A New Ethic for Digital Composition: Cosmopolitanism

Do youth need thoughtful, guided practice composing for potentially global audiences?

Recently, a friend on Facebook posted a question asking what age it is appropriate for a child to have an email account. About 29  comments later, it had became apparent that in the 3rd and 4th grades in this school district, teachers were setting up email accounts with students. Many of these comments were ones of frustration over the lack of parental notification and participation in this activity, but one in particular stood out for me. One person asked: “What possible reasons could there be for a 4th grade child to have an email account?” I don’t typically engage in Facebook conversations, especially emotionally-charged ones, but I felt that I could contribute a few “possible reasons why” youth should be participating in digital communication in thoughtful, guided ways.


Even with the digital divide present and growing, the nature of composition has changed in the digital and networked age in such a way that the capability to be producers and critical consumers of knowledge is now more widely available. Take social media outlets: More people of all ages, nationalities, genders, and socio-economic positions produce news, comment on social issues, and even stage revolutions. These possibilities disrupt our existing societal power dynamics, and in turn, necessitate a new ethic of exchange with distant, unknown, imagined others. Critical reader-writers must take into consideration not just the interpretations they have intended as authors, but also the possible interpretations of audiences previously unimagined and out of reach.

In a chapter I just finished writing with Glynda Hull at UC Berkeley for the forthcoming book Critical Digital Literacies as Social Praxis: Intersections and Challenges in Knobel and Lankshear’s series on New Literacies, we explore the new ethics of digital composition that we saw at play in an alternative college prep program called EXCEL Academy @ NYU, in which youth participated in Space2Cre8, a closed, social network with participating youth from around the world.

The new ethic of digital literacy we interrogate is cosmopolitan practicereflexive and hospitable habits of mind during the several decisions made while composing. Such an ethic includes, importantly, a sensitivity to the range of possible interpretations and responses to their own and others’ postings.  This obligation to listen implies a thoughtful openness to possible meanings in a pluralist sense and an acknowledgement that we can’t assume what to expect in terms of others’ reactions and intentions.

  • Self-reflexive Composition. As youth revise profile pages, create movies, post links to share, they must imagine others’ possible interpretations of their work. We acknowledge that we may not be cognizant of our own intentions and reactions, and thus must be open to critical reflection not only about others’ meanings, but also of our own actions and motives as well. Compositional decisions are not isolated to the page or screen, but are decisions of social positioning and engaging with others.
  • Hospitable Stances. We work with and are ourselves audiences in a sense that is new to the human experience—audience as distant and local, intended and possible, particular and en masse. We constantly contextualize and re-contextualize text and visuals we experience digitally in order to understand. This can be done in autonomous one-word-has-one-meaning ways or in ways authentic to our human experience that acknowledges that reading is interpreting whole world views that have been infused into the words we use. Being hospitable readers, writers, and viewers includes tolerating the discomfort that comes with honestly engaging with another around the uncertainties of attempting to understand meanings as interpreted—as intended and unintended.

Email addresses do not grant access into the Web 2.0 activity that I have been describing. So, to some extent I agree with this concerned parent who wonders why 4th-graders need email addresses. But I want to argue for the other extreme, our 4th graders need thoughtful, guided experience in this new type of exchange. Youth develop self-reflexive, hospitable stances in their reading of distant others’ work and composing for not just one intended audience, but ever-shifting potential audiences. How do we learn and develop such ethical dispositions without engaging in them?

  • When is the last time you read something that you realized could be interpreted in more than one way? How did you notice that? What was that reading experience like? How did you make sense of multiple possible meanings?
  • When have you revised something you’ve written based on who might potentially read it? What did you take into consideration? How did you finally decide to compose the piece?
  • Have you ever seen something you’ve composed remixed, revised, quoted, paraphrased, distributed by others? What was this experience like? What did you like/dislike about what was done to your composition?
  • From these kinds of experiences, what practice could we provide for youth in our school and non-school places of learning to engage in ethical ways?

16 thoughts on “A New Ethic for Digital Composition: Cosmopolitanism

  1. Very well said.

    Perhaps as society sees the value in guided introduction to digital communication we can develop acceptable guidelines for usage, and create policy in use and software to aid in protections for younger users of the medium.

    This is clearly a necessary skill to have as we see the lowest forms of speech used in such mediums as this has been a very organic method of communication. If we want to stem the tide of word usage such as “i” for “I” and “u” for “You”, these skills will have to be taught. This extends to the idea of being meta-cognitive of how our communications can be interpreted by others.

    Language flows to the lowest common denominator in a digital-global community due to several factors. Once is the language barrier itself. People outside the base language community, ie those who do not speak English as a native language in an English speaking environment. Second, due to the organic nature of short hand communication we lack a model for what might be considered proper structure to use in on-line communication.

    I feel that if we are to model proper on-line digital communications, an email account would provide a good environment for learning. It allows the individual the ability to compose and consider the communication as a whole which would be important for developing thoughtful communication and email also has some security policy built in that so much instant messaging and social media does not.

