Online Literacy and Communities of Practice
Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger describe a model of literacy based on the notion of a “Community of Practice.” This notion of literacy challenges the idea that there is a single “correct” literacy applicable to all writers and all situations, substituting instead a context-dependent model in which the participants in a community develop the literacy standards for their circumstances. Newcomers to communities learn the literacy practices through what Lave and Wenger call “legitimate peripheral participation,” a sort of dipping one’s foot into the pool before diving in.
In my first-year composition class at California State University, Chico, students were asked to conduct semester-long inquiry projects into aspects of social media. I wanted them to be able to think in complex ways about social media, and develop an understanding of how one becomes a competent, contributing member of a community. I used the Prezi presentation above, “LOLcats and Online Discourse,” during the first day of the course.
The LOLcat is an internet meme that went viral with the photo below:
An online community, “I Can Has Cheezburger,” focuses on similar photos with humorous captions. I used the Prezi presentation to introduce students to the idea that communication—specifically through genres—arises from communities and their specific needs. We examined the Prezi’s LOLcats in turn, and then practiced writing our own captions to the blank photos in the Prezi. The image below garnered perhaps the most enthusiastic captions, many involving variations on “American Idol, here I come!”
Students were quick not only to read their captions to the class, but to point out times when they had been particularly creative in their defiance of conventional rules of grammar and spelling, which led them to easily identify why the Prezi’s final images, including the one below, were categorized as failures:
The absence of what would normally be identified as error—no invented spellings, no odd constructions—were easily seen as problems in the context of the LOLcat discourse community.
My purpose in using the Prezi was to help students see that literacy is not a monolithic, one-size-fits-all concept. By investigating a specific community (the I Can Has Cheezburger website contributors) that has developed literacy conventions that are counter to standardized English, students saw that literacy evolves from communities of practice. It likewise provided a model for students to examine with a critical eye the communication practices of other online communities, and it gave them a lens for thinking about the complex and subtle ways that literacy is adapted by groups of people.