Learning to write in (networked) public: children and the delivery of writing online
This investigation explored how three children (together with parents) developed networked publics that were diverse, well-connected, and powerful in the world. It was framed in response to calls in the field to better understand the new literacies young writers develop online and outside of school, and to increase literacy educators’ attention to the role of public audiences in writing and how writing is circulated.
Performative case study methodology, ethnographic methods, and digital methods were employed to track and describe the online networks of three children (ages 11-13). These focal children were actively involved with their parents in social media, and had developed widespread networks with shared interests in children’s books and book reviews (Case 1), baseball (Case 2), and helping the homeless (Case 3). The children’s online networks were conceptualized as networked publics, drawing on Warner’s (2002) notion of publics as ongoing discursive relations among strangers, and on Actor-Network Theory’s notion of networks as assemblages of diverse interests that mobilize toward a common goal (Callon, 1986) and that develop stability in relation to ongoing circulations of texts (Latour, 1986; Spinuzzi, 2008). Research questions were framed broadly around the rhetorical canon of delivery [now digital delivery (Porter, 2009)], and were concerned with how writers distributed texts online, how those texts circulated, how the networked publics become more stable and powerful, and what instabilities children and parents had to negotiate in order to accomplish all of this. Data sources included interviews with 15 children and 28 adults, and fieldnotes observations of approximately 1,700 screen-captured webpages and other online artifacts.
Findings showed that the young writers and their parents initiated and sustained networked publics through distribution practices that were oriented toward building trust; their texts displayed: interest, appreciation, reliability, service, credibility, and responsiveness. Both grassroots and commercial entities circulated texts in these networks, as they were sources of the ongoing renewal these different groups all needed in order to thrive. Sources of instability included conflicts over standards of writing quality, matters of profit, and the constancy of the demand to generate new interest and writing online. Children and their parents responded to these instabilities by welcoming and negotiating heterogeneous perspectives and partnerships. Implications of the study call for further research and teaching about the art of networked public discourse and digital delivery.