis and not its proximity to the sun–help them adapt and expand their already hardwired “Google it” response. A number of scholars have published that various Web 2.0 applications support research-related activities like reading (Won Park 2013) and finding and evaluating information (Magnuson 2013), and are compatible with learning pedagogies such as constructivism (Paily 2013), connectivism (Del Moral, Cernea, and Villalusttre 2013), and problem-based learning (Tambouris et al. 2012).

Increasingly, both scholarly as well as more plebian research resources are only available in digital formats, usually accessible through the web. Students not only need to learn how to (systematically) search for these resources, they need to learn to critically consume different types of resources, some with no written words. Once students find and read these resources, they also need help collecting, archiving, and analyzing them as well. Finally, with the variety of available digital publication media, students can contribute back by producing multimedia projects as they report out on their research process and product.

What are You Digging With?

Scholarship in composition and literacy studies has demonstrated as a field composition studies supports using web-based interactive communication applications, many referred to as Web 2.0 technologies, in the teaching and learning of writing. Strickland (2009) claims “writers should be able to use all available technology to help them discover what and how to say what needs to be written” (p. 12). Many of these web-based applications either “count” as the multimodal compositions that scholars like Takayoshi and Selfe (2007) as well as organizations like NCTE (2005) and CCCC (2004) promote or help produce those same multimedia texts. Even English education programs, like the one discussed in Doering, Beach and O’Brien (2007) promote teaching future English teachers about using different web-based applications. Most of the time, however, these discussions about using various web-based technologies are focused on the product of a student’s major research project. Many of these technologies can also support the writing process as well as the research process. The mistake that many instructors make in thinking about incorporating multimedia and web applications in the research process is only focusing on the products of research—the primary, secondary, or tertiary resources incorporated into research or the “report” out of the research. Successful 21st century researchers need to think about using various web applications and embracing multimedia throughout the entire research process:

  • Identifying a Topic
  • Finding & Collecting Resources
  • Critically Reading & Evaluating Resources
  • Synthesizing Ideas & Resources
  • Drafting & (Peer) Reviewing
  • Presenting Final Results

For example, instructors may only think that YouTube (a video repository where individuals can make accounts and upload videos to share) is only good for finding questionable resources and presenting final projects in video form. However watching videos on YouTube, Vimeo, or TED might help students struggling to find a topic that interests them or see how people are currently talking about a specific topic. It is definitely time to rethink “YouTube is a bad resource” just because anyone can post a video; will anyone question the scholarly veracity of one of Michael Wesch’s digital anthropology videos? YouTube can also help solve common formatting problems as well. Instead of using time in class showing students how to do headers and hanging indents in their final research papers; assign as homework a YouTube video demonstrating how to do the formatting functions in different version of MS Word or OpenOffice.

Ultimately the goal for this article is to outline examples of what types of web applications might be incorporated at various points within a traditional (primarily secondary) research process. First, getting students to produce and share texts through the research process helps them keep connected with an audience. Second, producing digitized final projects that are published to the web, especially multimedia projects, makes students’ work refrigerator door worthy; you know, like the finger paintings we brought home from preschool. And Facebook is the new refrigerator door, instantly giving students a real audience with real feedback that they care about.

Applications to Help Identify a Topic

Getting students started on a research project is always more difficult than expected. At the beginning of a research project students generally need to identify a topic that is engaging to them as well as narrow it down to something unique. In both cases, students need help thinking differently about their interests. As Brooke (2009) suggests, researchers should understand search results as “departure points, that bring potentially distant topics and ideas in proximity both with each other and the user” (83). Sometimes it just helps to provide them with a variety of alternative search engines (anything besides the general Google search engine) and media repositories (image, audio, video, and text) to help identify what interests them. Many students do not pay attention to the variety of ways they may filter search results in the left hand menu of a Google search results page nor know that Google has specialized search engines like Scholar, Books, and News. Although the web is full of personal rants and raves, those non-scholarly resources, like personal blogs and wikis (including Wikipedia), can be extremely useful in helping students further narrow a topic to something manageable and with a unique angle as well as analyze what they already know or believe about the topic. Using search engines that present the search results visually (for example: Cluuz, Hashtagify, Search-Cube, or TouchGraph) can also help with narrowing a topic as well as preparing a list of future search terms (figure 1).

rodrigo

Figure 1: Results from a Cluuz search; multiple visual cluster maps presented on the right side of the page.