    1. I hear you on e-mail. It *can be* a controlled platform, and if you are thinking of introducing composing as communication then it is a logical starting point.

      I have been thinking about the issues of “proper usage” that you brought up. I remember I was in Germany when the new Duden came out. Its aim was to simplify the German language in writing. One simple change was to move from the ß and ss. So the word daß (that) is now dass. Other changes were more extensive around capitalization of nouns, punctuation and separating compound words (an old favorite characteristic of mine of the language, eg stadtverordnetenversammlungen is at least three words in English). The Duden is the standard. And now generations of language users had to shift to these “simplified” and more “straight forward” rules. I am sure there is a large group of American English speakers and writers who would like an English Duden equivalent, but I, personally, can’t see how it works in ways other than punitive.

      Language-use is so organic, developing out of usage within groups of people and within the constraints of the devices and tools we have. It would be as equally “improper” to write “i done use #properenglish” in a college paper as it would be to write “I use proper English” in a humorous tweet. It’s not the best example, but I am thinking that what we need is to learn is not one “proper” nor the “propers” of each medium and group, but we need to learn that 1) a first step in entering a new community is to learn the current “proper” of that group; and 2) how to pick up the current “proper” of new groups.

  2. I wonder: does self-reflexive composition limit the authenticity of the information posted in a social-networking setting? Surely the level of anxiety is higher when one knows his or her friends will be able to judge whatever message is put out there. Is this editing a negative thing, or does the new authenticity become self-censorship of thought/opinion based on a pre-conceived assumption of peer reactions? What implications does this have for mis/dis-information regarding corporations and other organizations who transmit their propaganda, er, messages, through social networking sites?

    1. Two cool questions. Thanks, Ryan. On the first one, I have to admit I mostly think of unknown others when I think of communicating in Web 2.0. And a part of that is thinking about how this comment itself can be copied and pasted with or without not just my name, but my linked profile that extends across social networking platforms.

      Anxiety within self-reflexivity is definitely something to consider. I know many people who spend vast amounts of time managing their web presence, as well as many who opt out of social media all together because of anxiety around the ability to control the inferences and associations others can make in relation to their names and profiles.

      As for your second comment, yeah, corporations could definitely use an ethics refresher and realignment in the digital age, eh?

  3. Yes, I hate to say it but you are right, for the reasons you stated and many beyond. I tried keeping my kids off social media to protect them from all the crap the other kids post there (where are their parents anyway? Curse them!) and then I realized I had a kid that was about to turn 18 and I hadn’t provided any guidance to him at all on how to deal with any of it – and he would soon be on his own interacting with it all whether I liked it or not. That’s very similar to never letting your child ride a bike because he might get hurt and then @18 you sit him on a ten speed at the top of the giant hill, wish him well and then shove him off on his merry way. Not to mention that of course my other teenagers simply went around my rules and setup accounts on their own with no guidance when they were outside the home (yes, I an one of the parents that I was cursing.)

    So it is worse than simply not preparing them… it does them actual harm when we don’t prepare them for that big hill. If we want them to eventually leave our homes prepared for life (and yes, son, you have to leave) then it is absolutely necessary that we allow email and social media in the living room and in the school long before they have realized that they hate us and while they are still willing to accept our advice and correction…. that means giving them accounts long before they are 13 by the way, and it also means they will make mistakes and will be exposed to physical danger; but that danger already exists – we must make it safer for them by teaching them how to navigate it. It might help if we knew how to navigate it safely ourselves, but we can’t help that.

    (Certainly there is more to be said about the school giving access to email/media without providing parents knowledge of it and the ability to help monitor it… but I’ll stay on topic.)

    1. Thanks, Coz. I think the parental concerns are legitimate, and one reason I didn’t even address the “email without parental knowledge” aspect of that story. And speaking of parental concern, I think the issue of guided experience in online spaces is an issue of trust. Who is the person holding your kid’s bike? And with the control-measures in place in schools now, it’s more like: What is the institution holding your kid’s bike? I think this is equally important issue to discuss.

      And I love your comment: “It might help if we knew how to navigate it safely ourselves, but we can’t help that.” This is a medium and time when we’re riding the same cresting wave simultaneously with our children. In fact, knowledge is like this as well now. It isn’t established and then passed on to younger and less experienced others. We have to get comfortable with less control. To carry on your analogy, we have to allow our children to ride the bike along with us…and the bike is shifting under our seat.

  4. I have two small children (5 and 3). We live far away from all of our family and most of our friends. My daughter tells me to take pictures and send them to everyone by email or post them on facebook. They skype regularly with our families. She is beginning to make friends with her cousin and some of my friends’ kids who are the same age. I want to set up a website/email as soon as possible for her (and eventually my son, too) so that they can stay connected and engaged with our family and their friends. I want them to see and experience the world outside of our small, isolated community, but also share their experiences here to a larger (and largely skeptical) audience.

    But I also want them to do as you say, think about what they post and what they produce, and I want them to start that process as early as possible. I also think that introducing them to the technology and letting them experiment and play with it at a young age helps them to develop an openness to new technologies, as well as the ability to adapt.

