Digital Literacy

A Primer on Media, Identity, and the Evolution of Technology

by Susan Wiesinger (Author) Ralph Beliveau (Author)
©2016 Textbook VII, 179 Pages


The Internet, World Wide Web, and digital devices have fundamentally changed the way people communicate, affecting everything from business, to school, to family, to religion, to democracy. This textbook takes a well-rounded view of the evolution from media literacy to digital literacy to help students better understand the digitally filtered world in which they live.
The text explores digital literacy through three lenses:
• Historical: reviews snapshots of time and space to delineate how things were in order to lend context to how they are;
• Cultural: explores how values and ideals are constructed and conveyed within a given cultural context – how humans absorb and share the informal rules and norms that make up a society;
• Critical: illuminates how social changes – particularly rapid ones – can put certain people at a disadvantage.
All three angles are helpful for better understanding the myriad ways in which our identities and relationships are being altered by technology, and what it means to be a citizen in a society that has become individualized and is in constant flux.
Written in a conversational and approachable style, the text is easy to navigate, with short chapters, short paragraphs, and bullet points. Comics and images illustrate complex topics and add visual interest.
The text is ideal for media literacy, digital information literacy, and technology courses that seek to integrate human impact into the mix. It is also a good starting point for anyone wanting to know more about the impact of communication technologies on our lives.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction The Book Starts Here
  • 1 The Evolution of Contemporary Media: Recalling a Collective Past, Sharing a Fragmented Present
  • 2 The Medium Is the Mass-Age: Revisiting Marshall McLuhan
  • 3 It Really Is a Thing: The Internet as Infrastructure
  • 4 If It’s Not the Internet, What Is It? The Web as a Collaborative Tool
  • 5 We’re Not Here: The Cultural Consequences of All Me, All the Time
  • 6 Digital Identity: Options, Opportunities, Oppressions, Impressions
  • 7 From Neighbors to Followers: Rethinking What It Means to Be Part of a Community
  • 8 If You Don’t Think About It, It’s OK: Digital Haves and Have-Nots
  • 9 The Web at Its Best: A Conduit for Social Movements & Change
  • 10 This Space for Rent: Corporate Colonialism & Free Speech
  • 11 Remixes & Mash-Ups: Appropriation of Culture Goes Digital
  • 12 It’s Not Yours: Digital Privacy & Copyright
  • 13 Can’t Put the Genie Back in the Bottle: Now What?
  • Applied Skills Appendices
  • Appendix 1 The Web Is More Than Online Paper
  • Appendix 2 Email Etiquette
  • Appendix 3 Blogging Guidelines
  • Appendix 4 Professional Use of Social Media
  • Appendix 5 The Care and Reading of a URL
  • Appendix 6 File Management
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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Susan Wiesinger offers her love and appreciation to the family and friends who supported this project from idea to publication. She owes a particular debt of gratitude to John Wiesinger, an exceptional first-line editor and keepin’ it real content evaluator, and Debra Johnson, who served as proofreader and applied skills adviser.

Additional thanks to:

Ralph Beliveau, who made significant contributions to Chapters 6, 9, and 11, and whose initial enthusiasm helped buoy the project.

Mary Savigar, senior acquisitions editor at Peter Lang, for her support and guidance.

Matt Blake, who was an early adviser on this project and helped with the roadmap that became this book.

Steve McMahon, who served as reluctant technology adviser.

Vin Crosbie, who provided extraordinary feedback of an early draft of Chapter 1, inspiring the author to do more.

The students of JOUR 255 at Chico State, who helped refine the work and offered feedback on final chapters. (Beyond that, they are an endless source of inspiration.)

The anonymous reviewers whose time and energy reviewing earlier versions of the manuscript greatly strengthened the final book.

Any mistakes are the sole responsibility of the author.

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The Book Starts Here


Figure 0.1. What does it mean to live in an information landscape where filters—aka journalists—are no longer the only people to interpret, document, and draw the public’s attention to the issues and events that continually shape and change our world? Pearls Before Swine © 2005 Stephan Pastis. Reprinted by permission of Universal Uclick for UFS. All rights reserved. ← 1 | 2 →


OK, honesty time: How much do you read? We mean really read—as in sit down with a single means of information delivery (aka a book, magazine, or newspaper). And how often are you criticized or feel guilty for not reading enough?

A hallmark of digital living is that you likely are consuming more information than ever, but you’re not necessarily reading it. We’re all skimming, skipping, and surfing as we navigate an endless ocean of content via a veritable flotilla of media and digital device choices.

The flood of information always has been there, but prior to the Internet it took owning a printing press or having access to the airwaves to transmit information to the masses. In an information landscape dominated by print and broadcasting, only certain people could participate. And those people—mostly journalists—were held to particular newsgathering practices and values that effectively excluded the public.

Not surprisingly, when the Internet opened participation to the rest of us, many took the opportunity to put their unvarnished observations, announcements, and Candy Crush scores directly online, cutting out the traditional mediator. And so the floodgates fell and the information tsunami came roaring through.

