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Facebook: The Ultimate 21st Century Literacy

We've explored an impressive range of topics in Professor Cathy Davidson's "21st Century Literacies" class at Duke University this semester - everything from design to authorship to intellectual property to storytelling. Though each literacy fostered unique lesson plans, class discussions, and blogs, I couldn't help but notice that one topic of discussion kept popping up over and over again: Facebook. In fact, when we entered our collaborative innovation challenge midterm into a Wordle, the resulting word cloud featured such proper nouns as "Facebook", "Mark", and "Zuckerberg". These observations have led me to conclude one thing: Facebook must be the Ultimate 21st Century Literacy.

What makes Facebook the quintessential literacy? First of all, you can find a connection between Facebook and nearly every literacy we discussed in class (and even many that we didn't). When we talked about storytelling, I blogged about how Facebook acted as a catalyst for the recent revolution in Egypt. For those of you who don't know, an Egyptian Google executive launched a dissident Facebook group after a blogger was brutally murdered at the hands of the Egyptian police. The group, which garnered more than 40,000 members, was the first to call for protest...and, well, the rest is history. 

When we talked about authorship and intellectual property in class, The Social Network came up several times. What constitutes intellectual property and authorship in the 21st century? The legal battle between Zuckerberg and the Winklevoss twins that served as the film's main plot line was truly a story of how Zuckerberg pushed the boundaries of authorship. What constitutes intellectual property in the Digital Age (when it is so easy to copy, paste, and recreate without giving credit to the original author)? Is it an idea, a word written on a page, or the foundational code of a wildly popular social networking site? One scene (from Aaron Sorkin's original screenplay) illustrates this dilemma particularly well:


That's correct. He had 42 days to study our system and get out ahead on--



Do you see any of your code on Facebook?


GAGE (help me)

Sy, could you--


SY (calming him)




Did I use any of your code?



You stole our whole g*ddamn idea!

As I scroll through the list of 21st century literacies that Professor Davidson gave us at the beginning of the semester, even more Facebook-related literacies jump out at me: collaboration (isn't that what we're doing when we comment on a status or link?), attention (I remember a photo snapped from the back of my 500-person Psychology lecture revealing hundreds of students on Facebook rather than paying attention), and design (ever find yourself clicking Facebook on your toolbar just to see if any of those cleverly designed red notification flags have popped up in the last 5 minutes?). 

At this point you may be thinking: so what? Just because Facebook is related to so many literacies doesn't mean that Facebook itself is a literacy - but I would beg to differ. Imagine someone who was Google-illiterate in the 21st century. He would be very hard-pressed to find the websites (and thus the information) he was looking for. He wouldnt be able to collaborate via Google Docs. He wouldnt be able to get the latest news updates with a single click of the mouse through Google Reader. Do you have a picture in your mind of how disconnected from the rest of the world this person would be in the 21st century? take a look at Nielsen's list of top U.S. web brands from March 2011. The average American spent six and a a half hours on Facebook last month - a whopping five hours more than the average user spent on Google. 

Though it's just a hypothesis (I could never actually pull myself away from Facebook long enough to test it formally), I imagine that the Facebook-illiterate person would be just as disconnected as the Google-illiterate one - if not more so. Personally, Facebook has transformed the way I communicate, share, collaborate, get my news, spend my time...the list could go on and on. And I don't think I'm alone here. According to Facebook's Statistics page, there are 500 million active users on Facebook, and these users share more than 30 billion pieces of content each month. In addition, there are 900 million pages, groups, and events on Facebook. Think about it: a Facebook-illiterate business, musician, university, etc. is missing out on the golden opportunity to interact with 500 million people!

So, the next time you're sitting on Facebook and thinking that it's the world's greatest distraction device, think instead about the other things Facebook is. It is one of the most popular tools today for collaboration, sharing, creation, communication, learning, and likely many more uses we have yet to fully realize. And if that's not a 21st century literacy, then I dont know what is. 


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