Monday, March 26, 2012

Depth vs. Breadth

My sophomores are currently reading Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher.  The novel addresses many issues that have value to teens - racism, the idea of "fitting in," bullying, ways to communicate with authority figures... and connections and understanding.

My students have not finished the book yet, but today we discussed some if the sections that first hint at the significance of the title.  In a conversation the narrator, T.J., has with his dad, readers learn that whale songs can be communicated for thousands of miles in the ocean.  The author hints at whales being able to share all of their experiences with all other whales - so all whales understand the joy, sadness, angst, love, depression, etc. that other whales are singing about.  The author contrasts this with a group of outcasts - teenage boys who for various reasons do not fit in at their high school (one is the only minority, another is obese, another a "nerd," another brain damaged, etc.).

In today's conversation, we talked about what kinds of things we share with other people and in what contexts.  We talked about social media and what teens share online - this really made me think about Miller's "New Media, Networking and Phatic Culture."  Students argued that their status updates, tweets, etc. could travel just as far as the whales' songs.  However, students also admitted that stories with real emotional power (like the stories that some of the characters in the book shared with each other), most people would only share with two or three close friends.

In the upcoming chapters of Whale Talk, the author has the narrator exploring the idea of how whales communicate even further.  The narrator asserts that because whales' voices travel so far and all of their experiences are heard by all other whales, that "whale talk" really means truth and connections - real experiences.  Readers are left wondering what the world would be like if people communicated more like whales.  Would there be less judgement if we knew the pregnant teen's background?  Would the special education student get bullied less if people knew how much he hurt?  Would someone have a kind word for the student sitting alone in the cafeteria if they knew his mom was an alcoholic?

However, social media are not going in the direction of "whale talk."  They seem more quantity oriented than content oriented... and I appreciate the point that people do use social media as a way to simply feel connected to something - to assert their presence.  I'm wondering what my students will say about their views on social media and the themes of the book as we continue discussing.


  1. "The narrator asserts that because whales' voices travel so far and all of their experiences are heard by all other whales, that 'whale talk' really means truth and connections - real experiences."

    This is an interesting concept: the concept of communicating truth and connections and meaningful experiences. I feel that, in the context of social media, the vast majority of us--myself included--do not bequeath our deepest, most personal stories and confessions in 140 characters or a quick status update.

    Perhaps there is a place for this sort of openness in personal blogs, but as far as the hyperconnectedness of Twitter and Facebook, I feel like our "connectivity" really only extends as far as our most base gut reactions and snap-judgments. This is an interesting concept because, as the TED talk that one of our classmates (was it Amber?) posted for this week's discussion, the quick blurbs of low importance or significance that we leave behind on the networked media will follow us long after we are gone. That got me thinking beyond what I had come away with from this week's readings ("Should I log off or unplug a little more often?" and "Who the hell cares about a Klout score, anyway?") and into the realm of "Should I really tweet this?" or "Is this status update really necessary, and what does it say about me to other people?"

    Anyway, really neat post. That sounds like a book I would like to read someday. :)

    1. By the way, perhaps someone could help clarify this for me: is this constant stream of gut reactions presented as tweets and status updates what Boyd and Marwick referred to as "situationalism"? When I was reading their piece ("Context Collapse on Twitter"), I was thinking that their definition of that term fits what I was trying to articulate:

      "Situationalism maintains that people react to situations based on context rather than fixed psychological traits" (3).


  2. The timing of Miller’s selection (“New Media, Networking, and Phatic Culture”) was very interesting for me and I thought about some of the same things as Lindsay – I read the selection while traveling to my grandmother’s funeral after learning my 30 year old sister suffered multiple seizures and was diagnosed with a previously-unknown seizure disorder. My thoughts focused on the meaning and emphasis of messages and relationships in a networked society.

    My mom’s Facebook page contained messages from long-term friends who are (as many other baby-boomers are) a little newer to social media tools. Some of the messages were verbose but were obviously heartfelt and recalled memories they had of my grandmother when they were children and went to school with my mom. It was neat to see a “history book” written “live” with each new post. These posts were in addition to the personal calls, visits and flowers she received.

    My sister’s Facebook page similarly had messages in response to her hospitalization. These felt completely different though and brevity definitely ruled the comments. Her health was significantly impacted yet the most ‘personal’ message was, “wow. my dad passed out once 2.”These people relied exclusively on these three and four word comments to express their concern; they didn't call or visit.

    While networked communication can make the world a smaller place, does it simultaneously increase the “distance” between us and mute the power behind the words? I wonder if we over-communicate in some ways and become numb to the meaning of messages? Was this a fear when we transitioned from a few national television networks and a system of public libraries to a multitude of constant news cycle cable networks and always-available Internet resources? Societies are forced to adapt to change in order to survive; it will be interesting to see how we adapt to this huge shift in available communication tools and come to a common understanding of how the tools should be used and how to relay meaning within messages while using them.