[iDC] Copy and Paste Literacy?

Dan Perkel dperkel at ISchool.Berkeley.EDU
Mon Aug 20 18:54:40 UTC 2007

Trebor asked me to post a copy of a paper that I've been working on  
regarding new literacy practices on MySpace called "Copy and Paste  
Literacy? Literacy Practices in the Production of a MySpace Profile."  
The paper is too long to copy and paste in full into an email (I know  
that Trebor likes to keep attachments and links to a minimum on this  
list), so I have been asked to paste some excerpts (5-6 pages worth,  
but I tried to cut down on that) and then go ahead and link to the  
full paper.

This paper is to appear in a book on digital media and informal  
learning that is scheduled to be out there some time in early 2008.   
It's still a draft, but it's almost ready to go to press.  Of course,  
like all book chapters and journal articles whose publication dates  
are significantly after the drafts have been submitted, there are  
many new perspectives, ideas, and research that is ongoing that  
should shift and has shifted some of my thinking on this topic that  
won't make it into the paper.

(For the few of you who may have see an earlier version of this, the  
version here is similar to a conference paper presented last year,  
though I have added a description of the field site and methods, more  
examples from the field, reworked the structure, a slight  
modification to the title, and hopefully made myself more clear.)

The recent discussion on immaterial labour already brushes up against  
this work in multiple ways, but I think the excerpts below will be  
about all that anyone can handle from me in one post. Perhaps later  
I'll try to make some connections.

I am curious to see what this group makes of all this (if anything).


Dan Perkel
School of Information
University of California, Berkeley
dperkel at ischool.berkeley.edu


Full paper can be found here:
warning: 2.5mb PDF

 >> Abstract covers the basic argument:

> In this chapter, I argue that MySpace is an environment that  
> fosters the development of new literacies. Drawing on examples from  
> fieldwork and my own use of the site, this analysis is based on a  
> model that tries to reconcile social and technical perspectives on  
> literacy. The expressive power found in the creation of a MySpace  
> profile concerns a technically simple but socially complex  
> practice: the copying and pasting of code as a way to appropriate  
> and reuse other people’s media products. However, the importance of  
> copying and pasting code does not easily fit in the common  
> conventions of reading and writing, consumption and production. By  
> integrating theories of appropriation and reuse of media with  
> theories of literacy, a new way of thinking about this practice  
> emerges, seeing “participation” and “remix” as important concepts  
> to describe the social and technical aspects of these new literacy  
> practices.

 >>In conclusion to a section on some of the details of how a profile  
is put together, I write:

> ...The embedding of code with links to media, whether by a  
> profile’s “owner” or her friends, means that each profile is the  
> product of many people, not just the work of the individual MySpace  
> member. Continued control of how a profile is put together is  
> distributed amongst many people and resources. Therefore, in  
> looking at how profiles come to look the way they do, it is  
> difficult to isolate the technical practices from social ones. A  
> view of literacy that fails to account for the social dimensions of  
> what is also a technical practice will not suffice. Yet ignoring  
> the technical dimensions would not reveal the potential importance  
> of new media, such as code, in these social practices. In the next  
> section, I present a socio-technical perspective of literacy and  
> analyze the production of a MySpace profile in relation to it.  
> (page 4)

 >>I then spend a chunk of the paper analyzing the profile in  
relation to a particular view of what literacy and literacies mean  
from a theoretical perspective:
> The MySpace profile as a site of new literacies
>  Different theories of literacy present different notions of what  
> it means to be “literate” in society. Some have focused on what a  
> technology (or medium) enables and what social and cognitive  
> consequences come as a result of it (e.g. Goody and Watt 1968,  
> Goody 1977, Olson 1977, Ong 1982). Arguing against many of the  
> premises and conclusions of this work, Scribner and Cole introduced  
> the notion of a “literacy practice,” the situated use of a  
> “combination of technology, knowledge, and skills” and the  
> application of this knowledge “for specific purposes in specific  
> contexts of use” (1981, 235). Similarly, the “ideological model” of  
> literacy (Street 1984) and the “New Literacy Studies” movement,  
> which sees literacies as social practices (Street 1995, Gee 1996)  
> shifts the focus from the medium of expression to the social  
> practices in which the media use is embedded and in the ideologies  
> implicit in those practices. Recently, research on digital or media  
> literacies (Hobbs 2004, Livingstone 2004) show that there is a  
> range of perspectives as to which aspects of the use of media are  
> essential to notions of literacy, ranging from a critical  
> consumption to being able to use the tools of production.
> One perspective that seeks to integrate these different  
> understandings of literacy is that of Andrea diSessa (2000, in  
> press) who defines literacy as:
> “The convergence of a large number of genres and social niches on a  
> common representational form” (24).
> His definition pulls together three theoretical influences from  
> those outlined above. First, uses of particular media must be  
> considered within their social context. Second, these uses take on  
> specific patterns, or genres. Finally, the medium-dependent  
> properties of those representational forms matter. This definition  
> of literacy overlaps in important ways with Scribner and Cole’s  
> (1981) notion of “literacy practice,” namely that understanding  
> literacy means understanding how people use technologies, skills,  
> and knowledge in specific social contexts. However, diSessa’s goal  
> is to see how the uses of a particular form bridge different social  
> contexts.
> In this chapter, I use this perspective to analyze the production  
> of a MySpace profile because of the balance it strikes between  
> social and technical views of literacy, and also because it  
> provides a lens through which to view prior debate. In this section  
> and the next, I argue that diSessa’s theoretical framing of is a  
> useful way of understanding the possibility of new literacies in  
> the production of a MySpace profile.

