Citing Twitter

Last night was the third presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Twitter was afire with commentary from all points on the political spectrum. There was mean-spirited snark, angry outbursts, and coldly logical fact-checking all at once–not unlike the research artifacts from the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Today, we use the political cartoons, newspaper articles, photographs, and propaganda material to study the cultural climate, causes of, and reactions to major political and cultural events. Will we one day use Twitter as well?

I’m attending this year North Carolina School Library Media Association (NCSLMA) conference, and today had the privilege of going to the pre-conference session on primary sources offered by the Library of Conference via their online collection. It was an informative session that gave me a good working definition of primary and secondary sources (one that students who have little or none research experience will understand) and gave me some great ideas for teaching primary sources and how to use them. Anne Marie Walter, the session presenter, really has some brilliant ideas on how to instill in students the research skills they need, and her enthusiasm for using and analyzing primary sources shows.

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Back in 1887, a mustache knew how to be a mustache. From the Benjamin K. Edwards Collection.

I especially enjoyed the first group activity we did. On each table were a stack of pictures. Each person had to choose one picture from the stack, then find those who had pictures of a similar subject matter. Once in groups, everybody discussed their pictures, examining their similarities and differences and the relevance of the visual data in each one. They then presented their material to the whole audience. Walter combined inquiry with primary source analysis with another activity. She gave us each a picture, and gave us a worksheet where we had to record the visual data in the image (observe), make hypotheses on what the picture was showing and interpret the context of each piece of data (respond), then identify what we needed more information, or sought to learn more, about (question). Afterward, we were given bibliographic entries on the pictures so we could compare and contrast our hypotheses with the facts and, hopefully, find answers to our questions (or at least how to get them). It worked equally well as both a solo and group activity.

A lesson plan was writing itself in my head wherein I had students complete the observe/respond/question activity to warm-up for the large group exercise. I can’t wait to put it into practice.

But how long until students analyze social media posts to glean the same information as we did from analyzing visual data? I can easily see students analyzing tweets to determine point-of-view (we did an exercise on point-of-view as well, essentially asking analyzing a political cartoon from multiple points-of-view) and as forms of satire. The downside is that people are startlingly blunt nowadays, so such an exercise will be easy. The upside is that the world is full of witty people who are skilled at tying multiple subjects and commentaries together.

Take this tweet for instance:

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I nearly dropped my phone laughing when I read this.

Think about everything this tweet says. Sure, it’s a scathing cut against Trump, his supporters, and American values. But think about the analytical questions we could dig up about this tweet. Is this person justified in their criticism? Why or why not? Is there any hard data that backs up the widespread lack of common sense and self-preservation cited here? Is this satire?

That’s just one drop in the ocean of social media content there is. When you consider public Facebook posts, Instagram galleries, blogs, Pinterest pins, Tumblrs, YouTube videos, and the endless volumes of comments and forum posts along with countless other content sources available online–and the fact that the majority of these are, by defintion, primary sources–students will have an endless stream of sources to interpret and investigate in new and exciting ways.

I can already hear them weeping and gnashing their teeth over making sense of it all–and wondering just how messed up their grandparents’ generation was.

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