Media Literacy, Digital Information
Literacy … What’s the Diff?

It’s possible your grasp on the need for media literacy is somewhat weak, yet you’re now being asked to grapple with digital information literacy. That means there’s a bit of catching up to do.

Media literacy is the ability to think critically about messages sent to a general, undifferentiated public from media organizations (e.g., films, TV shows, news reports) and their supporting advertisers. It’s all about the media’s care and feeding of mass culture and how we respond to it—consciously or unconsciously.

Traditional media literacy assumes a passive population that consumes a significant volume of messages, from which a common culture is built. Common culture emerges when there are touchstones—shared, collective experiences—that bind us together as a society.

Think of it like water-cooler culture: People taking a break, standing around the office water cooler, and talking to coworkers about a television show that everyone watched last night. If you didn’t watch, you’re left out. And next week you watch so you can share in the water-cooler conversation.

Digital information literacy is different, largely because technology has changed how we communicate, what we consume, across what platforms we consume it, and via what devices. Digital information literacy is, however, also about the critical consideration of the messages we receive and how we respond to them—consciously or unconsciously. ← 2 | 3 →

Digital information typically involves both passive consumption and active production of highly personalized messages. It holds the promise of being interactive, where producers become audiences for users, and users produce content for each other. But from a historical perspective, the result is both fragmentation and the erosion of common culture.

Think of it as spoiler culture: People still take work breaks, but they don’t leave their desks. Instead, they turn to digital tools that enable the near-instant transmission of cultural symbols from person to person via the Web.

Because we are all consuming information across different channels, we don’t share reference points that are anchored in time and space. For example, you may choose when to watch your favorite television show and via what medium, rather than being held to a network schedule and required to watch on a television set. Gilligan’s Island from 1964 on Hulu? Check. (Just don’t tell me how it ends.)

The difference between water-cooler culture and spoiler culture—media literacy versus digital information literacy—is the method of transmission.

Instead of person-to-person and media-to-masses, spoiler culture is a digitally mediated world of individuals. Even if every person were on the same social media platform, it is unlikely that common culture would emerge. That’s because it’s not the platform that matters; it’s the information feed. And every digital feed is unique. Each is customized to reflect the user’s personal interests, values, history, and increasingly, brand.

Media literacy means understanding television as a social medium that allows people to watch shows together. Even if you’re not in the same household, you can share the experience of having watched the same show (aka common culture).

Digital information literacy means understanding “television” as both a social and a solitary thing to do. Sometimes we gather around the TV. Sometimes we watch on our tablets or other digital media devices alone—or perhaps even participate with other people on similar devices in different places at the same time.

It’s increasingly rare for individuals to watch what everyone else is watching or even consume information across one digital device at a time. In fact, you may be physically in a room watching TV with others, while skimming content on a laptop or tablet and interacting with others on a smartphone.

Existing and emergent technologies have put more of everything at our fingertips and in our brains than ever before. We have not discarded previous media as new have arisen; instead, we have accumulated—print, film, radio, television, cable television, Internet, World Wide Web, social media and apps, and so on.

A digital information environment is one in which the medium—the device through which we access information—has a larger social impact than the message—the content we receive through a particular medium. ← 3 | 4 →

As a result, we need to critically consider what it means to be a citizen in an information landscape that not only has been individualized but also is constantly in flux.

We also need to understand that consumables—from cable television programming to user-generated video to social media feeds—have increased exponentially. And much of that content is being consumed online and alone.

One concern with information inundation is that people no longer will be interested in what is real or even relevant to their physical lives, disrupting our ability to reason and participate reasonably in a democratic society. Media theorist Neil Postman speculated that we would become increasingly immersed in “a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again.”1

Postman wasn’t opposed to entertainment, but he was conscious of increasing levels of distraction. He understood that people need the escape that entertainment offers, but he predicted that the rise of electronic media and increased focus on entertainment could have a two-fold effect on common culture and civic participation. In summary,

1. People wouldn’t know what actually affects their lives; and,

2. They wouldn’t know what they should do, even if they could figure it out.

If No One Is Gatekeeping, How Do We Know What’s True?

In the world that print once ruled, the mass media tended to be assessed as purveyors of “capital-T-Truth,” as in there is a Truth that can be discovered, verified, and agreed on. This makes some sense, given the heavy use of newspapers as historical archives. The fact that print stories were finished and frozen in time granted them a degree of credibility not possible from any other medium.


VII, 179
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (March)
information literacy media technology community identity ideology democracy journalism Media literacy digital literacy world wide web school, family digital information
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. VII, 179 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Susan Wiesinger (Author) Ralph Beliveau (Author)

Susan Wiesinger (PhD, Purdue University) is a professor of Journalism & Public Relations at California State University, Chico. She is the co-author of Media Smackdown: Deconstructing the News and the Future of Journalism (Peter Lang, 2013). Ralph Beliveau is an associate professor in The Gaylord College of Journalism & Mass Communication at The University of Oklahoma. He holds a PhD from the University of Iowa and a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University.


Title: Digital Literacy