School students are using Instagram to bypass established structures as they effect legislative change. Artists are using QR codes and machine learning to round out the narratives they seek to present. These are among the trends that two William & Mary Glauber Student Fellows recently examined as part of their research into the digital humanities.
Each reported that the internet-linked worlds examined are profoundly positive and productive spaces, even if users must beware.
Talia Wiener ’20 is pursuing a self-designed major in storytelling and new media. She looked at Instagram-based activism, including efforts by students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who, following a mass shooting on their campus in Parkland, Florida, organized the national March for Our Lives protest. Finally, she focused on Zero Hour, a group founded by a 16-year old environmental activist that grew into its own national movement, including a march on Washington, D.C. The group’s reach was strongest, Wiener discovered, when photos of young people “in action” were posted as opposed to other forms of content, including links to external providers.
“Young people want to get engaged,” Wiener said. “A lot of movements are led by adults and that is not really appealing to younger people, and their messaging is not that appealing. Zero Hour was started by a 16-year old. She is appealing to other 16-year-olds, They look at her and say, ‘Hey, I could be you.’ They feel it’s a reasonable and an accessible way to generate change.”
Mbiye Kasonga ’19 conducted her research as part of her self-designed major in new media and digital cultural studies. Her interest in QR codes was heightened after she observed the native-American artwork of Molly Murphy Adams. Beaded into the artist’s pieces were actual QR codes that, when viewed with a smart phone, opened web sites containing layers of background information.
“I find it interesting that we use machine vision to learn more about the world around us but those uses of technology lead back to a story and to a person,” Kasonga said. “In a sense, this technology allows us to peer into narratives that can’t be seen with the naked eye.”
To pursue their research, each student received funding from the Margaret S. Glauber scholarship fund at the university. Each utilized the resources of the university’s Equality Lab, which is led by Elizabeth Losh, associate professor of English and American studies.
Concerning their work, Losh said, “These two William & Mary students have used their self-designed majors to prepare for careers that didn't exist a decade ago in digital journalism and social-media analytics.”
After working with them in the lab, Losh has come to appreciate the way they “really care about the ways that digital technology can both promote participation and perpetuate inequality,” she said.
Wiener sees a bright future for the nation based on the ability of young people to generate an audience for their ideas. “They’re not limited to activism within their school, within their town or community,” she said. "They can have this national reach without investing a lot of resources.”
Likewise, Kasonga believes the digital landscape is an incredible tool for connecting people on a level that transcends mere facts.
“A search of information can end up not being fruitful, because that means looking for the facts,” she said. “But looking for stories means that you’re looking for context and fleshing out things around those bare facts.”