Blog Post

Rethinking Digital Literacies

I’m at the beginning stages of my dissertation project, considering the representation of identity on social networking sites as literate activity, and at these beginning stages, I’ve spent a great deal of time defining terms. One I’ve been working with this past month is the term “digital literacies.”  In my field of writing studies, and especially in computers and writing, we’ve used the term “literacy” to apply not just to the use of text, but also to the composition and reception of text through a variety of modes, including image, audio, video, and hypertext and interactive elements. As a field, however, we haven’t settled on a term for what to call this kind of literacy.  Most work that extends the term literacy to this kind of multimodal meaning making references the work of the New London Group and their term “multiliteracies,” but I’ve come across a variety of different terms in my reading ranging from new literacies, silicon literacies, and multimodal literacy, to more specific terms, such as media literacy and visual literacy.

Lankshear and Knobel’s 2008 edited collection, Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies, and Practices, presents this term as the one through which to unify these ideas. They define digital literacies as “a shorthand for the myriad social practices and conceptions of engaging in meaning making mediated by texts that are produced, received, distributed exchanged, etc., via digital codification.”  This definition relies heavily on Brian Street’s 1984 definition of literacy “as a shorthand for the social practices and conception of reading and writing.”  With this definition, Lankshear and Knobel work to place “digital literacies” within the scholarship of New Literacy Studies, led by scholars like Street, that sees literacy not as a monolithic term focused on a universal skill, but as a social practice, embedded in specific social contexts and imbued with cultural meaning.

The problem with the term digital literacy (singular), is that it has often meant something else.  Lankshear and Knobel acknowledge that the term has had two different kinds of meanings, one that considers literacy as conceptual, and another that considers skills-based definitions.  In a chapter in Lankshear and Knobel’s edited collection, David Bawden chronicles the history of the term, attributing the origin of conceptual definitions of digital literacy to Paul Gilster, whose 1997 book was the first to call the ability to understand and use information from digital sources “digital literacy.”  Bawden described Gilster’s definition as “about mastering ideas, not keystrokes,” centered in “ideas and mindsets, within which particular skills and competences operate, and about information and information resources, in whatever format” (p. 18). Bawden attributes Gilster’s ideas to both traditions in computer science and information science.  While these fields subscribe to the more functional definitions of literacy, Gilster drew general principles for a broader idea of digital literacy not tied to any particular technology or skill from this tradition. As Bawden notes, confusion around the term “digital literacy” has persisted, with many using it to refer to skills-based definitions, while others have used terms like “e-literacy,” “electronic literacy,” and “information literacy” with meanings quite similar to Gilster’s definition for “digital literacy.”

Yet should we even be using the term digital literacies to refer to critical social and cultural practices if the term historically has referred to a technical ability to use computer hardware and software correctly?  There are many who have criticized the use of the term literacy as a whole in this way, including Anne Wysocki, Johndan Johnson-Eilola, and Gunther Kress.  There are others, such as Jonathan Sterne, who have critiqued the way the digital literacy has focused on the consumption of software, and has not focused on programming skills as well.  (It is important to note that while Lankshear and Knobel are interested in the critical use of software for composing multimodal texts, they don’t focus on programming or coding either.)

Here in the Center for Writing Studies at the University of Illinois, we host a monthly Digital Literacies Reading Group, sponsored by the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities.  This month, our talk featured Paul Prior, Professor of English at the University of Illinois.  Instead of literacy, Prior uses the term “semiotic remediation,” which refers to the production, representation, distribution, reception, socialization and activity surrounding multimodal texts.  He argues that “writing” (not to mention literacy) is not the best way to refer to visual, material, and situated artifacts that make meaning through multiple sign systems. The activity is more complex than these terms allow.

Which brings me back to my dissertation project. I will be observing the activity that users participate in on social networking platforms.  Is the term “digital literacy” the right one to use to describe the way that people share text, image, video to represent themselves and communicate with others?  Or is this framework too limiting? These are some of the questions I’ll be focusing on in the coming months.




I am not a writing studies specialist, but I'm sympathetic with Paul Prior's view about the limitations of the terms "digital literacy" and "visual literacy."  Those terms tend to import assumptions and categories dealing with reading and writing, some of which might be applicable to other spheres and some of which might not. I'm also curious about what stakes people see in the use of these terms. I sense that, at least for humanities scholars, a lot of the resistance to the notion of alternative literacies comes from a sense of urgency that traditional humanistic fields of inquiry are under attack.  I'm also curious what alternatives you and others working on this area would envision in place of digital literacy.  "Semiotic remediation" seems to me not only to be a bit awkward, but also potentially descriptive of activities dealing with reading and writing. 


Yes, the term "literacy" brings with it all kinds of baggage; Anne Wysocki and Johndan Johnson-Eilola have a great, albeit old (1999), article that critiques the use of literacy for these other composing practices, primarily for its traditional connections to  skills-based notions of literacy,