Preparing for ACCS: Digital Literacy and LOLcatz

On Thursday, I’m scheduled to present at ACCS in Charlottesville. This will be my first real conference presentation since summer of 2008, but, one thing hasn’t changed. As usual, I’m woefully under-prepared and starting to get nervous about pulling my act together. A nasty cold bug that took me down last week didn’t help; it seriously interrupted the day or two of planned conference preparation that I had set aside.

And, to make matters worse, I went and proposed a session on a brand-new topic, one in which I little expertise and even less business presenting on. Fun, fun, fun!

The good news is that whenever I start to talk about the proposal I get excited, because there is a lot in it that I find fascinating. That’s got to count for something. I hope.

My goal when I proposed this idea was to force myself to work through some ideas that I’ve been trying to sort through for some time. The first step, I’ve decided is to try and map some of them out here.

Here’s the title and abstract:

Collections, Collages, Curation, and Community: Visual Literacy in a Digital World

With the growth of the social web and “Web 2.0”1 tools which allow people to create, publish, and commune around ideas online, educators are presented with a number of innovative ways to explore and encourage a new kind of visual literacy. From sites like photoshop.com and aviary which bring previously expensive editing software capabilities to the masses, to the handcraft marketplace of etsy which encourages users to curate, collect, and share (images of) objects, to social shopping sites like kaboodle and polyvore where anyone can generate a custom collage of items they desire, people are using free, flexible tools to share ideas, visually.

As I said above, the core idea of this presentation has been brewing in my mind for some time. It started, in large part, when I was away from UMW on maternity leave and for a variety of reasons found myself visiting new Web sites — my mind was in a different place, I guess. At one point, I started to spend quite a lot of time at etsy.com; I think I was searching for pictures for the baby’s nursery. I became really interested in the site, the community that had sprung up around it, the way in which the site itself supported its community, and, in particular, the various ways you could explore the collections of etsy artisans.

If you visit that last link, you’ll be taken to a list of various ways you can find items on etsy, from traditional categorical listings to a visual interface that allows you to browse entirely based on a color.  The one that really captured my imagination, however was Treasuries. A Treasury at etsy is a “curated shopping gallery.” There are a limited number of Treasury spots on etsy; if you want to create one, you have to wait for an opening. Once you get a spot, you give it a name and then fill it with up to 12 items (and 4 alternates).

Zoom Zoom Zebra on Etsy
Zoom Zoom Zebra on Etsy

For me, the treasuries are like visual candy. Each one has a theme, from something as abstract as “oh my spring drips” to simply “beauty.” Items on etsy are varied enough (from art prints to clothing to toys to food) that a given treasury can embody a range of senses and experiences, conveying color, texture, light, pattern, taste. There appears to be a community at etsy that regularly reads these treasuries and comments. I was struck by how the simple act of curating a collection of items could be used to convey an idea and form community. The simplicity of the treasury seems key — a single theme, 12 items.

So, I think etsy is what started me thinking about these ideas, particularly community and curation. Then, somewhere along the way, I came across Adobe’s kuler Web site. This is some serious, single-minded curation. Kuler lets anyone create and share a color palette. You can browse other people’s palettes, rate them, leave comments, copy and modify them. You can even download palette files that you can then import into Adobe Photoshop.

Exterior Fresh on kuler
Exterior Fresh on kuler

If this single-mindedness seems bizarre, consider the number of palettes that have been shared on kuler as of today: 16, 547. To me, that represents some (perhaps long-tail) commitment by a group of users. (For fun, check out the Pulse section where you can compare the color distribution in palettes between different countries and seasons.)

Then, last fall, a professor in UMW theatre department, Kevin McCluskey, approached us for advice for his beginning costume design class. One of the problems he was running into was that students simply couldn’t draw, yet. They might have very fine ideas, but their lack of drawing experience meant they couldn’t share them effectively. Kevin knew he couldn’t teach his students to draw and learn the fundamentals of costume design in a semester; the fact of the matter was, if they were going to pursue this discipline they were going to have to get serious about drawing at some point soon, but, for now, he needed a way for them to be able to convey their ideas, visually, without depending on their own drawing skills just yet.

