February 14, 2014

From Gerald R. Lucas

Writing Digital Media (#WritDM)

Multimedia tablet.jpg

A friend of mine recently asked: “Isn’t all media — by definition — social?” My instinct was to answer in the negative, thinking of the “old media” that permeated my life as I grew up, like television, film, and radio.

However, after considering the question a bit more, I must admit that because of networked digital devices and the Internet, all current media has been influenced and continues to be influenced by what we call “social media.” Even if these old media cannot be called “social,” networked culture has certainly had an impact on their production, dissemination, and importance. We’re not living in the twentieth century anymore.

Nearly one in four people around the world use social media everyday, and this number is only growing. That’s over 1.7 billion users in 2013, and that number is expected to double — up to 2.55 billion — by 2017. The rise of Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest has changed the way we think about and use our media. We are now all participants in communities that we help to build. Social media makes us all producers and communicators, and this fact requires a new set of communication and creative skills.

Writing Digital Media (WritDM and #WritDM for short) uses social media to teach integral communication skills for the age of participatory culture. 'WritDM' is writing for the screen. It focuses on the new writing for a digital paradigm.

A New Approach

Logically, if the media landscape is changing, so is the way we communicate in our everyday lives. While there’s still a place for old media forms in the college curriculum — like the essay — to be truly literate in a networked society requires skills that are traditionally not taught in higher education. WritDM seeks to remedy this.

Simply, this book uses current social media to teach composition skills for a new age. By studying this etext, users will be able to organize and to present information on the screen that targets the interests and expectations of a specific audience.

If another word for medium is container — i.e., something which shapes as transports information — then social media has had an impact on all the containers in our everyday lives, like the “classroom” and the “textbook.”

As current trends show, the classroom is heading toward the cloud. Distance education has morphed into e-learning, and MOOCs are a current popular offering. The impact of these massive, open, online courses is in the very name: the classroom is now global, open to all, and accessible to anyone anywhere with a mobile device and network access. Waning are the days of exclusivity based on test scores, limited hours, and geography. Digital media continues to transform the classroom and how we think about education and knowledge.

Similarly, the chief medium of the classroom will have to change. The textbook can no longer remain printed on the leaves of dead trees; it, too, must embrace the changes wrought by social media. Textbooks for college courses used to take years to produce, but the digital will not wait. The world of social media has sped time up, and textbooks must act more like [computer programs](Open-Source Scholarship) with frequent, quick updates, than tomes meant to last years. This “book” is different in the digital age.

The fact of its difference would seem obvious, as you are likely holding a tablet to read this — a device that has only been around a short time. Even if you are reading via your web browser, this fact shows that we are moving inexorably away from the culture of print toward a culture of the screen. Many would even argue that we’ve been here a long time already. If so, can we even still call what you’re reading a “book”? Perhaps, you’re more accurately using a program? The digital blurs the the neat boundaries of print.

This text will resemble an application more than it will a book. It will solicit feedback from its users and communities of experts; it will make frequent updates; it will consider new trends and research before they become yesterday’s; it will use applications and platforms that write for the screen instead of paper; it will aligned with the bit instead of the atom. WritDM will be able to respond to the needs of its community by embracing the digital and publishing via etext. By the end of this book, users will be able to organize and to present information on the screen that targets the interests and expectations of a specific audience.

Guiding Principles

Since WritDM’s main users will be upper-level, college undergraduates, the focus will be first on developing strong writing skills. Some traditional principles learned in school will be applicable while others might have run their course. This text emphasizes platform as medium and recommends specific ways to compose for those various media in project-based approaches. WritDM has four interrelated principles that guide every lesson: participation, affinity, professionalization, and access — or PAPA.