    My luck, neither will have any interest and they’ll want to write letters by hand.

    1. I feel like a lot of the anti-new-tech chatter is that we are losing the old technologies, but I don’t think we have to concern ourselves that pen and paper–and more importantly all the practices that came with pen and paper like letters and grocery lists and diaries–are going anywhere anytime soon. If anything, handwritten letters become even more special as they become even more rare. Pretty soon it will become retro…even ironic. If hipsters stay in style, chances are your girls are doomed to want to do everything on Hello Kitty stationary with a Bic ball point.

  5. Very good read! Just yesterday a second grade student of mine asked for my email address. I told her it was up to her parents if they gave it to her. I’m all for encouraging children to take advantage of technology so long as it doesn’t disrupt respectful boundaries. Also the whole interpretation issue really throws me in a tisse. Any time I send a text message or email I find myself second guessing myself.

    1. Because of the potential permanence of digital texts, and our society’s habit of reading text as if it was written to be relevant now (no matter when that now is), I totally get the “second guessing.”

      But another way to see “second guessing” is to see it as being self-reflexive and possibly hospitable. When I read what I just wrote again, and three times, and again right after I hit send, I am reading it not just for editing (I just caught an uncapitalized “i”!) or to help me write the next sentence, I am reading from differing positions/perspectives that I imagine: What will this sound like to teachers? to someone who comes upon the site who doesn’t know my work? to efischer05? to that French scholar on Twitter who follows me and uses French in all her tweets? …and the reading positions (and second guessing) go on and on…

  6. Why does a 4th grader need an email account? I think for the same reasons we teach 4th graders to write Thank You notes and send Holiday cards. It’s so they can be literate and participate responsibly in all forms of communication our society expects people to function in.

    1. I agree, Melissa. E-mail is here to stay, maybe even passe to 4th graders. We need to treat it like any other form of writing, and help these kids become literate, responsible writers. However, I would not put my child on that bike at the top of the hill without a helmet, and a small tutorial, maybe even a little practice. We must teach the perils of e-mail and about the predators that are out in cyber space. Before we set up accounts for fourth graders, they must be taught what to do and not do to keep themselves as safe as possible.

  7. This digital age can be scary, but you are right, David, in saying that it actually does harm to shelter children from certain aspects of social media. And I am definitely “riding the wave” with my own kids and students! But I am a proponent for figuring all of this out and helping children and young adults, and ADULTS navigate WHO their audience is and how their writing might be received or perceived. We all must understand that there is ALWAYS an audience for our writing. As we identify who our audience is, and the possibility that that audience could change, the more purposeful our writing will be.

  8. I am unsure of how to post my stance on this…I struggle with this so much as my sister-in-law, a licensed addiction therapist, is so against social media at any age and has shared her knowledge about these issues with me and my family. You might be asking what a licensed addiction therapist has to do with social media, but in actuality, it has a lot to do with it, as for seriously 90% of her clients, social media is their addiction.
    You reference students working to “revise profile pages, [&] create movies” yet your main focus of this blog centers on email accounts for young students within 3rd and 4th grade and email accounts do not allow for either of these activities. You later affirm this when you state, “Email addresses do not grant access into the Web 2.0 activity that I have been describing.” Confusing…why was this included and how is it relevant then?
    I would like to argue the statement you made of, “But I want to argue for the other extreme, our 4th graders need thoughtful, guided experience in this new type of exchange.”
    My question is, in teaching students how to write emails, will that provide thoughtful, guided experience? Do we really need to teach our students to effectively write emails?
    We should safeguard our children and monitor their computer usage, I get that this sounds extreme, however, the negative outcome that is produced, or can be produced by this particular social media…that infiltrates through the various email providers “safeguards,” which can be, but are not always set on High are not worth the risk of the child’s well-being. We can not, not even in a “closed-system” control what comes into or goes out of an email account, and in-school cyber bullying is just one such example as to why we should not include this in our curricula.
    Do we really want to take those chances with our youth?

  9. Oh, man. I love your question on thinking about how to revise what we’re about to post based on who might read it and interpret it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written and deleted a FB post because I already know who’s going to say what when I post it. I find it a little frustrating that I have to limit what I say and how I say it because of the response that might come from my friends and family – not because I don’t feel that I can express myself within the safety of my online community, but because I don’t always want to have to defend my thoughts. I recently posted on the Richard Sherman outburst when we played the SF 49ers (GO SEAHAWKS!!) and the response I got was overwhelming. It’s very hard to convey tone across the interwebs and I think a lot of the social media fiasco could be avoided if tone could be conveyed. Have you ever read something while you were in a bad mood? Did you decipher the comment differently than you may have if you were in the best mood ever? I know I have. 4th graders may not be exposed to the wonderful of social media yet, but email is a great way to get them started thinking about the perils of online communication. Also, Google Drive is the wave of the future. The students at my school (6/7th graders) all have Google accounts through the district and use them all the time to turn in assignments.

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