In short, the varied web resources provide students the opportunities to both explore as well as narrow their research topics. Introducing students to advanced search pages or results filters will not only help them identity interesting, focused research topics, it will help them find relevant secondary resources as well.

Applications to Help Find & Collect Resources

Teaching students to find resources is generally easier than helping students collect the resources they find. Based on my experience, robust citation management applications like Zotero, Mendeley, or EndNote have a steep learning curve for users to understand both the citation management as well as note taking functionalities. The time to learn the various aspects of the applications usually requires more time than available in freshman and sophomore level classes with major research projects. Instead of using these more complex applications, students can use social bookmarking sites, like Delicious and Diigo (usually easier to learn than full resource collecting programs), to keep track of their resources. Social bookmarking sites collect users saved webpage URLs. Except, instead of being restricted to one computer, like when saved using My Favorites in the Internet Explorer browser, social bookmarking sites save the list of links to a server the user can access from any computer connected to the web. Most social bookmarking sites also allow the user to associate notes with each bookmarked webpage.

Even if students are collecting books they found at the library or journal articles they found in a library database (resources that are not normally associated with a webpage), they can bookmark WorldCat’s or the library’s webpage representing the book (figure 2) and link to the permalink, or deeplink, into a library database resource. Johnson (2009) explicitly argues that using different Web 2.0 technologies, like blogs and social bookmarking, allow students to more readily collect both their secondary as well as primary resources. The amount of detail included with the bookmarked resource is only limited to the assignment requirements given to a student. An instructor can ask a student to include information like a bibliographic citation, summary, and source evaluation in the “notes” area of the social bookmark for each resource (figure 2).

Rodrigo2

Figure 2: An example of a robust annotated bibliography entry in the social bookmarking application Diigo.

Since they are social, social bookmarking sites are by default public and make it easy for students to share resources with one another, or their instructors. Social bookmarking sites will also help students find more resources. They can find individuals who have bookmarked the same resources and identify other resources. Students can also identify how individuals tagged resources with identifying keywords, like indexing, and use those tags as alternative key words in more searches in databases and other locations. As web-based applications, social bookmarking sites also address some access issues; students who do not have regular access to the same computer can still store all of their collected resources in one online repository that they can get to from any computer with an Internet connection.

Applications to Help Critically Read & Evaluate Resources

More sophisticated social bookmarking tools like Diigo also allow students to read and annotate web resources (applications like A.nnotate and Internote also allow web page annotations). Diigo allows users to highlight and leave post-it styles notes on most webpages (figure 3).

Rodrigo3Figure 3: Example of Diigo highlight and “post-it” note style annotation tools.

Having the ability to take notes does not inherently prompt students to be critical readers, instead a functionality that enables commenting might prompt students to ask what type of questions and comments should the annotated on their resources. English faculty, or librarians, can provide students with a list of resource evaluation questions that students might then answer by highlighting and taking notes on the page. Since Diigo is a web application, students can share their annotated resource with other students or the instructor.

Applications to Help Synthesize Ideas & Resources

Once students’ notes are digital, it is easy for them to slide them around, looking for connections to help synthesize ideas and resources. Again, these web applications do not inherently make students engage their resource materials in more sophisticated ways; instead, these resources provide students with the opportunity to engage with and connect their resources differently. Writing instructors have asked students to make mind or cluster maps of their research topic, resources, and ideas for decades; however, having students make these in a web application allows for more detailed information associated with each node. Many of the digital mind map applications (like Mindomo and Popplet) allow users to include text, images, videos, even attachments to each individual node of information. Many mind map applications also allow users to collaborate, sometime even synchronously, within the same document. A team of students working on a research project could collaboratively construct a mind map with the different resources each individual located. Timeline and geographical mapping applications, web applications that allow users to map information as a point in time or geo-spatially, also allow students to interact with their resources and data in different ways (figure 4).

Rodrigo4

Figure 4: Example of a timeline showing various organizational statements about 21st Century Literacies.

Having students play with their resources and data forces them to spend time with their resources and data. Ultimately, it is that time with the data that helps students the most in synthesizing information in a meaningful way.

Applications to Help Draft & (Peer) Review

Students should be drafting and getting feedback along the entire research process. One of the standard functions of various Web 2.0 applications, also regularly referred to as read/write web, is some form of interaction between the many kinds of readers and writers (Dilager 2010). Even as early in the process as identifying and narrowing a topic, students should be able to share their narrowed topic or research question and possibly make a research plan. In either case, students will want feedback about their work. Microblogs, like Twitter and the Facebook Status Update, give students the opportunity to gather quick feedback on material as small as a research question or thesis statement.

