As a journalism student whose writing ability is something that I have to look at and evaluate every day, I’ve often reflected on what influences have molded me into the writer I am now. The things I loved as a child like comic books, video games and cartoons are largely responsible for my level of digital literacy, and it goes to show how many advanced rhetorical and linguistic lessons can be derived from these texts which are often scoffed at.
As cited in the Williams text, I, and many others, construct their own identities with elements from pop culture. “Part of the allure of mass popular culture has always been the identification of audience members with celebrity as people performed identities through public appropriation of celebrity images (Williams, 2008).” It’s something I’ve certainly done, and I credit my appropriation of popular cultures for the creation of the person I am today.
Cartoons and Spider-Man
I’ve been told (mostly by my mother) that at a young age I had a pretty good vocabulary. That was mostly thanks to Nickelodeon cartoon shows that I would watch obsessively every afternoon. I remember hearing advanced words like “photosynthesis” “auspicious” for the first time on shows like “Fairly Odd Parents” or “Spongebob.” I started to figure out the meanings based on the context of the joke, and while I wasn’t always spot-on with what they meant, I was paying attention to words I didn’t know, which put me ahead of my peers linguistically.
My mom also gave me “homework” during a few summers, where she would give me words to find in the dictionary and I would have to write down their entries word-for-word. I hated her at the time, and in retrospective it was kind of a cruel chore for a kid on summer vacation, but looking at where I’m at now and the career I’ve chosen, I have to concede it wasn’t a terrible idea…
Another formative moment in my childhood was discovering my love for video games. I played all types of games growing up, but when I was five years-old, I was introduced to the most important game of my life: “Spider-Man” (2000). I would play it over and over and over until I memorized the entire script. When you’re a kid, you sometimes just become obsessed with things for irrational reasons, and “Spider-Man” was the thing that was always on my family television. With that game, I discovered my love for both video games and comics, two mediums that were fundamental in shaping who I am.
Once I entered fourth grade, I started to actually read the source material of the comic book characters that I loved so much. I would go to Barnes & Noble with my parents and buy 10-issue trade paperback issues of Amazing Spider-Man, which I read constantly. I specifically remember being regularly taken to the community pool by my mom, and instead of swimming I would read Spider-Man until it was time to leave. Even in those antiqued back-issues from the 1960s, Peter Parker’s attitude and sense of responsibility was something that I looked up to and tried to emulate. When faced with these super-powered villains ready to kill him, he doesn’t complain or feel sorry for himself; he makes jokes at them, mostly to cover up his fear. There’s just something undeniably cool about that, and to this day I try to maintain that attitude of making light of tough situations and rolling with the punches.
And while that’s more of a moral development, linguistically, I started becoming more in-tune with characterization and thinking about fictional characters as real people who dictate the story, instead of looking at whatever happens in fiction as a pure fabrication of the creator’s mind. I began to learn about the creative process, and how for many authors, the characters they imagine dictate the story inside their imaginations. It opened up a new way for me to think about writing, and I started looking up to fictional characters in the same way my father’s generation looked up to sports figures. Again, as Williams (2008) points out, I was beginning to construct my identity around the pop culture media I was consuming.
High School and Texting
I continued to be more of a reader than a writer up until my junior year of high school. I’d often have thoughts or opinions about the comics I read or the games I played that I wanted to express, but I never thought to articulate them in a blog or some other medium. However, I was still writing significantly in that I was always texting. It was mostly to my high school girlfriend, which like most immature high school relationships, was the biggest thing in the world to me at the time. Consequently, I wanted to make sure the syntax of every text I sent perfectly conveyed my meaning, for fear of being misunderstood and getting into an argument.
Although it’s easy to scoff at texting as a form of writing, texting ranked number one in the kinds of writing that college students respect and do the most (Grabill 2010). And given that students write for personal enjoyment as well as for school (Grabill 2010), I believe that the satisfaction a writer gets after expressing themselves on the page is not dissimilar from the emotion a casual writer feels expressing themselves through text. Managing syntax and word choice are important skills for writing effectively, which is a problem avid texters overcome every day whether they realize it or not.
To elaborate, look at the bottom two conversations. Both illustrate completely different tones that any person from my generation will be able to pick up:
There are a few elements in play in this conversation. The extra punctuation, as well as the “non-threatening ‘lol'” make the exchange more casual and playful. Looking at this objectively, one gets the impression that these two are friends who are comfortable doing favors for each other. Now, see what happens when the subtleties are removed and the two write everything plainly:
Whereas this might be a normal texting conversation between two adults, someone on the receiving end of either of these messages would be wary that the other person was angry or impatient with them. The person providing the ride is giving no emotion, which suggests they’re irritated, and the person asking for it seems like they’re in a bad mood. And while this might seem silly, it’s the mutual understanding people my age have about texting etiquette.
Because of my texting experience, years after high school, I realized that I’d developed a sensitivity for the way my writing sounded,. Depending on where I placed commas or the connotation of the words I used, the tone and pacing of what I wrote could change completely. So when adults criticize today’s youth for simply texting all the time, I’d argue that they’re using the same skills as traditional writing although just expressed differently.
College and Beyond
It wasn’t until my junior year of high school where I was able to identify writing as something I excelled at and enjoyed. I also still had my passion for video games, comic books and movies, so I decided I wanted to combine the two for my future career. I knew that if I pursued a career in video game journalism, I could consume the entertainment that I love, get to write about it, and hopefully inspire other people to feel the same excitement for these mediums that I felt as a kid.
I enrolled in Duquesne’s Multiplatform Journalism program to get on the right track. My JMA classes taught me the subtleties of interviewing, researching and writing for news, which I would never have learned on my own. They also made me proficient in the art of video production, namely editing, photography and visual storytelling. Thanks to my education, I’ve put together multiple multimedia projects which incorporate visual and written elements. Both mediums complement one another, and many of the constraints of one storytelling medium are covered by the other.
Apart from my school work which is primarily traditional news, I started a blog when I was a junior dedicated to video game coverage. It was hosted on Gamespot.com, and it was a great feeling putting my work out there for other people to see. Since I was getting feedback from strangers who had no reason to be nice, it meant that much more to hear someone say, “Hey I really enjoyed this, keep it up!” on the typically unforgiving Internet community. I also learned what didn’t work, and was able to identify the weaknesses I never realized I had as a writer.
Eventually, someone who had seen my blog reached out to me and asked me to write for his budding video game news site. I accepted, and since then I’ve been drifting around from site to site until I can get enough clips to turn my video games writing into a full-time job.
So if there was one major takeaway from my history of digital literacy, it would be how the stories I experienced through video games or comic books shaped me and my career years after I encountered them. Without them I wouldn’t be the person that I am, and I certainly wouldn’t have the passion for writing like I do. On a certain level, I think everyone is molded into who they are by the stories they grew up with. Without those texts, we don’t discover what we love.
As Williams says, “If we are to understand how students’ literacy practices grow and change in a culture of media convergence, then we must pay attention to how they are shaped by the discourses and rhetorics of popular culture. We need not only to attend to how students employ online technologies to read and write with popular culture but also to consider what rhetorical patterns and genre expectations influence how they read and write texts (Williams, 2008).”
Grabill, J., & Pigg, S. (2010). The writing lives of college students. A WIDE Survey and Whitepaper, 20(1), 0.
Williams, B. (2008). “What South Park Character Are You?”: Popular Culture, Literacy, and Online Performances of Identity. Computers and Composition,25(1), 24-39. doi:10.1016/j.compcom.2007.09.005