 >> I'll skip some of this analysis and move onto the discussion of  

> Learning to code HTML and CSS using MySpace
> In speculative response to diSessa’s notion of “material  
> intelligence,” my first focus is on the coding skills MySpace  
> profile customization involves. From a technical perspective, one  
> can think about any web page as having structure, content, and  
> presentation (or style). HTML can be used to control all three, but  
> over the past several years, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) has  
> become the standard way of separating content and structure from  
> style.
> An example helps clarify. Imagine I have a paragraph of text about  
> myself. In my HTML code, rather than say that this text should be  
> red, bold, and in 16pt font, I can indicate that that this  
> paragraph of text should be "about me text.” Then, I can create a  
> style using CSS to indicate what "about me text" should look like.  
> This separation in the code between what the text says from what  
> the text looks like provides me with the ability to change a style  
> in one place and apply the same style to multiple chunks of text  
> throughout the document.

> Therefore, HTML and CSS, like other programming scripts and  
> languages, encourage a particular way of thinking about problems.  
> Learning to use them requires learning how to think modularly, how  
> to decompose problems in certain ways, in this case related to this  
> notion of the separation of style, structure, and content. Learning  
> the complex array of skills necessary to create dynamic,  
> interactive Web pages potentially could meet diSessa’s threshold of  
> an “increase in expressiveness” or a new material intelligence,  
> though this would require more research to prove. But even if this  
> is true, how good of a learning environment is MySpace for  
> mastering the representational form and technical competency of web  
> programming?

> Certainly, it provides an introduction to the medium, and some even  
> may learn more about HTML and CSS as a part of trying to customize  
> their profiles. However, the way in which the MySpace designers use  
> CSS works completely against the intended purpose of style sheets.  
> For example, the MySpace designers have defined “styles” for every  
> font-color-size combination used. This results in members being  
> forced to do some rather strange things to change properties like  
> font colors (for example, making a style named “yellow” actually be  
> red, and so forth). This might be fine for creating web pages, but  
> eliminates many of the potential advantages and new ways of  
> thinking that may come from separating form from content. Moreover,  
> MySpace has constrained people into a way of using HTML and CSS  
> that is not very flexible and does not inform ways of using the  
> technologies that give them their potential power as expressive  
> media outside of the context of MySpace.

> The use of copy and paste on MySpace

> Nevertheless, MySpace is an environment in which another practice  
> has established a strong foothold, one that is also dependent on  
> the nature of HTML and web technologies: copying and pasting blocks  
> of code as an act of selection, manipulation, and appropriation of  
> work done by others. Technically speaking, copying and pasting does  
> not require much skill. It seems unremarkable, almost unworthy of  
> consideration as a significant technical practice. However, the  
> small act of copying and pasting blocks of code from many different  
> sources is at the core of many teenagers’ individual expression on  
> MySpace. Furthermore, new companies have emerged (such as YouTube)  
> that encourage people to copy and paste links to nearly every type  
> of media object from one place to another on the Web, including a  
> MySpace profile.

> This activity resembles others: collage-making, quilting, pasting  
> posters and magazine articles up on bedroom walls, and so forth.  
> There are also connections to existing practices with digital media  
> (e.g. Chandler and Roberts-Young 1998, Sefton-Green 2005). However,  
> networked computational media changes the act copying and pasting  
> in a number of distinct ways. First, a MySpace member can copy and  
> paste links to almost any type of medium: images, personal  
> photographs, music, home-movies, TV shows, cartoons, games, and  
> even interactive applications. Second, members can continuously  
> update what their profiles looks like by swapping in and out  
> different media or adding to what already exists. Third, copying  
> and pasting on the web requires minimal effort; a staggering array  
> of source material is available via the Web through the same  
> browser interface.