There are a variety of read/write web applications students might use to report out and invite feedback of all amounts during their research projects. Blogs, wikis, and document sharing applications like Google Drive would allow students to document large portions of their research process and product. These popular applications are also probably the best known and most written about web applications to support the teaching of writing, especially as a way to expand audience feedback and participation with a given project (Alexander 2008; Johnson 2009; Nakamura 2011). Blogs, wikis and document sharing are usually structured to facilitate some form of a social network that invites “replies” to any posted work. Some advanced feedback applications allow readers to respond to specific sections of a draft. For example, the CommentPress Core plugin for a WordPress blog allows readers to comment on individual paragraphs as well as an entire posting. Similarly, VoiceThread allows viewers to comment on individual presentation slides as well as draw on an individual slide to reference a specific area of a visual.

Not just text based web applications facilitate replies to content; even the more visual Web 2.0 applications where students might post parts of their research usually include spaces for readers to make comments. Most image and video repositories usually have reply features. Even if students are publishing their work in progress or request for feedback in different locations, using microblogs can help them to send out requests for feedback with links to where ever the material is residing. In short, there is no technological reason not to request and receive feedback throughout the entire research process.

Applications to Help Present Final Results

Many of the applications mentioned above might also be used as final presentation formats or media. Document sharing would allow for easy publishing of traditional paper style presentations. And if students were blogging their entire research process, they can post their final presentation as the last post (however, the first visible to visitors) on their research blogs. Students might use alternative visual presentations applications like Prezi to distinguish themselves from the masses that use PowerPoint. However, there are a many Web 2.0 applications not discussed in this article that would allow students to get really creative with their final product. With all the freely available web 2.0 applications mentioned in this article or listed at websites like Go2Web20 and Discovery’s Web 2.0 Tools, students could produce a variety of media including audio or video files, timelines or maps, digital collages or mind maps.

Asking students to produce their final presentations in these alternative formats does not necessarily relieve them of the rhetorical responsibilities of a composition class (Takayoshi and Selfe 2007). Asking students to write cover memo identifying their purpose, audience, and other rhetorical factors as well as discussing how their project meets those rhetorical factors reengages students with their rhetorical responsibilities.

How to Digg It?

Beyond thinking about how to use the technologies, many instructors have two major concerns about incorporating any technology into their assignments: access and support. Although these are both legitimate concerns, the digital divide is alive and well in the second decade of the 21st century (Jansen 2010), the need to creatively overcome these concerns meets the objective of making our students more technologically savvy. In other words, most individuals face some form of technological access and support issue on any digital project. Putting students into groups for assignments, even if they are just support and peer review groups for research projects, resolves a lot of access and support issues. Constructing student groups as collaborative learning communities empowers them to share knowledge and resources, including “access” to specific types of needed hardware and software and the skills to use it. Having students understand that finding and learning how to use a specific technological application is both another example of research as well as a skill they will need to continue to hone with how fast both hardware and software updates and evolves. If a given Web 2.0 application’s help page is not helpful, and the group can’t figure it out how to use the program, YouTube is always a good place to look for help with any “how-to” question. And if there is still no answer on YouTube, maybe it is time for instructors to make a few “how-to” videos and post them up to YouTube.

Another concern that faculty, administrators, and scholars have about using web applications in classes is privacy, especially in relation to legal issues like the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, FERPA (Diaz 2010; Ellison and Wu 2008; Rodriguez 2011). Although many of the web applications I discuss above have privacy options, more conservative interpretations of FERPA argue that students rights are not protected since the school does not have an officially signed legal contract with the application provider. There is no one easy solution to the FERPA issue; however, honesty is the best policy. I have discussed using these types of applications with the legal personnel associated with my institution. With their help, I’ve added a section to my syllabus about using web applications (Appendix). In short, this section notifies students of their legal rights to privacy and legal responsibilities like copyright infringement; it also provides them an alternative option that is not posted to the Internet. Of course, the alternative option is the traditional research process and paper; however, to date, I have never had a student take the alternative option. I have had an increasing number, still a very small number, choose to password protect their work; however, no one has refused to use the web application.