Since its beginnings, the World Wide Web has encouraged its users to participate in its growth. Something about computer interaction via an electronic network inspires people to contribute their own creative expressions and to pursue their own intellectual interests. Eventually the original Web evolved into the Web 2.0, and various platforms sprung up to support the collaborative interests of their users — everything from photography to design. This switch in the Web is crucial: it went from static information like that in a book, to community-contributed information. The new Web became the platform for the shared content and ideas of particular communities. The traditional distinction between author and audience becomes blurred: when all users contribute their skills and ideas, knowledge becomes the domain of all.


A large part of participation is finding communities of like-minded people. Unlike those communities we find ourselves aligned through the accident of birth — sex, race, class, and others — electronic communities are about choice, passion, and rapport: affinity. We are free to join and participate in the communities that most reflect our interests, that most support our growth and understanding, and that most welcome our contributions. These are networks that encourage us to find our own paths, rather than those who attempt to make us fit certain predefined molds. We most want to collaborate with and help construct communities toward which share an affinity.


Another aspect of participation is learning the skills needed to grow in one’s community, to graduate from amateur, to expert amateur, to professional. Part of being a professional is having influence and credibility. Speaking the language of the community is an integral step to professionalization. “Speaking the language” means communicating in a way that the community expects, herein called professional composition. In other words, a professional is one who is literate in the vocabulary, the conventions, and the knowledge of a particular community. Thinking of oneself as a professional and practicing the language of one’s community are key to digital composition.


Access is the ability to obtain, examine, and retrieve data. This is both a political and practical concern. The way data is stored and presented (or not presented) controls our relationship to it, what we think about it, and colors our perceptions of other data. Human history might be measured by those who wish to control the access to certain types of data — what we might call knowledge — and those who desire to let it flow freely. These approaches can be both politically draconian (thick abbey walls, an uneducated populace, book burning) and revolutionary (the printing press, public education, word processors). There are still those who wish to contain data for their own economic ends, but the “Information Age” has so far tended to explode dams rather than build them.

This new flow of information brings its own unique problems. As we are just beginning to think digitally, the media for doing so are in their early states of development. As conventions are defined and new knowledges constructed, how communities access their collaborative spaces becomes of paramount concern. Crucial to digital composition is critically assessing media to choose the best platforms for which to contain our communities’ knowledge.

Overview of Chapters

As this text develops, chapters and content will undoubtedly change. For specifics about those changes, see the changelog at the end of the text. WritDM was written to support a fully online, upper-level course called “Writing for Digital Media.” It is composed with a semester’s length in mind, so that the entire text may be completed within that time. Some lessons may be completed in a week, while others will take more time; however, a sixteen-week semester should provide adequate time for completion.

While the text was written for an online course, it could also be used in a face-to-face class. That said, chapters are meant to be self-guided, and they take a project-based approach. Additionally, while upper-level undergrads are its primary audience, professionals will also find the lessons within useful for improving their digital composition skills, especially when engaging on social media.

The first chapter discusses general rules for strong writing and introduces specific strategies for digital composition, or writing for the screen. Chapter one provides the foundational writing and documentation skills that users will develop in subsequent lessons.

Chapter two introduces the secondary literacies of digital composition — the mark-up, or “programming” languages of writing for the screen: HTML and CSS. It also details hypertext and proposes some best uses for composing digital documents, like linking and documenting sources. This chapter builds on the first in defining the documents of “digital culture” as opposed to those of “print culture” that students are more likely familiar with.

Chapters three and forward introduce a social media platform and include lessons that teach best writing practices for that medium. Each chapter includes exercises, examples, and other media that takes advantage of the digital nature of this text. These chapters use the most current and relevant social media platforms to teach writing in a multimodal capacity. As the technology is an integral component for composition, best uses for the various platforms are also discussed. Indeed, can writing be separated from the technology that contains it?

By the end of the text, users will have a solid grasp of current social media platforms, a well practiced approach to composing within them, an understanding of the importance of collaboration and cooperation necessary in digital composition, a professional portfolio of digital media projects, and a working knowledge of several social media platforms.