> Finally, people are not copying and pasting media. They are copying  
> and pasting abstractions (code) that link to the sources of that  
> media. This creates complex webs of dependency between people’s  
> creations. In other words, as Bakhtin argued about speech, members’  
> pages are “filled with other’s words, varying degree of otherness  
> or vary degrees of ‘our-own-ness’” which members “assimilate,  
> rework, and re-accentuate” (1986, 89). However, these pages are  
> materially connected as well, through links. Through members’  
> choices and those by their friends in comments, each person’s form  
> of expression is explicitly connected to others’ expressions, which  
> in turn are connected to others’ and so on.

 >> Finally, after an example and some other thoughts, I bring up the  
discussion of theoretical notions of "participation" and then talk  
about the currently popular term "remix" (though i try to be really  
careful about how I use it...not sure if I succeed):
> Participation and remix: “New” terms for new literacies
> Research on literacy practices in relation to the web has focused  
> on the need to develop critical skills in analyzing and evaluating  
> web content (e.g. Livingstone 2002) or on the use of HTML to  
> “write” web pages (e.g. Chandler and Robert-Young 1998, Facer et al  
> 2003). In reaction to and anticipation of much of this debate  
> regarding web literacies, diSessa is ambivalent:
> The World Wide Web is equally encouraging and discouraging  
> regarding the practicality of new literacies. It is a big step in  
> economics and distribution, but a small step in form. It is two-way  
> and reaffirms the importance of two-way media in the enthusiasm in  
> self-expression it has engendered, but it is only one-way with  
> respect to new expressive possibilities offered by computational  
> media: ordinary folks are limited to text and pictures; they can’t  
> create dynamic and interactive documents. (2000, 221-222)
> But are there other ways to become literate in the interactive  
> space of the web? Despite diSessa’s dismissal of the web’s  
> potential for new forms of expression, I argue that that there are  
> problems with framing potential literacy practices as “one-way” or  
> “two-way” as important new social and technical practices, such as  
> the copying and pasting of media, are easy to overlook.

> Focusing on learning to use HTML and CSS coding in MySpace paints a  
> picture that is consistent with diSessa’s point of the Web as only  
> “one-way with respect to new expressive possibilities.” However, a  
> focus on the act of creating networks of links to media clouds the  
> picture. By stitching together media from a variety of sources,  
> “ordinary folks” on MySpace can easily “create dynamic and  
> interactive documents,” to which diSessa refers. Millions of  
> people, including teenagers are already doing it.
> Part of the problem in seeing the potential importance of the  
> “simple” act of copying and pasting maybe because of the  
> fundamental terminology of the discussion. It calls into question  
> the notion of “two-way” literacy and a focus on the consumption and  
> production of media. The creation of a MySpace profile is neither  
> strictly “reading” or “writing,” yet is somehow both simultaneously.

> Facer et al. (2003) point to examples of how kids “creatively copy”  
> material and templates in order to learn, resembling some of the  
> practices I have just outlined. The practices are neither “‘simply  
> reproduction’ nor ‘simply creative’” (2003, 114). Nevertheless,  
> they opt to recast the word “consumption” to describe kids’  
> accumulation of “cultural resources” that enable them to produce  
> and communicate their identities (2003, 112). This type of  
> redefinition of terms has led researchers in media and cultural  
> theory to question the dichotomy between the “consumption” and  
> “production” of media, with implications of how to consider copy  
> and pasting as part of MySpace profile production.

> In Jenkins’ (1992) account of television fans he reveals that  
> people traditionally viewed as “consumers” are also producers in  
> two ways. First, people create meaning in products, such as toys or  
> narratives, through their use. As French cultural theorist de  
> Certeau previously argued, this meaning-making through reinvention  
> is an act of production as well as consumption: the reader “invents  
> in texts something different from what they ‘intended’” (1984,  
> 169). Second, deviating from de Certeau, Jenkins reveals how  
> various fan groups produce tangible artifacts, such as fan fiction  
> and “transform the experience of media consumption into the  
> production of new texts, indeed of a new culture and new  
> community” (1992, 46).

