Denise Comer on Teaching The Fine Art of the Tweet

A new online course teaches writing for social media and other uses

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Denise Comer, director, first-year writing, Duke University

This summer, Denise Comer put the art and science of digital and social media writing under the academic microscope. In Writing 270, Comer’s students used digital writing tools and skills to reflect on their own internships and work experiences, through blogging, Twitter, Instagram, digital storytelling, and other mechanisms.

The fully online course was an experiment of sorts, and Comer plans to fine-tune pieces of it when she teaches it again next summer. (Student work from the first class can be viewed at the course website)

Here, she spoke with Duke Today about the need for college students to learn how to tweet professionally and build a responsible digital profile. The following are excerpts:

How different is digital/social media writing from other sorts of writing you’ve taught in the past? 

With any form of writing, students should consider what the expectations are for writing in a particular context. In some forms of social media, one can see more attention to certain features of writing (visual design, interaction, etc.). But, in general, social media writing is marked by the same practices, skills, and processes as the writing we do across other contexts.

All writers should attend to matters of purpose, context, and readers. Writers engage with others and contribute ideas. Writing in social media in the way our course approached it also went through the process of pre-writing, drafting, revising, and editing—the same process we use for other forms of writing. I will say that the potential reach of social media may be more immediate and widespread, but I’m sure that many could argue that other forms of writing can also go “viral” in their own ways.

Among the goals of your course is to help students cultivate a digital identity. Why is this important, and what sort of digital dangers lurk out there in cyberspace that students should be aware of?

It’s important for students to cultivate their digital identities because their digital identities are out there already and others are already noticing them and forming impressions based on them. Reflecting on how they want to present themselves, how they are presenting themselves, to whom, and why enables students to create digital identities that are more likely to accomplish what they want. This becomes especially crucial at the juncture when undergraduates are participating in an internship or work experience.

In terms of digital dangers, most people are aware of the risk of identity theft or online bullying or stalking. Other dangers include making sure that we adhere to the fair and accurate use and reuse of others’ work. Our course examined citation practices online and learned about how to attribute work in online environments. This is a learning process as well, so it’s important to be reflective and thoughtful.

Isn’t it easy to be misunderstood on Twitter or via other social media channels?

Online content can be hard to mine for tone, and material can be taken out of context. In professional contexts this has particular ramifications. Some of the people in the class were representing the company or organization that they worked for through social media writing as part of their internship experience. But even less officially, members of an organization can be considered in many ways to represent their organizations in online contexts. Recognizing that you can often be perceived as part of a larger team or organization is important.  This also extends to how you talk about your work (do you complain or belittle it?) and how you talk about others (are you collegial and respectful? Do you get along with others? Do you gossip about others?). Digital material forms part of what shapes others' understandings of who we are.

And along those lines – you address the level of ‘public-ness’ when writing on the web. What does that mean?

We discussed varying degrees of public-ness and how to decide what to share or not. We also discussed how important it is in blogs to not make public information about others that they themselves have not made public. We discussed how even privacy settings or visibility settings cannot guarantee anonymity or privacy. We also addressed how we each “perform” in online environments.

Some scholars refer to this as our “real” selves or “possible, hoped-for” selves. One early activity asked that members of the class introduce themselves to one another through a forum post that included a general introduction along with three fun facts about themselves. One of the fun facts was a lie, and we had to guess which was the lie as a way of foregrounding our choices about what to reveal to others. Students in the course could choose whether to make their blogs and digital stories public only to fellow class members or more broadly to others. Decisions about how public to make one’s social media have short- and long-term implications. In many cases, the working context (i.e., was a privacy agreement signed) influenced students’ decisions about the level of public-ness for their social media writing.