I volunteered to look around for him. I was hoping to find some kind of tool that would allow students to scan or copy images from other sites and then collage them together to share their ideas. My hunting turned up a couple of interesting sites, most notably kaboodle and polyvore. Chances are, if you’re not a serious online shopper you won’t be familiar with these sites. They’re essentially meta-shopping sites, where a community has developed around sharing your latest find. Both sites also offer a tool for collaging together items from to create a particular “look.” Not surprisingly Kaboodle’s Styleboard and Polyvore’s Sets are full of personally-curated fashion collections. But they are not exclusively so, and members who do something different seem to be just as likely to garner comments and kudos from other community members.

City Girl by dazzlelight22 on kaboodle
City Girl by dazzlelight22 on kaboodle

In the end, while Kevin was really interested in the ease with which students could create collage and annotate them with text and visual effects, he decided to go a different route (more on that later).

Judging from the frequent appearance of young male actors and musicians, it’s a good guess that the primary audience of both Polyvore and Kaboodle are young and female. This also go me thinking; I wonder how many of our incoming traditional-age college students will have had experience with a site like this.

Why do I care?

I guess I care because Kaboodle and Polyvore and Etsy and Kuler are all online communities that focus on visual communication as the primary means of expression. The “meat” of the conversations that happens at those places is some kind of visual representation — curated collection of objects, a simple but powerful color palette, a collage of clothing or photos. Behind each of these representations is some kind of idea that the community member wants to express. Not just express, but publish, share, and hopefully build connections about and around. (The word I keep coming back to is commune.)

As I mentioned above, Kevin decided not to use Kaboodle or Polyvore. The resulting images just weren’t in high enough resolution to be very effective for his purposes. He decided, instead, to have them work with photoshop.com or the image editor (Phoenix) at aviary.com.

Which brings me to the next part of what I want to talk about in this presentation. Because, in addition to the sites and online communities that have native tools for creating and sharing collections and collages, the bar for simply creating any kind of visual digital object is getting so low it’s almost silly. Photoshop and Aviary may not be as fully-featured as a desktop image editor, but as basic image editing tools, they offer a fantastic feature set.

And, the fact of the matter is, the whole idea of visual communication of ideas is something our students are increasingly involved in all of the time, in more general, agnostic ways then perhaps Etsy, Kuler, Kaboodle, or Polyvore respresent.

Take the Cheezburger Network, a slate of sites that grew out of I Can Haz Cheezburger internet phenomenon. A significant number of the sites revolve around images created and contributed by the community. Comixed is built around user-contributed comic strips; GraphJam consists of fake, usually humorous, visual representations of data. These are the two most overtly visual CN sites (they require users to significantly modify, enhance, or create something). However,  many of the other CN sites are simply premised on someone uploading a funny, ironic, cute, disturbing photo and titling or captioning it.

Use of to go boxes on GraphJam
Use of to go boxes on GraphJam

It’s probably worth betting that a lot of college students frequently visit and follow at least one of the Cheezburger Network sites. They are, at the very least, frequent consumers of this digital visual culture if not frequent creators.

My larger point (and I think I have one) is that we are all of us increasingly surrounded by online experiences that are deeply if not exclusively visual. We are creating and consuming ideas on a regular basis that are rooted in entirely visual experiences.

I think there is a strong possibility that our traditional undergraduate students are consuming and creating these kinds of visual texts. The ideas they are creating in this space may be primarily humorous, ironic, or not-safe-for-work, but they are still becoming savvy authors in this new medium.

As educators, where are we meeting them? Are we considering visual literacy and authorship in our curriculum? Are we, ourselves, comfortable with or competent at providing and evaluating these experiences?

Visual literacy and visual communication aren’t new concepts, of course. And, if you haven’t realized it by now, I’m not an expert in either. But what’s new and different and interesting to me is how low-threshold online tools are making it easier and easier to develop this literacy; how commercial and special-interest sites are providing opportunities to further explore and share visual creation; and how, generally, we are seeing a growing number of popular, high-traffic sites built exclusively around visual communication and the resulting community experience. As educators (and people who support educators) I think we need to pay attention to what’s happening in this space.

funny-pictures-the-college-essentials-are-pizza-ramen-and-lolcats

That’s a very rough outline of what I want to talk about. Wow, is it rough. If anyone has read this far and had any thoughts, I’d love to hear them. But, regardless, I think I know what I’m going to talk about now.

  1. Forgive me. I hated to play the Web 2.0 card in the abstract, but the fact of the matter is people sort of get what I mean when I use it. . .and I was in a hurry. I’m not sure if I made it better of worse by putting it in quotes.