> Ito (in press) builds on these arguments and other debate  
> concerning active and passive media audiences[i] and argues that  
> “new convergent media…require a reconfigured conceptual apparatus  
> that takes productive and creative activity at the ‘consumer’ level  
> as a given rather than as an addendum or an exception” (in press,  
> 4). Building on the work of Jenkins (1992) and Lave and Wenger  
> (1991), Ito uses the concept of “participation” as an alternative  
> to consumption. A notion of “participation” assumes that engagement  
> with media is “social and active,” provides a way to consider  
> issues of power and ideology, and takes into account both the  
> relationships between individuals and media and between groups  
> engaged with media. According to Ito, “the research question has  
> been recast from the more individualized, ‘How does a child  
> interpret or localize a text?’ to the collective question of ‘How  
> do people organize around and with media texts?’” (in press, 5).
> If “participation” is a word that challenges the consumption/ 
> production dichotomy, then “remix” may be its counterpart to bridge  
> the reading/writing dichotomy. The word “remix,” originally used to  
> describe a particular way of mixing music samples, has itself been  
> appropriated to generally describe the mixing of a variety of media  
> forms to create new products.[ii] A recent study by the Pew  
> Internet and American Life Project (Lenhart and Madden 2005) uses  
> the word “remix” of teen content creation to imply the creation of  
> new “artistic” content from prior media forms.[iii] Jenkins et al.  
> (2006) view artistic appropriation of content through remix as an  
> essential aspect of new media literacies.[iv]

> But there is no reason to constrain “remixing” practices to the  
> development of “artistic” creations as that study defines the term.  
> These practices are similar to those described by Willis (1990) as  
> “common culture,” “symbolic creativity in everyday life, everyday  
> activity and expression” not an elite notion of “art” (1). In  
> exploring literacy, Dyson (2002) analyzes first graders’ use of  
> popular media in their classroom writing assignments as “remixing,”  
> explicitly connecting their work to musical sampling.  She notes  
> the “textual play” involved in the “appropriating, differentiating,  
> translating, and reframing cultural material across communicative  
> frames and social world” (2002, 555). Here, my use of remixing  
> presumes these types of symbolic and material appropriations and  
> translations, what Erstad et al. (2007) describe as “re-mixing  
> semiotic resources” in their study of high schoolers’ media  
> productions.[v] However, my emphasis is on the re-use of  
> distributed media through the remixing of code, thus adding yet  
> another material dimension to the process.

> If “remixing” is used to describe the practices required to blend  
> text, images, video, audio, and games in the creation and  
> maintenance of a MySpace profile, the perception of “simple”  
> technical feats of copying and pasting links to media, turn into  
> socially complex chains of appropriations of media between people.  
> Furthermore, the concept distinguishes itself from typical notions  
> of “reading” and “writing.” It parallels Ito’s view that  
> participation, “leads to a conceptualization of the imagination as  
> collectively rather than individually experienced and produced” (in  
> press, 5) in that remixing media by copying and pasting is a  
> collective technical practice; people’s creations are dependent on  
> each other in many different ways. One could see remixing as a sign  
> of a new, networked material intelligence, to adapt diSessa’s  
> concept, though it would take further research to demonstrate this.  
> Nevertheless, through MySpace and sites like it, knowing, socially  
> and technically, how to re-use media in this particular way has  
> become foundational for communication and creative expression over  
> the web.
> [i] For two reviews of the debates concerning active versus passive  
> audiences of television and other media, see Kinder 1991 and  
> Buckingham 2000.
> [ii] Not only has the term remixing been used to describe audio,  
> video, and image appropriation. It has also been used to describe  
> the development of software applications that rely on the  
> integration of multiple data sources and services from the Web. In  
> his introduction to the Korean edition to The Language of New  
> Media, Lev Manovich (2003) discussed three types of remixes with  
> “new media” as “the remix between the interfaces of various  
> cultural forms and the new software techniques – in short, the  
> remix between culture and computers.”  He extends his discussion of  
> the importance of this practice in “Remixability and  
> Modularity” (2005).
> [iii] Nineteen percent of teenagers surveyed reported that they had  
> participated in some form of remixing activity, but again, note  
> that the definition indicated the creation of “artistic” content.
> [iv] See also: Jenkins (2006) and Manovich (2005).
> [v] See also Buckingham’s (2007) introduction to the June 2007  
> issue of Learning, Media, and Technology in which he highlights the  
> theme of remixing found across a number of the articles in the  
> issue that also connects the concept to new media literacies.  
> Unfortunately, I was making the final edits to this chapter just as  
> the issue was released and could not incorporate a more detailed  
> comparison between those perspectives and the one I outline here.

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