Long-term access and archiving are final concerns with using web applications for academic assignments. It is true that individuals or companies maintaining different web applications go out of business and can no longer support the website. For example, I once had a student construct a beautifully researched and documented timeline and then the company supporting the timeline application stop supporting the service. Similarly, I’ve had classes of students develop mind maps in mindmeister for free before mindmeister canceled their free accounts; those mind maps are now inaccessible (unless the student pays for them). Again, instead of using this as an excuse, it can be a “learning moment” to have discussions with students about archiving their work in an alternative format. At minimum, it is relatively easy to either take static or dynamic screen captures to save images or video of student work. Consider having students use free screen capture software, like Jing or Screencast-O-matic, to report out and reflect upon their work as a part of their assignment. The could make a five minute video, or two, that introduces the project, discusses their rhetorical choices, and reflects upon the process of constructing the text. This reflective screen capture video assignment does double-duty in archiving their work in an alternative format.

Interestingly enough, many educational institutions or educational technology companies have tried to address issue like FERPA and archiving by developing their own versions of Web 2.0 applications, like Purdue University’s relatively successful Hotseat and Blackboard’s incorporation of blogs, wikis, and social media like interfaces into their learning management system software. However, I agree with Jenkins (2008) and Dilager (2010) that replicating services is generally not a good idea. Most homegrown technologies never work as well as the “original” and other institutional issues about continued command, control, and support emerge. Instead, Dilager argues for a “critical engagement with Web 2.0” (24), implying that both faculty and students should consider the original purpose and authors/companies producing the Web 2.0 applications they are using. For example, Facebook is a service for profile application (the service is free because the application mines profile information and sells it to other companies). Faculty should understand Facebook’s commercial element before requiring students to use the application. This type of critical engagement brings us full circle to the issue of user/curator bias in Digg, just as with evaluating research resources, faculty and students should evaluate the technologies they choose to use.

Although there are a variety of reasons that might make it difficult to incorporate different interactive web-based, Web 2.0, applications into undergraduate research courses, the benefit of having more engaged students as well as more critical and complex researched projects is worth the work. Providing students with a scaffolded project that asks them to engage with these different technologies helps prepare them for the variety of research processes they will undertake in their future academic, professional, and civic lives.

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Appendix: Sample Syllabus Language

This is the syllabus language I have negotiated with the lawyers at my former institution. To be legally “binding,” I have to obtain some form of “signed” response.

We will be using a web-based timeline application (TimeGlider) for academic use in ENG101, First Year Composition, section #####, Fall 2009. By default, the timeline is open to the public for the purpose of sharing your work with the larger Internet community; specifically, using the timeline application will:

    • provide an opportunity to present information in a variety of modalities,
    • allow students to conceptualize their projects in a chronological manner,
    • provide an opportunity to collaborate on large scale projects, and
    • engage a larger audience who may provide feedback on the project.

To use the timeline application responsibly please observe all laws, MCC, and MCCCD policy that are incorporated into the Codes of Conduct and Academic Integrity. Some specific aspects of law and policy that might be well to remember are prohibitions against copyright infringement, plagiarism, harassment or interferences with the underlying technical code of the software. Some resources to remind yourself about MCC and MCCCD policies as well as laws about copyright and fair use:

As a student using the timeline application certain rights accrue to you. Any original work that you make tangible belongs to you as a matter of copyright law. You also have a right to the privacy of your educational records as a matter of federal law and may choose to set your timeline privacy settings to private and only share with the instructor and your classmates. Your construction of a timeline constitutes an educational record. By constructing a timeline, and not taking other options available to you in this course equivalent to this assignment that would not be posted publicly on the Internet, you consent to the collaborative use of this material as well as to the disclosure of it in this course and potentially for the use of future courses.

 

 

About the Author

Rochelle (Shelley) Rodrigo is Assistant Professor of Rhetoric & (New) Media at Old Dominion University. She was as a full time faculty member for nine years in English and film studies at Mesa Community College in Arizona. Shelley researches how “newer” technologies better facilitate communicative interactions, more specifically teaching and learning. As well as co-authoring the first and second editions of The Wadsworth Guide to Research, Shelley was also co-editor of Rhetorically Rethinking Usability (Hampton Press). Her work has also appeared in Computers and Composition, Teaching English in the Two-Year College, EDUCAUSE Quarterly, Journal of Advancing Technology, Flow¸ as well as various edited collections.

 

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